PetaPixel

To Hell with Blown Highlights

Or: The Importance of Experimentation and Working the Scene

Here is a good example why it is so important to work the scene to get the best results from a shoot. We were camped on a 3000m ridge while photographing the majestic peaks of Trishul (7120m) and Nanda Ghunti (6309m) from Brahm Tal in the Garhwal Himalaya. I had just finished a sunrise shoot of the sweeping panorama before us. We spent two night on this ridge. I wrote more about this experience here.

This scene was directly to the east of us and once the sun rose over the ridge it was too bright to shoot in that direction.

Sunrise on Trishul (7120m) and Nanda Ghunti (6309m), Garhwal Himalaya (Click on the image for a larger version)

Sunrise on Trishul (7120m) and Nanda Ghunti (6309m), Garhwal Himalaya (Click on the image for a larger version)

We were in the process of breaking camp and just before I put away my camera gear for the long trek back to civilisation I decided to take a few shots of the camp. The first one was the one below which is a pretty standard documentary shot of the great little campsite we had perched high o the ridge. I say documentary as it faithfully records the position, setting of the camp, time of day and not too much else. What this shot doesn’t show is the massive Himalayan peaks in front of the tent, as shown in the panorama. This is because the sun was rising right over that ridge and I didn’t think I could capture that scene without blowing out all the highlights.

The photographer’s camp on the ridge. We got our water from the snow drift behind our tent.

The photographer’s camp on the ridge. We got our water from the snow drift behind our tent.

I wasn’t satisfied with the result as it wasn’t dramatic or moody enough so I though, ‘What the heck. I’ll shoot straight into the sun and see what I get’. I stepped around to the back of the tent and composed a shot with the tent in the foreground and the mountains in the background. The result blew me away. I didn’t just capture the scene, I captured the mood and the drama of the scene before us.

The photograph was the best shot I got that trip and one of my most successful shots overall. It has been published in a couple of magazines and on a few websites.

Dawn in the Himalayas, Wanderlust Magazine, May 2012

Dawn in the Himalayas, Wanderlust Magazine, May 2012

If I had stopped shooting earlier when I had taken my intended shot of the panorama and documented the scene of our campsite I would never have captured this much more dramatic image. The photograph of the panorama was planned but this, much more successful photograph, was accidental. A serendipitous result of experimentation and exploring all angles, even one that I wasn’t sure would work.

The lesson I learnt from this experience was to really work the scene, experiment, try every angle, be bold and sometimes shoot straight into the sun. Sometimes you have to say, “To hell with blown highlights!”.

Taken on my Nikon D700 and 24-70mm f2.8


About the author: Amar Dev Singh is an expedition leader, project manager, photographer and writer based in Melbourne, Australia. He has over 20 years of experience organizing expeditions and trips to remote and interesting parts of the world where he snaps stunning photographs that many of us only dream of. You can find him on his website, Facebook, Twitter, 500px and Google+. This article was originally published here.


 
  • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com/ Stan B.

    Since that is where the sun appears to be, one would only expect that particular area to be blown out. It looks natural, as it would normally appear on film, or even to the human eye. What definitely doesn’t look good, and you see it more now than ever with digital, is when the sky or other areas of a photo are blown out and it could have easily been tamed with film. It can really turn an otherwise exceptional looking photograph into one that is exceptionally hard to look at (particularly knowing what it could have been). Hopefully, the promise of organic sensors will solve this dilemma in the near future.

  • http://www.yeshenvenema.com/ Yeshen Venema

    I love the unpredictable nature of shooting into light sources, street lamps, torches, flames whatever… it’s as much about what’s not blown out, than what is.

  • Will Mederski

    I’ve learned similar strategies with product work.
    So often the image is going to have text / other content laid over it. (like the published image above)

    Getting the client to communicate their wants, that’s another story…

  • Brodey Lamarre

    you couldn’t tame that with film, it wouldn’t have it. The dynamic range of film is only fractionally wider than a decent digital sensor – 14 EVs digital, 15-16 EVs film. You could tame it with digital by widely bracketing and blending shots.

    actually, you could do that with film too but it’s a whole bunch easier with digital.

  • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com/ Stan B.

    And…. exactly where did I say it could???

  • syedmoindoja

    IIIIIIIIIInnnnnnndia!

  • Eugene Chok

    first photographer i worked for told me to expose for what you want and let it blow out, mind you it was for portraits so a blown out white doesn’t look bad, now i bad light i just put the sun on peoples backs, they themselves scrim off their face with their head and the sun creates a kicker/hairlight

  • http://sonaten.se/ Jonas N

    I think this is also a case where HDR would actually have a place. It’s usually abused, but if subtly using it, it can be used to bring out a fair amount of details in the highlights as well as shadows, without making it look artificial. But of course, a “plain” photo like this also illustrates strong sunlight that HDR kind of takes out in preference for details. You can ironically get the _perception_ of less dynamics that way when using a “high dynamic range”.

  • harumph

    “…when the sky or other areas of a photo are blown out and it could have easily been tamed with film.”

  • David Guerra

    I’m having such surprises with my Fujifilm XF1. Scenes with extreme dynamic contrast, shots with the sun in front and dark shadows, scenes which on the camera screen show big portions of the image as black, turn out to be perfectly exposed images when seen on the computer. It makes HDR processing totally redundant, in fact in some images the drawbacks of HDR also become visible, as some sort of oversaturation of colours, but overall it’s possible to get really great and surprising results on the full “EXR auto” mode.

  • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com/ Stan B.

    “What definitely doesn’t look good, and you see it more now than ever
    with digital, is when the sky or other areas of a photo are blown out
    and it could have easily been tamed with film.”

    Anyone that read that in my original statement will clearly see that that is Not in reference to the original photo being discussed here- as Brodey makes it appear. In fact, I state that the extreme depicted here would look pretty much the same- in film or… even to the human eye.

    This post is about letting go when shooting as far as latitude is concerned, and as of right now (as I also pointed out) that’s still easier done with film than digital. Bracketing for proper exposure in extreme conditions and then blending in post would be under a decidedly different post than “To Hell With Blown Highlights,” more like like: How To Methodically Bracket For Proper Highlights In Conditions Of Extreme Contrast And Meticulously Blend In Post.

  • harumph

    You’re misreading Brodey’s post…or misinterpreting his intent. He was responding directly to the portion you quoted in full above, and I did not read it as a reference to the original photo being discussed.

  • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com/ Stan B.

    Or he, and you… mine.

    As you yourself state, the portion of my comment you’re hung up on does not refer to this particular photo- it’s referring to digital photos in general with blown out highlights that could have been handled by film’s wider latitude. Granted some sensors are better than others, granted some films offer greater latitude than others, but generally speaking (non reversal) film still offers better and/or easier access to recovering highlights without excessive manipulation in post. I’m merely, simply stating… fact!

    “you couldn’t tame that with film, it wouldn’t have it.” —BL

    If he’s not referring to “that” photo above, he’s then passing definitive judgement on completely unseen, hypothetical examples- in that case, his statement is ludicrous from the get go.