How To Photograph Dappled Light
The above photo was made in the Hinterland, about an hour and a half drive from the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia. The scene was beautiful, but difficult to photograph and I had to find a way to resolve some of those difficulties on the way to making a successful photograph.
It was a bright, hot day and the light coming through the canopy was intense. Such light is, more often than not, the death of good landscape photography. Experience told me that it was going to be tough to maintain detail in all but the lightest shadows. Nevertheless a bit of technique allowed me to produce an acceptable result and a reasonable representation of what was a fun exploration of the rainforest.
Photographing dappled light is fiendishly difficult due to the usually high scene brightness range (i.e., high dynamic range) under which you’ll likely be working.
Photography’s Most Important Mantra
Rules were meant to be broken, right! Well, that’s assuming you first know the rules; understand where they apply; and when and how you might go about breaking them to achieve the desired result.
I’ve been teaching photography for many years and there are a number of mantras I continually return to when providing folks with technical feedback. The first one on my list is as follows:
The Brighter The Light, The Darker The Shadows Will Photograph
One of the difficulties folks experience, along their journey in photography, is to learn to see how the camera sees the world. Most people take most of their photos on bright, sunny days. It’s when we feel good and are more likely to be outside enjoying life. Sadly, this kind of lighting is far from ideal when it comes to making good photos, particularly where people are involved.
No doubt the ability of camera sensors to record a scene of dynamic range will, within the medium term, largely resolve this problem that has plagued photography from its inception. It would seem to me that this should now be a major area of research and development, now that megapixel count and high ISO noise performance has advanced so much.
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Is Live View The Answer?
While live view and electronic viewfinders (i.e., EVF) don’t actually fix the problems associated with photographing under high levels of dynamic range they can help us by providing a real time view of how the scene in question will photograph. And, as a way of concentrating our attention, many cameras even warn us when areas within the image are going to be recorded as either black or burned out highlights.
Such warnings should prompt the photographer to take immediate, in camera, action to reduce the scene brightness range within the frame to produce a more acceptable result. And the easiest way to do that is to change your composition. Simply move your camera around to include mostly light or most dark areas to reduce contrast and achieve a more desirable result.
Over time you’ll begin to understand, intuitively, what can and cannot be photographed and you’ll begin to compose your photos, from the get go, with this in mind.
Paying Attention To Composition
This particular seen is quite a complex. That makes it hard for the viewer to quickly navigate their way through the scene and focus their attention on a particular focal point.
To help overcome this problem I made sure I focused my lens on an area that was illuminated. I then framed the scene in such a way so that the area in question was positioned prominently within the frame. You can see the highlighted area in question in the top left of the frame.
By allowing the darker shadows (e.g., tree trunks) to record black I was then able to employ them as a compositional device (i.e., leading lines) to draw the eye from the bottom of the frame up towards the main focal point (i.e., point of interest) within the frame. Put simply: compose with light and allow the shadows to shape and frame the scene.
The fact that the majority of trees and leaves that surround our subject are dark also helps lead the eye to our 'hero'.
Not a great image, but a few simple techniques to make sense of an otherwise complex and hard to photograph scene. Photography is rarely about photographing amazing scenes. More often photography is about making good pictures at interesting places that, for whatever reason, may not be particularly photogenic.