Isolated by Light

In Creativity and Inspiration, Thoughts & Theory, Tutorials &Technique by David44 Comments

Genoa, Italy. I took a spot reading off the pavement in the beam of light. It happens to be pretty close to 18% grey, so I exposed manually at those settings, prefocused on the spot, and waited until someone came. It’s usually worth the wait.

We talk a lot about isolating elements within the frame. We do it with our choices of angle, optics, and aperture, but one of the techniques that often slips my own mind is to use the limited dynamic range of our sensors to our advantage. To heck with HDR images (High Dynamic Range), I want LDR images (Low Dynamic Range)! When the light is right and the range exceeds our sensor’s ability to capture detail in both the highlights and the shadows, choosing to favour the highlights and plunge the rest into shadow can have a dramatic effect.

I spent time in Italy working on this with some of our Italy Within The Frame students this May, and had a blast. It’s easy, and it’s a good way to turn the hard light of mid-day to your advantage. I look for areas where there is a large differential in the light. I manually expose for subjects in the brightest area, and let the left side of histogram shout and scream all it wants about lost details because that’s what I’m going for.  The shadows obscure everything else, allowing the brightest areas to be properly exposed and turning your exposure into another isolation tool in your visual toolbox.

What makes this hard, I think, is not the technique but the seeing itself. The eye/mind sees things in a much greater range than the camera will so what you record will look much more dramatic than what your eye sees, making it necessary to remain conscious of these dramatic light differentials because your eye won’t necessarily immediately see them. This is one of those cases where being familiar with the technique enough that you know it when you see it, is important, in much the same way as developing an eye for longer exposures when we can’t actually see the resulting blur with our eyes.

For those of you looking for something new to shoot in the summer light, give this a try. I’d love to see what you come up with on this – drop a link to your images into the comments if you’re feeling like sharing. Here’s another photograph made last year in Delhi, India, using the same technique. My evil twin, Ami Vitale showed me this technique. She rocks it.


  1. Pingback: Coping with Extreme Brightness (Without HDR) - Digital Photography School - Digital Photography Tips and Tutorials

  2. I just posted a link to this page to the DPReview forum. A discussion on LDR was starting there, although one but me had referred to it as LDR.
    I though I should give the fine photographers there a chance to get your views DAvid.
    I am posting this on May Day just after learning of your accident. All of our hopes and prayers are concentrated on your speedy recovery.

  3. Pingback: Les liens photo de Juin 2010 | Blog

  4. Hi,Love selective highlighting in a single frame, and practice it too since long.Its a very good tool to encourage the viewer where to see and add more drama to the image. Its not just an advantage with the digital age as in the film era of higher dynamic range push and pull processing can change the shadow and highlight details to almost 3 stops. Selective highlighting if used sensibly gives stunning results but there are at times possibility in getting patch blacks in the photographs if the histograms clips much to the left. However with optimum care taken this can be avoided but not allowing the histogram clipping much. Very good written,
    Thanks David,

  5. Beautiful images and a wonderful reminder that often “less is more”. This thinking and seeing is a return to old days of film when many times shooting for the highlights and letting the rest fall where it may produced the most dramatic results. As Thoreau would say, “simplicity, simplicity”!

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  7. Jim – engagement is welcome here anytime 🙂 I love HCB, wasn’t intending to take him down a notch, more like attempting to level the playing field by raising everyone up to the same level – we’re all craftsmen just trying to express something with imperfect tools. Thanks for joining the discussion. 🙂

  8. lol, thanks David, not riled up, just engaged…

    yes, there is an advantage to knowing the ldr aesthetics.
    you opened the door by your comment (to heck with HDR images), my friend.
    do I not know you? (no, but I hope to study with you and save up for an India workshop)

    ok, you are right, from what I saw of the 300 prints I saw on display on the 7th floor of MoMA last month in mid-town, curated by Peter Galassi, the prints were good but I do not know the negs (can you educate me here with a reference).

    if your point is that perfection, and holding photographers gets in the way, I totally agree…cheers, mate.


  9. Author

    Wow, Jim, you got pretty riled up by this. I didn’t say this was about HDR, just saying that while much attention is given to expanding our dynamic range, there is an advantage to understanding the aesthetics possible with a lower range. When I want to talk about HDR, I’ll do so. This isn’t about what’s fair and making sure HDR has a chance to defend itself. Lord know there are plenty of advocates for HDR. As for not needing to dramatize – do you not know me at all? I dramatize everything I possibly can and it’s never about needing to, it’s about wanting to 🙂

    And HCB still had issues with exposure. It wasn’t his prints, it was his negs. I wasn’t saying it to criticize but to introduce a little iconclasm – people worship these guys and hold them up as gods. They too had ways of working that weren’t perfect and they STILL made great work – that’s my point. None of us are perfect and trying to attain that gets in the way of compelling images.

  10. David

    It is not about HDR vs LDR, but about the aesthetics of simplicity. When HDR is an appropriate tool, we use it. In your Isolated by Light, a single frame was the appropriate tool. You do not need to dramatize, my friend, by making a comparison of your work with HDR (exposure fusion in Photomatix).


  11. David

    Isolated by light is an fine educational image, and you cover the awareness quite well. It has the same Cartier-Bresson awareness (and I bring this up having listened to your TWIP interview) that HCB had. By the way, as an aside, your critique of HCB was unfair. Part of the reason he was not a great printer is that he did not have editorial control (like you enjoy, and I enjoy in the age of the e-Book). It was months before HCB got a look at what he shot. I’m not raising him up as an icon, but you have to understand the history. He and his wife were flying around the world, dealing with logistics, editors, and problems with camera and film, and yes, he did not print his own work. We have the luxury of seeing our work right away. He did not, and considered the image finished when he pressed the shutter. Those were different times.
    PS: I’m tired of hearing about AA too. 🙂


  12. Steve, as an alternative, just shoot in RAW image mode … then you won’t need to worry about switching off Active D Lighting on your Nikon D90, as then no dynamic-range compression (i.e. D-Lighting) will be performed by your camera. Hope this helps.

  13. Would I be correct in thinking that you would need to turn off or set to low the dynamic range optimisers on the camera to get this effect? I shoot a D90 and I’d need to turn the Nikon Active D lighting to off otherwise the camera will compensate and lighten the dark shadow areas? Thanks

  14. Pingback: DWF » Blog Archive » LDR Photography

  15. Yes, hurray for LDR!

    Also, squinting is an old and useful trick for seeing contrast more like the camera sees it.

  16. Pingback: KevWil365 » Day 103 :: LDR

  17. Great capture! I love it! I think the reason I love “LDR” images so much is it is very design oriented allowing the viewer to move about the image the way the photographer intended it. Here’s my humble contribution:


  18. Wonderfully subtle, yet it hits me like a sledgehammer. It’s so obvious, why didn’t I ever think of this? I can’t wait to try this! You may have rescued my mid-day blues. Thank you!

  19. Great shot indeed. the light in the upper corner and the light from the stree on the gentlement are in great complement.
    One shot have done last week in my back yard

  20. I’m groovin’ on this. Good stuff. This is a great technique to work on.

    And, really, I think you nailed it when you said – “What makes this hard, I think, is not the technique but the seeing itself.” In other words – if you don’t mind me expanding the thought a bit – it’s seeing the image – and then knowing/remembering the techniques you know – and using the “best” one (e.g. panning, long exposure, limited dynamic range, hdr, wide, tele, Lensbaby, more blur, action, …). Of course, I use “best” loosely.

    The key for me is remembering what I know. I’ll often get into a shoot up to my elbows – and then I’ll forget a cool technique.

    At times I use a notecard to remind myself of a shoot list – maybe I should create a notecard of creative techniques – and just toss it in the bag.

  21. P.S. Do you generally use spot metering in conjunction with manual exposure in these situations? – or do you ever use it with one of the automatic exposure modes?

  22. Inspirational and beautiful! Thanks for sharing your technique, David. I haven’t used spot metering much before now, tending to use matrix metering and exposure compensation as required … now I see how useful this mode can be!

  23. David, you made a most important point about isolating subjects when you stated….”one of the techniques that often slips my own mind is to use the limited dynamic range of our sensors to our advantage”.

    Those of us who learned photography back in the days of slide film will remember Fuji Velvia (iso 50). It was saturated and very contrasty. We all fell in love with it because, of what the contrast did for us, it helped to isolate things and make our subject stand out from everything else.

    Steve McCurry’s portraits often have almost no detail in the shadows. His images are for the most part, dark and mysterious, with fewer distractions. The lack of detail and the strength of the subject is exactly why we love Steve’s images!

    Photoshop, HDR and other “image enhancement” techniques are used by many photographers to bring out every detail from the highlights and the shadows. Those extra details sometimes add to the interest of the image, but more often than not, they only serve to detract or distract from the main subject.

    The thing that goes on in my head, just before I release the shutter is… “if something in this frame does not add interest, then it surely subtracts interest…what can I eliminate from the frame to make this image stronger, either by selective composition or by manipulating depth of field”.

    As you have said, using a limited dynamic range is one way to make a great image. I hope that many of your readers take your advice and give it a try. I’m guessing that they will be pleasantly surprised by the results.



  24. Funny, when my browser loaded up the page, the bottom third of the photograph was cropped below the browser display. I immediately thought “that’s a beautifully balanced image of light and dark”, and my favourite part was the light coming from the alleyway; it leant such mystery. Then I scrolled down and realised there was more to the image. Now I’m just gobsmacked.

    LDR, that’d be nice…

  25. Author

    Funny. The fat ass and bald head look a lot like mine too. 🙂

  26. Someone once told me that HDR was “a cry for help.” While I can’t completely agree with that, I do think HDR is currently overhyped and overrated. It has a useful place for certain images, but there’s been too much emphasis on it as a panacea for every shot.

    By the way, have you tried the Genoa photograph in black & white? 🙂

  27. That’s an interesting concept. I haven’t done it with natural, or otherwise available light, but did with a strobe:

    Now looking at this photo I could clean it up and enhance some in LR, thought I was pretty pleased with it last year with I made it…

    I will try that with sunlight too.

  28. The Genoa shot is realy great.
    What time of day was it taken at?
    what are the light sources?

  29. By the way, did you know that the ‘(Change)’ link to the script ‘ShowUtil()’ at the end of a persons name when posting a comment is not working?

  30. David, curious, what light is illuminating the upper portion of the buildings? Is that a reflection off the face of the building that’s forms the shadow on the left edge?
    Wonderful image!

  31. That’s a stunning shot at the top (in Genoa).

    I did see the flowers one you took in Delhi when you posted it and played around with trying to get the same interplay of light and dark (but not to much effect unfortunately).

    I’ll have to get creative and try again I think!

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