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Watch Out For Blowout

Exposures In All The Bright Places • Traveling With Photo Gear •  Fine-Art Prints, Or Not

There’s a fine line between a white area in an image with detail and it either becoming gray or blown out. Watching the histogram on the back of the camera is the way to know exactly where you are. Canon EOS-1Ds, EF 100-400mm zoom set at 250mm, ƒ/22 with 1/15 sec., and ISO 50.

Exposures In All The Bright Places
Q I’m a serious amateur photographer using a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. I’ll be traveling to Antarctica next year; how can I be sure to get correct exposures in such a bright environment?
M. Leiter
Via the Internet

A In the days of film, exposure in bright areas was always a challenge, and we’d constantly try to outthink the meter by over- or underexposing our images. It was hit or miss, and especially a problem in snow and ice environments. In the age of digital, there’s no guessing; you can be absolutely sure you have the right exposure before you leave your subject by checking the histogram on the back LCD screen.

The histogram on your camera offers two modes, a color display and a brightness display. I typically use only the latter, which graphs the number of pixels of each tonal value in the image, from true black (without detail) on the left margin to true white (white without detail) on the right. If your histogram displays many pixels lined up against the right margin, your image contains areas that are “blown out”—that is, they have no detail. The cure is to change your exposure to bring the histogram off of the right edge so there’s detail in your whitest whites. Another overexposure indicator on your camera is the “blinking highlights” option. If this mode is enabled, any area of the image that’s blown out will blink when you view it on the back LCD screen. But don’t rely only on “the blinkies.” Check your histogram to get the whole story, and adjust your exposure accordingly.

By the way, when you go to Hawai’i and photograph black lava, you’ll want to pay attention to the other end of the histogram spectrum. Anything touching the left (dark) side of the histogram will have no detail. In that case, you’d open up the exposure to solve the problem.

The histogram will help you to get the best single exposure you can. In high-contrast situations, one exposure won’t be perfect. High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques allow you to composite a full set of exposures to render an image with complete tonal range. You may want to explore this technique and practice it before you leave for Antarctica (or Hawai’i), and you’ll find information about it in previous issues of this magazine.

Traveling With Photo Gear
In light of all the new rules about carry-on baggage and airport security screening, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts as to how you manage your gear when flying. I’m extremely protective of my camera equipment and very reluctant to part with it at the gate or in checked baggage.
E. Clarke
Via the Internet

A The biggest challenge in traveling with photographic equipment is the inconsistent application of ever-changing rules. No matter how thoroughly you research ahead of time, the odds are that you’ll encounter at least one overworked, overzealous or just plain cranky airline employee who will thwart all your careful planning and packing. Note that I said “airline” employee; usually, I find TSA employees to be knowledgeable and consistent. Note that I said “usually.”

As of this writing (two weeks following the Christmas Day “underpants bomber”), nothing has really changed in terms of preparation for those flying within or from the United States. But in that time, I’ve noticed additional screening measures. TSA personnel seem more apt to look through camera bags than before and to run swabs to detect potentially dangerous residues. The biggest problem this poses to most of us is delay, so give yourself more time.

I have two metal knee replacements, so I’m treated to a personal massage at every security checkpoint. Once they pull you off to the screening enclosure, you can’t protect the equipment you’ve left strung out on the belt; if you’ve followed the instructions, you have your computer in one bin, your shoes and belt in another, a jacket, your camera bag, your computer bag and perhaps another bin holding a video camera or projector. Your bins are piling up at the end of the belt while other passengers are grabbing stuff and dashing for their planes. If you’re pulled aside for additional screening, you can ask the TSA personnel—and should ask them—to bring your belongings into the screening area with you so you can keep your eyes on them. If you’re not in a hurry, it can all be managed.

The TSA rules say you can bring one carry-on bag, one personal item (a purse, computer, etc.) and one bag of photographic equipment. Most folks don’t know that last part; you can find the rule at, “Transporting Film and Photographic Equipment.” I always carry a copy of that rule in my camera bag. But don’t get too excited; I haven’t traveled recently on any airline that acknowledges the exception, and in the end, it’s the flight attendant supervising boarding who’s going to tell you, “You have to check that bag.” Also, the rules are subject to change, so check the TSA site when you’re making your plans.

So here’s what I do on a photo expedition. I pack my tripods and relatively expendable accessories in my checked baggage. Then I carry onto the plane a Lowepro Vertex 200 AW backpack packed with my cameras, chargers and main lenses. I call this, in carry-on terms, a “camera bag”—the one allowed personal item. My “one allowed carry-on bag” is a small roller that contains my computer, a 500mm lens and various accessories needed on the plane, along with essentials like snacks and medications. Carefully follow the rules about liquids and gels in your carry-on luggage; you don’t want them rolling around with your equipment anyway. And the place for your handy pocketknife with all of your screwdrivers, wrenches and other photo tools is in your checked baggage.

The ideal situation is when my wife travels with me; she generously takes one of my bags (usually the 500mm lens in its traveling case or a digital projector) as her own. Since she seldom gets tagged for extra screening (and she’s scrupulous about not wearing heavy jewelry, belts, shoes that tie or anything else that might delay her trip through the screening apparatus), she can supervise the gathering and stowing of all my gear while the TSA screeners have their way with me. In the end, it all boils down to choosing the right traveling (and life) companion: a non-photographer willing to tote one of your bags is the best answer I can give you.

One more little problem. If you’re traveling abroad, what you carry on the plane to your destination may not be allowed on the plane coming back. The new rules posted on January 3, 2010 not only impose intensified security screening, but also appear to further limit the carry-on baggage you can bring onto international flights to the United States from some countries. I’m not quite sure yet how to deal with different carry-on limitations depending upon the direction you’re traveling, but I know this much: On the way back, one of the most important things you have is the images you spent so much money and time to capture. Be sure to keep them safe.

Fine-Art Prints, Or Not
What, exactly, is a “fine-art” print, and how is it distinguishable from non-fine art prints?
S. Grueber
Via the Internet

A It’s easier to answer your second question first. Practically, non-fine-art prints have a short physical and cultural life span due to the lack of quality in their production and the absence of enduring content. They’re not long-term investments.

Generally, fine art is created for aesthetic appreciation rather than for commercial use, and presented appropriately for private or gallery placement. Some photographers classify all their work as “fine art,” meaning that they’re seeking to capture exceptionally high-quality images of extraordinary content and technical execution. These days, I find that some “fine-art” photographers remain immersed in older traditional forms of image capture and darkroom techniques; sometimes they’re more defined by the process than by the images they create. But I would include in the “fine-art” photography community those who use the medium to accomplish an artistic vision, and in the digital age, this has become both more common and more exciting because of the versatility and creativity offered by new capture and processing technologies.

This might seem to put the definition of “fine-art photography” squarely in the realm of the artist’s intent. But that doesn’t quite fit with the way most photographers, especially outdoor and nature photographers, approach their subjects. A fine-art nature print starts with an aesthetically compelling capture that may well have commercial value, but the fine-art designation is realized with a museum-worthy and archivally sound presentation. This means professional, archival-quality papers, long-lasting pigment inks and a technically superb print.

Current professional photographic printing technology has revolutionized the concept of photography as a fine-art investment. Pigment prints will last 100 years on display! Knowing this, you should beware of making significant investments in photographic fine-art prints created with media other than pigment inks. While older processes may create beautiful images for the gallery, they don’t last sufficiently long on display to justify their relatively high costs, in my opinion—particularly when better technology is readily available to all serious photographers.

Ansel Adams had the answer to this figured out. He called the negative “the score” (the sheet music) and the print “the performance.” And a good percentage of his performances certainly rose to the quality of “fine-art” symphonies. But ultimately, the determination of whether a photographic print is “fine art” lies in the aspiration of its creator and the perception of the beholder.

For information about upcoming seminars and digital-imaging workshops, visit If you have any tips or questions, address them to: OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER, Dept. TT, George Lepp, 12121 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1200, Los Angeles, CA 90025-1176 or online at

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.