This is something that really bugs me, especially when I see people sharing work that is guilty of this terrible photography mistake. I am all for people using photography the way they want, but there is a point that it’s so unrealistic that it shouldn’t be seen as “good” photography. All I’m trying to do is educate on what “good” photography technique really is.
In my own photography, I try to process an image to make it as close to what I saw as possible. Dynamic range is a big limiter of achieving this, but proper RAW processing can help overcome MOST scenes. Some scenes will have highlights blown out or dark shadows and it’s unavoidable. In reality, most modern digital cameras can capture a huge dynamic range without artificial brightening.
HDR or high dynamic range imaging is what I would consider a “fad” or a “gimmick” in modern photography. Ansel Adams may have used BASIC darkroom techniques to darken or lighten areas of his image, but he had a vast knowledge of exposure and planned his exposure in camera knowing his limits in processing. An HDR image consists of multiple greatly different exposures that are processed in a program that combines the brightened shadows and darkened highlights into a single image.
In my own photography I ALWAYS use a single exposure that is processed in Aperture 3 using the Canon RAW file. The image below is a very extreme example of a huge dynamic range. There was barely enough detail in the shadows for me to be able to brighten them just a bit. Making the shadows any lighter would result in a really fake looking image. The human eye is able to see the full range of the bright sunset and shadows in the tree, but the camera just isn’t capable enough yet. I exposed the image in camera so that the only the highlights in the very brightest part of the sunset would be clipped (blown out).
Here’s one example of a “bad” processing, using an HDR technique. This scene has NO need to use any HDR technique to capture the entire dynamic range. A polarizing filter would have probably made this image look great in camera. Now there is a terrible “halo” effect around the sky.
It is very easy to spot when someone has artificially brightened a scene to overcome dark areas caused by bad exposure IN the camera. If you’re shooting a person against a bright background, you need to expose for the subject to be the correct brightness. If your background is too bright for your taste, try a polarizing filter or turning the subject so they are front-lit.
I see this all too often in fishing photos, especially out on the deep sea, where lighting is harsh and unforgivable. It’s clear to see the artificial brightening of the shadows in this shot below. There is a nasty halo around anything that was dark, and the highlights are gray and muddy. This was probably processed in a cheap, gimmicky program that makes an image appear “cool” or good to an amateur.
Obviously, this photographer wasn’t trying to shoot a magazine cover, just a shot to remember his trip. There are, however, many pro fisherman that use this same technique and come out with terrible looking photos (at least to my eye).
What’s an easy fix to overcome dark shadows in your picture? Use the fill flash on your camera for a little more natural looking image straight out the camera. Light has a certain tonal curve to follow so that it looks correct, and the image below is just not natural looking.
Feel free to drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions you may have about getting better lighting in your photos!
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