Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Art of Compromise - Consider Highlights & Shadows When Determining Exposure

On A Brighter Day - Tehachapi, California
Dynamic range in camera speak is the ability to retain details in highlights and shadows. Cameras have a limited dynamic range, and often are not capable of recording the scene without losing details in the brightest and/or darkest spots.

Every camera has a different dynamic range. Some cameras have a larger dynamic range while some cameras have a smaller dynamic range. According to DxOMark, the Nikon D810 has the largest dynamic range out of all the cameras that they've tested, while my Nokia Lumia 1020 ranks 278th.

Cameras have their largest dynamic range at their base ISO. As the ISO increases the dynamic range decreases. Any camera will have a noticeably larger dynamic range at ISO 100 than at ISO 1600.

Some cameras have more tolerance in the shadows and some in the highlights. The Sigma DP2 Merrill, for example, can retain details a little better in the highlights than in the shadows, while the Sony RX100 II can retain details a little better in the shadows than the highlights.
Web of Neglect - Mojave, California
Unless the light is soft and even, the scene you are photographing likely has a greater dynamic range than that of the camera you are using. Your camera is simply not capable of recording it all. You will have detail-less shadows and/or highlights.

This is a part of photography that drives me nuts, but it is a reality that all photographers must deal with. You will lose details in parts of your images. You will have blown highlights and deep black shadows. It's inevitable. You've just got to live with it.

This is where the art of comprise comes in. You've got to decide what is most important and find the best exposure to achieve it. Is it a big deal if the highlights are blown? Does it matter if the shadows are deep black?

It might be that you are more concerned with highlight details than shadow details, so you underexpose the image slightly to retain the highlight details at the expense of shadow details. Or perhaps you are more interested in retaining shadow details so you overexpose slightly.
Copy Machine - Mojave, California
You might decide that you will have both blown highlights and deep black shadows in an image. You carefully balance the exposure so that neither are particularly bad. This is very common, but difficult to determine just what the balance should be.

Ideally, in a perfect world, you don't want blown highlights or deep black shadows in a photograph. But the world isn't perfect and ideal is rare. Besides, limitations can be good if you creatively use them to your advantage. Think about how the limited dynamic range can benefit your photograph.

Each photograph must be considered uniquely. No two photographs are just alike and what works for one image may not work for another.

Exposure is a careful balancing act. Too much light and your highlights are blown. Too little light and your shadows are blobs of black. Often you have to make small compromises to get it right. Carefully and thoughtfully consider the highlights and shadows when determining what the exposure should be.

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