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Compound Eye

Compound Eye

The many facets of science photography

Lighting a landscape photograph, pre-photoshop

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And now, a photograph I took at a local park:

Late afternoon at the Meadowbrook Park Prairie in Urbana, Illinois

Prairie is a visually subtle biome and, in my experience, one of the most difficult to photograph. It is at once both plain- a flat horizon with few salient landmarks- and hopelessly busy, packed with intricate textures. To craft a decent image, careful control over the lighting is essential.

When I started the session, I took a simple snapshot:

Exposing for the prairie leaves the sky blown out.

The sky is overexposed and mostly white, while the prairie is dark and slightly underexposed. This is a common issue with landscapes. One can expose for a bright sky, or a dark ground, but not both at the same time. Nowadays some photographers take several exposures and combine them digitally to form surreal High Dynamic Range images (examples), but I'm more old school. The sky and the ground can be brought into balance before the image even hits the computer by stacking filters on the lens.

gradient filter

A gradient filter is like sunglasses for part of the frame. With the clear part is lined up with the ground and the dark part with the sky, the same scene balances out:

With a gradient filter (4 stops) darkening the sky, the photograph balances out.

This exposure is better, but the crowded, overdetailed foreground is still not where I wanted it. So I selectively applied extra light.

By hand-holding a flash just above the camera's line of vision, I illuminated the foreground flowers.

An overhead flash at low power accentuates the goldenrod at the front.

That's even better.

For a final adjustment I decided I preferred a vertical orientation. To produce the image at the top of this post I rotated the camera and filters. As soon as the late afternoon sun emerged through the clouds I tripped the flash and the shutter together. The entire process, from setting up the tripod to planning the final exposure, took about 15 minutes.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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