Exposing for Highlights

David duChemin

While people rush to buy the latest cameras with the highest dynamic ranges and the latest software that’ll allow simulation of the highest dynamic range possible (not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that), it helps to remember that every limitation can also be a beautiful creative constraint.

Disappointed by the bright sunlight and apparent lack of mood on Moeraki beach, I took advantage of the fact that my sensor can’t capture all the light that’s there. I didn't remember to take a reference photograph so it’s hard to show what things looked like, but I can show you what it felt like to me because I was looking at the sun sparkling on the sand. So to do that, I had to allow everything else to go dark.

The technique is simple: expose for the highlights, the bands of light that would otherwise be too bright if I had exposed for the rest of the scene. The result is a histogram that preserves the details in the brightest places and allows the shadows to go to black, the reverse of what one might instinctively do in this scene. You could also underexpose the scene by about 4-5 stops. Just keep going until the histogram shows no lost details in the important highlights (or fewer of them). For me, that was the parts of the image where the sun was rim lighting the rocks or reflecting most directly on the sand. What I was drawn to was the elegant tones and texture of the sun directly hitting the sand, and this was a beautiful way of showcasing that. The results are rich and moody, shot directly as black and white images using the Acros film emulation on my Fuji X-T2. No filters and no post-processing other than a few nudges in Snapseed on my iPhone—just elegant, dramatic, black and white using old school underexposure.

Craft & Technique David duChemin

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  • Love it. Such a very different look.

    Irene A on

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