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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Dark Secret Of Digital Photography

How the dark side of your photos can be limiting your prints

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Sheppard makes adjustments to the dark areas of the image via the Darks slider in the Tone Curve adjustment window. Some will argue that making adjustments on the curve itself is more precise, but the parametric sliders actually do a solid job quickly and intuitively. Other programs like Apple Aperture and Adobe Photoshop also have parametric slider controls that work the same way. Be sure to have the Linear box activated for best results.

Digital photography vastly expands our opportunities for better pictures. We can now shoot in lower light with higher quality results, instantly see our images as we capture them and easily process those images for the best results. Despite the huge amount of information about digital photography, there's something I've found to be consistently missing—a dark secret of digital photography. This secret element can affect all images, but is most noticeable with photos that include a lot of dark tones and dark colors in them.

When you move the Darks slider, your changes will be strongest in the darker tones where you'll see muddy shadows brought up to show details. The Darks slider will affect lighter areas like the sky and the sunlit area on this natural bridge as well, but the changes become progressively less in these lighter areas.
Simply put, digital camera sensors don't do their best work with dark tones and dark colors. The best rendering of brightness values and color quality comes in the sensor's midrange. There are a lot of reasons for this, including the challenge that dark areas simply don't have as much "energy" striking the sensor as bright areas do.

So what happens? When printed, dark parts of photos are rendered murky and muddy in tone and color. That's a problem because it's not how we see the world at all. Much has been written about the fact that the camera sees a fraction of the range of brightness that our eyes can see. That's definitely an issue and a good reason to consider shooting high dynamic range (HDR) photography, but that's not the issue here. I'm talking about the dark tones that the camera does see, parts of a scene where both the sensor and our eyes can see detail.

The problem becomes one of how well the camera sees these tones. Yes, the camera records the tones, colors and detail, but not nearly as well as our eyes. We can easily pick out tonal or brightness differences, even in dark areas of a scene, plus, we can see color equally well in bright and dark parts of a scene. The camera struggles to do that. It definitely doesn't see things equally, even within the range of detail it can handle.

The result is a photo that expresses the midrange to brighter parts of the subject or scene just fine, but the dark areas are out of balance. Their murkiness gives a heavy quality to that part of the composition and drags down the rest of the image. You'll see this on your monitor, but it's much more visible and objectionable in a print.

Some photographers have taken to slightly overexposing images shot in RAW format, often called exposing to the right, to get better detail in the dark areas. Then they process the RAW image back to normal tonality in Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw or other RAW-processing software.

I'm not crazy about exposing to the right. First, it affects colors in bright areas. The sensor can actually handle brightness that's a little overexposed, except that the chroma or color quality isn't handled well in those bright areas. You often lose subtle colors that can't be brought back by any work in Lightroom or Camera Raw. For some subjects, such as outdoor scenes with bright colors in the sky, that can be a serious problem. Second, it can add significantly to the workflow and increase time you must spend processing images, and time spent struggling with an image in the computer is better spent outside shooting.


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