Protect Your Highlights in Photography & Life

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Protect your highlights in photography and in life. I’m a photographer so I tend to view life in photographic terms, photography is a useful metaphor for better understanding life. Does a musician do the same thing with music?

For years, going back to my film days, I learned to expose for the highlights (in other words to protect the highlights). Once highlights are completely blown out it’s impossible to recover any detail in those areas. Shadows are different.

If you’re shooting CameraRAW files, and depending on your camera and post-editing skills, it’s easier to recover detail in the shadow areas—again, if highlights are totally blown out recovery of detail is impossible (it’s lost data). The human eye captures about 20 stops of dynamic range (the exposure range between total black and total white). Best case scenario: Today’s high-end DSLRs capture only 10 to 15 stops of dynamic range (my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV full-frame DSLR captures about 14 stops of dynamic range). Exposing for the highlights isn’t a hard & fast rule but it’s a mighty good rule of thumb.

Childhood Innocence – Baracoa, Cuba (2014)

I attached a useful video, from Sean Tucker, that speaks to this very issue. But he goes a step (or several steps) beyond and applies this photographic knowledge to life and the human psyche. I photographed the little girl pictured above in Baracoa, Cuba. In May and June 2014 (prior to sanctions being lifted) The Muppet Brothers spent a clandestine month travelling and photographing the entire island of Cuba (the Cuban government didn’t have a problem with it but the U.S. State Department did). This photo is an example of protecting the highlights and letting the rest of the image fall into deep shadow.

Field Notes: I titled the photo of the girl Childhood Innocence though she wasn’t all that innocent. We were listening to her grandfather, a local Cuban fisherman, playing his guitar and singing a traditional Cuban ballad in a small fishing hut. She was peeking in through the open door to watch us and what looks like her covering her mouth in surprise is actually her stuffing her little mouth full of native chocolate. Busted. I was able to shoot two frames before the moment passed (I spot-metered on the lighted side of her face and let the rest fade to deep shadow, preserving both highlights and shadows). SFD

5 responses to “Protect Your Highlights in Photography & Life

  1. Girls gotta have chocolate like we need oxygen. They just can’t help it.

    Thanks for a great photo & entertaining write-up.

  2. Very interesting video which will hopefully make me a little more inquisetive when using the spot meter and to be more creative. Beautiful image of the little girl as well. Always finding useful information on your blogs Stephen, cheers, John…

  3. Thank you for sharing this video — it’s a great lesson in seeing, on many different levels. I’m not 100% sure I’ll remember to hold positive thoughts in my conscious mind for 10 seconds (because, like Sean Tucker, I’m a realist). But thanks to you I can promise to protect my highlights from now on! Gorgeous image of the girl, by the way. Talk about the “decisive moment”!

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