Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bringing Out the Life

or Rejecting Neutral Gray

November 12

I don't know whether the sunsets are actually more glorious at this time of year or whether they just show up in more attractive places.  A little of both, probably.  The clouds (if any) in summer are usually thunderheads—impressive and sometimes beautifully colored, but fairly localized.  In late autumn and winter, on the other hand, the clouds (if any) tend more toward the altostratus or cirrus side, lighting up huge stretches of sky in the middle or upper atmosphere as soon as the sun skims the horizon.  At this time of year, too, with the sun setting farther to the south—at the end of a long, open street rather than tucked between roofs—I have a better view from the upstairs window of those vivid colors, if you can overlook a few telephone poles and wires.  And antenna towers and commercial buildings.  Sunsets are among the few real perks of the cold months.

People sometimes ask me whether I fiddle with the colors of sunset photos before posting them.  I don't.  They usually turn out more orange than I expected and less pink, but that's just the whim of the camera.  I do, however, always take them ⅓-⅔ of a stop (do we still call them stops?) darker than what my camera's light meter suggests, which brings out the life, the wonderful depth and vibrancy, in the colors.

As I understand it, in its default mode, a camera's light meter is the Goldilocks of the photographic world, wanting a visual porridge that's neither too hot nor too cold.  "Just right" to a camera is "18% gray" (or 12%, depending on who's talking):  a neutral shade halfway between the light that reflects off black objects and off white ones.  When the meter tells you that a photo is correctly exposed, it's telling you that with the current settings you'll get a picture where the overall balance is at that 18%-gray middle point between dark and light.

You have to feel for the poor light meter, trying to make the best of situations when it has no way of knowing what the parameters really are; at one time or another we have all been in that boat.  Faced with a sunset, no matter how dramatic the darkening upper atmosphere or how brilliantly glowing the clouds, the camera will do its living best to neutralize the whole scene, to find the intensity that is equivalent to that medium gray.  It means well.  Unfortunately, if you heed its advice it will also give you a sunset that's pale, drab, and washed out—a fair-to-middling sunset, when the one you saw was spectacular.

November 20

I was thinking about all of that, looking at sunsets this week, and looking beyond into winter.  I still dread this time of year, even here where the season is sunny and relatively mild.  The problem isn't the weather or the shorter days.  It's the isolation—the way closed windows shut you away from the sounds connecting you to the world:  the ambient noise of neighborhood life that in warmer weather, at least to those of us who spend most of our free time alone, resting, is a kind of company.  Without those connections, the world can look a little pale and drab.

So the goal this winter is to override the norm of neutral gray, to live ⅓ of a stop more intensely than average—maybe even ⅔, if I really want to kick up my heels.  I don't know quite how I'll do that in a way that's quiet, low-energy, and has me home on a sofa by 6.  If cameras are a good role model for life, though, and I don't see why they can't be, ⅓ of a stop is all it takes to go from fair-to-middling to spectacular.  One-third of a stop:  nothing radical, nothing extreme.

Just one little flick of the dial, to bring things into warm, vibrant life.


  1. I'm all for kicking up one's heels, pulling out all the stops, or at least setting them 1/3 higher, and riding off into some glorious winter sunsets! Sounds wonderful to me, if I can find my eyeglasses and arthritis medicine.

  2. You said it so well! Time to hunker down? It is a season of isolation tho---you are so right about that.

    I love your pix! I appreciate all your hard work.

    Hope and pray you don't get too lonely this winter. I am working hard on staying in contact with others:)

    Blessings to you!

  3. Sometimes I bundle up in blankets and crack the window open even if it is literally freezing outside. I just want to hear the breeze and the few birds that are still around in the winter. To feel connected to the rest of the world.

    If I'm well enough this winter I'm hoping to read in the library (they have really comfy chairs) or find a low key coffee shop to hang out in so I'm not lumping about the house on my own.

  4. What a great analogy, Stacy relating the use of a camera light meter to life at this time of year. And I didn't know that about camera light meters, what a fascinating insight. It's so true that often colours look washed out...

  5. I know nothing of cameras, stops, light meters, etc., so while I was reading that 18% grey is just right, I was relating that to decorating (can you tell - that's what I do in the winter) and how a touch of black is recommended. Probably around 18%. Yes, I know my mind wanders.

    But, your idea of living 1/3 of a stop more intensely is a great one. We all fall into ruts, and winter can be a solitary and secluded time. I'm going to keep this post in mind when I have the "don't want to's" this winter. I hope you can find that small click of a dial's increased intensity this winter. Nothing too much, just a little. I like that.

  6. The intensity of your sunsets does seem to put those in S England to shame. I suppose that may be because your atmosphere is dustier? (I think I read that is one cause of spectacular sunsets - do I sound like I know what I'm talking about yet?)

    I'm sorry that you dread this time of year. I suppose that your NM seasons aren't as marked as ours but hadn't appreciated that they were still quite grim. Being on the sofa by 6 seems a sound survival plan. Personally, I quite like autumn/winter and yet oddly, for me, I have been a bit depressed today. I shall need to flick that dial. A third you say?


  7. Stacy - I didn't have a camera in my life till just over a year ago. I now have a point&click, making up for not having adjustable settings by taking loads of photos and hoping that just a few will be OK. (I didn't realise cameras could reveal so much about a person.)

  8. Seattle comes in various shades of grey - which I enjoy about as much as you!

    Great camera analogy though and wonderful photographs.

    I force myself to bundle up and walk around the garden even for a few minutes in winter, just to get outside and hear the birds. Really helps.

  9. I rather like grey. Our walls are painted Bleached Lichen, and I wear grey from barely there to anthracite. Grey foliage from velvety silver to shimmering blue. But not grey skies, unless they are stormy and purple.

  10. Stacy it is time to get past the dark or grey and add more color and sound by doing things deliberately...I am growing greens in the basement and trying to keep the lights on to planning more things to learn about and going outside to walk or snowshoe...with this season coming we are too isolated...I say kick up those heals all you can!!!

  11. Wonderful post, Stacy. And beautiful sunsets! My camera has a "sunset" setting that automatically adjusts the light and I find myself using it for a lot of other photos as well.
    Bravo for setting that goal of living more intensely than average this winter!

  12. Deb, riding off into sunsets does take a little more work and advance preparation these days, and those who kick up their heels should probably have some aspirin and a heating pad handy. Then again, we understand the depth and value of those sunsets a little more thoroughly than we did at 20 (and no doubt much less than we will at 90)...

    Thank you, Elaine—I really have no right to complain about winter weather here. It's just the isolation factor, and the blog has helped enormously with that. I'll have to learn from your example and stay in better contact with others—not normally one of my strengths! Blessings to you as well, and happy Thanksgiving, if we don't “blog-speak” before then!

    Baffled, I can totally see why you would do that. Outdoor sounds and the feel of real, outside air just make you feel a part of things. The library/coffee shop sound like great ideas. Socially, at least, we seem to have opposite scenarios—I have energy to work a low-key job but then very little after that; evenings are my lonelier times, and I'm more or less spent by then. For you the isolated times seem to be working hours, with your social contact happening in the evening with your husband and son (when he's around). (I'm sure you're often still spent at that point!)

  13. Janet, once I got a digital camera and had a viewing screen that actually showed the light differences as you adjusted the settings, suddenly all that stuff I'd been reading about film cameras and light meters and photographers who wandered around with “18% gray cards” made sense. (I'm still not willing to wander around with gray cards.)

    Wandering minds, Holley, are a sure sign of genius. (?) That's interesting about the black in decorating—I wonder if it translates into shadow in gardens? Not just darker leaves, but real dark spots. (Which is different from black spot! Oh, gosh—of all the things you shouldn't say to a rose gardener...)

    And thanks for what you said about the 1/3 stop idea. We do fall into ruts. I'm hoping to stay out of one this winter (or at least find a cozy one to enjoy). The “don't want to's” is a great phrase.

    I'd heard that about sunsets and dust, too, Dave. My sister lives in the southeastern corner of the state, which is real Chihuahuan desert, not high desert like here (i.e., a good notch or two dustier, with tarantulas and everything), and the sunsets there are bright blood-red—about the same intensity but much deeper colored than ABQ's.

    The odd thing is that I think our climate is probably about like yours in the winter, only with more sunshine and less moisture, though I might be completely off-base. Dec-Jan highs average around 40°F (which is about 50°F warmer than Vermont some years—I do not miss VT in January) (or February, March, or April) (or November, while we're at it), and lows are around 15-20. I'm kind of embarrassed to dread winter here, because it's really nothing—just a lot of dust and brownery. And quiet. Go tickle your kiddo—that counts as at least 1/3, I'd think, and should be a quick cure for a blue mood!

    b-a-g, the law of averages is a fabulous thing where photographs are concerned. Even with adjustable settings you still hope that taking loads of photos produces a good one. I actually do think that cameras can change how you approach the world.

  14. I know Seattle is a beautiful, rain-forest green, Karen, but honestly don't know how people can take the gray! Being out in it does make a big difference, though, like you say—when I lived in western NY (the second-cloudiest region of the country, after Seattle!) getting a dog and “having” to walk him every day made a huge difference in my winter tolerance there.

    Diana, an excess of gray skies in the past has cured me from ever liking that color, I'm afraid, although you never know what will happen down the road. Maybe I'll get tired of blue... But I also agree that colors to wear and decorate with are much different than colors to look at in endlessly leaden gray skies. (Stormy gray is another, altogether more interesting thing.)

    Donna, your post on winter plans reminded me how important it is to think strategically about winter. In VT I always had a plan (I just recycled about 100 pages of them...), but just figured it wouldn't matter here, even though it does. At the moment I'm thinking of turning the guest room into a nursery for tomatillos and summer squash—maybe if I give them enough of a head start, I'll get some fruit before the summer heat hits next year...

    Thank you, Ginny. A “sunset” setting is a great feature—my camera has a lot of flexibility, but very few of the presets like sunsets or snow that have unusual lighting conditions. We'll see how the goal pans out, but thanks for the encouragement!

  15. I always prefer to darken the exposure, like you said, it adds more depth to the image. I like your comparison too between the camera and life. A good way to look at life during the greys of the season.

  16. I am with you on the dread. Yesterday was entirely muffled cloud all day. Felt like I was living inside a cardboard box had to get out into the gloaming and stamp about.

  17. Hello Stacy, those are wonderful photos! I echo Elaine in saying "you said it so well". When in Europe I was so intrigued by their skies which are normally grey and they obsessively went out to the parks when the sun emerges for a few minutes. I thought maybe it is really like that in temperate countries, maybe in USA too! When you are in the tropics like here, the sun is a fixture in the sky and those sunsets like yours are just normal. So most of us here take them for granted, but not me. Stacy, do you live alone, I do! And those sunsets seen from my 5th Floor Window are my favorite subjects in photography, they are my constant companion, and i dont need to go out to see them. I have posted lots of it but maybe this Fri will post them again. I said no two sunsets are alike and they change every second!

  18. Thanks, Donna. I'm glad to know that you darken the exposure, too—I wasn't positive about what was just a quirk of my own camera and what worked across the board.

    Catharine, stamping about sounds mighty fine on a low overcast day. The snug, indoor life of winter can be wonderfully cozy, but I also get a bit claustrophobic. Thanks for visiting!

    Andrea, I'm glad you enjoyed the photos—your own are always so wonderful! The sunset views from your 5th Floor Window are just incredible. I can see why you love them so much, even if they are a normal part of life in the tropics. I'm always amazed at how huge the sun looks seen through the hazier clouds you have. Yes, I live alone and find myself seeking companions in nature, too, like the wonderful skies. In the USA the western half of the country (until you get to the Pacific coast, at least) is usually sunny and dry—today the sky here wasn't dramatic, but that's because it was blue from one horizon to the other all day, which is a fine trade-off. Thank you for such a lovely, chatty comment, Andrea!