Letting Go of Highlights

CapriSpires.jpgI’ve been scouting some areas in the general vicinity of Rome, Italy, contemplating adding some side trips for a photo tour I’m planning to host in Rome, and that let me to the island of Capri off the coast of Naples.

I decided the best way to get a sense of Capri was to take a boat tour around the perimeter of the island, and this turned out to be a very good idea. The water close to the shore starts as an incredible turquoise color, and transitions into an amazing cobalt blue. And the terrain rises up out of the sea at such an incredible angle that it appears the entire island is a cliff rising vertically. It can inspire contemplation about just how deep the sea must be even very close to shore.

It was in the context of this adventure that the boat I was on ventured toward the Blue Grotto. The Blue Grotto is essentially a cave on the coast of Capri that you can row into for a remarkable view. My schedule didn’t allow me the extra time to explore the Blue Grotto, but I was able to enjoy the scene of many small rowboats and quite a few larger boats ferrying other passengers to take in the sights in the Grotto.

CapriRower.jpgOf course, at this point, due to my schedule limitations, the light was quite harsh. To make matters worse, that harsh light was also coming from the wrong angle, with the small rowboats backlit from my perspective.

Normally I do all I can to retain highlight detail in my images, though of course when it comes to specular highlights I’ll cut myself a little slack (mostly out of necessity). In this case, however, the highlights seemed to dominate the scene. The entirety of the sea seemed to be highlights. And by highlights I really mean a completely blown out lack of detail. This created some extreme contrast for the subject that interested me at the moment.

In a rare moment I decided to just let the highlights go. I wasn’t going to concern myself with highlight detail. Instead, I would just focus on the key subject, setting my exposure so the small rowboat was exposed well, along with the man who was operating that boat with tremendous skill. The highlights were thus exposed as completely blown-out areas of the photo. But I decided to be OK with that.

When I got back on dry land and had a chance to review my photos, I was happy with my decision. Not a hang-it-on-the-wall photo, to be sure, but one that most certainly represented the experience I had on a boat circling Capri and taking in the scene of others who were able to enjoy the Blue Grotto.

At the end of the day it was really more about exploring a new location that held some potential for a future photo tour. But along the way I had some great experiences, took in some incredible sights, and even captured a few images that preserve the memories of the experience for me.

About Tim Grey

Tim Grey is in the business of making photographers smarter and happier. He is the author of more than a dozen books on digital imaging for photographers, has written hundreds of magazine articles, and publishes the Ask Tim Grey e-mail newsletter as well as the Pixology digital magazine. He also speaks at a variety of events and leads photography workshops around the world.
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4 Responses to Letting Go of Highlights

  1. Britt says:

    In this image the darker values are more important than the missing highlights – my eye naturally accepts that the highlights are specular. You did a nice job of preserving the mid-tones in the small boat and occupant. Until we get some new miracle sensor that will hold 20 stops, we’ll always run into this type of situation… good job.

    • Tim Grey says:

      Britt – Thanks very much! And yes, one of these days I’m sure we’ll have a sensor that can handle a huge dynamic range, and then we’ll just decide after the fact what range we really want. Someday…


  2. Bill Brennan says:

    Tim, some of the most memorable photos have blown out highlights. Happy that you let them go and got a memorable image. You told the story and your viewers understand.

    Bill Brennan

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