A good photograph or a good exposure?

I want to consider one of the most important aspects of photography, the difference between a good exposure and a good photograph. A good photograph is dependent upon getting the exposure right but a good exposure is not of itself a good photograph.

Getting it right in camera is a good aim but especially with landscape photography where the photographer does not have control of the lighting this is not always possible. What should be done at the point of recording is to make a good exposure. In this respect photography has not changed as it moved from film to digital. I know there will be a few purists who will say, “I never edit my photographs.” Well, that is their loss; good editing can make almost any exposure better. When we talk of landscape photography our minds must at some point turn to Ansel Adams who was well known to spend a whole day in the darkroom just to make one print; this after developing each negative individually to suit the exposure conditions!

So what is a good exposure? The first target is to make an exposure which has no areas that are “blocked up” shadows, meaning dark areas where there is no detail and no “blown” highlights or light areas without detail. For subsequent post-processing the usually quoted guide is “ETTR” or expose to the right. This means the right side of the histogram, being the light areas. (We will consider the histogram in a subsequent paragraph.) Why is this? Well in post processing an image will start to show noise in the dark areas when trying to open up the shadows a lot whereas an over bright image does not degrade in the same way when darkened down. All this assumes you are shooting RAW images and not jpegs which will stand far less post processing.

The ultimate goal is still to get the desired final result in camera and to this end please consider the use of neutral density filters to prevent the sky being too light or of polarising filters to control reflections and saturation.

The histogram shows the amount of light recorded by the sensor at each of 256 levels of brightness.

Examining the Histogram
Examining the Histogram

This is the scene as recorded; the tones are all there, the composition pleasing and there is enough negative space around the island to set the scene. No filters were used and in consequence the sky is very light.

South Stack Lighthouse, straight out of camera.
South Stack Lighthouse, straight out of camera.

This is the colour image after editing including the addition in post processing of an exposure reduction to the sky. The image now has much more “punch.”

South Stack Lighthouse

A monochrome edit in which the contrast has been enhanced further to bring out the dramatic light. I have sought to have a large tonal range in all three elements of the picture, sea, sky and island and to prevent one area being much brighter than another and so drawing the eye to a large bright area. Note that at the dark (left hand) end of the histogram there is a vertical bar of pixels. These pixels are fully black with no detail in them but because they are spread around the frame they do not detract from the final print.

South Stack Lighthouse

One final edit to think about; paste the monochrome edit on top of the colour edit and change the bland mode of the top layer to luminosity and this is the result. A colour image with real punch!

South Stack Lighthouse

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