Image of flowering Eryngium. Cerro de la Muerte, Costa Rica. Photo by Eduardo Libby.

Photographer, know thy camera!

Photographer, know thy camera!

We  know we should not take pictures with important highlights clipped from our precious photos. This is why our cameras show histograms and flashing pixels in the LCD, but… are they always right?

I was taking photos of wildflowers and I noticed there were flashing pixels in the whitish sepals when making what I thought was the right exposure. I knew that cameras calculate the histogram and the overexposure warnings from the in-camera jpegs (or from the jpeg preview embedded into the raw files) and would not be accurate, but I decided not to take chances and decreased my exposure until the highlight clipping was gone.

Camera-produced jpegs are processed to show good midtones (where our main subject normally is) and forget about deep shadows and highlights if needed by the quick internal decisions taken by the camera’s computer.

Back home I looked at the photos and yes, the highlights were clipped in the jpeg files… but the raw files looked just fine (I shoot raw + jpeg). Luckily I didn’t delete my “overexposed” photos in the field!

Image of Eryngium flowers showing different exposure settings and processing. Photo by Eduardo Libby
From left to right: highlight-clipped camera jpeg and the raw file, “highlight exposed” camera jpeg and the corrected raw file. Notice how the sepals on the right show the clipping and how noisy the correction looks (I did not apply noise reduction to try to fix this problem). Click to enlarge.
Image of Eryngium flowers showing different exposure settings and processing. Photo by Eduardo Libby
Image showing Expression Media’s exposure warnings. They correspond to near-white and near-black pixels but not necessarily to lost data. From left to right: highlight-clipped camera jpeg and the raw file, “highlight exposed” camera jpeg and the corrected raw file. Click to enlarge.

This is not a new lesson for me, but I certainly learned an important one when I tried to fix the “underexposed” photos in Lightroom just to see… They looked flat, grainy and lacking detail in the shadows. I looked to the exposure compensation needed and it was over two stops! No wonder they looked bad.

Image of flowering Eryngium. Cerro de la Muerte, Costa Rica. Photo by Eduardo Libby.
Eryngium. Cerro de la Muerte (Death’s Mountain), Costa Rica.

We hear a lot about not to clip the highlights (these are the important, textured highlights, not the light sources or their reflections), but we should know what our camera display tells us and decide whether we should pay attention to the warnings or not.

I wonder if all cameras behave in the same way. Does yours?

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