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I really enjoy the quality of photos seen on the New York Times web page (although they often cover unpleasant topics).

A challenge I already faced on my own is the extreme contrast of sunshine images, eg in tropical regions, and I know the basic procedure to create an HDR-like look from RAW.

However, NYT often creates a very distinct look with those high-contrast images, such as (I might have seen even better examples before):

enter image description here
Protesters in Les Cayes, Haiti, surrounded a vehicle that had been burned in a previous demonstration, New York Times. Photo by Meredith Kohut.

What I can tell is, that they probably lower highlight values to get these details in the very bright areas. And they clamp quite a range of the darker end of color levels. But is there something else, some specific technique I miss? Can this look be created in post production, with camera just used in auto exposure mode?

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More photos by Meridith Kohut may be found at Getty Images. Most of her images there look like this. It seems she keeps the exact formula to herself, but I see:

  • Boosted shadows.
  • Excessive sharpening.
  • Under exposure (aka "expose to the right")
  • Mismatched saturation.

It seems you assume she uses HDR tonemapping techniques, but those usually have a different look, which some of her images use. They have reduced overall contrast, increased local contrast, and a significant halo.

The easiest way to achieve the effect seen in the sample image is to use a toy-camera mode. It is literally called "Toy Camera" on my camera. During a security check, a dial on my camera got moved, and I ended up with a series of images that looked like this.

If you can't find it, you can fiddle with other settings until you find something similar. On my camera (X-H1), the following seems close:

  • Film simulation: Negative High
  • Highlights: +2
  • Shadows: 0
  • Color: +4
  • Sharpness: +4
  • Noise Reduction: 0
  • Dynamic Range: 400%
  • Exposure Compensation: -1
  • White Balance: Auto

It's a bit more work to do on a computer. Adjust curves and boost details until you find settings you like. Then save them as an action. You can try the following process from PIXLS.US: Freaky Details (Calvin Hollywood):

  1. Duplicate the background layer.
  2. Invert the colors of the top layer.
  3. Apply “Surface Blur” to top layer.
  4. Set top layer blend mode to “Vivid Light”.
  5. New layer from visible.
  6. Set layer blend mode of new layer to “Overlay”, hide intermediate layer.
  • Thanks! I don't want to discuss about style and personal preferences here (also, I do see your point), but I'd like to mention, that this is not just an effect to be applied to an image: When making pictures in high-contrast scenarios, you have this huge dynamic range and you need to decide what you want to do with it. And once you decide to make a bit more of that range visible, you already left the path of natural colors. So, this is rather one possible solution for a problem I already faced than something totally optional. – philipp Nov 20 '19 at 12:17
  • Accepted this answer, mainly because I feel the author is important to be mentioned here. Maybe someone (more educated in photography than I am) could add the "expose to the right" camera setting here? – philipp Nov 20 '19 at 15:54
  • I'll fiddle with camera settings more and and a sample image later. – xiota Nov 20 '19 at 16:11
  • It's unlikely that a photojournalist who's a 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist is doing much post-processing to her images. – jeffronicus Nov 22 '19 at 22:42
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This picture, in addition to what was said, appears to take advantage of several properties of the scene and equipment:

-There was a very wide angle lens used, from very close. The distortion and small size of the pole pig transformer gives it away. Wide angle lenses tend to make sky look more brilliant, whyever they do (probably by making the clouds look tiny and sharp).

-The environment to the left appears to be full of naturally light absorbing items (deep shadows from that side on faces), the opposite being true of the right side (white wall there, maybe). Wait... the lighting from the right must be naturally complex (more clouds involved?), given how bright the white pants are and how dull the picket sign looks.

-This was shot at a very small aperture, given that motion blur was achieved in blazing sunlight. This helps greatly with increasing flare resistance and contrast from the lens

-Some people and things actually seem a bit darker in the upper half, which could hint at a graded ND being employed. There is also that polarizer look to the image...

  • It's far more likely any exposure gradient was done in post using masking techniques, if done at all. Pulling back the highlights while decreasing contrast and pushing the shadows can get much the same effect without having to bother with aligning the line on a graduated filter. There are too many things in front of the sky that are not also darkened. Due to the apparent wide angle of view and the direction of the shadows, it is doubtful a polarizer was used, as the sky would be darkened much more on the left side of the frame than the right. – Michael C Oct 23 '19 at 6:42
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  • Use a camera with a wide native dynamic range. This usually means a full frame camera. Although the same techniques can be used with smaller sensors, the results from single exposures will not allow as wide a difference between the highlights and the shadows.
  • Expose for the highlights. Set exposure so that the highlights are right on the verge of clipping without going over. Sometimes this technique is referred to as exposing to the right (ETTR) because the right side of an image histogram shows the brightest levels of an image.
  • Reduce general contrast, either with the in-camera settings before shooting or with raw files and post processing after the fact.
  • Boost shadows, either with in-camera settings before shooting or with raw files and post processing after the fact.
  • If the camera has a built-in "HDR" mode that can be applied to single exposures, the also use it. If the scene is static, one can choose to use a multi-exposure built-in "HDR" mode.

Obviously more advanced cameras, such as the Nikon D5 or the Canon 1D X Mark II that have more extensive in-camera contrast controls and allow adjusting the highlights and shadows independently of general contrast will allow better results when shooting straight to JPEG, as many press photographers are now required to do for "hard news" work.

Any reason to assume there was no polarizer and/or weak graded ND used for good measure in the picture shown?

It's far more likely any exposure gradient was done in post using masking techniques, if done at all. Pulling back the highlights while decreasing contrast and pushing the shadows can get much the same effect without having to bother with aligning the line on a graduated filter. There are too many things in front of the sky that are not also darkened. Due to the apparent wide angle of view and the direction of the shadows, it is doubtful a polarizer was used, as the sky would be darkened much more on the left side of the frame than the right.

Here's an example of an image where only adjusting contrast, highlights and shadows brings out the detail in the sky. No GND or polarizer needed. Using "HDR" tone mapping makes the effect even more pronounced.

What a straight out of camera JPEG with the camera set to use AWB, the Canon "Standard" Picture style, and both contrast and saturation at -1 (in camera setting) would look like. Lens correction and moderate sharpening which could have been applied in camera were also applied.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III + EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS @ 35mm. ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/400.
Processed with Canon's Digital Photo Professional 4

SOOC
SOOC contrast settings

The same raw file processed with the contrast settings shown below. Minor CT, WB, and HSL adjustments were also applied. "Standard" Picture Style and Lens Correction were the same. Sharpening was increased slightly.

Contrast adjustment
Contrast adjustment settings

Additional tone mapping done using the HDR module of Canon's DPP 4.

HDR
HDR

  • Any reason to assume there was no polarizer and/or weak graded ND used for good measure in the picture shown? – rackandboneman Oct 22 '19 at 21:13
  • It's far more likely any exposure gradient was done in post using masking techniques, if done at all. Pulling back the highlights while decreasing contrast and pushing the shadows can get much the same effect without having to bother with aligning the line on a graduated filter. There are too many things in front of the sky that are not also darkened. Due to the apparent wide angle of view and the direction of the shadows, it is doubtful a polarizer was used, as the sky would be darkened much more on the left side of the frame than the right. – Michael C Oct 23 '19 at 6:44
  • Sorry for being a bit unfair here: this post clearly gave me an important point about something I missed until now: The "expose to the right setting". However, I accepted an answer based on a more neutral perspective. – philipp Nov 20 '19 at 15:47

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