“I like it when a photo is ambiguous, when you can’t really tell whether it’s a painting or a picture or whether it’s been shot digitally or on film. There’s an added layer of mystery to it.” Here, Chiara Zonca tells us how she started bridging the gap between her digital and film photography.
Words and Photography by Chiara Zonca
I have always been jealous of painters.
They don’t need good light or perfect weather to make art. Everything they need can already be in their heads as they create magic at the stroke of a brush.
Over the years I have started to use my favourite paintings as inspiration for my photography and I grew a strong distaste for imagery that is too clear, crisp, quintessentially digital. I like it when a photo is ambiguous, when you can’t really tell whether it’s a painting or a picture or whether it’s been shot digitally or on film, there’s an added layer of mystery to it.
So, this summer, when working on my latest series, Saved by a deer, I decided to start bridging the gap in my digital photography work, to make it as exciting as film from the get go.
So, in my effort to achieve a cohesive, painterly look across the board, the first change I made was to shoot more film. And to then use the results as inspiration for colour grading my digital work. I find film to be more naturally painterly – colours are rendered in such a creamy, unexpected way. But even using my film photos as inspiration for my digital photos, they still needed extensive colour grading to match with my analog photography.
I needed a solution that I could implement at the production side rather than in post, the goal being getting it right while shooting, to avoid spending too much time editing photos afterwards.
“Adding a CPL filter was a no brainer to help reduce the blue haze.”
I was living in a very rural and beautiful island off the coast of BC and was looking for ways to make this stunning, albeit somehow repetitive landscape as vibrant as my favourite tableaus.
The first issue I encountered was while shooting at harsh times of day, when leaves and plants were too reflective and the light was bouncing off them turning deep greens into pale uninspiring shades of blue. The camera’s sensor was getting a completely different image compared to what my eyes were seeing.
Adding a CPL filter (short for circular polarizing filter) was a no-brainer to help reduce the blue haze. The island’s vegetation is extremely unique, plants have a variety of different colours and textures. They all reflect light in different ways. Using the filter allowed me to control the exact amount of shimmer I wanted while blocking any unnecessary haze.
I started seeing the colours I would have tried to achieve in post from the very beginning, this time in camera. And most importantly, I started feeling like a painter. Completely in control.
“Everything is a touch more warm, more rich, with darker shadows and dusky tones.”
Getting the most colour detail out of a scene
An issue with pictures of woods and foliage in general is that sometimes they can look flat and of one single colour. When this happens, it doesn’t mean the photographer or the technique is necessarily to blame. The camera’s sensors just aren’t able to replicate the millions colours and subtle variations in nature the same way as our eyes can experience them.
Using the CPL filter allowed me to play with the richness of colours, to make them stand out more. I was finally able to obtain the kaleidoscope of greens I was after, bridging the gap between the sensor’s limits and my natural vision.
Faking golden hour in harsh light
Even when haze is not an issue, for instance when you are deep into the woods, it can still be difficult to reproduce natural colours in harsh light. A CPL can help, making shadows more dark while reducing the highlights and adding an overall warmth to colours in general. I found that when shooting at harsh light with a CPL I was sometimes able to create the illusion of shooting at golden hour. Everything is a touch more warm, more rich, with darker shadows and dusky tones.
“Every single one of these photos barely needed any post production.”
CPL and sunsets don’t mix? Think again
Overall, the CPL became my desert island filter this Summer. I even used it during sunsets in particular occasions where I wanted to capture the colour differences you get when trees get hit by low light, highlighting the golden glow of a dying sun. By using this filter, trees turned into bright surreal orange sculptures. Shadows, instead of being dull and muted, were an interesting shade of dark cyans and blues. Every single one of these photos barely needed any post production and had that painterly feel I so strived to achieve in the beginning.
In conclusion, when people think of using a CPL filter, they often think of seaside, water, reflections and places where there is a lot of light or haze. While it’s definitely a good idea to use it for all of these instances, I really enjoyed it while photographing greenery and challenging situations when you just aren’t happy with the colours you are getting out of your photos.
Next time you have a feeling your camera is not rendering the kaleidoscope of colours in front of you give the CPL a try. It might surprise you.
Chiara’s series Saved by a deer comes out in Fall of 2020.