How Contrast Can Ruin a Landscape Photo

The next time your landscape photos don't turn out exactly as you would expect, try not to blame your camera too much.

Picture this: you're on a hike and come upon a spectacular view where the land meets the sky. When you look at the scene, you can see the deep blue color of the sky as well as the color of the leaves on the trees.

You take out your digital SLR to capture a shot of this majestic scenery, but something unexpected happens. When you check the photo on the LCD, you see the color of the leaves but the sky looks almost white!

You re-compose your landscape photo and try again. This time the sky is a beautiful blue color, but the trees look almost black – they've lost all of their color!

No matter how much you fiddle with the settings on your camera, you just can't get both sky and trees looking the way you see them with your eyes. Disappointed, you give up.

But here's an important point to remember the next time this happens: this problem is not your fault as a photographer.

You've just run into the fact that your camera has a limited dynamic range.

High Contrast Sunset

Technology vs. Biology

I studied biology in college, and came to the following conclusion: the human body is a miraculous thing. Everything that we take for granted – sight, sound, taste – is the result of millions of things working in perfect harmony.

This is made even more evident when we try to artificially re-create abilities that come to us naturally. Every time you take a picture with your digital SLR camera, in some way you're trying to capture a still image of the world that you see with your eyes.

Here's the problem with that: your eyes are remarkable devices, capable of seeing detail in all kinds of light, from the bright mid-day sun to the darkest part of the night.

Your eyes can also see details when there is extreme contrast between dark and light, also known as shadows and highlights.

Unfortunately, your digital SLR doesn't see the world exactly the same way you do.

The Contrast Challenge

In all of the following situations, there is a lot of contrast:

  • You're in a forest meadow, where half the meadow is in bright sunlight and the other is in the shadow of the trees
  • You're surrounded by high-rise office buildings and the afternoon sun hits some but not the others
  • You're watching the sun set over a ridge of trees

A general rule of thumb is that any time you are taking pictures in full sunlight there's a LOT of contrast. Shadows will be deep and dark, and highlights will be very bright.

Put another way: if you're wearing sunglasses, then you've got extreme contrast.

Under these conditions, the difference between the shadows (dark) and highlights (bright) is substantial. The range of brightness values from the darkest shadow to the brightest highlight is called the dynamic range.

Now, any time the dynamic range of the scene exceeds what your camera can capture one of two things will happen:

  1. Highlights will be too bright in your photo OR
  2. Shadows will be too dark

Let's take a look at some photographic examples of each one of these situations. This first image has good shadow detail, but the highlights are much too bright.

In this second photo, the highlights are well-exposed but those shadows are REALLY dark.

How Can I Fix This?

Limited Dynamic Range is a problem with EVERY digital SLR camera - not just yours.

Unfortunately, you can't correct this problem when you take a landscape photo. You can correct it LATER using software, but that's a topic for a different article.

Here's what's going on: the contrast in the landscape that you are trying to photograph exceeds the range of contrast your camera can capture (also known as dynamic range).

Don't think that this is just a problem with the camera you bought: limited dynamic range is an issue with every single digital SLR.

Cameras with full frame sensors like the Canon 6D and Nikon D600 have a bit more dynamic range than cameras with crop-frame sensor, but they are still no match for what your eyes can see.

Any time you're taking a picture where there is more dynamic range than your camera can handle, you have to accept that either the sky will be too bright or the ground will be too dark.

Testing for Extreme Dynamic Range

So how can you tell if the dynamic range in the landscape before you goes beyond what your camera can capture?

Here's a simple test that will help you find out:

  1. Set your camera to full Manual (M) mode
  2. Look through the viewfinder and press halfway on the shutter release button: you should see a scale with -2 (or -3) on one end and +2 (or +3) on the other – this is your exposure scale
  3. Still looking through the viewfinder, compose your photo so that the dividing line between lands and sky is right through the middle of the viewfinder
  4. Adjust the shutter speed and lens aperture manually (press halfway on the shutter release if the scale disappears) until the marker on the exposure scale is right at zero
  5. Now, tilt the camera up so that it's pointed a the sky and press down halfway on the shutter release
  6. Do this same step with the camera pointed at the ground

If you see the indicator leap up to +2 when you aim the camera at the sky and down to -2 when you point it at the ground, then you've got a situation where your camera can't capture the contrast in the landscape.

In this case, you'll just have to capture the best landscape photo you can get and – if possible – try again another day when the contrast isn't quite so extreme.

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