This morning I woke up to find a couple of emails from readers specifically asking about dealing with bright sunlight in post when shooting with a small sensor camera. Some of the concerns expressed were dealing with high contrast landscape images where getting highlight and shadow details are a problem due to the limited dynamic range of smaller sensors.
Given that the summer photography season is just around the corner I thought this would be a timely article for many readers. So, I went back through my files to find an image that shows some of the typical challenges that arise when shooting with a small sensor camera in bright sunlight.
The sample photograph used in this article was captured hand-held in late September last year during our photography tour to Utah. This image was captured at probably the worst time of day possible – at 12:20 PM, just after high noon when the sun is at its peak. And, being in the Utah desert the sunlight was definitely strong!
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.
The first image below is an out-of-camera jpeg.
This next image is a jpeg produced from an unprocessed RAW file.
I wanted to show readers both of these formats to illustrate the typical challenges that shooting with a smaller sensor camera in bright light can create due to the sensor’s limited dynamic range. They also help to establish a ‘starting point’.
Any of you that have been to Utah will attest to the fact that the colours in the rock formations are spectacular. The out-of-camera jpeg above certainly doesn’t do the scenery justice, and the unprocessed RAW file would obviously need some work.
Overall, the out-of-camera JPEG looks a bit flat and lifeless. There are some specific issues that need to be addressed:
1) Colours look ‘blasted out’ a bit causing a washed out look and lack some vibrancy.
2) Blocking in the shadow areas causing a loss of definition due to the limited dynamic range of the J5’s sensor (i.e. limited when compared to APS-C and full frame Nikon cameras).
3) Loss of colour differentiation in highlight and mid-tone areas due to the limited colour depth of the J5’s sensor (i.e. limited when compared to APS-C and full frame Nikon cameras).
The image above is a very ‘quick fix’ that I did this morning, taking about 3 minutes in post working with the RAW file. Clicking on the images will allow you to see them enlarged. It will also allow you to toggle back and forth to examine the changes.
You’ll see that there is much more definition in the shadow areas in the bottom right hand corner. Overall the colours are more vibrant. There is a lot more colour differentiation in the highlight and mid-tone areas. This is noticeable along the path, with the clouds, and in the eroded embankment on the left hand side of the image.
Here’s a quick summary of what I did to the image in post.
1) I put the RAW file through DxO OpticsPro 11 using my ‘J5 landscape preset’. Other than allowing standard DxO auto processing based on the camera and lens used, this preset applies PRIME noise reduction and takes highlights to -20.
2) I then took Midtones to -20 in OpticsPro 11.
3) Next, I used the Spot Weighted DxO Smart Lighting adjustment, using the tool to draw a rectangle over the dark, shadow area in the bottom right hand corner of the image. I used a setting of 40.
4) I exported a DNG file into CS6.
5) In CS6 I took Highlights to -100 and Shadows to +100.
6) I then set the Black slider to – 45 to bring back some definition and ‘weight’ to the image
7) I went into ‘Curves’ and used the ‘find dark and light colour’ preset
8) I adjusted Levels to .90 in the mid range to help darken the bottom right hand corner slightly to make it look a bit more natural.
9) Brightness was then adjusted to 15 to give the overall image a bit more pop.
After a couple of minor tweaks in the Nik Collection using Vivenza with Contrast and Structure the image was done.
I have no idea what camera gear or software that you may be using. So, the approach that I used with this specific J5 file may not be something that you can replicate exactly with your choice of software. No doubt similar results can be achieved using LightRoom or other popular photographic software.
The ‘big idea’ that I keep in mind when dealing with images captured in bright sunlight with a small sensor camera is pretty simple – TAB (thicken – adjust – brighten). If you go back through the steps I detailed above you will see how this basic concept was applied. Although I do not process JPEG files, readers who do may find the TAB approach useful.
For those readers that shoot with Nikon 1 gear, images like the one used in this article really highlight how much better the sensor in the J5 is when compared to the Aptina sensors used in other Nikon 1 cameras.
I’ve been shooting exclusively with the Nikon 1 system for almost 2 years now. I routinely capture photographs in bright sunlight so dealing with these types of images is something I do on a regular basis.
At the end of the day, I don’t think you should worry about using a small sensor camera in bright sunlight. As long as you shoot in RAW there’s often a lot you can do in post to help your images at least partially overcome the limited dynamic range of your small sensor camera!
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