Photography exposure in high contrast landscape scenes

Photography exposure and how to expose well in landscape photography is one of the questions I’m asked a lot. When I started photographing landscapes one of the biggest problems I had was to get the exposure right. I did, and I know many beginners get into landscape photography when they photograph sunsets.

Very few of us start with sunrises, why? Well, easy, we don't get up from bed in time. As you learn about the importance of light in landscape photography, you’ll soon get out of bed early. But that’s another story.

My first sunsets were a mess of orange and black. The warm colors from sunsets certainly get noticed, but there was something wrong with the photos. The rest of the landscape, the trees, and the mountains were completely black, with no details.

I could not figure out which camera settings to use to get the whole scene evenly lit. So, I started the search for the magical exposure setting. As I experimented with aperture and shutter speed, I believed there had to be a magic combination of the two that would give me a good exposure.

photography exposure high contrast

This is a high contrast scene where the sun has just went down behind the mountain. I made sure I did not blow out the highlight areas in the sky and water. To achieve this I had to take control and underexpose the photo slightly. The shadows became very dark, but I knew I was able to fix this in Lightroom later.

To make exposure even more complicated, in digital photography there is one more setting that confuses beginners - ISO. When I learned photography, I used film.

Those who are old enough remember back in the film days the film sensitivity was given as ASA (like ISO in digital). But with film, there were only two settings to play with (aperture and shutter speed). When I loaded a film into my camera, the ASA was set for that entire roll of film.

One of the advantages of digital is you can adjust the ISO separately for each photo you take. It’s an advantage but also another parameter to create confusion because now you have tree setting to consider.

Landscape photography exposure is difficult because the light conditions can be very challenging. It's not possible to modify or move the light, so you need to understand the limitations of your camera and how to work with natural light.

Is the photography Exposure Triangle of any help?

When you start to learn photography exposure, you will soon hear the term Exposure Triangle. The triangle is essential to understand, but it doesn't take into consideration the limitations of your camera. The Exposure Triangle explains how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are linked together. By combining the three parameters, you can decide which exposure is right for your particular scene.

You will find more information about aperture and shutter speed in the two articles below.
What is aperture and how does it affect your photos
What is shutter speed

When you adjust any of the three parameters in the Exposure Triangle, you will brighten or darken the whole image. No combination will darken the highlights and brighten the shadows separately. So, unfortunately, the magic is not found in the Exposure Triangle. 

Is the solution the camera Exposure Modes?

I continued to learn and found no matter what aperture or shutter speed I used I could not get my sunsets evenly lit. Could there be other settings on my camera I was overlooking? I started to experiment with the exposure meter settings. As you might know, more advanced cameras have several ways to set how to measure light. The three most common are:

The camera meters the light from a wide area of the frame in an attempt to expose all parts of the scene evenly.

The camera measures the entire frame but assigns more value to the center area. Center-weighted can be a good choice if you place the main subject near or in the center of the composition.

The camera measures the light from a very small area (spot) in the frame. You can move the spot to the area you want to measure the light. Spot metering is best when you want to make sure a given part of the scene is exposed right. When I photograph and expose landscapes, I use the spot metering most of the time. Spot metering gives me the most control, and I can measure the light exactly where I want.

For a while, I thought the Exposure Modes was the solution to my failed exposures. As I tried the different settings I found if I measured the brighter areas of the photo, the highlights were exposed correctly while the dark areas became way too dark. When I metered the dark areas, the shadows were nicely exposed, but the highlights became way too bright. I lost details in the highlights.

After some trials and error, I realized I could not get an evenly lit exposure no matter how I changed aperture, shutter speed or exposure modes. There had to be a way to deal with this because other photographers got the exposure right, also with sunsets.

The limitations of the camera sensor

Photography exposure is a mystery for many beginners. When you don’t know the limitations, it’s easy to trust the camera too much. All cameras have shortcomings when it comes to exposure. 

In a high contrast scene like a sunset, the camera cannot make one exposure where both highlights (the sun) and the shadow (the rest of the landscape) are properly exposed. You must find a “middle way” which means the best possible exposure for the particular scene.

I was struggling with these problems for many years when I used film. The day I bought my first digital camera my whole photography changed. I had a lot of experience developing black and white photos in the darkroom, but with digital I could do the same with my color photos - using Photoshop.

Both film and digital sensors have limitations when exposing high contrast scenes. None of them can directly out of the camera reproduce the scene the same way our eyes do.

How to deal with exposure problems

It took me quite some time to understand my camera had no magical photography exposure settings. The key was post-processing.

Many beginners are not aware the digital sensor can record a considerable amount of data. But the problem is, it’s not possible to see all these data without a minimum level of post-processing.

Most cameras from phone cameras to advanced DSLR cameras can do the post-processing automatically in the camera software before saving the file. As you can imagine, you have little or no control over the result with this approach. It’s like setting your camera in Auto mode when you take the photos. The camera doesn't know what results you want to achieve and thus the result is often not what you expected.

When you leave the post-processing to the camera, you lose a lot of control, and the camera software discards valuable image data.

photography exposure high contrast edit

By using Lightroom I was able to darken the highlights in the sky and the water. I was also able to brighten the shadow areas. With these small tweaks I was able to create a totally different photo. The difference between the original out of the camera photo at the top of this article is significant. It is not possible to make these changes without a post-processing software. 


Why do some photos “pop” at you when you see them?

There are two main reasons. First, the images are taken under good light conditions and second the photos have gone through some clever post-processing. The only way you can control and adjust highlights and shadows in a photo separately is when you post-process.

In landscape photography, exposure is dependent on how much contrast you have in the scene.

1. Normal contrast scene
You can get away with only adjusting aperture, shutter speed and ISO for a correct exposure. Other post-processing than what the camera automatically does might not be necessary for a satisfying exposure.

2. High contrast scene
The camera is not capable of creating an evenly lit exposure. You have to adjust highlights and shadows separately in a photo editing software.

3. Extreme contrast scene
 The camera sensor is not capable of recording data that expose well for both highlights and shadows. In such situations, you should always look at the histogram. When the histogram reaches both ends of the scale and starts to creep up the sides, you have reached the limits of your camera.

It's not possible even with a post-processing software to adjust both the highlights and shadows for a balanced exposure. You must take more than one exposure and stitch the exposures together with HDR software.

My experience is the more you develop as a landscape photographer, the more you will seek to high contrast scenes where you include the sun or a bright sky in your composition. For the best results with high contrast scenes, there is no way other than learn how to post-process.

Now over to you!

What do you typically find most challenging with photography exposure?

Add your comments below.

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  • Mark Durtschi says:

    High contrast photos has been one of my biggest challenges as well. Gradually, over the months I have been more and more getting the exposure on the sky set for taking the picture then have relied on lightroom’s shadows and if necessary the blacks sliders to bring up the over-exposed portions of the photo. This seems to work well for me most of the time. Often, especially with snow-capped mountains, it’s necessary to bring down the highlights as well. Good post, Kim. I always learn something important from your posts. …and thanks again for steering me towards lightroom.

    • Protecting the highlights is the most important when you expose. There is little room to bring back details in highlight while it’s a lot more room in the shadows. Always keep the ISO at its lowest because when you bring in details from the shadow you will also make the sensor noise more visible. Unfortunately, too many photographers starting with editing are struggling their way through Photoshop or another software packed with features. It’s amazing how much you can do with far more beginner friendly tools like Lightroom when you know how.

  • I am still on Auto. I don’t know where or how to change ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture on my camera.

    • We all start from the beginning. As you shoot in Auto mode try to recognize what the camera does, which settings it chooses for different scenes. If the result is not what you expected, try figure out which setting you need to adjust. It’s a learning process so keep shooting. We all learn from our mistakes.

  • gretta fortune says:

    to keep the clouds from blowing out

    • It’s a problem many photographers struggle with. You should make sure you expose for the sky. A too bright sky with blown highlights is impossible to fix. You have more room to bring back dark areas in the foreground when you post-process.

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