When Is It Ok to Blow Out Your Highlights?

We have it repeatedly drilled into us that we should avoid blowing out our highlights, but is it always a thing that should be avoided? This great video discusses when you should actually consider blowing out the highlights for the best possible image. 

Coming to you from our friend, Pye Jirsa, with SLR Lounge, this excellent video discusses when you should actually consider blowing out the highlights in your images. We are taught from the start that blowing out highlights is something to be avoided, and in a lot of situations, that is great advice, as once a highlight is blown out on a digital sensor, there is no way to recover it. Nonetheless, sometimes, you should consider blowing them out for a range of reasons, and as you can see in this video, it can be a great way to deal with a busy background that does nothing but distract from your subject, plus, if you blow them out in post, you still have the original file without the blown highlights should you change your mind. It is definitely worth taking a second look at how it can be a useful addition to your toolkit.

Check out the video above for the full rundown from Jirsa.

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8 Comments

Kirk Darling's picture

As a technical matter, it's better not to blow out the highlights in the raw, but to gather as much detail across the range as possible. Then in processing, one has all the image material necessary to make an artistic decision.

Ansel Adams did the same thing exposing and processing images to compress the subject dynamic range to fit the capabilities of his film. Then in printing, he had detail in shadows and highlights to make artistic decisions.

Doug Birling's picture

it's acceptable when you don't know how to use a flash to properly light your subject... I kid, sort of.

MC G's picture

Thats most of instagram in fact they love this look and no one wants a photographer who doesn't use a Sony AXXX 1.2 lens and no flash!!!

Lee Christiansen's picture

Sometimes things are just bright.... really bright...

And there are often times it is quite nice to allow highlights to blow out to carry that feeling of brightness across. But as photographers we sometimes get a bit blinkered in an attempt to always retain detail in everything.

Colour balance, lens sharpness, distortion, highlights control, details in the blacks... none of these are as important as the end aesthetic result.

If it looks good, then it is good.

Fristen Lasten's picture

My wife prefers her highlights subtle. Not blown out.

Kirk Darling's picture

Well, naturally the eye usually prevents us from actually viewing blown out highlights. The iris closes down and, if necessary, our eyelids are forced shut...because blown highlights equal retina damage. The eye is much more accommodating to black shadows than blown highlights, which is why losing detail in the shadows appears more natural than losing detail in highlights. Our eyes rarely let us study blown out highlights.

John Ellingson's picture

It's purely a matter of taste, but for me it is never OK, unless that is the only way to capture the image. I do a lot of previsualization for my images and I never imagine one with blown highlights.

If the drop off is a harsh and abrupt drop off a cliff, then no it isn’t okay to do that! If the transition is smooth and looks natural as the highlights drift off into oblivion, then yes it’s absolutely okay to do that.

Notice how this guy softened the image to smooth the transition?

This is why Fuji and Canon do very well with their particular looks. Fuji crushes both ends of the levels, while Canon just doesn’t have the range, so it just manages the tone curve.