SHOOT BRIGHT, SHOOT FLAT
By Bill Dobbins
I spent decades shooting photos for magazines and commercial clients. The color work was almost always done use color transparency film. I would use Polaroids as tests to try and get the lighting and contrast exactly right. With transparencies, what you see is what you get – and what gets delivered to the art director. The art department could make a few alterations in the mage before printing – and of course back in the day the photos could be airbrushed.
I usually liked my photos to be very contrasty and saturated. Punchy. So I would light with the result in mind. I would also underexpose slightly to increase the saturation. Just as with BW film, if you underexpose slightly and then push (increase development time) you get a more pronounced degree of contrast. Another factor is the type of film you use. Some are designed to have less or more contrast, greater or not as much saturation. A film like Kodachrome 25, for example, had a very pretty and not very contrasty emulsion. And various E-6 films like the Ektachromes or a lush film like Velvia, would each yield a different and distinctive appearance.
Shooting digital all this has changed. For one thing, shooting RAW (just recording what comes in through the lens without any processing) there is no BW or color. You make that choice later. And there is no need to be overly concerned with adjustments like saturation. That, too, can be altered after the fact. You still need to be aware of exposure and the use of lighting adjustments such as strobe, tungsten lights or reflectors. But many of the techniques and choices necessary shooting film are not longer relevant. (Which is one reason why so much photography once done by experienced pros no longer has to be.)
So what do digital photographers need be aware of when shooting an image? Well, one is certainly still exposure. The better choice in exposure the easy it is to end up with the highest quality image. But I have found a big difference in how to expose digital images rather than film. Whereas I preferred to slightly underexpose slide film, it turns out the most information in a digital file is in the brighter areas. You don’t want to blow out the image, but a little bit brighter is generally better than a little bit darker.
You will also get better results shooting photos that are a little less contrasty. Which can make a big difference setting up studio lights, for example. It is very easy to take a slightly flat image and bump up the contrast and less so to take a contrasty image and dial it back. Camera settings can also be factor. The best idea is to choose a setting that creates a flatter image in the camera itself and then modify it later in Photoshop or Lightroom.
One problem some photographers have is paying too much attention to the screen at the back of the camera when judging exposure. When you are shooting RAW to be viewed on a computer screen, looking at the jpeg image on a small, plastic screen is not necessarily that reliable. Better to look at the histogram to determine whether or not your images has the appropriate amount of darker and lighter pixels for the scene being photographed. (Shooting a pale dress against a light color wall you should expect the histogram to shift way to the right since there are few if any dark areas in the image.)
So my general advice for digital photography is to keep your exposures a little bright, consult the histogram and a little flat is better than very contrasty.