Travel photography: Tips and tricks for high-contrast motifs

Summer time is travel time and thus also boom time for nature and travel photography. But who doesn't know this: the beautiful idyllic old town alley is either partially lost in shadow or the sky and rooftops are overexposed when viewed at home. For many amateur photographers, and this happens to some extent even to experienced photographers, this is a disappointment, because the shot does not correspond in any way to what was seen.

But how do you get particularly high-contrast subjects with a contrast range of approx. 14-15 Apertures in the handle?

Many subjects in travel and landscape photography have strong contrast. Our eye can compensate high contrasts to a certain extent by adaptation. The representable contrast range (= dynamic range) of an image sensor of a digital camera, on the other hand, is very limited, just like the dynamic range of monitors, photographic paper or print products. A contrast range of the subject of approx. 8-9 f-stops can be displayed without any problems. For an experienced photographer, who exposes exactly and possibly uses a calibrated monitor, a contrast range of 10-11 f-stops should not be too big a problem. But how do you get especially high-contrast subjects with a contrast range of approx. 14-15 Glare under control? There are many of these "problem motifs" in travel photography: Backlight shots, but also motifs like idyllic sunsets at the sea or landscapes in the high mountains show high contrasts.

An important rule is to avoid strong contrasts in the first place. Many professional photographers shoot landscapes exclusively in the early morning hours or late afternoon to evening, because the light is much softer during this time. Long shadows are avoided when the sun is at the photographer's back. When shooting against the light, make sure to position the main subject in front of a dark background, because in this case the high contrast will only be noticeable as a bright light fringe around the main subject. Long shadows can be very appealing, but you should make sure that the shadows have enough drawing. Depending on the camera model, the contrast range of the subject can be checked either by contrast measurement or histogram. If the contrast range is higher than 10 or 11 f-stops, the techniques described below should be used.

Graduated filter

A classic tool for high-contrast landscape photography, such as subjects in high mountains, is the graduated filter. This allows the sky to be exposed exactly, while at the same time the subject in the foreground receives sufficient light and is not underexposed. Graduated filters are available in neutral gray, but also in various colors, mostly in yellow or orange gradations. Graduated filters were indispensable especially in analog landscape photography. Digital photography offers other possibilities through bracketing, HDR and RAW push, so that the graduated filters have lost some of their importance nowadays.


Bracketing and HDR are based on the idea of using different exposures to get a handle on strong contrasts. With HDR, the camera combines exposure series into one image; with the bracketing method, the exposure series must later be manually processed and combined in an image processing program. With HDR, the resulting image often has a somewhat artificial, sometimes even relief-like character. The bracketing method is more time-consuming, but with a little practice you will get optimal results. Modern cameras offer sophisticated bracketing functions: you can select the number of exposure series, but also set the deviation of the exposure with an accuracy of one-third f-stops. As a starting value, an exposure series of 3 images with a deviation of one aperture each is recommended. Bracketing does not necessarily require a tripod, as the image can also be captured with bracketing (z.B. 6 or 8 frames/second) can be captured. The camera automatically takes the set number of pictures with the selected exposure compensation (in this example 3 pictures -1/0/+1 aperture). In the image processing program, the exposure series can be automatically superimposed as layers and positioned exactly. In the last step, the exposure series are copied into each other using suitable selection tools. The advantage: the photographer has complete control over the contrast range, in extreme cases up to 7 exposures, each with a third aperture exposure difference. The disadvantage: depending on the subject, this method can be very laborious, and this method is not suitable for moving subjects (surf, strong wind and trees, people in the picture).

Example photo, fishing boats at sunset, Lake Malawi: Autobracketing, 3 exposures -1/0/+1 EV, manually combined in Photoshop

RAW Push

Modern sensors of digital cameras offer an incredible RAW dynamic range with up to almost 15 f-stops. This is achieved by an extremely low image noise, so that shadow areas can be brightened ("pushed") very strongly without the image quality suffering extremely. It is important to note that this only applies to RAW images, so those who only use JPEG images cannot benefit from this. The procedure is very simple: the shot is exposed on the highlights, which leads to sometimes considerably underexposed shadow areas in the case of very strong contrasts. With the RAW converter only the shadows are lightened, if necessary even up to 4-5 stops. The result is a correctly exposed image with good drawing in the highlights and in the shadows, thus comparable to the bracketing method. The advantages: the method is very simple, no tripod is necessary, no exposure bracketing is required, and moving subjects can be captured (which is especially interesting for wildlife photographers). But there are also disadvantages: The full dynamic range of up to almost 15 f-stops is only available at ISO 100, at higher ISO values the usable dynamic range decreases quite quickly. Due to the deliberate underexposure, the control image on the camera is usually very dark and it is therefore recommended to take an additional normally exposed image as a control for possible later color corrections. Biggest disadvantage of the method: when you look closely (100% view), you notice that the shadow areas have a higher noise level than the highlights of the image due to pushing. In general, this is not too much of a problem, but you may still have to accept that image agencies may reject images for excessive partial noise in extreme cases, even though the image appears to be perfectly fine when viewed normally.

The techniques described are the day-to-day tools of professional landscape photographers, but with a little practice, any amateur photographer can implement these tips quite easily as well. The important thing is to develop a feeling for the contrast range of the subjects. Modern cameras support the photographer with tools such as histograms or over- and underexposure warnings. So nothing should stand in the way of a relaxed trip, and possible later disappointments about incorrect exposures with high-contrast motifs will hopefully be a thing of the past.

About Dietmar Temps:

Dietmar Temps is a graduate media and photo engineer as well as a trained photographer with more than 20 years of professional experience in the media industry. He lives in Cologne, Germany. His first professional steps in photography he could collect as a photoassistant in whole Europe as well as in America. He went on to study photo and media technology at Cologne Technical University. Currently his main focus is on the realization of photo and internet projects with a strong focus on travel photography, social networking and video streaming.
On his travel blog, he writes about his photo trips to the most beautiful spots on earth, which he has undertaken in the past years. Among them were many trips to Africa, South America and Asia.
His website features numerous photo series of his photographic work that has been published in coffee table books, magazines and travel blogs.