Photographic reality: Accumulate light
“Photography’s gift isn’t the ability to reproduce reality, it’s the ability to expand it.”
(The fourth installment of my series on photographic reality.)
Before getting too frustrated with your camera’s limited dynamic range, remember that it can also do things with light that your eyes can’t. While we humans experience the world by serially processing an infinite number of discrete instants in real time, a camera accumulates each instant, storing and assembling them into a single additive frame. The result, among other things, is a view into human darkness that reveals “invisible,” albeit very real, detail and color.
Nothing illustrates this benefit better than a moonlight image, particularly one that reveals a “moonbow.” Several years ago I photographed Yosemite Falls by the light of a full moon a couple of hours after sunset. While there was enough light to see the fall and my immediate surroundings, the world was dark and colorless. Knowing the possibility of a moonbow existed, but unable to see it, I positioned myself with my shadow (cast by the moonlight) pointing more or less in the direction of the fall and dialed in an exposure long enough to make the scene nearly daylight bright. An extremely wide, vertical composition included the Big Dipper high overhead, as if it was the Yosemite Falls’ source.
The result (above) is nothing like what my eyes saw, but it really is what my camera saw. The processing to complete this image involved cooling the color temperature in the raw processor to a more night-like blue; noise reduction to clean up the relatively long, relatively high ISO capture; a little (mostly futile) attempt to moderate the vertical distortion caused by the wide focal length; a slight wiggle in Curves to darken the sky and pop the stars; mild dodging and burning to even tones; some desaturation of the sky (I swear); and selective detail sharpening, avoiding the clouds and darkest shadows.