Light & Dark

I was editing a photograph of a Heron the other day and was worried that the parts of the bird which were being struck the most by light were “blown out”, by which I mean they didn’t contain any detail. And the parts of the bird which were most in shadow were “blocked in”, ie they also contained no detail.

In camera club competitions, issues like these are seen as “judge bait”. In other words, a judge will pick up on the fact and deduct points for the ‘flaw’. It’s long been something which has puzzled me.

Golden Girl

The reality of life is that when strong light hits an object it will cause specular highlights, ie blobs of nothing but white light. And when an object is in deep shadow it will simply appear black. This is normal and determined by the laws of physics. Why, then, are specular highlights and black shadows seen as such a problem in photography? Answer – I have no clue!

While most areas of light will contain some detail, and most areas of shadow will contain some detail, at the far end of both spectrums there are going to be ‘blown out’ and ‘blocked in’ objects. This is most evident when taking photographs of the sun, which will cause some parts of the sky to be featureless and some objects on the ground to appear in silhouette. To me, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this and we shouldn’t be forced to start cloning small areas of sky in editing software in order to make a completely natural scene appear unnatural.

Nobody wants to see huge areas of blown out highlights and blocked in shadows in an image because it makes for a dull photograph with nothing much to see. This is something which appears a lot in beginner photography, and the less experienced shooter should be helped to assess the conditions when taking a picture to make sure they capture a scene in its best light. But there are going to be situations when a small amount of specular highlight or black shadow is normal for the conditions and, IMHO, should be classed as perfectly acceptable.

The storytelling value of an image should always be weighed more than the technical aspects, but I’m not sure that’s always the case.

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