How to Expose for the Highlights

Are you a landscape photographer looking to create compelling photos? In today’s article, you’re going to learn a simple trick to balance light across your scene.

You need to expose for the highlights in the scene, and post-processing can handle the rest.

Why Expose for the Highlights?

The reason to expose for the highlights is that you want to use post-processing to edit your photo later. Exposing for the highlights will likely mean a large part of your photo is underexposed.

The aim of post-processing is to recover this underexposed part of the photo. This way your entire frame is exposed correctly. In the past, older camera sensors would not process the dark area of your frame so well. Today’s cameras are better able to keep data in the dark parts of your frame.

Of course you’ll want to use RAW to make this style work.

This technique works in a similar way to HDR or digital blending. With those, you take photos of several dynamic ranges and then put them together into one photo. This photo is then correctly exposed across the frame.

The advantage of exposing for the highlights is that you get the same result with one photo and no need to bracket.

What’s Dynamic Range?

Dynamic range describes the exposure value of the photo you’re taking. A camera is only able to take photos in one dynamic range.

This can be great when you want to produce silhouettes in your photos. But how come your eyes don’t see these silhouettes as well? The answer is because your eye is a lot more complex than even today’s most complex cameras.

Your eye is able to process what you see in many different dynamic ranges. It gives you a clear representation of the world. And it’s balanced because it includes many different dynamic ranges.

If your camera only produces results in one dynamic range, how can you fix this?

  • Filters – You can use Graduated ND filters to balance light across the photo.
  • Bracketing – You can take a series of photos at different exposure values. You could use up to seven different bracketed photos for this. These will then be blended together using a process like HDR or digital blending.
  • Post-processing – You can use post-processing to recover the parts of your photo that were not correctly exposed. A RAW file is needed for this process.

Locking the Exposure

This is a relatively simple process. There are a few extra steps you can take to make this even easier on yourself.

  1. Put the spot metering for your photo in the center of the grid. This is what you use to choose where the camera focuses, but it also records exposure as well.
  2. Aim at the area of your frame where the highlights are, this is likely to be the sky.
  3. Press your shutter halfway, and the exposure and focus will be locked. Now keep your finger at this halfway position.
  4. Move your camera back to the composed photo you wish to take, and press to take that photo. Your image will now be exposed for the highlights.