When I first started in photography I wanted to get the best possible photo completely in-camera.
A lot of purist out there also believe this is the best way to take photo’s. But I have a different vision.
For me it’s all about the end product. Are you documenting the scene as it is, with the limitations of the camera? Or do you want to show off the scene as you feel and see it with your eyes and soul.

I like to show the scene how I felt it when I was there.
The camera limits us in every way of doing this. Our eyes have a much larger dynamic range than our camera’s, so we can’t capture what we see with our eyes in a single exposure. Then there is something else and that is what we feel when we where there.
Most of the time we spend more time on location than our exposure was. So when the scene changes (the sun sets, the lights turn on, the stars come out, you get the idea) we all add that feeling to the scene. If we have to tell an other person what we saw we include all of this. But the photo (that single exposure) will never reflect that.

When I realised that, I completely changed the way I took my photo’s.
Don’t put your camera somewhere, press the shutter and see what comes out.
Visualise your photo and then decide how to capture it.

Know your camera limitations

First of all it is important to know the limitations of your camera. Don’t look at more expensive camera’s and say that you could have made the picture you wanted with that camera but where unable to do so with your current camera. Know the limits and work with that.

I started out with a very basic camera and were able to capture some great images with that one. Heck I’ll even say that I could capture the same images I take with my Sony and Zeiss combi with a standard camera and lens. Sure the amount of detail will be a bit less, and so will be the sharpness but I’m talking about the feeling you get when you are looking at the final image.
Not about being able to print large with maximum detail.

Nikon D3000 (10,2 mpx) + Tokina wide angle + cheap ND filter

Work with what you have

Today all ready-entry camera models are already really good. The dynamic range and the details captured are fine. But in difficult light, mostly during sunrise and sunset, you have to step up your game to capture all details in the highlights and shadows. This is also true for expensive camera’s..

There are multiple ways to do so.
One option is to use filters, but in that case there are extra costs involved. Good ND filters can be pretty expensive if you are just starting out.
An other option is to use bracketing. This can be done manually and (at least on some camera’s) automatically. What you do with bracketing is taking multiple photo’s, all at different exposures. The goal is to capture all details in the whole dynamic range. So you have a good exposure for the highlights, the shadows and one base exposure.
Normally I take 3 bracketed photo’s but if there are a lot of artificial lights, mostly in cityscapes, I can decide to take a few extra.

I take one base exposure (exposed for the midtones), one 2 stops brighter exposure (exposed for the shadows) and one 2 stops darker exposure (exposed for the highlights). Depending on the situation this can change. You can decide to take an extra step in between, so also a +1 and a -1 exposure or even a -3 exposure for very bright street lights.

If your camera supports Auto bracketing (AEB) you can set the exposure steps and let it fire away. If your camera doesn’t support this, you will have to set your camera to manual (to keep the exposure dialed in) and use the Exposure compensation option to dial in the +2 and -2 EV.

Bracketed shot to cover the whole dynamic range

Post processing your shots

Now on your computer there are multiple way’s to combine these photo’s to one single, correct exposed photo.
The easiest is, if you are a Lightroom user, to select all the bracketed photo’s ( the 3 different exposures) and right-click them and select “Merge to” “HDR”. Lightroom will evaluate the photo’s and come up with a merged HDR photo which is exposed correctly for the highlights and shadows.
But be aware! This function works really great but if there are moving subjects, like cars, it can mess up the light trails. Those can be easily corrected Photoshop by combining the HDR and the correct exposure for the highlights but it’s something you must be aware of.

An other, more advanced, method is manually blending the exposures by the use of luminosity masks. I won’t explain it here because this alone is worth a complete tutorial.

12 mpx Drone photo. 
The sensor of the drone is way worse than most ready-entry DSLR’s, but when you know the limitations a lot is still possible!

Conclusion

So to sum up this post. For starters, it’s really important to know your camera it possibilities and shortcomings. Once you know them, find ways to overcome them.
Most of the time this means that you have to take multiple exposures so you can combine them later to create the photo you want. Don’t always look at new gear, know and work with what you have.
Most of the time you will be astonished what is possible with even a very basic kit!

Invest in knowledge, not gear

Happy clicking!

Martijn.

Martijn.Kort

Martijn.Kort

Fine art photographer focusing on architecture and cityscapes as well as capturing unique moments from the cockpit. Writing about photography techniques and sharing reviews. Ambassador for both ZEISS Netherlands and Nisi Filters.If you like my work, consider following me on Instagram!

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