Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

The difference that comes from underexposing by three f/stops

with 26 comments

When I stopped again at Bow Lake along the Icefields Parkway on September 6th last year, in addition to taking the regularly exposed photographs you saw last time, I took a few that I underexposed by three f/stops* so I could include the sun without blowing out the pictures’ highlights. The technique allowed for some solar drama that would have been lacking in a conventional exposure. While that degree of underexposure robbed the water of its pretty blue, it partly compensated by allowing the sun to reflect some of its favored colors off the water’s surface. Also notice how clearly defined and regularly spaced the 10 rays of the sunstar are, thanks in part to a tiny aperture of f/22. Oh, the tricks we photographers resort to.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

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* Cinematographers have long used that sort of underexposure in a process called day for night, whose purpose isn’t to control for the brightness of the sun but to simulate nighttime while filming in the convenience of daylight. One give-away when you watch a scene filmed that way is the presence of distinct shadows that shouldn’t be there at night.)

Written by Steve Schwartzman

February 4, 2018 at 4:49 AM

26 Responses

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  1. Excellent photography tips!


    February 4, 2018 at 6:21 AM

  2. I’ve been reading a bit on filters – have you ever used a “graduated neutral density filter” – (would that darken the sky a bit, but not the blue water?) I just put on a basic UV filter and have left it there, I don’t have the best “fine motor skills” and have an amazingly hard time, switching a filter without stripping the tiny threads. But in any case, I like the mysterious effect in this photo.

    Robert Parker

    February 4, 2018 at 8:55 AM

    • While preparing this post I thought about a graduated neutral density filter. A lot of landscape photographers use one, though I never have. As you surmise, the purpose is to darken the sky, which is usually a lot brighter than what’s below. The filter lowers the dynamic range of the scene to make it more likely that the camera’s sensor, with its limited sensitivity range, can register the lights and darks acceptably.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 4, 2018 at 10:25 AM

  3. That turned out really nice! Especially in winter here with the snow, I usually underexpose a little to keep from blowing out the the bright areas.


    February 4, 2018 at 12:36 PM

    • Thanks.
      When most everything in the frame is bright, I find my camera often underexposes, so I add a bit of overexpose to compensate. In a case like the picture in today’s post, where one part is a lot brighter than the rest, then I underexpose to keep from blowing out the highlights in that brightest part, which in this case was the sun.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 4, 2018 at 3:51 PM

  4. Very nice! Another option, if you use Photoshop or another editing software, is to shoot a series of bracketed exposures. Then blend them for a final blended image.

    Reed Andariese

    February 4, 2018 at 1:15 PM

    • Thanks.
      I’ve occasionally done what you suggest. It requires a tripod, and because I don’t usually carry one with me when I’m trekking around, my experiments have been close to home.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 4, 2018 at 3:58 PM

  5. Worked just fine! Thank you for the tips.


    February 4, 2018 at 4:11 PM

  6. Yes, I know you carry a whole bad o’tricks, the better for the rest of us to enjoy your creativity.


    February 4, 2018 at 8:14 PM

  7. I’m not very techy, and I do not know any tricks. If something turns out great, it’s probably only because of dumb luck on my part! But I sure do enjoy your work, and I’ve learned a lot about identifying plants here.


    February 4, 2018 at 8:52 PM

    • Thanks, Lori. Until 1999 I’d lived in Austin 22 years and still knew essentially nothing about native plants. Then I bought a few field guides and started hanging around with people from the Native Plant Society of Texas. It’s been 19 years since then, and I’ll still always be much more a photographer than a person who knows about plants, but the teacher in me is happy to pass along what I’ve learned. Everybody knows certain things and not others.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 4, 2018 at 9:47 PM

  8. Star light, star bright — the odd little star that I see tonight is both subtle and compelling. We so often forget that our sun is a star, and this certainly brings it home.

    I’m wondering if your technique might not work on a day marked by fog, or high, thin clouds. When the veil is thin enough that the sun’s disk is visible, I don’t see why it wouldn’t. I’ll play with it next time, to see what happens.


    February 5, 2018 at 10:22 PM

    • I looked up daystar in the dictionary and found two definitions: ‘Venus (or sometimes another planet) as the morning “star”‘ and ‘the sun.’ Venus appears to be the older meaning, and the only one Noah Webster included in 1828.

      Do let us know, or better yet show us, anything good that comes from your photo experiments. The last time I remember the sun as a red disk was in the smoky haze we had in Glacier National Park.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 6, 2018 at 8:04 AM

  9. Love those tricks .. wonderful edit 🙂


    February 8, 2018 at 12:58 PM

  10. Interesting. It does have an unreal look, but that’s OK, I like it, particularly the sun’s rays. f22, there’s a setting I don’t use! Especially not up here in winter! 😉


    February 11, 2018 at 8:41 PM

    • Unreality’s fine by me.
      I can sympathize about the craving for light that you as a photographer must feel up there in the winter. In Austin I’ve sometimes used apertures like f/22 and even smaller to maximize the depth of field in macro views of plants. As bright as the Texas sun often is, when I work close-in with such small apertures I usually have to add flash.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 11, 2018 at 9:55 PM

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