High-key redpolls


There is an unusual form of lighting found in the natural world: the whiteout. When fog blankets a field of snow, the diffuse light leaves no shadows on nearby objects and the horizon vanishes between snow and fog. Enveloped in an etherial world of white, one seems adrift in the void. I have experienced a whiteout while ski touring across a snow field, and even stranger, the whiteout transformed into a pinkout as the Sun set.

Studios have recreated the light of the whiteout, albeit only in the direction of the photographic subject. They call it high-key lighting, a name based upon the relation between the studio’s key light and its fill lights. Shadows vanish and average tones shift towards white. This lighting was first employed as a technical compromise — not as a purposeful mimicry of a whiteout — but the satisfyingly tranquil images it produced prompted it to become a staple for portraits of children, models, and commercial products. (The contrasting low-key lighting emphasizes darker tones resulting in moody, contemplative portraits sometimes used for pictures of the elderly.) 

While nature’s whiteout was omni-directional, the studio’s high-key lighting was limited to a view towards the subject. Curiously, a natural-light photographer sometimes encounters a similarly directional view that now seems to mimic a studio’s high-key lighting.

This last week I managed two high-key shots of Common Redpolls. Diffusely lit by a cloudy sky, the shadowless birds were seen against a field of snow. The birds appeared to be adrift in a world of white. It was as if nature was now mimicking the directional view of the studio, which had earlier seemingly mimicked the omni-directional whiteout of nature. 

Below are two pictures. The first picture reshows yesterday’s whimsical shot of one bird (supposedly) showing its independence by flying against the direction of the flock. The second picture shows the birds feeding.

In each picture, the look of high-key lighting leaves the birds suspended in a tranquil and etherial world of light. To observers used to the distributed tones found in most scenes, these images seem almost contrived. Yet in this situation, each image looks much as the scene appeared to the eye.




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4 Responses to High-key redpolls

  1. Michael Hantel says:

    Alistair, thank you for pictures and fine story. As to the whiteout, I keep telling the students that the phenomenon is due to solar radiation flux divergence zero. So the sunlight in whiteout neither warms nor cools. Would you agree? Michael.

    • Alistair says:

      Michael, I had to chuckle. Yes indeed, the pure whiteout is characterized by a visible-light flux divergence of zero (for a disembodied eye). Although I hesitated to offer that techie description on my blog, I really like that you got me off the hook by providing it. However, I insist that the cause of the whiteout is not as much due to the null flux divergence as that being a description of it. The cause is multiple scattering in largely homogeneous medium.

  2. Fenwick Lansdowne lives (again)!

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