The more I evolve as a photographer, take stock of my workflow, and compare how I do things against the commonly held beliefs that are often taught to beginners, the more I realize that a lot of those beliefs just don't add up. I don't think this is necessarily lies at the feet of popular instructors and educators, I think a lot of what you're taught when you first dive into the world of photography makes perfect sense – but only to a point. Once you move past a certain level, it becomes necessary to reassess much of what you've been taught, and push outward, experimenting with new techniques and ideas.
I think my main issue is not the actual concepts we are taught, but the fact that many of them are presented – or at least hinted at – as rules, never to be broken, when in fact they may be guidelines, useful to a degree, but meant to be discarded for creative effect from time to time.
The concept I've been thinking about most recently is the presence of clipping in our photographs. So many educators make such an effort to impress upon us that maximum detail from front to back of an image is the ideal towards which we should be striving, shooting three, five, even seven bracketed images if need be to ensure that every square inch of our image is rich with detail so sharp it could put your eye out if you stare too closely.
Many tutorials I've watched will make an exception when it comes to the blacks, but only a slight one. I must've watched countless post-processing videos in which the instructing photographer turns on the Lightroom clipping mask and brings down the blacks enough so that just a few areas turn blue (on the clipping overlay) as they slide into blackness. They often make sure to then point out that it's OK to clip the blacks just a bit, but you never want to clip the highlights. And that is that.
After hearing this “rule” repeated time and time again I took it to heart. And I practiced it religiously in all of my images until recently when I took a step back after examining the work of a photographer I admire and realizing: “Wow. There's a lot of black in that image. And in this other image, is that pure white?? It can't be, it's against the basic rules of photography!! There's no detail anywhere in this whole damn image except... Oohhhhhh”
At this point in my analysis of the images in question I realized that in many of the images I was viewing, large swaths of the frame had been pushed to either pure black or pure white, rendering them void of detail. But, there was always an area of the photograph where the the exposure was perfect, and the detail leapt off of the screen.
And the subjects of these images seemed to stand out like none I had seen before. They were dramatic, powerful, and I saw the power of contrast on a broad scale, of not only leading your viewers eye through the scene with subtle lighting and focus adjustments, but of forcing them to look exactly where you want them to, and nowhere else.
Since this epiphany, I've had to reconsider my own post-production workflow and question with each image whether there are portions of it that could do with a generous dose of either lightening or darkening, pushing either side to the point of clipping if need be. I've become bolder while shooting as well, no longer fearing to shoot into the sun and blowing out the sky, and no longer concerned with boosting the ISO to the point of overwhelming grain to preserve detail throughout the image – so long as my subject is exposed correctly in both cases.
Even in the images I bracket and then process using HDR, I'll often export to Photoshop or Lightroom and darken or brighten depending on what type of look I'm going for. Granted I'm not someone who loves the pure HDR look, and I find I generally like to drag some of that detail back into shadow after my initial processing.
It should be mentioned that If you're interested in heading down the road of extremes, there are some caveats. A lot of this will vary based on the scene your shooting, but in many cases, if you choose to blow out a sky for example, you better blow it out entirely, or at least have a continuous area (probably a radius around the direction the sun is coming from) which has been converted to all white. Things can start to look bad when you've blown out part of your sky, while leaving some detail in others. Use your clipping mask to ensure a smooth, even transition from detail to white to avoid a blotchy sky.
The same goes for darks, although I'm generally more OK with little details poking out of darkness, than from brighter areas. Basically it comes down to thinking critically about your exposure and editing choices and then making sure your finished image matches your vision.
So what do you think? Do you always aim to extract as much usable detail as possible? What are your thoughts on pushing your images to the point of clipping on either end of the spectrum? Any examples? Let me know in the comments and keep the conversation going!
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