Of darkness and the essence of photography.
Dark is an obvious candidate to be the opposite to light. But is it in real terms the opposite of light? Darkness clearly makes for significant food for thought. Here are some ways to think about darkness with respect to cameras.
Darkness is the absence of light…
Er… no. It is easy to say that dark is the opposite of light. However, it clearly is not, because a shot like the one above successfully portrays the light as well as the dark in close proximity. Well… that depends how you see it. Or rather, that depends on how the camera sees it.
I cheated – slightly. The image was underexposed in the digital developing to accentuate the essence of the lights in the entrance. That prevented them blowing out, over-exposing the area surrounding them. It would have been easy to blow out large areas of the internal walls with bright patches of white. The cream colour in the entrance allowed me to keep the brightness down and still preserve the true colours. This would have been difficult in a long exposure with whites as the wall colour. The whites would have made the range of brights-to-darks too much for my camera. Details would have been lost at the ends of the light range (in the blacks and whites).
The cream paint in the entrance, and the tungsten lights gave me flexibility. It allowed me to keep most of the light and dark areas within the dynamic range of the camera. In other words, the camera could see both blacks and whites without losing detail in the important part of the image. Remember a camera will normally only work within a narrow range of light. Typically a (good) camera will be able to see (at maximum) across a range of between 8 and 12 stops of light. Not all that will be visible in the final photo – some detail will be lost depending on the display media. Using RAW will help you bring out lost detail but depending on the camera you may get digital noise. Nevertheless, about twelve stops of light will be retained in the data. Which allows a certain amount of editing freedom (in RAW).
What you need to do is make sure that the exposure captures the light intensity you intend as the focus of your image. I could have exposed to brighten the side windows. That would have made the entrance too bright (and blown out). However, I chose to expose for the brighter central entrance area, but lost the brightness in the side windows. I did that because I had a picture in my head of what I wanted to be the visual focal point of my picture – the entrance.
This picture shows us that darkness in photography is different to that which we see with our eyes. Understanding the nature of exposure helped me to spot that the light in the entrance could be contained within the range my camera could see. Although, a lot of detail has still been lost in the blacks. The darkness in this picture is an artificial creation of my cameras inability to see a wide range of light. Even to our eyes, darkness is relative to our eyesight and its ability to see contrasts.
The essence of photography is…
With this type of shot you need a clear idea in your head of what you want to produce. Also you need an idea of what the camera can do – it does not see the scene as you do. So, before you press the button you need to have clearly formulated your vision of the finished shot. You need to think your image into existence before pressing the button.
Great images are produced long before the shutter button is pressed. The ultimate aim of photography is to conjure up a vivid representation of the scene in the viewers mind. The essence of the act of photography is to create that before you take the shot. If you can do it you will truly be making images instead of taking pictures.
Posted in Camera control, Composition, Light and Lighting, Shooting specific subjects, Tips Tutorials & Techniques
Tagged Approach, Blown out, Dark and Light, Darkness, Dynamic range, F-Stop, Range, Shadow, Tungsten
Honiston Tops – The English Lake District. Mono shots are so open to moody interpretation. Click the picture to view large
By Netkonnexion on Flickr
The contrasts in monochrome make it suited to moody scenes.
Yes, we see so much in the gloom! Mono is a great way to express the deep, dark and threatening. It is also uplifting in many ways. Look at how we can enhance our shots…
The beauty of a landscape is not about the weather. It is in the character of what we see in the country and the shapes and forms. However, the weather can complete it. A beautiful day in the scene above can equally light up the sky and uplift the sole, even in this desolate place. Surely colour is more suited to that uplift? Probably. Weather is the icing on the cake. If you can capture it with the contrasts fully expressed you have a winner. The depth of the cloud darkness has expressed the awesomeness of those wonderful clouds. What is great about this type of shot is the depth of the greys and blacks, as well as the highlights of the whites and bright spots. In a landscape the moodiness lies in the contrast through that spectrum. Try to express the full range of blacks right through to whites to bring out the mood.
The use of a great subject is really the key to a moody monochrome. Some subjects really lead us to the moody feeling. Candles are a great example. If we are to express a deep gloom the candle is perfect. Candles express our fears of shadowy corners and the lurking danger just out of our sight. They seem to sum up a real essence of the past and the primeval fear that they were meant to chase away.
Again, it is the contrastiness that does the trick. The brightness of the flame and the luminous glow that hugs so close to the wick really exaggerates the darkness in the background. To take a shot of a candle you need to focus on the flame so that you can expose for the bright spot. This is wonderful for monochrome since the exposure will leave the background really dark that way. Other subjects that bring out the moodiness include dark alleys, dim corners, and the contrasting brighter spots – safe havens in the darkness. Again, look for the deep blacks right through to the bright spots to bring out the moody and threatening in your monochrome.
It is great to find deep expression in faces too. It’s often contrastiness of the lighting in a portrait that brings out moodiness in the shot. The archetypal villain in the wide brimmed hat, hiding in the darkness underneath it, or on the dimly lit corner, is a great example. Think of the dark and uninviting holes where you see villains portrayed in stories and films. You too can express these things in your photography. It is about the contrasty blacks through to whites again. More black – moody. More white – uplifting! The timeless battle between good and evil.
The moody face, of course, can be more than just deeply-dark to brightly-bright lighting. Often moodiness in the face can be highlighted through sheer expression. It is important to make sure that if you are going for moody that the expression supports the scene. Remember nothing will work if you break the mood. Dark, dim and dank, is trumped by jumping for joy!
By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)
Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)
Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’
Posted in Composition, How to..., Light and Lighting, Tips Tutorials & Techniques
Tagged Contrast, Contrasty, Danger, Dank, Dark, Dark and Light, Dim, Light, light and lighting, Moody, Night, Portraiture