Don’t be afraid of the dark – part two

When using lighting and exposure creatively we are hemmed in by two rules. You can’t get blacker than black nor can you get whiter than white.

That is not to say that black and white tones are immune from how we expose and process an image. Lifting the blacks will cause them to go muddy (see previous post) while lowering the whites turns them grey. The classic example of this is under exposed snow scenes.

Anyone with an interest in how to use photography should learn how the film or sensor in their cameras sees. What we see is not exactly the same as the image in a camera. Our eyes are lenses, our retinas are akin to the film or sensor but our brains process the image in a way that out performs any form of photographic display.

Don’t be put off by this, Artist have been using their limited range of tones to create masterpieces for hundreds of years. Learning how to use the tonal range of a film or sensor is where the fun and creativity starts.

In cinematography Gordon Willis is regarded as a master through his use of light and his understanding of film exposure. The images he created in “The Godfather” are as powerful for what they do not show as for what the viewer sees. His use of dark (black) shadows earned him the nickname “The Prince of Darkness”.

The two shots below illustrate not only Gordon Willis’s mastery of the negative but also the print. The amount of tones that fall between the black and white level of a film or sensor is described as its latitude. Just as important is the latitude of the display method as this controls the image seen by the viewer.


I am not going to use a thousand words to describe the shot above; I will just make three points. Firstly one of the things that made “The Godfather” a groundbreaking film was the extent that Willis literally kept the actors in the dark. When the studio executives first saw the interior scene they thought about sacking Willis. What particularly disturbed them was not being able to see Brando’s eyes.

I will also point out the detail in Brando’s shirt, the exposure has to be spot on to record detail in a white tone.

Finally look at how the windows are blown out; we cannot see any detail of the view beyond the window. Now asked yourself have you ever been in a room where this has happened? Of course not, the nearest we would see a similar effect is when entering bright sunlight from a dark area when we are momentarily dazzled*. It is interesting how our mind through familiarity accepts many of film’s idiosyncrasies.


The second image is a fine example of how not to be afraid of the dark. The executives thought an audience would not like having to decipher an image so dark. It is though a skill we already possess from our daily life and it is a task our brains are already hardwired to do. Although a still from a movie the use of lighting, choice of lens and camera position still allows us to “read” the image. The relative size of the two people tells us who is in the stronger position. This is reinforced by how smaller and isolated the far figure is in a sea of darkness.

If I were to ask you the colour of the shirt the seated person is wearing you would probably correctly say white. However in the image being in shadow it is mainly grey. An example of how our minds process what our eyes are seeing. Also notice how the black telephone is mainly given form by reflective highlights that appear white and greyish.

If all of this has been interesting I would encourage you to get your camera out and have a bit of fun playing with exposure. Try photographing a white item that has some detail in it and see how far you can push the exposure while keeping the detail.

If you want to put some extra effort in find a piece of white fabric and soak it in tea to tone it down. Then photograph it adjusting the exposure to make it appear white. This is an old cinematography trick.

*Removing dark sunglasses in bright sunlight would be another example

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