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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

This Article Features Photo Zoom
Figure 4. I found this colorful leaf, just one of thousands decorating the cascades beneath Yosemite's Bridalveil Fall, plastered to a wet granite boulder. To my eye, the entire leaf-covered scene was beautiful, but knowing my camera couldn't convey the entirety of my experience, I zoomed close for an intimate portrait that eliminated anything that could have distracted from the solitary clinging leaf. The leaf's position in the frame (and, therefore, my control of the viewer's experience) was entirely a function of my position, focal length and the direction of my lens.

In Lightroom, I warmed the temperature enough to remove a shady-blue cast and refined the composition with a slight crop. In Photoshop, I eliminated minor noise in the shadows.

The Missing Dimension
An often ignored limitation of photography is the impossibility of rendering a three-dimensional world in a two-dimensional medium. Most photographers can compose the left/right and up/down aspects of a scene because it's similar to their experience, but compositions that don't account for the camera's inherently flat perspective lack the illusion of depth that brings them to life.

Conveying depth requires visual organization beyond the primary subject or scene: When the primary subject is in the distance, foreground objects add the illusion of depth; when the subject is close, the illusion of depth is enhanced by a complementary background that provides context (location or conditions) for the primary foreground subject. But simply including front-to-back elements isn't enough. The most frequent cause of lost depth is the merging of foreground and background objects. The more each element stands by itself without overlaying elements at different depths, the greater the illusion of depth in an image.

It's easy to get so mesmerized by the beauty of a scene that you fail to capitalize on all the possibilities for adding depth. But no matter how spectacular the moment, I find something for my foreground.

Figure 5. On this fall evening, I was fortunate to be on Sentinel Dome shortly after a rain shower had turned natural indentations in the granite into small, reflective pools, and it was clear the sunset behind Half Dome would be special. Positioning myself so the foreground pools aligned with Half Dome, I dropped low to catch the red reflection, but not so low that the top of Sentinel Dome merged with the base of Half Dome.

A graduated ND filter held the color in the sky; with Photoshop's Dodge and Burn tools I was able to eliminate the graduated ND transition. The red was so vivid that I actually had to desaturate it a little.

Accumulate Light
Of course, the camera does things the eye can't. Foremost among these is its ability to accumulate light, which reveals scenes otherwise obscured by darkness. Current digital cameras' ability to gather light with minimal noise opens the door to moonlight and light-painting images that were difficult to impossible with film. And while film shooters had to contend with reciprocity failure (light sensitivity that declined with exposure and required cumbersome calculations for accurate long exposures), digital cameras handle exposure linearly.


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