A few weeks back, I visited Bolinas. It was one of those bucolic days that we often take for granted in California. The temperature hovered somewhere between that of a lukewarm cup of mint tea and water from the tap. A bead of sweat would break after a long walk, only to evaporate with the wind that started somewhere in the deep Pacific.
As I made my way along the Bolinas Bay, all I could see was the blue ocean, rendered colorless at times by the bright sun. The sky oscillated between deep blue and near white, depending on how and where you looked. There were surfers everywhere. And more were slowly making their mark on the sand.
It was a perfect day for monochromatic photography. And I had a high-key photo in mind. I was hoping to find a lone surfer who perhaps would make my wish come true and walk into the viewfinder of the Leica M10 Monochrom. One should be careful what one wishes for — a few minutes later, I got the perfect shot: a surfer walking along the edge of the ocean, surfboard in hand, against the blue sky. Distant mountains to the left, ocean beyond, and a faint outline of San Francisco somewhere on the horizon — it is what I had come to capture in the camera.
I like shooting as close to wide-open as it gives me a blurry, un-sharp raw negative that I can manipulate later. When I take landscape photos with the lens as wide open and focused on infinity, it gives the final image an ethereal, brighter feeling, something I learned during my year of film photography.
I was excited to see what the camera had captured. The image looked terrific on the live-view screen, but you can’t judge a photo by its preview, as I have learned time and again. And I was proven right when I imported the digital negatives on my computer. The results mortified me. I had overexposed the picture, and the highlights looked blown entirely.
My only hope was that Leica’s monochrome cameras’ have an incredible dynamic range, which in turn gives you a lot of leeway in post-production. After some minor lens-related adjustments in Camera Raw, I used a layer to lower the overall image’s brightness. I added a tiny bit of contrast. Later, using a curves layer, I reduced the highlights to expose the distant San Francisco hills and blurry waves. And then a curves layer to tame the highlights a little bit further. And then I used dodge and burn to give some dimensionality to the sky.
Despite my initial panic, in the end, I got the result I wanted. A lot has to do with the camera and its technical capabilities. However, I think that I had previsualized the image in my head long before pressing the click-button helped me edit to get to my final destination. The photographic journey of this one frame reminded me a lot of Kodak Tri-X — where even the most over-exposed frames would have a beautiful pristine feel of shadows, mid-tones, and highlights in perfect monochromatic harmony.
In the end, what matters the most, is that the final image will help me remember that perfect day and that wonderful walk on the beach.
March 15, 2021. San Francisco