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Photography Tips: Manual Photography & The Munker-White Illusion

Skill Level: Professional


"Can You Trust Your Eyes" by ASAP Science
Check out their post here.

The good folks at ASAP Science posted an interesting video titled "Can You Trust Your Eyes?" In it, the narrator demonstrates how colors and tones will appear lighter or darker depending on what tone they're next to. As the video so eloquently illustrated, this phenomena - known as the Munker White illusion - can make tones that are actually the same brightness appear to be vastly different.

Photography Tips: Manual Photography and the Munker-White IllusionThe "A" column appears darker than the "B" column,
but in actuality, they are the same tone.

I teach a process for shooting in manual mode that depends heavily on the shooter's ability to analyze tones (covered in my How to Shoot in Full Manual online course here). So this video got me thinking about how we are basically doomed to make metering errors in our photography purely by nature of this illusion. No matter how experienced one may be in the manual metering process I teach or the somewhat similar Zone System by the great Ansel Adams, you will never escape this inherent failure of our eyes to accurately analyze tones.

Understanding this effect may not be vital information for the manual shooter, but it certainly couldn't hurt. For instance, let's say I'm spot metering off of a section of granite rock on a sunlit mountain side. And let's say the spot I'm choosing to meter off of is immediately adjacent to a dark patch of trees. In this situation I may analyze the tone of that granite to be about a +2/3 on my meter - in other words, I think that granite is just a shade lighter than middle tone. So I point my meter up to the mountain, line my meter up at +2/3, then recompose and take my photo. Everything comes out great.

But what if this spot was immediately adjacent to something light rather than that dark patch of trees? What if instead of the dark trees, there's a big swath of bright white snow next to it? According to this Munker-White illusion, I'll perceive my metered area as a different tone. When it's next to the trees, I perceive it as a shade lighter than middle tone (+2/3), but when it's next to the snow, I might perceive it as a shade darker than middle tone (maybe -2/3 or so). Of course, the rock hasn't changed its tone, it's purely my perception of the tone dependent on what tone it's next to.

Simply depending on what tone it's next to, I'll perceive my metered area differently and, thus, get a different exposure.

So this information may not fall in to the category of "photography tips" for everybody, but if you're an adroit user of your camera's light meter, you may want to be aware of this illusion. Try to block out the tones around your chosen spot meter area to avoid the trickery of this illusion. Here's one way to do it: just form your hand into a circle (like you're holding a pipe) then look through it like a telescope pointed at your chosen metering area. This will block out the surrounding tones and allow you to analyze the tonality of the subject untainted by the Munker-White illusion. Or if you don't want to look ridiculous, just spot meter off of tones that cover sufficient area to fill your viewfinder.

New Landscape Photography & Video: Storm in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park Fine Art PhotographyJoshua Tree in Fog
Image made on Ilford Delta 100 Film
with a Mamiya RZ67 and 110mm f/2.8

It's been kind of an unusual couple weeks weather-wise for Orange County. Temperatures have been soaring and we've had lots of scattered cloud cover. It's resulted  in some seriously gorgeous skies - the sunsets especially.

Unfortunately, though, the beaches are crowded and, frankly, I'm a little burned out on photographing beach sunsets. So although I've been enjoying the beautiful skies, I haven't really been photographing them. But Monday of last week I decided to get myself out to Joshua Tree National Park to photograph these dramatic weather conditions.

The forecast called for scattered thunder storms in the desert - which is really what made me decide to drive out there - but the thunder never materialized. That's okay though because the breaking storm made for some of the most beautiful light and skies I've ever seen in Joshua Tree National Park.

The drive to Joshua Tree from Orange County is about 2 1/2 hours, which feels about 3 hours longer than I remember. And especially with the heavy downpour and flooded streets through the desert, I was beginning to doubt my decision about an hour in to the drive.

But boy am I glad I took this trip!

On the way in to the park, I found a stretch of road where a heavy fog enveloped the Joshua Trees and rock formations, creating some truly stunning scenery for me to capture on my Ilford Delta 100 black and white film. I chose black and white for this entire outing for a couple reasons (with the exception of a single roll of color film I'm pretty sure I botched). First, I've simply been more attracted to black and white landscape photography lately. Maybe I'm burned out on color, maybe I just don't find it "artsy" enough anymore. But whatever the reason, B&W seems to be keeping my creative juices flowing in a way color film isn't. And aside from that, I mean come on...Joshua Trees in fog and breaking storms over the desert? It's just begging for black and white!

I spent the first half of the day photographing these unique yuccas in the fog with my Mamiya RZ67 medium format camera. I chose this format because with the 110mm f/2.8 lens, I was able to get a real shallow depth of field by shooting wide open. This helped to draw attention to my subjects as if I was shooting a portrait of each Joshua Tree. I made 10 frames of these "portraits" with plans to create a triptych from the best 3.

I used a dark yellow #15 filter on these shots to help introduce some contrast in this flat lighting and I over-developed the film intentionally to help raise up the highlights a bit (N+1 processing for you Zone System users).

After lunch, I spent the day in the higher elevations of the park scouting out a good location for sunset and creating some B&W 6x17 photographs highlighting the stunning sky.

I'm normally pretty humble and modest about my photos and I always feel weird heaping praise on my own work, but I am truly thrilled with the photos I made on this trip. For a long time now I haven't felt that my pictures are actually representative of me or of the vibe I want to create. But these pictures are a better representation of me than I think anything else I've put out before.

I must be moving in the right direction.

Please, oh, please click any image for a larger view

Breaking Storm over Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park Fine Art Landscape Photography

Joshua Tree in Fog in Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Joshua Tree in Fog in Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Joshua Tree in Fog in Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Joshua Tree National Park Fine Art Photography

And check out the on-location video:

View on YouTube for full HD version

Featured Testimonial: Online Photography Course

A student of my Introduction to DSLR Photography Online Course recently had this to say about the course:

I found this course by accident from an online search for photography classes in my area. I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for an online photography course. I learned more from this course than other courses I took at a local community college. Nick is very approachable and professional; he gives helpful and honest feedback to course assignments. The information in the lessons is clear and easy to understand. Thanks Nick.

- Maria

This course is all about the photography basics that every photographer needs to learn. And as Maria pointed out, this beginner photography course is much more in-depth with clearer explanations than most classes you'll find locally (or elsewhere online for that matter). I make a point of jam-packing my courses with important information so that you, the student, will walk away from the course with a marked improvement in your knowledge and technique.

My goal is not to charge the highest price for the least information. My goal is to make you a better photographer. That's why my courses aren't simply a compilation of tips and tricks you'll hopefully remember next time you're out shooting. My courses teach you the important concepts so that you'll know them for good.

Just try a free sample of my "Introduction to DSLR Photography" online course for yourself. Click here for a free preview and here for more details regarding this course.