Searching For Shadows

In today’s post, I’m going to talk about a key element of Black and White photography, contrast, and how to find it. One of the easiest ways to find dramatic shots is to look for shadows. Look for the dark areas in the photo that can direct attention to the highlights. A person’s eye will always be drawn to the brightest area in a photo, so if your subject is bright and the background is dark you automatically have contrast. But you have to look for it when making photographs. The good news is that it is super easy to find dramatic contrast, once you start looking for it. Normally we tend not to notice huge differences in the range of light in our everyday experience. The wonderful thing about the human eye is that our vision adjusts to the environment, and most times rather quickly. We don’t notice a big difference from going to a bright area to a dimly lit area because our eyes adjust to the brightness. Even if we sit in a very dark area, in time we begin to be able to see in the darkness. I find it amazing how well I can see in a very dark area if I just sit and wait for a few minutes while my eyes adjust to the light. A camera and lens cannot “see”, or produce, the range of light our eyes and brain can. Film, or the sensor in a camera, has what we call dynamic range (DR). A measurement of how many steps of brightness the film or sensor can handle at a given setting before recorded light becomes pure white or pure black. Every image also has dynamic range, and values that we can control. We can tell the camera what value of brightness to make any shade of grey, from pure white to pure black by exposure settings. These brightness levels can also be referred to by the term zones, which I will save for another lesson.

In photography, and for me, especially black and white photography, we can learn to use how the camera interprets light to our advantage. This is what some call “seeing photographically”. We train our eyes and brains to become aware of the differences in brightness in a scene, then, and this is the key, we make the scene as we want it to look in the photograph. For example in the above scene I knew when composing the image there was going to be a lot of contrast. I also knew that if I exposed the scene with the average setting from my camera’s (average) light meter the pigs head would be too bright, maybe even so white it would lose detail, so I slightly underexposed the entire image. This dropped some of the shadows behind the pig to black, which is good for contrast. It’s important to note that I made this image on the fly, quickly. Had this been a different scene, or without a moving subject, I would have taken more time to carefully meter elements of the scene, and set my camera for the desired outcome. I mention this because it relates to learning to “see” photographically. The reason this scene grabbed my attention was obviously the pig’s head, but more importantly, for me, I saw the contrast.

The above image is another example of eye training. I actually walked a few feet down the narrow street in the Khlong Koei district of Bangkok past this scene. Then something in my brain clicked. Dang, there’s some contrast back there I thought, and walked back to make the photo. The expressions on the couple’s faces helped, as did the sleeping cat, but the play of early morning light creating contrast is a big plus for this image.

The above image brings out another important factor in my work, time of day!
Early morning light is going to produce contrast because of the angle of the sun. Add in that it is overcast, which softens the contrast, and it quickly became a day I was glad I was in the fields before sunrise. Immagine how different this image would look at noon with no clouds. I can’t (or don’t) control what is going to happen when I’m out in the rice fields, but I can control what time of day I go out with my camera.

Late afternoon also automatically produces contrast, as the above image illustrates. Others have pointed out that any time of day can produce great images. Ok, yeah, I agree, but it’s like food, any food will fill an empty stomach, but I do have my favorites I would prefer to eat. In this image there are other factors that help. A storm coming in darkened the mountains, leaving this patch of sunlight where the action is taking place.
Don’t think for a second I just walked out in the fields and made one of my favorite images. It took weeks, months, and even several harvest seasons. So on one hand you could say it took 1/2500 of a second to make this photo, but in reality it took way longer than that. I point that out because it takes time to make the kind of images you are proud of. Don’t be afraid to take the time and make the commitment. Don’t let the failures bother you too much, we all have failures. In fact I often say that if you make thousands of terrible photos, and learn … learn just a tiny little bit from each mistake, you are going to make some great photographs. That is a fact!

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