Photo tip - How to deal with burnt out skies and contrast

31st December 2008
Have you ever taken a photo where the sky is too bright, giving you a glaring white featureless mass at the top of your photo? Something like this perhaps?

Perhaps that jaw-dropping sunset you photographed has not been captured in quite the way you’d hoped? I can tell you why it’s happening and what you can do to correct it – assuming you have an SLR camera.

Your camera can only take a light reading from one area of the scene (spot metering), or average out the total brightness of the scene (evaluative or matrix metering). If there is a large difference in contrast between the brightest area and the darkest area then you will only be able to expose correctly for one or the other.

There are a number of different solutions to the problem, each with their own pros and cons.

These are clear filters that you attach to the front of your camera lens to help balance the brightness in the scene. They are specifically used for balancing the contrast between the sky and the landscape. At the top of the filter the filter is more opaque and blocks more of the light coming through, while the bottom of the filter is clearer, therefore balancing the light throughout the scene.

You can purchase filters of different types – some go from dark to light gradually, while others have a defined line between the opaque and clear areas. Neither type is better as different professional photographers favour each depending upon taste. You can also buy them with varying contrasts, so some have a very dark top while others are only slightly darker at the top than the bottom. The choice available is obviously because not all skies are the same brightness.

I would recommend Lee and Cokin filters if you want good quality filters with excellent clarity.

The only drawbacks with these filters – apart from the cost – is that sometimes you will be faced with a scene that has high contrast that isn’t neatly positioned at the top and bottom, or in a linear fashion. A bright window at the side of your composition would be one example, or perhaps a sunlit waterfall with darker trees either side. In these situations the filters will not be as effective. This brings me onto option 2.

HDR software is all the rage at the moment as it allows you to combine three different exposures – a correct exposure, an under-exposed shot and an over-exposed shot. The under-exposed shot will ensure that the bright skies and windows are nicely captured while the over-exposed shot brings out the detail in all those darker areas. You will also find that the software can give your images some lovely colours and textures that seem to be even better than the reality. The photo above with the washed out sky is now much more vibrant after the HDR treatment:

But this benefit comes with a warning that I shall touch on in a moment.

HDR is extremely easy to use and considering the price of most photographic equipment it’s actually pretty reasonable. You can download the software here for $99 which worked out at about £60 when I bought it.

The benefits of HDR are great, but there are a couple of things to bear in mind. Although you can get some great colours and textures with HDR – as I mentioned earlier – it is easy to fall into the trap of tweaking the HDR effects too much, resulting in an image that looks too luminous and gaudy like this:

So while you are merging the images pay attention to the various sliders and options that come with the software and tailor them so that you get a pleasing but not unrealistic effect. The only real problem with HDR is when you are photographing things that are moving. With 3 different exposures – particularly if you’re using slow shutter speeds – the subject will be in a different position for the last shot than it was in the first. The software can correct a small amount of movement but if there is too much you end up with weird ghosting.

There have been billions of wonderful photos that have been taken without any filters or software to jazz them up. If you have a high contrast sunset you can expose for the sky which will create silhouettes of anything dark on the landscape. Recognisable outlines with a defined structure work best for silhouettes. Alternatively you could photograph the sky against some city lights that will brighten the landscape, therefore reducing the contrast.

The great Ansel Adams is much lauded for his impressive landscape shots, but some of his photos have partially burnt out skies. However, it doesn’t matter because the composition, subject, lighting and everything else meant that it was a great picture anyway.

There are many ‘rules’ in photography but sometimes breaking them is OK, as long as the end result looks good and you’re happy with it.

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