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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Is That Really How It Looked?

Understanding how your DSLR sees the world will help you take pictures that match your vision

Has anyone ever looked at one of your images and asked, "Is that the way it really looked?" Do you think anyone ever asked Ansel Adams that? The truth is, great photographers understand that it's impossible to duplicate human vision with a camera and plan their images accordingly without feeling frustrated by the inability to duplicate the color, contrast or depth their eyes see.

Today's digital cameras offer far more features than ever, but the fundamental reality hasn't changed: A camera "sees" the world differently than we do. Rather than problems to overcome, the differences provide opportunities to be creative: Limited dynamic range and focus depth allow you to hide distractions and emphasize your subject; the camera's rectangular confined boundary is nothing like our boundless and multisensory world, but using careful positioning of elements relative to the frame's border, a skillful photographer dictates the viewers' experience; while a camera can't reproduce the same motion and depth of the human experience, it can convey motion and depth in its own compelling way; and your camera's ability to accumulate light penetrates darkness in ways we humans can only dream of.

Much of Ansel Adams' greatness stemmed from his ability to use his camera's vision to reveal nature in ways entirely different from, but no less emotionally evocative than, being there. And Adams didn't use his darkroom to force images to be more like his vision; he used it to maximize his camera's unique vision.

Dynamic Range
While the human eye's dynamic range is at least 12 stops (and potentially much more, depending how the eye's light-capturing capability is measured), the camera's effective dynamic range is around six stops (more is possible, but stretching much beyond six stops in a single frame usually compromises image quality). Capturing the range of light our eyes register requires capture tools like a graduated neutral-density filter or some form of high-dynamic-range (HDR) blending of multiple images in postprocessing.

These are great tools when the entire scene is worth capturing, but when a scene contains distractions, or when you want to emphasize a single aspect of the landscape, the camera's limited dynamic range is an advantage. Rather than automatically "correcting" dynamic range with a graduated neutral-density filter or HDR blend, consider making the shadows black to erase distractions and highlighting your subject's shape with a silhouette.

Figure 1. To capture this crescent moon rising above Yosemite Valley, one option would have been an HDR blend that would have revealed everything from the blue of the pre-sunrise sky to the rocks and trees in the foreground. But the beauty of this moment was simply the sky's deep blue, the moon's delicate shape and the strong outline of El Capitan and Half Dome—rocks and trees in the foreground would have been a distraction. In this case, I spot-metered on the brightest part of the sky and underexposed a little to emphasize the moon's graceful curve and silhouette El Capitan and Half Dome against the twilight blue sky.

Using Lightroom's raw processor, I cooled the color temperature for a night feel, nudged the Blacks slider a little darker to ensure that the silhouetted outline of El Capitan and Half Dome was etched in absolute black, then applied light noise reduction in Photoshop.

Silhouettes aren't your only high-contrast option. Slightly underexposing brightly backlit flowers or leaves will emphasize their color, shape and detail against a background of rich-black shadows. And metering backlit flowers and leaves against a bright sky contrasts the subject's saturated tones against a high-key background.


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