- You must post-process (Lightroom, DxO or similar software).
- You should shoot in RAW format (o.k., well, you probably don’t have to, but it will make this technique work better).
- Your camera must have exposure compensation (EV).
- You should be using a DSLR or high-end compact (like the Canon G-series).
Here’s the key concept:
When you look at an image, your brain “looks” for the black portions, then uses those areas to “set” the color. If your brain can “see” more black, then it (you) can “see” more color.
What does this mean? Simply, it means that if an image is slightly darker when it is recorded, it has better black levels to start with. It has “blacker” blacks and “darker” darks. As an added bonus, the highlights are not “blown out” (clipped) or even close to being so. Details are retained in those highlight areas, making a better photo. What can be the drawback to this?
You can easily record a slightly darker image (underexposed) by setting your camera for correct exposure then dialing down the exposure value by 1/3 (-1/3 EV). If your subject is really brightly lit, then you can go lower (-2/3 to -1 EV or more), but -1/3 EV is a great place to start. I leave mine on -1/3 EV for almost everything now that I have learned this technique described below.
Yes, your photo is going to look underexposed, dreary, and dark on your camera. Don’t despair. Don’t worry. Wait until you get it into your photo-editing software before passing judgment. I use Lightroom so I will give my example in that context, but you can easily do the same technique in almost any software for image editing. For now just be calm and trust that your software will do the job. You’re going to be happy with the great result you’re going to get!
But before continuing, wait, there’s yet another benefit! Your eye looks for the edges of things in photos (and in real life) to differentiate objects. By slightly underexposing and having dark edges in your photo, everything is going to look sharper and more in-focus because it has a dark edge around it!
How-to — The Process
O.k., on to my process. I’m including only the details relevant to this technique, but this should fit within your normal workflow in the phase where you adjust the tone of the photo. This does not mean that you can skip the resizing, white balance correction, etc. With that in mind, here is what I do (using Lightroom terminology, but almost any RAW photo editing software could be substituted here):
- I use Program (P) mode on my camera so the camera selects the best shutter speed and aperture combination automatically. I set my exposure compensation dial (EV) to -1/3. Then, I take the shot. Yeah, it looks dark on the camera screen. If I’m worried about it not turning out well later then I take another shot that is at 0 EV. Also, you can use any mode (Av, Tv, etc.) and I often do, but Program mode is just my example here. I also use this technique to reduce the amount of blown-out highlights in a photo by shooting it, then check the image on my camera for highlight warnings (blinking areas), then re-shooting with a lower EV if I have too many blown-out areas. -1/3 is only a guideline remember. If you have to go lower to get away from the highlight warnings and blown-out areas, then do it. It is always easier to recover some low light area details in a photo than highlight ones, and a photo always looks better if the highlights have not been recovered (via recovery slider in Lightroom) in post-processing. Ones with recovered highlights look darker and “muddier.”
- I import the photo into my computer (back up, convert to DNG, all of that). Now I can work with the RAW (DNG format) photo in my software (Lightroom).
- Next, I work in the “tone” panel and I bring up the exposure if needed. I don’t want to go above +1/3 (0.33), but I want to go right up to it if it is necessary. This all depends on the photo itself and sometimes the “auto” button can be a friend here. I usually try the “auto” tone button first and see what I think. If it is too much, then I undo and just adjust the exposure myself.
- Now I set the black level by dragging the slider for “blacks” to the right. While I do this, I also will periodically hold down the alt key while doing it. This shows the edges where the black clipping is occurring. I want to see some good outlines of the objects in the photo so it looks really sharp and in-focus, so I adjust the slider until I see faint outlines. I don’t want to go too far or else the photo will look too dark and I’ll lose detail in the shadow areas (they’ll be all black).
- At this point, and really all throughout the process of adjusting the “tone” (blacks, fill light, recovery, exposure), I watch the histogram very carefully. I want to have good content spread throughout the histogram, extending to each end, but not exceeding. This sets the maximum dynamic range. For impact, I want to have higher levels in the histogram toward either end, but this is largely determined by what is in the photo and not really in my control at this phase. Still, I can influence it with the tone controls. And, you may ask, what of the contrast and brightness sliders? I leave them alone. There is nothing in them that the other four sliders (blacks, fill light, recovery, exposure) don’t accomplish.
- Now I just continue with my regular workflow (described in a previous post). However, since the focus is looking so good right now, there may be a reduced need for sharpening, so I tweak-down my normal sharpening routine to compensate, reducing the amount I normally apply.
- I also know that noise is in the shadows of underexposed images, and since this photo is slightly underexposed in the camera, it may have a little bit more noise in those shadows. So I tweak-up the amount of noise reduction and look closely at the shadows to reduce the noise there. Here’s where both taking the photo with a DSLR and shooting in RAW format helps. These two things always lead to lower-noise images.
Why it Works
This technique works because the eye sets color based on the black levels seen in an image. By having great blacks, you have great color. It is as simple as that. This is because luminosity and color are intimately combined. Without luminosity, there is no color (everything is black). This is also why black is “looked at” first by your mind and then you base everything off of how much black is in an image.
Also, if there are blown out highlights in an image, then you are instantly attracted to them. Just critique any photo and see for yourself how you think. Highlights are important. Don’t let them become overblown if you can help it. And keep in mind that in real life we can usually see details in bright areas (except looking at the sun), but not often in shadows. So if the shadows are darker, it looks perfectly natural to us.
- Shadows = looks normal to us because we can’t usually see details in shadows in real life.
- Highlights = looks unnatural if they are too bright, because usually, we can see details in the highlights.
- Rule: Expose to the left (slightly underexpose (-1/3 EV)). Most of the time you should sacrifice shadow detail to keep good highlights.
This is really too easy for the great results you get. As I wrote in a previous post, “shooting to the left” is better all around and this just proves it. Try this technique and see for yourself! (And amaze your friends!)
Thank you for reading what I wrote – I hope you enjoyed it!