I get a fair number of questions regarding exactly how I create my hyper-realistic images. While I won’t divulge the exact details, there are some valuable insights I will share to assist you in taking better photos.
You do not have to shoot in full Manual mode to achieve results similar to mine, but there are advantages to using Manual as opposed to Automatic mode. There are also drawbacks, mainly speed. If you are trying to capture fleeting moments, manual mode will interfere with this a lot. Most decent DSLR cameras will allow you to modify exposure, even in full auto mode. Read your manual to familiarize yourself with the features of your camera to get the most out of it.
First, I expose for the highlights so that I can achieve a high level of detail in clouds and other light-colored areas. Why? Because a blown-out sky is boring, flat, uninteresting and effectively absorbs all the depth you might otherwise achieve in the image. This is especially true in architectural or landscape photography. I am usually shooting anywhere from 2-4 stops under-exposed to accomplish this. Shoot and preview the image to determine the correct exposure. Once you have the right setting, you are fine to continue shooting as long as a cloud does not impact the sun falling on your subject, or you move to a different vantage point. Always double check your exposure when you change locations.
Exposing for the highlights produces an image coming out of the camera that is darker than usual, with buildings and other foreground components apparently lacking in detail. However… If you shoot in RAW, the file has massive amounts of detail you cannot always see with the naked eye.
Second, I process the image for the shadow areas. This is exactly the same as we were doing in the lab, decades ago. Any decent photo manipulation software allows compensation for shadow detail. I use Photoshop, of which there are many versions – all perfectly capable of achieving the results you see in my prints.
Select the shadow areas first, so you don’t take the detail out of your sky. Bring up the shadows only, until you can see the detail you want, but before it starts to look “fake” or blown-out.
Remember to deselect the shadow areas right after you’ve finished working on them, or any further adjustments you make will affect only the selected area.
Now you are free to continue manipulating your image to add or remove saturation, hue, contrast, etc. until you see what you like.
Below is an example, based on a church steeple in New York City that I photographed in August 2011. At first glance, the casual observer might think the original image in unsalvageable. Actually, I shoot this way intentionally.
Click on the image below, of the 2nd Reformed Church of Harlem for a larger, detailed view.