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Shooting a Dandelion Without Blowing It

By Mike Pasini, Editor
Imaging Resource Newsletter

You climbed up the side of the mountain forest on a trail littered with obsidian chips the Native Americans used to make arrow heads. The sunlight barely reached the forest floor. Just in spots here and there.

And now you've stumbled over the rocky trail as it breaks out of the fir trees and bay laurels, into a meadow flooded with blue-eyed grass, lupine, goldfields -- and sunlight.

"Even if your CCD could handle the wide range of values you see in the real sunlit world (it can't; neither can film), your printer can't."

You pause to catch your breath, stop down your eyes, and turn to cool your forehead in the breeze. What do you see but a dazzling dandelion standing out against the dark backdrop of the forest, lit from behind by the sun.

You want that shot. But can you get it?

This isn't a job for autoexposure. If you just frame the dandelion and press the shutter button, you'll get a white blur against some flatly colored grass and trees. Not dazzling at all.

No, you have to do a little work. But considering the long trek you're on, this little break could easily be considered a survival skill. Think of it as a way to prolong your break.

The problem with the dandelion is, first, the brightness range of the subject. You have some very dark objects in the background forest and a very bright one in the dandelion head. Even if your CCD could handle the wide range of values you see in the real sunlit world (it can't; neither can film), your printer can't. In fact, your printer handles even less. A lot less.

So you have to pick. Not the flower, but the brightness you want to capture.

In our case, it's pretty obvious we want a bright dandelion head and we're not too worried about seeing the forest for the trees. In fact, we'd be happy to lose the detail in the trees. The dark background would only help set off our dandelion.

The trick is to expose the dandelion so we capture it with some detail, but also with the relative brightness that first caught our attention. In short, we want detail in the highlights.

So how do you do that?


First, we have to properly meter the subject. You can do that by switching your metering mode to spot metering, so you're just reading the very center of your frame.

"You can insure and replace clothes, furniture, appliances, and kitchenware easily enough, but salvaging your photos is another matter."

If we take the shot based on our spot reading, leaving the dandelion in the center of our frame, we'll get a drab gray dandelion, framed as if we wanted to use it for target practice. Not the dazzling dandelion we want.

We have to tell the camera that the subject we're metering is not gray, but white. To do that, set your exposure compensation to overexpose one stop. That's an EV setting of +1.0.

When spot metering, it's best to think of metering and framing as two different steps. You use your lens to pinpoint the subject to be metered, but you won't always want to frame the subject you've metered to be in the middle of the image.

So, after you've metered the subject, hold your shutter release button halfway down to maintain the exposure information and then do your framing.

In our case, we turned the camera for a portrait orientation and let the dandelion head sit near the top. A portrait of a dandelion.

When the breeze stops to catch its breath, snap the shot.

Did you get it? Well, just take a look in your LCD monitor to see what you think. Need more or less exposure compensation? You can tell right away.

And if you haven't quite caught your own breath yet, just tell your companions you have to bracket your exposure. After all, you want to bring home this trophy as if you'd gotten it with one of those obsidian arrow heads.


This article is reprinted from The Imaging Resource Digital Photography Newsletter,
Beginners Flash Column, published June 16, 2000