Bracketed & Bracketing

You look at pictures you took a year ago, three years ago, and sort through the images you graded as great, or almost threw away for being bad, and each time find to your surprise that some of the great pictures you now find to be mundane, while the mistakes you almost trashed now look spectacular, loaded with possibility or mystery. A shooter's relationship with her stock of images is a primary thrust in her evolution in seeing how to photograph.

And then there is another push, that comes from recognizing that it doesn't take that much imagination to take a great picture in great light. Dedication and technique, yes, but imagination, no. The rules for doing so are fairly constant, and the pictures are competent or commercial, but they will not change anyone's manner of seeing. Bringing your imagination into the frame is the hard work. And for months I've been re-evaluating how to do so.

A shortcut to dragging in the mysteries of your thinking before shooting seems to lie in seeking out bad situations, at least for me. (And for my poor students, to who I insist on teaching this.) A bad situation, as in life in general, is loaded with clues to how to act in good situations. If you accept that failure is necessary for success, then it seems courting disaster with your camera would be a necessary act in shooting more interesting things. Anyone serious about their images knows what I mean, either by skirting a battlefield or plunging into social justice, or taking on extreme weather or traveling to isolated places, whether such actions take place in reality or in one's own mental landscapes, where the battles for self and the willingness to become isolated are shapers of personality. And anyone who knows me knows how poisonous I think "success" is, since I think creativity is wholly wedded to hunger, so it makes sense that I would fail miserably in getting the pictures I want, or that at least I would ensure failure by tackling something way beyond my means. Perhaps this is a key aspect in my repeated returns to shoot the aurora borealis on the lips of the Arctic. My 14th trip there will be this Fall, and I still haven't got what I need to call it quits and produce my book.

But bad situations for the photographer:

A balky student kept me in class until midnight the other day. I'd been at the school since eight a.m., and would be there earlier the next day, in a five-day quagmire without personal time that left me wired for days afterward. Right in the middle of that schedule, the student seeks explanations way past the 10 pm end of class, and I walk into the garage exhausted, feeling my way to the car in a sort of braille of being. But in one glance, my surroundings are transformed into a lesson: there is another, strange, unmarked car, tucked under the fluorescence, among the dank drips and crooked shadows of an underground garage. In one glance, I know that I will go to the trunk and pull out the tripod, and leave bedtime to later. And I take a dozen photographs, each one consisting of nine frames that are separated by one stop each. I use the light meter on the camera to read a few spots on the car (to determine the density of shadows and the sheen of highlights) before setting up on the tripod, put the camera into its settings for bracketed pictures of nine frames each, select the white balance to make the color pop, etc., and methodically take these dozen "sets" of pictures of nine frames in each. It takes 30 minutes, and then another 30 minutes in the studio to balance elements of each set of pictures, and they are all superb images of an interesting car in a bad situation. Without lights, without horrible photoshop, a single picture would not have made a similar image.

When I arrive home there is a fantastic gift for me, from Mark, who has known me for twenty years and who bought into my odd curiosities of expression and emotion within twenty seconds of meeting me. He has sent me a book, and it boggles my thoughts. "Vision & Art" by Margaret Livingstone will twist my future in the same way as Camus' "Stranger," Dawkins' "Selfish Gene," and David Huron's master examination of the processes of music, "Sweet Anticipation." But I'm not going to review the book here: I simply turn to a random page and find out something that reinforces what every photographer knows but could not explain if you put a gun to our temples. A red tomato on a white piece of paper in a dark room will look white if you shine a light on it that is covered with a red filter. Elementary. Shine a green-filtered light onto that tomato, and the tomato will look black, since there is no green light to be reflected to your eye. But turn on the red-filtered light, followed by the green-filtered light, and the tomato will suddenly look very red. But why? We've just demonstrated that each filter of red light and of green light robs the tomato of its redness. By turning on the green-filtered light, we've simply added the color green to the surrounding areas but not to the tomato. We need to see the surroundings areas of color to appreciate the redness of the tomato. The tomato must reflect more red light than green, which it does (since it doesn't reflect green light at all), but the tomato must also reflect more red than its "surround."

The car in the garage is dependent on its surround, not for color purposes, but for self-display. The dreary garage with its budget industrial lighting scheme would seem to be the last place to pose a vehicle. But nine frames of photographs means the array of choice is staggeringly large: each pixel has nine options of weight, or color, and the blending into a single image requires appropriate choice. I'd love to say I made each choice, but a mathematical model makes the choices based on exposure; its creators and the science community refuse to call it HDR, but I have to admit it is a form of it. Too much HDR ends up as a garish jigsaw look, and the blending mode avoids that look completely. Anyway, when the proper pixel is selected from the nine choices, and a single layer of 36.2 million pixels (or tiny dots of color) are finally assembled, you get an image that has essentially made the most of a bad situation.

I watched Helmuth patiently bracket in extreme conditions last January in Iceland, and judged the light as it occurs at that high latitude at that time, and realized I had to go back to the Arctic Circle's edge at the optimum crux of day and night, which was early April. Astronomical night ends at that latitude on April 10th, meaning there is no black night, not even for a minute, again until late October. And I went back, bracketing. The results have been astonishing. But in evenly lit, ordinary daytime scenes, bracketing makes no sense. Moving objects are potentially ruinous, too. If the light is haphazardly presented, however, with shadows that at first seem impregnable to composition, that's when my own training kicks in and I look not at the object of my shoot but at its color and shadow flaws in its surroundings. In these borders of illumination and luminance, I can make my choices of perception.

I'm learning to look for the black tomato, we could say.