Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

South Sudan cook

A woman cooking lunch for students in a school in Yei, Southern Sudan, sponsored by the United Methodist Church.

Let’s talk today about dynamic range, the ratio between the maximum and minimum intensities of measurable light. Huh? It’s the continuum from light to dark that we can distinguish with our eyes. Our cameras are not as sensitive as our eyes when it comes to capturing dynamic range, so photographers spend a lot of time trying to either not blow the highlights or not lose the shadows. In either case, you want to avoid losing detail in the two extremes. That makes it difficult to capture images of a scene where there is both very black and very white areas. (Which is why NGOs that buy pure white t-shirts for their staff in Africa frequently earn choice words of scornful reproach from fotogs.)

In 2010 I was shooting in Yei, in what would soon become the country of South Sudan. I had stopped by a Methodist school there to pick up someone, and while I was waiting I saw this woman cooking the lunchtime meal for the school staff. She was inside a dark hut, and the only light coming in was hitting the steam rising from the pot. I had doubts about whether it would work, but I’m always a sucker for a challenge. I captured a few frames, dumbing down the exposure compensation by 1.3 stops in order to keep the white steam from turning into a hole of dead pixels. That also prevented the camera’s computer from lightening up the shadows, which it always wants to do. What makes the image work

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