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The Role of Highlights and Shadows in Photography

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

The contrast of a photograph can make all the difference. The meeting of darker tones and lighter tones create drama and mood that can capture the eye and make the image memorable.

Contrast greatly relies on shadows and highlights. Shadows are the darker parts of your photos while highlights are the lighter parts. The perfect balance of both will give your photos depth so they pop off the page.

This article will provide a better understanding of highlights and shadows in photography so you can capture terrific images.

Highlights and Contrast Provide Depth

Your highlights, shadows, and all points in between add depth to the photo. A rich black point and a bright white point will make the gradient tones in between stand out from each other even more.

The black point, which is found in areas of dark shadow, adds richness to the photo even if it makes up a very small portion of the image. The white point is completely white and it’s the brightest spot in the photo. The middle range provides a variety of elements for the eye to explore.

Capture Contrast Camera

It’s important to capture highlights and shadows in your camera. If your camera has good exposure, it will capture enough visual information for you to work with in the editing process. Avoid overexposing or underexposing images as this will be difficult to correct in post-production.

Understand Your Camera

Different cameras have different dynamic ranges. Understanding how your camera works in various lighting situations will help you capture the best images.

Consider Your Surroundings

The time of day, the type of light available and the weather conditions will affect your ability to capture highlights and shadows. If it’s sunny out, you will need to capture shadows to get details in dark areas.

Consider the Type of Photo

If you’re taking an action shot, you will need to act quickly to capture the perfect mix of highlights and shadows in the shots you are taking. If you are taking a landscape photo, you will have more time to tweak your settings. But you will also have to pay attention to the time of day and surroundings to determine how weather and light conditions will affect your shot.

Adjust Your Settings

The way you set your ISO, aperture, and shutter speed will affect your ability to capture highlights and shadows. The lower the ISO number is, the more light you will need to capture well-exposed images. So a lower ISO is perfect for a sunny day while a high ISO is ideal for dark rooms.

A lower ISO must be balanced with a longer shutter speed and a wider aperture.

Be aware that a high ISO can cause an increase in noise and graininess. It’s important to find the ideal balance to get your image right.

Perfect Levels in Postproduction

The contrast you capture can be further accented in post-production. Here are the tools you will need to get the right effect.

Histogram

The Histogram tool will show the exposure and tonality of the image you are editing. You should use it as a baseline before adjusting the contrast or changing any settings.

Exposure Slider

The next step should be using the exposure slider to adjust the brightness of the image. Move it to the left to reduce the exposure and to the right to increase exposure.

Blacks and White Slider

The blacks and whites slider will help you determine the optimal shadows and highlights in your photo. If you press option/ALT, you will see the whitest points of the image. Adjust the slider to just past where pixels appear. If you move it too far, you may blow out the image. If you play around with the slider, you will see the limits you can go to.

Now do the same with the black slider. Press option/ALT to establish the black points. Move the slider up slightly to determine how far you need to go to bring out dark areas without losing texture.

Highlights and Shadows Slider

The Highlights and Shadows slider will help you fine-tune your image. There is no exact spot to adjust them to when it comes to getting the desired results. Keep playing around with them until you reach a point where your darks and lights are highlighted without eliminating detail.

Now that you know how to achieve optimal highlights and shadows, you are ready to get terrific photos. What changes will you be making to add drama to your images?

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