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Photography's Problem:

Representing What We See

Photographs don't represent the world as we see it.

After we press the shutter release, we look at our glowing LCD screens.

We then look at the just-photographed scene.


There's a difference.

The deep-blue sky is now baby blue.

The shadows are much darker.

Sometimes, this increase in contrast is beneficial.

For example, the too-dark shadow behind a person becomes a great background for the portrait.

More often, the too-dark shadows and the the too-washed-out highlights are detrimental.

Not New

Photography's problem is not new.


Bernice Abbott, in a 1944 Popular Photography Magazine article, The Coming World of Photography, described the problem.

Abbott mentioned how you can't get the bright area of a scene, and the dark area, on the same photograph: "Latitude: A dark deep foreground should have as much tonality as a bright sky, without sacrificing one or the other."

Sixty-some years later, it's still a problem.

More Evident Now

While the contrast problem isn't new, it may be more evident to photographers in the digital era.

Few photographers, in the film era, worked in a darkroom.

Few photographers, then, had prints made by a person rather than a printing machine.

So, they didn't know what they were missing.

They never delved into all of the information contained in their negatives.


The brightness ratio is the measure of the range between the darkest shadows and the brightest highlights.

This ratio is also called dynamic range.

A typical scene has a brightness ratio of 100,000 to 1.

The human eye can see a brightness ratio of about 10,000 to 1 while looking at a scene.

Your computer monitor has a brightness ratio of about 400 to 1.

That's about seven stops.

That's the problem.

We have to fit a 100,000:1-world on a 400:1-monitor.

The problem becomes worse when you make a print.

The brightness range of photographic paper varies from about 200:1 to 100:1.

Print Example

Let's say you have a photograph of a toad covered with raindrops.

Each raindrop has a highlight.

On a monitor, the highlights are created with transmitted light from glowing crystals.

The raindrops sparkle.

When you look at a print of the toad, the same highlights are created by reflected light off of white plastic.

They highlights are dull.

White plastic can't compete with glowing crystals.

First, we'll look at solutions to the contrast problem using your camera.

Then, solutions you can employ at your computer.

Solutions with Your  Camera

You can mitigate the contrast problem by keeping it in mind as you photograph.

Try the following camera solutions.


Polarizing Filter

A Polarizing filter will darken blue skies on a sunny day.

Go to Polarizing filter.

Photograph with Low Contrast Light

The best light for photographers is a sunny day.

The best light for photographs is an overcast day or in the shade.

The light source is the entire sky on an overcast day or in the shade.

When the source of light is large, the light in the scene is low contrast.

Saturated Color Settings

Increase Contrast

When color saturation is increased, the contrast also increases.

The highlights will become brighter, and the shadows, darker.

Your camera camera can be set to various color settings.

These settings change the way the raw data from the sensor is processed into a JPEG file.

If the color setting is set to Vivid or Saturated, or similar settings, the contrast will be higher.

If the increase in contrast is of concern, use Natural, or a similar setting, instead.

Other settings may increase the color saturation, and contrast, without you realizing it's happening.

For example, on the Exposure Mode dial, you probably have an icon of a mountain.

This Landscape exposure mode, on many cameras, will switch the camera from a natural color setting to a saturated setting.

So, if increased contrast is an issue in a scene, don't use the Landscape exposure mode.

These processing controls go by different names, depending on the camera manufacturer.


User Defined (older cameras) or Picture Styles


Optimize Image (older cameras) or Picture Control


Image Finishing Tones

Next, we'll look at solutions to increased contrast using your computer.

Solutions - At the Computer

Monitor Calibration

Is your monitor calibrated?

A calibrated monitor matches all other calibrated monitors.

If your monitor isn't calibrated, what you see on your monitor isn't what your lab sees when they look at your photograph.

What you think is a perfectly edited photograph, is not, on the calibrated monitor at the lab.

Go to Monitor Calibration.

Color Management

Color must be set up properly throughout the photographic process—from camera to the print.

Go to Color Management.

Shoot Raw

If you save your photographs as a raw file, there'll be more information in the shadow areas to edit, compared to a JPEG file.

Go to Raw v. JPEG.

Below, we'll look at processing a single raw file into two different versions.

The two versions are then combined.

Jump to Process a Raw File, Twice.

Soft Proofing

Photoshop, and other programs, have soft proofing.

They simulate how your print will look.

Edit a Edit a photograph, and then use the soft proof feature to evaluate how it may look as a print.

Go to Soft Proofing.

Photoshop Elements

You can use Photoshop Elements to combine two exposures of the same scene.

You can use two JPEG files of the same scene, taken with different exposures.

Or, you can use a single raw file, processed for two different exposures.


You can combine two photographs of the same scene.

Let's say you're photographing a landscape.

The exposure of the first photograph should be the best exposure for the sky.

The foreground will be too dark, but you won't be using that part of the photograph.

In the second photograph, set the exposure for the foreground.

The sky will be too bright.

But, you won't be using that part of the second photograph.

Go to Combine Two Photographs.

Single Raw File

If your camera can save raw files, take a photograph of the scene and save it as a raw file.

Go to Raw Process, Twice, to Reduce Contrast.

High Dynamic Range (HDR)



High dynamic range photography, combines several different photographs of the same scene into a single photograph.

The different photographs are taken at the optimum exposure settings  for different parts of the scene.

Let's say you're photographing the Grand Canyon.

Because you'll be taking several photographs of the canyon, the camera, and the scene, must be stationary.

So, the camera is on a tripod.

You ascertain the clouds in the sky are imperceptibly moving.

You take a photograph of the sky using the optimum exposure for this part of the scene.

Next, you photograph the canyon wall, that's in the sun, using the optimum exposure for this part of the scene.

Finally, you photograph the canyon wall, that's in the shade, using the optimum exposure for this part of the scene.

Using software, you combine parts of the exposures.

HDR Photography Resources

FDRTools Software

HDR PhotoStudio Software

High Dynamic Range (HDR) Landscape Photography Tutorial Royce Howland

OpenEXR File format for HDR photographs

Photomatix Software

FAQ - HDR images for Photography

PhotoResampling Software

Picturenaut Software