My subject was sitting next to a lit table lamp casting a dramatic yellowish tint on part of my subject's face. Loving the mix of light and shadow, I went ahead to photograph it with my Nikon D5300 having a 50mm/f1.8 lens on. However, the classical problem of cameras not having a wide dynamic ranged was a bummer. To have a proper exposure of my subject's face, I had to overexpose to the extent where the lamp appeared to be a burning ball of fire. If I would underexpose it, subject's face went into total dark. Is stitching multiple images at different exposure as in HDR the only option to capture such a shot? Will the environmental drama still be there? What's the most correct way to capturing such an image?

The image I had in mind is something like this, but instead of candle; there was a lamp which is a stronger source of light.

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4 Answers 4


Is stitching multiple images at different exposure as in HDR the only option to capture such a shot?

You have lots of options. Here are a few:

  • Move the subject closer to the lamp, increasing the intensity of light hitting the subject, and decreasing the difference between subject and lamp.

  • Frame the shot to exclude the brightest part of the lamp, but including part of the (probably much dimmer) lampshade for context.

  • Frame the shot to exclude the lamp entirely. If the shadows on the subject are the interesting part of the shot, viewers will understand that there was a light nearby.

  • Replace the lightbulb with one that's not so bright.

  • Add light to the subject. A speedlight with appropriate gel and modifiers could help you increase the light on the subject while keeping the shadows you want.

  • Get a smaller lamp. Notice that the candle flame in your example shot is blown out and literally a "burning ball of fire." It's not necessarily the intensity of the lamp so much as the size -- you don't want half your image to be blown out.

  • Partly surround the bulb with a gel to cut its brightness. Use a neutral density gel to just reduce the brightness, or a colored gel to play up the golden color you want, or a combination of both. Leave the side of the bulb facing the subject bare, so that the gel cuts the light shining on the camera but not that hitting the subject.


You could use a graduated neutral-density filter. This is a simple way to "compress" the dynamic range of the light intensity.

Another approach is to use fill lights to decrease the difference in intensity between the light source and the subject.


Any time you have a visible, compact light source and something solely illuminated by that light source in the frame but slightly away from that source, that will overwhelm the camera's sensors. You will not be able to properly expose the subject (the thing being lit) and the light source at the same time. The reason is simple physics. If a particular 1-square-inch point is emitting 100 units of light at both the camera and the subject, that light dissipates as the square of the distance. So ten inches away, only 1 unit of light is hitting a one-inch-square portion of the subject's face, and only a fraction of that is actually reflected. That maximal 100:1 ratio of light is already going to be very hard to expose for; if your subject is instead three feet away (36 inches), you will instead have a 1296:1 ratio of light between the bulb and the subject's face if your camera is equally far from each (which is necessary if you want to use selective focus without a tilt/shift lens and want the source and subject to both be sharp focus as in the example).

The ways around this are fairly well described in the answer by Caleb, although a "dimmer bulb" is not going to help (still the same ratio in effect, you just will have a longer exposure to get it).

I would generally either exclude the light source somehow, shade it from the camera (an ND filter although that may have too-obvious artificial effects, or adjust the shade on the lamp, or as Caleb suggests last wrap the camera-facing side of the bulb in a gel to reduce how much light it sends to the camera, or put a gauze curtain up if you are okay changing the composition as in a portrait session), or make it an interesting reverse-silhouette. The example works well not because the flame is properly exposed, but because the candle flame is an interesting enough shape to stand in frame without distracting (and the judicious use of selective focus, eyes, and contrast on the right side of the frame absolutely help in keeping the eye from wandering far). You might get a similar effect from a clear bulb with an interesting filament arrangement.

Having a "fill" light is a little more advanced (and to my eye the shadows in the example appear to show that a shaped fill light was used, although I might be overanalyzing it). The important thing is that the fill light needs to match the temperature of the light source - a daylight flash, even soft-boxed, will destroy the soft yellow glow of an incandescent or flame. It also needs to affect the subject without affecting the rest of the scene, and also not reveal a harsh transition between the fill light and the portrait light.

In the example, I believe that a fill light was used, just off to the left and slightly elevated out of frame. The "fill" light is essentially hitting the subject at the same angle as the candle flame (although the mismatch is evident in the child's arm which seems overly-lit for a candle light alone).

Compositing tricks can also be used. HDR is one of these, but you could also try frame-stacking. I'd always prefer an in-camera effect to post-processing, though; generally such photos turn out more real-looking than post-processed. Still, you can get a good realistic look using HDR, if done correctly and without a bunch of "local contrast" applied.


Two things you can do:

1) Add more light.. if this is a posed situation just because they are sitting by a light doesn't mean that's the only light that should impact them. Put another light source like a diffused flash on that side (not where the light will shadow on them) and fake it.

2) Maybe you are doing this already, but if not, shoot RAW instead of JPG. When you shoot JPG, the camera is taking all the data and running it through a number of systems to decide what slice of the data is what is going to represent the image.. then it throws all the other slices of data away. In RAW, you get ALL the data and you can decide what to do with it. It's pretty amazing how much data is lurking in the shadows or a raw file, and in post production boosting those shadows may give you the picture you are looking for.


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