Natural light is never quite where you'd like it to be, but fortunately there are plenty of tricks and ideas for putting emphasis in exactly the right place. Tim Daly underlines the essentials.
Emphasis is the aspect of photography that is very rarely talked about, but has a profound effect on the way themes and narratives are communicated in our images. Put simply, if others don't see what you want them to look at, then your picture has pretty much failed.
Emphasis allows your main subject to really dominate the frame and present your idea or concept in as clear a manner as possible. This clarification of message is always the photographer's responsibility and rarely is it presented to us on a plate. For many of us, missing an opportunity to create a memorable image is the worse case scenario, but there are plenty of ways of improving emphasis after shooting has taken place.
For this project we're going to explore several different methods of assigning emphasis in your images, using both camera techniques and simple editing processes.
SECTION 1: THEMES TO CONSIDER
For this project you may consider using images that you've shot already - even better if they've got an element that doesn't work or needs fixing.
1 BY MOVEMENT
Not everything has to be pin-sharp at all times. Often, a bit of movement can really help to communicate the fleeting life of the natural world. While blurring and movement tricks can be undertaken in your editing package, creating it in camera is a more subtle and adventurous way of exploring the potential of creative blur. In this example, I've used a simple panning technique to try to combine movement and sharpness in the same shot - the flowers were already moving in a high wind, so my task was to follow the direction of their movement with my camera set on a slow shutter speed of 1/4sec or longer. Like any experimental technique, you'll probably get one good result for every ten frames you try.
2 BY TONAL SEPARATION
Black and white photography can be all about tone - that is the seemingly infinite shades of grey that lie between pure black and white. For many photographic printers it is the separation between these tones that becomes a technical pursuit in itself. Clumsy editing allows too many similar tones of grey to sit side by side, creating a muddy end result that can hide important details and textures that may be crucial to the narrative. Refined editing by using the Black and White mixing tools in Lightroom and Photoshop allows us to reset the tonal value of original colours so they stand out more. In this example, I've lightened the greens and yellows of the background to allow the central subject to seemingly float in a space of its own.
3 BY DIFFERENCE
Colour is not usually mentioned at all in monochrome photography but you can always allude to its presence. This example image was shot in colour and captured a bright white concrete poodle surrounded by a background of bubble-gum pink, red and bright yellow - colours used straight out of the tin by a very creative gardener. Then, with a careful rebalancing of their tonal values using Lightroom's Black and White Mix sliders, I was able to make the tones sufficiently distant and different from each other. Although we can't see colour in the shot, we can detect five separate tones which trick our brains into imagining what was there in the original.
'Balance of light is the problem, not the amount. Balance between shadows and highlights determines where the emphasis goes in the picture...make sure the major light in a picture falls at right angles to the camera.'
- Elliott Erwitt
4 BY LIGHTING
As Elliott Erwitt said so memorably, when good natural light is available, make sure you take every advantage by getting yourself in exactly the right place. Low angle winter or autumn light, as this example shows, can really provide a special setting for shooting and can look as controlled as studio flash.
If you've got the chance to shoot early morning or late afternoon, take care to place yourself at right angles to the direction of the light, as this will reveal three-dimensional modelling and texture on the surface of your chosen subject. Remember, subtle forms require delicately modelled light to reveal undulating surfaces.
5 BY EXCLUSION
Perhaps the simplest of all emphasis tricks is to use the camera frame to crop peripheral information out of the image. Editorial and storytelling photographers traditionally use lenses no wider than 35mm in focal length and frequently longer, so their subjects can be crammed into the frame. The longer the focal length of your lens, the more you can exclude and the more you can isolate a specific element of your chosen scene.
In this example, a simple crop focused on a smaller aspect of a truck's advertising slogan.
SECTION 2: MAKING EDGES CONTRIBUTE
As seasoned consumers of images, we tend to prefer viewing photographs that have been skilfully enhanced and edited by hand. These three simple techniques can really improve bland location lighting.
1 USING LIGHTROOM'S POST-CROP VIGNETTING
If natural light wasn't so encompassing, widespread and impossible to shape then we'd perhaps return from shooting with more usable pictures. Dappled light is perhaps the hardest to deal with and is a wedding photographer's nightmare to control. In this example, the unedited left image shows how our attention is drawn to the lighter edges of the frame by the uncontrollable natural light. In the edited version right, I fixed this by using Lightroom's Post-Crop Vignetting tool found within the Effects menu. Here I was able to darken down the edges and make them much less visually distracting.
2 USING THE GRADUATED FILTER TOOL
Skies and land are always different brightness values, forcing us to make exposure compromises that almost always lose detail in one part of the image or the other. Lightroom's Graduated Filter tool is a very handy fix for creating seamless and invisible gradients for darkening or lightening large areas of the image. Shown left in this example is an unedited image with a lighter than expected sky which is visually distracting and takes emphasis away from the façade of the building. On the right is the same shot after the Graduated Filter has been applied, together with a -50 reduction to the Highlights. Using this slider creates less banding or visible noise compared to the Exposure slider. The tool works by replacing near white values with light grey.
3 USING BLACK AND WHITE MIX TOOLS
Sometimes the strength in an image resides in its unusual textures or restricted tonal palette and this is when the Black and White Mix tools can help you to enhance such a look.
In this example, I wanted to keep the three tones on the tree bark separate but edit them to look as much like camouflage as possible. Although the Mix tools can make drastic tonal separations, they can also be used to make smaller shifts as a kind of balancing tool.
SECTION 3: LOCALISED EMPHASIS TECHNIQUES
Unlike Photoshop, Lightroom doesn't have dodging or burning tools for creating localised emphasis, but it does have the wonderful Adjustment Brush instead.
1 SIMPLE PAINTED MASKS
Like Quick Mask mode in Photoshop and identical to the same tool in the Camera Raw plugin, Lightroom's Adjustment Brush allows you to define a selection area or mask and make it ready for editing. On first use, it's important to switch on the Show Selected Mask Overlay option, found near the bottom left hand corner of your image, as this displays the mask you are painting in an easy to see red colour. In this image, I wanted to add some darker tones to the texture-less top left corner of the shot, which looked a bit flat and empty. Using a large soft-edged brush, I created the red mask as shown, painting in the areas that I wanted to darken down.
2 AUTO MASK FOR MORE COMPLEX SHAPES
The Adjustment Brush can also be used to create masks around specific shapes rather than just in a painterly manner. In this example, I couldn't crop the bright white door frame out of the shot as it would have made the composition imbalanced. So, I've left it in and then used the Adjustment Brush set on Auto Mask mode, which is found at the base of its pop-up menu. With this switched on, the brush doesn't spill over into unwanted areas provided they are a sufficiently different tone. With the white door frame selected, I dropped the Highlights by -40 to darken it down and place the emphasis back on the flag.
3 TEXTURISING WITH THE CLARITY TOOL
Low-key images, such as this nearly black subject, really need careful editing to reveal details that can be hidden. Lightroom's Clarity tool does a great job of increasing contrast and also sharpening surface texture - which results in a much grittier final edit. Within this shot, I've also used the Shadows slider to lighten the near black tones so they will print without filling in too much. Finally, I've changed the tone of the graffiti so it stands out more against the metal surface.