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Oak Silhouettes, California foothills near Latrobe

Posted by
Gary Hart (California, United States) on 10 August 2009 in Landscape & Rural and Portfolio.

"Is that the way it really looked?" (first in a continuing series)

I'm asked that question quite frequently, and my response is always an emphatic, "No!" The camera and the eye see the world differently; it's silly for any photographer to claim an image is "exactly the way it looked when I was there." A camera's dynamic range, visual depth, and range of focus (to name a few) are all inferior to the human eye. A good photographer doesn't submit to these limitations, he or she turns them into an advantage. Conversely, there are wonderful things the camera can do that the eye can't. All these differences combine to give the experienced landscape photographer an opportunity to create evocative, artistic images in the camera, with very little post-processing required. So over the next few weeks I'll be posting my thoughts on using the camera's vision to your photographic advantage without resorting to Photoshop enhancement.

Dynamic Range

So, is this the way this scene "really" looked? Of course not. The range of tones visible to the human eye is around 12 stops; the camera's range is around 6 stops. That explains why you can simultaneously see detail in the shadows and fully lit (highlight) areas of a scene, but photographing that scene requires you to choose either the shadows or highlights, but not both.

When photographing this sunset, I could see grass and rocks on the hillside, and detail in the trunks and branches of these trees, but knew my camera couldn't handle the shadow detail and the sky. In these "impossible light" scenes I usually opt for a silhouette, choosing color and shape over detail. When making silhouettes, I look for striking shapes against a bright background like sky or water. Often underexposing a bit will enhance the silhouette effect, bringing out the background color and deepening the black outline.

For today's sunset silhouette I spot-metered on the brightest part of the sky (in manual mode), slightly underexposing (probably pegging my meter indicator at the middle-tone 0-point, or maybe 1/3 stop above middle-tone) to darken the sky a bit. This brought out the color and turned the foreground black. If the background for the trees had been the hillside and not the sky, this shot wouldn't have worked because it would have been black on black. Or if I'd have given the scene enough light reveal the foreground detail, I'd have completely washed out the sky.

A couple of other things about this image. First, I don't remember why I chose the settings I used (ISO 400, f5.6): It was either extremely windy, or I simply forgot to reset them from an earlier exposure (yes, I do stupid things too). Also, Sierra Heritage magazine readers might recognize this from the September 2007 cover.

Next post: August 13 (please view my previous posts by clicking the arrow in the upper left of today's image)

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Thanks for visiting. Even if I don't respond, your comments are always read and appreciated.

bruno from les Ollières, France

Nice silhouettes of trees.And thanks for explanations.

10 Aug 2009 6:59am

Anina from Auckland, New Zealand

Great shot!
Love the tones!
Great silhouettes
I simply love this! :)

10 Aug 2009 7:43am

Vitor Martins from Lisboa, Portugal

Very nice shot. I like the compositon and the collor of sky.

10 Aug 2009 8:54am

LM from Aix en Provence, France

Nice sunset, the colors are great

10 Aug 2009 10:48am

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

Awesome photo! I absolutely love the oak trees- and they are set off so perfectly by that incredible sky! I love that I can see every tiny little branch...
I am excited about your upcoming posts- Perfect timing for me, as I head off at the end of the week to Oregon to explore the Coast :)
Thanks, as always, for sharing your wisdom with us- I know that I am a better photographer because of it :)

10 Aug 2009 2:04pm

@Tracy: Thanks, Tracy, have a great trip.

Loner from Wörgl, Austria

A very good ad atmospheric photo!

10 Aug 2009 7:10pm

dobbino from Cape Town, South Africa

I really do enjoy your posts - obviously your superb photographs, but especially the thoughts and processes that you share. You are very generous - thanks again.

10 Aug 2009 8:05pm

Judy from Brooksville, Florida, United States

What a beauty - no surprise it was a magazine cover shot!
Thank for this lesson in spot metering and beyond.

10 Aug 2009 8:43pm

Veronique from Sarrouilles, France

thanks so much for your explanations !

10 Aug 2009 8:55pm

pernilla from Andonno, Italy

Beautiful silhouettes. Love the glow in the branches. Looking forward to your coming posts on this subject.

10 Aug 2009 11:29pm

MJ from Delaware, United States

Beautiful and thank you for the explanation...I love the coppery colors....and of course the silhouette

11 Aug 2009 11:37am

Magda from Vancouver, Canada

Beautiful silhouettes.... the colour is magical!

15 Aug 2009 4:33am

Didier DE ZAN from somewhere, France

Beautifl shot beautiful sky

17 Aug 2009 5:11am

Joanne from United States

I'm not a professional or even an amateur photographer, but your site is very informative and the photography is definitely 'eloquent' in the first degree.

28 Aug 2009 12:13pm

@Joanne: Thanks, Joanne.