Last week I guided my Eastern Sierra workshop group into the Alabama Hills to photograph the Sierra crest at sunset. We stayed until the sky darkened enough to reveal a sliver of moon low in the west, just about to vanish behind Lone Pine Peak. While my eyes easily pulled detail from the shadows of the distant mountains and nearby boulders, and simultaneously registered the deep twilight blue in the much brighter sky, I knew there was no way a camera could capture both.
The conventional “solution” to limited dynamic range like is to use a computer blend multiple frames at different exposures into a single HDR (high dynamic range) image, or to suppress the brightness of the sky with a graduated neutral density filter. While these are perfectly valid techniques, I’m afraid the knee-jerk inclination to render the world exactly as we see it short-changes the camera’s unique ability to remove distractions and distill the world to its essential elements: color, shape, light, and line.
On this evening in the Alabama Hills, nothing else my eyes registered could compete with the color in the sky, the sharp outline of Lone Pine Peak, and the disappearing slice of moon. Metering on and slightly underexposing the sky, I captured nothing but the crescent moon above Lone Pine Peak’s strong outline, both embedded in the sky’s natural blue. All of the shadowed detail that would have distracted from the scene’s essence, disappeared in the black. The punctuating wisp of cirrus, pink with sunset’s last gasp, was a gift.