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Robert D Feinman

Capturing Full Range Scenes



The limited brightness range of color film has long been a problem when photographing scenes with strong sunlight and shadows.

With modern color negative films and the new generation of improved scanners this problem can now be almost eliminated.

The first step is to set the exposure index for the film slightly below the rated speed. About 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop is enough. Thus for a 100 speed film you would set the meter to 64 or 80.

Next, when metering a scene with bright and dark areas you need to favor the dark portions and let the brighter tones be "overexposed". The latitude of the modern films will accommodate this without noticeable problems.

Here is a scene where the foreground figure is in full sun and the building in the back is in deep shade.

Original Image
As Scanned

This image was scanned with the Minolta Elite 5400  using the supplied software set to "Pixel Polish" mode. As has been pointed out in another tip, this software cannot handle the full dynamic range and clips the highlights. The image on the right shows all the areas in the scene which the software set to maximum white. Notice that large areas of the man's hat and shirt now have no detail.

Highlight Clipping
Highlight Clipping

Here is the same scene captured with Vuescan software. The software was set so as not to clip either the shadows or the highlights. As a consequence the image has less contrast and looks dull.

For one thing the foreground of freshly applied asphalt is gray instead of almost black. This is a result of "overexposing" the foreground. In addition there is an overall lack of detail in the building in the background.

Applying an overall adjustment to this type of image will not work. If we darken the mid tones to make the asphalt look right we will loose all the detail in the building.

Vuescan Scan
Scanned with Vuescan
The solution is to apply different corrections to the sunny and shady portions of the image. First we do rectangular selection which breaks at the shadow line of the building. We then add to this using the magic wand and other selection tools. Switching to quick mask mode and painting over areas with a brush is also a useful technique.

The final result is a selection which masks off all the shadow areas of the scene.
Top Mask
Top Mask
With the area selected we create an adjustment layer and drag the curve downward in the lower middle tones to make the asphalt look more realistic. We also set a few points in the highlight areas to prevent these from being darkened at the same time.

This is the scene after the layer is added.
Darken Foreground
Darken Sunny Areas

We next reselect the same selection and invert it. This masks out the areas we just corrected.

Once again we add a adjustment layer.

This time we raise the curve in the darker tones to make the background a little brighter. This is a matter of taste, some people may find that brightening the building only diminishes the focus on the figure in the foreground.
Bottom Mask
  Bottom Mask

Here is the image with only the latest adjustment curve applied. Notice there is a little more detail in the brickwork of the building, but it's still obvious that it is in the shade. We could also adjust the different colors separately at this point. We could reduce the blue shadows this way, for example.


Lighten Background
Lighten Background
Here is the final result with both adjustment layers applied. The scene is much closer to what the scene appears like to the viewer. Since our eyes can rapidly accommodate the changes in brightness when peering into the shadows we don't perceive the contrast as as great as it really is.
The objective is to apply changes which make the scene appear as it was without calling attention to the manipulation. Without the latitude of modern color negative films and the dynamic range of the scanners this would not be as successful. So once again the old adage about "exposing for the shadows" becomes useful.
Final Result
Final Result
Finally, here is the original image again using the "pixel polish" scan. Subtle changes are what distinguish a good print from a run of the mill one.

In our version the hat and the curbs are not "blown out". The asphalt is truer in tone and the detail in the brick is clearer. If we wished, we could also have raised the tonality of the man's shadowed arm slightly so that it wasn't quite so dark. This would require another layer using the same techniques.

If the changes in curve shape are going to be fairly radical it may be better to use a 16bit image to prevent posterization. See my other tips on how to do this.
pixel polish
Original Scan
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© 2003 Robert D Feinman