No camera technique or Photoshop trick is ever as good as having a subject that is beautifully illuminated in the first place. But just because the light is beautiful doesn’t mean that our sensor will translate that quality to the final print without some—ahem—creative intervention on our part. I was reminded of these challenges recently when photographing a waterfall set deep in the woods. The overhead light, while giving a wonderful glow to the flowing water, also made for extremely dark shadows that detracted from the gentle, peaceful feeling of the setting.
Film shooters have the Zone System; digital camera shooters have high dynamic range (HDR) imaging techniques. Figure 1 is a straight, single exposure of the falls. Besides getting a feel for the charm of the grotto, it illustrates that the contrast of the light in the dark woods was loads more than today’s sensors could handle.
Though I can’t turn this article into an HDR how-to, it is important to know that I exposed this waterfall scene (about 20 minutes from our home in the Catskill Mountains of New York) as a bracketed series (Figure 2). By melding the exposures together with Photoshop and special third-party soft- ware, I had an enormously thick image that I could bend and tonally sculpt to my heart’s content. In short, the blended Raw files provided image flexibility that no single Raw or—heaven forbid— JPEG file, can have.