Shadow Detail – Part II

Shadow detail is over-rated!

The prior post discussed shadow detail in a photograph. Shadow detail is one of those conventional wisdom “rules” for which many photographers strive. It has led to all sorts of exposure and developing methods by various photographers over many years, in order to insure “adequate shadow detail”. Then, of course, there is the accompanying “rule” that holds that a good black and white print must have a bit of solid black, and just a bit of solid white, and all the tones in between. Well, maybe.

It is good practice to “expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights”. One wants as much detail in a negative (or digital file) as possible. You cannot print it if it isn’t there in the original negative or file! But, just because it is there in the original, does not mean it has to always be in the print. Some rules are made to be broken occasionally.  Brett Weston, for instance, started breaking this rule almost a century ago.

There is no substitute for seeing good prints. Books and computer screens are inadequate. It can be hard for some aspiring photographers to see a lot of good gallery or museum quality prints, but it is still necessary if one’s own printing is ever going to reach a certain level. You have to know what you’re striving for.

I’ve been lucky. I know good photographers and good printers (not always the same persons) and I have access to good galleries and museum collections. I’ve made a point of traveling to see important shows and collections. It’s an investment in my own development as a photographer. But, I digress.

One of the most important things I have learned from seeing so many original prints is from the work of Brett Weston. I readily acknowledge that Weston is a big influence on my own work. Brett was not afraid of the dark. If it was black, it is black in the print. It was a way for him to turn a photograph into an abstraction, rather than a literal recordation of a scene. If it’s just negative space; maybe it doesn’t require detail just to show off one’s printing skills! The obvious examples are his images of negative space, such as Broken Window, San Francisco (1937),


or this 1925 image of a corrugated tin roof.


There is the well-known Garrapata Beach (1954) BW Garrapata Beach

or the Oceano Dunes.

BW-Dune-1934-printed 1980

In the Garrapata Beach image, (it may not be easy to see on a computer monitor, or even in a reproduction in a book) there is detail in the shadows on the sand of the beach, however, the shadow on the rock in the left side to the picture is completely black in the prints I’ve seen. Even in the landscape, where so many photographers jump through hoops to have all that shadow detail, Weston would let shadows go completely black, if that’s the way he saw (or interpreted) the scene. I made this picture at a crumbling building, a not uncommon subject. There was some light in the background, but I elected to “channel Brett” and make the shadow black.

herring 7a

And then there is the problem negative I referenced in the prior post on shadow detail.


As I said, I had used this negative for teaching purposes, but never really made a “show to other people” print. Until it dawned on me that what I had pointed the camera at was the bright trapezoid. The subject was the shape, not the light and shadow! The shadow was simply the frame. My metering and work methods are such that I had shadow detail, but it wasn’t needed. I printed to let the shadow go completely black, and I think the image is much stronger, if not as “impressive” from a printing technique standpoint.

Sometimes, occasionally, black is black!

At the other end of the light scale, there is paper white. I haven’t experimented a lot with this yet, but I will. One example from years ago is the candle flame from the post Photographing Light. Last year I saw an exhibition of John Singer Sargent watercolors. He very effectively used the paper white for his highlights, which is common in watercolor. What was a little uncommon was the extent to which he employed the technique is certain paintings. He was not afraid of the light!

It works both ways.


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