Contrasts–by Doug Benton

Perfect morning. As Kona (Dog) and I came to the edge of the property on our walk this morning, I became aware that this was one of those moments. If only there was a way to capture it. Not on film, but in my spirit. As we walked out of the cool shadows and the filtered light that found its way through the trees that have just about given up for the year, and into the fullness of the morning sun I stopped and soaked it in. I wanted to memorize it. Not just the image of it, but the essence. The contrast of the warmth and coolness wasn’t limited to the air temperature. As I was standing in the sunlight watching and feeling Kona’s joy in the moment, I looked back up the trail we had just came down and noticed how blue the light was in the relative darkness of the trees. I hadn’t noticed it while I was in it.

Kona and I have walked that path many times since moving here. It’s been hot and sweaty, cold, and windy, and everything in between. It wasn’t really the coolness or the warmth that struck me this morning, it was the contrast, the experience of them in relation to each other and at the same time. The warmth and weight of the sun on my face and cool emptiness on the back of my neck. The frost in the blue light, on the shadowed side of meadow, turning into big droplets of dew clinging to the blades of grass as the yellow light of the sun washes over it.

The richness and fullness of the moment wasn’t in the warmth or the cold. Nor was it in the wet grass vs. the dry path. The darkness of the trail or the brightness of the open field. It was in the contrast. The one, defining and emphasizing the other. It’s the contrast and the transition that brings awareness and appreciation.

I’ve been pondering and mulling this over for a couple of hours now. The truth is, I hate the cold. I hate the long death of winter. Given the choice, I would never be cold again. In fact, this morning I put on a sweatshirt, hoody, coat and gloves before I went out. Plus carried a hot coffee with me. I did everything I could not to experience the cold. For the most part I was successful. The only part of me that I hadn’t protected from the cold was my head, and I hadn’t gotten very far into the woods when I wished I had worn a hat. It wasn’t really cold; I was just aware of ears being uncomfortable.

I wonder if my experience in the meadow would have been different or missed had I been toasty warm the whole way. Would I have just kept walking, finishing the loop and headed home still absorbed in whatever it was I had been thinking about before I became aware of how perfect the moment was? Would I have missed the moment without the contrast?

If I have talked to you about lighting, you’ve heard me talking about the importance of contrast and shadows. Without them there is no texture, form or depth. It’s the contrast between light and dark that shows texture. It’s the shadow that reveals the form of a thing. Beauty is often in that revelation. Movement and life in the transition. Here’s the key though, that’s only true when there is balance, and the contrast is is not too great. It’s when the brights are too bright and the darks too dark that things can be difficult, confusing, hard to understand or just plain ugly. The more the contrast, the less transition. Things that are supposed to be in the middle get forced to the edges. Grays have to choose a side and become light or dark as they cease to exist, until the image is made up of only blacks and whites. At the point that the contrast is too great, and you can’t see detail in both the darks and the lights, the photographer has to decide what will be seen. You can overexpose the scene so that detail can be seen in the darkest shadow, but that means what is already bright will be blown out and lost. If you expose for the brightest part of the scene, the shadows will block up to pure black and all detail will be gone. When the contrast is too great, you will have to choose which you will see, you won’t be able to see both. Seeing one will come at the expense of the other. That’s just the way it is. Unless you have the ability to control contrast. The good news is, there are ways that we can in fact effect or control the contrast range of the scene through exposure and processing techniques as well as other tools like reflectors and lights. That takes both knowledge and effort. Both. You may know how to fix it with lighting, but if you decide hauling around and setting up all that equipment is too much, the knowing doesn’t change anything. If you are willing to do whatever it takes to fix the problem, but don’t have a clue how, you are in the same boat. The desire to control the contrast doesn’t have any impact on the actual contrast. Controlling the scene contrast is up to the photographer.

If you have a photographer friend on Facebook you’ve probably read about how “photography is like life”. Cute and cliche’ on a tee shirt, but still true as I overlay the concept of contrast over my own life. There is no doubt that when things get way out of balance, it’s hard to experience the fullness of life. When the contrast between joy and sadness becomes too great, we have to choose which we will see. Exposing for the sadness will leave joy blown out and unseen. Just Ignoring the sadness and “exposing” for joy isn’t much better if the sadness is still there hidden in the darkness. I wish it was as easy to control the contrasts in life as it is in photography, but it’s not. The good news is though, there are techniques and tools available to help control the contrasts in life as well, but they too require knowledge and effort.

If only there was photoshop for life, complete with contrast and exposure sliders to fix things. Not to mention salvation of the clone stamp and control-Z. Until then I’ve been watching tutorials and taking notes trying to figure it out. Next comes the doing. The hard part. I do believe that life is a gift and that its possible live it to its fullness but it’s not a given. I guess if it were easy, everyone would do it. I’m working on it.

I’ve been missing the beauty in the transition.

How are your contrast levels today?

©2015, 2022 Douglas Benton

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