Burnt Highlights

7 Building Blocks of Photography 2

Is it always wrong to have a burnt highlight in an image? A lot of new photographers make the common mistake of trying to remove all clipping from the bright end of their histogram and remove all burnt highlights. What you have to remember is that some highlights do burn to our eyes. Trying to remove them will look weird and ‘photoshopped’.

Think about the images in the short slideshow at the start of the vid. They all have naturally burnt out highlights. The sun, lights at night and stars all burn out to our eyes. So why try to remove them?

How would this look if the candles were not burnt out?

Monk by Candlelight

Obviously the exposure needs to be correct. But what is correct? If shooting RAW then I’d say ‘correct’ is capturing as much highlight and shadow detail as possible in the histogram which can then be adjusted to match your vision when the RAW is developed. But remember, these candles were burnt out highlights to my eyes so they will still cause a tiny spike in the histogram.

Jpegs are another matter. Light meters can only tell you the ‘correct’ exposure to make a mid grey tone appear correct in daylight so you have to think about how bright or dark you want your image to be before you even raise the camera to your eye. If shooting a night scene do you want it as bright as it would be during the day? Your camera doesn’t know the difference between night and day so night time scenes could be brighter than you want them to be.

Therefore the what the camera says is correct might only be a starting point and the Photographer has to adjust it according to what they want the image to be. You have to look at the scene and consider the tones within it and what you want bright or dark and set an exposure accordingly.

But what about this image?

Bridesmaid Burnt Out Highlight

Is it a bad, overexposed photo? Or was the massive difference in brightness between the window and Bridesmaid used for effect? Does the burnt highlight add emphasis or spoil the photo? If it’s a ‘spoiler’ - what could be done about it?

If there was time (which in the case of there wasn’t) you can shoot a set of bracketed exposures and blend them as an HRD. HDR simply means High Dynamic Range and you can use them to make an image natural as well as the ‘hyper real’ look that’s so popular.

In this case the only option would be to quickly puff in a bit of fill flash, but that would flatten out the beautiful available light on the Bridesmaid. Decisions decisions - that’s what photography is all about.

And here’s another thing to consider: Why is this background burnt out when I could see detail in both with my eyes? Cameras ‘see’ light differently to our eyes. If you don’t believe me take a photo of someone in a similar situation yourself and if you don’t manage the exposure yourself, you’ll end up with a silhouette of the girl and lots of background detail. Cameras don’t take pictures - you take pictures by managing your camera.

These are questions for all photographers to think through with their 1st Building Block of Photography - their Brilliant Brains. This is creativity at work, pre-visualising how the overexposed background will impact the image’s feel and interpretation. Is it wrong?

So burnt out highlights fall into three categories.

  1. Careless exposure
  2. Naturally burnt out
  3. Done for creative effect

And they’re definitely not all bad, wicked and wrong…

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