Sunday, July 5, 2009

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

sears tower
I once worked with a man who was famous for stating that “nothing good happens in the dark.”  Of course, he was the Commandant of Cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, and may have had a good point.  His fear of the dark centered on a probabilistic model that projected near certainty of cadet mischief after the sun goes down or the lights go out. 
This post is not (directly) about dark alleys, scary things hidden in the shadows, things that go bump in the night, nor the occasionally misguided antics of college students.  In this post, I will focus on the left end of the histogram, the dark end of the tonal range, and black – pure black.  I want to make the point that black is ok – photography details lost to the pure black regions of a composition can be used creatively and artistically to add interest and drama to a photograph. 
Pure black often implies a lack of any detail in a composition…take a deep breath…it is ok…there is no need to be afraid of the dark.  Not only is black ok, it should be viewed as a unique artistic challenge to use it effectively.  The shots I present to make this point will hopefully be convincing in this respect.
I would also like to introduce a very close friend who is contributing to this post.  John Downey made the leading photograph in this post.  This shot is a dramatic example of how the dark recesses of a composition, when applied appropriately, can create something special.  In this case, the dark face of the Sears Tower in Chicago, bounded by a reflecting face and lighter sky, draw the eye up through the shot where they land on the single point of color – the lamp post.
John’s photograph of the Sears Tower also emphasizes two points I made in earlier posts – the best camera to have is the one you have with you, and making good photography is not a function of the equipment – it is the photographer  Although John has a stable of top end equipment, this shot was made with a point and shoot Nikon he pulled out of his pocket at precisely the right moment.
John is a remarkable photographer who routinely inspires me to  make better photographs.  John has challenged me, offered invaluable advice, critiqued my work and pushed me to try new and creative approaches.  I owe John a great debt.  Soon, John will be starting a blog, or initiating a website.  I will be sure to pass along the address with the highest of recommendations.
Back to black; nearly all digital cameras give you the opportunity to see a histogram view of your photography.  A histogram shows the distribution of light (and color) through the range captured by the camera’s sensor – from pure black to pure white.  At the left end of this histogram we find today’s area of interest – black.  Any information that falls to the left of the far left end of the histogram is lost to pure black.  In contrast, at the opposite end of the histogram, all information that extends beyond the right endpoint is lost to pure white.  So take a moment and look at a few of your shots through the histogram view.  Where is the information in your photograph distributed?  Evenly? Biased toward the dark end? Mounded up toward the right end?  For now, we will focus on the dark end – the left end.
To help understand the use of black, I will provide examples illustrating three principal approaches to intentionally using black (or near black) in photography.  Night shots, silhouettes, and exposing for the highlights (or in other words, intentionally underexposing the darker regions of the composition).
First, an example of a night shot.
DCA Night Takeoff
This is a bit of an extreme example, but it certainly illustrates the point.  This is a long exposure (30 seconds) of a plane taking off from Reagan National Airport in Washington DC.  The completely black sky provides the canvas on which the plane’s running lights are painted.
Next, a silhouette.
Barbados Fisherman sillouette
I am fond of this shot particularly in the way it is cropped.  I cropped the shot to put the fisherman at the golden intersection formed by the rule of 1/3.  Further, the shot was de-saturated quite a bit to diminish the influence of color, and yet it is sharp enough to supply great detail in the wave – which also acts as a leading line drawing the eye to the fishermen.
Finally, a shot exposed for the highlights (leading to some portion of the darker tones “falling off the left end of the histogram.”
Capitol Sunrise
This shot of the U.S. Capitol building was taken at dawn with exposure set for the highlights of the capitol dome and the dawn sky to the left of the dome.  As a result, the sky in the upper part of the composition and portions of the unlit areas of the building fall into the black, or near black tonal range.
Now let’s complicate things a bit.  Can you imagine it is possible to combine any or all of these approaches?  How about a night time silhouette exposed for the highlights.  Sure it is possible – as well as the variations of combining just two approaches.
For the remainder of the post, I will present shots representing the three approaches.  I leave it to you to determine if any of the photographs combine two or more of the approaches.
Night Shots:
Caracas Highways at Night
Caracas highway at night
Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol from the USAF Memorial.
Belly Dancer in Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi Belly Dancer
Washington Monument at Dawn
Washington Monument at Dawn
Redoma of Valle Arriba, Caracas Venezuela
Redomo at Night - 1
Bird Silhouette at Angle Falls, Venezuela
Angle Falls Bird Silohuette
Line fishing in Salvador, Brazil (this is another exceptional contribution from John Downey)
salvador line fishing2
Ryan in Basketball Motion
Ryan Playing Basketball
Paragliding in Merida Venezuela
Parapente in Merida - 3
Ultralight Flying in Margarita, Venezuela
Sue in an Ultralight
Exposed for Highlights:
Cuzco (Pero), Mother and Baby.
I'm bored
Boat in Waller Mills Park, Williamsburg Virginia (contribution by John Downey)
Waller Mill park, Williamsburg
Air view leaving Canaima, Venezuela
Air Shot Leaving Canaima
Salto Sapo, Canaima Venezuela
Salto Sapo - 10
Moko Jumbies in Trinidad – Carnival 2006 (this is a preview of a coming post featuring the Moko Jumbies and answering the obvious question, “what is a Moko Jumby?”
Moko Jumbies (37 of 37)
I hope you enjoyed these shots and learned something about how you can creatively use the left end of the histogram.  Stay tuned for a future post that will feature the right end of the histogram – Don’t be Afraid of the Light.
Go make some photographs!

1 comment:

  1. Gosh, these are awesome. I'll try to not be afraid of the dark.