Monthly Archives: April 2014

Using Light for Emotional Impact

Photography is the art and craft of capturing light, whether via silver halide chemistry on film, or via silicon on a sensor array. “Capturing light” is probably the key part of this definition: unlike the popular perception that we photograph people or things, it is impossible to actually render anything in the absence of light. All we can capture is light emitted or reflected (mostly reflected) by our photographic subject matter.

Irises in a Vase © Harold Davis

Irises in a Vase © Harold Davis

Why do we care about a photo? Generally because it stirs our emotions. Emotions can be stirred for many reasons, and due to many associations (Marcel Proust’s account of emotional reminiscence stirred by an odor comes to mind). An emotionally resonant image that is technically imperfect will trump a technically perfect but banal image any time.

Boathouse Still Life © Harold Davis

Boathouse Still Life © Harold Davis

Leaving aside imagery where the pure storytelling packs a wallop, powerful photos use light emotionally. Even graphic human interest photos are more powerful when they use light to their advantage. To summarize, we capture light not things. Emotional resonance is what matters in imagery. Therefore, powerful images manage to use light to convey an emotional response in the viewer. What should your take-away from this syllogism be? I think there are three simple conclusions that all good photographers recognize as guiding principles, and strive to master:

  • If you want to be a better photographer, train yourself to see light and not objects.
  • Light inspires, directs and misdirects when it is captured as the incredible force it is. Use all of this in your work: the force, the power, the inspiration, the direction and the misdirection.
  • Uniform and moderate light is rarely as interesting as strong lighting. Think of it this way: without evil for comparison, how do we know what “good” is? Light is the same way. You often can’t really see it unless there is also darkness.

In my high-key image of Irises in a Vase (shown far above) I purposely created a highly artificial construct of light that seems almost blinding—and therefore obscures details. This image does not look the way it would be rendered in a single accurate capture, but is more emotionally compelling because the apparently overwhelming light has left only the painterly details, with enough visual clues for the viewer to interpolate the rest. With Boathouse Still Life (above) the emotional appeal is achieved because of the partial illumination. In a generally low-key image, the composition with nautical rope behind it is lit by an apparently momentary shaft of light.

Story of O © Harold Davis

Story of O © Harold Davis

In Story of O (above) the action is in the gradation of light, from the light gray in the distance to the darker gray in the foreground, and the contrast with the black outlined shape. A sense of mystery always adds to the emotional appeal of an image, and the relationship of the background gradient to the “circle” foreground is indeed mysterious, bringing several different kinds of light into play. I like to quote the American poet Randall Jarrell, who once said that “Art being bartender is never drunk.” I take this to mean that my viewers don’t have to know what is going on in an image, and maybe even shouldn’t—but as “bartender” I must. This means first and foremost learning to use and control the emotional impact of light in my imagery. Related stories: More about Story of O; more about Boathouse Still Life. Also check out Becoming a More Creative Photographer (a set of articles with exercises on

Posted in Flowers, Iris, Photography

Looking back and thinking forward

I’ve been looking through my archives from last year in Paris—and finding many images that I want to process! Looking back at the crop from the spring of last year helps me to understand what I did right, and what I didn’t get to do. I am using the inventory to check plan my photography this year. Both the images below are essentially unmodified (other than RAW processing) from the straight shots—these were about being there and getting it right in the exposure, not about post-production.

Paris Carousel © Harold Davis

Paris Carousel © Harold Davis

About the image: I used a moderate wide angle focal length, and stopped down enough (to f/18) to get both the carousel and the Eiffel tower in focus. Since this was at night, a moderately long exposure was required (3 seconds) to be able to stop the lens down and get the depth-of-field I needed.

Exposure data: Nikon D300, 18-200mm lens at 18mm, 3 seconds at f/18 and ISO 200, tripod mounted.

Arc de Triomphe © Harold Davis

Arc de Triomphe © Harold Davis

About the image: Cars, trucks and busses whiz around the Arc de Triomphe endlessly. I wanted to show these cars as streaks, but with the sunset in the sky there was insufficient light for a long enough exposure. I added a polarizer and a +4 ND filter to cut down the light reaching the sensor so I could adjust the exposure proportionately to allow a longish (30 second) shutter speed.

Exposure data: Nikon D300, 18-200mm lens at 18mm, polarizer and neutral density filter, 30 seconds at f/22 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.

Posted in Digital Night, Paris, Photography

Iris Friends

These variegated iris are clearly friends. They look at each other with empathy, tendrils even apparently touching—or at least waving to each other!

Iris Friends © Harold Davis

Iris Friends © Harold Davis

Posted in Flowers, Iris

Apartments on the Boulevard Haussman

I was struck by the regularity in this apartment building. Nobody had planters out, no bikes were stored, and old shoes weren’t resting in the window embrasures.  This kind of tidiness is what you might expect from the haute bourgeoisie along the Boulevard Haussmann in Paris. I photographed the facade to emphasize its evident symmetry, and processed it using the same set of techniques I used with Room with a View (where there were old sneakers outside the windows!) to make the image look as much like an etching as a black & white photo.

Apartments on the Boulevard Haussmann © Harold Davis

Apartments on the Boulevard Haussmann © Harold Davis

With the image I had pre-visualized, and in this kind of situation, in both shooting and processing I am very glad to have the monochromatic HDR toolkit at my beck and call!

Exposure data: Nikon D300, 18-200mm lens at 130mm, five combined exposures at shutter speeds between 1/13 of a second and 1/800 of a second, each exposure at f/8 and ISO 200, tripod mounted.

Posted in Monochrome, Paris, Photography

Something Fishy

One of my favorite characters in fantasy literature, J.R.R. Tolkein’s Smeagol, would have appreciated the nice, plump and juicy slab of fish I brought back from the store. The fish meat rested on skin on the back, and the skin and scales glistened with a rainbow of pastel colors in the light. I knew I had to photograph the fish scales up close and personal.

Scales © Harold Davis

Scales © Harold Davis

I used my 85mm tilt-shift macro with a 36mm extension tube at an effective aperture of f/51 and an exposure sequence at ISO 100 from 1/8 of a second to 8 seconds. This is extreme close-up photography, with a magnification ratio of about 15:1, meaning you are viewing the fish scales fifteen times actual life size. Magnified this way, the fish scales look almost soft, and could be barnacles, or schools of fish themselves.

Fish Scales in Black & White © Harold Davis

Fish Scales in Black & White © Harold Davis

Smeagol a/k/a Gollum would probably not have approved of my light source: directed sunlight (Gollum preferred dark caves, and the sun hurt his eyes). He also might have thought that the way it was prepared (by smoking) “ruined” my nice, plump and juicy raw slab of salmon. But I, to use Gollum’s vocabulary, thought my nice piece of smoked fish was “tasty” indeed—when I ate it after photographing it!

Posted in Bemusements

Nature’s Palette

Contrary to common cliché, the colors of nature are not always beautiful. But in the case of flowers, colors are almost always beautiful to human eyes. True, flowers need to attract pollinators to survive. But in a weird and wonderful example of species symbiosis, floral propagation is also largely dependent on attractiveness to humans. Nature has a number of stratagems here. For example, some floral species smell good to us. But when it comes to flower species survival and extension via human intervention, nothing beats nature’s glorious palette of floral colors!

Nature's Palette © Harold Davis

Nature’s Palette © Harold Davis

Related image: Tulips and Anemones.

Exposure data: Nikon D800, Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO Sonnar, 2 seconds at f/16 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.

Check out my online Photographing Flowers course (use this link for a $10 discount).

Posted in Flowers, Photography

Zeiss Lens Ambassador – Harold Davis

I’m really pleased with my new page as a sponsored photographer on the Zeiss Camera Lens Ambassador site. Check it out:

Lonely Islet by Harold Davis

Lonely Islet © Harold Davis

Related link: Otus & me (an informal review).

Posted in Photography

Banks of the Seine

Using the same lens (my Zeiss 35mm) and the same camera-in-motion technique as In a Paris Park creates a moody and atmospheric image in monochrome of the banks of the Seine River and the Ile St-Louis in Paris. This could be an image from the dawn of photography—when long exposures were the norm, and it was difficult to get a crisp image in twilight—rather than a capture made with a state-of-the-art sophisticated DSLR.

Banks of the Seine © Harold Davis

Banks of the Seine © Harold Davis

Exposure data: Nikon D800, Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 at f/8, 4 seconds at ISO 50, hand held.
Related image: Ile de la Cite from Ile St-Louis.

Posted in France, Monochrome, Paris

Sunday in the Park with George

Sunday in the Park with George. “George” in this case was my Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 lens. The park is Square Jean XXIII, just behind Notre Dame in Paris, on a cold November day near twilight.

In a Paris Park © Harold Davis

In a Paris Park © Harold Davis

The most typical goal of photography is to render crisp images where camera motion is not an issue. This can be achieved by using a fast shutter speed—usually a shorter duration of time than 1/125 of a second—or by putting the camera on a solid support, such as a tripod.

What fun to turn this on its head by intentionally moving the camera during exposure. The results often don’t look very photographic, and it takes a good bit of trial and error to find the right exposure combination. It’s also easier when there is some light, but not too much light. Try this technique in the middle of the day, and even with loads of neutral density filters it is hard to get decent results.

As with the light, so with the motion—you want to move the camera in a consistent way, with enough movement to create an attractive effect but not so much as to turn the image to mush! In this case, “George” and I consistently panned slowly from left to right, pausing on the couple on the bench briefly, and going up and down at the right end of the exposure.

I feel lucky when shooting this way to get one out of a hundred shots turning out decently. Even a few seconds can seem like a very long time when one does it over and over again!

Exposure data: Nikon D800, Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 at f/4.5, 4 seconds at ISO 50, hand held.

Posted in Landscape, Paris, Photography