Photographing in difficult light conditions: High contrast scenes

This post contains some of my assignments for the ‘Basics’ module (chapter 3) of the Matador U travel photography course.

Photographing evenly lit scenes can be pretty straightforward, but how do you tackle scenes including both very dark and very bright areas?

Expose for the bright spots and you’ll loose details in the dark areas. Expose for the dark spots and you’ll likely blow out the highlights. High contrast scenes rarely translate into the camera, and while sometimes we can just wait for the right light or modify the existing light, in most cases we haven’t got so much control over a situation.

Typical examples of high contrast scenes include landscapes with a very bright sky and dark elements, or a room with strong daylight coming in from a window.

There is no formula, or one-size-fits-all type of solution for photographing high contrast scenes, so it’s important to consider the characteristics of each scene and choose the most appropriate strategy.

High contrast scene case study

As we were approaching Mumbai by train, Romana was reading the last pages of a book that had entertained her for the last month: Shantaram. Part of Shantaram’s story happens in Mumbai and Romana was keen to have her photo taken while the train ran across the slums. While my eyes could see both Romana and the slums outside the  train window, the camera was struggling to reproduce the scene in AV mode (aperture value, or aperture priority). Therefore I switched to manual and, keeping the aperture constant, I tried different shutter speeds, until I found a combination that allowed me to minimize the loss of details in both dark and bright areas. I still had to fiddle with the ‘exposure’, ‘recovery’, ‘fill light’, and ‘blacks’ sliders in Lightroom to obtain the image below.

Romana finishing Shantaram as we approach Mumbai's train station.. Exif: 10mm, f/3.5, 1/200, ISO 400. I brought the ISO up to 400 because I wanted a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the motion outside the window



  • Great article! I know HDR is a technique that is being done to death and honestly most of what I see I can barely stomach, but if done correctly and with some effort, it can come out looking very natural. I have done it in some very contrasty situations, especially when shooting in the middle of the day (let’s face it, sometimes there is not choice). Or just taking two exposures and mixing them later in PS.

    Great pic by the way too. I think you hit the perfect balance between the two.

    • Thanks! I do HDR from time to time too, although many people I know hate it. You’re right about the importance of making pictures look natural, but I also think one should never put limits on the means that allow us to express our artistic vision. I think I’ll post something about HDR sooner or later.