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Dash of Inspiration – Don’t Dodge the Subject

April 24, 2012

A Dash of Inspiration, A Cup of Creativity by Doreen
In Collaboration with  Sun at Night

Don’t Dodge the Subject

Back in the days of traditional darkroom print-making, photographer’s were taught the technique of Dodging and Burning to achieve a beautiful balance of tonal ranges from the whitest white to the blackest black. I used to save the black plastic and cardboard which came with the photo paper and cut them into varying shapes.  I also saved those clear plastic florist ‘forks’ that holds the card in a bouquet delivery.

When I had a negative with blown-out highlights or deep shadows, these homemade tools were put to work by holding the shape on the end of my ‘florist fork’ over the area(s) requiring more or less exposure from the enlarger lamp.  The trick was to hold a ‘mask’ approximately mid-way between the enlarger lamp and the paper to be exposed, while using a slight waving or circular motion to blend the exposure (digital term is feathering).

Though I’m glad to be out of a chemical darkroom, those dodging and burning techniques are still quite valuable and critical to the digital photographer.  No matter our experience level, we all have photos that are taken ‘in the moment’ where we either could not modify the lighting, our position or offered no time to adjust the camera settings.  Often those images are just too far gone, but just as frequently in the digital darkroom of today, these images can be turned spectacular using a variety of techniques.

Joining us today is SunAtNight, one of GCU’s many talented artists who has written a terrific article and created some very helpful imagery to provide you with an introduction to improving the tonal range/contrast of your images.

Introduction to Contrast in Monochromatic Digital Photos by SunAtNight

Contrast creates and stirs up visual interest in all photos but it plays an important role in monochromatic images. To quote photographer Bill Smith “the craft of photography is represented by, and visualized in, the beauty of a good black-and-white print, a translation of the world around us into shades of gray.” Contrast helps the photographer do just that. It defines shapes, areas, and regions within the picture and it makes edges clearly distinct and recognizable to viewers. It is a play between light and dark. It is what makes the image energized and pop with life.

Contrast is defined as the differences in tones.  The brightest whites and the darkest shadows which make up the most distance on the tonal scale create a high contrast image. An image that is considered low contrast (often referred to as flat) has whites and darks that are closer or less of a distance on the tonal scale.

Figure1 : Broad range in tonal scale = high contrast.

Training the Eye – Practice Exercise

One of the most common learning exercises to assist in training the eye to observe and identify contrast is to simply circle the light and dark areas of the photo in your editing software. You can implement this in a new layer and delete at any time. It’s quick and easy. Once you do this a couple of times, your eye will start to gravitate to the tonal ranges and identify contrast automatically.

Once you have identified the light and dark regions the next step is to analyze. There are some basic characteristics to look for:

  • Does the main subject pop from the background?
  • Where are the trouble spots?
  • What is the quality of existing light? Hard, Soft or Diffused?
  • Are there any areas competing with each other?
  • Below is an example of this process

Figure2 : Exercise in training the eye for contrast

For this example exercise the photo depicts a pear amongst a pile of cloves and cinnamon sticks. The first photo has the dark areas identified. The second photo identifies the light areas. The third photo indicates the analysis. In this case observations tell us that the image does not pop from the background; it does actually compete with it and that causes loss of detail in the stem. The image is dark overall. The quality of existing light is one hard and one diffused (soft).  Loss of detail can also be seen in the lower right hand corner of the image where the mound of cloves are located.

Popular Corrective Actions – Remedies

How to fix low contrast is in the hands of the photographer. There are many remedies to try and you’ll probably have to try a few combinations to achieve wanted results. Here are some common corrective actions:

  • Add more directional light
  • Increase exposure
  • Dodging and burning in photo editing software
  •  Increase and deepen shadows in editing software
  • Increase in contrast settings
  • Selective focus – blurring the background more
  • Main subject isolation
  • Digital photo filters
  • Digital Levels adjustment – or curves

Figure 3: Remedy in post of increased exposure, contrast, shadows and dodging

The photo above utilizes multiple remedies in different areas. The first corrective action to take place is an increase in exposure and contrast. This lightened the background which enhanced the pear and cinnamon sticks. The second implementation was to deepen the shadows just a touch. The last remedy was to dodge the pile of cloves in the foreground. This enhanced the texture and shapes of the individual cloves adding detail that was not readily perceived by the eye.

I want to thank SunAtNight for taking the time and such great care to create these wonderful visuals to help you train your eye to see contrast and the important role it plays in making or breaking an image.

My personal experience in digital dodging and burning is that I never use the Dodge and Burn tools supplied by these programs, rather I use layer masks and the brush tool to effectively paint with light and shadow. The reason being if you use the Dodge and Burn tools in Photoshop for example, the undo feature leaves artifacts behind because it does not completely undo the process . . . so experiment!    Once you learn to see  a full range of contrast in a Monochromatic image you will be able to use the same technique to apply corrections to your color images.  Below are links to some tutorials to get you started.

See you next week!

Dodging and Burning in Photoshop by Peter Pan-tsless

Selective Lightening and Darkening in Photoshop Elements by Jan Walker

Paint Shop Pro Dodge and Burn by The Graphics Tablet

GIMP Tutorial Dodging and Burning by Wendi E. M. Scarth

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 24, 2012 1:19 pm

    Thank you, Doreen and SunAtNight for this helpful information. Analyzing the light in my photos and adjusting them accordingly is something I’ve been trying to master, so I appreciate this!

    • April 24, 2012 2:59 pm

      You are most welcome Tracie – Thanks for stopping by!

      The idea for today’s topic came from SunAtNight who was a pleasure to collaborate with and who did a fantastic job! Thanks again SunAtNight!

  2. SunAtNight permalink
    April 24, 2012 6:50 pm

    Since there are many versions (of any software) floating out there results of any technique may vary. I actually use a 3rd party plugin to paint with shadows and light. Since not everyone can afford some extra software I tried to keep the remedies somewhat simplified, just enough to understand the results. For third party plugins (which was out of scope of this article) – I suggest Mystical Lighting by Auto FX and OnOneSoftware.

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