Sounds like a recipe for disaster. At least it does from a photographic point of view. It can be for sure. Here are a couple of things to think about next time you are faced with this kind of thing. I didn't plan on shooting these images in the sense that I went out and said to myself. I am going to stick someone with a white dress in the sun and shoot today. The sun was there. I was there. I shot it. In reality my first thought was "dammit I need to shoot soft window light today" Okay let's go somewhere else. Before I did I shot a few frames.
Keep that in mind - always a good idea to remain open to possibilities no matter what "mission" you are on. Yea you need focus to but balance is good. It's really easy to look at everything that can be shot as a giant nuisance when you are completely fixated on what you had in your head that you wanted to shoot.
I like the image at the top. You may or may not but I do. It has a sunny "feeling" that is far different than north light through a window. To me the sun screams bright in most situations so I tend to make bright and sunny interpretations of this type of scene. Here is a comparison shot which was an exposure test shot where I had already dialed in an additional 2 stops of exposure.
Not bad. Kind of typical. Had I not automatically started at 2 stops over what the D600 was telling me to do the subject would have been pretty much black and I would have wonderful midtone detail and contrast in all of the bright white curtains and the stuff that was out of focus outside. Wonderful. It's actually a pretty "safe" shot. Not incompetent in terms of white stuff is white and if I wanted to I could go all HDR on it in post and render all sorts of detail in those whites and bring up the darker areas and make it sort of look like I did it with crazy ass fill flash or even worse.
For what I actually wanted the skin on was still way way too dark on what I consider the whole point of taking the picture in the first place. Not satisfied with safe I kicked the exposure up another whole stop - and a hair, as in one third. Thats what you see at the top. Yes I did sacrifice some detail. So what. That detail was not really detail anyway.
Theoretically I could "bring it back" but I don't really want it. Take a look at what I "gave up". It's actually hard to tell. What I gave up wasn't the darker areas outside or even the darker areas in the curtains. I gave up the areas that were already rendering flat white. What's the difference between flat white and flat white no matter whether one is at the top of the scale or… a stop and a third past that? Visually not much. I also compressed more of the dress that was almost flat white farther into the curtain flat white areas. That could be problematic depending on your composition or why you are making the image in the first place. Best to know why you are making it in the first place and decide what's important. Then you will actually know what to do versus trying to get the one image for all seasons and purposes shot. Rarely works as in that image satisfies no purpose or intent.
Okay enough philosophy - Just for the heck of it I did a two second exposure brush and one stroke to bring the separation "back" around the dress and the super bright window. Here that is…
Yep it came back. For sure the fabric detail in the really bright spots on the dress is gone and gone for ever. It wasn't really visible anyway - especially at that angle of incidence of the sun strikes. Well I guess it could be if you rendered it somewhere in the mid tones. Probably not a great idea.
Bottom line. Both images are reasonable and seem to make sense visually. They are very very different in terms of feel. The whole point of this photographic endeavor is not the quest for some ultimate technical righteousness from my point of view. It's about making the creative decisions to get the feeling that you want in a particular image.
Oh and when playing in the sun the places the sun actually hits don't have to be smashing into your subjects face to give the "sunny" look and feel.