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Taming Contrast

Contrast is a picture killer!

When we look at a scene, we can see detail in most everything we look at. Our eyes can accurately see a scene where there is a 2,000 to 1 contrast ratio (equivalent to 11 f-stops).  Color film has a brightness range of about 8 to 1 (about 3 f-stops) and digital cameras can capture a brightness range of about 16-1 (about 4 f-stops) or about 64-1 (about 6 f-stops) when shooting RAW! 

If you were to view a scene that was brightly lit in one area and in shadow in another, your eyes would be able to discern detail in both of those areas.  The sensor in your digital camera, however, does not have that capability.  YOU must decide on an exposure for the part of the scene that you want to see detail in.  In doing that you will sacrifice the detail in the other part of the scene.  Taking pictures on a brightly-lit day is awful for photography!  Brightly lit sunny days are high-contrast and will always have deep shadows.  Cloudy light, on the other hand, provides a much lower contrast. The nice even lighting affords your sensor the ability to capture all of the details in most everything in the picture. 


How to photograph a sunset...

Sunrises and sunsets are the two hardest things to photograph.  Look at the scene to the right.  When I took this picture at dawn, I could easily see both the reflection in the water as well as the clouds in the sky.  But I knew that the camera couldn't.  The contrast between the sky and the water was far too much to be recorded.  I could have chosen to expose for the sky, but the water would have come out black - underexposed.  I could have exposed for the water, but then the sky would have been all washed out - overexposed.  What I did instead was FOOL the camera so that BOTH the sky and water came out with detail. Here's how...

 The Graduated Neutral Density Filter

This filter is clear on one half and has gradual shading on the other half.  It works best when photographing landscapes with bright skies or sunrises or sunsets.  The idea is that you place the dark half of the filter on the bright part of the scene - typically the sky.  That helps reduce the contrast ratio in the picture.  By darkening the sky, your exposure can now capture detail in BOTH dark and light areas because you've equalized the contrast.  This is an invaluable filter when taking landscape pictures.


There are two styles of this filter - circular and rectangular (as above).  The circular is relatively useless because it can't be maneuvered up or down in front of the lens, thus the dark area always starts in the middle of the frame (remember the "rule of thirds"?).  The "rectangular" version fits into a Cokin holder and looks like this when mounted on a lens:

As you can see, it slides along a groove so that the separation between the dark and light portions of the filter can be moved within the scene.  While looking thru the viewfinder, you can see the effect the filter has on the scene and can slide to to just the right place (you can't do that with the circular type).



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