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This tip article by Brian Dilg, comes to us courtesy of New York Film Academy Photography School, where he serves as the Chair of the New York Film Academy Photography Conservatory. Dilg is an internationally published and collected photographer and award-winning filmmaker with over 20 years of professional teaching experience around the world.
When presented with a stunning scene, it is tempting to show too much, to render everything with the greatest possible sharpness, color, and clarity. I'm going to make a radically different suggestion: the most powerful tool you will ever have is the imagination of the viewer. In order to make use of it, you actually need to withhold information. Show less; imply more. When we can't quite see everything clearly, that's when our imaginations start getting involved.
In the image of the horse, I rendered the horse as a silhouette (she was standing in the shadows of a barn), and tried to convey the sense of the foggy morning by pushing the distant trees in the highlights, the tones washed out by the condensation. The image of the dock is given a similar treatment, although you might be interested to note that there was no fog that day! After struggling with unsuccessful approaches to an image which I felt had untapped potential, it finally occurred to me to delay perception of the skyline by orchestrating the background tones as if there was a strong atmospheric effect, and suddenly everything came together.
One of the most fundamental and under-appreciated tools with which to transform a scene is exposure itself. While beginners are understandably concerned with getting the "correct" exposure, masters manipulate exposure to reveal and conceal selectively, to create a visceral sense of place by availing themselves of the entire tonal palette, from the deepest shadows to areas bleached nearly white by light.
It's worth noting that this visual experience is produced by the very limitations of the photographic medium itself, specifically its limited dynamic range. Our eyes have far too much latitude and adjust too quickly for us to have a real-time experience where light and shadows are perceived this dramatically.
Achieving this is not easy; you need to know how a specific camera responds technically to the tonal range of a scene, and you need to be able to judge it by eye and adjust quickly enough to capture the moment before it's gone. Ansel Adams himself, the inventor of the game-changing Zone System, ironically provides the best example of this: although the formal, most precise application of his method is to use a spot meter to find zone III shadows that determine your basic exposure, to find the highlights that you want to end up in zone VIII and note the development time required to place them there - a time-consuming, meticulous process - one of his most famous pictures, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941, was made by a famously educated guess as to exposure.
Legend has it that Adams saw the setting sun illuminating the white crosses, the moon rising behind them, but was unable to locate his light meter. Sensing that he had a matter of seconds, he recalled the luminance of the moon—250 cd/ft2 - placed it in zone VII, and was able to make precisely one exposure before the sun dropped and the moment passed. (His account of this incident seems to have grown more dramatic in the re-telling, so we may never know the exact truth, although Adams's skill is beyond question.)
While you may not be as mathematically precise as that, you will find that experience will empower you to judge the contrast of a scene and make a creative exposure decision that employs the characteristics of your medium to suit your personal aesthetic, and that's what personal style is all about: using the medium to create a unique view of the world.