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This photo was submitted by Becky Kagan of Pennsylvania. Becky runs a photo/video production company called Liquid Productions that specializes in underwater imaging. (Check out her site; there’s some nice work there!)

In Becky’s photo submission she expressed some frustration with the shooting conditions and the processing of this photo. Below are my comments.

First, about the sky. Most outdoor photographers cringe at the very thought of photographing a solid white or gray sky, often with good reason. A featureless sky is seldom an ideal element in a strong photograph. The brightness can distract the viewer’s eye (we’re naturally drawn to bright objects in a photo) and since there is no detail present, it’s not very interesting. Of course, like every other “rule” of photography, there are exceptions.

When we go out for shoot, especially an elaborate event that has been shceduled, planned and coordinated to the nth degree, we’re forced to deal with what we find on location. For documentary photography and photogjournalism, this is seldom a problem. In fine art nature and landscape photography, the lighting and the condition of the sky becomes paramount.

This photo represents one of those situations in which the sky didn’t cooperate. This presentes the photographer with very few options:

  1. Don’t make the photographs at all; chalk it up to bad luck and pack it in for the day.
  2. Make the photos but avoid including the sky in the frame.
  3. “Fix it in post”, referring to the common practice of correcting flaws during computer processing.

To me, the first option is rarely an option. After all, I’ve made it to the location and have my gear ready… I’m gonna shoot, dammit! 😉 However, there are situations where it’s impossible to produce a strong image because of poor lighting. After all, photography is all about light.

The second option, excluding the sky altogether, sometimes is the best choice. If the sky is featureless, it probalby isn’t going to contribute anything meaningful to the photo, so leave it out.

Finally, the third option for faking it in the computer. Evern notice films where the sky has been made blue in post? All too often, it’s done poorly and looks obviously fake. So they key to pulling this off is having the technical chops to make it convincing.

So let’s see how all this applies to the photo here.

For starters, I have to say that this is an incredibly strong, compelling photo, purely for the subject matter and the way it’s portrayed. This kind of shot is difficult to get under any circumstances, so kudos to the photographer for getting a great image in spite of less than ideal conditions.

Interestingly, my critique has far less to do with the sky than it does the “models”, or the people in the frame. A couple of things I think would have improved the photo:

  1. Having the people on the boat pose or at least be sitting/standing in more appealing positions would have helped a lot. I find it quite distracting that the person at the front of the boat is facing away from the camera, almost as if the appearance of the manatees is a non-event.
  2. Similarly, the jacket and folded arms make it appear cold outside. Even if it was chilly, I’d have asked everyone to go short sleeve for the shot. The appearance of cold weather is incongruous with the subject and I find it to be a bit distracting from the overall theme.
  3. Now, about that sky. One option would have been to include less of it at the time of capture. At this point, a tigher crop might lessen the potential distraction caused by the bright sky. Alternatively, this is the kind of shot in which replacing the sky (called “compositing” for the act of making a composite image) would be very easy. The fact that the sky is so devoid of detail, solid and “smooth” would make masking and layering a new sky quick and easy. Obviously the trick would be using a sky that is believable; a blue sky with puffy white clouds might work, but a golden sunset would not. You could also use a simple blue gradient that fades out to white at the bottom.

Overall I think this is a strong image and I don’t find the sky to be a killer. That said, the lighting is flat and diffuse, which works great for under the water but is less than ideal for the scenery above. This is a case where conditions weren’t perfect and I think the photographer did a fine job of making the most of a unique opportunity.