Mouse over image to see ‘exposed to right’.
I find that paper towels are not a very interesting subject, in and of themselves. I’ve never pursued one in the wild. I guess that they could be interesting if you were a product photographer for a company like Bounty or perhaps Brawny. However, they do serve a useful purpose photographically. No, I’m not talking about wiping off your camera after a bit of mist or rain, but in getting the most out of your camera’s exposure capabilities.

I’ve seen this article before. If you’ve not read it, head on over and check it out. It is interesting reading, I think. I kept meaning to try it one day, but never did. A couple of weeks ago, I finally did try it and that experiment put together a few pieces that had been floating around in my head. It was, so to speak, the missing piece of the puzzle.

Histograms and stuff
I’m not going to get technical here, but this bears mentioning. Most digital cameras have a mode where you can view the histogram, which shows a distribution of the light levels of a particular shot. Conventional wisdom says to expose ‘right’, which means get your histogram as close to the right side as you can without blowing out pixels. There is also another mode, highlights, that will blink if you are blowing out pixels. I’ve found that on my Nikon cameras, this highlight mode is very conservative, warning you almost a full stop, seemingly 2, before you really start to lose pixels. Better safe than sorry, I suppose.

But what does this have to do with paper towels?
Well… If you do the paper towel test with your camera, you’ll find out how much leeway you have on the highlight side for exposure. Using this test you can see where your camera stops producing highlight details. For my D300 that’s about 3.3 stops of over exposure. Should I go beyond that, I start to lose highlight detail.

But you’ll have to use your spot meter!
In order to get the best advantage out of this, you’ll have to use the spot meter capability on your camera. If you’ve never used it before, it can be a new experience for you and quite useful. You simply point your camera at the brightest highlight area where you’d like to keep detail, take what the meter says, dial it up 3 more stops, take the picture.

Why is this important?
It seems that digital cameras are much more forgiving on the high side of things. Once you start to get into the shadows, you have to compete with digital noise, making shadow detail pretty dicey, especially at the higher ISO settings. In the above image, the sunlight was starting to shine pretty brightly and the contrast was pretty high, so I placed the camera in spot meter mode, pointed it at the clump of clover, which was the brightest part of the scene, set the camera to overexpose by 2 stops, and took the picture. Of course, the highlight warning was blinking, but I simply ignored it.

When I got it back into Lightroom, I moved the slider to ‘underexpose’ the image by 2 stops and that brought back all of the details. Then, I could use the exposure brush to bring back the shadows to the right place. This technique has come in very handy, especially with brightly lit skies having cloud detail that I’d like to keep.

Another technique to add to your arsenal!

Nikon D300:An all weather camera.
A SoFoBoMo practice book