High Contrast Portrait Lighting Tips and Fixes

This week we are going to discuss a photography problem and some possible work-arounds.

Thanks to Kip Bush for the suggestion for this session and for providing access to photos that illustrate some of the difficulties we are going to discuss during this session.

Shooting photos, particularly portraits, in the high desert or other large open places can present some unique problems due to the high contrast between sunlight and shadows.

What is contrast?

Greatly simplified, it is the range between the brightest and the darkest areas in a scene.

The maximum contrast range of most films is only 5 to 7 f/stops, with slide films having a lower range than print film.

If, as OFTEN happens, the light range is greater than this, then detail will be lost in either the shadows or in the highlights (or in both if the lighting range is really great and we expose for the midtones of the scene).

The range of contrast our eyes can see is not any greater than that of film, and is actually a little less.

However, this problem is not normally as noticeable to us because our eyes dynamically adjust to the light in the area on which we are focused.

By shifting our gaze, we see detail both in the shadows and in the highlight areas.

We need to find a way to reduce the contrast in a scene to a range that can be captured by todays films.


What techniques can we employ to minimize the problems caused by high contrast lighting?

Let's start by looking at a couple of examples of high contrast lighting such as that found in the high desert.

Look at this photo:

Notice how flat the lighted area looks, especially the area on the middle right?

And notice how dark the deep shadows in the palm fronds are? Notice that there is no detail in the shadows.

Now look at this one:

Who thinks it would be easy to get good portraits in these conditions?

Now look at this portrait:

Note that the lighting on the model is well balanced, but the contrast with the bright background, and especially the sky, is too great due to the bright sunlight of the high desert.

Now look at this one:

The brightly lit background areas are noticable, but not a big problem due to the well executed lighting on the model's face, assisted by the darker areas of the branches helping break up the bright areas.

What techniques could be used to work around this lighting problem, or to reduce the contrast range in this type of setting?

One easy solution is to redefine the situation!

Accept the light-colored background as a flat white area that will be present, and light the model as Kip has done here. Then the portrait becomes a variation of high-key lighting, but with the model having lighting that is more nearly mid-range.

Another solution, potentially expensive and labor intensive, is to use more powerful and numerous flash units or reflectors to increase the light levels in the shadows and on the model to reduce the overall contrast range.

Various supports and stands can reduce the need for extra hands to position and hold the flash or reflectors.

A third solution is to shoot the photos very early in the morning or very late in the evening, when the sun is very low. This gives you sunlight, but with a lower intensity than that of midday.

The period from just before sunrise to just after sunrise (but before the light gets intense) is called "the golden hour" due to the quality of light that is normally present.

Another technique is to use a vignetting mask on the camera to darken the edges and corners to reduce the attention focused on the background. A camera mask should be feathered to soften the transition to the vignetted area.

And finally, one can move either the model, the camera, or both to eliminate the bright sunlit areas in the background.

Look at this photo:

This one doesn't seem to have a contrast problem. Why not?

Right, the lighting in the scene is moderate in contrast.

Now look at this one:

And this one:

High contrast can be desirable for the effect you want to achieve. Experiment and learn to work within the limitations of the situation.

For more examples of Kip's photography, visit: http://fotog.hypermart.net/gallery.html

For some more tips and info, visit:

I just found this site, but recommend it. It has some good basic information.