Tuesday, December 15, 2009
The Digital Decisive Moment
We’re entering an era of new possibilities, where low-noise and high-ISO digital capture is defining new aesthetics. And it’s not just about low-light shooting.
Low-light photography once meant that a photographer had to make choices about depth of field, stopping motion and illuminating the subject and/or the background. With a long shutter speed to allow ambient illumination, motion was blurred. With enough depth of field to provide contextual sharpness, any flash illumination meant darkness beyond the subject; there was always a trade-off. Add new control over ISO choices, however, and suddenly the photographer isn’t forced to make the aesthetic sacrifices he once was.
Inside a Moscow brothel, Ludwig gets motion stopping and depth of field with minimal noise. Images like this simply weren’t possible until now. Imagine trying to get this photograph with a roll of ISO 100 slide film!
“Not only has my strobe become a more powerful tool now,” Ludwig continues, “I can use it in more subtle ways, too. In Russia, I was doing things with a small handheld strobe during my assignment that, if somebody had watched me doing this a few years back, they would have looked at me thinking this guy doesn’t know what he’s doing. I was pointing my strobe at the high ceiling of a church, using it as a bounce. Even in conventional situations, my strobe is now less obtrusive. An amateur’s flash coming from a cell phone camera sometimes pops stronger than my Canon strobe because I’m shooting such a high ISO.”
Beyond the simple light-gathering function, high-ISO digital capture has another inherent improvement over film—detail without contrast. Pushing film to high ISOs meant building contrast to the point at which an image lost all shadow detail. The problem was so bad that, before digital, Ludwig advised shooting at low ISOs in low light, simply so he could preserve detail to pull out of the finished image.
“In the film days in darker situations, I resorted to shooting low-speed film,” he says. “In workshops, I taught students to shoot Kodachrome 64 in low light and illuminate the foreground with flash. Rarely, I went to a higher ISO. Low-ISO films were better at handling the details in the shadows and highlights, which accounted for at least some sense of place. Higher-ISO film just couldn’t handle any contrast.”
“The amount of detail that we can extract from the shadows in digital is amazing,” adds Ludwig. “[With] the tolerance that digital technology has overall, ranging from extreme light to extreme shadows, there’s often now more detail than your eye can detect. These new cameras can see in the dark.”
Foregoing the trade-offs of film has allowed Ludwig, a master of documenting real life, to create a new style of photograph in low light. “And much of everyday life,” he points out, “happens in low light.”
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