Many stories I have photographed for Traveler are stories where I’m hiking, biking, or skiing through the tale. The journey itself is the story, and the usual trick of finding a great location and then coming back when the light is right doesn’t work in these scenarios. I have to make the shot when I’m there, even if it’s in the harsh light of midday.
This scene, shot during a hiking trip through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, is a perfect example. I was initially drawn to the beautiful clouds and blue sky, but the same light that made the sky so colorful covered the rest of the scene with heavy, dark shadows.
There are two ways to make this picture. The first would be to set my exposure for the shadows. I can easily do this by pointing the camera at my feet and locking the camera on that exposure. The sky would then turn a blinding white, but the rocks and hiker would look normal. Sometimes this technique is effective, but in this case I really wanted to show the clouds.
So instead, I decided to meter on the sky, rendering everything else in the scene black. Setting the exposure was easy, because the sky was so bright that the evaluative metering in my camera chose the perfect exposure. Then the important part of making an interesting shot began.
I rushed ahead and over the crest of the hill, realizing that any hiker following me would eventually reach the gap and stand out in bold relief against the sky. When relying on a silhouette to carry all the information in a photo, it has to be just right, so I waited until the hiker started to make his turn at the top. I couldn’t believe my luck at the details that were revealed at just the right moment. The separation of the legs, the arm’s distance from the body, the fact that the shape of the hiking stick is separate from the leg—all these details are critically important to the meaning of the picture. At this moment the viewer knows that this is a hiker on a trail and not just another rock or tree stump. When the body language of a subject is rendered this distinctly, it also lets me include more of the surroundings into the shot. The subject can be very small, turning a simple picture of a hiker into a grand landscape.
Photo Tip: The trick to making a good photograph often comes down to managing contrast levels within the scene that you choose to include in the viewfinder. What we see when looking at our surroundings is very different from what a camera can see. The human brain tends to show detail in both shadows and highlights, but cameras have a much narrower dynamic range.
Simply put, you can’t easily take a good picture that shows both shadows and highlights at the same time. This is one of the reasons that many photographers love to shoot early or late in the day. When the sun isn’t as strong, the highlights of a scene are closer to the shadows, and a more pleasing exposure is possible. Choose to make a silhouette, and use it to your advantage.
Photographed with a Fujifilm X-Pro1 and 18-55 mm zoom lens at 21mm. Exposure setting 1/450 sec, f/13, ISO 400.
Follow Dan Westergren on Instagram @danwestergren.