How to Photograph into the Light

A view of the picturesque Arrow River on a winter's day in Arrowtown on the South Island of New Zealand.

Back in the day part of being a good photographer was being able to see the way your camera and film did. To be able to do this it's important to understand what's not possible, by which I mean under what conditions does the camera fail, often dismally, to record the scene in the way our eyes and brain see and remember it.

Think of all those times when your subject's face photographs jet black. Perhaps the sky looks great, but the foreground has gone black.

Except in the case of a deliberate silhouette there was just no way I'd photograph into the sun. That was breaking one of the most basic rules of photography. Don't photograph into the sun is right up there with those other two gems my mum called out to me as I headed out to do my first wedding as an 18 year old.

  • do you have a hanky (as in a pocket handkerchief)? It wasn't just Bilbo who left home without one, and
  • don't forget to take your lens cap off

You can imagine what a confidence boost that advice gave me. Particularly as a number of the neighbors were standing out the front of their houses watching me head out. In retrospect it was one of those watershed moments. A kind of ritual where I was heading out into the world, no longer as a child. I had to grow up and take control of the situation. And I had to do it NOW. 

New Technology, New Reality

The good news is that the days of not being able to photograph directly into the light are gone, or at least they can be with the right techniques. Photographing towards the sun, in a way that doesn't cause the darker foreground to render as black, is now possible. Here are the options available to you.

Nikon D800/D800e

I made the above photo with a Nikon D800e camera and a Nikon 12-24mm f2.8 lens. At that time I believed these cameras represented a revolution in DSLR photography, previously only available in medium format digital cameras. The Nikon D800 and D800e cameras incorporate a sensor that is capable of recording subtle highlight texture and, at the same time, maintaining detail in very dark shadows.

This technology gives you the ability to photograph under much higher levels of contrast (dynamic range) than is possible with any other 35mm-like DSLR or rangefinder camera currently available. The bench mark has been raised and other manufactures, not to mention their marketing divisions, are likely scrambling to catch up.    


Version 4 of this fantastic product introduced controls within the Basic panel of the Develop Module that provide amazing control over the lighter and darker areas of the image. A significant improvement on its predecessor, Version 3, the Highlight and Shadow sliders are fantastic tools for aspiring and professional photographers alike.

More recently the arrival of Lightroom CC has introduced a great new HDR feature. It's simple to use and produces excellent results. 

More experienced operators may wish to avail themselves of the pathway between Lightroom and Photoshop CS6/CC which provides the ability to Tone Map their images, in 32Bit no less, and thereby be able to further their control over high contrast situations.

HDR Workflow

We can describe a HDR workflow as a series of exposures combined into a single, composite image. For optimal results, so as to avoid an out of register composite, a tripod is recommended.

The idea is to make a series of images, ideally of a stationary subject or scene, at different brightness levels. This procedure is commonly known as Exposure Bracketing. You might make 3, 5, 7 or even 9 images of the scene, depending on the contrast inherent to the scene. The distance between each exposure is likely to be 1 or 2 stops.

Most folks take an overall exposure of the scene, with their cameras set to Matrix/Evaluative or Centre-Weighted Averaging metering (I prefer Spot metering). That becomes their base exposure to which they add darker and lighter exposures.

It seems that most folk make a series of 3 exposures at 2 stop intervals. Let's say your base exposure was 1/125 second at f8 with an ISO of 100. Here's what you'd end up with.

  • 1/500 second at f8 ISO 100 equalling a MAR - 2 stop exposure
  • 1/125 second at f8 ISO 100 equalling a MAR (base) exposure
  • 1/30  second at f8 ISO 100 equalling a MAR + 2 stop exposure

Looking back down a narrow pier towards beautiful autumn color on Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, New Zealand.

By Way of Explanation

The term MAR stands for Meter As Read. It refers to the way light meters work by measuring the brightness of the scene at which they are pointed and adjusting Shutter Speed and or Aperture (and, in some cases, even ISO) to achieve a mid tone rendering of the scene. This is extremely problematic, particularly when the scene is made up of predominantly light (e.g., beach, snow, wedding dress) or dark (e.g., close up of dark tree trunk, dark skinned person) subject matter.

Trusting the cameras light meter to produce a correct exposure is often folly. And that's as true today for those setting their camera to RAW or JPEG as it was in the days of film. It's not until we accept this fact and understand when and how to override the camera's built in light meter that we are in control of exposure. High contrast introduces other concerns, which is where HDR comes in. But, other than that rather bold statement, this is a complicated topic best left for another day.

Whether your cameras produces the 3 separate exposures (-2, MAR and +2) in the order described or, for example, as a MAR, -2 and +2 sequence is dependent upon the order in which you program the camera to record each exposure. Of more importance is the amount of exposures and the difference in brightness between each one. If you're very keen on HDR make sure you have a camera that provides you with a lot of control over the process. 

What's critical in HDR photography is to ensure that it is only the Shutter Speed that changes from one exposure to the next. (This is yet another good reason to avoid your camera's Shutter Priority mode). Changing the aperture will often result in different levels of Depth of Field (DOF) in each image. And that would be problematic when trying to assemble the composite image.

Likewise, having your camera set to Auto ISO might cause the camera, under low light conditions, to increase the ISO for your plus (MAR +) exposure. That might result in a variation in noise from image to image which might, conceivably, cause problems when producing the composite HDR image.

My recommendation would be to turn the Auto ISO function in your camera off. If you feel the need to change the ISO for one or more of the images in the sequence, so as to minimize the chance of movement during the longer MAR + exposure, it might be better to re-set the Auto ISO just for that particular scene. But this suggestion is opinion based and your choice to follow or not.

Likewise its important to set your camera/lens to Manual focus to avoid it refocusing from frame to frame. The last thing you want is an out of register composite image. 

On the Desktop

Once you have your images imported into Lightroom you select the sequence in question and open them into a HDR software package. The two most popular are Nik Software's (purchased by Google in September 2012) HDR Pro 2 and Photomatix Pro. The nature of these programs is not only to produce a composite image with reduced levels of contrast that are Tone Mapped to better fit the constraints of the resulting file compared to that of the original scene, but also to apply one of a range of looks or treatments to the final image. While you have considerable control over just how processed (relatively realistic, artistic, or down right freaky) that image becomes it is likely going to be considerably different in appearance to any of the original camera-generated files.

As mentioned earlier a very successful Tone Mapped composite image can now be achieved via the Lightroom 4.1 or higher to Photoshop CS6/CC return pathway. Simply select the files in Lightroom, bring them into Photoshop to produce the Tone Mapped composite image prior to saving them back into Lightroom (as a single composite Tiff) for further processing as required.


Back in the day we'd deal with high contrast situations in a range of ways including the following:

  • Wait for the weather to change or come back at a different time of day and/or different time of year
  • Composition (excluding very bright and/or very dark areas from the frame)
  • Placing a diffuser between the light and the subject to both soften and reduce the brightness of the light on the subject and, as a consequence, reduce the intensity and hard-edged appearance of the shadows
  • The use of a reflector or flash to fill or reduce the difference between a dark foreground and a much brighter background
  • Deliberately over exposing the film, to lighten shadows, and then under developing to reduce the brightness of the highlights
  • Any number of dodging, burning and print processing procedures to reduce contrast and direct attention to important focal points within the frame. 

These days it's possible to deal with the devil that is high contrast in camera, through some of the methods described above and/or through the use of the amazing Nikon D800/D800e or, more recently, the Sony a7R II camera; by employing Lightroom, either on its own or in conjunction with Photoshop; and/or with a dedicated HDR software application. The choice is yours and the options available to you are incredible. There's even an iPhone app that creates a pretty reasonable HDR result. Strewth!

So, there you have it. Where we are now and what's likely to be available to us in the future. These are some of the reasons why this really is the Golden Age of Photography. So, why fight it? Get up, get out and get to it. Photography is life, both as we experience and remember it.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru