Saturday Evening Post #25 The Dean of Light

Mr An Onymous and I have been experimenting a bit of late with the Exposure modes in the Nikon system. For almost all my digital life, I’ve been a staunch supporter of Nikon’s Active Matrix exposure system.

Briefly it reads the light value of the scene, and then compares that to a database of similar image values and determines exposure setting, f/stop, shutter speed, and/or ISO value to match with the current scene values for correct exposure.  Internet gurus (know it alls) may disagree, but its worked well for me the past 15 or so years.

What Mr A and I were experimenting with is the value of 18% reflectance and the need to determine a ‘correct’ exposure.
Now long time blog readers will be quite familiar with my rants on the “Mystery and mystic of 18% grey” and the more memorable “The 18% Grey Myth and how we’ve been Conned”, so there is not need to continue that further tonight.

One of the greatest teachers of the correct use of light, its values and how to gain correct exposure with Colour Slide, (Transparency, or ‘Chromes) was Dean Collins.  A US based commercial photographer. I had the great fortune to have attended one of his Seminar events and his clear, concise and skilled explanations of all things lighting was indeed one of the highlights of my life.

Dean’s premise for portraits was to get the Diffused Value of the skin at a specific exposure value, for various skin types, dark, light, tanned, etc.  Then set that and either add light for shadow control or remove it for highlight control. There I just saved you the $1000K for the seminar.  Thanks Dave!

Dean had established through experimentation that if the Diffused value is correctly exposed then Photographic White, (no detail) would be 2 1/3 stop more exposure and Photographic Black (no detail) would be 4 1/3 below.  They didn’t call him “The Dean of Light” without good reason.

The rest is just fascinating tech wizardry and dry boring numbers, so we shall not pursue further other than to suggest that a look at some of Dean’s work will reveal how clever with light he really was. One of the best photos is at the bottom of this blog, along with the whole story,
What is most amusing about this shot, is it was setup with gazillions of flash units running on a sensor, fire the sensor light and all the lights go off.  Except.  As they were getting ready for a shoot, a Japanese tourist came by, pulled out his little camera and took a shot, and set off every bank of flash, all gazillions of them. 🙂

Today, we can’t in the field, make those changes to the light, but clever Photoshop, and to some extent, Lightroom and others  can help. (I’m deliberately avoiding the issue of fill-in flash to help balance out those shadows, in my opinion, it’s so overused and so mostly poorly handled that the results remove the form of the subject)

I loaded the Yellow-plumed Honeyeater file into PS and hunted around with the Eyedropper tool for a value about 127-128 (Mid tone, think Diffused Value if you were paying attention)  Not finding one where I wanted it, I raised the Exposure slider until the area just under our model’s chin was as that value.  All good.

Now I need a Black of about 4 1/3rd less. Past experiments would say that is the 0 value, right?, but I think it’s better at about 25-30, so I dropped the “Shadows” slider until I was getting 25 in the black under the eye. Next is Photo White, and I hunted around the sky values until I found some that read 255 (white), but again from experience I think that is excessive, so I usually use dropped the “Highlights” slider to a value of around 230-235.  Here I went with 235. That way I get a tiny hint of form in the white. (Which by the way look like clouds in this shot, but clever reader you’d be misinformed).

Perfect highlights giving an excellent Hi Key Portrait. Dean would have approved.

And all this because I managed to get a pretty close exposure for the Diffused Value in the first place.  Thanks to Mr A’s theory.

This is not a solution for resurrecting badly over/underexposed photos.
Someone at a bird photography seminar once said to me, “Yes, but I don’t do it that way!!!” to which I responded, “True, but then you don’t get the results I do.”

Herein endeth the lesson.
Keep takin pictures,  we do.

Oh, and I’m not going to answer responses about 8, 10, 12 or 16 bit imaging.

9 thoughts on “Saturday Evening Post #25 The Dean of Light

    1. Hi Eleanor, at least your honest.
      Seriously didn’t begin to write a tech treastise, really wanted to talk about Dean Collins and his work. Just so much of what he taught applies right across to the digital platform. His lighting balance was so much a cut above the rest.

      I spoke to Mr A today, and his point was simple, ‘keep it simple”. Mostly we approach the photoediting part of our work with a clear intention. Then we move sliders hoping to get it right. Having a simple start and end point has always been the easiest approach.

      I’ll keep the tech down as much as possible.

      Keep takin’ pictures. We do.


  1. I have read much of Collins’ work and understood at least some of it. And yes, PS and others can be handy at times.
    Matrix systems are very useful despite what some will say, often handy to get a start point and most advantageous in changeable conditions. A fascinating read today, David!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. G,day. Dean was a master trainer. More than that he made even the complex look simple, so that anyone could do it. When he moved on to the stage, took the microphone, the audience was spellbound. It’s pretty hard to get a group of 300 photographers all leaning forward hanging on every sentence.
    He showed an image of the Dining Room at the White House. I think it seats 180 people. The ceiling goes up to the moon.
    When he showed the result, (shot on 10×8 inch Sinar with a 90mm Super Angulon, (that is like the ultimate lens in the field) ), every plate, cuterly piece, glass and napkin from one end of the table to the other, (way way way down there) was of the same Diffused Value. Evenly lit, perfectly shadow controlled, highlights with detail.
    Someone in the audience asked how it was lit.
    He paused and his response was, “It was shot with Available Light”. Gasps from around the room followed by headshakes.
    Then when the hubub had died, he turned to the audience, cracked a smile and said,
    “Yep, Every light we had available or could hire.” 🙂
    If ever there was a defining moment, it was that for me, as I came away not only knowing how to control light, anywhere, but also with the driving ambition if I was going to become a Trainer, instructor, Teacher. Then I wanted to be like Dean. Not only be knowledgeable, or have done the hard yards at a tech level, but be able to present it in a manner that was entertaining.
    Made such an impact on my future career choices.

    Dean. The Master of Light.



    1. Hi AB, wasn’t trying to be controversial or even thick. Mostly wanted to share that Dean was in deed the master of getting the very best detail from a subject. There is so much that could be written on his techniques. (he never wrote an explanation, only did seminars. He used 3 banks of Hasselblad projectors working side by side on a super wide screen. The resulting images, each slide was 75mm square, were riveting on their own. But by blending and overlapping the images he was able to show each element in his techniques.
      All good.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. To start with I must confess that read this post twice first several days ago and now I’ve done this for the third time. Some things need time to be properly digested and the cows are the best example of Nature’s ingenuity. This is definitely a great food for thought.
    Also, I have always admired the phenomenon of your work, when technical knowledge results in visual poetry – observing these seemingly two distant qualities united is a delight.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Adam, thanks for dropping by, and making an attempt to grasp the somewhat garbled set of instructions. I had originally written about two pages worth, then stopped and said, “Hey, its only a Saturday Night Post, not a doctrinal thesis!” So I went with the concept that Dean established. And it still holds true.Is it right for every picture, every time. Well, frankly No.

      But, and here is where I depart from the accepted ‘digital reason and theory’ as expounded across the net, it helps us know where than all important mid-tone is in our picture, and if I get that exposed right in the first place, the need for bags of post processing ‘fixing it up in Photoshop’ disappears. Set black, set white, move on.
      The HDR crowd bypass all that simply by getting enough exposures to give them room to manipulate. I reckon I could do the same with just three exposures.
      1 for Diffused Value
      1 at 4 1/2 stop under
      1 at 2/1/2 stop over.
      If it sounds suspiciously like Ansel Adams and Fred Pickers “Zone System”, you are on the money.

      Thanks for the kind comment. I appreciate your thoughts and input, and especially your skill at working the right light to make the best of the subject so it sings and dances for all who view. Keep it up.

      Catch you along the track somewhere.


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