For the second assignment in Digital Photographic Practice I was asked to ‘see like our camera’. The remit required that I shoot high-contrast scenes with my camera, having first pre-visualised the scene or subject to get the best from my camera. The crux of this assignment was that I was to shoot only in high quality JPEG and with no post-processing other than to compress the images for the learning log. This meant that I would need to expose, compose and visualise the scene properly in order to gain the desired result.
My aim here was to work with the high contrast to gain a different type of image than I am used to taking. It took me a good while to get used to the fact that whatever I shot, it was never going to be the ‘perfect’ exposure. The ‘scenes’ in the brief were specifically set out to challenge the ability to expose properly and without any post-production involved. So what I could do was try and exploit the situation to my benefit and change my way of photographing the subject matter, after all the ‘correct’ exposure is purely subjective. I had decided with all my photographs to bracket them by half a stop on each scene. This would give a better chance of hitting a good exposure. Trying to see whether I succeeded in the field would be difficult on a small LCD, even using the in-camera histogram (although as I was shooting in JPEG it would at least be a true representation. After brainstorming some ideas, I decided my chosen situations from the brief given to me would be;
- Street Scene in the middle of a clear sunny day. Buildings casting long deep shadows.
- Any backlit scene, whether in direct or indirect sunlight.
- Scenes which include objects of very different reflectivity, even in flat light such as an overcast day.
- A scene with strong incident dappled light.
Mindful of the sun moving fast in this part of the world I was keen to make sure I caught it while it was still high and bright in the sky. I liked the bright colours the sun was producing and wanted to capture it but this was tempered by the very dark areas and very bright skies.
Scene 1 was taken with the centre-weighted option for exposure. I had tried it with the spot exposure but I was getting far too much contrast for my taste. Using the centre-weighted option gave a more even exposure and brought out the colours in the walls and flowers whilst giving just enough detail in the shadows. I exposed for the purple wall on the left which was just about the right exposure to stop me getting blow out from the white or complete black from the shadow. Even so there are areas of detail which disappear in to complete darkness although I don’t think this detracts from the overall image.
With the glass hotel in the background and the white walls on the right I was faced with quite a tricky choice of exposure setting for scene 2 and chose to use the spot setting. I wanted make sure I had some detail in the sky and was helped by the fact that the sky was very blue against the white clouds. I took a number of frames point the exposure meter at different parts of the scene until I was satisfied I had a good exposure. I think there is good overall exposure with detail being lost in the white walls on the right. I have managed to retain detail in the sky.
Scene 3 was not dissimilar to scene 2 in composition however in this case the hotel is white and there was more colour on offer than in the previous shot which again I was keen to capture if possible. Again I used the spot meter, exposing for what I considered a middle colour temperature and then moving the camera to compose the shot. The outcome is not unsatisfactory although I have lost a lot of detail in the shop fronts on the right. The exposure is good for the hotel and still there is some detail in the sky. The colours on both sides of the road are also quite acceptable.
The first thing that struck me about shooting in dappled light was how strong the colours in direct light were, especially in images 1 and 3. The other, more obvious thing was how difficult it was to expose for dappled light and get a desired result. In ‘Dappled Light 2’, I have under-exposed by half a stop to cope with the high incident light coming from the white building in the background. This has the effect of muting the dappled light in the foreground even though it was very bright. In images one and three I have used the centre-weighed exposure which shows the highlights very strongly to the point of almost clipping (especially in Image one).
The backlit series was quite interesting to shoot as modern DSLR cameras handle the scenario fairly well. Even so, with the strength of light I pointing my lens in to, I had to be very wary of where the direct light was coming from so as not to completely inundate my sensor. The results were quite pleasing. In image one I intentionally let the light bleed over the bird’s wings to give a sense of freedom, as though it was actually flying in to the sky beyond it. The strong gold of the statue giving the image some ballast and contrast. Image two surprised me by how saturated the colours of the final image looked. I pointed directly in to the sun making sure it was actually shielded by a branch. Far from underexposing the final image it has brought out a beautiful green hue of the tree, almost as though I have used flash or filled the lighting in some way. Image three shows someone wearing a surgical mask (due to smog). I took several exposures of this trying to get the image to show the outline of the mouth and nose inside the mask. But I also wanted to show the elastic straps to make sure the viewer knew what they were looking at. I exposed here for the nose and mask region with the centre-weighted option using a wide-angle lens to make the image look slightly more surreal.
All three of these images have a wide range of reflective surfaces including; metal, water, wood, clouds, trees, paving stones, paper, cloth and plants. This makes it notoriously difficult to expose correctly due to the quite markedly different amounts of light reflecting off each object. In each of these photographs I have exposed for a slightly brighter than mid-range colour temperature which puts some of the image in to shadow (such as the foliage in images one and three). Overall though the camera copes very well with the dynamic range of the scenes. There is a noticeable dappled effect coming in to play with image two which again is difficult to expose for considering the dynamic range with the dark reflective windows and highlights of the sky and sun.
With Singapore in the grip of some of the worst ‘haze’ or smog seen in nearly two decades, I took the opportunity to reshoot the requisite three photographs knowing that there would be low incident light (being massively diffused by the haze). I also shot the scenes early in the morning meaning that the sun had not yet started casting the long shadows seen in the initial photographs of the Street Scenes. With all three of these images I exposed for the middle range of brightness using the centre-weighted meter on my camera. The series was taken with the settings on my camera very close to that of the originals using just the change in the time of day and the haze to mute the contrast in the images. Certainly the lack of direct sunlight from above has muted the strength of the colours in these images. Noticeably the purple flowers in Street Scene 1. Overall the contrast in the shots has come down tremendously, the lack of colour and contrast in the sky dragging the ‘Village’ Hotel in to the background with it almost. The same can be said of the Pan Pacific hotel. Whereas in the first image it stood bold against the sky it now looks a little apologetic and ghostly. Where I have a problem is that there are still deep areas of dark with no detail, mainly in the shop fronts. In the first set of images there is discernible contrast and the deep shadow adds to the effect. It doesn’t cause me to react in a negative way to the image. The viewer can see why there is deep shadow and is inclined to ignore it as a natural state because of the intense sunshine. However, in the final there images I find the shadows distracting, dull and lifeless. They add nothing to the image and in fact, for me, takeaway from the other subjects in the photograph by attracting my attention too much. Added to this is the lack of detail picked out on things like the paintwork and the shutters on the windows. So, although technically the first set of images has a ‘High Dynamic Range‘, which was a problem to shoot with, I prefer this set for the striking contrast and more dynamic and graphic nature of the images.
Overall I found this assignment quite a test for a number of reasons. Photographing without processing is something I am not accustomed too and I took a lot of redundant images; not straight, under/over exposed, not the correct composition etc. Also shooting in JPEG meant that, unlike shooting RAW, any detail I lost at the time was lost forever due to the lossy nature of JPEG. It made appreciate more how much information a RAW file contains for the editor. I also found myself shooting for the technical brief of the assignment rather than shooting ‘nice-to-look-at’ photographs. I found doing the two together almost impossible. I started out with the idea of using the high contrast to my advantage but I am not sure I have succeeded here. The images on the whole are fairly ordinary with only the backlit images coming close to something I enjoyed taking and indeed looking at. In looking through numerous images both on line and off line it was difficult to find good examples of the situations as set out in the brief, ‘backlit’ being the exception. I suspect this is due to the difficult technical nature of the photography and also that the end result is not necessarily what a photographer wants to ‘show off’, preferring that the image is well balanced.
Looking back at the final, low contrast set, I can see that I have taken photographs like this in years gone by and have never been satisfied with the results but have never sat down to work out why. It is becoming fairly obvious, to me, that I prefer the high contrast/graphic side of photography but I have never really analysed it before.
The PDF version of this assignment can be found here.