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Five Stops From The Edge

Create vibrant images with textured highlights and detailed shadows using this simple metering and composing technique.

The Issue

Outdoors on a bright, sunny day your eyes will discern between 12 and 14 f-stops of contrast.  Your favorite slide film, however, is only capable of capturing five.  And while print film is more forgiving, even it is limited to seven.


Range of Slide Film

  f-Stops % Tone

Tonality Scale

No Texture + 2.5          
Very Light + 2.0 72%        
+ 1.5        
Light + 1.0 36%        
+ 0.5        
Middle Tone 18%        
- 0.5        
Dark - 1.0 9%        
- 1.5        
Very Dark - 2.0 4.5%        
No Detail - 2.5        
Photographs you make without considering and accommodating for this limited range of film will often disappoint.  Instead of distinguishing flakes of snow, grains of sand, strands of hair, or what lurks in the shadows of your images, you may find only blobs of black or featureless areas of white.

Fortunately, both human sight and film are equally capable of seeing the entire spectrum of color and perceiving the same gradations between all white and all black.  Film, however, just sees all the colors and their gradations in a more condensed manner.

A comparison of the film tonality scale above with the human eye tonality scale at right is a good visual representation of this limited range.

Mentally positioning the table above alongside the table at right so the bottom (darkest) row in both tables are side by side should help demonstrate the problem presented to photographers.

In order to capture on film all the detail in the shadows visible to the human eye, one is simply required to sacrifice all the gradations in the highlights.  Therefore, the multitude of gradations visible to the human eye at - 1.0 f-stop and above would appear on film as featureless white.

Your challenge here would be to capture the shadow detail in the image, but prevent blown-out highlights from distracting the viewer.

Conversely, if the left and right tables were positioned so the top (lightest) rows were side by side, you would be challenged to prevent the shadows from becoming merely a black blob in your film image.

To overcome film's limitation of range and obtain photos with rich shadow detail and nicely textured highlights you need only observe a few rather simple steps.  And the only tools you will need by the way are your eyes and your camera's meter.

The Solution

(1)  Set Camera To Manual.  Set your camera to its manual setting so you may have complete control over both shutter speed and aperture.

(2)  Assign Tonality.  Identify the most important part of the image and determine the tonality you wish it to have.  Regardless of how it appears to your eyes, you may capture the subject on film at the same tone as you perceive it, a darker tone, or even a lighter one.  For example.  If the most important part of the image is currently a medium tone and you wish to render it as light, you would simply adjust your exposure by adding 1 f-stop (i.e., open up 1 f-stop).  Use the film tonality table above for determining the proper adjustment for you.

(3) Set Exposure.  Spot meter the most important part of the image and adjust the shutter speed and/or aperture until your meter indicator or needle is set to zero or in the middle.  However, if your tonality assignment required adding or subtracting stops, then you would adjust shutter speed and/or aperture until the meter needle rests at the value determined above.  For example.  While spot metering a medium toned subject you wish to render as light on film, you would the adjust shutter speed and/or aperture so the meter needle rests on +1.0.

(4)  Can Film Hold The Scene?  Spot meter both the lightest and darkest portions of the scene you wish to capture.  If either is more than 2 stops away from where you positioned the meter indicator or needle when you set exposure, you will need to decide if the film can hold the scene.  Highlights more than 2 stops over will clearly have no texture and may be too distracting in the finished photo.  And the same goes for shadows; areas more than 2 stops under will lack shadow detail.

(5)  Recompose, If Necessary.  If you believe highlights or lack of shadow detail may distract the eventual viewer of your image, the film obviously cannot hold the scene and you should recompose from another angle or vantage point taking care to avoid these light or dark areas.  If recomposing is not necessary or once you're satisfied the results will be pleasing, then shoot away.

Follow these five simple steps and you'll never find yourself over the edge.

  Table Of Contents
Range of Human Eyes

Tonality Scale

+ 6.0        
+ 5.5        
+ 5.0        
+ 4.5        
+ 4.0        
+ 3.5        
+ 3.0        
+ 2.5        
+ 2.0        
+ 1.5        
+ 1.0        
+ 0.5        
- 0.5        
- 1.0        
- 1.5        
- 2.0        
- 2.5        
- 3.0        
- 3.5        
- 4.0        
- 4.5        
- 5.0        
- 5.5        
- 6.0        

Copyright c 2003-2004 Bob Radcliff.  All rights reserved.

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