You Should See what You’re Missing
In this article, learn about some of the disadvantages of shooting JPGs. It’s easy to see issues when they are in plain sight, but it’s much more difficult to see things when they are hidden. This situation applies to photographic images containing deep shadows and bright highlights.
When the tonal balance of a scene is unbalanced, some of the critical detail and even emotion of the photo can get lost in the process. The balance and distinction of all five tone-zones (highlight, quarter, middle, three-quarter, and shadow) are critical to image clarity.
The above shot was captured in Dresden Germany while my camera was in Manual Mode (all the settings must be manually balanced). Obviously, my choice of exposure settings was horribly wrong. For that, I offer no excuses.
When something like this happens and you don’t have the chance to retake the image, you can still salvage most of the colors and tones if your camera was set to capture RAW images. Then you can judiciously adjust the tonal settings in RAW interpreter software (you can see my adjustments for that image below).
My normal mode of shooting is to capture both JPEG and RAW images for this very reason. Had I only captured the JPEG file, recovery attempts would have been ugly. RAW files capture a latitude of tones well beyond the limited range of JPEGs.
Imagine trying to either shave or put on makeup in front of a fogged mirror. This would be a recipe for disaster. As long as water droplets remain on the mirror, the light waves are disrupted and the clarity is diffused. Mirrors, like good photos, rely on clarity. And in photography, clarity is always a product of contrast.
When clear distinctions are not present in the tonal range, detail gets lost. In this case, both the highlight and shadow are indistinct. There is no clear distinction between the highlights (the very lightest zone in the picture) and the shadows (the very darkest zone in the picture).
High Contrast Scenes
This reenactment of Shakespeare’s Macbeth at Atlanta’s Renaissance Festival took place at high noon on a very bright and sunny day (images below.
While the camera correctly recorded both the strong highlight and the deep shadow, the contrast was so intense that detail was lost in both the highlight and shadow areas of the image. High contrast scenes often occur during daylight hours under cloudless or even partly cloudy skies.
The sun’s light was so intense that entire areas of the image are brightly illuminated while others are quite dimly lit. While our eyes can adjust to a wide gamut of light, the digital camera sensor cannot adjust to both extremes at the same time.
While detail is the product of contrast; I’m not talking about overall contrast, but internal tone-zone contrast. For a full range picture to display detail, there must be a clear separation of these five zones.
The same lack of detail can be observed in very high contrast scenes; ones whose lighting range covers everything from black to white. The photo below shows a scene typically found in strong sunlight situations. The drama of contrast certainly makes the picture attractive, but significant detail is missing, and it’s missing in broad daylight.
Lost in the Shadows
In the image below left, the camera’s exposure setting averaged the exposure between the darkest and lightest values in the scene. Unfortunately, the strong sunlight cast dark shadows beneath the walkways and the image sensor had no way to distinguish these tones. The image on the right is after processing.
The most common challenge that we all face is when an image is bathed in light and perfectly exposed, but areas of deep shade conceal detail. The camera averaged all the light in the scene but could not compensate for the strong shadows. The image sensor captures the full range of light between highlights and shadows. But it cannot alter the internal contrast of the overall range, as it cannot discern what human eyesight perceives as “balanced” lighting.
The bridge pictured above is a prime example of the camera encountering too much light or dynamic range.
Notice that both the highlights (top left) are completely blown out and the darkest shadows (inside the tunnel beneath the bridge) are also plugged up. This situation requires human intervention. Careful adjustments to the shadows and highlights via Photoshop’s Highlights/Shadows dialog restored the detail. I converted the grayscale image to RGB and added the sepia look via the Hue/Saturation dialog.
Your camera and your eyes see differently
The tonality problem stems from the fact that your eyes can see and your mind can process much more dynamic lighting than your camera is capable of doing. The very scene that your mind pictured before you took the shot appeared a whole lot more detailed than the one that showed up on your monitor. So what happened, and why?
Every time you focus your eyes on a subject, your eye adjusts to the lighting in the portion of the scene that you want to see. Your eye’s pupil opens up to see detail in darker areas and closes (like the aperture in your lens) down to filter out the extremely bright light. Your eye has a distinct advantage over a digital camera though because it adapts to the lighting in each portion of the scene almost instantly.
When your attention shifts slightly, your eye adjusts to render the lighting perfectly. Well, almost perfectly. You still have limitations such as you can’t stare directly into the sun and see detail and you can’t distinguish serious detail under moonlight, but you get the idea.
This visual acclimation happens constantly and quite automatically because your eyes see real life pretty much the same way that a video captures motion; scores of individual “still” shots projected onto your mind every second. They appear and are adjusted by your mind so quickly that you don’t even notice that it happens.
Your camera is at a disadvantage
Your camera, on the other hand, captures one frozen moment of time for each picture. And since the camera cannot adjust to different areas of the scene individually, the current exposure setting only captures as much light range as it can within a single shot. Your camera’s limitations are determined largely by the ISO, shutter speed and aperture settings that you dialed in at the time the shot was captured.
This is in addition to the disadvantages of shooting JPGs.
While your camera does have limitations, there are adjustments you can make to both the internal and overall contrast of each image. Making these adjustments will bring your photos much closer in appearance to what your mind perceived when you clicked the shutter.
Low Contrast and Bad Color Balance
No matter how advanced your camera or how experienced a photographer you are, occasionally you end up with an exposure dud like this one. If the subject is important enough, you’ve got to find a way to rescue and restore the image to its full tonal range, color balance, and detail. The interior lighting of this centuries-old castle chapel was mixed and dark.
Your major adjustments are Hue, Saturation, and Luminance. To make the most of these tools I strongly suggest that you capture your images in RAW format and adjust them in a RAW interpreter (Lightroom, Camera Raw, Exposure X-3, ON1 Photo Raw, etc.). The major controls are very similar in each of these packages.
So do not ever be satisfied with what first appears on your monitor. If you captured the image in RAW format, you’ve recorded all the color and light information possible. On the other hand, if you only saved a JPEG file, your adjustments will be quite limited. Learn to move colors and tones around in your RAW images to see what your missing.
Push pixels around and stay focused.