Dealing with High Contrast Subjects

Because of the limited dynamic range of current digital photo sensors, there are more special techniques and proposed software solutions to the problem of dealing with high-contrast subjects than almost any other issue in digital photography.

One very useful feature in this regard is Adobe Camera Raw's Highlight Recovery feature that is specifically designed to pull any detail that there may be in what otherwise appear to be totally clipped highlights.

For this feature to work, your highlight values can't be more than one quarter to one stop beyond the range of the histogram and there has to be room to darken your shadow values without losing valuable image information. In other words, this is a remedy for overexposed photographs that aren't too far beyond the dynamic range of your sensor.

The following detail shows that the highlights in this image are blown out and the red and blue spikes at the right edge of the histogram shows that these channels are clipped.

FIGURE 114 Detail — high-contrast digital image — before highlight recovery exposure adjustment.

Moving the Exposure Adjustment to the left, the image gets darker and the detail is recovered in the highlight areas.

FIGURE 115 Detail — high-contrast digital image — after highlight recovery exposure adjustment.

Moving the Brightness Slider to the right and the Shadow slider to the left makes the middle and shadow values lighter but the highlights retain their detail.

After a few other small adjustments to the color temperature and saturation, the result is a greatly improved image that can now be converted into a form that can be fine-tuned and edited in Photoshop.

FIGURE 116 High-contrast digital image after highlight recovery exposure adjustment.

Remember that this process only works on images shot in raw format.

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