Challenging Light

Challenging Light

There are times when the scene is fantastic, but your camera isn’t able to cope with the lighting conditions. Are you aware of your options in these situations?

As the person that carries out the bulk of the photography for this magazine, you can imagine I’ve had to develop effective strategies for ensuring images taken on site are usable when they’re downloaded back in the office onto my mac.

I’m assuming that you’re using a camera with a viewfinder – digital or optical (we’ll discuss this in a later issue).   If you don’t, then it becomes very difficult when you’re out and about taking shots, to ensure you’re capturing the right quality exposures.  Using just the lcd display on the back of your camera won’t be effective because you’ll find viewing the exposure and focussing extremely difficult and ultimately hit and miss.

Challenging light situation

Scenario (1) – Challenging light
You’ll often find this sort of thing happening, particularly if there’s strong directional light in front of the camera. You can come back earlier or later in the day to take the shot when the sun’s not directly in front, but here the directionality of the light can cause problems, so strategies to assist you should be adopted.

One of the problems with digital cameras that cause the scenario (1) on the right, is that whilst the dynamic range of the human eye and a higher end digital camera is pretty similar (10-14 f-stops), our eyes have a virtual range exceeding 24 f-stops.  This is because our eyes work in a manner more akin to a video recorder, where our eyes dynamically adjust as the subject of our view changes, and also our brain does a lot of processing to combine all these different exposures – the net effect being our much greater perceived dynamic range.

Getting back to the problem in hand, high contrast lighting,  there are some effective strategies you can adopt in order to arrive at the final outcome of a decent photo.

  1. Corrected image

    Corrected using RAW file
    This image has been corrected using raw file processing. If you have a decent grade of camera, there will be various options open to you. You could use in-camera HDR, or perhaps set the camera to save files in RAW format in addition to jpg. You’d set your camera so the sky is correctly exposed, the land can then be recovered in RAW.

    HDR (High Dynamic Range)
    your camera may have the ability to generate HDR images, these essentially are where the camera takes 3 (or more) very rapid shots at varying exposures and then merges them inside your camera using its processing capabilities.  This can (depending on the camera) be quite effective, but photos can sometimes appear overly processed and unrealistic. A way round this is to set your camera to take 3 varying exposures in high-burst speed mode (ideally on a tripod, using a remote trigger to avoid camera shake), and then you can blend and process them on the computer using HDR software such Hdrsoft, Photomatix, Photoshop, etc.

  2. RAW processing
    This is where your you set your camera to save photos in both .jpg and raw.  Once home, you can open up your images using a RAW software plugin, and process these images (providing your camera supports RAW).  RAW images are the result of exactly what your camera sees when you take the shot, no in-camera processing is applied.  The beauty of this format is they allow deep control over shadows and highlights, the amount of control you get over the image is quite staggering.  You may be aware of this route, and have put off going any further with it.  But you’d be missing the single most useful tool if you wish to get more from your photography.
    What I tend to do in challenging light situations when taking the RAW route, is to ensure exposure for the sky and clouds by using compensation exposure.  I tend to generally use my camera in aperture priority mode.  This is where you set the aperture manually, and the camera works out the exposure based on its light metering system.  Then I dial in exposure compensation so that none of the white and grey tones are lost in the clouds.  Of course, you can also create variants, developing for the shadows, midrange and highlights independently from the same processed raw file and then blend in Photoshop for the most complete control.

    The graduated filter rig

    Fig 2. A graduated filter rig

    There is another way to get round this problem of high contrast lighting, that is by using Neutral Density Graduated Filters.

  3. Graduated Filters
    These are a more mechanical solution that can be highly effective, because what you’re actually doing is correcting the exposure of light entering the camera, allowing the camera to do a much better job of achieving maximum retention of image detail.  These filters are housed in a frame mounted to an adapter on your camera lens.  They come in varying strengths – the grey, neutral density bit goes over the high light areas, which effectively stops down the light and balances light across the frame.  They’re called neutral density because they’re not supposed to alter the quality of the image other than reducing the exposure slightly, so there shouldn’t be a colour shift, although the cheaper filters can cause changes.  If you’re working in raw, colour shifts can be adjusted easily.  By sliding the filter up and down in the housing, as well as rotate it (see Fig 2 above), you are able to allow for variations in the horizon or landscape (see Fig 3 below).
Fig 3. aligning filter to landscape You can see how the filter helps reduce the light coming off the sea and sky section, allowing a more balanced exposure over the whole scene.

Fig 3. aligning filter to landscape You can see how the filter helps reduce the light coming off the sea and sky section, allowing a more balanced exposure over the whole scene.

So you see there are multiple strategies you can adopt in helping you overcome challenging light situations, one mechanical, one software and the other camera based – it all really depends how much work you wish to put in obtain that perfectly exposed photo!

We’ll be covering a range of camera tips and advice in future issues of Devonshire magazine.  We also welcome contributions from professionals and amateurs alike and we’re keen to hear from you.

An early season picture - awesome Bolt Head (at bottom of Salcombe), looking west

An early season picture – awesome Bolt Head (at bottom of Salcombe), looking west

Nigel Jones – Editor

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This article was written by

Nigel has been publishing magazines since 1995 (some 20+ years now). Passionate about our countryside and heritage, the magazines reflect this interest. Nigel's the Editor of the DEVONSHIRE magazine which he established in 2009 and founder of the innovative HUBCAST event promotion platform which launched in 2011