Chasing the Light on Route 66 with the Canon 5D Mark IV

July 21, 2017

This is Part II of my three-part Route 66 series here in the Canon Digital Learning Center.

Photographers chase the light, which is ever-changing in intensity, color, contrast and direction. On our Route 66 road trip, I chased the light for nine days in April 2017, and recorded it with the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.

In this article I’ll share with you some of my favorite images from the road trip along with some tips for capturing light.

Low Light

I took the opening photograph of the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico shortly before sunrise. In low light situations, like this one, the first thing I think about is my ISO setting. That helps to determine whether or not I will use a tripod, and how much noise will be noticeable in the scene.

I wanted a clean image (noise-wise), so I set my ISO to 400. In my non-scientific tests, I have seen no noticeable noise difference between EOS 5D Mark IV images taken at ISO 100 and 400.

Because I wanted everything in the scene in focus I set my aperture to f/13. That also gave me the starburst effect on the lamppost, on the far right side.  That aperture setting “told” my camera (set in the Av mode) to set the shutter speed to one second. I tripped the shutter using the camera’s self-timer to avoid camera shake.

After some shadows/highlights tweaking in Canon Digital Photo Professional, I was pleased with my image, and pleased that I woke up at zero dark thirty to get this shot.

Overcast Day Light

I love shooting on overcast days, mainly because getting a good/even exposure is a lot easier. Usually, no in-camera exposure compensation and no digital darkroom shadow/highlight adjustments are needed, which is the opposite of what’s required in high contrast situations. Still, after taking this photograph, I checked my camera’s blinking highlight alert to make sure no part of the highly reflective campers was overexposed. So the main idea here is to check your exposure because it’s better to be safe than sorry.  

Nearly all interchangeable lens digital cameras allow you some menu choices to display over-exposed, washed-out highlights as blinking areas on your LCD monitor, during playback.  With most mid-range and upper-end Canon EOS models, a setting in the blue Playback menu area lets you activate “Highlight alert,” which is the blinking of those areas over-exposed in a scene.  With these cameras, unlike less-expensive Canon EOS Rebel models, you can also see the blinking highlight warning if your images are displayed full-size on the LCD monitor during playback. Rebel models as of 2017 will show blinking highlights only when smaller thumbnail plus histogram images are displayed.

I took the photograph above at the Enchanted Trails RV Park and Trading Post in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Front Light and Back Light

These two photographs, taken in Tucumcari, New Mexico, illustrate the striking difference between front light and back light. When a subject is lit from the front, little or no exposure compensation is usually needed. However, things change drastically when a subject is backlit, because the contrast range can be extremely wide — in backlit shots, the subject facing the camera is usually completely in shade.

To get a good exposure of the main subject, the sign in this case, you have two choices. You might take a series of pictures at over and under the recommended exposure for an HDR image (more on that in a moment). Alternately, you could take a single image, expose for the brightest part of the scene, and plan to open up the shadows in Canon Digital Photo Professional or another image-processing program, as I did here.

To reduce the contrast range of a backlit subject illuminated by the sun, try to hide the sun behind part of the subject so it’s just peeking out from behind the subject. Shoot with a wide-angle lens and set a small aperture like f/16 to get the starburst effect. If you shoot with a telephoto lens at a wide aperture, the sun will look like a big, bright blob in your photograph.

Low Light and High Contrast

In low-light/high-contrast situations, you need to think about three things: your ISO setting, HDR (to capture the entire dynamic range of the scene) and using a tripod.  When depth-of-field is important you also need to think about your aperture.

I took this photograph of the lobby of the El Rancho hotel in Gallup, New Mexico using a tripod, and employing the camera's built-in Auto Exposure Bracketing. I used a Canon 16-35mm lens @16mm with the aperture set at f/22 for maximum depth of field.  That tiny f/22 aperture also rendered the point light sources in this scene as distinct starbursts.  At lens apertures much wider than this, the lights would have been rendered more like bright, round highlights.

One of the features I like about the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is how fast you can access the menus and change camera controls. In this situation, a crowded lobby, I needed to work fast, very fast so that no people were in the scene. I set my camera to automatic exposure bracketing and took seven shots for this HDR sequence.

FYI:  If you want to take a seven-shot automatic exposure bracketing sequence with a high-end Canon EOS DSLR, you need to go into the camera’s Custom Functions menu and change the “Number of Bracketed Shots” from the default three-shot sequence to your desired number of bracketed images (2, 3, 5, or 7 shots; exposure increments between each shot are set in the camera’s red Shooting Menu area).

As it turned out, I did not need to use the most overexposed image, so I only used six of my files to create the final HDR image.  In this case, especially since I wanted to start with more than three bracketed original images, I used third-party HDR software in the computer, rather than the camera’s built-in HDR feature.

Strong Side Light

Light illuminates, shadows define. Shadows are the soul of the photograph. Shadows are your friend.

The shadows in this photograph of the San Felipe de Neri Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico make this shot a “keeper” for me. In situations like this one, play/work with highlights/shadows controls in your image-processing program to fine-tune your image. You may like darker shadows or brighter highlights more than another photographer. My advice is to follow your heart when it comes to image processing.

A few years ago I would have taken an HDR sequence to capture the shadow and highlight detail in a scene like this one. However, I have found that the RAW files produced by the EOS 5D Mark IV, combined with the power of Canon Digital Photo Professional, Lightroom® or Photoshop®, capture an extremely wide contrast range from a RAW original image file. Because of that, HDR was not needed in this situation.

This picture illustrates my “one-picture promise.” When you are in any situation, ask yourself, “If I could only take one picture, what would that one picture be?” After walking around the church for a few minutes, I decided on this angle. I swung the gate into position to add a sense of depth to my image.

Pre-Dawn Light

This picture, taken in Tucumcari, New Mexico, and the next one illustrate three things: the difference between pre-dawn light and post-sunrise light; the value of chasing the light; and, perhaps most important, how light affects the mood and feeling of a photograph.

Before dawn we get beautiful soft light and it’s easy to get a good exposure because, as mentioned before, the contrast range is low. The mood is peaceful.

Sunrise Light

I captured this picture above about 15 minutes after I took the previous image. The mood had changed dramatically due to the direct morning sunlight. To me, this picture, with its striking details, captured more of the bygone era of Route 66 than the previous shot.

Flat Light

This picture of Angel Delgadillo, known as the Guardian Angel because of his love for Historic Route 66, is an example of making a picture and controlling the light. When I first saw Angel, who at 90 years old still rides his bike to his barbershop in Seligman, AZ, he was in the harsh midday sun. Strong top light cast unflattering shadows on his face and made for a scene with harsh contrast.

To make the picture and control the light I asked Angel to move into the shade, where the contrast range was greatly reduced.

Using my camera’s touchscreen, I placed the focus on Angel’s face, the most important part of the picture. I photographed him at an angle to add a sense of depth to the image. Something to watch for when you shoot in the shade, on bright sunny days:  the White Balance can often look a little blue and “cool.”  If the first shot or two look a little too blue-tinted for your tastes, consider changing the camera’s White Balance to “Flash” (to warm the colors just a tiny bit — even if you’re not using a flash!), or to “Cloudy” or “Shade” to progressively warm up those skin tones even more.

And yes, I carefully composed the scene to include Angel’s barber’s sign in the scene.

The idea here: make pictures; don’t just take pictures.

Wonderful Light

I’ll end this article with a photograph I took at sunset in the Grand Canyon, which is only about an hour off Route 66 from Williams, Arizona. I don’t have a tech tip for this photograph, but rather a philosophical one: chase the light, capture the light and process the light. Train your eye to see not just the subject, but the way light is hitting it. And of course, do as we Canon Explorers of Light do, explore the light.

Okay, I know some of you want a tech tip, so here it is. Use the camera’s GPS feature to record exactly where you took a picture, so you can go back to the same location or share the info with a friend — or with someone reading an article online. For example, the Grand Canyon is a big place, but to get this photograph, you need to know exactly where to go.

Oh yeah, one final thing. Have fun with the light, because light is the main element in every photograph you have ever taken and will be the main subject in every photograph you ever take.

See you in my next article in this three-part series.

To read Part I of this series, click here.

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.

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