Nick Carver Photography Blog

Photography Tips, Tutorials, & Videos


Photography Tips: Manual Photography & The Munker-White Illusion

Skill Level: Professional

"Can You Trust Your Eyes" by ASAP Science
Check out their post here.

The good folks at ASAP Science posted an interesting video titled "Can You Trust Your Eyes?" In it, the narrator demonstrates how colors and tones will appear lighter or darker depending on what tone they're next to. As the video so eloquently illustrated, this phenomena - known as the Munker White illusion - can make tones that are actually the same brightness appear to be vastly different.

Photography Tips: Manual Photography and the Munker-White IllusionThe "A" column appears darker than the "B" column,
but in actuality, they are the same tone.

I teach a process for shooting in manual mode that depends heavily on the shooter's ability to analyze tones (covered in my How to Shoot in Full Manual online course here). So this video got me thinking about how we are basically doomed to make metering errors in our photography purely by nature of this illusion. No matter how experienced one may be in the manual metering process I teach or the somewhat similar Zone System by the great Ansel Adams, you will never escape this inherent failure of our eyes to accurately analyze tones.

Understanding this effect may not be vital information for the manual shooter, but it certainly couldn't hurt. For instance, let's say I'm spot metering off of a section of granite rock on a sunlit mountain side. And let's say the spot I'm choosing to meter off of is immediately adjacent to a dark patch of trees. In this situation I may analyze the tone of that granite to be about a +2/3 on my meter - in other words, I think that granite is just a shade lighter than middle tone. So I point my meter up to the mountain, line my meter up at +2/3, then recompose and take my photo. Everything comes out great.

But what if this spot was immediately adjacent to something light rather than that dark patch of trees? What if instead of the dark trees, there's a big swath of bright white snow next to it? According to this Munker-White illusion, I'll perceive my metered area as a different tone. When it's next to the trees, I perceive it as a shade lighter than middle tone (+2/3), but when it's next to the snow, I might perceive it as a shade darker than middle tone (maybe -2/3 or so). Of course, the rock hasn't changed its tone, it's purely my perception of the tone dependent on what tone it's next to.

Simply depending on what tone it's next to, I'll perceive my metered area differently and, thus, get a different exposure.

So this information may not fall in to the category of "photography tips" for everybody, but if you're an adroit user of your camera's light meter, you may want to be aware of this illusion. Try to block out the tones around your chosen spot meter area to avoid the trickery of this illusion. Here's one way to do it: just form your hand into a circle (like you're holding a pipe) then look through it like a telescope pointed at your chosen metering area. This will block out the surrounding tones and allow you to analyze the tonality of the subject untainted by the Munker-White illusion. Or if you don't want to look ridiculous, just spot meter off of tones that cover sufficient area to fill your viewfinder.

Photography Tips: Exploiting Overcast Days

Skill Level: Professional

In landscape photography, we are often at the mercy of the weather. Sometimes it's a fortunate coincidence of great weather when you happen to be out shooting, but more often than not, the weather just doesn't cooperate. Nature doesn't want to make photography easy for you.

I'm a big fan of making lemonade when nature gives you lemons. It has the sweet taste of victory. So I'm going to show you how to make lemonade out of a lemon of a sky. Specifically, overcast days.

Overcast days don't give you the most stunning light for landscapes. Great for macro work, but generally bad for landscapes. If you're going to conquer the scene in front of you and make an awesome photograph regardless of the dreary sky, you have to take what you're given and exploit it.

What you're given is dark, bluish light and cold weather. So instead of fighting these things and trying to make a typical sunny landscape, take that dark feel, that blue tone and that cold sensation and exploit it. Highlight it.

The first way to do that is to underexpose your landscape by a little bit. Maybe 2/3 to 1 stop. For instance, in this shot, let's say I would normally meter that rock at -0.7 on a typical sunset with less cloud-cover (shooting in Manual, of course). With this overcast sky, I'm going to underexpose the scene by a little bit to create a mood that matches the dramatic, overcast sky. So instead of metering that rock at -0.7, I'll meter it at -1.3. That brings the entire exposure down by 2/3 of a stop to create a darker picture that jives better with the dark weather.

Rock Metered a Little Darker Than Normal

Same goes for the sky. Let's assume I'm going to use some split NDs to get the sky properly exposed. To render the clouds "accurately," I'd want them to line up around -1.0 on the meter. But I want to underexpose this shot. So instead of using filtration to get the sky to -1.0, I'm going to use a little bit stronger filter to get it around -1.7 (2/3 of a stop darker).

Filter the sky a little darker

The result is an image that's darker than real life. But just because it's darker than real life, doesn't mean it's incorrectly exposed. Correct exposure simply means the exposure turned out how you wanted it to. You wanted this shot to be darker so as to better match the sky and to create a mood. So, it's a correct exposure.

That's how you exploit the dark light you get with overcast skies, but what about the bluish tone and the cold weather. That's where white balance comes in. In order to get accurate colors out of this landscape, you'd choose a "cloudy" white balance setting. Only problem is...that's boring. Here's what you get:

Cloudy WB Setting

Instead of going for accurate colors, exploit the bluish, cold light by using a WB setting that will give a bluish hue to the shot. Daylight or 5200K should get the job done, but if you want even bluer, try the tungsten setting (that will be really blue), or dial in about 4800K.

Finally, a long shutter speed of 15" blurs the water into an ethereal fog that goes perfectly with the cold, dark mood of the shot.

Corona Del Mar, CA

With the darker exposure, bluish WB setting and long shutter, you get an image that has much more mood than an "accurate" shot. Now you're telling a story instead of just documenting a mediocre day at a mediocre beach.

Photography Tips: Careful Composition

Skill Level: Professional

Although this tip isn't particularly difficult to apply and, truthfully, anyone of any skill level can use it, I'm classifying it as "Professional." This is mainly because this tip is one of those things where your mind really has to be completely freed up in order to use it. In other words, you'll find it hard to use this tip in the field if your attention is even remotely distracted with shutter speed, aperture, ISO, filters, focus, metering, etc. All these things must be second-nature and require hardly a thought, as with a professional, before you can apply this tip with success on a regular basis.

This tip is essentially about being nit-picky with your composition. Finding those tiny little details that no one will ever notice but will make or break the composition.

Next time you're framing up a picture, set aside 10-20 extra seconds to really pick apart the composition to see if there's anything you could do better. And I mean really pick it apart. Look at every intersecting subject, every corner and edge, every line, shape and texture. Then decide if maybe a few inches this way or that way or a slight nudge of the zoom ring will make it better. These tiny little shifts will make a huge difference.

Believe me when I tell's this kind of scrupulousness that separates professional pictures from amateur. Let's take a look at a few examples to see what I'm talking about.

So in this first picture, I framed up a composition I felt was pretty good...

Mono Lake

...but in reviewing it more closely, I saw there was room for improvement. The tufa in the foreground overlapped the reflection in the background just a tiny bit.

Mono Lake

This made the front tufa kind of blend in with the background tufas and, thus, created a little bit of a distraction in the composition. It also pulled away from the depth of the scene (i.e. suddenly the background doesn't look so far away). But just by raising up my viewing angle a bit, I knew that foreground element would drop lower and the background reflection would raise up. This would create the separation I needed between the two elements. It was going to be a hassle changing my position - I was already spread thin as it was - but I knew it would make the shot much better. So with a minor adjustment of my tripod...

Mono Lake

...there you have it. The shot is barely any different, but that minor change made a big impact. Now the foreground is more separated from the background, depth is restored and it doesn't look as cluttered.

Here's another example, also from Mono Lake, where I very carefully adjusted my composition in order to get the reflection of that tallest tufa to line up perfectly in the "dip" of that foreground tufa. Even just a couple inches to the right, left, up or down would have placed that reflection to intersect with the foreground element and render it much less pleasing. This was no accident - it was very deliberate and was vital to creating a strong composition.

Mono Lake

Mono Lake

And in this picture from Torrey Pines State Reserve, I positioned myself to place that smaller tree perfectly centered under the arch of the bigger tree. This kept the composition nicely balanced, neat and uncluttered.

Torrey Pines

Torrey Pines

So there you have it. Simple in concept? Yeah. Easy to apply? Sure it is. But don't be surprised when you get home and review your compositions only to think "How the hell didn't I catch that?" This takes some practice and, again, if you have to think twice about anything else out there like your shutter, aperture, ISO, focus, metering, filters or otherwise, it'll be harder to find these things. So learn your photography basics so you can free your mind up to get better compositions!