Brightening Dim Memories

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In the old days of labouring for hours in the dark with smelly chemicals a poorly exposed photograph was a trial to be endured. If it had no great importance, it would be tossed on the floor to be swept up later, when the lights were on. If it were a frame that must be printed – the contents of the image being too important to throw away – it meant hours of mostly guesswork fooling around with the only three things we could change: the grade of the paper (its intensity of contrast), the time of the exposure under the enlarger, and the time of development. Those with fancy labs and cash could do other things, but these are the basics.

Today it’s easy. I’ll show you five photos taken several years ago with a point and shoot camera. All five had some problem. None would have looked good in an album. All five could be saved from the darkroom floor, so to speak.

Here’s Buck the Horse. Buck pulls a fancy carriage around town all day and night. He looks tired. I would be too:

Buck looking a little dim

As you can see, the original shot is very poorly exposed. The cause of this is that the subject is at greatly varying distances from the flash. We covered the inverse square rule before. What is twice as far away will be four times as dark.

Composition aside, it would have been better to shoot the horse and carriage from the side so that most everything was more or less the same distance away.

A few minutes with any decent photo management program will allow you to fix such a photo. I use Photoshop, but there are very excellent free programs available. If you’re on a budget, I’d suggest the open-source program called The Gimp. You can download it and install it on your computer for nothing (yes, legally). It does nearly everything that Photoshop does.

Here’s Buck feeling a little brighter:

Buck feeling brighter

The next shot is underexposed. That means it didn’t get enough light. It was probably because the camera wasn’t very good at guessing, by ‘looking’ at the entire scene, how much light to let in. It was fooled by the bright sky into giving the building less light:

Old church on Monument Circle in Indianapolis - underxposed

There is a simple trick that you can try to fix this before it happens.

With most cameras, you can point the camera at the building in such a way that there is no sky visible in the frame. Try pointing the camera farther down so that no sky is showing. Now press your shutter button down to its first position. This causes the camera to set its focus. It also fools the camera into setting an exposure value that is correct for the building only. Then, while holding the button in the first position, move your camera back up and complete your composition of the frame. Finally, push the button hard to make the exposure.

This method also works well when taking photos of people who are backlit. It’s best to avoid having a bright background behind your subject, but sometimes it cannot be helped. Just point your camera at the feet and do the half-way-down thing with the button. Hold it there, point the camera back at the person and finish the shot.

You should also remember that it is almost always better to force the flash on your camera to fire when taking photos of people outdoors. Your camera may not want to fire its flash, but there is a setting that will force it to. This is critical when taking photos of dark-skinned people. Show a little respect and set your camera to forced-flash or “Fill Flash”.

You can see here that I’ve fixed the frame by increasing the exposure values after the shot was taken. It was easy. I had to select the sky and darken it to avoid losing the sky altogether:

Old church on Monument Circle in Indianapolis - fixed

The next shot is much the same thing, except the sky dropped out completely:

The Indiana State Capital building looking forlorn

I fixed the exposure of the buildings and they came up nicely:

The Indiana State Capital building looking horrible with the fake sky in back

Never satisfied, I then proceeded to ruin the shot by adding some fakey clouds. I leave it as an example of what not to do.

It’s too bad that I cut the top off of this frame when I took the shot. I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing. This is the beautiful Scottish Rite Cathedral (Masonic) in Indianapolis. In this frame, it’s a bit underexposed, taking the lustre off of the wonderful, creamy white oolitic limestone from Oolitic, Indiana, the small town named after the product. The building also seems to be leaning back as if it’s about to fall back into the parking lot:

The Scottish Rite Cathedral in Indianapolis

Fixing the exposure was simple – a few clicks and adjustments. Taking some of the lean out is also easy. Most programs have some sort of lens distortion feature that allows you to make hung-over buildings feel better. In the darkroom we used to do this my propping up one end of the frame that holds the paper under the enlarger. We’d adjust the angle until the vertical lines were more parallel:

The Scottish Rite Cathedral in Indianapolis - no longer leaning back

It would have been a fine shot if I hadn’t been inattentive to the composition in the first place.

I remember going to dances in the magnificent ballroom in this building when I was in high school. My grandad was a 47th Degree Mason (I think that’s what it was called). He insisted that I join the Order of DeMolay. I gave it a go, but Freemasonry didn’t stick on me – nothing against it. I suppose I simply didn’t ‘get it’.

Anyway, on to the last shot.

I’m not much of a flag waver. I do display the flag of Papua New Guinea at the top of my blog, but that is not a political statement. It’s only a small token of my gratitude to a country that has become my home – and will remain so until I die.

Here’s a shot taken inside the magnificent war memorial building in Indianapolis. It’s too bad that we have to have wars. There seems to me to be some horrible flaw in the way we’re made. I also find it sad that we build heart-breaking beauty into our monuments to war. They should look like a pile of stinking, smoking rubble with body parts sticking out and babies screaming.

We remember all the wrong things about our wars.

Anyway, I digress. This is a horribly underexposed shot of the interior Bellum Sanctorum (or whatever they call it – my high-school Latin was fifty years ago). There is, appropriately I guess, a humungous “Old Glory” hanging there.

Unfortunately, the bright star light fixture fooled the camera into not giving enough light to show the incredible interior of the vault:

The inner vault of the War Memorial in Indianapolis - underexposed

Again, a few clicks and it’s fixed:

The inner vault of the War Memorial in Indianapolis - corrected

If you click to enlarge, you can see the beautiful details. There is a little motion-blur (camera shake) caused by the long exposure, but we can’t do much about that after the fact.

When you’re going through your photos to separate the trash from the treasure, don’t throw away a sick frame that contains a memory that you want to keep.

Give it a little medicine.

Ihre Kamera lässt Ihre Augen schöne Gedächtnisse gefangennehmen.

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