Pern's Ponderings

Check here periodically for my musings on photography. In this space, we'll explore how I achieved particular photographs, tips and tricks to get the most out of your camera or even just my thoughts on the world at large. 

Out of Darkness

Fort Jefferson, the largest masonry structure in the Americas, offers countless opportunities to explore the interplay between light and shadow. 

Light and dark, highlight and shadow. They're the building blocks of any great image, and they also present some of the greatest challenges to a photographer when they stand in stark contrast to each other. 

Such was the case last month when my wife and I enjoyed our honeymoon in Key West, Fla. We took a day trip to Fort Jefferson, a Civil War-era naval installation located in the Dry Tortugas, about 70 miles west of Key West. 

The fort is the largest masonry structure in the Americas - built out of more than 16 million bricks - and it made for an interesting combination of history, wildlife and relaxation.

As I began taking photos, I found one of the biggest obstacles to capturing the fort was the intense contrast between the drab, dark interior and the bright, sparkling exterior. Most of the views to the outside of the fort were through small openings, called embrasures, that once housed cannons. 

It was easy enough to simply silhouette the openings and capture the bright exteriors, or use a slower shutter speed to capture the interior details of the brick structure while washing out the exteriors. But those shots simply did not convey the narrative I was hoping to capture. 

As a former journalist, I usually find myself trying to tell a story within an image, rather than focusing on more abstract concepts. At Fort Jefferson, I wanted an image that gave the audience a sense of being enclosed in this massive brick structure in the middle of the glistening waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the way American naval officers - or the prisoners who built Fort Jefferson - once viewed it more than 150 years ago.

To tell that story, I needed to capture details of both the interior and exterior. 

Normally, a still photo such as this one, taken in the harshest hours of bright sunlight, would require a low ISO and moderate shutter speed. But to bring out the details hidden in shadow, I bumped the ISO up to 2000 to increase the light being captured by the image sensor and I used an extremely fast shutter speed of 1/5000th of a second to preserve the detail seen through the opening.

After a few post-processing adjustments in Adobe Lightroom, I had the story I was hoping to tell.  

by Brian Pernicone