Tutorials &Technique

Isolated by Light

Genoa, Italy. I took a spot reading off the pavement in the beam of light. It happens to be pretty close to 18% grey, so I exposed manually at those settings, prefocused on the spot, and waited until someone came. It’s usually worth the wait.

We talk a lot about isolating elements within the frame. We do it with our choices of angle, optics, and aperture, but one of the techniques that often slips my own mind is to use the limited dynamic range of our sensors to our advantage. To heck with HDR images (High Dynamic Range), I want LDR images (Low Dynamic Range)! When the light is right and the range exceeds our sensor’s ability to capture detail in both the highlights and the shadows, choosing to favour the highlights and plunge the rest into shadow can have a dramatic effect.

I spent time in Italy working on this with some of our Italy Within The Frame students this May, and had a blast. It’s easy, and it’s a good way to turn the hard light of mid-day to your advantage. I look for areas where there is a large differential in the light. I manually expose for subjects in the brightest area, and let the left side of histogram shout and scream all it wants about lost details because that’s what I’m going for.  The shadows obscure everything else, allowing the brightest areas to be properly exposed and turning your exposure into another isolation tool in your visual toolbox.

What makes this hard, I think, is not the technique but the seeing itself. The eye/mind sees things in a much greater range than the camera will so what you record will look much more dramatic than what your eye sees, making it necessary to remain conscious of these dramatic light differentials because your eye won’t necessarily immediately see them. This is one of those cases where being familiar with the technique enough that you know it when you see it, is important, in much the same way as developing an eye for longer exposures when we can’t actually see the resulting blur with our eyes.

For those of you looking for something new to shoot in the summer light, give this a try. I’d love to see what you come up with on this – drop a link to your images into the comments if you’re feeling like sharing. Here’s another photograph made last year in Delhi, India, using the same technique. My evil twin, Ami Vitale showed me this technique. She rocks it.

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