What Do Photographers Mean When They Say Highlights Are Clipped?

As you get into shooting and editing, you will probably hear photographers talk about blown-out or clipped highlights and shadows. What does it mean to clip something and how does it affect your shooting and editing? This short and easy-to-follow video tutorial will show you what you need to know. 

Coming to you from Mike Smith, this great video discusses what it means to clip highlights. And although Smith discusses highlights, the same general principles apply to shadows as well. The design of digital sensors means that they have a finite capture range, and luminance values outside that range will be unable to be captured and result in either no data (a clipped shadow) or an overload of data (a clipped highlight). The practical consequences of this are areas of shadow that cannot be lightened or areas of highlights that cannot be darkened, resulting in blocky patches of black or white that can be particularly ugly or distracting. Because these are issues with the dynamic range of the sensor, you have to be careful to avoid them at the point of capture, which is where tools like the histogram or exposure bracketing can be a big help. Check out the video above for the full rundown from Smith. 

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Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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I didn't watch the video yet but to me, there's 2 types of clipping and I've just been running into it this week:
- Clipping in your current histogram of a photo
- Clipping in the actual sensor data

I don't know of any camera of software that properly distinguishes between the two. Most of the time, when you have clipped highlights, you can make the "exposure warnings" or whatever it's named go away by manipulating the levels or curves, or just the blacks / whites / highlights sliders.
But if that makes your exposure warning go away, that doesn't mean your highlights didn't clip! That sunrise is still clipped!

Wish that tools would do a better job at showing which clipped highlights are still recoverable, and which are not.

If it's clipped, it's not recoverable.
Use the histogram feature in your camera.
If it spikes all the way to the top for highlights, or the bottom for shadows, it's clipped and you need to adjust somehow so the reading is within the graph. Bracket, filter, or adjust iris/shutter speed.

Clipped sensor data is not recoverable. Clipping in the histogram of LR, C1, etc often is because it clips on the current edit, not on the sensor data.

One of the shots I was editing last week, I should have been able to avoid the clipping when I took the shot, yes. That was my fault. :D I was hurrying too much to catch a dancing light on a flower, it clipped.
If the exposure warnings would have shown me separately what parts were recoverable and what parts were clipped in RAW, I would have discarded or retaken that shot sooner.

The other shots, well, sunsets / sunrises will always have clipping. Knowing where some detail is still recoverable, and where it's just too bright because it's the sun would be helpful in knowing where to stop.

You should use the histogram feature on your camera to avoid clipping when you're capture the image. Waiting to find out if the image is clipped when your editing is setting yourself up for disappointment later, or worse if it's a paying gig.

I would add that clipping warnings in-camera are based on the JPG previews, not the RAW data, so depending on how much is clipping, you generally still have some leeway to recover the detail in post. You just need to be familiar with your camera's dynamic range.

Just don't wait until your back at the office to find out.

I would hope that by the time you're in a situation where it matters that much, you already have a good feel for when the camera is actually clipping RAW data.

I prefer visual confirmation via the histogram and a light meter over my gut instincts. The results are more predictable. Not a big deal if you're shooting for pleasure.

Clipped sensor data is not recoverable and the histogram of the camera will give you some help, yes.

But I was talking about the exposure warnings in software like CaptureOne, LightRoom, etc. They start blinking when something is clipping in the current histogram, caused by your edits.
You can make that go away by adjusting some sliders, even if the sensor data is clipped.

So I wish that there was a separate way in C1, LR, DxO etc to show where sensor data is clipped vs where you introduced clipping with the manipulations you did.

- Clipping in your current histogram of a photo
- Clipping in the actual sensor data