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Archive for February, 2016

twitteragain (1 of 1)-19Oh that glorious sunshine. We all so covet her warmth. Here in the Pacific Northwest, sunshine is a hot commodity in very short supply. But when it comes to making beautiful outdoor images, the sun is often not the photographer’s ally.

Bright sunshine is highly directional light that creates harsh shadows and difficult contrast conditions. Today’s digital cameras and modern software allow us to manage harshly lit scenes much better than back in the days of silver halide film emulsion. For many years photographers coveted the bright sunshine for picture-taking but there is a history behind why that is and frankly, it has NOT applied to modern photography for 40 years!

Way back in the earliest days of photography, film emulsion technology was fresh and new. At that time the effective ISO of plates coated in film emulsion was in the single digits. This meant that the subject had to not only be extremely well-lit, but living people had to be really still to avoid motion blur.

By the time WWI had concluded companies such as Eastman Kodak were producing “high-speed” films with ISO ratings from 20-50. This was still not fast enough especially considering the modest lens speed available at the time. But Kodak launched Tri-X Pan in 1940 and with a speed of ISO 320 and later 400, this was a true high-speed film for the day. Coupled with the advent of modern 35mm rangefinder cameras, serious photographers could take good shots of people and animals even under cloudy conditions.

But most people couldn’t afford to buy a Leica or Canon rangefinder camera. The bulk of people using cameras were stuck with Kodak Brownie models that had f values of 11 or 16 at best. These cameras were loaded with 120 or 127 film at ISO values of around 50-100. So well into the 1960s the notion that good pictures required bright sunshine continued.

Enter the “me” decade of the 1970s and suddenly camera manufacturers from Japan began to flood the American market with consumer SLR cameras. The Dollar was strong and the Yen was soft. That translated into Americans having great buying power for Japanese made products. Minolta, Canon and Pentax led the charge of good quality SLR camera systems at prices well within the reach of middle class America. Nikon initially kept their focus on the serious amateurs and pros.

But this new era of SLR camera models and 400 ISO film as a regularity rather than an oddity meant existing light photos in dark areas were no longer the stuff of dreams. Film technology continued to advance and film speeds of 800, 1000 and 1600 were actually as good as 400 ISO was just a decade or so earlier. By 1990 ISO 200 had become the standard rather than ISO 100 for color negative film.

The whole concept of making photos outdoors was turned on its head beginning in the 70s. Now the sun was as much the enemy of a good photo as it was the ally. Cloud cover created soft light with saturated colors and excellent control of highlights and shadows. But as we entered the 21st century, film photography was well advanced into its twilight of existence. Digital technology was just too damn good and it was so much more convenient.

central-2Today we have software that can fix most lighting problems, but it is still best to begin with a well exposed and properly lit subject. This avoids that over-processed look and frankly saves a lot of time in front of the computer.

When making images under the full sun, one must remain acutely aware of the sun’s location relative to the subject. Generally keeping the sun low and behind the camera is ideal. Low sun is easy here in the Northwest with our higher latitude but those in the more southern locations really need to avoid that high-noon scenario. The shot of the Victorian building here was made in late afternoon sun, but the harsh shadow areas had to be processed heavily to be bearable. Of course the blue sky in the background is generally preferable to a cool gray or clouds but the exposure is much flatter with soft cloud cover.

When shooting people you will generally get more pleasing results under soft cloudy skies rather than full sunshine. Using flash as a fill light can make sunny day people shots much better. So get out and make some images and don’t let clouds scare you away, sometimes they can be your very best pal.

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