the blog of Seldom Seen Photography

Posts tagged “photographic technique

How Far Do You Go?

Desert Abstract 1

Desert Abstract 2One of the challenges of shooting in RAW format is deciding what and how much processing to do. (Tangent – why is RAW capitalized? It is not an acronym such as JPEG or TIFF. It simply means unprocessed. In Wikipedia, it isn’t capitalized. But somehow, it doesn’t look right to me. I’m usually a stickler for correct writing – just ask anyone at my day job where I edit everyone’s reports; they may even call me a grammar nazi – but leaving it uncapitalized when every other file format is capitalized seem wrong. So grammar nazi or not, I’m capitalizing it.) When shooting in JPEG mode, the camera does the processing for you. You can always tweak it later, but the majority of the work is done. With RAW, you should do the heavy lifting and process the image yourself, at least if the default processing by your RAW converter program (Lightroom in my case) doesn’t do a good job. And it is rare when I find I can’t do a better job processing than the default.

But the question remains, what to do and how much? Some might answer, just enough so that it looks like it did in real life. But what is that? Take, for example, the images presented here. These are shots of water seeping out of sandstone near Moab, Utah. I’ve included both my processed versions and the original RAW versions from Lightroom with zeroed developing (with all the sliders set to zero – realize, however, there still is some processing involved, it is impossible to present true RAW images, some processing must occur to translate the images into something humans can view). I took these images in the shade on a sunny, blue-skied morning. So these were naturally lit by a broad, blue sky, which cast a rather flat, blue light onto the sandstone. Does that flat, blue light truly show what I saw, or do my processed versions show what I saw? The answer is up to me as the maker and you as the viewer. Did I go too far?

Well, what did I do to turn the RAW images into the finished images? They were first processed in Lightroom, correcting for lens distortion and chromatic aberration. Then I set the white point and the black point to add contrast, took a little off the exposure, and adjusted the highlights and shadows to bring detail into the blacks and whites. I added some clarity to add a bit of sharpness and some vibrance to add saturation. I then adjusted the color temperature, increasing it to remove the blue tint. I then added a radial filter to lighten the water patterns and darken the rest. And finally, made minor changes to many of these adjustments to fine tune them.  I then took the images to Photoshop, performed Tony Kuyper’s triple play to add punch to the highlights and shadows, lighten up the orangy-browny vegetation on top, and added a “smart glow” to punch up the color a bit. In total, it took about 10 minutes each to do all this work.

I’d think the most controversial of these changes would be the changes to the color, in particular adding vibrance and the smart glow.  The rest is pretty standard old-school darkroom photography made digital (except perhaps the Kuyper triple play, that doesn’t really change the images that much).  The problem here is deciding what is too much in terms of the color. Because the subjects were in shadow, it is difficult to determine what the colors would look like in the sunshine. And of course, what sunshine are we talking about? Sun at noon? Sun at sunset?

I guess the answer is it depends. Did I take it too far? I don’t think so; you may. But these are close to what I wanted to show when I took the images. So for me, the answer is no; I processed them as I thought proper. For you the answer may be different. If you think so, let me know your thoughts.Desert Abstract 1

Desert Abstract 2 - RAW

RAW image unprocessed


Desert Abstract 1 RAW

RAW image unprocessed


Controlling Crowds

Vietnam to Washington

Lincoln MemorialOn my recent trip to Baltimore, I spent an afternoon at the National Mall in Washington, DC. It seemed to me, with cold weather and snow, as well as being on a Tuesday, there were very many people there. It may have been because the snow closed down the government, so a lot of people had the day off, and that it was sunny and not really that cold. Or it could be there is just always a lot of people there. It is a popular tourist attraction after all. Regardless, with all the people, it made it a challenge to photograph the monuments without a lot of people in my shots.

A great method to remove people from your shots is to use a really long exposure (typically several seconds to minutes). With a long exposure, people moving through the frame are not recorded. To get really long exposures, use a neutral density filter. As I was carrying my tripod and a neutral density filter, I was tempted to use this method to get a shot of the Lincoln Memorial during the afternoon, as it seemed to be the place with the most people gathered. However, even an exposure of several minutes (which I don’t think I could have gotten due to bright light) was probably not good enough in this case because a lot of people were standing in place for minutes at a time. A ten-minute exposure might have work, but I didn’t have the equipment with me for that.Vietnam to Washington

Instead, I came by later, after sunset, when there were many fewer people about. Then using an 8-second exposure, I was able to capture the monument without people (actually, there is the “ghost” of two people in the shot, but I can remove them later with cloning if I want).

Actually, waiting for evening is a great method for controlling crowds. Typically there are many fewer people about and the light is often better than in the middle of the day. In the shot of the Washington Monument from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I planned the shot during the afternoon when many people where in front of the war memorial wall, but came back after sunset to make the shot. I shot from this location for about 15 minutes, during which time, only one group of people passed.

Another method is to frame the people out of the picture, as worked for the image here of the Jefferson Memorial. Look for pleasing compositions above the heads of your fellow visitors. A corollary to this method is to shoot details, rather than the big picture, thereby cutting people out of your compositions.

Of course, that doesn’t always work. Sometimes you want the entire building or you want foregrounds that shooting high above people’s heads cannot give. In that case you can try to go with a wide-angle shot. With a wide-angle perspective, you can make the people visible in the shot look much smaller and less of an obstruction, at least if they are not close to the camera. This method worked well for the shot of the Washington Monument with the flags.

Or you can just go to areas that are not as popular. By visiting less popular sites, you don’t only get the advantage of fewer people in the frame, you can capture shots that are more unique (rather than the same shot of the popular attraction that has been shot a million times). Very few people were visiting the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, which is where I took the shot below of the Jefferson Memorial with the snowy tree in the foreground.

Travel photography presents many opportunities, including shooting interesting people and cultures. But sometimes, you views without the people in them. Using some of the methods described above can often allow you to capture shots people-free.


Jefferson MemorialWashington MonumentJefferson Memorial in Winter

Creating a Tilt-shift Look


Port of SeattleMy intention this morning was to get a lot of work done. Instead, I sat down at the computer and played with Photoshop. I long have wanted to learn how to create the tilt-shift look in Photoshop. You know the look, that of a miniature toy town or city. So instead of working, I asked Mr. Google how to do it, and he directed to a tutorial by Denise Lu. It is quite easy.

1. Pick a photo. It seems to work best with a wide view, taken from a high angle so you are looking downward on the scene. Two of the images here were taken from the Smith Tower in Seattle and the third from the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

2. Open the photo in Photoshop and create a duplicate layer so you are not working on the background layer.

3. Enter the Quick Mask Mode (the shortcut is the Q key) and select the Gradient tool. With the gradient tool, select the reflected gradient (the 4th mode over on the gradient tool bar).

4. Draw a gradient starting in the area you want to be in focus and extending to the area out of focus. You can hold the Shift key down to make sure your gradient is straight. A mask (default color red) will appear on the screen showing the area to be in focus. You will likely have to play around with it to get a mask exactly where you want it.

5. Exit the Quick Mask Mode (hit the Q key again) and from the filter pull-down menu select the Lens Blur filter.

6. Pick a radius of somewhere between 20 and 40, at least those are the values I used. The Lens Blur filter screen will let you preview the results.

7. Consider adding saturation with a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and extra contrast with a Levels or Curves adjustment layer to make the result look for toy-like.

And that’s it! The hardest part is getting the gradient in the proper place. If you have a building sticking out of the in-focus area, such as in my image of Paris here, you can use other selection tools to de-select that portion of the building after leaving the Quick Mask Mode but before applying the Lens Blur filter.

Have fun!



Worst of 2014 and Lessons Learned

By writing this post, I suppose I am starting a tradition since I wrote a worst of 2013 post last year.This time of year, there are many “best of” lists, and as I’ve already presented you with most of my best images of 2014, I decided once again to go the opposite direction once again and present the worst of the year.

First off, a disclaimer: the images presented here are not really my worst of the year. The truly worst of the worst get deleted off the memory card before downloading or are so truly horrible that they get deleted prior to my normal editing process. That said, all the images presented here would normally be deleted during my regular editing process without a second thought.

Generally editing and deleting bad images can be an educational experience if time is taken to think about why an image is bad. In other words, you can learn from your mistakes. However, when I took the time to pick the worst of the year and try to “save” them with post-processing, I found it an even more educational experience than just deleting. This is because in trying to “fix” the images, I went more in-depth into why they are bad and learned more about the limits of my post-processing work. You may want to try this exercise yourself sometime.

Now, before I start presenting these bad images, another further explanation. Last year several readers objected to my post, stating that some of my bad images were not actually very bad, and perhaps even likable. That may be true for an individual viewer, but when picking these shots, they were selected in context of my intent when shooting the image and in relation to the other images I took at the same time. For example, last year I presented a poorly exposed image of the Skagit Valley tulip fields that one reader liked. The image was made presentable by work in Lightroom, but when compared to the properly exposed images I took at the time, it was not very good. Further, the post-processing work that made it presentable caused the extreme noise in the image to be quite visible. Another consideration is the limits of presentation on the internet. A poorly focused image might look okay when presented as a 900-pixel wide image on the internet, but when zoomed into at 100%, it would look horrible. So take my word for it, these images are bad.

Okay, enough explanations and on to the bad stuff. Below are 11 of my worst images of 2014, one for each month from January through November. December is excluded because I failed to get out of my house and try to take any serious images. That in itself is a bad mistake, but I’ll leave my preference for a warm house to a rainy, cold day in the field for another post.

Each image below was shot in RAW. Except for the October image, two versions of each are presented, one without any post-processing (other than the default settings in Lightroom needed to convert a RAW file to a jpeg) and the other my attempt to “save” the image by processing in Lightroom. I few could have been further “saved” with extra processing in Photoshop, but that wasn’t worth my time. Proper technique in the field always is better than saving through post processing. With each of these images, a small adjustment in position or a correction in technique would have saved them more than any amount of processing.

January - this image was taken at Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. My intent here was to show the sun just peeking over the mountains as it set. The result is a washed out failure.

January – this image was taken at Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. My intent here was to show the sun just peeking over the mountains as it set, keeping detail in both the sky and the foreground. I wanted to keep the foreground from being nothing but a silhouette. The result is a washed out failure, complete with bad lens flare.

Processing in Lightroom failed to improve the image much.

Processing in Lightroom failed to improve the image much. I was able to bring a little detail back to the sky but much of it is still washed out. The lens flare could have been more minimized, but only with lots of work I didn’t want to put in. Lesson learned – some subjects just have too much contrast. It would have been better for me to wait a few minutes longer so that only a very small sliver of the sun is visible over the horizon. Alternatively, an attempt at taking a series of images for HDR processing could be made.

I liked the calm water and the cool early evening colors.

In February I had some time to kill before a meeting in Gig Harbor so I went down to the harbor to see if there was anything to shoot. I came upon this scene and liked the calm water and the cool evening colors. I took some high ISO shots to gauge the proper, much longer exposure at ISO 100. While there, several men came down the gang-plank and boarded the red foreground boat, turning on lights in the boat. I thought that was wonderful, as it would add some life to the foreground boat, and I eagerly shot the above image at f/11, ISO 100, 316 seconds.


The processed version does bring out the colors I was looking for. But what is a bit hard to see in this photo is that the red boat, the foreground dock, and the gang-plank are all fuzzy. It’s not bad focus; the rest of the image is sharp. What I most conveniently overlooked when making the image is that when the men came down the dock and got into the boat, there is no way the boat would hold still for a long exposure. With the men moving around inside, the boat was subtly moving, which was also causing the dock and gang-plank to move. Lesson learned – long exposures may be great for dealing with digital noise, but you have to make sure your subject is still. Even very small motions will lead to fuzzy results. In hindsight, I should have increased the ISO back up again. It would have been noisy, but the boat would be clear. In fact, my sample shots to gauge the exposure turned out better than the “real” shots like this one.

March -

On a sunny March day, we traveled down to Cape Disappointment State Park for some lighthouse photography. The trail to Cape Disappointment Light travels by Dead Man’s Cove, seen in this image. I loved the way the sun was streaming through the tree branches and was shining on the water. Ideally, I wanted detail in the foreground, so though I shot with several different exposures, I favored shots with overexposure that I hoped I could correct in Lightroom.

Processing helped

Processing helped some, but the sky was too blown out at the top of the image. The only way to really salvage the picture was to crop the sun out, as I’ve done here, which of course, goes against my original intent. Plus, as you can see here, I was so enamored with the scene, I neglected to notice the no trespassing sign on the tree. I suppose I could clone it out, but it isn’t worth it.  I also could go back and try to use HDR on the image (as I have multiple exposures), but in the end, I have better compositions that look better and don’t have as extreme contrast as this one. However, those other compositions still don’t really work the way I wanted. Lesson learned – high contrast scenes are extremely difficult to correctly expose and process and don’t always work. But then, you can’t get the results you want if you don’t even try. Keep experimenting, and someday, it will be right.

April -

When on a trip to Steamboat Rock State Park in April, I waited around for sunset. I scouted the shore line to find a spot where the sun would be setting behind Steamboat Rock that also had good foreground elements. I thought a split-neutral density filter was needed, so as is my normal practice, I held it in front of the lens (rather than using a filter holder). The result, not only is the filter off-center, my  fingers are in the frame. I feel like a rookie.

Cropping was the only solution for the

Cropping was the only solution real solution, both to remove the edge of the filter and my fingers. With the crop, the above image is presentable. However, the cropping ruined the composition I wanted – in particular, chopping of some of Steamboat Rock. Luckily I did review the image on the screen, saw my mistake, and took other images that captured the scene the way I wanted. I can’t say I learned a new lesson here, but I did use previous lessons – check the LCD screen and take a few backup shots.


One of the things I love about living in Western Washington is the ferries. It is so easy to hop on a ferry and head off to an island adventure, which is what we did last May on a trip to the San Juans. When on a ferry ride, I was walking around the deck. The the sun was shining and water was clean and clear. It just seems so magical to me that I knew I needed to take a picture and capture my feeling. However, as this photo reminds me, pictures taken during ferry trips rarely turn out. Instead, they usually turn into an image without a subject.


Nothing can save this image. Sure it is a nice shot of the sky and some clouds. It even looks like a nice place to be out on a boat, but without a subject is nothing but boring. Lesson learned, and not the first time – just enjoying your self doesn’t translate into a good photograph. To translate your feeling into an image, you need more than sea and sky.

June is

June is a great month for shooting waterfalls. Last June I went down to the Lewis River in the southern Cascades and shot a number of falls, including Lower Lewis River Falls, a portion of which is shown here. I liked the composition with the tree hanging out over the falls. As I do sometimes when I’m excited about shooting, I forgot to check my foreground and ended up with distracting, out-of-focus leaves on the left side of the image. I’d like to say that I took other shots from the same general vantage without the distracting leaves in the frame, but I can’t. I took fifteen shots here with different exposures and shutter speeds and all have the distracting leaves visible.

Again, the only real

Again, the only real solution is cropping, and even then, I couldn’t totally crop out the leaves without taking some of the tree that attracted me to the scene in the first place. Lesson learned – don’t let your excitement for a scene get the best of you, always remember to check your frame for distractions.


While on a backpacking trip in Olympic National Park last July I saw this buck. I’m not much of a wildlife photographer, but how could I miss with this guy so close. I had my 70-200 mm zoom with me, so I put it on and started taking shots. The result – a tree sticking out of the butt of the deer. My problem here was the same problem as with the waterfall picture above, except instead of a distracting foreground element, its bad placement of a background element. And, in hindsight, it would have been so easy to fix. Just a step or two the side and this buck would not have a really funny looking gray tail.

I'm starting

Once again (I’m really starting a theme here), the only fix for my not paying attention to what is in the frame besides the subject is cropping. In this case it doesn’t work too badly; in fact it helps make the deer larger in the image. Still, it would have been a better shot if I had only checked the frame for distractions before pressing the shutter button. Luckily, I followed the buck for several minutes and have several better shots without the tree butt.


At the end of August, I was doing some night photography of the Balanced Rock in Arches National Park. I was trying for moonlight lighting up the rocks and stars in the background. Two problems, though one is not my fault. First, Balanced Rock is positioned near the highway through the park and cars traveling out of the park light up the rock with their headlights. Now, you may even like this look, but it was not what I intended on this shot. The second problem is my fault, though a bit hard to see at this resolution. The stars are lines rather than points. When shooting start shots, unless you purposely want star trails, you need to use a short enough shutter speed to freeze the motion of the earth (which is what causes the stars to appear to move). Earlier, I had been shooting a different composition with a wide-angle lens where 20- to 30-second shutter speeds are acceptable. Here, I had changed to a medium telephoto zoom. This was shot with the zoom set at 51 mm with a shutter speed of 25 seconds. While the stars would have been fine with the wide-angle lens, at my zoom setting of 51mm, 25 seconds was too long, and the stars became little trails instead of points.


Some of you might say this processed version is okay. It is subjective whether the car headlights helps or hurts the image, in fact, the look has kind of grown on me. But the stars as little trails rather than points is unforgivable, particularly because  I did know better.

Still in Arches

September – I was still in Arches when this image was taken. I was hiking out of the Klondike Bluffs region at sunset. Having traveled half way across the country and hiking in a remote area of the park, I thought the sunset needed to have its photo taken and this is the result. However, looking at this result, I’m thinking that sometimes sunsets are better enjoyed by just watching rather than photographing.

Cropping down to a panorama did save this image.

Cropping down to a panorama did save this image to a certain extent. Cutting out the mass of blue sky certainly helped. In hindsight I should have zoomed in and done a proper panorama, taking three or four shots and stitching them together. While this works okay as is, with the extreme crop, it is not very usable for large prints. Lesson learned – if you insist of photographing a sunset with a lot of blue sky, zoom in, crop the mass of blue in camera, and consider doing a panorama.


October brings fall colors to the forest. Here is a shot of Icicle Creek near Leavenworth, Washington. I liked how the orange fir needles and pollen cones had collected next to the rocks, and I spent considerable time getting the composition of this shot correct. What I forgot to do is check the focus. The entire image is blurry. There is no salvation for this image and the processed version is essentially the same (so I’m not presenting it). While there are software fixes for minor focus problems, there is no hope for this image. Lesson learned (again and again) – check the focus.

In November I was still chasing a bit of

In November I was still chasing a bit of fall color and made a trip to the Yakima River Canyon. Here I like the mix of green pines and yellow cottonwoods against the blue sky. And if you want to really bring out the blue of the sky, add a polarizing filter, right? Not necessarily. Wide angle lens can show so much sky that part will be dark from the polarization and part not. That is the problem here.

A lot of work

I put a lot of work into this trying to even out the color of the sky in this processed version. I was working solely in Lightroom, and could probably do a better job if I take it to Photoshop, but you get the idea. The end result is acceptable, and I may yet work some more on this image. I don’t know how many times I’ve made this mistake with my polarizer, but this was certainly not the first (or dare I say, the 100th) time. For some reason, I keep making this mistake over and over. Some lessons are harder to learn than others.

Night Moves – Milky Way Edition

Milky Way1“Workin’ on mysteries without any clues, Workin’ on our night moves” -Bob Seger, Night Moves

I enjoy night photography, though I’ll be the first to admit that I have a lot to learn. I have previously written on the topic. However, in that case, my post focused on night photography in the city. In today’s post, I’ll focus on night photography in the wilderness (or at least far from city lights).

During my recent backpacking trip in the Olympic Mountains, I played with night photography on two nights. My main focus on those nights was to capture some shots of the Milky Way. When shooting star filled skies, and not trying for star trails, here are a few hints:

  • plan your shot by seeing where the Milky Way will be – download the free program Stellarium, a planetarium for computers which can show you how the night sky will look anywhere in the world at anytime now or in the future.
  • pick a spot outside of cities – light pollution blocks many visible stars; my trip to the Olympic Mountains was perfect
  • for the best star shots, avoid times when the moon is up – like light pollution, moonlight will drown out many stars; it was just after new moon when I was in the Olympics, moonlight was not a problem
  • use as “fast” a lens as you can – I used my f4 17-40mm zoom because I wanted the wide-angle view. However, my f2.8 24-70mm lens would have been a better choice for its better light gathering ability
  • don’t be afraid of high ISOs, you will need it – I used ISO settings of 3,200, 6,400, and 8,000 coupled with noise reduction in Lightroom.
  • avoid shutter speeds more than 30 seconds, otherwise you will start getting star trails – up to 30 seconds typically works okay for wide-angle shots (perhaps up to 24 mm), but if you use a less wide-angle lens, you will need a faster shutter speed. The shots here had shutter speeds of 20 to 30 seconds
  • use a wide open aperture – I had my lens wide open at f4 (again, an f2.8 lens would have been better)
  • use a tripod – goes without saying
  • if you want some color to the sky, don’t wait until it is too dark – the length of time after sunset the sky will retain color depends on which direction you point the camera and your latitude (it gets darker quicker at lower latitudes); my shots here were taken between 1.5 and 2.5 hours after sunset
  • auto-focus will not work, so turn it off – auto-focus does not work in low light; to focus you can choose to take some test shots and check a magnified view on your LCD panel of some of the stars; alternatively, manually set the focus to the hyperfocal distance or biased to the infinite side of the hyperfocal distance (that’s what I did)
  • consider using less vignetting correction in post-processing – the profiled vignetting correction for my lens in Lightroom adds a lot of noise to the edges of the images (not a problem in full light conditions, bad news in low light)


Lunch Lake and Milky Way

Lunch Lake and the Milky Way – shot about 1.5 hours after sunset, f4, 20 seconds, ISO 6400

Glow on the Horizon

Taken 2.5 hours after sunset, there was still a glow on the horizon visible to the camera (but not my eye) – f4, 20 seconds, ISO 8000

Milky Way and Pond

Both this shot and the one at the top of the post were taken just a few steps from our campsite at Lunch Lake. The water is not the lake, but a small pond. The biggest problem I had here was that there are two campsites on the far side of this pond, and one group of campers kept turning their flashlights on. After several tries, I captured a shot without the light from their camp. Shot about 1.75 hours after sunset, f4, 20 seconds, ISO 8000


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