Exposing For The Highlights

by Anthony Morganti

Often in my YouTube videos I’ve mentioned, “I exposed for the highlights in this image.” It has come to my attention that not everyone may know what I’m referring to when I say that. In this article, I will attempt to explain what it means, why I do it and how to do it.

David - Underexposed

I exposed for the highlights in this shot. It may look horrible but the clouds and sky are properly exposed.

David - Properly Exposed

Because the shadows retain detail much better than the highlights, I was able to bring that detail out in Lightroom to produce a dramatic image.

 

What It Means

All it means is that when we expose a scene, we’re exposing it so that the highlights — the things that are brighter in the image, are exposed perfectly even if that means that the things in the shadows are not exposed properly — usually that means that the shadows will be underexposed.

Why Would We Do That?

To explain why you’d want to expose for the highlights, I’ll have to give a little history first.

In the days of film, because of the chemistry of the film and the processing, negative film tended to lose detail in the shadows more readily than it might lose detail in the highlights. So, we when we exposed the shot, we would be very careful to make sure that the shadows were exposed perfectly even if it meant that we were overexposing much of the image. In those instances we said that we exposed for the shadows.

Conversely when we shot slide film, which of course is the opposite of negative film, due to the chemistry of the film and the processing, slide film would tend to lose detail in the highlights more readily than the shadows. So, when we shot with it, we would make sure that the highlights were perfectly exposed even if it meant that we were underexposing much of the scene. In those instances we said that we were exposing for the highlights. In post processing we can develop the print so that we can tease the detail out of the shadows while retaining the detail in the highlights thereby balancing the exposure.

In todays digital technology and computer software post processing, the shadows tend to hold detail more readily if the scene is underexposed compared with how the highlights hold detail if the scene gets overexposed.

In other words, todays digital camera technology reasonably mimics slide film so we photographers, when faced with a scene with both extensive highlights and expansive shadows, will expose for the highlights than in post processing, use programs such a Lightroom and Aperture to rescue the detail out of the shadows while retaining the detail in the highlights. The result is a balanced exposure.

How Do You Take The Shot

We simply meter for the highlights. Most DSLR’s today, out of the box, sample the entire scene to come up with a balanced exposure. To expose for the highlights, you have to setup your camera for center weighted spot metering. That means that the whatever happens to be in the center of the scene will be metered and the exposure will be based upon that.

Usually, with most DSLR’s, when you press the shutter button halfway, the camera will gain focus and set exposure and, as long as you keep the shutter button pressed halfway, hold that exposure even if you move the camera around. So, what you do is point your camera at the highlights, push the shutter halfway than reframe the shot and push the shutter the rest of the way down to take the picture. You just exposed for the highlights. Unfortunately, this is cumbersome because your camera gained focus on the highlights as well. When you recomposed the scene, the focus might not be true for the recomposed scene.

Most modern DSLR’s allow you to move the focus responsibilities from the shutter button to a button on the back of the camera. I wrote an article about it here. I have my camera setup in this manner and most professional photographers do as well. With that setup, you point at the highlights, push the shutter halfway to gain exposure. Recompose the scene than focus by pushing the rear button, than push the shutter the rest of the way to seal the deal.

That too can be cumbersome because you have to keep the shutter pressed halfway while recomposing and focusing the scene but fortunately the camera manufacturers have helped us out in that regard too. In most DSLR’s today you can setup the shutter button so that when you press it halfway and let go, it retains the exposure and will lock it in no matter how much you move your camera around until the picture is taken. Than it resets for the next exposure.

So, to easily expose for the highlights, do the following:

  1. Move the focus responsibilities to a back button.
  2. Set the exposure setting to “Lock” which allows you to let go of the shutter button while retaining the exposure.
  3. This is optional, on some DSLR’s you can move the exposure from the shutter button to another rear button. You may want to do that as well.
  4. After setting up your camera in that manner, you would point your camera at the highlights in the scene that you want exposed properly, press the shutter button halfway to expose those highlights or, if you did step 3, you would press whatever button you have setup to take the exposure. Either way, because you set the exposure to “Lock” in step 2, you can let go of the button and the exposure you just set, will be remembered.
  5. Recompose the scene to focus on the point you want to be in perfect focus by pressing the back focus button.
  6. Recompose the scene as you want it recorded and press the shutter button to seal the deal.

Once you take the picture, you can bring it into a program such as Adobe Lightroom to bring out the detail in the shadows and ultimately, you’ll have a dynamic picture that wouldn’t have be captured if you just pointed and shot.

Field - Underexposed

I exposed for the sky in this shot. Not much detail there to begin with but if I didn’t….

 

Field - Properly Exposed

It would have been totally washed out without color. Again, I was able to use Lightroom to bring out the detail hidden in the shadows.