What is Clipping in Photography – 9 Ways to Avoid It

In this guide, I’ll be touching on everything you need to know about clipping in photography and how to avoid it.

Let’s dive in!

What Is Clipping In Photography?

Clipping in photography is when your camera takes a picture and the intensity of what it captures is simply too much or too little to fit within an acceptable range.

Imagine taking a photo of a sunset, but the bright sun comes out looking like a white blob on your photo. You were unable to capture the details of the sun because of clipping.

You can think of clipping like trying to fit all your holiday clothes into a suitcase, but it’s just not happening.

Some clothes – or in our case, details of an image – just won’t fit and, unfortunately, get left behind.

Now, this can occur at different steps in your photographic journey – while clicking the photo, when your camera processes it internally, or even during post-production when you’re jazzing it up with edits.

Imagine you’re painting a picture and you accidentally glop on too much red paint in one spot. The area is so saturated, you lose all texture and the details disappear into a blob of red— that’s clipping in the world of colors.

Remember that time you accidentally left your camera settings too high and your whole pic came out blindingly bright?

That’s an overexposure leading to blown out highlights – those bright areas become a casualty of clipping.

Remember, this can also happen if you’re a fan of old-school analog photography, but it happens in a more gradual, slower way, like a dimmer switch compared to a standard on/off light toggle.

Also, let’s not mistake every clipped image as a ruined one.

Sometimes, a bit of clipping in the background or tiny areas, can be glazed over without damaging the photo’s overall impact. The trick? Balance color saturation avoiding those harshly bright or extremely dark spaces.

Clipping can be tamed with careful tweaking of your exposure settings or using techniques like HDR photography.

And, yes, let’s thank our gods for technology, because post-processing software like Lightroom can swoop in and help recover some of that lost detail in clipped areas.

clipping in photography highlights
clipping in photography – blown-out highlights
clipping in photography shadows
clipping in photography – underexposed shadows

Why Is Clipping Important to Know In Photography?

Well, just imagine you’re painting. You spend hours blending your paints to get the right hues, but suddenly you spill a bucket of white or black paint on the canvas.

It’s glaring and all the details you painstakingly painted disappear under the intense monochromatic flood. That “spill” in our analogy is similar to clipping in photography.

When capturing or processing images, sometimes the intensity of a color or a color range can exceed what your camera or editing tool considers “acceptable.”

Think of it like trying to fit a giraffe into a mini-van. Just as the van isn’t built to accommodate our lanky friend, software and devices have limits to the data they can handle.

When these limits are exceeded, we end up with clipping.

The impact of clipping can be quite dramatic. Picture a landscape photo where the sky’s brilliant blues are replaced by a blast of white, losing all its detail —that’s clipping.

Or say you’re shooting a portrait and the bright sunshine turns your subject’s cheek into a patch of glaring white. You’re missing the subtleties of their skin, and that’s because of clipping.

In some cases, such as backgrounds or small areas like sunlight reflections, clipping might not be a big problem.

But generally, it can significantly limit image quality and tonal ranges, just like drawing a stunning rainbow but forgetting to color in the blue. It’s still a rainbow, but not quite as beautiful, right?

So, there you have it!

Clipping is essentially the “all-or-nothing” of photography, where certain areas get all the light intensity, causing lose details.

Reminds me of that time when I was starting out as a photographer and kept wondering why my sunsets looked overly bright.

Little did I know, it was all the mischief of clipping! Over time, practice, and a few tutorials down the road, I finally managed to capture the sunset in its true, glorious detail.

So don’t worry! You too can master this art and make clipping a thing of the past in your photography journey.

How Does Clipping Affect The Final Image?

In the world of photography, we treasure every little detail. The glimmer in a person’s eyes, the intricate textures on a spider web, the fine lines on a leaf.

But when clipping comes into the play, it’s like a magic eraser that wipes out these details where the brightness is too high or too low.

Especially when you have those heartbreaking moments of capturing a perfect moment just to find out later that the brightness caused a loss of image detail.

Just like a pinch of salt can make or break your dish, managing clipping can be a tightrope walk. But with techniques like HDR photography and the right exposure settings, you have the power to control and even prevent clipping.

So, how does clipping affect the final image? Well, it’s a bit like a culinary mishap. A little too much or too little of an ingredient, and you risk losing the flavor and appeal of the dish.

Similarly, clipping can turn your beautifully nuanced image into a less appealing one, missing out on the flavors of detail, color, and richness.

But remember, practice makes perfect and with the right techniques and tools, tackling clipping will be a piece of cake in no time!

Where Can Clipping Occur In A Photograph?

Where can clipping occur in a photograph? you ask.

For example, let’s say you’re out in the park, the sun is shining, and you’re about to capture a beautiful flower in all its radiant glory.

1. During Image Capture

This is the first stage – image capture.

Deceitfully, clipping can get its foot in the door here if your camera’s exposure settings aren’t just right.

Then you go home, eager to see your day’s creations. Your camera starts an internal process, converting all that beautiful light and color into digital data.

This is another battlefield where clipping can strike, leading to either overexposed, disturbingly bright areas, or underexposed, crypt-dark zones in your image.

clipping in photography blown out highlights
blown-out highlights

2. During Photo Editing

Just when you thought the coast was clear, you sit down to edit your photos, trying to make your flower bloom brighter on screen than it did in the park.

But beware—image editing is yet another lair where clipping lies in wait.

Here, it’s like cooking chili. Add a little too much spice (or in our case, color saturation and brightness), and boom! You’ve got an over-cooked image with blown-out colors and obliterated details.

red in post production from clipping
“red” areas in post-processing will show where it’s clipping

Moreover, if you’re daring and decide to convert your images to different color spaces—think of it as learning a new dialect in color language—clipping can creep in, turning some colors to gibberish, rendering them out-of-gamut.

So, my friend, just like a crafty villain in a spy movie, clipping can make its unwelcome appearance anywhere from the moment you click your shutter to the very last tweaks you make in your editing software. Stay sharp!

How to Avoid Clipping in Photography?

Now that we know the definition of clipping, let’s take a look at 10 tips I use to avoid clipping in photography:

1. Use Histogram and Exposure Warning

The first tip to avoid clipping in photography is to use your histogram and exposure warning.

You’ll find the histogram on your camera’s LCD screen and graphically displays the distribution of tones in your image.

The goal is to have your histogram spread across the entire range without touching the edges, which represent clipping.

If you check your camera manual, move cameras also should have a feature called “exposure warning” or “blinkies” that will flash overexposed areas in the image preview — allowing you to quickly identify clipped highlights.

2. Expose Your Image Correctly

The second tip is to expose your image correctly.

Learning and knowing how to properly expose your image is essential.

You’ll want to know the exposure triangle and how it dictates the exposure (aperture, shutter speed, ISO) in your image.

exposure triangle
exposure triangle

3. Use Bracketing

The third tip to avoid clipping in photography is to use bracketing.

Bracketing involves taking multiple shots of the same scene at different exposures.

By using this technique, you can capture a wider dynamic range and then reduce the chances of clipping.

From there, you can choose the best exposed images or merge the images using software.

4. Use a Graduated Neutral Density Filter

The fourth tip to avoid clipping in photography is to use a graduated neutral density filter (ND filter).

Graduated ND filters are darker at the top and gradually become clearer at the bottom (hence the name).

These filters can help you balance your exposure in the scene if you are photographing a scene with a bright sky and darker foreground — reducing the likelihood of clipping.

nd filter on sun
ND filter on sun

5. Shoot in RAW Format

The fifth tip to avoid clipping in photography is to shoot in RAW format.

Shooting in RAW will allow you to capture more data and detail in your highlights and shadows.

This way, when you edit your photos in post-processing, it will be easier to recover lost details.

6. Use Exposure Compensation

The sixth tip to avoid clipping in photography is to use exposure compensation.

Exposure compensation allows you to adjust the exposure settings suggested by your camera’s metering.

You can use this feature to fine-tune your exposure and avoid clipping.

7. Use Fill Flash

The seventh tip to avoid clipping in photography is to use fill flash.

I find this tip helpful if you are shooting some portrait photography.

In this case, using a fill flash will allow you to add light to the shadow areas, reducing the dynamic range and helping avoid underexposure.

8. Avoid Harsh Lighting Conditions

The eighth tip to avoid clipping in photography is to avoid harsh lighting conditions.

Harsh lighting usually occurs when the sun is directly overhead such as during midday.

Harsh lighting can create extremes contrasts in lighting. Because of this, I recommend shooting during golden hour or at least outside the hours of midday unless you are photography under some cover.

harsh lighting photography example
harsh lighting photography example

9. Use Post-Processing Tools

The ninth tip to avoid clipping in photography is to leverage your post-processing tools.

Personally, I use Adobe Lightroom because they make it very easy to see the parts in your photo that are clipping so you can easily tweak the shadows, hightlights, contrast, etc. to fix the image.

Who Can Benefit From Understanding Clipping In Photography?

Are you a photographer, amateur or professional, or a keen computer graphics artist?

Wouldn’t it be fantastic to pull out higher quality, striking images from your camera or software? Understanding clipping can help you achieve that.

Let’s say, you’re a photographer who loves to capture the majestic early morning sun over the mountains.

However, your photos end up with blotchy white areas instead of vivid colors. These ‘blown-out’ areas are due to overexposure, causing clipping.

Or maybe you’re a digital artist painstakingly working on the artwork’s hues and shades for a game. But alas, when you change the color space, certain colors turn all black or white, ruining the aesthetic. Again, that’s clipping at play.

Understanding clipping isn’t just about preventing your photos from looking like an overexposed mess, it’s also crucial for absolute control over your work.

The more you’re aware of how different elements of photography work, the better you become at dealing with challenging light conditions. This is the sort of skill that can take your artistry to the next level.

Clipping is like that annoying friend who pops up uninvited. But once you understand what triggers them, you have a better shot at maintaining peace, or in this case, an aesthetically pleasing image, wouldn’t you agree?

So, to answer the question, pretty much anyone involved in creating and editing images can benefit from understanding clipping in photography.

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens when you clip a photograph?

When you clip a photograph, you lose detail in either the brightest highlights or darkest shadows, resulting in those areas appearing completely white or black without any distinguishable features.

What is clipping in photography editing?

Clipping in photography editing refers to the loss of image information in areas that have become completely white (highlight clipping) or completely black (shadow clipping) due to extreme overexposure or underexposure.