The Creative Control of Natural Light by Ossian Lindholm

Summary of a talk entitled “The Creative Control of Natural Light” that I gave in:
New Haven Camera Club on April 29, 2019
B&H Event Space on April 30, 2019. 
Griffin Museum of Photography on June 27, 2019
NECCC on July 12, 2019

When we talk about landscape photography, there are some simple and basic considerations that I would like to mention.
The first one is that landscape photography looks easy, but it’s not. Some photographers go further, and state that landscape photography is probably the most difficult branch of photography. Of course, this will depend on how far you want to go with your landscape photography.
What is true is that it is a kind of photography that can be very frustrating, especially for beginners. How do you find yourself in front of a wonderful sunrise or sunset, but you feel powerless to recreate a photograph that resembles what you are witnessing? Sometimes the beauty and situation can be overwhelming!

Then, I can mention two technical aspects to consider in the digital age:
1. Learning to edit is a fundamental step. A digital photographer who does not understand this concept has little chance of progressing. I personally enjoy editing, I find that it is the second step in my creative process.
2. The final goal of the photo will define quality. There is a big difference in the quality required of a photo if its final end is the web or social media than if instead, the destination is a fine art print or a book. The latter requires a much more careful process that begins with camera settings, the photographic capture and more precise editing

The light as the main subject in landscape photography

I find Michael Freeman writings very inspiring:
“Many landscape photographers argue that their sole task is to photograph light, with the landscape almost playing the supporting role by acting as the stage on which to capture light at its most alluring or emotive.
Light transforms the landscape, and sets the mood, tone, and color for our images.”

We know that we can not control natural light, we cannot control the weather, nor can we stop Earth’s rotation. Nevertheless, we can have creative control of the natural light.
This requires technical skills since the more intriguing the light, the more challenging it may be to capture it successfully in your photograph.

Atacama desert. Chile ©Ossian Lindholm 

We have to adopt a workflow that helps us achieve impressive photos when we face those unique and interesting situations of light.

My recommendation is to follow these steps: ​

1. RAW files
2. Choose Manual Mode
3. Find the correct exposure
4. Look for a powerful composition
5. Lightroom or Photoshop editing

Points 4 and 5 are not topics of this talk, therefore we will focus on the first 3 points.

Shoot in Raw

There is already a lot written about RAW files and I don’t think there is much to add about the reasons for shooting in RAW, but for the purposes of this talk, there are some aspects that I want to highlight that influence the final quality of a photograph taken in a wide Dynamic Range scene.
When shooting in RAW 12 bits we have 16 times more pixel tonal levels than in JPEG. As a consequence, in RAW files we have a better Dynamic Range and better Tonal Range, both attributes that are welcome in landscape photography whether the image is in color or in black and white.
In the following example, I will use an image that was originally shot in JPEG + RAW. Then we see the results after processing it in Photoshop.
The pictures were taken in Sullivan Bay – Galapagos-. In the foreground, in shadows, we see volcanic lava, when in the background we see an island and boats still illuminated by the sun.
It is a high contrast scene that tests the dynamic range of our camera.

Sullivan Bay, Galápagos Islands. ©Ossian Lindholm

We can compare the original JPEG file on the left, as seen in the camera monitor, and the one in the right, the final photo after editing the Raw file using Camera Raw and Photoshop.

Finally, if we compare the edited Raw with the edited JPEG it is possible to observe a noticeable difference of tones in the dark area.

Sullivan Bay, Galápagos Islands. ©Ossian Lindholm 

As a conclusion is possible to affirm that choosing JPEG format you are essentially wasting thousands of tonal levels.

Choose Manual Mode

Light metering becomes a fundamental step and the use of manual mode allows us better control of it. Experience tells us that the most interesting landscape photos are often those in which the light conditions are the most complex.
Combined with the Manual Exposure Mode, it is recommended to become familiar with the Spot Light Metering mode of our cameras. Spot metering is important when we want to experiment with more advanced exposure techniques such as ETTR (Exposing to the Right) or the Ansel Adams Zone System.

Salinas Grandes, Argentina Northwest. ©Ossian Lindholm

Find the correct exposure

Unfortunately, finding the correct exposure isn’t always simple. When the light on the scene is even and there are no great contrasts then, exposing in not difficult. With Matrix metering mode (Evaluative) and simply framing the scene in any camera’s auto mode, it is highly probable that we will achieve a good exposure.
But what happens when the conditions are difficult? When we have high contrasts, areas in shadows and others very bright? By coincidence, most of the times those scenes with a wide dynamic range are the most likely situation when we are looking for spectacular landscape images with high visual impact.

The Histogram

The histogram is an important tool in landscape photography, it tells us if the photograph is: overexposed, well exposed or underexposed. Also, it tells us if in the photo predominates bright tones, mid-tones or dark tones

Exposing to the Right -ETTR

​Exposing to the Right (ETTR) is a photographic technique with which can get the most out of the Dynamic Range of the camera by avoiding the appearance of noise in the shadow areas of our images and banding.
I find this technique very useful when I am faced with scenes of wide dynamic range with very bright and dark areas.
The technique consists of overexposing the image but avoiding the appearance of burnt pixels. It is good to have the “highlights alerts” option activated on our cameras so that we can quickly detect excessive overexposure in our photograph.
Then, it is said to Expose to the Right because as a result of the over-exposure we will see a histogram that is shifted to the right.


Why does this technique help us to get the most of our dynamic range and avoid noise in the shadows?
If we consider that the sensor of a digital camera can register a dynamic range of 5 stops (could be 7 but for this example we will take 5) and that shooting in RAW, 12 bits we have 4,096 tonal levels in each channel: Red – Green – Blue that combined results in a very high number of colors; how can we relate these 4,096 brightness levels and the 5 stops of dynamic range?
We could think that the brightness levels are evenly distributed in each of the stops, for example, 1.024 per stop. But the reality is that it is not, and given the essence of digital photography (Chris Johnson, Exposure and the Digital Linear Effect) what happens is that the brightest stop receives 50% of information as we see in this histogram.

Greg Basco courtesy

Let’s see an example where I used this technique:
The photo is taken before the sunrise in El Chalten in the Patagonia of Argentina. First, we see the original photograph, as seen in the LCD of the camera or when we open it in Camera Raw.
The first thing we see is an unattractive photo, which does not reflect the scene we have in front of us. It has a lack of contrast, washed colors, and someone not familiar with this technique would take the photo again.

But if we take a look at the histogram we see that the tone distribution is very good, that we do not have pixels on the far left, which would indicate pixels without information (and noise), and we do not have pixels burned on the right.
Here is the photo already edited, first in Camera Raw and then in Photoshop.

El Chaltén. Patagonia Argentina. ©Ossian Lindholm

How was this photo shot?

I used a handheld Sekonic Lightmeter to meter the brightest area of my scene: the snow. The exposure values were f/6.3 1/4 ISO200.
I could do the same with the camera in Manual Mode and Spot Metering mode. Pointing the camera to the snow the exposure values should be similar that the ones obtained with the Sekonic.

Experience tells me that to Expose to the Right avoiding burned pixels, I can safely overexpose the brightest zones two stops. For this photo, I kept the f stop and ISO unchanged and I overexposed halving the shutter speed.
After overexposing two stops, the final exposure values were: f/6.3 1 sec ISO200.

With cameras with Real-Time Histogram things are much easier, once you choose the desired aperture, you just move up or down your shutter speed in order to get a Histogram shift to the right.


NOTE: Knowing the performance of your camera in the highlights and with precise light metering you can try 3 stops of overexposure.

Shooting in RAW and Exposing to the Right you will achieve very malleable photos with a good tonal range. Then, in the shadows, you will have more detail and absence of noise.

“The Practical Zone System”. Chris Johnson
“The Digital Zone System”. Robert Fisher
“Landscape”. Michael Freeman’s Photo School
“Capturing Light”. Michael Freeman

Web short articles:
Understanding and using the Histogram – Lumix Academy

Why shooting to the right gives you better final images. By Claressa Gabhinhin

Text and photos: ©Ossian Lindholm
Specialists in South America PHOTO TOURS


B&H Event Space. April 30, 2019. Ph: Lauren Hefferon

New Haven Camera Club, Connecticut. April 29, 2019. Ph: Lauren Hefferon

NECCC 2019. Amherst, MA. June 12, 2019. Ph: Lauren Hefferon
The Griffin Museum of Photography, Winchester, MA. June 27, 2019. Ph: Lauren Hefferon

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