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I've always worked very hard to avoid absolute white and absolute black in my photos. But I think maybe I'm working too hard. When is it appropriate to have blown highlights / shadows? Are there examples of photographers who make use of these extremes to good effect?

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I'm really hoping this is not too subjective. I'm hoping for practical exposure parameters and technique to produce good results -- allowing for blown highlights and shadows. Make sense? –  jaxxon Jun 23 '11 at 17:47
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@jaxxon: It's pretty subjective, but you might give it a go on the main site and see what you get... The question definitely doesn't belong on Meta though. Main Site = Questions About Photography. Meta = Questions About Photo-SE. –  Jay Lance Photography Jun 23 '11 at 18:56
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Maybe it's better phrased as "what are the problems with blown highlights and shadows?", rather than the more subjective "is it okay?" (which the answers you've gotten so far are focused on). –  mattdm Jun 23 '11 at 21:06
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some music just sounds better played too loud, the same applies to photographs! –  Matt Grum Jun 23 '11 at 23:35
    
Thanks for the comments, guys.. and for moving it from meta. (DUH!) Some really helpful answers here. –  jaxxon Jun 23 '11 at 23:41
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migrated from meta.photo.stackexchange.com Jun 23 '11 at 19:51

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8 Answers

up vote 22 down vote accepted

I would say that blown highlights or blocked blacks are perfectly acceptable if it helps you meet your artistic goals! There are different and often conflicting aspects of photography that sometimes make it difficult to judge this kind of thing. On the one hand, you have the "technicals", the aspects of mechanics and technology, telling you not to blow out your highlights. Its "bad" because they can't be recovered with digital, and there is a bit of a taboo about it. On the other hand, you have the "art", the aspects of vision and style that make a photograph all you. At times, the artistic desires of your minds eye are at conflict with the demands of technology.

When push comes to shove, I would say go with your artistic side. If you visualize something that moves you, capture it how you see it. If that means blocked blacks or blown highlights, including a bit of sun flare, allowing some vignetting, then so be it. Ultimately, art is what photography is all about...not meeting some logical definition of what photography should be from a technical standpoint. Use the tools at your disposal to expose your vision, and push the limits of those tools to bring about your own personal style.

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And there are some things that are just naturally going to be blown or blocked, period. Think specular reflections on chrome and the shadow side of draped black velvet. Now picture a model wearing a black velvet dress sitting on a motorcycle. Playing the histogram game is just going to result in a stroke. –  user2719 Jun 23 '11 at 22:18
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Aye, @Stan makes another good point. Sometimes there are little things here and there in a scene that just ARE "pure" black or white, not necessarily by choice but by nature. Worrying about technicals is really just a recipe for frustration...worry about your vision first, craft the shot according to your personal style second, and worry about technicals last. –  jrista Jun 23 '11 at 22:21
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Jrista summed it up pretty nicely, but I'll add some examples of my own to show just why you don't need to worry about highlights unless it's actually a requirement, for example, if a shot needs to have the sky within the dynamic range.

I think the first reason that it's not the biggest issues is because the simple fact is that digital sensors are simply nowhere near the dynamic range of the human eye. A lot of the time, you simply can't have both, and have to choose highlights or shadows or midtones based on the photo you want to take.

For example, the focus of this shot is the fact that I'm taking a photo of myself in the mirror. Obviously the inside is under shadow and is several stops darker than the sky and the environment outside, so I chose to expose for myself and the room I was in to bring your eye to me and the camera. This resulted in the outside being overexposed. I might have been able to do some underexposure and RAW file trickery but at the time, I simply decided to expose for myself and see what happens.

Mirror

A similar situation here. The "subject" is the statement, "Jack Lives Here" on the mug, so I decided to expose at +0 EV on the mug and whatever else happened, happened.

I'm sorry, Jack

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I think this goes back to (just like learning Jazz) you have to learn the rules before you break them. I was trained to not crush the blacks and no paper based whites... but sometimes a pictures just screams for some crushed blacks in the shadows. As long you can justify it from an artistic standpoint and you KNOW that they are crushed and not just randomly moving sliders around... i say go for... I know I sure do.

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Black and white is a prime example, as it lets you work contrast much more aggressively. It's not really black and white if you have no true black or true white!

So, if you have a shot that you feel doesn't make the grade in colour, try a B&W conversion. Avoid simple desaturation and go for Channel blending or Calculations for punchier results.

As dpollitt suggests, RAW can save your bacon and, in combination with a decent RAW processor, often lets you grab back just a little detail that you thought might have been lost.

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I would say it is always OK if you have no other option but to blow out highlights or underexpose shadows to get the shot. It is better to get the shot then to throw it out because lack of technical prowess.

A possible solution is to shoot RAW format, or shoot multiple exposure to get around the limitations of your equipment.

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The rules in photography are just basic guidelines.. they don't necessarily have to be followed to get a great picture (although they help to get good picture if you don't know what you are doing).

Some cases which I find it completely acceptable to have blown highlights/shadows:

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For portraits when dealing with a high contrast scene I often expose for the skin tones and let the rest be. This can produce some nice "high-key" photos.

For landscapes I try to avoid the blinkys by using a filter, because a white sky isn't interesting, but a blinky white sun can be.

I am similar to you in that I'm a recovering highlight-phobe, but it's OK, white and black are colours too and should be represented in photos!

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+1 for mentioning the "blinkies". The highlight warnings are in some ways more useful than a histogram, since they don't just tell you that there are clipped values, but where there are clipped values. –  user2719 Jun 24 '11 at 20:56
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White blown background is desirable on product shots, unless you want to show off your light tent.

Black shadow areas are normal in photos made in dark with little lighting, especially light paintings. Silhouettes look best when they are black.

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