Leveraging Light

Gary Hart Photography: Glow, California Golden Poppy, Merced River Canyon

Glow, California Golden Poppy, Merced River Canyon
Sony a7R V
Sony 100-400 GM
2 extension tubes (26mm total)
ISO 100
1/400 second

In last week’s post I wrote about the importance of distilling a scene to its essence. I suggested that the best way to achieve this is to eliminate all but the scene’s most essential elements, and emphasized using precise cropping to banish unwanted objects to the world outside the frame. And while it could be argued that this careful cropping might be the most essential part of the scene-distilling process (or at least the foundation upon which to build), it’s often not enough.

Many (most?) scenes, even after the most surgical cropping, can remain filled with distractions that dilute the image’s impact. Areas of brightness, distinctive but irrelevant features, and objects cut off or intruding at the sides of the frame are just a few examples of visual elements that can distract the eye and confuse viewers looking for clues about the image’s purpose.

But take heart, all is not lost for photographers able to jettison the urge to “reproduce the world just the way I saw it.” The truth is, reproducing the world as we see it is literally impossible, and the sooner you come to terms with that truth, the better off you’ll be.

Setting aside our own reality to leverage our camera’s reality starts with understanding that “reality” is in fact a moving target defined by the medium interpreting it. Humans’ definition of “real” is founded on the three-dimensional, 360 degree, continuous-motion, multi-sense input delivered to our eye/brain collaboration. A camera, on the other hand, captures a two-dimensional, static, mono-sensory version of our very dynamic world.

But before lamenting your camera’s limitations, pause to consider that, in the grand scheme of perpetual electromagnetic energy that surrounds us, what you and I see is an tiny fraction of the infinite continuum of electromagnetic wavelengths continuously (and ubiquitously) careening about the Universe.

For example, X-ray machines peer into the world of electromagnetic waves in the one nanometer (one billionth of a meter); TVs and radios “see” waves that are measured in centimeters; humans, on the other hand, see only the waves in a very narrow band between (about) 400 and 750  nanometers. Understanding all allows doctors to expose subcutaneous secrets, astronomers to explore our galaxy and beyond, and the military and law enforcement to view “invisible” (to us) infrared signatures that reveal people and objects in complete darkness. In other words, there’s no single absolute visual standard—it’s all relative to the frame of reference.

The photographer’s job is to embrace his or her camera’s unique frame of reference, and to understand the power they possess to convey aspects of the world missed by the human experience. That “instant” a still photo is limited to can actually be stretched with a long exposure that compresses a potentially infinite number of instants to reveal, in a single frame, patterns of motion and flow. And the information a camera can’t see gives photographers incredible power to hide or minimize distractions, to control the world inside their frame, and to emphasize select elements over other elements.

All this might explain why I’ve always considered myself a film photographer with a digital camera. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate and use the incredible processing power digital photography brings, but it does mean that the images I process are limited to the photons captured in a single click. I just find no joy in adding information through focus or exposure blending of multiple images. Rather, I prefer leaning into my camera’s visual shortcomings by subtracting the aspects of the scene that don’t serve the image. (There’s nothing wrong with honest image blending, it just doesn’t give me joy.)

The image I share today, a brand new one from last week’s Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop, got me thinking about the importance of subtracting distractions, and the power of my camera’s relatively narrow (compared to human vision) dynamic range to emphasize the most important qualities my subject. I’ve always loved the way sunlit poppies seem to radiate from within, as if illuminated by their own internal light source, and am always looking for ways to highlight it.

Based on my observations last month (normally a reliable start to the poppy season in Northern California), and the persistence of California’s incredibly chilly spring (by our standards), I wasn’t even sure I’d have a chance do any poppy photography this year. But scouting my poppy spots near Yosemite for last week’s workshop, I was thrilled to see that the poppies were just starting to erupt. They were still quite small, and rather thinly distributed, but were already plentiful enough to photograph. I reasoned (hoped) that a few days of sun might really kick them into gear, so I planned the workshop wildflower shoot for our final afternoon. It turns out I’d reasoned right, and a few days of sunlight was indeed exactly what the doctor ordered.

I found this solitary poppy jutting from a rocky wall in the Merced River Canyon, about 10 miles west of Yosemite Valley. I was especially drawn to the flower’s warm glow, but no matter how I framed it, the rest of the scene was ugly rock, brown dirt, and scraggly weeds.

I’d armed myself this afternoon with my Sony a7R V camera and Sony 100-400 GM lens; to focus closer, I’d also added two extension tubes totaling 26mm. Though it was only mid-afternoon, with the sun well into its daily descent, the shadows were already stretching deep into nearby nooks and crannies.

After studying the scene, I lowered my tripod and positioned my camera beneath the flower for the best view of its backlit, glowing petals. Instead of trying to make the scene look the way I saw it, I took advantage of my camera’s “limited” dynamic range and underexposed enough to blacken the superfluous background detail. The result is this simple image (which required very little processing, BTW) that, while nothing like what my eyes saw, contains only the elements of the scene I was interested in: the glowing poppy and its softly lit stem on a canvas of black shadow.

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Leveraging Light

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15 Comments on “Leveraging Light

  1. Excptional beautifull. It is ART using your câmera and lentes in the best way possible.

  2. Thanks for sharing, is a beautiful capture. I believe we both photographed the same flower as I recall talking to you about only exposing to the flower and that the image looked great back of camera. My capture did not get as much as the inside of the poppy so one could argue two different set of eyes see things completely different! Thanks again for the great workshop!

    • Thanks, Ryan—it was great having you in the group! Yeah, I guessed this was the one you and I talked about. I think I pointed it out to a couple of other people in the group, but I know you found it on your own. I’m interested in seeing your version once you get around to processing it.

  3. Beautiful! How do you like the extension tubes with the 100-400? This images looks great. That lens is so sharp on its own, do the tubes diminish the quality? What brand extension tubes do you use? Thanks!

    • Thanks, Holly! I love adding extension tubes to all my telephoto lenses. I’ll add them to my 90 macro too, but I like the focus flexibility I get with extension tubes on a zoom lens because I can focus with my focal length as well as the focus ring. Since there are no optics, extension tubes have no effect on image quality, making the brand irrelevant. I can’t even tell you off the top of my head which brand I used for this image, but I know I have Kenko and Fotodiox, but pretty much any brand will do as long they allow the camera and lens to communicate. I’ve heard of some extension tubes that don’t but have never had that problem with any I’ve used. The biggest downside of extension tubes is lost light because f-stop is a ratio of focal length to aperture, and extension increases the focal length, the greater the extension, the larger the f-stop number (and the less light reaches the sensor).

  4. It IS Simple Elegance! I never thought of using my extension tubes with the 100-400. I will give it a try! I’m grateful, as always, for your blogs and the knowledge that you share.

  5. Pingback: Relationship Building | Eloquent Images by Gary Hart

  6. The photograph and the story are both eloquent and captivating. The power of simplicity that you describe reminds me of a Mark Twain quotation. He once apologized for “…writing a long letter because he didn’t have the time to write a short letter.” Thanks for sharing Gary.

  7. Pingback: Explorar a luz | Imagens eloquentes de Gary Hart - OnlineWallpapers

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