Digital's Exposure Challenge: Preventing Blown-Out Highlights

by Jim Zuckerman

HC-1
HC-1
© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved
One of the challenges of digital photography is the limited exposure latitude in the highlights. Time and again, I see uploaded photos from students with blown-out highlights. A complete loss of detail looks solid white, and this is something to avoid in every circumstance.

Proponents of digital cameras talk about how much latitude digital photography has compared to slide film. This is, in fact, true - but it is true for the shadow areas. At most, when it comes to highlights, a one f/stop overexposure is all you get before there is a total loss of detail. Furthermore, if you are shooting in JPEG mode, this will be less. JPEG has even less tolerance for overexposure than shooting in RAW. If you shoot in JPEG, your chances of holding detail in the highlights are not very good.

SC-83
SC-83
© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved
One way to handle this problem is to underexpose contrasty photos, or photos with bright areas in them, by one f/stop. Then, in Photoshop or Elements, you can use levels to lighten the mid-tones but leave the highlights on the dark side to minimize the loss of detail there. You can do this by moving the middle slider in the levels dialog box to the left.

After-the-Fact Manipulation
There is another solution as well. Look at photo HC-1. This was recently taken at a construction site in late afternoon. The sun lit up the gray concrete wall on the left just enough so the digital sensor had a tough time with the contrast. The gray was almost completely blown out with a serious loss in detail.

To bring back this detail, I opened the picture in Photoshop and selected the overexposed concrete with the magic wand tool. I then feathered the edge of the selection one pixel (Select > feather) so its edge would be softened.


SC-84
SC-84
© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved
Using Image > adjustments > levels, I moved the middle slider bar to the right to decrease exposure in the mid-tones on the wall - see photo SC-83. This darkened the selected area, but now there was a serious yellow/orange bias within the selection - see photo SC-84. This type of unwanted color change is often seen when you use the burn/dodge tool to reduce exposure and you go too far.

The way I eliminated the color change was to use Image > adjustments > hue/saturation. I was still working with the selected area of the concrete, so I moved the saturation slider bar to the left, decreasing color saturation. The yellow/orange bias disappeared, and in its place, I was able to bring back the gray tones of the concrete (see photo HC-2).


HC-2
HC-2
© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved
This solution will not work in every instance, but it's one way to handle blown-out highlights. Let me remind you again that if you are shooting in JPEG mode, the highlights that are overexposed may be lost for good.

Shooting in RAW will give you a fighting chance of bringing back that detail.



About Author / Instructor / Photographer, Jim Zuckerman
Photography Instructor: Jim ZuckermanFew people are able to spend most of their time pursuing their passion in life. I'm one of them, and I feel blessed to have had a love affair with photography since I began taking pictures.

In 1970, I decided to abort my intended career as a doctor in favor of photography and have never regretted it. Photography has enriched my life more than I can tell you. My career has taken me to over 60 countries, and I've seen and photographed wondrous things.

I specialize in wildlife and nature, international travel, and digital effects. In addition, I also shoot nudes, photo- and electron microscopy, children, and other subjects that stimulate my visual or emotional sensibilities.

For 25 years, I shot a medium format camera, specifically the Mamiya RZ 67, for its superior quality. When I would lecture, Id project the large, glass mounted transparencies, and it was really an incredible experience to see the brilliant color saturation and resolution of these slides. However, I went digital in 2004 because the technology finally equaled or surpassed medium format. I now shoot the Canon 1Ds Mark II digital camera with a variety of lenses.

I am the author of 12 books on photography. My work is sold in 30 countries around the world, and my images have appeared on scores of magazine and book covers, calendars, posters, national ads, trade ads, brochures, and corporate promotions.

For many years I've led photography tours to exotic places. These include Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Burma, Greece, The Czech Republic and Slovakia, Spain, Morocco, and Peru.