Highlight and Shadow Recovery in Harsh Light

by Derrick Story

Nothing like a midday August wedding to strike fear into the heart of this digital photographer. Harsh sun, sparse shade, black suits, white gowns, black skin, white skin -- often all in the same shot. This is a situation where you have to shoot Raw and thank goodness for the Highlight and Shadow recovery sliders in Aperture.

I have lots of tricks for dealing with bad lighting (find shade whenever possible, fill flash, reflectors, etc.), but as you know, sometimes clients say, "We don't have time to walk over there; let's just take the shot here." Horror. "Not here!" I think. "This is the last place on the planet I want to take this shot."

After using my best persuasive skills -- which apparently aren't that good -- I end up politely acquiescing and line up what is sure to be a disastrous shot. All I had for my survival was a Canon 5D and fill flash.


Back in the studio with the images uploaded to Aperture, I noticed that I had managed to work around the bad light on most of my shots... this one of the groomsmen being a notable exception. Thank goodness I had the Highlight and Shadow recovery sliders in my bag of tricks. With less than a minute's work, I was able to bring back the blown-out skin tones in the white men, and salvage some detail in the tuxedos.

Moral of the story: don't shoot midday weddings. If you must, shoot Raw and know that you have an Aperture safety net waiting for you once you escape.


Joe Samuels
2007-08-13 07:45:27
In my view, being able to salvage highlights and shadows is one of the primary reasons to shoot RAW. It is absolutely amazing how many times these situations with extremely wide brightness ranges come out wonderfully---totally white skies can be changed to skies which have lots of cloud and blue sky, and totally black areas can be transformed to show great detail in the shadows.

I would add that sometimes one doesn't want to move all the highlights, nor all the shadows, and that's where a program like LightZone saves the day. You can create a "region" to mark just the area that you want to be affected by the reduction in highlights, or the reduction in shadows. LightZone is a superb "External Editor" for Aperture.

Bakari C
2007-08-13 08:22:33
Very good, Derrick. I've shot a couple of mid-day wedding this summer and have had to use the Shadow and Highlight recovery. It's a great tool.
2007-08-13 08:50:47
Good reminder about using Lightzone as an external editor, Joe. The only penalty is that you have to bring a full working copy of the image back into Aperture on the roundtrip. But for some shots, it's definitely worth it.

2007-08-13 11:12:42

is it possible to have the before shot to see what it was like? I too have used the h/s tool in contrasty conditions on assignment and it is a massive lifesaver!


2007-08-13 11:27:36
I took the pictures for my friend's outdoor wedding and she said the only thing she would change was that she would have listened to me about the lighting for the formal shots.

A year later I tried Aperture and after pulling those photos in and playing with them, I was amazed and hooked.

2007-08-14 07:17:46
It would be nice to see the pre-processed shot Derrick. And to share the settings you used - although I appreciate every shot is different.
2007-08-14 09:45:33
So, for those of you who want a peek at the preprocessed image, I posted a "before and after" comparison of the three guys on the right on my current Show Notes page for The Digital Story.
2007-08-15 08:29:32
Thanks Derrick!


Brandon Bohling
2007-09-04 21:25:43
First, let me state that I only read this blog entry...if the audio version has more detail, then my bad. I was actually surprised at how unhelpful the content was—typically I would expect to see at least some insightful tips on how much you can rely on H&S recovery before turning to an external editor like Photoshop. In my experience, when I use H&S recovery in Aperture I can only bump up the sliders at max 4-6...on a very few situations maybe as much as 12-15. Often times I find a much better output if I edit in Photoshop (still have Aperture manage of course). My goal though is to use Photoshop as little as possible, hence the reason I turn to this blog for helpful tips on maximizing Aperture. That's the reason I am disappointed when I read posts that simply say, "hey, use this feature, with no details".