Photography 101: Photographing High Contrast Subjects

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Stephen F. Dennstedt

Anytime you’re dealing with high contrast in subjects exposure can be tricky. Empirical wisdom suggests that you expose for the highlights and work the shadows in post. For the most part I agree with that advice. With today’s full-frame CMOS sensors (typically 30 MP and up) this becomes easier, if you’re using a crop-sensor APS-C camera (usually around 20 MP) the situation becomes a little more problematic.

HDR (High Dynamic Range) processing is always an option of course but the result often looks contrived and fake when not done well. Top of the line camera bodies today do a great job of capturing dynamic range while controlling digital noise. I’m a Canon shooter so that would include cameras like the: EOS 1Dx Mark II, 5D Mark IV and even the crop-sensor 7D Mark II. Nikon and Sony have even better sensors on their top of the line models (at least for now).

If you’re a noob the two things you can do immediately to improve your photography is to start shooting CameraRAW files and to learn Lightroom or Photoshop. More experienced photographers know this already. RAW files capture all the information you need to process your images for maximum impact. This post is not a Lightroom or Photoshop tutorial, for that go to YouTube or Google. Everything you need to know is at your fingertips—no need to attend expensive workshops or buy a library full of books. Too much work? Jason Lanier is fond of saying: are you a picture taker or a photographer? You need to ask and answer that question for yourself.

Galapagos Giant Tortoise

Galapagos Giant Tortoise – Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos, Ecudor

Above is a great example of a high contrast subject: the Galapagos Giant Tortoise. I photographed this brute on Santa Cruz island in the Galapagos (2015). The contrast between the bright, white highlights on his head and the deep, black shadows under his shell is clearly evident. This is a tough situation for any photographer. In this case I did not expose for the highlights because no matter what they would be blown out. And I did not expose for the shadows either because I didn’t want to further exacerbate the existing highlight problem. The exposure mode I used on my camera was the Evaluative Mode (sometimes called Matrix Mode) to reach a compromise between shadows and highlights.

I captured this image as a CameraRAW file and initially processed in Adobe CameraRAW (ACR) part of my Adobe Photoshop Elements software. In ACR I refined White Balance, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites/Blacks, Clarity and Vibrance. I then uploaded to Photoshop to further refine my adjustments—after all was said and done I didn’t like the color image. It was boring. I converted the color image to a more retro looking black & white (a start). Straight conversion to B&W in Photoshop is rarely satisfying, it takes more work. In Levels I made sure there were some real whites and real blacks (this automatically increases contrast).

Galapagos Tortoise

Giant Galapagos Tortoise on Display in a Sheik New York City High-rise

But Steve, you said that photographing high contrast subjects was the problem. You’re right I did. But in B&W photography (high) contrast is not always a bad thing. Additional adjustments included: more work on highlights and shadows, overall contrast and some dodging & burning. The end result, for me, is a dramatic representation of what I saw that day on Santa Cruz Island. This carryover creature from prehistoric times is now preserved in all of his naturalness and drama. He makes a statement, whether in person or hanging a wall. This image will print large (almost 3 x 4 feet) and looks terrific as an acrylic or metal print as seen above. Click here for details.

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