Don’t fear the shadows

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In a conversation, sometimes what is left explicitly unsaid reveals just as much as what is – and the same is true in photography. Whilst much fuss is made over extended dynamic range, highlight and shadow recoverability and similar technical aspects, the question of what we’re going to do with all of this latitude is seldom addressed. In a practical sense, there is of course the desire to replicate the tonal range of the human eye especially for very literal images like most landscapes, but to move beyond that requires a bit more conscious consideration of the end intention.

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Negative space can represent both a physical gap and a cognitive one.

There is a place for literal photography, and there is a place for ambiguity. With the exception of some work whose impact hinges on transparency and the ability to present the illusion of being there/ removing the implied effect of the photographic process, I personally think it’s important to leave something to the imagination of the audience. This both encourages further contemplation of the image as well as offers the possibility of satisfying a wider audience since it is the imagination of the audience themselves that ‘fills in the blanks’. There is of course a balance between too much ambiguity and just enough to guide the thought process of the audience in the desired direction.) Think back to the four things: we require interesting light (or specifically, light that presents the subject in the desired way); decent subject isolation so the elements make themselves seen in the intended order of priority; a balanced, aesthetically pleasing composition, and a unifying idea or story to link the elements together. We’ve got a large number of options to integrate ambiguity here:

  • Exposure – what you can see, or not
  • Obstruction of sight – the subject blocked by something in front of it; we cannot change our position of observation when viewing a photograph
  • Camera position, leading to lack of pattern recognition – an unusual angle may result in a common object not being recognised because it isn’t usually seen from that position
  • Depth of field – basically, if it’s blur enough you can’t identify it
  • Prominence of other elements – other objects in the scene that have better subject isolation will of course divert attention away from those that are effectively camouflaged into the background

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In the Idea of Man series I deliberatley use a lot of silhouetted human figures to remove defining individual characteristics because I do not want the audience to restrict themselves to a literal interpretation of that specific individual person in that specific situation; the intention is for imagination to bridge the gap to universality

The easiest one to work with is exposure: by placing the subject in light that is quite a bit brighter or darker than its immediate surroundings, we draw attention to it by virtue of higher contrast. If we take this one step further, exposing so that the subject appears natural – i.e. appropriately bright or dark to an average matching our vision or thereabouts – then the rest of the scene changes accordingly since exposure affects the entire image. (Changing exposure of course also requires adjustments in composition so that balance is adequately maintained.) The challenge here is that it is is quite unusual for us to consciously make adjustments to exposure based on subjects in very different light for the simple reason that our eyes a) typically compensate for these differences in brightness, and b) this makes it difficult to imagine the resulting image.


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What happens between the pools of light?

This means we are familiar with scenes of relatively uniform brightness – this is what we routinely encounter – and still somewhat familiar (but less so) with low key scenes (corresponding to night), but we rarely consider scenes so dark that portions are completely black and ambiguous, or scenes so bright that large areas blow out to white because our subject is heavily backlit. Furthermore, most cameras and lenses do not handle extreme backlight well – metering aside, we land up with unnatural looking images because of the way the sensors clip, the lenses lose contrast very quickly, and the interaction between all of the optical elements resulting in purple fringing or chromatic aberration. In short: we see the artefacts before the image. Regular readers will know that I don’t find clipping to be a problem as much as abrupt clipping because it draws attention to itself, and thus the wrong parts of the image.

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This technique works for controlled lighting/ still life, too: it focuses the audience on what matters, and suggests the rest is there but isn’t of consequence. It also helps that we tend to associate low key mood lighting with a certain level class of establishment, product or event

For many reasons, it’s easier to work with low key images. Firstly, they’re somewhat easier to visualise; secondly, they’re easier to find – at night, or in places that have large amounts of shade such as alleyways, or places with extremely high contrast. Secondly, assuming your subject is in the highlights, you instantly draw attention to and isolate it. Thirdly, we buy ourselves some latitude in execution – underexposing a stop or two helps lower ISO and allow for increased image quality or stopping down for more depth of field. Fourthly, all of the unintended or unimportant elements can easily be hidden so that they don’t distract from those that matter.

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Management of shadows gives a hint as to the form of the buildings and that they might not be a continuous wall

I had never seriously considered this approach to photography until I saw the early work of Magnum photographer Alex Majoli, from around the early 2000s; he preferred to work with small-sensored cameras in warzones for stealth, depth of field, cost and risk reasons but these came with heavy compromises in image quality etc. The result was low key and high contrast to preserve sufficient shutter speed since there were significant penalties of exceeding say ISO 200-400 or so.  I suspect this is a good example of a style being developed through working around technical limitations: look for very contrasty light; put (or wait for) your subject in the brightest highlight, spot meter/focus, and recompose – then shoot. Blacks were really 100% black and contained zero information, but what remained was sufficiently evocative that even though only a few elements are clearly identifiable, they are enough to form a chain of causality and thus a story. The audience is then left to project their own emotions onto the result. Important note: you must leave enough negative space around the highlights to suggest the area that would be occupied by what isn’t explicitly shown, e.g. the area behind a facial profile would be the head; the area below it would be the upper body. Without these implicit size cues, the brain has trouble interpreting what it’s seeing.

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Even though we have moved on considerably since then – today’s camera phones are capable of far better results in lower light – using very low key images and managing your negative space is a worthwhile technique to be familiar with when working in very, very dark or high contrast conditions, or when you are faced with a subject in a busy scene that doesn’t add anything to the story. What we do have now with some cameras (notably those with extended dynamic range and very smooth shadow transitions such as the D810, D800E and 645Z) is the ability to neatly manage shadow zones such that we can still leave in subtle hints of texture and complexity in a scene without dominating it. We can work in super low key without having to have incredibly precise managed lighting, and shift white balance to control dominant color and mood. (I am of course talking about the cinematic style of photography here.) We can of course apply these techniques to mask the shortcomings of smaller sensors, too.

So here’s your next creative experiment: go find light so contrasty you have to squint; put your camera in spot meter; look for subjects in the brightest highlights, and see what falls out. MT


Ultraprints from this series are available on request here


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  1. John Brady says:

    I’ve deliberately waited a few days before commenting as I wanted to re-read the article and reflect on it. Having recently viewed episodes 4 and 5 of “Outstanding Images” I’m beginning to think a little bit more about stylistic choices, and I suspect that I default squarely into the “commercial” style – through naivety more than choice! I’m also quite guilty of using lots of highlight and shadow recovery in post-processing. This post, together with eps 4 and 5, are making me think much more consciously about these choices, and about e.g. exposing for the highlights and letting the shadows crush to black if required. One of your seminal posts I think… even if it only gets 1/10th the comments of your gear posts.

    • John Nicholson says:

      I warm to your comment. I don’t default to “commercial” (because I’m not), but I do understand what you mean about defaulting and mine is probably even worse, it’s called “default to pleasing”! I think what Ming does here is so different from the fashionable “high contrast style”, and this is absolutely a post I shall look at again.

      • Actually, this style is very high contrast because bits of the image have gone entirely to black and you actually need extremely strong light to make it work – perceptually, it doesn’t read that way because the tonal rolloffs at either end are controlled, especially in the highlights…

    • Thanks John. If you show everything, you have to consciously manage everything to make sure it isn’t distracting…if not, then shadows are your friend 🙂

  2. John Nicholson says:

    This to me is one of the most beautiful articles you have written, and both words and images really encourage me to go further with an area in which I have felt uncertain. Thank you

  3. Quite funny to me to see the mention of Alex Majoli’s name here – his photos from the Congo are the first photos I ever saw and said, “Wow!” (My first real introduction to photojournalism, I believe). I didn’t learn until a few years ago that they were shot on compact cameras.

    I personally love his aesthetic, and I know a lot of Majoli’s more contemporary work still operates in this vein. He’s now shooting on I believe Olympus Micro 4/3 bodies with a flash (so not quite compact cameras any more), but the light/deep shadow dynamic is still there. He did an assignment not too long ago for TIME on the set of the final season of Mad Men that I thought was really something.

    In regards to your own photos in this piece, they’re some of my favorite you’ve posted. The one of the trees and streetlights is really something.

    • Thanks! It seems that Majoli has changed his style quite a bit recently though, almost as though to better fit the Magnum collective ‘aesthetic’…his more recent images do not seem to have quite the same drama.

  4. Many of your B&W images, in this piece and others, are more B than W. As I posted once before, B&w. You seem to be able to see into shadows, into darkness(es). Are you a reincarnated cat? 😉

  5. I have not read all of your articles Ming, but in my view this is one of the best (exclude reviews etc). Very applicable to real world.

  6. Michiel953 says:

    That first image actually is fascinatingly good.

  7. btw: Just to add that Alex Majoli is currently using the E-M1 for his work … and to great effect. Certainly that sensor is much more capable than the m4/3 ones he would have had access to five or six years ago. In fact, he was using far less capable equipment still back in the early days of digital [again, to great effect] >>

    • Indeed – but again his choices made a lot of sense given the conditions and limitations he had to work with. Now, I’m not so sure. Perhaps there’s corporate sponsorship money afoot; it wouldn’t be the first time.

  8. Love this article, and your second and seventh images are brilliant, btw.

    I’ll add that darkness and light recall primal impulses in the human brain, too, metaphorically [and actually] representing what might possibly lurk in the shadows—the tension between the two thus representing dramatic interplay, often used to great effect in cinema, and even live theater.

  9. Awesome points, Ming. I am a huge advocate of deep shadows when the scene calls for it.

    The analogy I always point to with this is cinema: cinematographers seem to grasp this concept as second nature. Look at stills from the best movies of the last ~50 years and yow’ll see that they ALL have deep, almost clipped blacks. A LOT of blacks, but well-controlled and dramatic blacks. There’s no HDR /tone mapped/recovered shadow look films out there, because they know how to control their scenes to begin with. Darren Aronofsky’s Pi is entire film of crushed blacks and blown highlights and it looks great.

    I just don’t know where the modern, flckeresque look of turning the shadows/midtones/highlights into grey mud came from. I’ve always felt the real artistry of exposure and editing is placing the shadows and highlights in just the right places.

    Also, on a side note, I find you can cheat a little extra oomph out of the sensor in low light by plunging those noisy quarter tones into darkness.

    • Thanks Richard. I think still photographers in general have a huge amount to gain from cinematography – there’s always a key light and everything in the frame is deliberate. I’m not sure the clipped blacks were anything other than a consequence of limited film dynamic range, but they were still used to good creative effect.

      What’s probably happened is we now have more input dynamic range than output range, and not everybody has quite figured out what to do with it – hint: it’s about smooth rolloffs in the highlight and shadow tones…

      • “I think still photographers in general have a huge amount to gain from cinematography…”

        Totally agree with this. Spend some time working around cinematographers and watch out quickly and purposefully they light a scene. One can pick up a lot. Of course, there are a lot of things about still photography that they don’t entirely grasp, either … but that’s another story. 😉

      • I think also big part of the problem is in the thought process of the photographer. It seems there is a common thread among beginners in photography who think that more information always equals more realism and therefor a great emotional response. But that just isn’t the case (and this is only exacerbated by the fact that modern cameras record such a huge amount of information compared to most output media)

        Every photographer on their road from hobbyist to artist seems to have a moment where they realize that its not about trying to make a facsimiles of real life, that will never really happen. Its about using lighting and tonality to make it feel like real life.

        • The problem isn’t so much too much information; it’s presenting it in such a way that prioritises what’s important (i.e. makes it stand out first) over what isn’t; the rest is needed to fill in the blanks – but it should be almost unnoticeable, again much like real life…

          • Exactly. Just enough information to get your point across, but but just enough missing to keep it interesting. Personally, I think this style of photography/editing is closer to how we mentally perceive things, but thats a whole different discussion…

            • Sean Quigley says:

              This subject is great stuff and I agree that the transitions are vital to us that grasp it.
              But the buying average public, does not get these concepts from film to pictures yet, it seems they expect to look at art (Painted) and accept thses concepts, but photography through years of viewing into the shadows, it seems to be seen as poor development by the photographer, listening to non educated in the viewing of such prints, is quite reveling of bulk thinking. it has been said to me that your making things look to like art, ha-ha.

  10. Martin Fritter says:

    Thanks. Very interesting. Alex Majoli is terrific. Some questions about managing exposure:

    1. Spot metering: Is there a place in this for an actual hand-held spot meter? I have a Alpha 7 and it’s spot metering is pretty poor compared to a good Sekonic or an old Pentax analogue one. I use a incident/reflective/flash meter with my meterless film cameras. I had a fine digital spot meter but broke it.

    2. Histograms: how to use them in low key (underexposed) shooting.

    • No problem.
      1. If you can work slowly enough. For the most part, I find that is not an option and I land up using my eyes or compensating. In the EVF-world, the exposure zebra becomes critical so you can see exactly what is overexposing and decide whether it’s important or not. I think this is more useful than the handheld spot.
      2. See #1. That said, you still have to ETTR and bring exposure back down in post to maintain smooth tonal transitions.

  11. Little typo.. “small-censored cameras”.
    At least it proves that I was paying attention. 😉 Very interesting read.

  12. Thanks for another interesting article Ming. Its publication happens to coincide with myself underexposing as a routine. Could be autumn, but certainly viewing American Gangster a few weeks ago, and subsequently researching its cameraman (the late and wonderful Harris Savides) had a profound effect on me. Harris (this is cinema!) routinely underexposed by two stops and had the film underdeveloped by another two stops. That approach produced many wonderful images, and it certainly made me look differently at the world.

    • I think that approach works with film because of the way highlights are handled, but for digital it would just look underexposed…

      • Michiel953 says:

        D810 files tolerate a lot of abuse! I actually find 400Tx more finicky; going through the routine of out-of-my-hands but with instructions professional developing, and then 16base scanning, and pp in LR6
        For 400Tx I’d really prefer professional printing from the negative, not from a file.

  13. Brett Patching says:

    Great article and wonderful photos, Ming.

  14. Nice post. Check out the work of my friend Streetamatic for some incredible shadow play throughout the streets of DC & NYC.

    Also, one of my favorite aspects of the Godfather is how dark Coppola created many of the scenes. It’s such a dark movie and is made even more apparent by the contemporary production styles of today.

  15. Your statement is apt: “sometimes what is left explicitly unsaid reveals just as much as what is.” It reminds me of one of Hemingway’s statement: “I omitted the real end [of “Out of Season”] which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything … and the omitted part would strengthen the story.”

    Articles like this remind me that photography is primarily not technical. Instead, it is a way and method we can use to convey an idea, a memory, or even a philosophy. I don’t photograph much, and when I do it’s usually your run-of-the-mill “I want to remember this” kind of photo on my phone, not on my fancy-expensive (compared to a phone) camera. I’m OK with that.

    But I know that some days, usually on a trip, I *do* want to convey an idea and an emotion. I become less worried about preserving memory, and more about preserving an idea. What you’ve helped me with is to worry less about the technical aspects, and more about the composition, the idea, the voice. Thank you for that!

    I hope that, one day soon, you compile all your blog posts and publish a book. Just remove any mention of camera equipment. 😉

    • My pleasure.

      As for the book – it’s a massive undertaking and the economics look terrible, so to be honest, it’s highly unlikely.

      Omission: one just has be be careful not to omit too much to the point that it’s impossible to guess what should have been there to begin with – enough context must remain for the audience to be able to make the mental leap for themselves.

  16. i love the first shot…great contast and very mystical with the unknowen identity of the people in the white space…

  17. Thank you, Ming. Another wonderfully thought-provoking post. Shadow ‘detail’ has always been a contentious issue for many of us that think about or consider its importance and the concept of negative space make much more sense after reading your post. I’m looking forward to employing these ideas. Fabulous post.

    • I think we need to see ‘enough’ for the absence of information not to be distracting, but not so much that it stands out in itself – unless of course this is the intention…

  18. Roel Vinckens says:

    I did already see picture number two in some of your other articles. This is the first time that I find it to have a certain Hichcock quality…
    Thanks for opening my eyes to the unseen!

  19. Gerner Christensen says:

    Ming, 1000 thanks for the refreshment of low key photography. It just comes in at the perfect moment since I’m doing Venice the next coming days. Plenty of opportunities to explore contrast during evenings and night in the city so wonderfully picturesque lit as anything I can think of.

    Also you point out where technically successful images can be achieved by shooting with smaller sensors using spot metering, and of course it goes for big sensors as well, but I just think it’s a liberating thought lugging light gear while exploring a city i.e.

    Smashing inspiring images and words as always Ming. Thanks.

  20. I think that the tendency to put everything into light (shadow recovery) is related to the overexposure of our lives. That’s why I prefer some darkness in my pictures.

  21. I love these pictures, simple and so strong at the same moment! 🙂

  22. I definitely lean towards low key images as opposed to high key ones, although both have their respective merits. Having a camera body with a relatively wide dynamic range and fast lenses adds to the shooting flexibility. Shadows can simplify an overly busy frame, subdue the importance of secondary subjects or other frame elements and, by contrast, enhance the significance of the main subject, and help to evoke a plethora of emotional responses.

  23. Kristian Wannebo says:

    The link “In a conversation” doesn’t seem to find the page.
    – – –
    In some part of Africa “You do throw a shadow” is very fine complinent.
    ( according to Laurens van der Post )
    – – –
    And night – or dusk – shooting can be fascinating,
    ( especially with a (small sensor) carry-always and no tripod, improvising support… ).

  24. Very interesting……cameras and sensors have become so sophisticated that, as you say “the question of what we’re going to do with all of this latitude is seldom addressed” is SO true!!
    The mood and the feeling of the image is everything, and it’s worth reminding ourselves that a sensor has no emotions!

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