Enduring photographs don’t duplicate human reality, they reveal unseen aspects of our world. Capturing this hidden world requires mastery of photography’s “creativity triad” that distinguishes the camera’s vision from human vision: motion, light, and depth.
Light is arguably the single most important element in an image. And the way a camera handles light may very well be photographers’ single biggest frustration—while our eyes can pluck detail from the deepest shadows to the brightest highlights, with a camera we can have shadows, or we can have highlights, but we can’t have both. Photographers go to great lengths to mitigate the shortcomings of their camera’s dynamic range (range of light a camera can pull detail from in a single frame, from shadows to highlights): Artificial light, blending of multiple exposures, and graduated neutral density filters absolutely have their place, but we often overlook the opportunity limited dynamic range provides.
In my previous post I wrote about how the camera’s ability to accumulate light over the duration of a single frame can reveal motion that’s invisible to the naked eye. Where light is concerned, while many see it as a limitation, I see my camera’s “limited” dynamic range as an opportunity to hide distractions and emphasize features. Whether it’s a Yosemite silhouette that emphasizes shape, or a high-key autumn image that highlights color, narrow dynamic range doesn’t need to be a handicap.
Red Maple Twins, Zion National Park
Last week I was in Zion National Park, co-teaching Don Smith’s workshop there. Zion’s yellows were peaking while we were there, but most of its red maples were about a week past prime. Nevertheless, I was able to find enough crimson leaves to keep me happy.
One morning I found a group of leaves dangling away from most of the tree. Seeking the best way to isolate the leaves from their surroundings, I experimented with different positions and focal lengths, starting with a half dozen or so leaves against a background of soft-focus branches and leaves. I love my new Sony 100-400 GM lens for isolation shots like this and had fun composing these leaves with a variety of focal lengths. The longer I worked on the scene, the more my eye was drawn to the shape, crimson translucence, and vein pattern of one pair of leaves in particular.
Suddenly, simplicity was the operative word. Strategizing the best way to separate these two leaves from their surroundings, I quickly realized a background of more leaves and branches, no matter how soft, was too distracting. But most angles that eliminated background foliage blended my my leaves into Zion’s towering red sandstone walls. Eventually I found a position far enough beneath the tree to put the backlit leaves against the cloudy sky.
Though my Sony a7RII has enough dynamic range to capture the entire range of light from shadows to highlights (with a little help from Lightroom/Photoshop, pulling up the shadows and down the highlights), I found the texture in the clouds almost as distracting as the branches. Instead, I metered on the leaves, which, though nicely backlit, were nowhere near as bright as the sky. My histogram showed that I’d clipped the sky, which I knew would put my leaves against a white background.
With no background detail to blur, I was able to stop down to f/16 and expand my depth of field to get more of both leaves in focus. The downside of this stop-down decision was significantly less light on my sensor, necessitating a longer shutter speed to achieve my desired exposure. For a shutter speed that overcame a breeze wiggling the leaves, I bumped to 1600 ISO. While my plan at capture was to put the backlit leaves against an entirely white background, when I started processing the image, I realized I’d captured a patch of blue sky (revealed by pulling the Lightroom Highlights slider to the left). I decided to keep blue sky while still hiding the texture in the clouds in the “blown” highlights.
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