Many times (especially around midday), we encounter lighting situations where the contrast of the scene is too high to capture with a camera. What can we do to create a useful picture in such environment, besides completely blowing the highlights or shooting a silhouette?

Here, I went with the sky.


As others have stated the main options are fill flash or multi exposure. I thought I'd post this handy example I shot recently where I tried both techniques:

This is the result of using fill flash:


The flash was off camera and to the left, near the ground. I was intentionally trying to get a very dramatic lighting effect, had I used the flash on camera the shadows would be less dramatic and the light more even.

This is the result of two exposures manually merged into one file:


The fill flash shot is more effortlessly natural looking but the multi-exposure (or HDR if you prefer) definitely has more detail and is more striking. It's worth pointing out that whilst I could have done better with the flash I could also have done better with the exposure blending, this is just a quick job to prove a point.

In general the pros and cons of each method are

Fill flash

  • + Natural looking
  • + Can be done with film
  • + Can have movement in the scene
  • + Minimal post processing
  • - Only works for close subjects
  • - You may have to balance the colour of flash with ambient light
  • - Can be hard to get even lighting on your subject and avoid shadows
  • - Bright backgrounds mean you have to stop down lots or use an ND at you can't use a fast shutter (unless your flash has HSS)

Multi-exposure (HDR)

  • + More even lighting, no problems with shadows
  • + Striking images
  • + Can use any shutter speed
  • + Works with all subject, near and far
  • - Requires careful post processing to avoid halos, sickening contrast
  • - Other photographers will know you used HDR and secretly judge you ;)
  • - You can get weird colours in shadows due to secondary reflections.

This last point is worth expanding on. In my example the subject isn't being lit by direct sunlight. So where is the light coming from? Some of it is from other parts of the blue sky (refracting of particles in the upper atmosphere and turning blue), a small amount is bouncing off the clouds (which had almost gone by this point) but a significant amount of it is bouncing off the green grass in front of the subject.

If you boost the shadows too much using HDR, you can get colour shifts, as the shadows by definition aren't lit by direct light, only by light that has already bounced off other surfaces and picked up their colours!

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    haha, do photographers really frown upon hdr? I really like hdr shots a lot. The reflection in the guitar in this hdr shot is really nice. Oh, and great answer! +1. – Tom Jan 26 '11 at 2:32
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    I personally think the HDR looks much more realistic, since in real life people aren't magically illuminated strongly with the light source behind them (unless they have the superpower of partial transparency). I would mention as a con that if the subject is not totally still you can get weird partial artifacts. – Kendall Helmstetter Gelner Jan 26 '11 at 2:58
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    HDR is great when it is done to simulate ONLY the high dynamic range of the human eye. Those weird effects people think are HDR just mess up the whole stereotype. In reality all HDR is meant to be is expanding the dynamic range of your camera via a multi-exposure. Viewing dark and bright areas in an analogous way to how we see things. – Nick Bedford Jan 26 '11 at 3:07
  • If you don't mind, how did you have your flash set up in the first shot? i.e. how tight was it zoomed, I assume it was close to the subject, and was it gridded? Thx. Good looking photographs. – ThatSteveGuy Jan 26 '11 at 15:36
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    @ThatSteveGuy cheers. The flash was resting on a bag about a foot off the ground. It was zoomed to 75mm, no light modifiers, full power. Overpowering the sun at 1/250s is difficult with a single flash hence the need to zoom. – Matt Grum Jan 26 '11 at 16:03

The obvious (in the particular example you gave) is to use a fill flash. Then, I'd shoot RAW so I can preserve more tonal information for working on in post. Last, comes HDR, but I never did that myself. In the case of too bright skies, you can try to use a polarizer to reduce the amount of light from the background while still keeping the details (and even enhancing its looks).

If you can control the scene itself, move the subject to a different place maybe, where it is more lit and thus reducing the exposure difference to the background.

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    Don't bet on the RAW for (so much higher) dynamic range, but the rest of your arguments are valid. – Leonidas Jan 25 '11 at 21:44
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    @Leonidas - In order to squeeze every bit of dynamic range in this stressful situation, I think the RAW over JPEG is certainly preferable. – ysap Jan 25 '11 at 21:48
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    Raw files will be easier to manipulate, but the dynamic range of the sensor is fixed for a given ISO, so a correctly exposed and (in-camera-)processed jpeg will be as good/bad as the original raw. – Max Sang Jan 25 '11 at 22:19
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    Yes, but you never get to do anything with that JPEG. Let's not start a RAW vs JPEG war. – Nick Bedford Jan 25 '11 at 22:23
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    A 14-bit RAW image contains 64 times the amount of detail than a JPEG. That is crucial when working with darker photos where you wish to make that detail visible. In a JPEG if the pixel value is less than 10 (out of 255), that could actually represent anywhere from 0 to 640 in a RAW pixel value. This detail allows a shadowy pixel to be brought up in exposure without significant compromise to it's aesthetics. That being said, JPEG is tone curved and RAW is linear so it's a rough guide. – Nick Bedford Jan 25 '11 at 23:26

Fill flash can work although you should try and use a gel to balance the color of the light with daylight...

I am partial to reflectors, because then you are using the same light. Even just a small one might have worked for the shot you were taking there.

Also make sure to meter to the right, and as ysap noted use RAW... push the exposure as far to the right as you can and then you can usually recover a good deal of shadow detail using Photoshop or other editing tools.

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    Metering to the right (ETTR) is really only useful at the lowest ISO setting. A +1 overexposure at ISO 200 is exactly the same (and possibly less optimal) than +0 at ISO 100. See chromasoft.blogspot.com/2009/09/… – Nick Bedford Jan 25 '11 at 22:25
  • Might want to clarify that by "balance" you're referring to the color of the fill light, not the level with respect to the ambient. – Craig Walker Jan 25 '11 at 23:19
  • @nick: true, but since the example was outdoors with strong lights I figured he would be shooting at a low ISO anyway. @craig: I edited the answer to mention the color temperature for clarity. – Kendall Helmstetter Gelner Jan 26 '11 at 3:00

Depending on the scene, another option would be a graduated neutral density filter. For landscapes, in particular, this would allow you to decrease the intensity of the sky while maintaining intensity for the foreground. There are various strengths available, so the amount of filtering will depend on the actual scene, time of day, etc. This works well when the dividing lines are relatively even and can be lined up with the filter.

For the example you gave, as others noted, it's a classic fill situation for a flash which would have no effect on the background, but would light the subject. Alternatively, a reflector can be used to direct the light on to the subject, a very common technique for staged shooting outdoors, but in most cases I'd suspect that you're more likely to have a flash available than a large reflector. Mind you, any light surface can potentially act as a reflector, so you don't necessarily need to a store bought one to pull it off.


This is my attempt to summarize various ways this can be handled:

  • You can reduce the contrast by lighting up shadow areas by fill flash (on- or off-camera). This required having a flash, and if you use on-camera one the resulting areas (faces) may look a bit flat if on-camera flash is the only light source. You also may run into color correction issues (neutral daylight flash vs. slightly orange evening sun). See Matt's answer for example.

  • A well-positioned reflector can light shadow areas with reflected light of your main source. For this you need a reflector and something/someone to hold it in place. [Kendall]

  • Sometimes it's best to change the scene completely and perhaps shoot a portrait in the shadow instead of in the midday sun. Or wait for more favorable time of day. [ysap]

  • Especially in landscape photography, a graduated ND filter can be used to darked top part of image with bright sky. [John]

  • Shooting RAW might help use more of your sensor's dynamic range and later use some of the in post-processing. [ysap]

  • Finally, you can shoot several pictures, and combine them into one tone-mapped HDR photo. This can be done either manually or with various automatic tools and settings. Matt's answer provides a tone-mapped alternative to fill-flash photo.

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