Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Language of Shadows

First I want to direct your attention to an excellent blogpost I found this morning here in which Juan Reyes looks at what he calls 'The Five Levels of Street Photography'. The points he raises are well worth the time to think on.

A number of years ago Jim Hughes authored a biography of photographer W. Eugene Smith which was subtitled 'Shadow & Substance', which was apt for a book about one of the greatest masters of b/w film photography. Smith was a master of control and technique in the darkroom and was able to draw extraordinarily subtle details out of the blackest shadows - either through dodging during exposure, or afterwards with potassium ferrocyanide as a bleaching agent. It's a subtlety which is hard to match nowadays in digital photography because the pixels in camera sensors don't record light information linearly, but logarithmically. That means that the amount of light information recorded by pixels in the dark shadow areas of an image is dramatically less than the amount of information in the highlight areas. In a digital image it's much easier to make distinctions between tiny changes of light in the highlights than in the shadows.

The problem for me is that I've always been drawn to the power of b/w photography through the way great photographers speak through their handling of shadow detail. Trying to find a digital 'voice' through shadow manipulation can be extremely frustrating and difficult. The rule of thumb back in the days of film photography was to expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights. That doesn't work so well with a digital sensor and I am constantly experimenting to find some happy medium between where I place the center of my exposure when I take an image and how flexible are the digital darkroom tools that I use to draw out the subtle details in the shadows and reflections that I try to speak through.

The new sensor technology that Fuji integrated in it's X-trans sensor has made the task much easier, but  it's an ongoing exploration for me. For me the language of shadows is the language of photography.