A Viewfinder Darkly

Photography tips and tutorials

Photographing the Vibrant Colours of a Motorcycle Helmet

May 23 2012

by Philip Northeast

How to photograph the bright colours in the design of a custom painted motorcycle helmet.
The strong morning sunlight brings out the bright colours of the custom painted helmet. The contrast with the black motorcycle creates a scene with extreme dynamic range, presenting a challenge for normal exposure techniques.
The Helmet

The Helmet sitting on a motorcycle

This is a case of trying to extract as much dynamic range from the image as possible with a combination of exposure and photographic techniques. This provides a good starting point for post processing to recreate the true colours of the subject in the finished photograph.
Historically the photographic process did not end when the press of the shutter release button. Often it signalled the end of one part of the process, with the finishing steps taking place in the darkroom. In the digital era this finishing is applied using computer software.
Some commercial photographers need to mass produce digital photos, relying on automatic camera systems for the final decisions about their digital photos. The real trick is analysing the situation and choosing the best combination of camera settings, photographic techniques and computer processing, so the final photograph echoes the photographer’s view of the scene.
dynamic range k5 v D5MkIII

DxOMark dynamic range comparison Pentax k5 v Canon D5 MkIII

Even using a Pentax K-5, a digital SLR with one of the widest dynamic ranges of current DSLRs according to DxOMark, the highlights were in trouble. The pure colours of the helmet’s highly reflective paint job overloads the camera’s digital sensor.

Photo Techniques

In difficult situations it is often best to consider possible approaches to processing the image so any exposure settings or techniques should aim to produce the image with the most room to adjust in the software.
Saving the digital photos as RAW files gives more latitude, or digital information, to use in software processing the digital photo.
The bright helmet and the dark motorcycle are the primary interests and the exposure settings are aimed at achieving the best possible capture of these objects. The background is irrelevant and the composition is aimed at making it neutral to help isolate the main subjects.  Instead of the normal matrix metering the camera was switched to spot metering and an exposure reading taken using the helmet as the reference point.
Using manual exposure settings to get a true exposure for the helmet caused problems with the dark motorcycle being too dark and losing details. After taking some test shots, the exposure was adjusted using the LCD preview screen and the brightness histogram. They were used to judge the deviation from the spot meter reading for the final exposure settings. It was a compromise with a slightly lighter exposure  difference of 0.7 EV  to retain details in the dark motorcycle and still preserving most of the highlights in the helmet.
A polarising filter sometimes helps in these situations.  It mainly reduced distracting reflections and had the effect of intensifying the colours, particularly reducing reflections on the shiny black paintwork of the motorcycle body panels.

Image Processing

Adobe Lightroom manages the images and performs the initial adjustments to RAW format digital photo files. More complex processing require Photoshop Creative Suite but for many digital photos Lightroom has enough options and this was the only software used for the helmet photo.


The highlights recovery slider in Lightroom’s Basic panel restored some of the highlights in danger of being lost or blown. This is Lightroom 3, in Lightroom 4 use the highlights slider.

Before and after histogram

The photo in Adobe Lightroom showing the before and after histogram

Looking at the Lightroom brightness histograms before and after the highlight recovery there are some changes on the extreme right of the histogram, the highlights area. The tall green spike is gone and the green highlights levels are now spread over a wider range of tonal values, indicating finer detail. While not as dramatic, the Red component of the highlights is also spread over a wider range of tonal values.

Hue Saturation and Luminance

The orange swirls on the helmet still appear washed out, while the rest of the photo looks fine.  The Lightroom Develop module has a Selective Colour panel for adjusting the Hue, Saturation, and Luminance of a range of individual colour channels.
Hue Saturation and Luminance in Adobe Lightroom

Hue Saturation and Luminance adjustments in Adobe Lightroom

Adjusting the hue of orange channel making it more orange lifted the washed out swirls along the bottom of the helmet, producing a closer colour match to the orange on the top of the helmet.
Similarly some of the yellow on the helmet appeared a little light, so reducing the luminance of the yellow channel deepened the yellow on the helmet.

Basic Panel

 To finish off a couple of common adjustments, by increasing the Clarity to enhance the mid-tone contrast and a little  Vibrance for a slight increase in saturation of light colours.
basic adjustment panel

The Basic adjustment panel in Adobe Lightroom

Tone Panel

To limit the problem of overexposed highlights the image was slightly underexposed. The consequence is the motorcycle is too dark. This is easily corrected in the Tone Curve panel by raising the levels of the Shadows and Darks.

tone curve

The Tone Curve adjustments in Adobe Lightroom

Because only a small adjustment was needed the loss of detail and increase in noise in dark areas is minimal.
tone panel.

Happy Owner

The helmet owner is happy. He had tried photographing the helmet and could not get the orange in his photos to match the real colour of the helmet.


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