One of the neglected, and often violated element in photography is the mood. Sitting in your living room on a bright sunny day look around and notice how dark the interior looks compared to the bright outside. Our visual system, being extremely adaptable to brightness, allows us to enjoy the bright view from the window and still see some detail around the fireplace or under the side table. Now take another look around and notice the “mood” in the living room. Unless your windows are hit by direct sunlight, the lighting inside the room will feel dimmer, more subdued, the detail of many things may be somewhat suppressed, and even colors may have lost some saturation due to lower light levels.
If you take a photograph of this interior you will have to make a choice to preserve some detail in the windows where the view is lit by the bright sun and let the interior go a little dark. When you look at such a photograph you know that it looks and feels right. Imagine even darker interiors of large abandoned buildings where light barely reaches the middle of the room, rendering what is beyond in real darkness. Again, if you take a photograph of this interior it will look dark but close to what you are seeing. But, the siren calls from the tools you use like Lightroom, or feedback you get from your friends (who use Lightroom or similar tools) keep telling you “open your shadows.” And, eventually, you succumb to these calls and start pushing the shadow slider to the right. “Whoa!! I can see more detail, this is really cool” you think and your friends write comments on your facebook post “congrats, nice shadow detail!” All is well but at the expense of the mood of the location.
Of course, the opposite is also true, a bright beach scene “requires” that you choke the highlights “to retain detail” in everything and edit the photograph as your friends, mentors, judges who score your photographs tell you. Again, this comes at the expense of the mood of the location, often blindingly bright reflections of the sun on the wave crests become sooty gray.
I am not suggesting in any way that sloppy work is OK. Quite the contrary, I strongly believe that technique in executing your photograph from exposure to print is very important. But you need to convey the mood of the moment in the photograph. The master of tonal control, Ansel Adams presented us zones 0-10 where the ends are black and white. According to Adams, the useful range was 1-9 and texture and a hint of detail appeared in zones 2-3 and 8 at the upper end and if certain parts went pure black or pure white, be it!
I have reviewed photographs for friends and family and noticed this phenomenon quite often. The Highlights and Shadows sliders in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw are meant to help build a convincing tonal range. The fact that moving the shadows slider to the right will brighten dark areas should not mean that photographs should not have areas with “just a hint of detail”. Or at the upper end of the spectrum, moving the highlights slider to the left should be used judiciously to provide a hint of detail in zone 9 and somewhat more discernible in zone 8 rather than pulling all the highlights to zones 6-8.
There are of course photographs in which showing interior detail is important, architectural photography comes to mind. Even there, with highly controlled artificial lighting, master photographers present us with a compelling interior not because all the detail is visible but because the mood is inviting. Look at the masterful photographs of Julius Shulman and notice how he chose not to light every single corner and open up every shadow area. Here are some of his work, search for more and see his photographs they are remarkable. He is considered to be one of the best, if not the best architectural photographers of the 20th century.
Of course, this is my sensibility. When I told a couple of friends that their photographs lost the mood in favor of detail, at first they were reluctant to accept it. But I saw some photographs later and noticed that the photographer chose to leave the dark parts alone, at least more than the earlier iteration and the result was eminently better.
Much of photographic sensibilities are driven by the tool and technology. To some extent, this is understandable, why not take advantage of new capabilities. But I favor, as I have said on many occasions, my vision and sensibility guiding me in my work and make me pick the tools rather than the other way around. If there is a little noise in my high ISO photograph, that goes with the territory. Also, don’t fight the laws of physics, the inverse square law says the amount of light is inversely proportionate to the square of the distance.
Here is an exercise we can both go through:
- Put a few flowers in a vase, or use a suitable object to put on your table and find a room with one window or window shades you can use to control the light coming from the others
- Put the subject close to the window, say about 1 foot away
- Set your camera on a sturdy tripod and frame a wide area where one end is the window and the object we will photograph
- Using manual exposure, find a shutter speed and aperture that will give you a “good exposure” of the room and the object without needing further edits if possible
- After the first exposure, making sure you do not move the camera, move the object twice the distance from the current position, say 2 feet, take another exposure using the same manual exposure settings as above
- After that, leave the camera alone, and move the object twice the distance again, to 4 feet and take another photo at the same setting
- And after that, move the object twice the distance again given that the room and the furniture would allow and photograph the setting once more
Now, bring all these into Lightroom or the tool you use and view them with no editing. They will look almost identical with the exception of the object we kept moving. If you measure the luminance of a fixed spot on the object on different frames you will find that the object gets darker as we move it away from the window. This is the law of physics, we cannot change that. The inverse square law will render the same object progressively darker as we move it away from the light source. Here are the results of my experiment. I have also created a version that shows the figurines in different positions for comparison. Click on the thumbnails to view larger.
Similarly, in an abandoned warehouse, an old factory, or other similar buildings where some windows may even be boarded light will behave the same way. The parts closer to the light sources will be brighter than the parts that are farther. The dark areas may lose some detail and this is where the temptation starts. “I can open the shadows,” you think, and more often than not, you do. The fact that you can do this does not mean that you should since it will cause the photograph to lose the mood, the character of the space. “What if I use additional lights, is it not the same,” you ask. The answer is, no it is not since the additional light, which many interior photographers use, will change the look and will present a different interior. The careful photographer using artificial lighting will also try to preserve the character of the space by carefully controlling the light positions, where the reflectors go if any, and so on.
This, I think, is a habit from the “Ugly HDR Days” where there were only mid tones and a tiny amount of local contrast. But the ugly days of HDR are gone, thank goodness for that! Even the strong proponents and practitioners of the ugly HDR are changing their sensibilities and ditching the halos as you can see in this post. What you are missing may actually be fixed by a little extra local contrast as dimly lit scenes usually manifest, parts that face the light are brighter, and parts looking away, darker. In such cases, I find that increasing the contrast, which will darken the shadows, and then opening the shadows very slightly will give you the missing “hint of detail” in the shadows.
Try observing and preserving the mood. You may be surprised to find that showing too much shadow detail may actually hurt the mood in the overall image.
May your shadows fall on Zones 2 and 3, and your highlights on Zones 8 and 9 all the time!