3 mins

Take Better Travel Photos – Extreme Contrast

Want to take a photo like this? Paul Harris helps you capture the magic of the travel moment – even when there is extreme contrast in light

Ganden, Mongolia (Paul Harris)

Light will always be the key photographic ingredient in those fleeting travel moments. The angle, colour, direction and intensity of light will all play a part. How we use and control extreme light will make or break a photo. Side and backlight is brash, bold and compelling in its ability to transform an image.

But even the best camera sensors will struggle with extreme contrast as it cannot match the human eye’s ability to see and absorb detail in highlights and shadow at the same time. Exposing your scene or portrait for the dark areas of the frame will result in overexposure of the highlights, which no amount of Photoshop will rescue.

But don’t be put off by extremes of light and shade. They can be used to structure a scene within the frame. They can create a sense of mystery where detail is shrouded. Most importantly, they will help focus the viewers’ attention to the story you want to tell. The key element in this image of a Buddhist lama in Mongolia (above) was rendering the correct exposure on his profile and yellow robe; the surrounding shadows allow us to linger on what might be hiding there.  

1. Composing with light and shade

Create shape and structure by using the demarcation of light and shade. Use a dark shadow as a framing device or dividing line. Beware of unwanted highlights from reflective surfaces and lens flare.

2. Controlling exposure

Select a spot meter camera setting or a close-up meter reading of a highlight or shadow, depending on the emphasis of your image. Blown-out highlights can create a dazzling high key effect. Underexposed detail in dark shadows can often be rescued in post production.

3. Using histograms

Check this extremely useful tonal graph on your LCD display, either live or after exposure. Make sure the display shows a balance of tonal range without major clipping of the right side (highlights) and left side (shadows).

4. Shooting raw

Shooting in raw format means that you can recover detail in both highlights and shadows to some extent during processing. However, don’t rely on this and be especially careful about blown highlights, which are more difficult – or often impossible – to recover.

5. Manual settings

Auto-exposure settings struggle with extreme light. Switch to manual exposure so you have full control over your shutter speed and aperture. Turn off Auto ISO and White Balance; select manually to reduce noise level and colour balance in your image.

Paul HarrisPaul Harris leads Wanderlust Journeys Photography workshops. For more information visit www.wanderlustjourneys.co.uk.

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