with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Basic Nature Photography Chapter 3 – Light, Eyes, and Film

Film sees the world differently than our eyes do. One of the challenges of photography is learning what those differences are so we can successfully put our vision on film. The human eye sees millions of colors and color variations at the same time. The eye sees all shades of white: off-white, cream, egg, ecru, soft-white, etc. Same for colors such as purple, magenta, pink, auburn, fire engine red, orange, sunset orange, and so on. The palette of colors available for oil paints is not as varied as the eye can see. Film is more limited.

Exposure Latitude

Unlike our eyes, film sees across a range known as the exposure latitude. This is the range of “tones” film can see between absolute black and absolute white. Slide film sees about 7 stops, while print film typically sees about twice as many. Slide film reveals more intense colors, as it sees only the main colors and not all the shades of “gray”, one reason why professional photographers continue to use slide film and why their clients demand it. Print film is generally processed by computers which “guess” at the colors to print on paper, and this extra step can introduce errors.

Understanding how the film records the light and color helps you choose the canvas you wish to “paint” with. Different brands of film see colors differently, too, so play around with different films to see which gives you the results you desire. In general, we use Fuji slide film for the best color rendition of nature scenes.

Film Decisions

The color of light and the color of your subject is affected by the film we use. Film is sensitive to light and the colors of light – some more sensitive to warm colors and some to cool colors.

camfilm.jpgA research project by Fuji Films, in an attempt to find out what “temperature” and colors people prefer, found people remember colors more vividly than they actually appeared in reality. Think about the colors found in fireworks. Close your eyes and remember the last set of fireworks you watched. Remember the vivid colors exploding in the dark sky. How electric they are. But if we could see those fireworks again, they would appear different. How would reality compare to your memory? Fireworks are mostly pastel in color: pinks, light blues, light greens, yellow. But most of us probably remembered flaming reds and brilliant purples.

The end result? Fuji “pumped up” the colors in their films, especially the warm colors. Kodak and the other film companies have stepped up to the plate to catch up with the color technology of Fuji, but the battle to control the film market continues, benefiting photographers for sure.

Print Film

Print film sees very much like the human eye does. Our eye can see a wide range of tones, from extreme black to bright white. This means we have a wide exposure latitude. What we see as dark is dark. What we see as light or white is light. What we see as gray will be gray. Print film offers a wide range of exposure latitude allowing us to capture more of the tonal range.

A print is made from a negative, and adjusted when printed according to the machine’s “guesstimates”, or the lab worker’s judgement. This is why print film is very forgiving of exposure errors. Misjudge the exposure by a stop or two, and these mistakes can be corrected in the lab with little loss of quality. Or the difference between “correct exposure” and “slightly off” is so subtle, it still looks “right”. This is because the exposure latitude is so wide, we have lots of room for “errors”.

Print film would seem to be the perfect choice in films. It is easy to use, you have lots of room for “mistakes” and you get a picture to take with you to show your friends.

Slide film

bizslidesontable.jpgSlide film is difficult to show your friends without expensive equipment. The image is small, unlike print film usually sized 4×6 inches per print, it doesn’t carry in your pocket very well. The advantage of slide film is that what you get back from the lab is your film, not a copy of it. If the slide is dark, it’s your mistake. If the color balance is wrong, your mistake. There is no lab interpretation and no middle process to alter or “fix” your pictures. We recommend you use slide film during our courses for this reason. Therefore, these class notes are aimed at the user of slide film, although the print film user can use the same techniques with excellent results.

There is no room for error on slide film. A one stop adjustment on your camera can overexposure your image. Slide film has a narrow exposure latitude – you either get the exposure right or not. There is no “in between”. This makes slide film an excellent film for beginners so they can learn from their mistakes, especially when it comes to understanding exposure.

Slide film presents colors as rich and vibrant as our memory of them allows. Red is red. Black is black, not sort of gray. Yellow and greens jump out at you, as they are not muted by the subtle variations.

Slide film is used for publication. Every magazine, calendar, greeting card, and book publisher is set up to accept slide transparencies to make their color separations. It’s cheaper and easier for them. To accept prints, they have to re-photograph them before they can use them. Most will not accept prints. If you want to be published – you must shoot slide film.

Digital “Film”

While the techniques involved in using a digital camera are little different from those of using a traditional camera, the end result does differ. Images are captured and stored onto computer storage devices, and the image quality is limited by the resolution and storage size. The sharpness and size of digital photographs depends upon the size of the sensor behind the lens. Consumer quality digital cameras feature sensor sizes ranging from 0.4 to about 8 megapixels (millions of pixels). For digitalpixelpic.jpgImage with exaggerated pixels. The number of pixels a digital camera can recognize and record represents the image quality the camera is capable of.

For photographs to look acceptable on computer screen or on a web page, a one megapixel camera may be enough. If you are seeking reproducible images for enlargements, you will need a camera with a larger megapixel sensor. The larger the sensor, the larger the output files. In general, a 4-6 megapixel quality image could take 16 to 20 megabytes of storage space per picture. More storage space, larger sensor, more money.

Size isn’t everything, though. There are several type of sensors on the market with new ones coming out all the time. In general, RGB sensors (CCDs) record color better than CMYG sensors. The quality of the camera’s lens and the camera’s ability to control exposure and to maintain an accurate white balance will also improve results.

Learning how your digital camera handles exposure involves understanding how exposure works and then running your camera through a barrage of bracketing tests to determine how accurate its meter is. If your camera doesn’t permit manual exposure control, try manipulating its exposure compensation controls. Check your manual for specific instructions. Typically, digital cameras behave like color slide film, creating better images when slightly underexposed, especially when photographing a brightly lit scene.


Testing Film
Purchase at least one roll each of three or four different kinds of film. You can choose from varieties of print or slide film, or some of each. Go to a location where you will have a variety of subjects to choose from. Pick several subjects of which at least one is a very light color, a very dark color, a rainbow of colors, and a medium-toned color. Taking notes, photograph these subjects with each roll of film. Keep your exposure either on automatic or matching the camera meter’s recommendation. Try to move quickly so that the light stays the same on the subjects during the process. After processing the film, compare them with your notes and see which film handles which colors and subjects better. Is there one that seems to match your memory of the colors better than others? Take the pictures and revisit those subjects. Compare the end results with the reality and note which best match the original colors and tones?
Digital Testing
Following the instructions in your manual, calibrate your digital camera’s meter with a white balance level. Then pick a variety of subjects outdoors of which at least one is a very light color, a very dark color, a rainbow of colors, and a medium-toned color. Compare the results in your camera’s screen (or later in the computer) with the original colors. How closely do they match? Do you find a difference between what you see in reality with what you see on your camera’s screen and what you see when it is transferred to the computer? What is the difference in quality and color?

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