Nope, you are not crazy - I have posted more crap in the last couple of days than I do for weeks. I am about to drive you crazy because as the title says… I am sorry but I have to put this out there and then I will stop on the highlight thing for a while. I promise.
I have had a couple of conversations about highlights with more than one person via twitter, email, and old-school in person driven by a few of my posts about the topic. Some of them D600 related and all techno crappy. Some of them artsy fartsy. The most surprising one was sort of a combination of both but on a topic that is sorta intuitively obvious to me but much to my chagrin - not so obvious as I might have thought. Before I forget here it is…
Take a look at the image at the top. Specifically the edge light on the subject's face. That highlight smashed into the right side of the histogram about a stop and a half before I stopped cranking in more exposure. Don't bother measuring it. It's not 255. It's a little lower than that because my import preset was set to VSCO film 01 Fuji 400H which slaps a curve on that has no 0 and no 255 - no absolute black and no absolute white. Anyway you slice it there is no detail in that highlight. Keep that in mind for one second while I show you the next shot…
You can probably tell but incase you cannot - same location - same light. I consider this low key. It was a lot closer to what the smart-ass meter recommended but that's not important. Take a look at that same highlight on the edge of the face. It's not smashed up against the side. Fact is there is tiny bits of it really close to the right side an they go down down down down from there. I would say if you average all the pixels that could be considered part of that highlight they would be around the 3/4 mark some below that some above extending almost all the way to 255. This is typical of most digital camera evaluative metering and typical of where most photographers want to keep their highlights.
Yea yea yea all the techno crap in the world is great but look with your eyes - there really isn't any detail to see in either image inside that edge no matter how bright or dim you render it. Yea you may get a bit more "detail" on the edge of it where it starts to go darker at lower and lower values but who cares. They actually look about the same. There is a physics reason for this but it's not really important for the most part it can be considered a direct reflection of the actual light source. Doesn't need detail because it doesn't have it and you don't expect it to when you see it in person from the same angle.
Without accounting for taste or which image you happen to like better on a particular day or your general bent here is the epiphany spelled out if you haven't quite gotten there yet… You can render that particular highlight any way you care to - you can set your exposure so that if you had a special extension screen for your camera it would be 3 miles past that hard stop right side. Once you sorta get this it opens up a whole new realm of exposure possibilities for the same image as you can see. Now that you're not a slave to those couple of pixels you can put the rest of the skin, dress, walls, whatever anywhere you want to on the tonal map.
Conversely you could actually go even lower on this and get away with it still looking pretty darn bright. It's all in the context. To wrap the whole thing up in a nice neat package (at least neat considering my typical tangents) I mentioned that I didn't care about the highlight values in this post. I did say I only cared about the placement. Consider this follow up the why to that statement. This is the arty part.
A corollary to this is thinking through the different images that you can choose to make in the exact same light without even moving, change point of view, changing light, changing nothing but exposure. Which one do I like better? Hmmm depends on my mood and what I am trying to do and how I want the image to feel. For that particular shot I really didn't dig the low key feel so that's not how I shot it. For this one I did…
One last thing to wrap up is all the praise I have been heaping upon the Nikon D600 related to highlights and dynamic range, etc, etc. Consider that to be a highlight fetishist thing. Specifically I didn't like the way most other digital cameras I have shot looked at the edges of where those highlights started to breakup and leave. To me they looked all funky. Funky in a bad way. That may be due to the fact that I have shot a shit load of film and that is what my expectation and my "normal" is. For other people any way it renders is just fine and dandy. My suggestion is that you take a look at what your gear does at the edges and decide how you need to shoot it so it looks good to you. Personally I hated the constraint of shooting it "under" and flat and dealing with it in post. More of a little thing that nagged at me about digital capture - not a show stopper.