This time of year it’s not the cloudy days that are the property photographer’s enemy, it’s the bright sunny ones.

This is especially the case if there are big trees or other tall structures causing high-contrast shadows over gardens and elevations when the bright Sun drops behind them – at this time of year that would be most of the daytime.

The problem is that there is, on a bright day, a difference of around 22 f-stops worth of available light in the real world* but the average digital camera records detail in a range equal to around 7 f-stops (less able cameras) to 14 (more able SLR cameras). The human eye can see the equivalent of around 20 f-stops in a scene, because it constantly adjusts as it focusses on different elements of it. In plain English, this translates to the unfortunate fact that in high-contrast scenes, a photograph’s detail can easily be lost with blocky shadows at one end of the scale or blown highlights at the other.

So – what to do?

Well, as always, there are choices in photography just as in life itself. The choice you make should be determined by the result you want and how much effort you’re prepared to put in and how smartly you want to work.

A popular first choice would be to take the photo on a day when light is diffused by clouds, thereby squeezing down the dynamic range to one that’s more easily recorded by your camera’s sensor. So if you have a more capable SLR camera you’ll do better than you would with a less capable compact camera or SLR. But even a less able camera will produce a better photo when available light is less contrasty.

A second option would be to try blending three or more photos taken from a tripod, changing the shutter speed so that you end up with under-exposed, normally exposed and over-exposed frames of the scene. But for this to work there can be little or preferably no movement in the scene. So leaves, trees etc must be perfectly still. I’ve never really been happy with results using this method. A variation of this would be to take a raw file and make two copies. With one of the copies reduce the exposure, and the other copy increase it before blending the three. Purists will baulk at this idea but it can be quite effective on occasion.

Another option would be to start with a RAW file and edit in 16bit. When these are taken optimally you should be able to recover some of the blown out highlights and see deeper into the shadows. With high-contrast scenes it’s always a good idea to check the camera’s histogram to make sure that the highlights aren’t too clipped. Once that happens there’s no data there to recover. So if a white elevation, for example, is in the clipped part of the photo then it’s highly unlikely that you’ll recover much of its texture and you may lose important other white detail such as parts of windows or conservatories. Note, the camera’s histogram is a really powerful tool when you have high-contrast photos to take. Use it. Or you can set your camera to show clipped highlights, illustrating with a flashing  display where data will be lost.

My favourite technique and I think the most effective and easiest approach to this issue however, is to use Lightroom. Specifically the adjustment brush. It’s as well to start with a good RAW file and after making the other adjustments then use the Adjustment Brush to lighten the deeper shadows, improve contrast, colour, saturation etc. The differences that can be made to a high-contrast image are stunning and this one tool alone makes the program worth its weight.

Here’s an example of a photo that’s been treated with Lightroom’s Adjustment Brush. It’s a really powerful tool that can transform a no-hope photo into one that’ll show the house off. If I’d exposed for the shadows then the house would have been over-exposed to the point that detail would have been lost. So it was necessary to expose for the house, and to sort out the shadows in post-production.

By ‘sort out’ I mean that with the Adjustment Brush Lightroom lets you paint in a mask that then can be adjusted with your Exposure, Contrast, Saturation etc etc sliders.

Ground-shot-by-hello-photo - contrast too great

One of my shots, December, very low Sun, trees, hideous.


The same shot after it has been improved in Lightroom – leaves also removed.


See asterisk above. * Meaning that to record detail in the darkest areas and in the brightest (think darkest night and bright Sun), without altering the shutter speed or ISO, the largest and smallest apertures would need to be set to around 22 f-stops apart.

One Response to “How to Overcome a Property Photographer’s Enemy”

  1. Simon Liddiard Says:

    Totally agree John.

    Many vendors make comments like “it’s not a very good day – the sky is all grey. The photos will look terrible” but secretly I’m always happy for a flat, diffused light! The hard directional light on blue-sky days is always a challenge!