Posted on December 14, 2013
The shot was particularly hard to get because of the intense backlighting of the sun blasting the canopy from the opposite side. Anyone who takes photos regularly has experienced this problem where all the detail gets obscured in deep shadows when the subject is strongly backlit, especially when it’s the sun doing the backlighting. I’m fairly happy with the level of detail that came through on the guardian tree limb, but I had to use a technique called Exposure Locking to get anything other than a completely black silhouette. Exposure Lock is a little tricky conceptually, but sometimes it’s the only way to get a useful shot in tough lighting situations like this.
Most DSLR cameras have a * button on the back near the top right corner, and this is usually set to Exposure Lock (AE Lock) by default (in some cameras you can change the function of this button). Normally, your camera will set it’s exposure at the same time you focus your lens with a half-press of the shutter button which is the best way to go for the majority of your photos. In extreme lighting situations like this however, it’s necessary to disconnect the exposure from the focus point in order to capture the details in the darkest parts of the image. My focus point was on the end of the largest branch, which had tons of extremely bright highlights where the sun was peaking through. When I allowed the camera to expose the shot with my focus point, the camera saw the very bright highlights and assumed that the entire image was too bright. If the camera thinks the image is too bright, it brings the exposure way down and everything in the shadows becomes pure black. If you point your central metering circle in the viewfinder into an area of the image that is fairly dark, lock the exposure with the * button, and then recompose and take your shot, you effectively fool the camera into thinking that the image is too dark so it doesn’t black out everything in the shadows and allows you to keep the shadow detail you want. This comes at the expense of the brightest parts of the image getting blown out, so you have to decide which is worse… a few blown out highlights, or losing all your shadow detail.
It took me a while to figure out the AE Lock technique, but it’s a handy trick in situations like this where strong backlighting can overwhelm your photo with pure black shadows. All the pro’s are probably saying “That’s way too complicated. Why not just use a flash?”. There’s nothing wrong with that strategy, and I agree that that would be much easier. I just don’t like flash photography… it’s purely a personal preference. Flash photography always looks like a flash was used, and for me it ruins the natural, pure feeling of the scene. Just a personal preference, not right or wrong.