Photography experiments with highlights & shadows

Photography experiments with highlights & shadows

I’ve been struggling lately. . I hit a plateau where my lack of knowledge became frustrating.  I kept fighting my camera trying to figure out ISO | shutter speed | aperture settings. The mighty trio baffled me.  I’ve been flipping between AV and TV modes, trying to get a nice balance but *shrug* everything was a big meh. Then I watched one of my favourite photographer’s latest YouTube video and the penny dropped.

I like watching Sean Tucker’s photography videos. He uses lush shadows and strong highlights in a way that makes photos pop off the screen. But his Sunday video helped lift some of the confusion I’ve been wrestling with. “How to Nail Exposure using Manual Mode” encourages users to stop being afraid of manual mode and take the plunge.  I dabbled with manual in the past, but at the time I didn’t appreciate how the three settings interacted and switched back to AV. Sean’s description was illuminating. I watched the video 3 times and made a few notes, grabbed my camera  and walked down Yonge St over to King/University, to experiment.  I tend to underexpose, to a fault, and lose out on taking advantage of bright highlights to help set a mood. To break myself of that habit, I focused on capturing strong shadows as well as bold highlights.

Did I capture great art? No, many photos were still unusable. Did I have fun? OH YEA! There was something so basic and clear about Tucker’s description, that the fear of full on manual vanished. It. Was. Fun.  I was surprised at how quick it was to make adjustments on the fly. The secret though was pretty basic – SLOW DOWN. Think about the shot and use the histogram to guide me.  I’ve been working with histograms extensively over the past month, using it to make micro adjustments, rather than relying on plugins to make broad, overwhelming changes.

I picked 4 photos from the day’s shoot. Two black and white, two colour.

Photo of an old building with strong highlights and shadows

Paul Hahn & Co Piano on Yonge St

This one worked better than I expected. I took about 5 shots from the same spot. I think the colours are still a bit too harsh, but the project was to work with shadows and highlights. I tend to blow the highlights out so badly, the photos aren’t worth keeping.  One thing I noticed while processing the photos, I finally managed to get the shots fairly straight. I can’t tell you how many times I have to use the straighten tool because I find myself tilting my head when looking at the day’s work. It came down to slow down and think about the shot.

Photo of Elephant & Castle showing strong reflections

Reflections on the Elephant & Castle on King

I can’t decide if I like this one or not. I waffle between loving the highlights and reflected light to hating it because the shadows don’t feel right.  On a positive note, using the histogram and manual helped me capture the blue sky correctly. Very few shots had that irritating fringing around the edges of buildings. I kept checking, adjusting and playing with angles over and over.

Black & white photo of street musicians on Yonge & Bloor

Music on Yonge and Bloor

I loved the angles and shadows on this one, but it wasn’t as sharp as I’d hoped for.  I rushed a bit too much because I was worried about losing the shot.  It’s also smaller than the others because in mid edit I decided I needed to work more on the highlights. I dumped a quick jpg onto the hard drive, so I’d have something to post but didn’t check dimensions. So, this looks like the runt of the family, sorry about that.

Black and white photo of corner King and University showing strong shadows

Long shadows on King & University

The highlights came out so well on the last photo. I even managed to capture the steam whisping up. The linear feel to the shadows came out nice and strong. I moved up and down a bit on the SE corner, trying to figure out a good angle. I wanted the eyes to travel along the cross walk and needed to get the cables above just right to grab the perspective correctly. Not bad. I can see where I went wrong with the shadows though but I’m not sure how to correct them. Make them darker?  Increase the shadow exposure? Don’t know. I’ve been playing around with it in Photoshop, trying to figure out a better balance. I am impressed with the Elephant & Castle on the far left. The light display came out nice and strong but didn’t overwhelm the sidewalk focal point.

That was Sunday’s expedition. Tons of fun and I learned a lot. The big lesson? Don’t be afraid of manual. If I keep this up, I just may be able to graduate to a prime lens and ditch this kit lens.


Check out Sean Tucker’s YouTube channel for more videos on photography – Sean Tucker on YouTube His series on good light techniques and using reflections to capture vibrant street scenes are especially helpful. His calm, introspective approach has been eye opening to this happy amateur photographer.

His website is an inspiration for photographers at all levels.  I especially love his street scenes.  – Sean Tucker Photography


Nik filter – film noire and the Cathedral

Nik filter – film noire and the Cathedral

I keep some photos in reserve to experiment with. These’ll be toss away shots that aren’t particularly … anything. Not good, not really bad, just mediocre and not worth posting. I hang onto them to test and push the limits of my imagination. It’s incredibly easy to go overboard with filters and such, so I have to reign myself in quite a bit. You never get to see the really absurd edits. One spot I have a lot of trouble getting a clean shot is the Cathedral – also known as the Hockey Hall of Fame building at 30 Yonge Street Brookfield Place. The main floor of Brookfield is quite awe inspiring but a bugger on wheels to get a good photo. Even if you stand right in the middle, you end up with a weird optical illusion. Nothing ever looks quite straight. But it’s fun to play with.

I took a photo with my Acer Liquid to see if there would be any improvement and nope… still mediocre. So I spent a day or two poking it with a big stick to see what could be done with it. The original is blah. The filtered version is over the top but I have to admit, I love it. I used NIK’s Silver Efex Pro 2 filter. The Vintage -> Film Noir 1 filter worked effectively in changing the mood. I tinkered with the various settings, but the ability to throw on a paper style made the photo. The Fuji Neopan Pro 1600 paper option increased the contrast and grain enough to suit my melodramatic tastes.

Brookfield Place main floor with Nik Filters Film noir option

If you hover your mouse over the image or tap it if you’re on a touch screen, you can see the original shot and understand what I mean about “blah”. Too much light filters through the ceiling, washing out the architecture. I’ll have to nip down there the next raining day to see if it makes a difference.