How to Photograph Bright or Dark Subjects

Photographing a subject that is either completely dark or completely white has potential to produce some stunning photos. However, if you have ever attempted to photograph bright or dark subjects, you know that this is not as easy as it sound. There are several factors that make it difficult to photograph subjects that are mostly white or mostly black. Here are some of the challenges you may run into and some ideas on how to over come them.

Exposure

The camera’s built-in algorithms nearly always get the exposure wrong when the subject is all white or all black. If ambient light is too low, the camera can’t meter properly. When Jay was taking this photograph in Capital Reef National Park on a moonless night, the camera could not accurately measure the exposure. He wanted to show the Milky Way as it is visible to the human eye. So, he used the histogram to determine the proper exposure without the help of the meter. He made a guess at the setting that might work and took a single shot. Then he checked the histogram to see if the stars were bright enough – or too bright. He took several shots to determine the proper exposure.

Canyon Lands National Park, Utah

Canyon Lands National Park, Utah

Another challenge a scene like this poses is lighting the foreground object. There is enough light to capture the stars, but not enough light to capture the foreground. Jay used a headlamp to paint the foreground with a small amount of light. Once again, he used the histogram to decide how much light was right for painting the foreground. He wanted to add just enough to make the foreground visible, but not so much that the foreground appeared to be obviously artificially lit.

Night @ The Control Tower, Coyotte Buttes, Arizona

You can also use residual light from the sunset or even moonlight to light the foreground. Here is an image from Coyotte buttes where Jay combined moonlight and an artificial light to light the foreground. Most of the foreground is lit using moonlight, but Jay added a slight artificial light to illuminate the foreground.

Focusing

High or low key subjects are often characterized by low contrast. Accurately focusing is often difficult when  you don’t have high contrast edges to work with. This shot from Artist Paint Pots in Yellowstone National Park was a challenge for focus.

Artist Paint Pots, Yellowstone National Park

Artist Paint Pots, Yellowstone National Park

In order to get the shot he wanted, Jay set the focus to the correct distance using auto-focus. He then switched to manual focus mode to lock the focus. Once it was locked, he could take several shots of exploding mud bubbles and hope to catch one with interesting patterns.

How Much Contrast is Enough?

Once you overcome the challenges of exposure and focus, it’s time to think about post-processing. Default software settings often pump up the contrast to bring out rich colors and details. With a low contrast image, increasing the contrast can actually make a photo less appealing. For this shot of Skógafoss in Iceland, Varina actually reduced the overall contrast slightly for a more nature look.

Skogafoss, Iceland

Skogafoss, Iceland

White Balance

And then there’s white balance. This can get a little tricky… especially with wide-angle photography. The scene we’re working with here is actually relatively evenly lit, thanks to the full moon that painted the balanced rock with light. Beautiful. The problem is that the white balance for the sky is different than the white balance for the foreground. For this shot, Varina choose one white balance for the sky – making sure that the blue looked clean and natural. She chose a different white balance for the foreground, letting the color in the rocks take center stage. After processing the star-trails (that’s a whole different issue), she used layers and masks to fix the color of the rocks.

Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park, Utah

So, the next time you go photographing either a very bright or very dark subject, keep these ideas and techniques in mind and you will be sure to come away with some stunning photos. Feel free to share your struggles when photographing bright or dark subject in the comments below.

About Author Jay Patel

I could startoff like this – “Seeds of Jay Patel’s appreciation for beautiful places were planted early in his childhood….” but it would get boring really fast. I will just sum it up and say that I am a Landscape and Wilderness Photographer who loves to capture dramatic light. My photographs have been published in various magazines, calendars and advertising materials throughout the world.
Patience is a virtue...unless you are chasing your dreams