Have you ever enjoyed the buzz of taking photos, only to find your highlights bleached out, with the subtle dark tones all gone muddy? Sadly I have.
What’s the problem? Digital sensors and film emulsions often can’t cope with the dynamic range of the scene in front of you – the contrast between light and dark tones is just too great. It’s easy to forget that film and sensors are less adaptable than the human eye. Unlike a camera, our eyes can move around, scanning for interesting details. And as they move, the pupils expand and contract, responding to dark and light tones in the scene.
It’s useful to have a feel for the dynamic range of the equipment and materials you use. I find it easiest to think in light stops, with each stop doubling or halving the brightness level. Photographic printing paper has a range of approximately 6 stops, a computer monitor up to 9 stops. Black and white film has a range of 10 to 12 stops and a modern sensor up to 15 stops. With the ability of the pupils to expand and contract, our eyes can cope with a dynamic range of more than 20 stops. Knowing the limitations of your materials and kit, you can then learn to work within them.
Taking pictures of Noodles at the Sun and 13 Cantons pub in Soho, my main challenge was the contrast between the black door, the sunlight coming through the frosted glass and the reflected light on the table. Wanting to maintain detail in Noodles’ coat and the cushion he was lying on, I made sure they were correctly exposed, letting the darkest and brightest areas take care of themselves. Afterwards, some detail in the frosted glass was recovered using Photoshop’s burning in tool. Alternatively I could have lowered the contrast in the scene at the time of taking the portrait – by using bounced flash or a reflector, for example.
If you’d like to share your experience or offer advice on coping with high contrast subjects, I look forward to hearing from you.