How I avoid blown out highlights in photos and video

a toy car by Jaime Lopes no blown out highlights in this one!

You may not understand what highlights are at all, but I’ll get there don’t worry! When it comes to storing images, video or audio in a digital way I find it is usually better to avoid ‘over doing it’ with the levels… This is what I mean and how I avoid blown out highlights in photos and video.

Record digital audio a little quieter

I deal with it briefly here but will write a longer article about this in the audio world. Basically its better to record at a slightly lower level and increase the gain in post than to risk overloading the input on your digital recorder…

This article though, is about highlights and that is about photo and video. Its fundamentally the same though check it out.

So its about exposure right?

In the visual world we are talking about exposure rather than level. I’ll keep this very brief!
In order to avoid losing details in the brighter areas of the stored image, the ‘highlights’, I will usually under expose slightly and then boost the exposure in post (when editing in the computer) to correct this. This generally means that I will avoid blowing out the highlights and losing the details in those areas.

I thought only amateurs fix it in post?

Of-course the reality is that I’m most often under time-pressure or having to rush to capture something. So just keep in mind that this is my context. If I had the time and the monitoring to absolutely nail the exposure in camera then I’d just do that! But it often goes further than just the settings in the camera, its also about lighting, composition and the set or location of a shot as well. For many of us, we don’t have the time or budget to tint a window, set up more lights or move everything to a new location or time of day to avoid a very high-contrast scene for example! So we just have to make it work now or we miss the moment.

OK just show me what you mean about the highlights?

Here are two images that are roughly the same. They should help to illustrate what I’m talking about.

I’ve under-exposed the image on the left and then brightened this up in post.

Then the image on the right I’ve over-exposed and darkened in post.

This is so that both images are roughly exposed the same in the end. As you can see, some of the details in the bright areas (the highlights) have been lost even when darkening the image in the computer later. But, the detail in the mid-tones and darker areas of the under-exposed image are mostly restored when boosting the levels:

 

So give this a try… I know it might seem like this adds an extra step because you now have to increase the exposure in the computer, but lets face it… Aren’t we all adding a filter at least before we stick something up on instagram!!??

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