Travel photography: Tips and tricks for high-contrast motifs

Summertime is travel time and therefore also boom time for nature and travel photography. But who doesn't know this: the beautiful idyllic old town alley is either partly lost in shadow or the sky and the roofs are overexposed when you look at it at home. For many amateur photographers, and this happens to some extent also to experienced photographers, this is a disappointment, because the shot does not correspond in any way to what was seen.

But how do you get particularly high-contrast motifs with a contrast range of approx. Get a grip on 14-15 f-stops?

Many subjects in travel and landscape photography have a strong contrast. Our eye can compensate high contrasts to a certain extent by adaptation. The contrast range (= dynamic range) of a digital camera's image sensor is very limited, just like the dynamic range of monitors, photographic paper or printed matter. A contrast range of the motif of approx. 8-9 f-stops can be displayed without problems. For an experienced photographer, who exposes exactly and possibly uses a calibrated monitor, a contrast range of 10-11 f-stops should not be too big a problem. But how do you get particularly high-contrast subjects with a contrast range of approx. 14-15 f-stops under control? There are many of these "problem subjects" in travel photography: Backlight shots, but also motifs such as idyllic sunsets at the sea or landscapes in the high mountains have high contrasts.

An important rule is to avoid strong contrasts in the first place. Many professional photographers shoot landscapes exclusively in the early morning hours or late afternoon to evening, because the light is much softer during this time. Long shadows are avoided when the sun is at the photographer's back. When taking backlight shots, make sure to position the main subject in front of a dark background, as in this case the high contrast will only be noticeable as a bright light fringe around the main subject. Long shadows can be very appealing, but you should make sure that the shadows have enough drawing. Depending on the camera model, the contrast range of the subject can be checked either by contrast measurement or histogram. If the contrast range is higher than 10 or 11 f-stops, the techniques described below should be used.

Graduated filter

A classic aid for high-contrast landscape photography, such as motifs in high mountains, is the graduated filter. This allows the sky to be exposed accurately, while at the same time the subject in the foreground receives enough light and is not underexposed. Graduated filters are available in neutral gray, but also in different colors, mostly in yellow or orange gradations. Graduated filters were indispensable, especially in analog landscape photography. Digital photography offers other possibilities through bracketing, HDR and RAW push, so that the graduated filters have lost some of their importance nowadays.

Bracketing/HDR

Bracketing (automatic exposure bracketing) and HDR are based on the idea of getting a grip on strong contrasts with different exposures. With HDR, exposure bracketing is done by the camera, whereas with bracketing, the exposure bracketing has to be manually edited and merged in an image processing program later on. With HDR, the resulting image often has a somewhat artificial, sometimes even relief-like character. The bracketing method is more time-consuming, but with a little practice you will get optimal results. Modern cameras offer sophisticated bracketing functions: you can select the number of exposure series, but also set the deviation of the exposure with an accuracy of one-third f-stops. As a starting point, an exposure series of 3 images with a deviation of one aperture each is recommended. A tripod is not necessarily required for the exposure bracketing, since the image can also be captured with the bracketing tool (e.g. 6 or 8 frames/second) can be captured. The camera automatically takes the set number of shots with the selected exposure compensation (in this example 3 images -1/0/+1 aperture). In the image editing program, the exposure series can be automatically superimposed as layers and positioned exactly. In the last step, the exposure series are copied into each other using suitable selection tools. The advantage: the photographer has the contrast range completely under control, in extreme cases up to, for example, 7 exposures with one-third aperture exposure differences each. The disadvantage: depending on the subject, this method can be very time-consuming, and this method is not suitable for moving subjects (surf, strong wind and trees, people in the picture).

Example photo, fishing boats at sunset, Lake Malawi: Autobracketing, 3 exposures -1/0/+1 EV, manually combined in Photoshop

RAW Push

Modern sensors of digital cameras offer an unbelievable RAW dynamic range of up to almost 15 f-stops. This is achieved by an extremely low image noise, so that shadow areas can be brightened ("pushed") very strongly without the image quality suffering extremely. It is important to note that this only applies to RAW images, so anyone who only uses JPEG images cannot benefit from this. The procedure is very simple: the image is exposed on the highlights, which leads to sometimes considerably underexposed shadow areas in case of very strong contrasts. With the RAW converter now only the shadows are lightened, and if necessary even up to 4-5 f-stops. The result is a correctly exposed image with good drawing in the highlights and in the shadows, so comparable to the bracketing method. The advantages: the method is very simple, no tripod is needed, no bracketing is necessary, and moving subjects can be captured (which is especially interesting for wildlife photographers). But there are also disadvantages: The full dynamic range of up to almost 15 f-stops is only available at ISO 100; at higher ISO values, the usable dynamic range decreases quite quickly. Due to the deliberate underexposure, the control image on the camera is usually very dark and it is therefore recommended to additionally take a normally exposed image as a control for possible later color corrections. The biggest disadvantage of this method: when you look closely (100% view), you will notice that the shadow areas have a higher noise level than the highlights of the image due to the pushing process. In general, this is not too big a problem, but you may have to accept that image agencies may reject images in extreme cases due to excessive partial noise, even though the image appears to be perfectly fine when viewed normally.

The techniques described are the daily tools of professional landscape photographers, but with a little practice, any amateur photographer can also implement these tips quite easily. The important thing is to develop a feeling for the contrast range of the subjects. Modern cameras support the photographer with aids such as histograms or over- and underexposure warnings. In this way, nothing should stand in the way of a relaxed trip, and any later disappointments about incorrect exposures with high-contrast subjects will hopefully be a thing of the past.

About Dietmar Temps:

Dietmar Temps is a graduate media and photo engineer as well as a trained photographer with more than 20 years of professional experience in the media industry. He lives in Cologne, Germany. His first professional steps in photography he could collect as a photoassistant in whole Europe as well as in America. Afterwards he studied photo and media technology at the Technical University of Cologne. Currently his main focus is on the realization of photo and internet projects with a strong focus on travel photography, social networking and video streaming.
On his travel blog he writes about his photo trips to the most beautiful places on earth, which he has undertaken in the past years. Among them were many trips to Africa, South America and Asia.
On his website you will find numerous photo series of his photographic work which has been published in coffee table books, magazines and travel blogs.

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