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The Dark Side

What about shadows? If you are a photographer, what do you do with, or about, them?

In the event that there are any, shall I say, “casual” photographers reading this, let me explain why this topic merits discussion. Film, color film in particular, is limited in what we call “exposure latitude.” This means that if a scene contains a wide range of brightness, film cannot record everything that our eyes can see. This presents the film photographer with three choices:

  1. Overexpose the film, giving detail in dark areas but causing very bright areas to appear white in the recorded image.

  2. Underexpose the film, giving detail in light areas but causing very dark areas to appear black in the recorded image.

  3. Try to avoid both over- and under-exposure.

Option three is generally futile in high-contrast situations, leaving over- or under-exposure as the remaining choices. It turns out that pure black areas in a photograph are more visually palatable than pure white, so the usual choice is to underexpose.

(Those with advanced skills working with black and white film know, of course, that there are some tools available for dealing with this issue, but I won’t go into that here.)

Now those of you who photograph exclusively with a phone might be asking “Why have I never noticed this issue?” It is because we now have a software solution to the problem, something referred to by the acronym HDR, for high dynamic range. Essentially, several photographs are taken in rapid succession, say one overexposed, one underexposed, and one somewhere in between. Software then blends the three (or maybe just two, maybe more than three) images together, giving a result in which pure black and white areas have been eliminated. Cell phones have HDR software, and the default mode for most is to have HDR enabled for all photographs, so the phone photographer does not need to worry about exposure problems caused by large differences in brightness.

What about the photographer with the latest and greatest digital camera? Well, they simply set their camera to make multiple exposures of the same scene as described above, and perform HDR processing on the downloaded images using software on their computer. When a phone performs HDR processing, there is no user input, but the photographer using HDR software on their computer has some control over how the processing is done. This results in a variety of possible outcomes, ranging from fairly realistic in appearance to somewhat unnatural looking. (This whole process can be done using film as well, but doing so is not common, as there are some additional difficulties, compared to digital capture.)

Given the ease of performing HDR processing, and the excellent results possible when doing it well, it is the default for many photographers today. However, there are still two other choices, whether photographing digitally or with film:

  1. Photograph only in conditions with a contrast range that the film (or digital sensor) can handle without over- or under- exposure. Photographing in rainy or foggy weather, before sunrise or after sunset, or completely in shadows, are some examples.

  2. Photograph in a way that lets parts of the resulting image go black, or very dark, and use those dark areas as an integral part of the photograph.

There are photographers who use the latter approach quite effectively (like Brett Weston), but our brains can make this very difficult to do. The reason is that our eyes and brains can process the full range of brightness that we are seeing (unless it is very extreme), so we can make out the detail in shadows that we might want to appear as black areas in a final photographic image. Thus, it can be hard to envision how the final image might appear. I personally find using shadows quite challenging, so I usually seek out lower contrast situations for much of my photography.

Merg Ross is a photographer who makes very good use of black areas in his photographs. (Unsurprisingly, he was very good friends with Brett Weston when Brett was alive.) Here are couple examples of Merg’s work:




In the first image, the black areas at the bottom of the photograph are just one of several elements that make the photograph work, but the second image is almost completely about the imposing black shape in the middle of the photo. (Visual artists tend to call large, empty areas like this negative space.) It is very likely that Merg was able to make out detail in the black areas of both scenes with his eyes, but he has chosen to let those parts go black in the final images. Note how, in both cases, the use of black areas tend to make the images more graphic and abstract than they would be if they showed detail throughout the full brightness range. (I would encourage the reader to visit Merg’s web page, and view more of his fine images.)

Last fall I visited Canyon de Chelly (see my previous blog post if you haven’t already) and, for perhaps the first time, envisioned a shadow as the essential part of a photograph. We arrived at the visitor center in the early afternoon, and a person working there told me that afternoon was the best time to photograph Spider Rock. I headed directly to the Spider Rock overlook, only to find that the shadows were a mess! I think that afternoon is probably the best time of day to photograph Spider Rock at other times of the year – there is an Ansel Adams photograph of it, in which the shadows arrange themselves beautifully, that I would guess was made in late afternoon during the summer. (This can be found on page 172 of the book In The National Parks.) Having no opportunity for a decent photograph of Spider Rock, I walked around the corner and spotted a buttress on the far side of the canyon. (I found out later it is called Face Rock.)

Not usually tuned in to shadows, I first registered the attractive form of the rock jutting out of the canyon wall. But then I noticed that the protruding fin of sandstone cast a large, solid shadow to the east. I quickly recognized that the shadow was an integral part of the scene, and framed a photograph to include the entirety of the shadow. After developing the negative and starting to adjust the brightness and contrast of the resulting image, I felt that the shadow played a role similar to that of the black area in the broken window above. Unlike that image, though, I wanted to show detail in the shadow, but retaining fairly dark tones there. Here is what I came up with:



It is interesting to note how we see both the sunlit frontal view of Face Rock, but the shadow also intimates the profile of the rock as well. Try as I may when looking at the front of the buttress in the photograph, I cannot make out the fact that its top is a detached tower, as we can tell from the shadow!

So, to you avid photographers reading this, I repeat my original question: How do you deal with shadows in your photography? And for those who photograph primarily with your phone, if this topic interests you, you may wish to figure out how to turn the the HDR mode of your phone off and on. Then you can try photographing the same scene in both modes to see what difference it makes in your photos. I know that I will try to be more cognizant of shadows in the future, and incorporate them into my photographs in creative ways whenever possible.

I would like to thank Merg Ross for allowing me to use his photographs in this post.

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