Fade to Black

Lake Tahoe Sunrise, California
Canon EOS 5D Mark2, Canon 24-105mm, 1/8 second @ f11, ISO 100

This is the age of HDR, High Dynamic Range photography. Whether it’s specialized, automated HDR software or various exposure blending techniques in Photoshop, the current photographic trend is to extract every bit of detail from every last pixel from every scene. And although this can lead to some pretty alarming results, such as here and here and here, it’s not necessarily always a bad thing. I admit to rarely using automated HDR software, particularly with landscape and nature images, but I do use Photoshop for exposure blending when the narrow dynamic range of the camera’s sensor is inadequate for the scene I’m trying to capture.

Still, many new photographers don’t realize – or haven’t been told – that black is an acceptable color for digital photography. There’s no need to always pull details from shadows especially when those details don’t add anything to the message of the image. In many cases, such as the image of Lake Tahoe used in this post, those very details can detract from its effectiveness.

When I look at this image, I can’t help but reminisce on my days of Fuji Velvia 50 film transparencies – for better or worse. If I didn’t know any better, in fact, I would assume it was a scan from one of those old slides. It was Velvia’s deep, rich blacks that were missing from many of my first digital captures and crude processing efforts back in the day. Simply increasing the black threshold with a quick Levels adjustment was often the only thing required in transforming flat and muddy to sharp and vibrant. 

The true black in this image also draws greater attention to the simple, geometric shape of the lake and its relationship to the shoreline. Allowing details to creep into the shadows would only take away from that compositional concept. Do we really need to see all the details in the foreground trees? Of course not, which is why I allowed those details to fade to black.

Enjoy this post? Please leave a comment or Subscribe to Earth and Light!

Posted in Essays, Images | Tagged , , ,


  1. Posted October 5, 2012 at 4:52 am by Paul Hollins | Permalink

    Hi Richard,
    Thank you for using one of my images as an example of how not to do HDR. Alarming indeed! Well, although you are clearly a highly accomplished photographer who eschews the use of such cheap devices as “automated HDR software”, you might consider that there are those who walk among us who perhaps do not have the high end skills or the disposable time to adopt more lofty methods. Not only that, but there a quite a few people who actually enjoy over the top HDR for various reasons of art and personal taste. With due respect to your personal taste, plainly not everyone shares your somewhat purist views. If there is no “interpretation” available to photographers, what happens to the “art” of it all. I’m sure it would all boil down to the basics of composition and the application of equipment, time and opportunity. I am just a humble enthusiast, not a professional and I don’t pretend to achieve something other than what I present at face value. Dislike it if you will, but please don’t denigrate the efforts of others because they represent things differently.
    Paul Hollins

  2. Posted October 5, 2012 at 2:34 pm by Jeremy Brasher | Permalink

    I think I know Richard enough to know that he wasn’t intentionally deriding someone else’s art. I think the point he was trying to make was that the description of the image as “alarming” would only apply if the photographer’s aim was creating a more photo realistic or a more naturalistic look and got so “carried away” if you will with post processing that the original visualization was lost. From the viewpoint of his known style, I’m guessing such an image would be qualified as alarming. Over-the-top HDR processing is very fine and very valid, because the artist’s interpretation is different from “realism” and that’s what reigns here. Your image is fine enough indeed, as is validated by others commenting on your work, but it can’t be critiqued the same as another image in which photo realism is more the goal. Just my two cents to help maybe clear things a bit…..

    • Posted October 5, 2012 at 5:10 pm by Paul Hollins | Permalink

      I appreciate your thoughful contribution and agree with your assessment of this style of processing. Certainly if I hadn’t intended this style of outcome it could be alarming. If I was seeking a strictly true rendition of the scene I could have much more easily achieved that. Cheers.

    • Posted October 23, 2012 at 11:39 am by jeff | Permalink

      i guess i struggle with your explanation Jeremy. There is little that is photorealistic or naturalistic about a long exposure shot that cases the waterfalls and rivers to blur, or even a b&w shot. Our eyes do not see things that way. We like those shots, and see them posted everywhere, because something clicks in our mind that says “that is beautiful, and even if it isn’t what I would see if I were standing there, I like this.”

      HDR is no different. You can love or hate a person’s take on an image, HDR or other processing methods, and their choices of how to portray it, but it does not make it less valid as an artistic expression.

      Just my two cents…

  3. Posted October 5, 2012 at 3:41 pm by Shane | Permalink

    Richard, I agree with 100 percent. I hate HDR, especially the over processed crap that passes for photography but that’s just my opinion.

    • Posted October 5, 2012 at 5:11 pm by Paul Hollins | Permalink

      And from the sublime to the ridiculous . . . another member of the non-HDR Evangelical Church, perhaps even a minister of it?

  4. Posted October 6, 2012 at 10:39 am by Shane | Permalink

    I have no problem with HDR that’s well done, I only dislike crappy, surreal, over processed HDR that no longer resembles a photograph any longer. Call it art if you like, just don’t call it a photograph

    • Posted October 7, 2012 at 5:06 am by Paul Hollins | Permalink

      It’s good to see that more experimental techniques can provoke robust debate. It reminds me of the purists who vociferously disapproved of digital photography at the time of it’s introduction (and some still do). Do you approve of negatives being processed to achieve a different look? How is digital different? Even highly processed images (yes, this is intentionally one) need to have sound composition and technique to be effective and are, in fact, based on photos. Dislike this as much as you like, you are entitled to your opinion.
      The word “photograph” is a term which means “drawing with light”. The application of light, if you like, can be used differently . . . sometimes in camera sometimes not, or a combination of both. In any case, it is still a photograph. Is a long exposure photo still a photo in your world? Even though it often depicts a scene differently to that observed by the human eye? Where do you draw the line anyway?

One Trackback

  1. […] Richard Bernabe has Fade to Black […]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>