The Barbell Strategy…for photos

What is the Barbell Strategy?

I first read about the barbell strategy in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan. In it he claims basically that investments should be mostly (80%) safe, with a few (20%) very risky, but none in the intermediate. This strategy works for me with my investments where I have 20% in risky stocks (growth, emerging, etc), 80% in safe stocks (bonds, etc), and none (0%) in between . But what does this have to do with photography?

You can apply this same principle to your photography both in post-processing and during capture!

How to Apply This Strategy

In lighting of a outdoor scene, for example, an overcast day is worst. This is when the bulk of the lighting is in the median (think non-barbell). The best time is when there is both light and dark areas – high dynamic range, and a “barbell” distribution of light (that is, at both extremes, but not overly so). (I’ll address this later – for now, read on.)

This doesn’t necessarily mean high-contrast scenes or black-and-white are what I am proposing. What it does mean is that when you approach the two extremes, having light and dark in your photo, the photo gets better!

And this is the principle behind improving your photos in post-processing as well. Think about it – don’t we strive to have the colors “pop” and great “definition” (sharpness and focus) ? Of course. This is what you should strive for in each photo (unless for some artistic reasons to not). In the post-processing software, controls are designed to do just this on average-looking photos:

  • Vibrance in Lightroom – increases the saturation of the least-saturated colors but not all, thereby creating a barbell effect of color.
  • Tone curves in Lightroom – increases the difference in luminance in a photo, thereby creating a barbell effect of luminance.
  • Clarity in Lightroom – increases the contrast based on existing brightness of the midtones only, thereby creating a barbell effect of contrast.

Here is a photo of some birds in Florida from my Lightroom desktop, showing the histogram (upper right) with peaks at both ends, and you can see the photo is dramatically better than any photo with a centered histogram. This is because I’ve taken the light and dark areas to extremes, but not to clipping – no highlights or shadows are clipped (nearly-so,yes, but not clipped). What this does is it takes in the full dynamic range of the image.

Don’t believe me? O.k. Here is a photo from my Lightroom desktop, taken at the same time, same subject, same camera settings, but not adjusted in Lightroom.  You can see that the histogram is mostly in the center and not very close to either end. This makes the photo appear “flat” that you can translate to mean “without life.” This is horrible for a photo (unless you are going for that kind of thing).

It doesn’t end here though. This can (and should) apply to your composition at capture as well. Every photographer should know that 99% of the time, midday lighting on a sunny day is bad. Also, 99% of the time, an overcast day gives unacceptable lighting. Why? Look at the histogram on your camera before you shoot and you’ll find that it’s centered. All of the luminance is in the midtones. You’re going to get “flat-looking” photos and you’re going to have to do some work on them in Lightroom. There’s nothing wrong with that because sometimes those types of photos are all that you can get, but try to get photos when the lighting works in your favor and gives you that wide spread of light and dark with peaks at either end of your histogram. When you have this much dynamic range in a photo, you’ll find you don’t have to do as much with it in post-processing, and if you do tweak it later in Lightroom, you’ll get more dramatic results than if you started with a “flat” photo.

Here’s what to look for and what not to look for when setting up a shot to take advantage of the barbell strategy for composition:

  1. Avoid overcast lighting (flat and dull, including hazy and foggy days).
  2. Avoid midday lighting (sun directly overhead with almost no shadows).
  3. Shoot during the “golden hours” around sunrise and sunset.
  4. Look for light and dark areas in the scene. Shadows often provide the dark areas, but these can be from other natural features as well such as patchy sunlight, selective lighting, bright reflections etc.
  5. Look at your camera’s histogram for peaks at either end – light and dark. Center the histogram using exposure compensation, but don’t move the peaks toward the center from either end.
  6. Experiment with different angles and positions to achieve the highest dynamic range (again, a histogram with peaks toward either end).

By following the barbell strategy, you can push your photos to their maximum dynamic ranges – creating more spectacular images!

Thank you for reading what I wrote – I hope you enjoyed it!


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