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7 Ways to Handle High Contrast Scenes

Perhaps the greatest challenge you will face in outdoor photography is the high contrast created by the sun and the bright sky versus a darker foreground. That is one of the reason photographers try very hard to shoot at dawn or sunset. Otherwise, the sky is virtually always so much brighter than anything on the ground that it is hard for your camera to deal with the contrast. Either your camera exposes the sky correctly, which makes everything on the ground look black, or the camera exposes the foreground correctly resulting in a blown out (or pure white) sky. If you try to expose in the middle, you will have problems with both highlights and shadows.

The challenge is constant and great, but there are some things you can do to create great pictures no matter what the light. This article will walk you through some ideas for doing that.

1. Fix it in Post-Production


The first thing you can do is try to fix the problem in post-processing. Both Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw (used in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements) have sliders that can help bring your sky back or add detail to a dark foreground. They won’t bring back a truly blown out sky or pitch black foreground, but you might be surprised at what they can do.

For an overly bright sky, try pulling the Highlights slider down (in other words, pull it to the left). That will usually add detail. If you have blue portions of your sky, another trick is to target the blue portion and make that darker, while keeping the clouds white.  To do that, go to the HSL/Color/B&W panel in Lightroom, or the HSL/Greyscale tab in ACR, and find the Blue slider.  Click on the Luminance tab, and pull the Blue slider down (to the left). That will preserve good highlight tones in the clouds but darken the blue tones to make the sky look much better.

If your foreground is too dark, you can brighten it up using the Shadows slider in the Basic tab of Lightroom or ACR. Pull that slider up (to the right). That will brighten up the darker tones.  You may find, however, that lightening the shadows in this fashion makes the foreground look too flat or washed out. There is a simple cure for that though. Find the Blacks slider, which is just below the Shadows slider, and pull the Blacks slider down (to the left) a little bit. It may seem counter-intuitive to darken the Blacks since you just lightened the Shadows, but this adds contrast back to your foreground. So the foregound will be lighter due to the increase you made to the Shadows, but will still have contrast because of the decrease you made to the Blacks.

2. Consider Converting to Black and White


The problem you’ll encounter most of the time when you convert your pictures to black and white is a lack of contrast. Very often, photographers convert their pictures to black-and-white only to find that they look dull and flat. You want tones ranging from pure white all the way to pure black. The high contrast you are combating can actually be an asset in black and white photography.

One problem with shooting with a bright sky or at midday, of course, is usually the high contrast. In addition, people are just plain used to seeing the middle of the day, so when they see a picture taken at midday viewers can find it uninteresting. Converting to black and white can solve both of these problems. As mentioned above, the high contrast can be an asset in black and white. Further, black and white is not how people are used to seeing the world, so the photo may look more interesting to them. Of course, this is not a cure-all, and a blown out sky is still a blown out sky, but converting to black and white can occasionally save a really high contrast picture. So, try converting toblack and white if your picture is overly contrasty.

3. Use Fill Flash

People often think about using a flash only in low-light situations. But perhaps a better use for flash is in very bright situations like those we are talking about here. It doesn’t seem to make sense at first, but what you are doing is letting the flash fill in some of the harsh shadows and thereby deal with your high contrast problem.

If you use fill flash, set your camera’s exposure settings so that the sky is properly exposed. You might take a shot or two without the flash to make sure you have it set properly. Then add the flash to brighten up the foreground and keep it from being black. Dial back on the power of the flash unit or the flash exposure compensation to make it look more natural. That should result in a properly lit subject with a sky or background that looks good as well.

4. Use a Graduated Neutral Density Filter


The scenes we are talking about in this article stem from an overly bright background and a dark foreground. The previous tip addressed a way for you to brighten the foreground. Now let’s reverse that and talk about a way to darken the sky so that it is roughly the same exposure as your foreground.

To do that to, you will want to buy a graduated neutral density filter. These are square filters that fit in holders attached to the front of your lens. The top portion of the filter is dark, and it fades to clear glass at the bottom. That way it darkens the sky while having no effect on the foreground. Use one to darken the sky and keep the brightness values within the dynamic range of your camera.

5. Blend Your Exposures


Another way to deal with contrast that goes beyond the dynamic range of your camera is to bracket your pictures and blend them later. Most cameras have a function in the menu that allows you to set the amount you would like to overexpose or underexpose your pictures. That way when you press the shutter button it will take three pictures: One at normal exposure, one underexposed, and one overexposed. Some cameras will actually allow you to take five or even seven photos.

You can blend these three pictures later in Photoshop by using parts of each exposure for your final photo. For example, you may want to use the sky from the darker, underexposed photo. You may want to use the foreground from the brighter, overexposed photo. There may be elements of each that you want to take from the normally exposed picture. By blending them all together in Photoshop, you will have a picture that is properly exposed across the board.

To accomplish the blending, here’s a quick primer on the process:

  1. Open all your files as layers in the same picture. You can accomplish this in Lightroom by selecting your photos, and then going to Open as Layers in Photoshop (either Photo > Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop or right-click and select Open as Layers in Photoshop).  If you don’t have Lightroom, there is a similar function using Adobe Bridge. In addition, in Photoshop you can select photos and open them as layers by choosing File > Scripts > Load Files into Stack, and then using the resulting dialogue box to select the photos you want.
  2. From there, add a layer mask to your top layer (Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All). The white layer mask you just created does not change anything, and all of this top layer will still show up in your picture. But you have created a mechanism to change that.
  3. To have Photoshop apply portions of the layer below, select your brush tool and set the color to black. Then just brush in where you want the layer below to appear. Remember, anywhere the mask shows white the top layer will show; anywhere the mask shows black it will reveal the layer underneath.
  4. If you want to combine a little of each layer, reduce the opacity of your brush to a lower percentage. Often this process works best by  setting the opacity very low (under 10%) and brushing in the layer below where you want it gradually with a large brush.
  5. When you are done with that process and the photo looks the way you want, merge these layers (Layer > Merge Down). Then repeat the process for the layer below, revealing whatever portions of that layer you want in your final picture.

6. Blend into an HDR File

Thus far, I’ve avoided the option of using High Dynamic Range (HDR) software to deal with the dynamic range problem you face. Of course, you can bracket your photos (as set forth above) and process them using Photomatic Pro, HDR Efex Pro, Photoshop, or other HDR software. That is a topic in and of itself.

For purposes of this article, consider using an HDR file as part of the blending process discussed above. In other words, first bracket your exposures. When you are in front of your computer, create an HDR file using your preferred method. Now, bring your original three exposures and the HDR image into Photoshop using the method outlined above. When you bring them all in, you should have four layers showing.

Then just do the blending process described above. Put the file you think looks the best on top. Next, follow the process set forth above for blending in each of the other layers. If it turns out you don’t want to use one of the layers you can just delete or hide it. Using this method, you should have complete control over the exposure levels in your picture. In addition, this process will provide you the benefit of HDR software without that HDR-look that many photographers try to avoid.

7. Work with it


This might sound like giving up, but you might consider using the high contrast for effect. For example, you can use the brightness by adding sun’s rays into the picture. You can use the darkness by creating a sillouette. Think about effects like these at the time you are shooting. Sometimes you can turn a problem into an interesting feature of your photograph.

Or, if there is no way to use the high contrast as an effect, you can sometimes minimize it by shooting away from the sun. Not having the sun in your picture will keep the sky from being too bright.  If you are lucky, the sun will lighten up the foreground enough to keep it within the dynamic range of your camera without creating any harsh shadows.

Your Greatest Challenge

Dealing with this problem of dynamic range is perhaps the greatest challenge of the digital photographer. Unless you have thousands of dollars to buy a medium format camera and get the increased dynamic range that the larger sensor size offers, you will need to take steps such as those above when you are shooting outside. Use these tips to overcome this obstacle and make your photos stand out.

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Jim Hamel
Jim Hamel

Jim Hamel excels in showing aspiring photographers simple, practical steps for improving their photos. He is the creator of several courses here at Digital Photography School, including the popular 31 Days to Becoming a Better Photographer course. His book Getting Started in Photography has helped many begin their photographic journey. You can see his work on his website: JimHamelPhotography.com

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