Time for an update: I still use film, though. Not vast quantities, but I have a darkroom, and I'm not afraid to use it.

I enjoy every image I take: I hope you'll enjoy looking at them.
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30 Mar 2020 10:03AM   Views : 432 Unique : 274


H for highlights Ė you canít live with Ďem, but you canít live without Ďem.

Always one of the biggest technical challenges, and something that most of us get wrong from time to timeÖ For a picture to look REALLY good, you need highlights that are bright, but have detail in them.

The problem is that digital sensors run out of room pretty quickly at the top end of the histogram: they have a response thatís directly proportional to light, while print film gently reduces its response, allowing a bit more leeway.

So you really need to get your highlights under control Ė be ready to spot when they may go wrong and expose accordingly, and possibly to rescue them a bit in processing.

As my friend, who learned to take pictures when he was in his teens, and the only option was film has found. Heís used compact digital cameras, but they havenít coped with the tonal range that he finds near his home in Canada, currently snow and trees. A secondhand Fuji XT-1 is now his, with controls that heís not used to, among them the incredibly useful exposure compensation dial. If theyíre too bright, just dial them back with a little negative compensation!

My mateís making the same mistake I did back in 1976, when I got my Contax RTS: it feels natural to decrease exposure when the subject is bright, and increase it when itís dark. But itís exactly the wrong thing to do.

When the highlights are a problem, when they are getting too bright and the review image starts flashing black and white, itís because they are overexposed, and you wonít have any detail in them.
Youíve got some leeway if you shoot RAW images, but itís always best to get the exposure dead on to begin with, which is where the compensation dial comes in. If necessary, take a series of shots at different exposures, adding or subtracting adjustment as necessary.

But where the image has large areas of brightness, but the subject itself is relatively dark, the camera meter will aim to make everything mid grey, and underexpose the subject. The classic is grey snow, or a dark yellow beach, with dim and dark figures moving around in front of them. So use positive compensation to make the background bright again.

And Ė as Iíve so often written in the Critique Gallery, use the histogram view on your camera for reviewing pictures. Just looking at the image on your screen wonít necessarily be enough to make fine judgments.

All of this assumes that the highlights are tending to burn out: but on a dull day, precisely the opposite problem happens, and you come home with a dull, grey image. Sort it out with the Levels adjustment in your software, moving the little triangles in along the bottom of the graph to get a nice result (see red arrows in the image below). Tip Ė do this before adding any border Ė it all goes horribly wrong if youíve got a black or white border round your image at this stage!


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mistere Avatar
mistere Plus
10 36 8 England
30 Mar 2020 12:15PM
Thanks John, good and practical advice as always.

dark_lord Avatar
dark_lord Plus
19 3.0k 836 England
30 Mar 2020 12:15PM
Having been brought up on transparency film I'm only too aware of highlight areas being an issue to be aware of. Well, exposure in general.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
30 Mar 2020 12:38PM
Yes, indeed, Keith!

Slide film is as demanding as it gets, in every way... It still exists, but the price is fearsome at the moment.
agp1337 Avatar
agp1337 5 1
30 Mar 2020 4:26PM
I remember in the days of film, 'Expose for the shadows and let the highlights take care of themselves.' Now it's completely reversed! Raw can help. I once took some important shots with +3 carelessly dialled in as compensation. RAW sorted it to an acceptable standard, but it wasn't as good as correct exposure. Good article, Dudler.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
30 Mar 2020 6:15PM
That's good advice, Andrew, for negative films - the standard colour print emulsions, and the lovely black-and-white emulsions like Ilford FP4+. But it leads to a risk of complete washout with colour slide film, such as Keith referred to.

A really carefully exposed slide seen in a dark room on a good screen is lovely in a way that digital-only users can't begin to believe - the richness and the detail exceed anything a digital projector is capable of. But it's years since I've got my projector out...
agp1337 Avatar
agp1337 5 1
30 Mar 2020 6:26PM
Yes, Dudler, I'd forgotten about slides. I never projected mine, but used to do prints in the darkroom. I've forgotten the name of the process, but I have two of them on my wall from about thirty years ago, and they still look fantastic. They took ages, though, as did colour prints from negatives. It is so easy these days, but ironically I don't have a photo printer, except a HiTi 5x7 for small prints. Isn't it also incredible how high the ISO (ASA!) can go with digital. I remember when Tri-X (my favourite film) could at a stretch be pushed to 800, and in absolutely desperate circumstances go to 1000 or above.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
30 Mar 2020 7:35PM
I think that would be the Cibachrome process that you used. The prints were supposed to be very stable indeed.

I've used a lot of fast film, starting with Agfapan 1000 in about 1970, and I still use T-Max P3200 quite a bit for the grain. But digital has definitely got the edge for black cats in coal cellars...
agp1337 Avatar
agp1337 5 1
30 Mar 2020 7:37PM
That's it! Cibachrome!
bryson Avatar
bryson 10 6
31 Mar 2020 1:37PM
"it feels natural to dial in positive compensation when the subject is bright, and negative when itís dark. But itís exactly the wrong thing to do." Now that has me confused. So are you saying if I am taking a bright subject, e.g. a snow scene, I should dial in "underexposure" and if a dark scene, e.g. a basalt cliff I should dial in "overexposure"? I have to disagree.
Are you confusing "subject" brightness with "image" brightness? I would agree that if the image on the LCD is over-bright, with flashing highlight warnings then you need to dial in underexposure. I would also say that the jpeg image on the LCD has less highlight detail than the RAW image and a little highlight warning may still result in sufficient detail in the RAW image.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
31 Mar 2020 5:56PM
Thank you, Nigel.

Gremlins in the word processing, and you are entirely right. I shall edit immediately!

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