Here’s an image that’s bothered me for a long time. I was travelling in Myanmar (Burma) and had risen very early to ascend a hilltop not far from the famous temple site, Bagan. While the sunrise was not spectacular I did make several good shots of the surrounding landscape. Afterwards I descended towards the famous Arrewaddy River where I met a family who were camped on a small sandbar just offshore. They were lovely people, but quite shy so I was very careful not to bring the camera out until after I’d gained their confidence and permission to do so.
The problem I had was that the light, reflecting off the white sand, was blindingly bright. I couldn’t see a thing without my polarising sunglasses. What’s more the exceptionally bright light resulted in very, very dark shadows. Terrible conditions for portrait photography resulting in bright, burned out areas on the skin, dark eyes and screwed up faces.
Fortunately I did manage to make a few images under softer light provided by a tent-like structure. The above image, however, was made outside. To ensure the kids had their eyes open I positioned them with the sun somewhat behind them. In fact their faces are side lit, resulting in very dark shadows on the other side of the face. And while it is possible to expose in such a way to lighten the shadows, the brighter side of the face would also be lightened to the same degree causing it to render near white. It’s often possible to expose in such a way to render the brighter parts of the image with the density you’d like and then add fill flash or employ a reflector to ensure the shadows don’t record too dark. But, in this case, the variety of camera-to-subject distances ruled out either approach. For example, if I’d employed on-camera flash the subjects in the foreground would have received much more light then those in the background.
My only solution was our old friend Photoshop. I’m not proud to say that I was forced to do more work than I’ve ever had to do, with the possible exception of another one or two images, to produce the above result. It's still very much a 'work in progress'. I've converted the original color transparency (slide) into black-and-white, prior to applying a gentle warm color (tone) to produce a more life-affirming result. The light spots evident in the shadow side of the kids faces are actually a plant extract smeared over the skin as a kind of natural sun screen.
From a design point of view we are not looking at people, we are looking at circles (ovals, if you prefer) and triangles. The circles are linked by invisible lines which, when connected, form the triangular shapes. There is nothing new in this technique, it’s clearly evident in oil paintings from hundreds of years ago. But it is these lines and shapes that link the individual faces into a cohesive composition. Try it for yourself.
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Glenn Guy, Blue Sky Photography