Photographic Failures

Volume 8, Issue 19; 11 Feb 2005; last modified 08 Oct 2010

Snow and bark and blue sky.

Whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed: failure is the fate allotted.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Every time the snow falls, and especially when it falls on a windless night like last night, I'm impressed by the stark beauty of the white snow on the dark, near black bark of the leafless trees in the morning and, on this occasion at least, the subtle hues of the pale blue sky behind.

Capturing that beauty proves, for me at least, to be remarkably difficult. I'm tempted to cast aspersions on the limited tonal range of my digital camera and certainly that is a factor, but it is a poor artist who blames his brush.

This morning, I tried again, in both the back yard and the front. Even with white balance adjustments, exposing for the snow leaves the whole scene too dark. Exposing for the sky blows out the snow.

With a little stitching and some fiddling in gimp, using a gradient filter to adjust the foreground and background more independently, I got the results you see below.

Back Yard (Manipulated)
Back Yard (Manipulated)
Front Yard (Manipulated)
Front Yard (Manipulated)

I humbly suggest that they don't totally suck, but neither are they very successful. The back yard image has a pleasant ethereal quality in the sky, but overall it's a pretty drab gray.

The front yard image isn't grey but somewhere along the lines, it's become a little unreal. I think my best results may have come from taking the color out all together.

Front Yard in Black & White
Front Yard in Black & White

It's interesting, but lacking in detail, I think.

Try, try again.


One heck of a back yard Norm! No wonder you want to photograph it. The upside should be that you can see it? Don't get down just because you can't get an image of it on paper.

—Posted by Dave Pawson on 15 Feb 2005 @ 12:20 UTC #

Dave, I suspect like me you weren't expecting to see trees in a "yard":-)

The OED explains that yard is the american spelling of garden...

Funny thing, language...

—Posted by David Carlisle on 15 Feb 2005 @ 01:09 UTC #

You were expecting something a little smaller than a square meter, is that it?

—Posted by Norman Walsh on 15 Feb 2005 @ 01:36 UTC #

Well, it looks nice to me - I love the patterns silhouetted tree-branches/twigs make against pastel skies.
However, if you want to fix some of the alleged "drabness" - by which you mean a uniformity of lighting across the whole scene - then you need to include directed light *in* the shot. For example, a burst of sunlight through leaves onto opposing trees can be quite spectacular. I humbly offer two obvious shots in my gallery (see references to `trees' in for examples.
As for sorting out the exposure: well, all cameras have far less contrast support than your eyes. When you look at the scene, you can see both the delicate pastel hues and the details in the shadows, when the camera renders them as shades of black. The tricks for reducing contrast are best applied on-scene: either use a graduated ND filter if possible (it might not fit the shape of the scenery, of course - they're best for lining-up along mountain-tops against bright skies, or you might not want to impose a gradient on the highlights if they're a major feature like this), or in this case, you could get a slave flash gun positioned 25-45 degrees to your left: this would fill in the shadows a bit, so the camera has less work to do to keep all the contrast under control.
A final trick: shoot the pic right-aligned in the histogram. I.e., over-expose by maybe 1/3rd-2/3rds an eV. Then you won't need to brighten the shadows (elevating sensor noise into the visible range) so much.

—Posted by Tim on 17 Feb 2005 @ 11:08 UTC #