Blown Highlights

Photography is, literally, writing with light. Any old light will do to make a photograph, including the unfocused light used to create cyanotypes. However a photograph gets made, the light is the key ingredient and can make or break any captured moment. 

No matter the method, though, photography is ultimately less about the quantity of light than it is a struggle between ratios—specifically, the dynamic range between the highlights and the shadows. Whether it's film or the latest digital sensor, there are boundaries to what can be captured: getting the shadows means blowing the highlights, and retaining detail in the highlights means losing what's in the shadows. Exposure decisions are a matter of deciding which is the most important for a given image. 

The key here is not the dynamic range of the scene, but the dynamic range of the image. Too often, photographers get caught up in the technical and pay too little attention to the humanist aspects of an image. The dynamic range of the human eye, from the darkest we can perceive, to the brightest light we can tolerate, is about one to one million. In lens terms, that's about 24 stops. This is a very broad dynamic range. But unlike a photographic lens, human eyes are never static. We scan a scene, with our pupils opening and closing to adjust for changing light, blending shadows and highlights into a scene processed in the visual cortex, and then responding to that vision based upon a mix of intentions and emotions. What's bright has an emotional meaning, just as what's in the shadows has a separate meaning. 

Accordingly, trying to capture a scene with the dynamic range of the human eye is not only impossible, but it misses the point. The dynamic range of any scene is information for the mind to use, so the goal of working in contrasty light is the same as in any other light: using it to direct the spectator's attention to what the artist wants to emphasize. 

These thoughts were in the back of my mind while I was shooting fashion in the streets with Nicole and Meg. An early Spring day, there was not a single cloud in the sky. The sun was at its worst in photographic terms: a single, narrow point of light with the only diffusion coming from the colored reflections of pavement and walls. But with a bit of attention and intention, even bright sun can work to artistic advantage. It's just a matter of embracing the contrast and sometimes letting the shadows go black and the highlights get blown. (Or finding some shade!)

Blowing the Highlights and Embracing the Shadows:

Seeking the Shade: