Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Look! Something Shiny!
Starring The Sparkles • It’s All In The Cards • Cover-Ups
Starring The Sparkles
Specular highlights, those seemingly random pinpoints of light reflected from shiny surfaces, can be huge distractions in photography. As faithful readers know, I've spent a lot of time perfecting my cross-polarization methods to remove highlights that obscure detail in shiny subjects such as tide-pool residents, lush foliage and minerals. When gloss is a defining characteristic of a subject, it can be a challenge to control the shine to render a natural photographic interpretation. But highlights, like some other troublesome photographic phenomena (such as graininess, for example), can be turned to artistic advantage when intentionally emphasized.
When the sun appears in the frame, it's quite common to exaggerate the large point of light into a starburst by using a wide-angle lens stopped down to its minimum aperture (ƒ/22). The light entering the lens through such a narrow opening is diffracted, turning an annoying bright spot in the image to a mood-setting burst of light. The photographer can position herself to maximize, minimize or carefully position the starburst. Be aware that this treatment of the sun in the frame will compete with your subject for the center of interest in your composition. (Fine Print: Remember what your mother said. Don't look directly into the sun, even through the viewfinder of a camera!)
Lately, I've been experimenting with emphasis of specular highlights on subjects such as highly reflective features of antique cars and the ripples that surround subjects on rivers and lakes. A river runs through our city, and in the summer its clear water, derived from the snowcapped mountains around us, beckons to kayakers, canoeists and stand-up paddleboarders. Since last summer, I had this vision of photographing a beautiful, strong young woman on a stand-up board, surrounded by a multitude of starbursts caused by the sun's reflection off the ripples of the water. Achieving this vision offered several challenges beyond the obvious one of finding a willing model with the skill and stamina needed to paddle upstream to reposition the board within the reflections repeatedly.
You can't just head down to the river at any old time of day and expect the sun to create the effect you want in the place you want it. In this case, I chose a location for the photograph where I could work from a bridge directly above the river in the boarder's path. I used the iPhone/iPad app called LightTrac to calculate the time of year and time of day that the sun would be positioned directly behind the subject. This was a fairly narrow window because the river runs east-to-west at this location. It all came together one sunny August afternoon between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m.
I chose a 24-105mm lens to frame the boarder within the area of specular highlights on the water below the bridge. I chose the smallest aperture (ƒ/22) and underexposed by 1.5 to 2 stops by increasing the shutter speed. This necessitated an ISO of 400 on my Canon EOS 5D Mark III to allow a shutter speed fast enough to stop the action (1⁄500 sec.). The end result is an exposure intended to define the specular highlights as starbursts; unfortunately, this underexposes the subject (my lovely model) and allows the light to overpower the composition of the image. This can be corrected by postprocessing the image in Lightroom or Adobe Raw Converter to bring back the detail in the shadowed areas.
You can use this technique on other water subjects, such as capturing the highlights of water flowing over rocks in a stream; on a lake where the water is disturbed, adding a little interest to a portion of waterscape; with dewdrops on flowers or grasses; and, one of my favorites, capturing lily pads or fish on the surface of ponds. The key is that the starburst effect must be clearly intentional and even exaggerated while not overpowering the photograph's center of interest. If it's too vague, it will just look like the photographer didn't understand the basic principles of light and photography and cluelessly shot into the sun.
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