When Composites are Necessary

When Composites are Necessary

I am not generally opposed to composite photographs, although I have on occasion railed against them. My main problems with composites are (1) when they are not identified in the caption as a composite and (2) when they are used to create an image that could not be seen with the naked eye.

There are many times when composites are necessary. Stitched panoramic photos are technically a composite – they merge several images together into one in order to render a scene using a specific format (the panorama) and also allow the photographer to create a larger file for rendering larger prints. The HDR (high dynamic range) photo is also a composite – merging several images of the same scene but captured at different exposures – in order to render the full dynamic range of a scene. Our eyes can see that dynamic range but cameras cannot. (With the Nikon D800E, I find myself hardly using this technique because of that camera’s dynamic range and my steadfast loyalty to using graduated neutral density filters.)

But there are times when the exposure dynamics of the scene also require a composition in order to capture the image you want. A recent instance involved capturing the eclipsed full moon hovering over a peak in the Chugach Mountains above Anchorage. When you know how to photograph the moon, you know that the moon is a much brighter light source than you think. In order to expose it, you need to have a much shorter exposure to avoid blowing it out. But when you want to capture details in the nighttime landscape, even during an eclipsed full moon, you need a much larger exposure. Thus, to render this scene, I took two exposures – one for the moon and one for the mountain. This is not a HDR composite, because I am not trying to capture a dynamic range of several exposures; rather, I am seeking to balance two specific points in the scene.

Here, when I captured the moon, you could only see a few stars and the mountain lacked detail. When capturing the mountain, the moon is a blown-out, glowing orb with no detail. Separately, they do not work; but together, they capture a scene that I could see with my own eyes. While composites are often abused, this, for me, is a use of the technique that is not only appropriate, but was done regularly in the “old days” of the wet darkroom.

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