For all the light’s worth…

For what it’s worth, I’m not totally convinced we’ve got this whole bit about light & photography down pat; mostly because there’s always something that’s happening in the atmosphere that effects the light itself, changing how we see it. We get caught up in chasing the latest gear & tech to supposedly help us adapt our photography to this that we forget how to deal with it. When we see something new come out, we tend to jump on it, instead of studying it to see what it’s all about and working with what we have to get what we see with, and within, our vision.

- Snowy Glow -
– Snowy Glow –

The above photograph came about when I was out trying to capture a snow scene at the local park and I realized that I could use the reflected light from the snow as my primary light source, instead of relying on the overcast, diffused light coming through the clouds. While I exposed for the snow at about +1 or +2, I worked with what the snow presented me with (simple white reflected light) to allow the rest of the scene to glow. It allowed the green branches to brighten up and seemingly glow in the scene, lightening up the scene & bringing it out as a subject, set against the snow. In simpler terms, I tried working it for all the light’s worth; whether it worked or not is not really for me to say, because it might look completely different by the next person that it did to me.

Photography is about getting the most out of light while saying something of meaning and, while the above image doesn’t directly say much, it was about the glow of a plant still very much alive despite the cold winter storm that it had just endured. It’s basically saying that after the storm has passed, there’s still hope that the greenery will return and, indeed, it already has as this tree has shown. So often we hear that we’re supposed to expose for the right (in regards to the histogram), but I’ve come to think that in shots like this, I’ll expose for the green at about -2/3 of a stop, or for the snow at about +1 to +2 stops, whichever one tends to work better for me. So, in conclusion, trying to get it right for all light’s worth is where we should be in terms of photography.

Winter white…

Deep Cove - Winter White

Shooting in weather where there’s more white than anything else can be quite tricky especially when you’re already overexposing to compensate for the white snow; the other side to this is the shade of the snow. If you look close, the snow has either a blueish tone or something along those lines; the cleaner the snow, the bluer it will be as it cast shade & in its underside. Shade can be cast in different colors, but, on a clear day, it’s usually blue, making for a rather cool(er) color temperature in the shot overall. In the old days of film, according to what I’ve read, this was solved by the use of filters, but nowadays, it’s done by white balance alone; the problem with this is that it leaves the door wide open for a kind of artificiality in how the scene is presented because it can be tweaked to the point that it no longer looks natural, or as shot.

The problem with this is that it can lead to a false representation of the scene, which is completely fine if you’re going for a purely artistic interpretation of the scene, but not so good if you want to go for a realistic representation…HDR (high dynamic range) images use multiple shots blended into a single image to get past dynamic range limitations of gear. The issues I sometimes have with these is the idea that the photograph/image is actually taken later, refined in some photo program to look like something most likely nothing like what was actually shot. To some extent, it cheats the experience of being able to get it right the first time; it makes the photographer rely on software instead of relying on his/her talent with the camera. For me, it’s always been about trying to make it in camera first & foremost, software being a far second…and last resort.

To get back to the original topic, winter white & color temperature, the simplest thing to do is use filters and/or adjust white balance to work in camera. Doing it this way, reduces the time spent on it afterwards and possibly the need to make the camera take extra shots so that the exposures can be blended afterwards. Bracketing should be for reducing time spent hunching over the camera to see where the exposure went wrong by making it take multiple shots with varying exposures to get the right one…or a slightly different angle on motion in the scene. So the idea is that keeping it in camera saves time later on when you’ve decided to transfer them from the camera’s memory card itself.

On starbursts…

Reflected Light - Snow

In the above photograph, starbursts (and flares) are clearly visible in the surface of the water, in the reflective light. While I have posted this photograph before, I decided to repost it in this blog to talk about the many starbursts that appear. Because of the smaller f-stop (aperture), many points appear in each one; in this shot, the f-stop was set at f18, with a shutter speed of 1/250, which allowed for the numerous points while still allowing for a fast shutter speed. The smaller the aperture, f18 to f22 & beyond, the more points will show up due to the lens refraction…or something like that; this gets way too technical for me, so I’ll just say that the smaller the aperture, the more points in a starburst.

In winter months, the starburst can be a welcome effect to an otherwise simple, almost monochrome scene by adding detail to the light; however, flares might not be as good an addition because of the color change they provide (translucent green, blue or purple in most cases). Most of the time, unless you either shield the lens or use filters like circular polarizers, you’ll get a flare with a starburst and, if you’re shooting a landscape shot with large mountains in the scene, flare will be an okay addition to the shot, but it you’re not, then a circular polarizer or just shielding the lens would be the best option. And multiple flares can look like a bad shot from a movie with cheesy effects (the opening sequence of Battleship being the latest example).

While flares begin from starburst and go outwards, they have the effect of also drawing the eye inward, towards the starburst itself. This can make the starburst a feature of the scene instead of just a camera artifact/defect; doing so introduces another factor into the scene and another object. In the case of the above photograph, it introduced both flares & starbursts and featured in the reflected light shining off of the water.

Reflected light…

The beauty of this form of light is that it can change the color of whatever it is reflecting on to, as well as shine into shaded spots to put light onto a subject for a portrait shot. While portraits aren’t exactly something I’m too fond of taking, reflected light in general is because of it’s color changing properties. How does that exactly work though? Simply put, it shines directly on something and then, as it is reflected, it takes on the color of the first thing it shone on to; i.e. sunlight shining on to a gold reflective surface will then have a golden tint to it. Like in the photograph in the previous post, the reflected sunlight took on a golden brown tint from the color of the water.

Easily the best part of reflected light is the way it can illuminate the scene by providing a secondary lighting source. As the old saying goes, two is sometimes better than one…And in this situation, source 1 is providing source 2. The other side to this is that you’re not just watching how one light source is interacting with the scene, but another one that is affected by the scene itself; depending on the color & reflectivity of the surface that the reflective source is coming off of, the mood of the scene can change and, if you’re not careful, a midday shot can turn into an underexposed morning shot that looks too contrasty and way too dark…It’s a mistake I’ve made way too many times.

What often helps me when I’m doing these shots, especially when alone, is gently humming or recalling, to myself, a tune that can calm me right down; for me, this can range from an upbeat tune from The Script to a harder, but still upbeatm tune from Flyleaf, Thousand Foot Krutch or MxPx. The reasoning behind this is actually quite simple: music helps calm down the mind. Or even something as mentally saying a little prayer can help…The key is trying to calm down the mind before it carries you away from the scene you’re trying to get right in front of you.

On catching snow…

Many photographers have written on how to photograph snow properly, so much so that it is probably second nature to most: set the exposure 1-2 stops brighter before getting the shot so that the snow comes out as properly white. The tricky thing with this is that varying lighting conditions don’t necessarily work well with this advice because the color/tint of the snow changes with the light. The one way to be sure of this is to bracket when shooting, setting the bracketing to at least two-thirds of a stop difference…one lower and one higher than the first shot. For me, this has helped quite a bit in getting the shot right, basically because it’s more of a ‘cover-my-butt’ move than gives me a better chance of getting it right…at the expense of space on the memory card.

While I’d love to say I get it right every time, nothing could be further from the truth; it’s still a learning process for me and it will be that way for quite some time. The best part of it all that there is always some kind of challenge around the proverbial bend, or else there’d be nothing to really look forward to…with no pain, comes no gain. Sometimes, the best part is the struggle because that’s when learning goes much deeper; we learn better from mistakes than constant success.

Reflected Light - Snow

The above photograph is a good example of reflected light that would cause a change in color to the snow. Even by opening up the highlight recovery in Aperture along with a bit on the local contrast slider (called Definition in Aperture) to fix the glare, the color of the snow is still the same…a golden white. The color from the original was kept intact and the contrast was fixed so that the snow would be more ‘defined’ apart from its surroundings. Done as seen, it looks as if the snow is not white at all, but more yellowish in tone; this is due to the reflecting sunlight off of the waters, a murky brown. Reflected sunlight is perhaps the lighting I have a bit of trouble with because, as I go through them later, I tend to forget that reflected light can change the color of whatever it’s being reflected on. Sometimes adjusting contrast can really ruin a photo, especially in a situation similar to the one in the photo above, but I barely managed to get it right and still stay close to what it really looked like in person.

On winter…

While it can be extremely cold outside during the winter months, taking gear out to get the shot can be tricky because it can seize up or not work at all due to the temperature. Keeping the camera warm is the best option; storing it under a jacket when not it use or even getting a good camera bag/sling that has decent insulation will definitely help. Not taking it constantly in & out from cold to warm keeps the lens from fogging up and mucking up the internals.

There’s something about winter photography, especially scenes with all the streetlights & lit up houses, that makes it seem so warm even though it is so cold; maybe it’s the feeling of what’s waiting for us once we get back inside. It’s usually the anticipation of a shot or what’s waiting for us just around the proverbial ‘corner’ that can provide that warmth; that and it’s the time for Christmas carols like the classic Let It Snow & Deck the Halls, among others, sung by many a caroler as well as the classic TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas. Personally, my current favorite has got to be O Come All Ye Faithful…and belting it out as well; Twisted Sister, to which I don’t actually listen to apart from their Christmas CD, does a good job of belting it out (I’m more of a country & pop-punk kind of guy). But, getting back to winter, it provides us with many a challenge in the form of bright white snow (or brown snow if you’re near the roads in the city).

The snow may be soft, or hard, but it’s like a cool blanket of goodness that makes you glad that the scene can look so amazing if you just stop and think about it. Just dress warm, watch out for yellow snow (especially when there are dogs around), beware of flying snowballs (I’ve thrown more than my fair share of large ones), and get out an enjoy the snow. Oh yeah…Don’t forget to watch out for the icy roads; wiping out is not fun, especially on concrete and/or with gear in hand. Staying safe is probably the best option, especially if the neighborhood is in an all-out snowball fight.