I have trouble photographing the moon. Okay, it’s not so hard before for the sun sets (which is why the best full moon pictures are typically taken the day before the full moon and, consequently, before the sun sets), but after dark, I have lots of problems. There is just too much contrast. The moon is bright, basically as bright as anything lit by sunlight on a cloudless sunny mid-day. Everything else is dark. The dynamic range of any scene with the moon is too much for a camera to handle.
Perfect time to try some HDR photography, right? Maybe, but I’ve never gotten it to work well. I’ve always get funny looking light artifacts around the moon; all my attempts at using HDR for scenes with the moon have looked awful. How about shooting one exposure for the moon, one for the rest of the scene, and combining them in Photoshop. Again, maybe you can do that, but every time I’ve tried it, it doesn’t work – there’s too much glare around the moon and I can’t get the sky to look right.
Last month when I wanted to photograph the full moon rising behind the Glass Museum in Tacoma, I was disappointed when there were clouds on the eastern horizon and the moon wasn’t visible. Less than an hour later, the moon rose above the clouds, and though it was no longer aligned with the Glass Museum, it lined up nicely with the cable bridge over the Thea Foss Waterway. Nice shot, I thought, except now it was way too dark to capture both the moon and the with a single exposure. I set up the tripod anyway and took a series of shots, hoping that perhaps the contrast would not be too extreme.
Later, when I downloaded the shots, I was disappointed to find out contrast was too great – moon troubles were visiting me again. I tried HDR (once again) and was disappointed with the results (once again). I was frustrated. At that point, I figured someone else must have an answer to this problem, so I spent some time researching moon photography on Google. Most advice centered around photographing during twilight before it was too dark. Not helpful in my case. After a bit of searching, I found a YouTube video (which I can’t find again to credit here), where the photographer used HDR for only the moon and the area of sky immediately around it, a single image for the rest of the shot, then combined the two images in Photoshop. He then re-imported the resultant image into Photomatix for additional tone mapping, which I thought wasn’t necessary. But the first part sounded interesting.
I had a series of seven images, shot one f-stop apart. I imported all into Photomatix and worked it for the moon only. I re-imported the HDR moon image into Lightroom. Then I took a single image from the original seven and worked it in Lightroom for the foreground only. I also worked the HDR moon image in Lightroom to approximately match the sky to the sky (away from the moon) in the foreground image. I exported both images to Photoshop into a single document, with the foreground image as the background layer and the HDR moon image laying on top. I used a layer mask on the HDR moon layer to mask out everything but the area around the moon, feathering the mask match the sky in the underlying layer. The two skies didnt quite match, so I used a curves layer with a clipping mask on the HDR moon layer to get the tone of the two skies to be more similar. Once I was satisfied with the result, I continued with my normal Photoshop workflow to finish the image.
Perfect? No. But in the end, after a lot of work, the result is the best moon image I’ve ever captured after dark. What do you think, is it any good? And please, if anyone has some better way to handle my moon troubles, be kind and let me know.
When photography is exercised as an art form rather than an attempt to purely replicate a scene without any interpretation (which, of course is impossible, photographs cannot replicate reality – they are in 2 dimensions instead of 3, they are cropped and reality is not, etc. – this could be a whole separate blog by itself, but I digress), the photographer has a myriad of choices to make. Many choices are made when capturing the image – what lens to use, what exposure settings to use, what to leave in the frame and what to crop out, whether to use a high viewpoint or a low viewpoint, etc. And post capture, there are also a myriad of choices concerning processing – there are global adjustments for exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, the white point, the black point, clarity, saturation, vibrance; cropping; distortion corrections; adding gradients or brush stroke or radial filters; etc. etc. and that is just in Lightroom; go to Photoshop and the choices explode seemingly exponentially.
For the capture side of photography, I’m a big advocate of trying out lots of different options when photographing a subject to really explore its possibilities (see this old post on the subject). Much is said about per-visualizing an image when photographing. And doing so makes a lot of sense and can make for a great image. However, don’t let that per-visualization get in the way of looking at a subject from different, non-per-visualized vantage points.
Okay, I have a confession to make here, I did not follow my own advice when capturing the images accompanying this post. I had one viewpoint in mind, went out, took the shots, and left. Call me bad. These images were taken earlier in the week at Union Station in downtown Tacoma. Union Station is no longer a train station but is now the US courthouse here in the city. Union Station is an iconic shot of Tacoma which I haven’t explored much before (so iconic in fact that I saw another photographer’s image of it hanging on a wall earlier the same evening I took this shot). And the fact that it is an iconic shot maybe why I neglected to cover it from other angles. So here’s so more unsolicited advice – when shooting icons, get the iconic shot out of the way, then try to cover it from other angles and get your own take on the subject (yes, I hear you, I should follow my own advice).
But even when you only get one shot, even the iconic shot, with your post-capture processing you can put your own spin on a subject by the choices you make. Here are four different interpretations of the same subject. Three are HDR images, processed initially in Lightroom, exported to Photomatrix, then re-imported and finished in Lightroom. The other is not an HDR image and was processed solely in Lightroom. If I decide to work on one or more of the images in the future, I may take it to Photoshop to make additional adjustments. The HDR images are made from a set of five images taken one f-stop apart.
The images represent choices for a single exposure of HDR, more realistic HDR and more “grungy” HDR, and distortion correction and cropping versus no distortion correction and cropping. No one image is correct, and no one image is wrong. None represent the reality of the scene as viewed by my eye (this scene, taken at night, is mostly lit from ugly yellow sodium-vapor street lamps for example). All are interpretations; all are artwork; all represent different choices. With these shots, I believe, at least to a small extent, I put my own spin on an icon. I think I favor the cropped, distortion-corrected version the best; but do like the other ones as well. Do you have a favorite?
For some reason I have a hard time getting out and doing photography in February. I’m not much of a winter fan to begin with, and by February I just want it to be over. After a fairly dry winter so far this season, the rains returned with a vengeance the past several weeks. I had two planned snowshoe trips cancelled. So without anything new to show, it’s time to dig through the archives.
Five years ago this month Tanya and I were on a wine-tasting trip to Walla Walla, Washington. (Non sequitur – I love saying Walla Walla, Washington. I think it stems from my youth when I use to watch a lot of Loony Tunes on television, and the cartoon characters there were always ordering fun stuff from Ace Novelty Company in Walla Walla, Washington. Anyone else out there like me, or am I just weird?) We stayed with friends at the Marcus Whitman Hotel, a grand old place in the heart of the downtown. I really liked the look of the lobby of this old hotel, and before we left, I got out the camera and tripod to photograph it.
The dynamic range in the lobby was extreme. Inside, the lobby was dark, lit by antique light fixtures. However, the windows were bright, lit by outside daylight. This was scene made for digital photography and the use of HDR (high dynamic range) processing. At the time, I hadn’t done much HDR, in fact, now thinking back, this could have been my first attempt. I’m happy with the results, though if I ever decide to reprocess these shots, I think I might cut back on the effect a bit – the colors, particularly the blues, are a bit over saturated. However, both images show the old grandeur of the place, which was my intent for the photographs. Hotels like this are just not made anymore.
Each of these two images is a combination of six shots, processed first by Lightroom, then combined into a single image via HDR processing in Photomatix, then back to Lightroom, and finally Photoshop. At the time, I didn’t like Photoshop’s HDR processing, which has since been updated. Photomatix has been updated as well, and I still prefer it to Photoshop for HDR processing.
If you ever plan on a visit to Walla Walla, this is a great place to stay. Their off-season rates are very reasonable (at least they were five years ago), and there are more winery tasting rooms within walking distance than any person can visit in a day. (When we visited, our group rented a limo and rode around the countryside outside the city to a number of wineries. When we returned in the afternoon, Tanya and I and another couple than walked to tasting rooms near the hotel. I can honestly tell you, all those tiny little tastes of wine add up. Needless to say, these images were taken the next morning when I was capable of focusing my camera as well as my eyes.)
One chore I accomplish each winter is to edit my photo library for all the photos I neglected to edit earlier in the year. Editing is a thankless task that some notable photographers even suggest is unnecessary due to disk drives being inexpensive. However, it is hard enough for me to find the photos I want when things are edited, let alone when I don’t edit.
Editing, at least for me, has one big added benefit. By going over those thousands of image I took that I didn’t pay a lot of attention to earlier, I always find some hidden gems that I missed earlier (along with lots of dogs – but more on that in a later blog). As my Christmas present to you, I offer a look at some of the hidden gems I’ve found thus far during my editing. Merry Christmas everyone!
I haven’t had much chance to edit or go over the images from my recent trip to New York and Spain last month. My final night in New York, I spent an hour or so working on night shots along the East River photographing Manhattan and the Queensboro Bridge (59th Street Bridge). The location was only a couple of minutes walk from the apartment I stayed at on Roosevelt Island.
After taking several shots of the bridge and various compositions with the buildings in Manhattan, I decided to try a panorama. My efforts were frustrated by the passing of barges along the East River, which ruined the reflections in the water. But eventually I got several series of images completed. The one above is a HDR panorama created from 6 vertical shots (with each vertical shot created by 3 different exposures). Thus the complete image represents 18 different shots. Exposure times were 4, 15, and 30 seconds. The HDR work was done with Photomatix and the panorama was stitched in Photoshop. I’m not totally happy with the result, and it needs a bit more work, but I thought I’d post it to see what you thought.
If you follow my blog, you may know I’ve been having a problem taking a good day off to go shoot some photos. Last Friday I went up to Seattle, rain or shine and received mostly shine and no rain! I had two main goals for the trip: the cherry trees at University of Washington and shot of the full moon rising over the city. I ended up with a lot of good images, so I’m breaking the trip up into several posts. Today – shots from the University of Washington.
I am a graduate of UW. I remember the cherry trees from those four springs 30 years ago, but never found the time to photograph them when I was in school. It seemed it was time to do so. With that goal in mind, I headed straight up I5 to the 45th Street exit in Seattle. I parked in the northern lot ($15 to park – boy has the price of parking risen in the past 30 years!) and headed to the quad. The cherry trees were even more glorious than I remembered. It was in between classes when I arrived, so there was a lot of foot traffic. But after about 10 minutes, most the students were inside, and I was able to get a few compositions without a lot of people. The sky was full of low clouds, so I tried to keep the sky out of my compositions.
Eventually I wandered over to Red Square and took some shots of the Suzzallo Library, including the one below showing the Broken Obelisk sculpture (with Suzzallo in the background).
Besides the cherry trees, another shot I’ve wanted to capture for a long time is one of Suzzallo’s reading room. I entered the library and went up the Grand Staircase to the reading room. Upon entering the room, the silence was intimidating. There were a number of students studying, and I feared my shutter noise would echo throughout the entire room. As it turned out, the shutter noise wasn’t too bad, but the zipper on my camera bag was loud (earning me a sharp look from the nearest student). I quickly shot a couple of series of exposures for HDR processing and got out of there before a librarian showed up.
By the time I left the library, the sun had come out. I walked around campus and eventually headed back to the cherry trees on the quad. After more shots (made more difficult by many more people being present, including several other photographers), I went back to the car and retrieved my partner for the day – our Newfoundland, Carson. Carson and I then walked around while I took a few more photos.
The UW mascot is the Husky, and UW teams, students, and alumni are fondly known as the Dawgs. But Carson was certainly the top dog on campus that day! After the cherry trees, I venture there were more photographs taken of Carson than anything else, with at least 4 students asking to take his picture (perhaps understandable, as Carson is an impressive dog, weighing in at 150 pounds).
Hope you like these shots of the University of Washington campus. More from Seattle to come shortly.
“Workin’ on mysteries without any clues, Workin’ on our night moves” -Bob Seger, Night Moves
Last Tuesday, I spent a few hours working on some night photography down on the Ruston Way waterfront with a small group from the Mountaineers. We got quite a few questions about what we were doing down there with cameras and tripods at night. I guess we should have told them we were working on our night moves. But unlike the Bob Seger song, we were working in winter instead of summer. Winter is a great time for night photography because the night comes early, and you can still get home at a decent hour. Of course, it has disadvantages too, like the weather. Though not extremely cold, only about 40° F (about 4° C), it does get chilly standing around waiting on those long exposures.
I’m really starting to enjoy doing night photography. The camera picks up lots of color and detail that the eye cannot see. I recently read Night Photography, Finding Your Way in the Dark by Lance Keimig, and I have a long way to go before ever approaching his abilities. But I have fun. I highly recommend Keimig’s book to anyone wanting to learn more about night photography, it has lots of good information.
One of the great mysteries of night photography is getting the correct exposure without excessive noise. Digital noise is the bane of many a night photographer. Noise increases with long exposures, high ISOs, and underexposed shots. That’s why, with night photography, you should still use low ISOs and exposure for the right side of the histogram (while not allowing any important highlight to be blown out). Shooting this way, will help minimize noise, but will lead to long (or very long) exposure times, very often over 30 seconds (the longest programmed shutter speed on most cameras). Therefore, to get the correct exposure, you will often be shooting in manual mode with the shutter speed set to bulb. Knowing how long to leave the shutter open is a difficult question. It’s a real pain to wait through a 2-minute exposure only to discover when looking at the results that it should have been a 4- or 8-minute exposure.
Here’s one tip I found very useful from Keimig’s book. Set the camera to a very high ISO and take a test shot first. This can be used to check both composition (it’s sometimes hard to compose through the viewfinder in the dark) and exposure. To make the exposure math easy, Keimig presents a chart in his book and on his Nightskye website. Basically, for cameras with a native ISO of 100 (Canon cameras for example), set the ISO to 6,400 and take one or more test shots to find the correct exposure. The number of seconds in the correct exposure at ISO 6,400, is the number of minutes for the correct exposure at ISO 100. For cameras with a native ISO of 200 (like most Nikons), the test shot ISO should be set to 12,800 and the normal shot ISO at 200. (If your camera doesn’t have such high settings, his chart shows how to compensate). For example, I use a Canon camera. So for the featured photo above, I took a test shot at ISO 6,400 and found the correct exposure was 4 seconds. I switched the camera to ISO 100 and re-shot with an exposure of 4 minutes (in both cases, of course, using the same aperture, f/8 in this case). Much easier than guessing on the correct exposure.
Thanks to Lance Keimig, I’ve solved one the mysteries of my night moves!
One stop Tanya and I made on our trip last month was the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado. This is an amazing place. At its deepest, the Black Canyon is 2,722 feet (829 meters) deep. At its narrowest, it is 1,100 feet (335 meters) wide. It is so deep and so narrow, that little sunlight reaches the bottom. No wonder it is called Black. Of course, this presents great difficulties in photographing it.
Our original plan was to spend a night at the campground at the park. So I spent a lot of time studying various viewpoints and sunlight times and angles (using the Photographer’s Ephemeris, which is a really great program by the way, and free for desktop or laptop use) for early morning and late afternoon of our projected days at the park. As is turned out, we only made a short stop there, maybe two or three hours in the brutal, mid-afternoon sun. Not the best conditions for photography. The range of contrast was huge – puffy white clouds to dark, canyon shadows. The rock making up the canyon is mostly dark; that didn’t help. And several of the viewpoints we visited looked westward, toward the sun. Ouch! Could conditions be worse?
What’s a photographer to do? HDR of course. (For those of you who don’t know, HDR stands for high dynamic range. HDR photography works by shooting the same scene several times with different exposures and combining them together in a computer.) I occasionally shoot with HDR in mind, and this was one of those occasions. All the images presented in this blog are HDR images.
For those who care about such things, my typical HDR workflow is thus: 1) shoot three shots (or more if needed) in RAW using the autobracket feature on my DSLR (tripod mounted of course), 2) upload into Adobe Lightroom, 3) in Lightroom, on one of the shots, set the white balance and correct for chromatic aberration, then copy those settings to the other shots in the set, 4) export to Photomatix Pro using the Details Enhancer for tone mapping , 5) save the new HDR image and import into Lightroom, 6) go through my normal Lightroom workflow I normally use for RAW photos, and 7) give finishing touches (if needed) in Photoshop. The images here have been through steps 1-6. When shooting the original images, I check the histogram to make sure the set of images includes at least one image with the histogram not pegged up against the right side and at least one image with the histogram not pegged up against the left side.
Normally, I don’t use HDR if I can preserve the entire dynamic range with my regular workflow. Two of the images presented here that I was able to use my non-HDR workflow. However, I ran them through my HDR workflow to see how they looked and thought they looked better with HDR.
I’m not a fan of that over-processed HDR look that is popular with some. I like my HDR images to look life-like. A couple of these push that envelope, particularly the one with the Painted Wall below. What do you think? Are any of them overdone?
I first thought of this photograph 3 years ago. When driving through Olympia one spring day in 2009, I saw cherry trees losing their blossoms and thought, “A shot of the Capital with the cherry trees in bloom would sure look nice.” But, it was too late for that spring.
A year later, I remembered the idea, but never seemed to find the time during the short cherry blooming season. “Next year,” I vowed, ” I will make time to get to Olympia and get the shot.”
Well, next year came, and it was do it now or wait yet another year. I’ve been watching some cherry trees near my house in Tacoma, waiting for the peak bloom. I was also waiting for the skies to be anything other than blah gray. For those of you that live in western Washington, you know how gray the skies have been this spring. I put the extra restriction that I wanted to do the shoot on a weekend, because the State legislature is in session and the Capital has a lot of people running around it during the week.
Finally, after waiting several weeks, on April 9th, the skies looked like they may cooperate – at least it wasn’t raining! (In hindsight, maybe I should have waited a week, the weather was much better this weekend; but then, maybe not as the cherry trees are starting to drop their pedals). So I hightailed it down to Olympia the early morning. The skies were marginal, and there were still quite a few people around. I set up this shot and had to wait for pedestrians to vacant the walkway. But with a bit of patience, I was able to snap a few frames. The sky was very light, at least compare to the grassy area below the trees. So I planned on doing a high dynamic range image (HDR). So I shot sequences of three shots, 2 f-stops apart. Still I worried I wouldn’t get much definition and interest in the sky.
This week I was finally able to process the images. The one here is one of the results. The HDR worked well, and I was (with a little processing in Photoshop) able to get the sky looking pretty good. Overall, the image still needs some work; I probably need to go back and play with the HDR processing, and I will do so sometime soon. But for now, it looks pretty good. What do you think? Was it worth waiting 3 years for the shot?