It’s funny the things you remember and when you remember them. Yesterday we had an amazingly gorgeous sky. The kind of sky that makes twirling about on a hilltop a la Sound of Music seem the absolutely perfectly normal thing to do. Of course, I grabbed my camera and began shooting. As I focused, checked composition, and worked out the best exposure for this amazing sky I found myself worrying obsessively over blowing out any tiny highlight of the white clouds in front of me. Absolutely stupid to worry about this. My human eyes were seeing some spots as blown out and my eyes have much more capacity for dynamic range than a digital camera. Yet over and over in my head the worry of blowing out even the tiniest highlight shouted in my mind as I shot.
Now, of course I wouldn’t want large swaths of blown out white in an image but to avoid pure white completely? Why? Pure white and pure black are part of our spectrum, why shouldn’t we include them. Especially if they are in the scene we see? The short answer is we should include them in cautious measure.
Why was I so worried about this though? Short answer is a photography professor in college. My degree isn’t in the arts. It is in marketing. A degree that has been somewhat useful over the years but the double major that was to have been photography never materialized because of that professor. Not because of any failing grades, in fact, the professor offered to waive, and did waive, prerequisites to get me into his photography class after seeing my compositions in drawing class. The problem was a massive disagreement of vision.
We would all put our work on the wall each week for critique by the class. Student after student would speak of favorites and least favorites with little argument from the professor. But when I would speak of a favorite photo by another student it would be talked down as “too textbook.” Of course, I fired back with “why are we using the book if matching it is bad?” And the professor’s biggest pet peeve, other than cute animals which we were expressly forbidden to photograph, was white and black. Any pure white or pure black within a photo was ruthlessly pointed out. Pure black shadow in the far corner of a forest scene? WRONG! Sliver of pure white on a single bird’s feather? WRONG!
Unlike the no cute animals rule, which I protested by shooting road kill, the professor’s obsession with blown out highlights and pure black shadows was one that could not be avoided. In spite of good grades, I never took another photography class at that university. I dropped my second major and stuck to a single degree for my time there. Why? Because that professor had destroyed something in my photographs. I no longer saw the art of the photo, I only saw the technical aspects. And the technical aspects I judged severely in my own work. It took many years to find my heart in photography again but I still struggle with those blasted highlights. In looking back years later I looked up the professor online. There in his portfolio were shot after shot with pure white and blackest black. I’m not sure if I laughed or cursed him then but it did help me realize how hypocritical he had been and confirm that I wasn’t missing something by not hating the bright and the dark.
So when you are speaking with others about their photography be careful of your influence. You never know what will stick with a person.