The Sweet Light: Landscapes by Ken West | Photographer Ken West Uses Revolutionary HDR Technique

Photo © Ken West

Sweet light. Sweet photographs. A really sweet exhibit of landscape and nature photographs. Ken West knows light, knows photography, and has mastered a breakthrough process called high dynamic range (HDR) that results in images that open up a whole new vision for photographers. His photographs taken on the Jefferson County trail system will be exhibited in a showing opening Friday, June 5, at the Teeple Hansen Gallery in Fairfield.

It’s the richness of the light, often the sun itself, that overwhelms the viewer. HDR doesn’t replace conventional digital photography. Rather, it’s an expansion of it that, applied properly, can make certain conventional images really special by expanding the range of tones in the final photo product. Ken applies HDR properly.

“When presented with the challenge of capturing the brilliance of the sun and the deep shadows in the landscape,” Ken said, “I often utilize the HDR technique, which allows a greatly expanded range of light to be reproduced in a single photographic image.” In other words, it enables a photographer to create an image that is much more representative of what the eye really sees.

The human eye is far more sensitive to the range of tones and nuances of details in highlights and shadows than any camera can possibly capture. What the camera captures in any one image is a range from bright featureless highlights to deep shadows that is far narrower than what your eye sees.

Imagine a brilliant orange sun setting behind a beautiful winter woodland scene. As you stand and look at the scene, your eye can perceive the color of the sun, the details in the bark of the trees, details in the shadows of the trees, the white pure quality of the snow.

Your eye captures it all. Cameras can’t. In photo terms, your eye can see a range of 22 stops; film and digital can only “see” a relatively paltry five stops.

If you expose the image so the orange of the sun is preserved, the trees will become silhouettes. There will be no detail in the silhouettes or the shadows. If there’s snow on the ground it will likely show as dark grey. If you expose to reveal the details in the bark of the trees, the sky will appear bright and featureless, without a hint of the sun. If only you could combine the best of both of those choices into one dynamic photograph. That’s what HDR is all about.

Using special photo editing software, a photographer selectively uploads several images of the same scene—identical except that they are taken at different exposures—and then selects the best of each and combines it all into one hopefully knockout image. It’s a wonderful process that, in the right hands, can make a great photo better.

Ken combines the best of both worlds—technical and creative—and he comes by his talents in both honestly. His great-grandfather, grandfather, and father were all solidly rooted in photography. His grandfather was a portrait photographer who, as was the practice in those days, maintained his own darkroom.

“I have early memories of being about 6 or 7 years old, sitting in total darkness on a stool as my grandfather mixed his own chemicals,” Ken said. “A metronome would keep time as he tray processed. He was also the master of the paper negative, which created a unique look that was popular in the ’30s and ’40s. As a small boy, Ifound it all fascinating.

“My dad was very good, too. He was trained as a photographer in the Navy, but when he went to work for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, he got the job of setting up their graphic arts shop. He became one of the pioneers in color reproduction. He developed the six-color process for offset printing, which was a very complex process back in the early 1960s. He called it the Color Master System.” That same six- color system is the foundation for today’s digital color printers.

With that kind of background, it’s no wonder that Ken had his own darkroom by the time he was 12. “I had the good fortune at 16 to work my summers in the Hallmark photo department,” Ken said. “They had a large studio with at least 10 professional photographers, and I had the chance to rotate among the different functions. I learned everything from running color film and prints to using large-format cameras to learning studio lighting.
“Being around a camera is the most natural thing for me,” he said. “It’s ingrained in me.”

In 1977, he was asked to set up a graphic arts department at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, where he is currently a professor teaching photography and business classes.

Ken’s passion is in the field, walking the trails through the forests, meadows, and wetlands within minutes of his home. “For me, when I go out and photograph, I like to do it by myself,” Ken said. “There’s a certain experience I get, as if nature is talking to me, creating a scene for me to capture.

“It’s a precious experience to be out before dawn and to watch the light emerge. The photos are really a byproduct of that experience. I may not even take a photo. . . . I go regularly on the trails and know that every week, every day, it’s changing. Itvery intimate how the seasons evolve.”

Digital photography has reinvigorated his love of photography. “One of the things I love about digital is that I can immediately go home and work on the photos while the emotions are still fresh,” he said. “I hope that people see the photos and sense the beauty and the creative intelligence in nature, and its fragility. And I hope they sense a responsibility to protect it.”

“The Sweet Light” opens Friday, June 5, 2009,during the 1st Fridays Art Walk at the Teeple Hansen Gallery, 108 W. Broadway, Suite 206. See Ken’s work online at

Art Weber has published thousands of nature photographs as well as written hundreds of columns and two critically acclaimed books.

For more articles on arts and artists, see the Index.