The moment in which the mix of light and shadow in a scene is perfectly balanced is fleeting. Capturing the perfect combination of highlights and shadow in-camera can quickly descend into the eternal quest to chase light. Fortunately, for the moments that don’t quite fall into the narrow realm of the perfect highlight/shadow balance, we have raw image-processing programmes such as Photoshop or Lightroom. But before heading over to the computer, it’s important to make sure that the image is as close to perfect as it can be in-camera.
I photographed Hamilton Hall, a woodworker living and working in New Orleans, as part of a story about Louisiana for National Geographic Traveler (US). As a woodworker, Hamilton is unique in that he uses reclaimed submerged cypress trees, felled about a hundred years ago in a logging boom. As we motored around the Atchafalaya swamp, waiting for the late afternoon light, I watched the shifting shadows. As the wind blew, the water shimmered and the sun glinted through leaves. The scene was gorgeous and alive, with the light in the swamp in a constant flux.
The area that we eventually settled on featured a shaft of light falling on a large tree at its centre. I knew that placing Hamilton next to the tree would enable him to stand out against the mysterious, shadowy grove of trees in the distance. There were no distracting shadows caused by branches, for example, falling within the shaft of light.
The camera does not ‘see’ the way our eyes see. As humans, we can look at a scene with a wide tonal range of colour, light and shadow and, depending on our individual eyesight, discern details within it. For the camera, the tonal drop-off is more abrupt. In order to make colour, highlight and shadow adjustments in an image, the photograph should be taken in raw format to capture all image data recorded by the sensor (in jpeg format, image information is compressed and lost at the time of capture).
Given the contrasting light in the swamp scene, the raw file featured some listless and flat highlights that lack detail. Opting for an exposure in the middle between shadow and light, I knew there’d need to be some adjustments in post-production. The image was made with a Canon 5D Mark III using a 2.8/24-70 lens. Camera settings were set at ISO160, with an f2.8 and shutter speed of 1/1250, shot with a white balance set on ‘shade’, which has the effect of warming up the colour temperature of the raw file, giving it more of a golden tone.
Once back in the studio, I used Lightroom to process the raw image. The programme is a favourite among editorial shooters as it allows for both robust editing and the organisation of a large amount of images, as well as functioning as an efficient raw processor. In Lightroom’s Develop module, I adjusted the highlights tab to -68 to bring out the hidden detail in the lighter areas. I adjusted the shadows tab to +25, which had the effect of unblocking some of the darker shadow areas, also rendering additional detail. Since raw files tend to be a little flat at the outset, I also deepened the black to -16 to add in a little more depth and contrast. Finally, for final pop I adjusted the vibrance tab to + 8. This increased the intensity of more muted colours while leaving saturated colours as they are. I adjusted the saturation tab to +8 as well, for a slight, uniform colour bump. The main goal with these adjustments was to enhance the colours and bridge the gap between the highlights and shadows, bringing it closer to how my eyes saw the scene.
It was a quick series of adjustments taking less than a few minutes, but the difference from the raw file at the beginning and the processed file afterwards is significant.
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Published in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) Photography Magazine