Framing, Leveling & Focusing

006_JemezGilmanTunnelsThree fundamental preludes to capturing an image are framing, leveling and focusing.

These are fairly simple tasks in daylight, not so easy in low light.

Composing an image on a digital monitor or in a viewfinder is more demanding at night.

Typically framing is the first order of business, but will take more discovery work than during the day. You will most likely point your camera in different directions to examine the scene for framing and focusing.

Mama always said, “Level is as level does.” Leveling is visually subjective, and is especially difficult to gauge in the dark. Often what “level” means is relative to the visual elements in the image, and should be evaluated when viewing the resulting image.

Here are some suggestions to aid you in your image quest:

HOW TO : Framing

  • use a flashlight to light objects while viewing the scene
  • highlight corners of the image with light sources, like a lantern
  • take test shots, view on your digital monitor
  • take test shots with your flash, then view
  • use digital AF-assist illuminator
  • increase ISO to view on your monitor

HOW TO : Leveling

  • mechanical approach is to use a leveling bubble on your camera or tripod
  • flexible approach is to zoom out a bit to allow room for final image adjustment

HOW TO : Focusing

  • be sure to set digital Auto Focus (AF) to MANUAL
  • focus at infinity first then shorten focal length until in focus
  • focus on something well lit at the desired focal distance
  • use a flashlight to highlight a point of focus
  • take sample exposures, view on your digital monitor
  • measure distance with a tape measure for close subjects

IMAGE : Gilman Tunnels, Jemez Mountains, NM

The Gilman Tunnels are two miles up the canyon from our home. The logging industry transported timber by train through these tunnels over 60 years ago.

One moonless night I drove up to photograph the tunnels during a snowstorm. In my mind I pictured a scene filled with snowfall. When I arrived it was pitch black, no light at all. It was snowing very hard but I could not see anything without a flashlight.

“What to do? What to do?”

I drove through the first of two tunnels, parked my car and left the headlights on. I then walked back through the tunnel to set up my tripod and camera.

I used a lantern to light various points to help me frame and focus. Finally I left the lantern near the entrance to add fill lighting for the tunnel and the rock wall on the left.

I zoomed out a bit to give myself some wiggle room for framing and leveling the image after the fact. Good thing, leveling my camera did not produce an image that appeared level.

This is a good example of a minimalist style image even though it was a 12 minute exposure shot at f8 with TMAX 3200 film. Did I mention that it was very, very dark?

IMAGE TINT : GallerySeleniumGoldToner

In the darkroom Selenium toning creates a cool purplish hue in the darker tones. Combined with moderate Gold toning, the highlights are shaded bluish gray. The toning effect was selected to convey the look of cold light on the rocks.

This B&W image was toned in Adobe Photoshop with an ICC Profile I generated from my Mac App “SuiteProfiler”. The Profile was derived from the “GallerySeleniumGoldToner” Color Map created in SuiteProfiler.

Click these buttons to download the ICC Profile and SuiteProfiler Color Map:

EXERCISE : Framing, Leveling & Focusing

Practice framing, leveling and focusing in a low lit room or backyard. Make use of the suggestions above to familiarize yourself with composing an image in the dark. Experiment with various approaches to discover what suits you best.

When you are comfortable, take your camera out at night, and seek out a very low lit scene. Challenge yourself but don’t overdo it. Compose and bracket to see what your camera sees.

Be sure to review the “Safety & Precautions” Page.

NEXT TIME : “The Expanded Moment”


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