Taming Contrast

The dynamic range of tone can make or break an image
The dynamic range of tone can make or break an image. If the number of ƒ-stops between the brightest highlights and darkest shadows exceeds what the sensor can capture, detail is lost. While it’s better to expose for the highlights and let the shadows fall where they may, too many black voids create distractions. On the other hand, if you expose for the shadows, highlight detail gets blown out. Thankfully, there are ways to tame contrast. While some may have limitations, use them to your advantage to obtain a much-improved picture.

Graduated Neutral Density Filters: For large-scale subjects, graduated neutral density filters work wonders. They help tone down highlights in uniform bright areas at the top, bottom or sides of the composition. There have even been times when I’ve used one on the vertical side of the frame when I want to darken a bright wall in canyon country. With one side of the canyon in shadow and the other brightly illuminated, I placed the dark portion of the filter over the bright wall, and the result was a more evenly exposed image. In the accompanying images made from Hunts Mesa in Monument Valley, the exposure differential between the sky and foreground rock formations in the BEFORE photo was wide. The top was much brighter. I placed the dark part of a 2 stop graduated ND filter over the bright sky. The corrected exposure differential is evidenced in the AFTER photo.

Fill Flash: In the picture of the screech owl, the mid-morning sun was above and to its left. Note the shadow of the eyelid across the owl’s eye. As a result, there was a dark shadow on the right front part of its feathers, and the eye sockets were quite contrasty. The overall illumination was poor. The straight shot was not acceptable. Had I based a straight overall exposure to provide detail on the shadow side, the highlights on the feathers would blow out. To tame the contrast, I used flash to throw light into the shadows commensurate with the intensity of the ambient light. While it sounds complicated, it was a simple matter of dialing in minus two thirds flash fill on the back of my strobe, and I let the camera handle the ambient exposure. I did use an auxiliary flash as the pop ups found on some DSLRs don’t have enough power to throw light long distances.

Outdoor Photographer Tip Of The Week

Diffusers: Diffusers work great when you need to soften the strong contrast of full sun on relatively small subjects. The one I have is a 22-inch collapsible disc that folds up small enough to fit into my camera bag. They come in panels large enough to photograph people if needed. They allow light to be transmitted but soften the overall contrast. For the accompanying shot of the flower and wood, I placed the diffuser in the path of the sun. It provided soft and even light quite different from the look the strong sun gave. If you make macro images, I strongly encourage you to get your hands on a diffuser to be able to produce even and soft light when desired.

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Software To The Rescue: There are numerous ways to reduce contrast with software. If you check the Tip of the Week archives, you’ll find some tips that I dedicated to the topic. Too detailed to get into within the limitations of a paragraph, check out the ones on How to Use the Screen Mode in Photoshop, How to Use the Multiply Mode in Photoshop, and how to Double Process a RAW File. Additionally, look into HDR programs such as Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 and Photomatix.

Outdoor Photographer Tip Of The Week

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2 Comments

    I am new to photography after dabbling in it for 30+ years. I have a friend who looked at some of my pics from a trip out west and mentioned that I need a couple of filters. I did not know why but now I can see the difference it makes. Love the tips and love my new hobby.

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