Picture Doctor

Revive a landscape, dissect a picture, and other ways to heal your photo woes.


Fundamentals: Strong geometry, stark lighting contrast.

Repeating shapes: Four triangles (A,B,C,D) range from bright highlight to deep shadow. Bright triangles (A,C) form diagonals that lead the eye to the church at the vanishing point (E).

Exposure: Sacrificed detail in shadows (B,D) to maintain detail in highlights (A,C) -- always the better strategy.

Timing: Waited until clouds appeared, adding drama to the sky.

Rule of Thirds: Strong. The center of the photo is in a black hole. The horizon is slightly off-center; the power points of sun and street highlights are way off-center.


How often have your shots of high-contrast scenes let you down? Too little detail, too many solid blacks and whites? The problem is the relatively limited dynamic range (the range of brightest to darkest usable tones) that digital or film capture. Here are five strategies to manage it:

1. Split neutral-density (ND) filter. If a scene has a fairly straight line dividing the bright and dark portions, a split ND filter is invaluable. Half clear and half neutral gray, it works well with both film and digital cameras. Arranging the filter on your lens so that the dark part covers the bright part of the scene will darken the highlights so they record with detail.

2. Digital composites. With the camera on a tripod, take two identically composed shots of your scene, one dark so that the highlights have plenty of detail, and one light enough to show detail in the shadows. Then composite them into one picture with detail everywhere (see this month's Digital Toolbox to learn how).

3. Shoot RAW. Shooting in RAW mode keeps all of the sensor information, which can yield about 2 stops' more dynamic range than images captured as JPEGs.

4. Use in-camera contrast controls. An increasing number of digital cameras offer settings to stretch dynamic range. Try these in hard light.

5. Wait for a cloud: Seriously. Bright blue-sky days often have puffy cumulus clouds drifting overhead. Be ready with the proper exposure and shoot fast when one of these big diffusers blocks the direct sun.


Turn signal: You're in a strange city heading for a photo spot you've heard about, but you've gotten lost. Maybe you came out of the subway and can't orient your street map to the signs, or you can't understand the language. And amid high-rises, or at night, you can't use the sun for navigation. The solution? A compass! You'll reach your target without breaking a sweat. I rarely need one when I'm backpacking in the wilderness, but put me in a big city and I get hopelessly lost without my guiding magnetic needle. Whether you're in a major metropolis or the great outdoors, a compass provides another benefit: It shows you where the sun will be at various times of the day. Outdoor stores sell a variety of compasses (Silva and Suunto are old reliable brands) but really, any cheap, compact compass will do.