Having recently read Henri Cartier Bresson’s views on how to become a photographer, basically “read the manual” and “learn how to see”, and his instruction to have a camera to hand at all times, while looking for subjects wherever you happen to be, including at home – I was sitting in my hosts’ lounge today, as the slanting, soft morning light of Winter shone through a window in the door, illuminating a vase of flowers.
I was immediately gripped by the beauty of the scene, as the vase glowed brightly and eerily, throwing its flowers into deep shadow. I was alone as I sat and enjoyed the overall view: the colours, shadows and shapes and the contrast between the bright vase and the dark bouquet, which was, curiously, lit softly from below. Visual satisfaction was completed by the single opened lily, whose gorgeous shape presaged the beauty to come from its still-closed sisters. The whole effect was sweetly emotional, vaguely surreal and had transformed a table decoration into art. A still life.
A Mind Awake
Waking from my pleasant reverie, I realised with a start, that I needed to grab the camera and try and capture the moment to share it with you, before a cloud passed by, or the direction of the sun moved the light elsewhere. The process was aesthetic and technical. The former, so as to frame the subject pleasingly, despite the non-studio setting, and the latter to find the combination of camera settings that would handle a huge “dynamic range”, i.e. the degree of contrast between the bright and dark sections of the image. After years of self-taught, digital experimentation, my artistic and photographic reflexes kicked in, allowing me to prepare to press the button less than half-a-minute from jumping out of my chair.
The Discarded Image
I am not as much of a purist as my Master, Monsieur HCB, therefore I do allow myself the luxury of post-capture cropping and using pixel manipulation allowed by the combination of “Raw” photographic files and the software of the digital darkroom. That said, I deeply enjoy the process of composing an image in the viewfinder and trying to capture that perfect moment at first attempt.
Therefore I engaged in the learned process of: being completely aware of all that is seen in the viewfinder; moving the lens minutely and incrementally to adjust for that detail; moving my body up and down and from side to side – snake-like - to find the different framing options that the scene could offer and finally, choosing the one or two positions that provided the aesthetic that pleased me most. The beauty of this is that, if you were present at the same time, you would certainly choose something different from me and it would be as fascinating or moreso than the choice that I make.
This flows from my lifelong love of the works of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Cezanne, Pissaro, Hokusai and dozens of others, when I have stood and drunk in the subtlety of the choices of line, form, proportion, balance and I know-not-what, which they united into a totally satisfying, unified image. Clearly, this implies innumerable choices of what to leave out, a choice made easier for a painter than for a photographer.
The Pilgrim’s Progress
The technical decisions were more automatic and flowed in sequence. Overall, the available light, hand-held circumstance and the subject led to a set of “art” choices, such as low ISO, prioritizing maximum aperture, so as to create a narrow depth of field and using bracketing of 3 exposures: one above, one below and the central exposure.
The principal problem was the high dynamic range, given that a glass vase was shining brightly in an otherwise dim room. Thinking about this involved combining the capacities of the camera with the possibilities available in post-processing. The raw images produced by a Nikon D800 at ISO 250 are very tolerant of processing and Nikon’s own processing software also provides a sophisticated “D-Lighting” function, which successfully pulls detail from otherwise darkened sections of the image. Given this protection of the darker area of the image, I focused my adjustment thinking on the more serious problem of the blazing light suffusing the vase. I therefore “dialed in” a very strong Exposure Compensation level of -1.7EV.
In the “digital darkroom” I made a very small crop, chose the area of the image that was in near darkness, applied D-Lighting and, finally, sharpened the adjusted version. I love the result. I hope you do too.
Camera: Nikon D800
Lens: 60mm f2.8G Prime
Focus Mode: AF-S
Autofocus Area Mode: Single
Shutter Speed: 1/400s
Exposure Mode: Aperture Priority
Exposure Compensation : -1.7 EV
ISO Sensitivity: 250
Bracketing: 3 captures
If you are curious about today's blog title and the paragraph headings, they all come from the book list of one of my favourite authors C. S. Lewis.
Copyright Paul Grayson 2015