Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Today Guest Blogger: Rob Dweck

This post originally ran earlier this year. I'm running it again because we are shooting with Rob in San Francisco and I wanted to share his photographs with you.

Today's guest blogger is Rob Dweck. I met Rob at the California Photo Festival. He is a wonderful photographer - and person. Take it away Rob.

It’s all about the light.

Say that sentence out loud. “It’s all about the light.” Did you actually say the words or just read them to yourself? Don’t worry if there’s someone else around, say it anyway. In fact if there are other photographers around, say it loud enough for them to hear it: “It’s all about the light.”

Are there other factors that go into making a great photograph? You bet! But 99 times out of 100, it’s the light that makes all the difference.

Anytime I go on a shoot, I look for great light and great subjects. A great subject in ordinary light might look ok, but a great subject in great light is transformed. In fact, an ordinary subject in great light will almost always make a stronger image than an extraordinary subject in bad light.

Here's an example from two different shoots at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley. 

The image above is from my first visit there, and is fairly typical of an ordinary sunrise at this location. Shot under clear skies, there’s nothing really wrong with it, but nothing remarkably exciting about it either.

The image directly above was shot from the same location at the same time of day, but under fast moving clouds as a storm from the previous night was clearing. The light filtering through the clouds was constantly moving and illuminating different portions of the scene while the areas beneath the clouds were relegated to the shadows. (If you are a regular reader of Rick’s blog like I am, you’ve no doubt seen or heard his saying “light illuminates, shadows define.” I could hear Rick’s words in my head as I was making this photograph.)

It’s easy to see the difference the light made on the subject in these two images. It took three separate visits to this location to get great light, but when the light finally came, it made all of the effort worthwhile.

Having said all that, here’s the part where I almost contradict what I said above. The image below was shot in the middle of the afternoon under direct overhead sunlight—conditions generally considered to be the most unfavorable for shooting landscapes. Yet I came away with one of my favorite photographs that I’ve shot this year.

Unless you’re shooting in a studio environment where you have total control over every aspect of the lighting, getting great light is not guaranteed. In fact, you’re more likely to encounter mediocre to very good light far more often than great light. So what can you do when you’ve just travelled hundreds or thousands of miles to a spectacular location and the light isn’t everything you hoped for?

1. See the light: Identify the quality, direction and color of the light.

2. Adapt to the light: Wait for better light, manipulate the light, or find a subject and use the gear and settings to make the best use of the current light.

3. Process for the light: Get creative with post-processing to end up with a finished image that looks like it was shot in great light.

Seeing the Light

Is the light on your subject harsh or soft? Direct, diffused or reflected? Is the light source in front of your subject? Behind? On the side? On top? Below? Is it warm or cool? Natural or artificial? By answering these questions, you can then determine what adjustments are needed to make the photograph.

Adapting to the Light

Depending on your subject and location, there are times when the only option is to wait for better light. But in many situations there are other options. Can you move the subject? If you’re photographing a person, that’s easy enough. If you’re photographing a forest, it’s you who will have to move. Or instead of moving, narrow your focus to a smaller detail of the overall scene. Instead of shooting many trees, shoot one. Or shoot one branch, or just a few leaves.

Modify the light with your flash, a reflector, a diffuser or all three. Use a large aperture for a shallow depth of field and get only the best lit part of your subject in focus. Attach filters to your lens to alter the way your camera records the light. Polarizing filters, neutral density filters and graduated filters can all work wonders to get the best out of almost any type of lighting.  

Set your white balance to compensate for the color of the light. Warm it up by setting the white balance to Cloudy or Shade, or choose the Tungsten setting to add a cool blue cast. You can do this later if you’re shooting RAW, but setting the white balance in camera gives the added advantage of seeing the effect immediately on the camera’s LCD.

The primary light in this image is artificial, but it is enhanced by the fog above the bridge as well as by the water below. In order to get the reflection of the light on the water the way I wanted, I had to do a 104 second exposure. Even with such a long exposure, the rocks in the foreground were too dark, so while the shutter was open I used a flashlight to illuminate them. By adjusting the camera settings and adding extra light I got the image I wanted.

Processing for the Light

Some people consider image processing a chore, but I believe what you do in processing is just as important as what you do when you click the shutter. The light wasn’t what you hoped it would be during the shoot? There are dozens of image processing programs and plug-ins that let you create the light in any way you can dream up. Use the RAW file as a blueprint and for anything you imagine.

Sometimes it’s simple. When I saw this boater paddling through the mist just after sunrise, I got several shots even though the light was flat and muted. I liked the atmosphere created by the mist and knew I could create more dynamic light with just a few adjustments in Lightroom.

This is the final image after processing. Most of the changes were in tone, contrast, levels and white balance, and that took it from dull to dynamic.

I often process images in black and white to emphasize light and tone without the distraction of color. I recently completed work on a series of dune photographs that are all about light and shadow. By removing the color, light and line become the dominant subjects in this image.

Although this barely scratches the surface, I hope this provides some ideas for your own photography. Seeing the light is not an end in itself, but an important means to getting a great end result and creating a photograph that moves the viewer in a meaningful way.

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