Compensating for Underexposed Images

In lieu of HDR, I use bracketing when I shoot interior photos of rooms and/or buildings, and choose the image which best distributes the light across the entire frame.

In my line of work, bracketing involves taking three or five (or even seven in some cameras) successive shots with the purpose of mitigating any “blown out”  or overexposed areas of the frame, without underexposing the darker areas beyond recovery.  For example, assume the camera exposes a particular shot at 1/60 a second…that becomes the “middle” exposure.  In the image shown below, I already know I don’t want to slow the shutter below what the camera has already exposed because the windows will be too blown out to recover.  So, I bracket only to shoot underexposed shots…three of them in one stop increments: 1/60 (the first shot being the exposure the camera chose), 1/120, and 1/240 a second.

The goal, for me, is to strike the closest balance I can between highlighted areas of a photo and the darker shadows.  Typically, for reasons which I do not understand, DSLRs can recover much more information from darker areas than highlighted areas.  Therefore, I usually expose for the highlighted areas of an image (the brightest areas), which will bring those blown out areas within an acceptable limit in the histogram, all the while doing my best to retain the information which I can pull out of the shadows in post process, without introducing too much “noise”.

In the photo below, the image was exposed at 1/2 a second.  In this raw, unprocessed image you can see the wide dynamic range between the windows and the darker areas of the couch and walkway off to the right.  This was the image among the five bracketed shots which didn’t underexpose the shadows beyond recovery, while also maintaining the best exposure for the highlighted areas in the windows and skylights:




Once you bring out the shadows a little, you get a relatively balanced exposure throughout the image:





It’s not a great photo by any means…I would have preferred to shoot this room early in the morning, so the skylights wouldn’t be blown out by the sun overhead.  But, it gives you a good example of how exposing for the brighter areas of the photo can work, as long as the shadows are recoverable.



In Case You’re Wondering…

…what I do for most of my income…the vast majority of my paid work is in the architectural/real estate genre.  Basically, I work for individuals and companies in the real estate industry whom are trying to sell or advertise a home, condominium/apartment complex, or commercial property either on the internet or in print (i.e. a brochure handed out to prospective investors/buyers).  Given that I worked in the real estate industry before my transfer to photography full-time, it was a natural transition to start doing some work for people I knew in the business, or for people who knew people I knew.







At some point in the future I will write a detailed post on the ways to create a quality photograph of the interior of a home, or for creating a quality photograph anywhere indoors…without a flash.   You can use HDR, or what I call either the “top heavy” (a photograph which leans toward exposing for the more brightly lit areas in a scene) or “bottom heavy” (a photography which leans on exposing for the more poorly lit areas in a scene) techniques to get a well-exposed photograph indoors, either in a home, or whenever you may find yourself shooting indoors.  All three techniques require the use of software for processing after you take the initial raw image, and also require pretty solid working knowledge of a DSLR and tripod.  And, of course, you need to know how to properly compose the scene to accentuate what the client is searching for.


1 Yellow Barn Ct-9




In my experience, shooting exterior images has proven to be more challenging than getting high quality indoor images.  It’s rare that shoots can be scheduled during the “golden hours” of the morning or evening, when the light from the sun is almost perfectly diffused due it setting behind the horizon.  Those times (typically just before the morning rush hour and right after afternoon rush hour) would be more opportune to create the best possible photos of the exterior of properties.  But, I am forced to do the best that I can with outdoor shots with the sun usually directly overhead…or, even in the case of a cloudy day, a very brightly diffused sky.  If not exposed properly, it will leave the building with a harsh, unappealing contrast, often with parts of the building closer to the sky blown out due to overexposed flaring.  The ways to combat this often require the use of HDR, in order to accentuate the property exposed parts of the image without requiring other areas to be so underexposed it would leave them as a silhouette…not the type of artistic style I’m going for in these shoots.  If you want to show off the architectural beauty of a building, you probably want to be able to see more than just its shape.


1 Yellow Barn Ct-37




The perfectionist in me is driven crazy by not being physically able to do all exterior shoots during the golden hours.  There are so many aspects about the above exterior photographs which I’d give anything to be able to fix by shooting in better light, but sometimes it’s about doing the best you can with whatever available light you’re working with at the time.  No one works under ideal circumstances all the time.

A Sunflower Sunset

Just thought I’d share a sunflower field shot I took last night just up the road from my home.  The field is off of Jarrettsville Pike, about 3 miles north of the four corners intersection.  These fields have become extremely popular…what you can’t see in the photo is the literally hundreds of people who show up to get pictures of themselves and their family in the fields.  It’s a selfie extravaganza…arms extended with smartphones held up high…

The owner of the farm doesn’t charge to walk into the fields…which is extremely generous of them.

I got this shot by standing up on a ladder and raising my hands above my head as high as I could, and estimating the aim.  It took a few tries to get the aim right.  To get a wide enough shot of the field and horizon, I used a 15mm lens.



Swatara Falls

On Thursday I headed up to Swatara Falls for the first time…it’s about 2 and a half hours from where I live in north central Maryland.  In my desire to eventually photograph all of the significant waterfalls in the mid-atlantic area, I figured now’s the time to check this one off the list. On the map all it says is “waterfall”…no mention of a state park or anything.  Great advertising.


It’s interesting that, for whatever reason, I-83 and I-81 in Pennsylvania are almost always under construction, yet neither road has changed whatsoever since I used both of them constantly to get to and from college in upstate New York back in the early 90’s.  One funny note about I-83…it’s very nicely paved in northern Maryland…and as soon as you hit the PA border, the condition of the road becomes noticeably aged and mildly decrepit.  I mean literally, right next to the “Welcome to Pennsylvania” sign, the highway turns sour.  Score one for higher personal income taxes.


Anyway, the parking area and trailhead for Swatara falls are just off of state route 25, about 1.7 miles east of exit 112 off interstate I-81.  The parking area is on the south side of SR-25, the trailhead across the street on the north side.  There’s no way to know you’re at the correct parking area, except to know that you’re 1.7 miles east of the interstate.  No signs for the path or anything.  It’s almost a little eery.  I would not be open to traversing this path at night without a flood light and a grenade launcher.


Looking north across route 25 at the trailhead.

From the parking area, looking north across route 25 at the trailhead.


The trailhead.

The trailhead.  You can’t hear the banjo playing…but I did.


The trail is very easy to navigate.  You walk 500 feet, turn left, walk another 500 feet, turn right…go down a hill, walk another quarter mile on a flat, wide path (pictured below), and you reach the falls.


The last portion of the path leading to the falls.

The last portion of the path leading to the falls.


Once at the falls, you are treated to a surprisingly attractive waterscape.  The path ends about halfway up the 25 foot waterfall, but it’s quite easy to climb down to the bottom, or up to the top if you so choose.  There are no shortage of vantage points to photograph the waterfall, but all of which basically depict the same general picture: a nice waterfall with a muddy-brown sheen.  Thanks so much to those who left the graffiti on the lower portion of the waterfall.  Adds a beautiful touch.


Does the graffiti tear your eyes away from the otherwise photogenic waterfall?

Does the graffiti tear your eyes away from the otherwise photogenic waterfall?


Rainfall has been very light of late, which was clearly noticeable as the volume of water flowing over the falls was low.  Other photographs I’ve seen of the falls showed a higher level of water flowing over the rocks, leaving me with the impression that, typically, the water flow is more than what I witnessed.  There were some small wading areas at the bottom of the falls, but due to the lack of flow, the mostly standing water had a rather unpleasant look to it.  I’m sure when water flow picks up and cleans out the stream bed a little, wading in the stream would be enjoyable.


If you’re ever in the neighborhood of exit 112 on interstate I-81, take a minor detour and check out Swatara Falls.  It’s easy to hike to, and would be a nice spot for a bagged lunch or (early) dinner.  If you are brave enough to try the hike at night…bring a powerful flashlight.  And a banjo.


Sailing on Spa Creek

Occasionally I will go through my Lightroom library and clean out old junk photos I know I’ll never want to use.  Among the photo shoots I plowed through last night was a sunset boat race in Annapolis, MD (the sailing capital of the world).  I remember that evening well…a perfect night for shooting…with a fantastic sunset as the backdrop, and the Annapolis capital building in the background.  I took several hundred shots that evening, with this one being my favorite:


Sailing by


I deliberately tried to time this shot so that each boat would be equidistant from the capital…leaving the capital as the centerpiece of the photo.  I wanted the sun to be partially behind the sail of “Thalassa”, making the sun look like it’s creeping out from behind the curtain.  I also got lucky…Mother Nature left me with an amazing sunset to work with…delivering that radiant orange horizon juxtaposed with the deep blue sky.


This shot is a testament to how well the Nikon D800e can render wide dynamic ranges.  The camera can allow enough light in the darker areas of the shot to give us some detail of the architecture along Spa Creek, without blowing out the sun.  The D800e handles sunrises and sunsets remarkably well.


I set the camera to ISO 400, 1/250 shutter speed, at f/8.  I used Thalassa as my focal point, which, at f/8 will make everything in this particular shot appear to be in focus.  Generally speaking, your depth of field will depend greatly on the type of lens you’re using, the size of your camera’s sensor, and the distance from where you’re standing relative to your focal point.  At some point, I’ll probably write a blog post about how to use aperture to manipulate your depth of field (DOF).


Anyway…for those of you who take enough photographs to compile them in some sort of organized fashion on your computer, I recommend that every few months you go back through all of them to 1) weed out the really bad shot you won’t ever want (in turn helping to keep more free space on your hard drive, thereby delaying the day when you have to drop a nice chunk of change on a drive) and 2) possibly find some really good photos that, for whatever reason, you didn’t see when you uploaded them into the computer the first time around.

Kilgore Falls, Part II

A couple of new shots I got last night at Kilgore falls.  The water level was down, which makes for better shooting conditions as you are able to see the colorful pebbles on the stream bed, and you are able to wade around closer to the falls without getting your camera gear wet.  Dry camera gear is always a good thing.





Kilgore Falls

This weekend I’m looking forward to going to Kilgore Falls for a photo shoot.  The Falls are in Rocks State Park in north central Maryland, just west of Pylesville, MD.  The second highest free-falling waterfall in the state, Kilgore is a short hike (about a quarter mile) from the parking lot off of Falling Branch Road.  The hike to get to the falls is as easy as it gets.  Once there, you are treated to what, in my opinion, is one of the more underrated places to visit in the state.  Just below the falls is an area that’s deep enough (10-12 feet) to allow the more brave among us to leap off the cliff of the falls, which peaks at 19 feet…at the bottom they are treated to water which is always relatively chilly.


The falls gets its name from one of the early owners of the property encompassing the falls, Joseph D. Kilgore.  The stream was privately owned until 1993, when the Department of Natural Resources acquired the property and added it to the already existing Rocks State Park, which resides to the south of the falls.  Unlike most of the higher falls in the state of Maryland, Kilgore is not a cascading falls; its water does not fall from one level down to another.  Instead, the falls are one long drop down to the bottom.  Examples of higher cascading falls in the state are Cascade Falls (quite the original name) in Patapsco Valley State Park, and Cunningham Falls in Cunningham Falls State Park.  Another high non-cascading falls in the state is Muddy Creek Falls in Swallow Falls State Park, a beautiful area located in the very western portion of the state.**


For me personally, Kilgore offers a seemingly endless number of ways to capture the scene…you can shoot it from downstream both far and near, facing directly in front of it, from the north (it’s a tight squeeze on slippery rocks), or from on top.  The stream just to the south of the falls has stones and small boulders scattered around, which adds to a nice foreground if you’re shooting from downstream.


There’s a full moon on Sunday (but not a New Moon on Monday), so I’m looking forward to capturing the falls below the moonlight for the first time.  I’m not certain as to whether the Department of Natural Resources allows visitors to stay past sunset…we shall see.  Here’s to hoping for clear skies!


A few long exposure shots of the falls I’ve taken during previous visits:


From downstream facing north.

From downstream facing north.


Facing the falls head-on.

Facing the falls head-on.


From the north (slippery rocks!!!).

From the north (slippery rocks!!!).


** Thanks to “” for these facts, written in an article titled “Kilgore Falls-A Must See in Maryland

If You’re Just Starting Out: Invest in (Or Rent) a 50mm Prime Lens

If you’re new to photography and are interested in developing your skills more, this is one recommendation I would strongly suggest:  Rent or buy a 50mm prime (fixed focal length) lens if you’re using a full-frame camera, or a 35mm lens if you’re using an APS-C sensor camera (the crop factor for an APS-C camera is 1.5)**…set your camera to ISO 800, put the camera in Aperture Priority (Av), set the f/stop to its fastest setting (typically 1.8 or 1.4 in most 50mm lenses), and just walk around your home, shooting anything and everything you want.  ISO 800 combined with f/1.8 or 1.4 is fast enough to capture most indoor scenes with moderate amount of artificial or natural light, without using a flash.  Use the LCD panel behind the camera to see if the shots are exposed to your liking.  If they are underexposed, you can simply raise ISO (be careful…this may introduce too much noise, depending on your camera), or bring more light into the room (turn on more lights, or open more shades).


The 50mm lenses are typically very close to “normal length”, in that if you have a 50mm lens on the camera, looking through the viewfinder will give you a focal range pretty close to what you see normally, with just your eyes.  For that and other reasons which are far beyond my pay grade, the optics in a 50mm (or close thereabouts) lens are often the least complex, and therefore the lightest and cheapest in the fixed length array of camera lenses.  Wide-angle (i.e. 15mm) and telephoto (i.e. 400mm) lenses are usually several times as expensive as a 50mm lens, and a whole lot heavier with their sophisticated layout of glass optics inside the lens frame.  Even putting weight and cost aside, the 50mm offers a good balance between a wide angle lens and a tele lens for walking around and working on composition.


Also, compared to a zoom lens, a fixed length lens provides great opportunities for photographers looking to develop their skill.  With a zoom, the photographer can get lazy and miss intricacies of a scene because all he or she has to do is zoom in or out to compose the shot.  With a fixed-length lens, you have to physically move your feet to recompose a shot…which will, in most circumstances, require the photographer to examine the scene more closely than had they simply been able to adjust composition without moving.  Zooms begat laziness.






I chose to post this picture because it was among the first few shots I took while trying out the above technique:  I locked the camera at ISO 800, f/1.4, and shot away at our family cat, Sebstian (a 14 year old silver persian).  On this particular shot, while holding the camera with my right hand, I raised my left hand above Sebastian’s head, and moved my fingers in a light snapping motion to try and get him to glare at them.  He did, and his beautiful features took care of the rest.  Since no flash fired, we didn’t get any of the harsh, hard light producing those ugly shadows…it’s just natural light from the windows behind me and to my left that lit up his cute little face.


**Special thanks to a friend of mine, Tim Johnson, for pointing out the APS-C crop factor.  With the smaller sensor, the lens length expands by a factor of 1.5.  So, if you have a 35mm lens on an APS-C camera, looking through the viewfinder will give you the equivalent view of a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera.

Warren Road Bridge

Just for the heck of it, I thought I’d share the first outdoor image I ever took with a full-frame camera.  It’s a shot of the Warren Road Bridge, which spans Loch Raven reservoir, and connects Warren Road with Merryman’s Mill Road in central Baltimore County, Maryland.  Taken with the Nikon D700…a great camera.  I sold it a couple of years ago when I got the D800E…another awesome camera.