Exposing & Printing Bright Sunlit Photographs
I'm trying to figure out what makes a great photograph which was made in bright sunlight; a print that makes you squint when you look at it. It seem to me that a lot of black & white photography is made in overcast or diffuse lighting. And while I've seen many photographs that have been taken is bright sunlight, only a few truly posses that feeling of bright sunlight. I have attached a few great examples.
Exposure in bright sunlight can be very difficult if allowing in-camera metering. Spot metering is a little easier. Is the key to a great sunny photograph the black detail-less shadows? Or the bright detail-less highlights? Or both?! Seems many photographers (Ansel Adams certainly) try to get as much detail in the shadows and highlights, compressed the tonal scale much, whether it be use of compensating developers, water bath, stand-development, etc. I find a great sunlit photograph to have black areas of detail-less shadows, though this is just my personal preference. Highlights can also fall quite high on the exposure scale, though through controls already mentioned can be controlled.
How are you guys exposing your sunlit photographs? Are you placing shadows on zone II? Maybe placing highlights on zone VIII? Reduced agitation in development most of the time?
Then when it's time to print, I usually start with my lightest tone, usually a zone VIII in a sunlit photograph and find my exposure which makes it just visible on the paper, then use contrast to set the blacks. Many times though with my sunlit photos the whites are either too bright or not quite bright enough. It seems that it's a fine line between success and failure.
How are you guys printing your bright sunlit photographs? Are you letting some of your highlights go pure paper base white? Are you letting some shadows go to detail-less blacks?
I understand everyone's process is different. I'd just like to get an idea of other thoughts on bright sun photographs when it comes to exposure and printing.
This naturalistic approach is what I've used on many 'clear sky' occasions: Don't meter, lord don't spot meter. Just sunny 16 rule and let everything fall where it is. Everything should render as your eye sees it: sun reflected on windows will blow out, deep shadows will be black, and everything else should render faithfully. My rationale is that if I was drawn to photograph it, it should look like what I saw. The contrast is handled to my liking with development time, attempting to standardize contact prints. To get close to the images you've cited, forget about exposing for the shadows, forget about developing for the highlights. Set for sunny 16 and let the film do what it does.
For printing, my preference is the highlights on the church wood above should be perceptibly darker than the paper base (so you can see the border as brighter), but I think it's fine for the sun reflected in the window to be as white as the paper. Sorry if that sounds superficial.
Last edited by David William White; 05-04-2010 at 02:34 AM. Click to view previous post history.
I'm surely no expert, but I would tend to take the whitest white up to just about blown out, but use a contrast that still goes pretty deeply into black. To some extent, contrast is a relative effect, painters create strong centers of interest by placing darks and lights directly adjacent. The same values separated by intermediate values don't appear as strong.
Not sure if this is an optimum example, a zapped bit shot of a "real print!"
As a photo of a photo, it's a bit wonky, and only the clouds approach a blown out white, but I think the fact that the direct sunlit concrete falls next to the deep shadow under the arches illustrates what I'm trying to say.
Hmm, exposure wise, I discovered after the fact that day I had set my meter wrong, partly compensated by a generous allowance for a yellow filter, so the negs were on the thin side, but close to my norm contrast-wise.
Excellent example Dave! This is the type of bright sunlight shot I am trying to master. Interesting concept about adjacent areas of bright and dark tone, it certainly is effective. I'm sure there was plenty of tone underneath those arches to the naked eye, but the way you've printed this has rendered it screaming of sunlight! It would be interesting to see another example of this print with lots of detail in the shadows. I would fear it would turn out to be a muddy print. Sometimes I suppose the limitations of film help to portray a scene as such in your example, or maybe we're so used to seeing bright scenes portrayed with empty shadows that this is what we've come to expect. Thanks for sharing!
it is interesting how we perceive light. I find the second example you gave to be very unreal lighting -- the shadows are far too black -- not what we would experience if we were there. But at the same time it is a wonderful image, with the girl running (escaping?) out of the shadows (which are rather ominous-looking in their darkness.)
We tend to take in a scene as a gestalt -- looking into the shadows, then at the sunlit areas -- creating an image in our brains that contains information in both areas that we actually do not see at any one time. We do the same with focus. So the camera/film captures an image that we really do not see.
I prefer a negative that has printable information in all areas -- this gives me the option to print the neg anyway I want to.
Here is an image that best illustrates what I am after. While standing there, I could see all the detail under the wharf, then turn my attention to the sunlit areas and see all the detail there -- but not both at the same time. The neg has full detail in all areas, but I actually print it with some complete detailless blacks under the wharf...perhaps a little darker than what appears on the screen. I used a red filter to help bring the values under the wharf and the rest of the scene closer together.
At least with LF landscape, a bad day of photography can still be a good day of exercise.
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We all have our preferences. That seems to me to be what's being discussed here. A lot of that specific technical stuff comes into line as one develops a clear idea of what a print should look like. Not everyone can agree on that.
For example, I recently had the opportunity to look at some Edw. Weston and A.A. prints side by side. Those two printed very differently. Adams skated on the edge at both ends, while Weston tended to live more in the middle values without sacrificing the overall scale. My own preference agrees more with his way of doing it, but I still enjoy seeing the more extreme approach when done well.
The balance between overall contrast and local contrast is sometimes hard to find. It is possible to contain vast illumination ranges by altering development or building special developers. The challenge there is to keep lively separation in adjacent tones, avoiding a result that, while it has both ends, lacks life in the middle.
All that considered, probably the most important thing is really the design of the image. Vaughn mentions "gestalt" above and cites the example of the girl running. For me, that image works much better than the other, which is "a picture of a church". The deep shadows make (in the running image) a very exciting shape. The construction of the image provides an overall graphic context that could stand as an image on its own, but the inclusion of the subject (girl) sends it into orbit by bringing life into an already solid structure. (Here I reveal my modernist roots!)
I can comment on the graphic elements, but the examples as shown don't give me much to go on regarding the technical means (loss or retention of detail, etc.) which allow or obscure substance in specific value regions. This is inevitable in translation from the real print to virtual. We just can't really know what is there.
My old Forte film compressed beautifully, but with newer films I have been leaning toward less compression, instead making use of the dark shadows, and enjoying the brilliance.
Thanks for keeping the comments coming, and wonderful example Vaughn!
Its an interesting comment Bowzart had about how Ansel and Edward printed. I tend to print at the extremes as Adams. Highlights to my work are the most important thing. Shadows to me, depending on how important they are of course many times can come or go, but an important highlight needs to be just that perfect tone to make a print sing.
This is basically what I've been disconvering over the past few months while playing with new films in the absense of Neopan 400. Films like Neopan 400 or HP5 have a shoulder which many would find very useful in bright sunlight to tame highlights. But I find sometimes, particularily HP5 to look very "muddy" in sunlight. I believe it compresses too much. I've even tried super amounts of development and still cannot get HP5 to sing.
Originally Posted by jmcd
But lately, I've been discovering how wonderful FP4 is. It's more of a straight line curve which won't compress highlight detail. By under-exposing slightly and developing highlights to desired density I'm finding images closer to the examples above, much like jmcd describes.
Here's a shot I took yesterday in blaring sunlight, around 2pm of an old stone cabin. It was shot on FP4 in Rodinal 1:50. Highlights on the rocks were placed on zone VII and the shadows on the inside were between zone II and III. I think the neg may be over-developed just a tad. This is only a neg scan, but I am excited to print and share as well.
You need to do a personal film speed and development test as their should be more shadow detail than in those images.
It's important to get the detail into the negatives, that way you can print them anyway you like and will have far more control at the printing stage.
Two examples of extreme contrast.
I think your images look great, and most importantly you are getting what you want to see on paper. Also, a great topic for discussion with much to think about from many perspectives.
If you are experimenting with FP4+ and so on, try developing it in Xtol stock or D-76 stock—not for fine grain but for the brilliance.