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Highlight and Shadow Detail
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Introduction

Casual photographers are always worrying about highlight and shadow detail.

Today, beginners are all screwing with HDR, a method almost guaranteed to leave you with a boring gray image.

With film, film manufacturers are always advertising that every new film has greatly improved shadow or highlight detail.

When things were tough, they'd claim that both highlights and shadows were better.

Look at old magazines, and half the ads are from printing paper or chemical companies, pushing their new products as having miraculously better highlight or shadow detail!

This has been going on for over 100 years!

If you think I'm kidding, just go read some old magazines. Pitching "better highlights" to casual photographers is as old as pitching "smoother complexions" to women.

 

Inspiration

I was watching some old movies from the 1930s, and noticed how even back in those days that they had perfect shadow and highlight detail in every scene, be it daylight, back light, side light, indoors, moonlight, low light, candle light, or whatever.

Check out Mohawk Valley, shot in Technicolor in 1939, or The Plainsman, shot in black-and-white in 1937. These aren't even technical masterpieces; they just happened to be old Indian movies we were watching as I noticed this.

An indoor scene with a door open to the outside world? Perfect detail everywhere. The same thing, but moonlight outside reflecting off a river seen as through a window while the actors are indoors at night? Again, perfect!

No matter how tough the light, they always had perfect shadows and perfect highlights, be it in color or in black-and-white.

How can this be? There must be at least 15 stops of dynamic range needed, and film was primitive in those days.

Of course the movies have always had perfect highlights and shadows. How? Why? Because they are shot by real photographers, typically ASC members, who know how to light a scene.

When shooting a movie, you spend a couple of days lighting each set and each scene. You bring four generator trucks and eight trucks of lighting and grip equipment, and have at it. You'll scrim, gel, gobo and reflector everything until you go blind.

In the end, you get perfect results, even if it was the 1930s.

Photographers know how to get perfect highlight and shadow detail in every shot, regardless of the light — or lack thereof — while hobbyists freak out and start buying more equipment, like pro digital backs claiming "18 stops dynamic range," which has nothing to do with getting good highlight and shadow detail.

It is always the photographer who is responsible for highlights and shadows, not the Great Spirit inside a new camera.

Thus inspired this article.

 

Modus

Here's how to get perfect highlights and shadows.

Quite simply stated, one gets perfect highlights and shadows when the lighting of the subject matches the dynamic range of the medium.

The way one gets better highlights or shadows is to be sure to light the subject in such a way that the highlights come out exactly as bright as the ability of the medium to represent them, and that likewise, the shadows are just dark or light enough to look dark, but with detail, with whatever medium you are working.

You have to match the luminance range of the subject to the dynamic range of the medium. If they don't match, you lose highlights, shadows, or both. If you alter the dynamic range of one to match the other, it looks great.

Pro shooters, be it motion pictures, television, portrait or studio pros, always modify the lighting. Highlights blown out? Shade the subject with a scrim (dark or light cloth). Shadows too dark? Use a reflector, or add another 2kW of lighting. In still photography, pop up your flash to lighten the shadows.

Do you want to know the easiest way to tame harsh light? Press the HDR button; every camera has one! It looks like a bent letter "I," also called the flash bolt. Pop up the flash, and it lights the dark parts of the subject much more than the highlights, improving both ends of the range as the camera adjusts exposure to the greater light level.

Hobbyists get this backwards. They're the first ones to try to "fix" things later, which doesn't work, instead of fixing the lighting before they shoot.

The worst you can do is to increase the dynamic range of your medium to match a harshly-lit subject. Why? Because increased dynamic range means less contrast everywhere, leading to flat, boring gray images.

Do you know how Hollywood gets the world outside a window and the actors inside all to look perfect? Hollywood tapes neutral-density gels (gray sheets of plastic bought by the roll) over the windows to knock down the outside lighting. Colored gels are used as needed to match the white balance between inside and outside.

Scrims are almost always used to shade a subject in direct sunlight. Direct sunlight is too harsh on people's faces. A scrim is usually cloth with a lot of fine holes in it. Scrim cloth comes in various colors and transparencies so photographers can use the right kind to let just the right amount of sunlight hit their subject.

100 years ago, we gave more exposure and less development to tame harsh light. It also lowered overall contrast. Today, the less skilled practice HDR, also resulting in flat, gray images.

Fix the light, not the medium. How do you know when it's perfect? By shooting tests, looking at the results, and adjusting as needed.

Do you know why the LEICA was invented? Because it was developed from little cameras Leitz made to be used alongside movie cameras for shooting short "clip tests," without having to cut film from the larger magazine in the movie camera.

To get perfect highlights and shadows for still photography, either pop up your flash or do something to add light to the shadows before you press the shutter.

Ever see a professional model shoot outdoors? There always is someone holding a scrim over the model to reduce the highlights, and another assistant holding a reflector to put light into the shadows. Those aren't fans to cool the model.

Attempting to jack around poorly-lit images in the computer always results in images much worse than if you fixed the light first, as do the pros.

Good lighting throws more light into the shadows, which lets us see even more details than if we simply lighten them later, either in HDR, Photoshop, or traditional darkroom developing and printing.

This is why you'll see a small city of scaffolding built around every movie set. It's all there to hold the lights and the light modifiers. Movies need all that artificial lighting just to make the shots look as if they were shot with no light.

This is the same today as it was over 100 years ago.

 

Moral

The key to great highlights and shadows is always to modify the light to look great with whatever system you're shooting.

Digital is easy: just look at your camera's LCD and tweak the light until it looks great. With film, you need to run tests and fly from former experience.

Spending money on new cameras or software is never productive. Good photographers got great results a hundred years ago.

Learn how to light a subject, which often is as simple as popping up your flash or using a reflector to fill in dark areas.

Depend on crutches like HDR or Photoshop and only by dumb luck will you get good images in between all the boring gray ones.

Modify the light well and you'll get perfect results every time.

 

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Thanks for reading!

Ken

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