playing around with contrast: inside a fine art photographic technique

contrast adjustments…

This short journal post is from a presentation I gave in spring 2019 where I discussed how adjusting your contrast can be an interesting way of shooting different subjects and landscapes. This process helps to darken (underexpose) or lighten (overexpose) a scene that I have found can help to add new conceptual meaning to whatever is being photographed.

Ultimately, this is something that can easily be done in camera. Just play around with increasing or decreasing your shutter speed or aperture (f-stop) to create photographs that are purposely under or over exposed. Alternatively, you can shoot a perfectly exposed photo in camera and then fiddle with the contrast in Photoshop, as I did with this photo, titled wal-art 3, of an aisle in Walmart I took in August 2012 and then overexposed it (to make it look brighter than it should) using Photoshop…

wal-art 3

To be completely honest, I had not originally planned to overexpose the images. I only did it after finding out that for some reason, the focus was soft across my images. By overexposing them, you didn’t notice that and it also added a whole other depth to how the content of the photo was presented.

Artist & photographer Paul Graham has also overexposed some of his photographs, as he did with his American Night series of photographs, like this one, American Night #16, from 2000…

wal-art 3

Graham overexposes his photos so much that they at times almost appear ghostly white, with very little of the photo’s original colour left behind. Graham’s American Night photographs formed part of a series of photographs he shot using this technique (as was my wal-art shot, it too is part of a on-going series).

Doing it in camera can be a bit risky as you are ultimately stuck with what you get. If you are at a location you might not be able to return to, it might be better to shoot a perfectly exposed image and then play with it later in Photoshop. Or, if you have time, take a perfectly exposed shot and then take a few shots where you experiment in camera.

making contrast adjustment in photoshop…

If you really want to over or underexpose in Photoshop, here’s where to look:


This provides a good start, but sometimes it’s not enough so go to the next option…


Then adjust ‘exposure,’ and possibly adjust ‘gamma correction’ if needed.

Finally, you can also adjust your LEVELS or CURVES (also found in the IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS drop-down menu). In LEVELS, you can play with the INPUT and OUTPUT LEVELS; and in curves you can adjust, well the curves (Cross Process can be fun too).

More Inspiration…

Unlike other alternative photographic process topics I’ve been exploring, there aren’t many YouTube videos on this specific topic, but I did find one…

This next video gives some solid tips for creating soft and airy photographs by experimenting with some of the ideas talked about here, but also by exploring other elements from lens choice to other camera settings which allow the backgrounds to appear under or over exposed while keeping the main subjects nicely exposed and in focus…

shooting 'through': the art of the found filter...

In photography, a fun challenge can be to look for things you can “shoot through,” things that are a kind of found filter, one that already exists in nature. This journal entry, which is based on a presentation I first did in February 2019, will explore a number of different filters you can use as a starting point for thinking about this idea.

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Ron Long and the art of flower photography

Tonight I attended the first Thursday Night Artist Talk of 2018, as hosted by held the Surrey Art Gallery Association at the Surrey Art Gallery. These talks take place on the first Thursday of each month, and the Association’s website describes the events as being a:

...monthly program of illustrated talks and demonstrations by local and regional artists. The talks provide an opportunity for artists to expose their work and ideas to the public, and offer the public a chance to see work in a variety of media by artists in their communities.

February's featured artist was Ron Long, whose discussion was titled: The Art, Technique and Challenge of Flower Photography. The description of the artist talk read:

It takes more than a pretty flower to take a good flower picture. Join professional wildlife photographer Ron Long for an illustrated talk to learn tips to improve your own pictures, whether you've been snapping away for years or are just starting out.

The presentation took place in a small conference room of the Surrey Art Gallery. About 35-40 people were in attendance, seated in comfy black stackable chairs facing a large white screen onto which Long's images were projected.

On Photography...

Long began his talk with a brief introduction to himself. He had been a photographer with the Simon Fraser University Biology Department for over thirty-six years before he retired in 2004. And during this time, Long developed his passion for photographing flowers, something he started doing in the 1970s, first with flowers you might find around the house and shortly thereafter with wild flowers.

Long finds that one's photography skills improve as one takes more photographs. "My objective is to make the best pretty pictures of wild flowers that I can." His experience has led him to always want to "...find the best option, as the best shot might not always be obvious. Take the time until you get the shot." For Long, this is particularly important with rare, hard to find flowers:

The more rare the plant, the more time you need to take in photographing it. Take lots and lots of photos. Ask yourself, how can it be better? Always look for different options... explore all the way around a flower, from every angle you can think of. Keep photographing until you can't think what might make a better photo.

For Long, the most interesting compositions are ones where:

  • time is taken to find the best shot;
  • the flower fills the frame, eliminating most empty space; and
  • the most interesting part of the plant is isolated.

In terms of dealing with the composition of a photograph's background, Long discussed how he works to ensure that:

  • any distracting elements in the background are removed;
  • the background is blurred in order to make the flowers look sharper; but
  • allowance is made to let some background details pop (as you don't always want to go for a completely black background).

Throughout his talk, Long emphasized again and again how a photographer should always ask how a plant can be photographed from more interesting angles and viewpoints.

Camera Settings...

A correct combination of exposure settings – shutter speed, lens aperture, and ISO sensitivity – will give bright, contrasting pictures. Long noted how he likes to primarily use an 85mm macro lens, although he does use other lenses from time to time. Long never uses a polarizer on flowers but does use them when photographing other subjects. Finally, Long noted that he never uses vibration reduction as he finds it doesn't work well with macro lenses. 

Long noted that he uses shutter priority as "...a proper shutter speed will give you the beautiful photos you desire." In terms of lighting, Long revealed how he tries to keep this consideration as simple as possible. Long doesn't use any reflectors or any other lighting devices as they are difficult to deal with when you're by yourself out in the field. Long sometimes uses a built in flash to help make the flower visually pop, but noted that it must be balanced with the available ambient light. Sometimes he will turn the camera upside down to help aim the camera's built in flash to the areas where he wants it. Long never uses a ring flash as it can produce a ring of white light on his subjects. Long also described how he never uses exposure compensation, choosing instead to expose for the lightest, brightest petal in the photo frame to ensure he captures a detail throughout the image.

Long generally sets his ISO at 400, but if it's nice and bright he select an ISO of 100 as he never uses auto ISO. "With today's cameras you can go up to ISO 9000 or higher and still get good results." 

Calochortus howellii


Before heading out to an area to photograph, Long noted that he will research what kind of flowers might be found in an area he is visiting  so he will know what to look for, especially when it comes to searching for rare flowers. He always knows the names of the kinds of flowers he might encounter as he's found that helps dictate the kind of compositions he will create (his examples included flowers known as a steer's head, and another known as a monkey orchid). For Long, over time similar types of plants from different parts of the world make for an interesting series that he's always looking to expand.

Delphinium nudicaule

On Computers...

Long approaches his photography in such a way as to produce images that require little to no post processing, " I don't have to do anything on the computer... on a recent trip to Africa I shot over 10,000 photos but none needed any post processing as I made sure I had what I needed in camera, especially making sure I had a uniform exposure throughout, as you must have something you can work with."

When Long does use the computer he only does so to crop any distractions that may be taking away from the main subject. He also crops to create a panorama that again helps to provide more focus for the main subject. But when cropping, Long noted that he only crops to either the top or bottom of a photograph or to the sides, but never to both. Nevertheless, Long continued to emphasize that life is much easier if you can do all of this in camera.

Finally, Long discussed how he has adopted photo stitching techniques to combine, for example, four rows of ten exposures from a telephoto lens in order to make a large photograph of certain scenes. 

Closing thoughts...

Long encouraged his audience to always have fun. "Enjoy every second of it. Stay with it and keep exploring a flower until you can't think of anything that can be done. The longer you spend increases the possibility of producing interesting photographs." Long ended his talk with a brief question and answer period, which allowed the audience to ask him questions on a range of topics from technical to creative considerations, from appropriate clothing in the field to dealing with changing weather conditions. Finally, Long noted that he also photographs landscapes in addition to florals.

Overall, it was a very interesting artist's talk that had a strong focus on a very specific subject matter. I personally haven't photographed many flowers but I do try to photograph the various things I plant in my own yard, so his talk definitely gave me new ideas for how I approach that. His thoughts on composition will also be helpful as I have taken photos of flowers in the pttast with the intent of drawing or painting them later in my studio, using my photos as a reference. If I can ultimately produce more interesting compositions in camera, it should translate to more interesting compositions for my drawing and painting. Long’s enthusiastic passion for flower and wildlife photography as well as with travelling was contagious and I found I wanted to start photographing again right away. And I would love to hear him talk again!