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« a bunch of man & nature | Main | man & nature # 49 ~ icing on the autumnal cake »

man & nature # 50 ~ natural nature

A wider view of icing on the autumnal cakeclick to embiggen
On yesterday's entry Martin Doonan asked:

How do you get the clouds to look like that (i.e. perfectly natural)? Doesn't seem to matter what I do (or don't) making photographic skies look natural is an art unto itself.

Martin, I do pay particular attention to the sky in my pictures, especially so in those that picture the natural world. As I have mentioned before, I often take 2 exposures - tripod mounted camera to avoid or at least minimalize later sky / horizon registration issues - 1 for the overall scene, 1 for the sky, and then blend them together in Photoshop. How I do it is relatively simple (although it does require much attention to detail), but that's not the reason why the results tend to look "perfectly natural".

The natural look comes from lessons learned and aesthetics adopted during decades of picturing with color negative film.

Very few would dispute the fact that color negative film has always been the extended dynamic range champ, especially so in the domain of film. Color negative film, also possesses incredibly smooth tonal transition qualities as well as (with the right product) the ability to capture quite natural and subtle color. The resultant type-C prints looked and felt quite "natural".

That look was disdained by the majority of photographers, especially those who pictured the landscape. As an example, natural greens just were not green enough for them and as a result Velvia was launched to meet the lust for exaggeration and effect. Unfortunately, Velvia was also a very contrasty film that yielded up blocked shadows and blown highlights in anything but "soft" light - a characteristic shared to greater or lesser degrees by most other reversal (transparency) films - which resulted in the emergence of the not - so - subtle technique of GND-ing the hell out of skies.

GND filters may have brought the sky into an acceptable exposure range that reversal film could handle but the result was always a sky that had a very contrasty look and feel to it - the result of using inherently contrasty reversal films. The resultant visual look and feel was anything but natural. This un-natural look was further exacerbated by the fact that the sky also looked and felt out of balance with the rest of the picture - as an example, skies that were darker than their reflection on the surface of water or very dark, dramatic and color saturated skies that quite obviously were not in balance with the rest of the scene.

Color negative film, with its greater dynamic range, is able to capture highlight and shadow detail that reversal film can not. Quite frankly, it's amazing how much a sky can be overexposed and still retain detail on color negative film. In the darkroom, careful printing with subtle burning in of the sky can result in prints that look and feel quite natural, especially so with respect to tonal balance with the rest of the scene.

This color negative-style balanced / natural look and feel is what I strive to emulate with my digital captures.

I believe this look results much more from aesthetic choices - learned and adapted from my good 'ole days of color negative film picturing and printing - than it does from those of technique.

Reader Comments (1)

Thanks for the detailed response, that will be really useful. I'm striving for a similar aesthetic to you (with skies in particular) but your description makes me realise I've a very colour-reversal workflow. Practice definitely needed, but I think this will lead me in the direction I'm looking for.

October 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMartin Doonan

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