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Learn Photography

Beecher's Handouts >

2 – Light Contrast

1 – Introduction

As we learned in the previous section, camera sensors "see" the world differently than we do.

We see this with our eyes:


While our photographs are like this:


What we see is NOT what we get.

This is more pronounced when you're using light coming from the side—sidelighting—or from behind your subject—backlighting.

That's because the shadows created by sidelighting and backlighting appear much darker on a photograph—than they appear with our eyes.

Photography "vision" has more contrast than human vision.

This has been a problem since the beginning of photography.

Eadweard Muybridge, famous for his studies of movement, was also an accomplished landscape photographer.

When photographing Yosemite, he could not record the sky and the landscape on the same wet plate

Muybridge solved the problem using two different methods:

1) He combined a negative of clouds with a negative of a landscape, when making a print.

Today, we use software (HDR) to combine two files, one file exposed for the clouds, and the other one exposed for the landscape.

2) Muybridge also used a board flap inside his camera to block the brighter light from the sky during a portion of an exposure.

He called the board a sky shade.

This is similar to how we use a graduated neutral density filter today.

Again, the increase in contrast can be both detrimental and beneficial to your photography.


2 – Detrimental Contrast

Here's an example of how the increase in contrast can be detrimental to your photography.

Let's say you're taking a picture of a friend in her garden.

She has 1940s red lipstick, red hair, green eyes, and two heirloom tomatoes, all under the shade of her straw hat.

Later, when you look at the photograph, she is barely discernable.

The shadow created by her hat has become very dark.

Photographers have to train themselves to look for shadows.

And then, we must decide whether to use the methods on the following pages to brighten any shadows.

3 – Beneficial Contrast

Here's an example of how the increase in contrast can be beneficial to your photography.

Let's say you're visiting a farm.

You're photographing kids (with the permission of their parent/guardian) on a trampoline.

It's sunny.

Thus, the light is contrasty.

In the shade behind the trampoline, there's a large manure-spreader truck.

It's covered with manure.

In the photograph, the shade will be very dark, hiding the truck.

Again, look for shadows.

Then, decide if dark shadows will be of benefit for your photograph.

4 – Solutions for Detrimental Contrast

If you have both sun and shade in the frame of your camera, you may have a problem.

When you encounter a scene with too much contrast, use the techniques below.

Average the Exposure

This doesn't work.

Let's say the exposure for the:

• Sky is f/16.

• Shadow area is f/4.

You set the exposure to f/8, midway between f/4 and f/16.

Neither the sky nor the shadow area will look good.

Use the Camera to Reduce the Contrast

Contrast can be reduced by changing a camera setting.

This applies if you're saving JPEGs, not if you're saving raw files.

Camera manufacturers use many different names for this feature.

Nikon: Active D-Lighting

Canon: Auto Lighting Optimizer

Download the PDF version of your camera manual.

Search for contrast by pressing Ctrl + f (Windows) or Cmd + f (Mac).

Change Your Composition

You may be able to reframe your photograph.

If you don't need the bright area, or the dark shadow area, crop one or the other.

Come Back at Another Time

There may be less contrast at a different time of day, or on a cloudy day.

Use Bounce Flash, Indoors

When taking pictures indoors, use bounce flash if you have a flash that can be tilted toward the ceiling.

The light coming from the ceiling will illuminate the entire scene, rather than just the objects near the camera.

Use the Night Portrait Icon

When you set your camera to the Night Portrait exposure mode, the flash will illuminate the scene near the camera.

The camera will also select a shutter speed so that the background will also be recorded.

Movement may be blurred due to the selection of a slow shutter speed.

Use Fill Flash, Outdoors

Use fill flash to add light to the shadows on a sunny day.

If the person is wearing a hat, or is backlighted by the sunset, pop your flash up.

You have to be close to your subject.

Some cameras allow you to adjust the brightness of the flash with flash exposure compensation.

Do the following.

Digital SLR & Mirrorless Cameras

Set the exposure mode to P (Program).

Press the button near the flash to pop it up.

Be sure to push the flash down afterwards.

Point-and-shoot Cameras

Press the button with the flash icon until you see ON.

Be sure to press the flash-icon button to set the flash back to the A (automatic) setting.

Use a Reflector, Outdoors

A reflector is held near your subject, and is aimed at the shadow area.

Light reflects off of the reflector, and fills in the shadow with more light.

A reflector can be improvised.

You probably don't have an assistant to hold a reflector.

Look for sunlight bouncing off of a white wall or a red brick wall.

If you have someone who can hold a reflector for you, use the circular fabric reflectors, such as those made by Photoflex.

Polarizing Filter

A Polarizing filter will keep blue skies darker.

The filter also reduces glare off of water, foliage, and other surfaces.

Below, the Polarizing filter darkens the sky making the clouds stand out.


Without Polarizing Filter

Click Photograph to Enlarge


With Polarizing Filter

Click Photograph to Enlarge

Both Photographs, Side-by-side

Spin It!

Polarizing filters spin.

Once you screw it on your lens (carefully and not too tightly), the front part of the filter revolves.

As you spin the filter, you can see what it does.

Look through your viewfinder as you revolve the filter.

The Polarizing affect will change as you spin the filter.

Where's the Sun?

When using a Polarizing filter to darken a blue sky, the affect will be strongest when the sun is to your left or right.

The effect is weaker when the sun is behind you.

The Polarizing filter doesn't darken the sky if the camera is pointed in the direction of the sun.

What Does the Filter Look Like?

A Polarizing filter is gray in color.


Buy a filter that's the same diameter as your lens.

Look at the inside surface of your camera's lens cap.

Usually the diameter of the lens is printed there, such as 67mm.

Four Cautions

1) Screw the filter on carefully and don't tighten it like a lid on a jar.

2) A Polarizing filter blocks about one stop of light.

So, remove the filter if it's not needed, especially indoors.

3) Skies are not evenly Polarized.

Therefore, when you're using a wide-angle focal length, a sky may show an uneven color.

4) Use only one filter at a time.

Because Polarizing filters are even thicker than other filters, be sure to remove other filters to prevent the darkening of the corners of your photographs.


You can also use software such as Lightroom or Photoshop Elements to reduce detrimental contrast.