By Gordon Lewis
The most consistent criticism leveled against the Olympus E-510 is that its dynamic range (the number exposure steps between maximum black and maximum white) is narrower than many of its competitors. Although this is true, the difference is relatively minor; only about 0.7 EV. The more significant problem, at least for me, is that when faced with high-contrast lighting situations, the E-510 has a consistent tendency to overexpose the highlights to the point of clipping—i.e., the point at which one or more of the color channels are maxed out.
I don’t mean small, specular highlights. I mean major highlights, like skies, clouds, walls, and sandy beaches. To make matters worse, if you have the camera set to record images as JPEGs, the resulting overexposure is “baked in.” If there’s no highlight detail, there’s nothing you can do to recover it. There are a variety of theories and explanations for why the E-510 does this, and I’m sure several readers will expand on them, but I prefer to concentrate on what to do about it. Here’s what works for me:
1. Shoot RAW. When you shoot RAW, you have more control over the image post-exposure. You will often be able to use a RAW converter to recover clipped highlights—but only if they were overexposed by no more than a stop. Since it’s often difficult to know while you’re shooting exactly how close you are to the true clipping limit, it’s still best to avoid overexposure whenever possible.
2. Set the “information” display so that overexposed highlights blink on and off. The exposure histogram indicates only whether the highlights are clipped, not how much. The blinking highlight option allows you to judge how much of the image is overexposed and where. If you see flashing in areas where you want to retain detail, you’d be wise to reduce the exposure.
3. Set exposure compensation to –0.7. Since that the meter tends to overexpose high-contrast scenes by about 0.7 EV, reducing the exposure by 0.7 EV effectively “zeroes it out.” Keep in mind, however, that this applies only to high-contrast situations. If you shoot low-contrast scenes with the camera set this way they will be underexposed. You may therefore prefer to:
4. Expose for the highlights. I have my camera set for center-weighted or spot metering. That way I know exactly what the meter is “seeing.” Instead of aiming it at mid-tones, I aim toward the brightest areas (exclusive of the sun or other light sources, of course). As long as I include a few mid-tones in the measurement area and lock-in the exposure, the highlights are still bright, but seldom to the point of clipping.
There are other things you can do, such as reducing the camera’s contrast and saturation settings, but I find the above four suggestions to have the most significant benefits. Other E-510 users should feel free to contribute their insights too. In the meantime, if you’d like to see some examples of how well these suggestions work, check out my gallery of London photos.
This "before" picture represents what you get straight out of the camera if you don't meter for the sky. If you were shooting JPEGs, this is what you'd be stuck with. There would be no way to rescue the lost detail in the sky.
The "after" version shows what the same file looks like after adjusting the exposure and recovery sliders in Adobe Camera Raw, tweaking the contrast a bit, and cropping. The whole process took less than 30 seconds. Some of the sky is still blown out, but it looks much better. It would have been even better if I had exposed for the sky to begin with.
Such adjustments would be a drag if you had to do it for every shot, but in practice you'd either save them for the keepers or you'd use a batch processor such as Lightroom. Also keep in mind that the sky was only about a stop overexposed. Any more than that and the brightest highlights would be difficult or impossible to recover without making the darker tones look bad
In the next installment I’ll conclude with reflections about what a like about shooting with the E-510—and what I don’t.
Gordon Lewis has over 20 years experience as a journalist, photographer, scriptwriter and instructional designer. His articles and photographs have been published in Camera 35, Petersen’s Photographic, Camera & Darkroom, and Popular Photography. His television credits include comedy hits such as Amen, A Different World, Family Matters, and In Living Color. Having exhausted all reservoirs of humor, he now designs online training for corporate clients. Gordon resides with his wife and three children just north of Philadelphia, the birthplace of freedom and current murder capital of the USA.