Working with High Contrast Interior Architectural Images

Before we get into this latest article, I’d like to thank one of our readers (Kevin L) for a recent comment that was the creative spark for this new posting. This article features an image captured handheld at the Nelles Manor in Grimsby and discusses working with high contrast interior architectural images in post.

In my reply to Kevin’s comment I mentioned that I used the Spot Weighted DxO Smart Lighting adjustment on the images that were featured in my article Character at MacNab Terrace Guest House.

This article shows some examples of the potential impact of that particular adjustment and outlines a few additional things that photographers can consider when working with high contrast interior architectural images. First let’s have a look at a jpeg made from the original RAW file.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, f/5, 1/13, ISO-1600

We can see that almost all of the window pane details have been blown out of this photograph due to the very bright sunlight streaming through the window. This has also caused the details in the light hanging from the ceiling to be blown out as well.

In the next three images I applied varying amounts of Spot Weighted DxO Smart Lighting to the image. This was done by drawing a box around the window and using some of the preset adjustment levels. The next image had a ‘slight’ amount of Spot Weighted DxO Smart Lighting adjustment applied.

DxO Smart Lighting Slight Spot Weighted adjustment applied

You can see a very small improvement to the window pane detail as well as more shadow details starting to emerge. Now, let’s observe what a medium level of spot weighted adjustment does to the image.

DxO Smart Lighting Medium Spot Weighted adjustment applied

Another incremental improvement in the window pane detail as well as shadow areas. Let’s push this further with a strong level of Spot Weighted DxO Smart Lighting adjustment.

DxO Smart Lighting Strong Spot Weighted adjustment applied

We can see additional details are beginning to firm up in the image. Now let’s see what taking Highlights and Midtones to -20, Shadows to +10 and Black to -5 in DxO PhotoLab does to the ‘strong’ version of the image.

Further adjustments made in DxO PhotoLab, Highlights -20, Midtones -20, Shadows +10, and Black -5.

We can see more incremental improvement throughout the image. I don’t typically do much more than -/+ 20 with DxO PhotoLab Selective Tone adjustments. Other folks may feel comfortable doing more than that, but I prefer exporting a DNG file into CS6.

Let’s see what happens to the image when we take Highlights to -100, Shadows to +35, White to +10 and Black to -35 in CS6.

Adjustments in CS6 added, Highlights -100, Shadows +35, White +10, Black -35

The small 1″ CX sensor in my Nikon 1 J5 was quite challenged by the high contrast lighting in this photograph. This was exacerbated by shooting at ISO-1600 in order to get a usable handheld shutter speed of 1/13th of a second. Given the very bright sunlight coming through the window and the dark shade inside Nelles Manor, there just wasn’t much left beyond the window panes to recover. It was my judgement that the best I could likely do was to dig out as many of the window panes’ highlight details and coax more out of the shadow areas.

The last tweaks I made to the image were with the Nik Collection, making some small adjustments to contrast and structure in Viveza 2. Here is the final image…

Final image after minor Contrast and Structure tweaks done in Viveza 2 (Nik Collection)

While the window still has quite a bit of blown out highlights, to my eye they don’t overly distract from the overall feeling of the photograph.

By clicking on the images you can enlarge them and view successive versions of the photograph.

As regular readers will know, I don’t typically spend more than about 3 minutes on a image, including computer processing time. This was also the case with this image.

I have found that the Spot Weighted DxO Smart Lighting adjustment is quite helpful and I now use it on all of my images. I find that it does a very nice job helping to balance the dynamic range in my photographs and allows me to ‘dig’ a bit more. This simple adjustment saves me quite a bit of time in post.

Technical Note:
The photograph in this article were captured handheld in available light using Nikon 1 gear as noted in the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection.

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12 thoughts on “Working with High Contrast Interior Architectural Images”

  1. Tom said: {I have played around with the notion of under exposing images, then lightening them in post … My attempts at this have not been successful. I have never liked how my images turn out when I have purposely under exposed them. I find that the shadow areas in the resulting images end up being far too grainy for my liking and there also seems to be some unpleasant artifacts in those shadow areas. I also find that I end up spending far too much time in post to achieve results with which I am not happy.}

    Thanks for that explanation, Tom. Ironically, I am coming to the same conclusion (helped by your confirmation). I say “ironically” because I have long persisted with the approach of under-exposing in these circumstances – but with much the same results that you outline.

    My Sony RX10ii also has a 1″ sensor, and exhibits similar tendency towards ISO-invariance much like (just slightly better than) your J5. I don’t seem to have the problems with too much noise/grain that you describe (mainly ‘cos DxO PhotoLab’s Prime Noise Reduction does such an amazingly good job), but I do see a lot of unpleasant colour distortions in the shadow areas; typically as a dark-maroon colour cast … which is not good.

    I’m heading off to Sri Lanka next week (with my trusty RX10ii and my new Sony a7ii + FE 4/12-24 G lens) and I’m planning on allowing my ISO range to go higher than I usually do – – and I’ll see how that works for me.

    Regards, John TKA

  2. Tom,

    To add to the discussion — while I’m aware that a lot of times, we crave for details from high-contrast scenes, sometimes, publications would go for “more natural” washed out images since it clearly convey the time of day.

    If I’m not mistaken, the washed out, high-contrast scenes are deemed acceptable and more realistic before as cameras and films do not have a wide latitude/dynamic range to capture details in the bright areas. Hence, readers and viewers are very much familiar with these images that, even caption-less, would communicate the ideas of “noon”, “harsh”, “sharp light,” “hot hours of the day”.

    My mind is wondering whether with the image enhancement and manipulation technology we have today, would this still be more of the rule? Or would it be editorially more acceptable to use enhanced DR images that border on HDR?


    1. Hi Oggie,

      Thanks for adding to the discussion! I think your comment touches on a few important areas. The first is whether working in post can detract from the realism of a photograph. The second is what is deemed acceptable by an image’s viewing audience, and the third is the creative interpretation of an image by a photographer and their audience.

      In my mind the answer is not necessarily clear cut. We’ve all seen images that have been ‘over done’ in post in terms of loosing their sense of realism. While this may be deemed unacceptable for a documentary type of photograph, it may be seen as acceptable by viewers from the perspective of being a creative interpretation standpoint for more artistic subjects. Taking multiple exposures, then combining them in an HDR composition is certainly an option that all of us can use when faced with these types of high contrast interior photographs. This does require some forethought, planning, and bringing along some additional gear… but can lead to more accurate representations of realism when done well. Of course, HDR is often over done as well!

      I think many of us struggle with these two competing approaches with our photographic work… and we quite likely always will as we attempt to push the creative boundaries of our craft.

      The timing of your comment is interesting as I’ve recently been working on some images I captured at Niagara Falls, trying to decide how to tackle them in post. After spending some time in post with them I’m still not happy with anything that I’ve done thus far. I was leaning towards a decision to simply scrap all of the images and simply move on to something else.

      Your comment has me contemplating a different use for those Niagara Falls images…


      1. Tom,

        The reason I broached the topic is that I worked in both journalism (where manipulation is a no-no) and advertising fields (where manipulation is a must); in between is the travel magazine industry where the standards differ from editor to editor as to what is acceptable. I fully realize that we have been largely conditioned by a century of looking at photographs as to interpreting what a photo could mean, when it was taken, etc. For example, for hotel clients, while I would advise them that I prefer to shoot towards the sunrise/pre-dawn and sunset/early evening hours, there would be clients who prefer the bright and airy, if high-contrast picture of balconies/windows spilling so much light so as to convey the mood of spaciousness, airiness, as well as abstract feelings such as “light,” “cheery,” “perky.”

        While I used to veer away from HDR before, I realize that as with a lot of things, moderation is really the key. Of course, that is sort of a moving target as this is a very grey, very subjective area.

        Anway, we live in interesting times when the digital sensor is rapidly approximating the incredible dynamic range of the human eye so this topic makes for very interesting conversation.


        1. An interesting conversation for sure Oggie! I think the vast majority of people would agree that when it comes to paid work, client needs always come first. I love working with clients who can articulate their needs/vision, but are also open to creative interpretations that may give them options to consider. You bring up some great points about time of day, shooting angles, level of contrast etc. as all of these factors can dramatically affect the images we create. And… we haven’t even mentioned taking our images into the realm of photo art!


          1. Tom,

            I’m a big admirer of Paul Theroux and his philosophy of writing as if painting a scene; applied to photography, it’s shooting and processing the image to tell a story, evoke an emotion, convey a mood. In your interior images with washed out windows, my description could be “arriving at the height of the afternoon sun when the sunlight was so bright, it washed out the extraneous details, leaving only the bare essence of the scene — the window frame but not the view, the wooden floor but not the grains”. Anyway, I can go on and on. And you’re right, we haven’t even ventured into the realm of photo art.


  3. Another excellent example, thanks Tom.

    (Given that your Nikon 1 J5 tends towards being “ISO invariant”) , I wonder if you might have achieved a better starting point had you metered (at least partially) for the bright light from the window, instead of for the lighting inside the room (?)

    This would have resulted in a darker image – but probably would have allowed a lower ISO setting … and, given the ISO-invariant nature of your J5, you would have been able to “brighten” the image in PhotoLab to recover detail in the room interior without significant photographic-noise penalty.

    Have you tried / compared this approach to the one you took in this example ?

    Regards, John – TKA

    1. Hi John,

      When shooting a few sample images for this specific article I purposely tried to create images with as much contrast as possible with some blown out highlights, to see what could be done in post with them. I typically would have shot this type of interior scene using a monopod or tripod at base ISO, and likely would have used some exposure compensation to get a better balanced image before working on it in post.

      I have played around with the notion of under exposing images, then lightening them in post, i.e. your comment about the J5 tending to be ISO-invariant. My attempts at this have not been successful. I have never liked how my images turn out when I have purposely under exposed them. I find that the shadow areas in the resulting images end up being far too grainy for my liking and there also seems to be some unpleasant artifacts in those shadow areas. I also find that I end up spending far too much time in post to achieve results with which I am not happy. Perhaps folks with more patience and more skill in post would get better results than I have been able to achieve.


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