Lessons in Light and Visualization

There is no such thing as “good” or “bad” photographic light. There is just light.
Brooks Jensen, LensWork.

Just last week, while photographer Floris van Bruegel and I walked towards Death Valley National Park’s Ibex Dunes, Floris commented that I used direct light in my photographs more than most photographers. I harbor no shame about this, and believe that I’m at an advantage in being able to visualize photographs in whatever available light is before me. While many nature and landscape photographers would have you believe that we are limited to the Golden Hours or to the twilight found at each end of the day, there simply exists light that best benefits your subject or light that is less than ideal for your subject. If you’ll contend that the light is “bad”, I’ll counter that you’re just looking in the wrong direction.

VoyagerThe photograph at left, Voyager, was made in the extreme southern end of Death Valley (the Valley proper, that is) last Wednesday. The time was 9:30am. I was up at 5:30am that morning. I had already covered a fair bit of ground, and had even cooked and eaten breakfast by the time I found this scene. I would estimate that 99 of 100 photographers would have told me that this was horrible light and no photographs could be made. Were it not for my experience and ability to visualize a scene in the final print (there is no such thing as PREvisualization!), I might have concurred. Fact is, were it not 9:30am and had the sun not been beating harshly on this wet mud, I doubt that I would have ever been able to see this. Before you rule out “bad” light, rule out your preconceptions and make the exposure. For digital photographers, this costs nothing. For film photographers, it costs only a modest amount to expand your seeing and possibilities. What could you possibly have to lose?

Voyager - raw film scan

Voyager - raw film scan

I’m about to do something here that I don’t believe I have ever done online before: share a raw film scan of the original negative (no manipulation). A cursory glance at the raw negative might lead one could suggest that this is “bad” light, but the proof is in the final print. The exposure was calculated to preserve all highlight and shadow details (no bracketing; no guesswork; I teach my film exposure techniques during my film-based workshops). From the moment I found the scene, I visualized not “bad” light or a difficult-to-print negative; I saw a voyaging vessel in a distant galaxy and a luminous final print. When Ansel talked about “visualization”, he was referring to this ability to visualize a final print (not the “capture“). I would venture that this is one of the most difficult if not liberating ways of seeing. If one cannot visualize the final print, one is not seeing the light 😉

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

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Fuji Film Comparison

Fuji films comparison. Velvia, Astia, Pro 160S, Acros.I don’t know the numbers, but Fuji films surely dominate the market especially with nature and landscape photographers. Fuji Velvia was first introduced in 1990, and quickly rose to become the staple film in the bags of most outdoor photographers. However, things have changed. Rarely do publishers request original transparencies as digital files are now the preferred and easier medium by which to deliver images. Further, for those photographers whose primary output is the fine print, Velvia has hardly ever been the best choice – largely due to its high contrast and limited exposure latitude. So what Fuji film should you consider if the fine print is your primary goal? I’d suggest Astia or Pro 160S for color, and Acros for black and white. Like Velvia, Astia is a transparency (slide) film, while Pro 160S is color negative and Acros is black & white negative. All three of these films provide greater exposure latitude than Velvia; scan more easily; and due to their more neutral color palettes (excluding Acros, of course) provide greater flexibility in interpreting the scan for the print. Any color film can be made to look like Velvia.

Take a look at the photo of the Fuji film comparison. Please note that this has been converted to the sRGB color space (which is a much smaller color gamut than wide-gamut Adobe RGB). Also note that this has been downsized for web display to 72ppi (a far cry from printing resolution). These two facts hamper the accuracy of this image, but what is not hampered is the obvious gains in the shadows made by using Astia or Pro 160S. Note that the transparency films (Velvia and Astia) have only been scanned and color corrected to match the transparency (no contrast adjustments). The Pro 160S (rated at ISO 100 and processed normally) has been scanned and color corrected to most closely match the transparency films. Acros has only been scanned and has NO adjustments. Fuji Velvia may appear the most colorful, but have a look at those difficult shadows; your scanner is not going to like them!

Velvia may look pretty impressive on your lightbox, but if the fine print is your primary medium, you’ll be better served using Astia or Pro 160S.

I welcome your comments!

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.