If Your Camera Were a Person It Would Be Legally Blind
Did you know our cameras can only see about 1% of the light information our eyes can gather? It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. Look at this recent picture from Chicago: the sky behind the Trump Tower (center) is totally blown out, yet the building on the left is completely black with no details to speak of. This is what my camera saw. I, on the other hand, was able to see the building and the sky. Not to brag or anything.
I can show you why this happens, but I need to throw some numbers at you. These numbers matter because they explain why our eyes can see details in both the sky and ground on a bright day, while cameras disappoint with only a boring, washed out sky.
If you’re the trusting type and would rather just take my word for it, you can skip the numbers and head straight to the good stuff.
Exposure Values are a measurement of dynamic range, the difference between the darkest darks and the brightest brights. Exposure Values, or EVs, are exponential – each increase represents a doubling of light. If I move from 10 EVs to 11 , I’ve doubled the light. Move from 5 EVs to 4, and the light’s been cut in half.
Our cameras can see through a range of about 12 EVs. That means they can see things that are 4000 times brighter than the darkest things they can see. Not too shabby, until you realize our eyes can effectively see things that are a whopping million times brighter than the darkest things, a massive 20 EV range. We’re able to see so much because our eyes are constantly, involuntarily readjusting. This allows our brains to form a more complete picture of whatever it is we’re looking at. Without resorting to HDR, you get just one picture with a camera so you’d better make it count.
The good stuff: How to take quality pictures anyway
While it’s true that our cameras can’t see nearly as much as our eyes, the good news is they often don’t need to. Many scenes have a brightness range that falls well within our camera’s ability to record it.
There are four ways to solve the problem when our cameras can’t see everything:
Method 1: Just take the damn picture already!
Bright things are supposed to be bright, and dark things are supposed to be dark. You can always take the picture anyways, knowing that you’ll never be able to squeeze every ounce of detail in post processing. Use this method when your brights and darks aren’t integral to the image (like a bright window or a dark shadow) or when you’re going for a contrasty look.
Above is a shot I took in 2010 in Barcelona Airport. My camera wasn’t able to see the wide range of brights and darks, and as a result it’s easy to see the lack of color in the sky and the lack of details in the shaded chairs. The shot is meant to be moody, though, and the high contrast adds to the feeling. It’s not always necessary to capture every last detail.
Method 2: Wait for better light.
Demanding scenes are always the result of light that’s too harsh. Wait for evening or shoot at sunrise. Cloudy days can be good too because they offer diffuse light that won’t overpower your camera.
Here’s a shot I took in Prague in June last year. I knew I’d get a good picture from that vantage point, but the light was poor because the sky was too bright and the ground was too dark. The exposure would have been unbalanced, so I waited for the sky to dim as the sun set and took this shot instead.
Method 3: Use a graduated ND filter
Graduated neutral density filters fit over your lens. They’re shaded on one end, the other end is clear, and there’s a smooth transition between the light and dark areas. When you shoot a scene with a graduated ND, you’ll rotate the filter so the dark area is over the brightest part of the image. This helps balance what your sensor sees, allowing your camera to record more of the information. Graduated ND filters are expensive and a bit of a chore, so I rarely use them.
A graduated ND filter was used in the shot above of Chicago, USA. Typically ND filters are used with the dark part on top to balance a bright sky against a dark foreground, but in this case I put the dark part on the bottom to cover the bright city. This helped balance the exposure, allowing the stars and airplane lights to shine through.
Method 4: Use HDR.
HDR works by blending multiple exposures together. It artificially and dramatically increases your camera’s light gathering ability, but it’s not convenient because it requires a tripod for best results. It’s very popular these days, but HDR is rarely my first choice because the finished images tend to look fake. It also works poorly in scenes with moving subjects like people. If I use HDR at all, it’s done sparingly so I can bring back some details and add a bit of pop.
HDR was used in the above picture from Lake Baikal in Russia – it was the only way I could get details in the bright ice to balance against the relatively dark background.
So help your camera out…
Use these four easy methods to help your camera see, and you’ll be taking better travel pictures in no time!