Masters in Photography went to great efforts to include detail in the shadows and the highlights !


Photo by Raquel Salas Photography

As I do my blogs, I have moments when I am looking for “just” photos to come up with a point to show the subject that I am trying to bring the point across.  Say, I am trying to talk about the composition of  landscapes, you will notice that I am going to find a beautiful photo of a scenery shot where the mountains are in the proper back thirds of the background, and I may have the nice deer in the other front third of the foreground, and a tree in the other third, or whatever.   That is what I am trying to show with this type of subject.  And it looks good.

Today I want to write about taking your photo to the next level, similar to what Ansel Adams would have been trying to teach, but, perhaps in a simpler form.  And that is to provide your photos with good details in the shadows and the highlights of your photos.  For that examples, I searched deep into some award winning photos I have put on this blog in the past probably mostly black and white, because it’s easier to see the highlights and shadows in black and white.

The above photo was taken by one of my favorite photographers, Raquel Salas Photography from Spain.  She has several websites that I could have grabbed a photo from, but she seems to be aware of this in a lot of her photos.  She is a good photographer, and seems to be aware of the concept of getting good detail in the shadows and highlights.

I am going to show you one of the easiest ways to get good details in the shadows and highlights here in a moment, but let me explain what the shadows and details would be normally in a photo.

B&W 4-17

As you can see in the photo above a perfect example of great detail in the shadows.  This is a photo taken at night time.  Detail in the shadows, and dark areas is incredible, although not totally black, as you could not get detail in total black, you do get detail still in the shadows.  The part that I find amazing is there is still detail in the dark puddles on the road.  This is just well done here.  The whole picture has a dark undertone to it, and if the photographer (Photographer unknown, by the way) had followed his light meter, it would not have produced the details in the shadows and given us the feeling of it even being taken at night.  This is just well done.   A shadow is defined as the darkest area of a photo in which you can still see detail.

B&W 4-19
Photo by Elisabeth Engels

Highlights are usually defined as the brightest area in a photo.  But, here again, to do it right, you have to have detail in the highlights to get this right.  Total white will not have detail.  There  is a difference between highlight and white.  The next question people ask me then, is:  Is snow white or is it a highlight?  Look at it yourself, and if you see texture to it, then it is highlight.

winter photo 5
Winter photo by Lanny Cottrell

Here is a typical photo of a winter scene.  You take a good look at this one, and tell me if it has any detail to the snow.  Does it have highlights to it of is it white?  I submit to you that if you enlarge it, so that you could see detail, you would see some texture.   But, it is the formations of the trees, the bumps in the ground, and other textures the snow is on that is causing the textures.  So, it may be naturally white.  That is a tough one.  Let’s look at another winter scene:

Portrait of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, CA, 2006
Photo by Ansel Adams, where the zone system was used, and the exposure is perfect.  The highlights are perfect and shadows and perfect, according to his calculations.

This is the ultimate photo taken by the ultimate professional:  Ansel Adams.  Extreme Contrast in both dark shadows and highlights.  And the question:  do you like it?  There is great detail in both the highlights and shadows.  The question I have is that the shadows may not be right, because the copy I have may be copied too many times, and the contract has increased too much.  Or, was that the way he made it?  If I go to his website now, it looks right:

So, what is one way to ensure that you always get perfect highlights and shadows?  First of all, you have to shoot your camera manually.  Do not rely on your cameras automatic mode.  And then understand that your light meter in manual mode is tuned to 18% grey.  That means that if you can get a light meter reading of 18% grey with the light that you are involved in as you shoot, you should have perfect highlights, and perfect shadows on your photo.

grey card 1
Your light meter is calibrated to this 18% gray card.

If your camera store does not have an 18% gray card, then buy one from Amazon or some other photo store online.  I am suggesting that you have one, only if you want to be a perfect photographer.  And I have a perfect you tube video that shows exactly how to use the gray card.  If you have any question, here it is:

When I set up the annual winners for “THE ART OF BLACK AND WHITE”  Here are the rules that was set up in selecting the perfect black and white Photos:

  • Does the photo look better in black and white than color?  Or as good as color.  Then it is a winner.
  • Is there good contrast between black and white, and have nice grey tones?  If it seems to have a lot of just grey tones, it won’t make it.  We are looking for good contrast
  • Is the photo interesting?  Would you hang it on the wall?  Or is it something that will bring a conversation to a group of people?
  • If it is a portrait of a person, the contrast has to be good, but, there has to be certain grey tones to make it look amazing in black and white, almost better looking than color.
  • Rules of composition are still taken into consideration heavily.  Although, we understand that rules are meant to be broken.  We will take that under consideration if it is that good.


Look at the second point in how the selection process is for the best “black and white photos” are selected.  “Is there good contrast between black and white with nice grey tones”?

The one photo that struck me in the last winners of THE ARE OF BLACK AND WHITE  is a beautiful portrait done by:  Gregory Giakis  from Munich, Germany:

b&w 3-4
Used by permission by the photographer:  Gregory Giakis .  Copyright protected

When I saw this portrait in Black and White, I thought that the exposure was so perfect, that it was done just as well in Black and White as it could have been in color.  Look at all the details in the highlights, shadows, and even the grey tones.  This photographer has reached the next level.  Amazingly perfect exposure.


To ensure your images have the same richness as the masters, like Ansel Adams or Edward Weston, you too have to include shadows and highlights. Look again at the images that impress you, regardless of the subject matter. What do they have that you do not? I’m willing to bet that it’s in the details, and those kinds of details are often found in the shadows and highlights.

highlights and shadows 101
A Quick Snack” captured by David Guyler.





Article written by Lanny Cottrell for 123Photogo




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