I was speaking to a student today about histograms and blown-out highlights. You know, the part of the image that is so bright that the sensor can not hold any information, aka “blown-out”. As you know, your camera sensor can not record all of the dynamic range that your eye can see, and your brain can resolve. We can look at a scene and deal with bright contrast, highlights, and still see information in the shadows. Cameras, even really good ones can not do this as well as your eyes, and even you tricky folks out there who are fans of HDR, still must admit, it doesn’t look the way a human sees it. Really. I’m not saying it is a look that is “bad”; although when over done it is – I’m saying it doesn’t look the way a scene looks to me in real life. Don’t quibble, this isn’t the point I am making.
The point you ask? Talking about histograms and highlights, the student asked me, “is it ever ok to have blown out highlights in your image?”. This is a great question, really. And the answer is simple. The answer is concise. The answer you have been patiently waiting for is, yes! Huh? Yes! It is in fact ok to have blown out highlights – if and only if you want that to happen. If it is a conscious choice, by you, the owner and operator of your.. ….wait, not your camera, but your creative vision!
Once you learn how to use your camera, and what your histogram means, you can then apply that knowledge to do what you are meant to do, which is create the image you want to create. When might you want to live with or even embrace blown out highlights? Here are a few times: specular highlights, open bright windows, light bulbs, a white canopy on a parade float, chrome bumpers – any time that you really don’t need those pixels and decreasing your exposure to keep them in the shot would muddy up and degrade the rest of the shot.
In the portrait of the young man on the front of this post there are blown- out highlights, aka “blinkies”, in his hair and along the edge of his hand. In the image below of the man with the hammer, there are blinkies around the windows, the edge of his glasses, top edge of the bouys. In the image of the baby eating sand, the sand and sky are blown out. Why? Because other elements in the photo took priority. In this case it was the over-all feel of the scene, it need to have the feeling of a sunny day at the beach – I purposely wanted the image to feel hot and be very bright. I also wanted the pale pink skin tones on the face preserved. Had I used my exposure compensation to keep the highlights within the histogram, and dynamic range of the sensor, the actual photograph I was trying to create would have suffered.
In the case of my daughter throwing snow, I don’t mind the blown-out white snow, and had I pulled back my compensation, the entire image would have been murky and muddy. As for the ropers waiting to rope, the blown-out lights create a strong visual element and they don’t need to be anything other than bright. Adjusting the exposure downward would have made the rest of the image to dark and dull. We are pretty happy to see and read white lights as blown out, it a convention we are all used to seeing and seem to accept.
The key to good photography is know when to change something and why. Think about the end product and what you are trying to capture. See, the great thing about photography is that once you understand a couple of basics, you can use that knowledge to not only take, but to actually create images you like.