How to Avoid Burned-Out Highlights :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Avoid Burned-Out Highlights

by David Peterson 1 comment

With very few exceptions, every photograph needs to have shadows and highlights. Defined, a shadow is an area that contains true blacks, and a highlight is an area that contains true whites. It sounds simple, but you probably already know that there’s an art to capturing those highlights and shadows. You can have true blacks in your photograph, but that doesn’t mean that they’re good shadows. And you can have true whites in your photograph, too, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are good highlights. How do you know the difference? Read on to find out.

[ Top image washed me redux by Flickr user Djuliet]

    Gary & Buddy on Sled by Flickr user gem66

    Sometimes, it seems like no matter what you do, your photos end up with the bad kinds of highlights. Like a good highlight, a bad highlight is an area of pure white—but the difference is that it appears in a part of the photograph where you would prefer to see detail. An excellent example of where this commonly happens is in the sky. Sometimes you can shoot on a beautiful sunny day with a bright blue sky and capture nothing but white where that gorgeous blue sky is supposed to be. In this situation, the whole sky becomes one big blown-out highlight. And it is not desirable for a couple of reasons.

    First, people expect to look up into the sky and see brilliant blue. Or, if it is not a sunny day, they at least expect to be able to look up there and see some texture in the form of clouds. No one really expects to look at the sky and see nothing but brilliant, bright white. So a blown out sky makes people feel uncomfortable, because it’s not really something you see in the real world.

    Second, a burned out sky draws the eye away from the rest of the scene. Your viewer’s natural inclination is to look at all that white—it’s the brightest part of the image, so it’s where the eye wants to go first. And because there’s nothing there but white, you run the risk of boring your viewer before he even has a chance to see the rest of the photo.

    In the sky, of course, isn’t the only place where this can happen. You can get blown out hot spots anywhere in your photo, especially when you shoot at mid-day, when the sun is shining brightly on your subject. You’ve probably seen this happen in peoples faces, on surfaces such as rocks, trees or the ground—it can happen in pretty much any situation where there is a lot of contrast. And when those blown-out highlights land on something important (like a face), they replace detail. So instead of showing your viewer a complete picture of your subject, the viewer instead sees a blob of white light with no detail to tell them about the surface of that object or the face of that person.

    This is not something you want to have in any photo, with few exceptions (when you’re shooting a high key image or when you’re deliberately using high contrast as a device—these are the limited situations where you might want to attempt to capture blown-out highlights). But most of the time, you need to take steps to avoid those overblown highlights.

    Why blow-out happens

    You may have wondered why you get those blown out highlights, especially when you consider that you don’t see the world that way. When you’re walking around at mid-day, you don’t lose detail when you look at areas lit by the sun, or when you look at areas that fall into shadow. Your eyes are generally capable of adjusting to all of those changes in tonal value, which means that you don’t see blown out highlights with your eyes. But you do see it with your camera, and the reason why is because camera technology simply has not gotten to the point where it can emulate what we see with our eyes. Most cameras aren’t capable of capturing that full range of tones from black to white, otherwise known as “dynamic range,” especially when the sun is high and the conditions are clear.

    Dynamic range is measured in terms of EV, which stands for “exposure value.” You may have also heard this referred to as “stops.” Now, if you compare human eyes to the image sensors on most modern cameras, your eyes see roughly the equivalent of 10 to 14 stops of difference between shadow and highlight. The difference between our eyes and a camera, of course, is that our eyes are always making adjustments as we look around a scene, so this number may be a little low depending on your interpretation. But for the most part, that 10 to 14 stops is a whole lot better than most cameras.

    The difference is starkest when you compare the human eye to a budget compact camera, which may only be able to capture between five and seven stops of dynamic range. DSLRs do better, with a good quality DSLR able to capture between eight and 11 stops of dynamic range. And the technology is getting better and better as the years pass, so I think you can expect to see cameras that come pretty close to the capabilities of the human eye in the near future—but we’re not quite there yet. So in the meantime, you need to make yourself aware of dynamic range and get a good understanding of how you can use this knowledge to avoid those unwanted highlights.

      Grimes Glen, Naples, NY by Flickr user Matt Callow

      Fortunately, there are ways to do this even when you’re shooting in less than ideal lighting situations. But first, let’s talk about how you can avoid those less than ideal lighting situations altogether.

      Shoot during the golden hour

      For the most part, dynamic range is going to be an issue for you whenever you are shooting in bright sunny conditions, especially at mid-day. Because the sun has less atmosphere to travel through at mid-day, more of that sunlight reaches the earth, which results in a scene with more dynamic range. So to avoid this problem altogether, simply change the time of day that you take pictures. Instead of shooting at mid-day, aim for that hour just after sunrise or just before sunset. Yes, this is somewhat limiting because it is a very small window of time. However, it’s going to give you the least amount of trouble with burned out highlights, with one notable exception.

      Anytime you shoot the sunset, you’re going to be back to that dynamic range problem again, especially when the sun appears in the frame. The sun by itself is obviously at the brightest thing in our world, which means that it’s going to have a very profound effect on the amount of dynamic range in your photograph. Happily, there are ways to cope with that, and I’ll get into them later on in this article.

      • Nikon D40X
      • 200
      • f/25.0
      • 0.25 sec (1/4)
      • 26 mm

      The golden hour ......... by Flickr user Nicolas Valentin

      Shoot on an overcast day, or in open shade

      If you prefer not to be limited by that short window of time at either end of the day, you can instead choose to shoot on an overcast day. You may have heard photographers call overcast days “nature’s soft box,” and they do this for a good reason. On an overcast day, the light is filtered by the clouds, so you can spend all day taking pictures and the light is going to remain pretty even as long as the weather does not change. The drawback to overcast days, however, is that the dynamic range is so low that your images may appear flat. On overcast days, that difference in the tonal range between shadows and highlights a maybe as a limited as 3 to 5 stops, so you will have to do other things to bring that sense of dimension back to photos you shoot in those conditions. You can use a reflector or a black flag to create missing highlights and shadows, or you can simply go into your favorite piece of post processing software after-the-fact and do a levels adjustment to help add black to the shadows and brighten the highlights.

      Open shade will give you similar results, and it’s generally better for human subjects, too—instead of squinting into the sun, a subject you move into open shade will look a lot more natural.

      Use fill flash

      If you do find yourself taking pictures at midday on a sunny day (and there are plenty of reasons why this might happen, including but not limited to events that were scheduled at midday on a sunny day), then there are other things you can do to cope with all that extra light in-camera. One of the simplest solutions is to use fill flash. I recommend just using your popup flash, especially if you’re pretty close to your subject (popup flash doesn’t have a lot of range, so you can’t use it for zoomed shots). Your flash will fill in the dark shadows, which will in turn even out the light and make it so that your camera doesn’t have to capture the highlights as blown-out.

        Fill Flash Can Be Beautiful 1 by Flickr user The Digital Story

        Use a reflector

        Another effective way to banish those blown out highlights is with a reflector. Reflectors are a little fiddly to use but overall they give you better results than the direct light from your pop-up flash. Use a photographer’s reflector—they are inexpensive and usually come in sets that include several different reflectors with different colored surfaces. Depending on how much light there is, you can use a white reflector, a silver reflector, or a gold one. The cool thing about reflectors is that you can adjust the angle and position of the reflector so that the light goes only where you want it to. The drawback, of course, that you need some way to hold or mount the reflector in place. This often means using an assistant, or you could use a stand to try and get the reflector exactly where you want it. You could also ask your subject to hold it—but all of these techniques mean you can’t really get a candid shot, because there’s just too much setup involved.

        Use the white reflector on a sunny day, use the silver reflector on an overcast day (it will produce much brighter light and may actually exacerbate the problem of overblown highlights if you try to use it in full sun). Use the golden reflector if you want to add a warm glow to your subject. There also two other “reflectors” included in the set which are not actually reflectors at all—one is a diffuser, which you can use to cut back on the amount of dynamic range by placing it between your subject and the light source (usually the sun). The other black “reflector” is actually called a “black flag,” and it is used to create shadow. Once again, this is good for overcast days when the light is flat and there is a lack of contrast.

        Use a graduated neutral density filter

        Another way you can cut back on blown-out highlights, especially in the sky or at sunset, is to use a graduated neutral density filter. This is a device that you mount in front of your lens—it has a darker part and a clear part with a graduated division between the two (hence the name). Graduated neutral density filters are used for landscapes, because they act as a pair of sunglasses, cutting back on the amount of light in the sky while leaving the foreground as-is. This will dramatically reduce the amount of dynamic range in the scene and will allow you to capture detail in both the sky and in the foreground. Graduated neutral-density filters are particularly useful for sunset situations such as I described above, when the sun is included as a part of the composition.

        • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
        • 100
        • f/11.0
        • 1.6
        • 17 mm

        Church - Wallendbeen NSW by Flickr user sachman75

        Shoot in HDR

        Another technique you can try whenever you're shooting in any high dynamic range situation is HDR, otherwise known as “high dynamic range” photography. Despite what you may have heard, HDR is actually a very simple technique, which involves shooting three separate images of the same scene (one at a stop below the suggested meter reading, one a stop above and one right in the middle). When you combine all three images you end up with a photo that is the best of all worlds. Your software will take the highlights from the underexposed shot, the shadows from the overexposed shot, and the other tones from the shot in between and you'll end up with the best possible exposure for that situation.

        To shoot in HDR, the one thing you do need is a tripod—that’s because you need all three shots to line up exactly or you could end up with double imaging in the final image. Something else that you need to have, obviously, is post-processing software that is capable of combining the three images into one HDR file.

        If you’ve spent any time looking at HDR photos on Flickr, you may have been led to believe that HDR photos are always a little over-the-top and over-processed looking. That’s not actually true, in fact, you can choose image combining options that look very natural—so natural that no one ever need know that the image is HDR.

        • Canon EOS 5D Mark III
        • 100
        • f/8.0
        • 0.001 sec (1/2000)
        • 24 mm

        The Bridge Into Town by Flickr user Baron Reznik

        Expose for the highlights

        When all else fails—let's say you don't have a pop-up flash or you don't have a set of reflectors, and you don't tripod for shooting HDR—you can still take a photograph in less-than-ideal light. Generally speaking, capturing detail in the highlights is more important than capturing detail in the shadows. So you can simply underexpose your photograph to the point where the shadows become very black, but highlights still have detail. This is not the ideal way to do it, but it is the better way to capture the shot when you're out of other options.

        To do this well, you will need to use your histogram. First take a test shot at whatever meter reading your camera thinks you should use, then check out the histogram for the test shot. If you have clipping in the highlights (areas of lost detail), you will need to make adjustments to your exposure until the clipped areas are no longer present. On your histogram, clipped highlights just sort of abruptly end at the vertical edge of the histogram rather than gradually tapering off to the bottom horizontal. If you do get clipping, underexpose the shot and then check your histogram again—the exposure is correct when you get that tapering off look on the right side of the chart. Don't worry about the shadows, because we’ve already established that you're going to lose detail there.


        So you're stuck outside with a camera on a bright sunny day—all is not lost. You can still get some pretty awesome shots at really inconvenient times of the day, you just need to know what the tricks are. And fortunately, once you've learned all of those tricks implementing them really isn't so tough. Just keep this list in mind and run through it whenever you are in a difficult lighting situation. Some tricks will work better in some situations than others will, and eventually you’ll develop an instinct for choosing just the right one.


        1. Burned out highlights are distracting
        2. Burned out highlights are a dynamic range problem
          • Most cameras can’t capture a full range of tones from black to white
        3. Shoot in lower dynamic range situations
          • The golden hour
          • Overcast days
          • Open shade
        4. Use fill flash
        5. Use a reflector
        6. Use a graduated neutral density filter
        7. Shoot in HDR
        8. Expose for the highlights

        Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


        1. wesmal says:

          I have a nikon D3300, is HDR on my camera

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