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In praise of shadows

By June 13, 2016 Photography No Comments

The title In Praise of Shadows is stolen from an influential essay by Junichiro Tanizaki, written in the 1930s. In it he railed against the new tendency to install tungsten lighting in traditionally dark Japanese interiors, but the point is not completely alien to photography.

Gloomy weather–Early morning rain clouds flow over the mountains in this remote part of the Venezuelan Andes, which prompted a reduced exposure to reveal the range of grays in the sky. However, I was also very drawn to the sense of the white buildings just emerging from darkness, as it seemed to reinforce the feeling of isolation.

Gloomy weather–Early morning rain clouds flow over the mountains in this remote part of the Venezuelan Andes, which prompted a reduced exposure to reveal the range of grays in the sky. However, I was also very drawn to the sense of the white buildings just emerging from darkness, as it seemed to reinforce the feeling of isolation.

In digital processing there is a tendency to choose auto—with its generic brightness—without thinking; but it doesn’t have to be that way.

In addition to the logic that justifies low key images is the personal, but entirely valid, preference for dark images. In particular, platinum printing is influential here. This metal, often mixed with palladium, has some unique qualities in print making that have led a number of photographers into low-key. The platinum and palladium are laid on top of the paper, not suspended in a gelatin, and so are, completely matte. Also, while the maximum density is actually less than a traditional silver print, the expansion of the middle tonal values and the way in which information is retained in very deep shadows is outstanding. All this makes it possible to produce low-key images of great tonal subtlety. Broadly similar effects are now possible with multi-ink digital printing for those not developing film.

Life in Pakistan–Scenes from Pathan life in the bazaar and streets of Peshawar, the chief city of Pakistan’s North West Frontier provinces. In each case I worked deliberately in a lower tonal register that seemed to me to suit the subject, as described in the text.

Life in Pakistan–Scenes from Pathan life in the bazaar and streets of Peshawar, the chief city of Pakistan’s North West Frontier provinces. In each case I worked deliberately in a lower tonal register that seemed to me to suit the subject, as described in the text.

In colour, Kodachrome had a tremendous influence in numerous ways for many years. Practically, slide films bear much resemblance to digital imaging in that they have a less than ideal dynamic range and look terrible when over-exposed. This, like the platinum paragraph above, is something of a digression, but perhaps a necessary one, as it helps to explain how many experienced photographers came to think and feel about exposure. Given that the cardinal rule for professionals shooting slide film—and most did because magazine colour printing was geared to slides—was to err on the side of underexposure. Kodachrome, with its unique silver-based chemistry, reacted to this treatment in a special way. Great detail, more than many people would suspect, was kept in the shadows, and when the repro house or printers got hold of it, they could successfully open up these shadows.

Life in Pakistan

Life in Pakistan

This, in turn, led to the common practice of photographers overrating Kodachrome by around a third of a stop—and sometimes even more. Some are convinced that this, in turn, encouraged a culture of the dark, rich image, and many professionals came to like the restraint and subtlety of what were essentially low-key images. Much has been made of the strong saturation of underexposed Kodachrome, and while this is true up to a point, very often hues were rendered over-dense and so actually less saturated.

The images here attempt to demonstrate this. It is a matter of taste, of course. These images are on Kodachrome, but they have been scanned carefully to retain the low key. The dirt, ash, and general lack of colour created a special atmosphere deserving of being kept. Brightening the scenes and their attendant colours would have been easy, and tempting for some, but not for everyone.

Perfect Exposure is Michael Freeman’s look at the way professionals work, and lays out the decisions and sequences with absolute clarity, while incorporating the latest, powerful post-processing techniques. Choosing the exposure for a photograph is both alarmingly simple, and infinitely complex. Simple, because there is ultimately only one dosage of light, controlled as it always has been, by a shutter speed, aperture and ISO setting. But arriving at the perfect exposure is also complex, because it affects everything in the image and its effect on the viewer. Understanding how and why exposure works is essential, not only because it helps you to decide what is instinctively “right”.

Perfect Exposure, Michael FreemanPerfect Exposure
Michael Freeman

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