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Exposing for Highlights

While people rush to buy the latest cameras with the highest dynamic ranges and the latest software that’ll allow simulation of the highest dynamic range possible, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, it helps to remember that every limitation can also be a beautiful creative constraint.

On the beach in Moeraki recently, and disappointed by the bright sunlight and apparent lack of mood I took advantage of the fact that my sensor can’t capture all the light that’s there. Not remembering to take a reference photograph, it’s hard to show you what things looked like but I can show you what it felt like to me because I was looking at the sun sparkling on the sand and to do that I had to allow everything else to go dark.

The technique is simple: expose for the highlights, the bands of light that would otherwise be too bright if I had exposed for the rest of the scene. The result is a histogram that preserves the details in the brightest places and allows the shadows to go to black, the reverse of what one might instinctively do in this scene. Or underexpose the scene by about 4-5 stops. Just keep going until the histogram shows no lost details in the important highlights (or fewer of them) – for me that was the parts of the image where the sun was rim-lighting the rocks or reflecting most directly on the sand. What I was drawn to was the elegant tones and texture of the sun directly hitting the sand, and this was a beautiful way of showcasing those. The results are rich and moody, shot directly as black and white images using the Acros film emulation on my Fuji X-T2. No filters, no post-processing other than a few nudges in Snapseed on my iPhone, just elegant, dramatic, black and white using old-school underexposure.

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