Fear Of The Dark

Light is the essence of photography. Since the early ages of the craft photographers have feared the dark, and not without reason. But do these reasons still apply?

In the quest for perfection in their art photographers have developed various strategies to cope with light or the absence thereof. Light is not just simply light. The quality of light can make or break a photograph.

Just imagine a grand vista of a mountain range in the distance with some interesting foreground – say for example a pile of boulders – to add depth and separation.

Take this photograph in the warm evening light and it evokes a soft feeling, almost comforting. A blue hour shot with the cool subdued colours can add a sense of longing or sadness, perhaps even fear. The harsh and direct sunlight in the middle of the day can make the scene almost confusing with all the contrast, the deep shadows and the extremely bright sky.

In the old days of film photography these high dynamic scenes were hardly possible without the use of gradient ND filters or special films that would excuse some moderate exposure errors.

This is where the importance of the right tools enters photography. Don’t misunderstand me, a bad tool in the hands of a master craftsman is far better than a perfect tool in the hands of a fool. But in some special situations gear does matter.

A bad tool in the hands of a master craftsman is far better than a perfect tool in the hands of a fool

Since the advent of digital photography the technical limitations have greatly diminished. Modern camera sensors are capable of capturing ever finer details in less light with almost no visible noise. And we can use this capability to our advantage. The raw file of a modern camera contains much more information than what is instantly visible at the screen. Software can make these details visible.

Suddenly the deep shadows come to life. Full of colour and texture. What used to be a murky mess transforms into a radiating scene filled with wonderful details waiting to be explored.

We live in an age where capturing the right moment has become more of a challenge than the technical aspects of an image. At last photography is all about vision and composition again.

Let me show you a few examples where the raw file looks much different than the finished image and its initial vision that sparks every photograph.

These images are only possible through the magic of modern camera sensors, opening up not only the shadows of the photograph but also a variety of possibilities to interpret the scene after we have clicked the shutter.

Distant Peaks, Ramsau, Austria

This image was taken near the Austrian ski resort of Schladming. After hiking up over the wooden walkways of a narrow gorge with a rushing stream, struggling to find a composition that would do this magnificent place justice I turned around, ready to surrender and make my way back down.

After walking down just a few steps the gorge suddenly  opened up and presented the sublime view of the distant mountains in the haze with the rocky walls of the gorge in full shade.

If I had exposed the image for the shady foreground I would have lost the sunlit mountains in the back in a blurry white mess.

So I decided to reduce the exposure enough to keep all the details of the background knowing that I would be able to record enough shadow information to recover the shadowed rock walls barely lit by reflected light.

The resulting image is a true rendering of how I perceived the scene.

In most cases of high dynamic range scenes it is much more important to expose for the highlights. If the very brightest tones of the image are blown out there is nothing you can do to salvage them even with the best software. You will have to choose wisely where the highlights should fall. The shadows are much less critical. Even underexposure for up to three stops will not be too much of a problem. These shadows can still be recovered in the software. Sometimes one will have to deal with some introduced noise seperately but a bit of shadow noise is still better than blown out highlights.

Black Hole, Stokksnes, Iceland

Driving for seven hours through the barren landscape between the south coast of Iceland and the towering Vatnajökull glacier is not a lot of fun. Especially when you arrive at the peninsula of Stokksnes only to find the Vesturhorn mountain range shrouded by dense clouds, rendering any attempt to photograph the scene obsolete. I abandoned my plans and drove to the central highlands instead.

48 hours later, with only one day in Iceland left to spare, I decided to have another go.

The early evening was promising with some scattered clouds being swiftly moved around by the fierce Icelandic wind.

It was a waiting game now, and I hoped to have the good fortunes on my side.

The fabulous beach was crowded with people until well after 10 p.m. and I was not sure if I would get a second chance. About half an hour later my patience started to pay off. With about one hour before sunset and the outgoing tide erasing any footprints in the black sand and almost all people gone for late dinner I began to search for some good foreground details in order to put the mountain range into the right context. After a while I had found a somewhat circular pattern in the sand, creating the perfect swirl to enhance the motion of the waves. Not too much later the sun dropped behind the distant mountain range, bathing the clouds in a warm evening glow and providing vibrant reflections in the small pudddles of water. It all came together now and I exposed the sky as bright as I dared, keeping an eye on the histogram and hoping to retain enough detail in the dark sand and the mountains in the background.

At last driving twice for seven hours seems to be an appropriate price to get a second chance.