Tips for Exposures in High Contrast Light

When it's summer, we often travel with family and friends on vacations. Because these trips may not be mainly focused on photography, our opportunities for making pictures tend to occur during the middle of bright sunny days. These conditions can be challenging for getting a good exposure of the scene. Here are some suggestions for dealing with the situation.

Captured in raw file format using Standard picture style
Highlights darkened and shadows lightened in editing

Recognize High Contrast Light
We are attracted to scenes of sunlight and shadow where we are able to see details in the brightest and darkest areas. However, these are extremely difficult for our cameras to record as we perceive them. So be on the look-out for lots of visible shadows contrasting with very bright areas.

Original capture
Some of the brightest spots lost all detail.

Watch Your Composition
One of the easier ways to deal with high contrast light is to compose your scene so it is mostly sunlit with only small areas of dense shade, or so it is mostly shaded with only small areas of bright light. If the overall scene has the same intensity of light, instead of being varied, it's easier for your camera to get the exposure right.

Expose to Keep Details in the Brightest Areas
It is easier to lighten dark areas of a photo than it is to darken bright areas. So try to prevent the sunny parts of the image from overexposing. You may have to use Exposure Compensation to slightly darken the scene. Then with photo editing software, you can lighten the shadows after taking the picture.

Shot in raw file format with Faithful picture style
Highlights darkened in editing

Change the Picture Style or Picture Control
Many cameras have a menu choice called Picture Style, Picture Control, or something similar. This setting determines how your picture is "developed" by the camera. It includes the amount of contrast, saturation and sharpening applied to the sensor data. Most cameras are set to a "Standard" choice. But you may have more success with keeping detail in the highlights if you select a style such as "Faithful" or "Neutral". You might want to increase the saturation and contrast of these photos with picture editing software later, but a different Picture Style can help preserve detail in both the sunny and shady parts of your image.

The original capture

Consider Capturing Pictures in Raw File Format
By default, your camera saves pictures in JPEG file format. These files are convenient to view and share, but they contain a lot less information than the sensor recorded. If you capture photos using the raw file format (every camera manufacturer has its own type), you have a lot more information to work with to fix the exposure if you didn't get it just right. These days you don't need to know a lot to process a raw file. Using a program such as Adobe Photoshop Elements, you are able to view and open a raw file in Adobe Camera Raw (a plug-in that comes with Elements and Photoshop) and then click the Auto button to have the app fix it for you.

You can learn more about solving exposure problems in my digital photography classes at the Lifelong Learning Center in Missoula, Montana. Classes are scheduled throughout the year. Click here to register for the latest offerings.