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?
I love black and white photographs. I think black and white photographs may have been what really started my life-long passion for photography. In my pre-digital days, I had a wet darkroom in the back of the pantry of our kitchen. Though I did a little color processing, it was black and white processing that I truly enjoyed. I loved watching those pieces of photo paper magically transform and reveal an image when soaking in the developer bath. Those days are now long gone; I sold most of my old darkroom equipment for pennies on the dollar and even just threw some of it away when I moved to Tacoma.
But I still love black and white, though I don’t do much of it. I want to change that. Recently I downloaded a copy of Silver Efex Pro. I was excited to give it a try, since so many photographers make great black and white photos with it. Today I tried it out. Today I failed. It causes Photoshop to crash on my computer. I think I may have a video card issue. Luckily, I am planning a computer upgrade in the near future, and that may solve the problem.
But I still had the urge to make at least one black and white image today before getting to my other pressing work – fun before work, right? So I tried using the black and white adjustment layer in Photoshop and was not happy with the results. It caused some of my brush strokes applied in Lightroom to show and pixelated the sky. So I resorted to Lightroom for my black and white conversion. Though it is powerful, it doesn’t allow the type of targeted black and white adjustments I was hoping for that one can make with Photoshop or Silver Effect Pro.
The image here is the result of my efforts today. It is of Cape Disappointment Lighthouse; a 30-second exposure taken after sunset. I like the color version; I really like the black and white version. And I think I could love the black and white version were I to go back and fix some of the defects that my earlier color processing caused that are only visible with the black and white conversion. It seems that black and white conversions, at least the way I like to make them, amplify mistakes in images. Sensor dust spots become more visible; halos from imprecise brush strokes are more obvious; etc. After my computer upgrade, I think I will come back to this image, start over fresh with the RAW file, fix those mistakes and process it specifically for black and white, and again try Silver Efex Pro. Until then I’ll enjoy this slightly flawed image and keep thinking of black and white.
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.)
Last Friday, I took the day off from the day job to do some photography. It was a day Carson would have loved, rainy and cold. With Carson gone, Tanya and I decided to take our cat, Patch, along instead. He wasn’t so sure about the whole thing, and stayed in the car until our last stop (Rainbow Falls State Park), where he did explore a bit.
But this post isn’t about Patch, it’s about photographing in the rain. If you live on the wet side of the mountains in the Pacific Northwest, you best get use to photographing in the rain if you want to shoot in fall and winter. That said, I try to avoid it as much as I can. Last Friday, I was not excited about going out. The weather forecast called for 100% chance of rain, and it was not wrong. Shooting in adverse weather can have its benefits, but often it is just miserable. However, Tanya convinced me that we should go (easy for her to say, I was the one to be out in the rain; she took papers to grade).
As it turned out, I was happy we went. As you can see by the attached photos, I think I came away with some good shots. Here’s a few hints for photographing in the rain (not listed in any particular order).
1. Take good rain gear for your camera – unless you have a waterproof camera, you’ll want some sort of protection to keep your camera dry. Currently, I use a Rainsleeve by Op/Tech. These are inexpensive plastic sleeves with openings on both ends. One has a drawstring to tighten around the camera lens hood. The other end allows you to hand hold the camera or attach it to a tripod. A small hole is also provided for the viewfinder. I find these sleeves work well when on a tripod, and allow you to control most the camera functions through the plastic. I like them less for hand holding the camera because sticking your wet hand up into the sleeve defeats the purpose, plus it is a bit tight. There are many other options also available.
You might also consider making an umbrella holder for you tripod. I have a friend who has a similar setup and really likes it. I, personally, have not tried something like this out yet, but as long as it is not windy, an umbrella seems like it should work well.
2. Take good rain gear for yourself – be sure to keep yourself dry as well. I like to take rain pants as well as a raincoat. When photographing, I often kneel on one knee (all my jeans wear out on the left knee knew sooner than the right). With rain pants, there is no worry about kneeling in water and mud.
3. Use a tripod – while using a tripod is always a good practice, in the rain it is especially needed. The skies are much darker than on typical non-rainy days, leading to longer exposure times. Also, it is easier to keep the camera dry if it is on a tripod.
4. Use a lens with a long lens hood - when using the Rainsleeve, the lens hood is outside the plastic. It is the hood that protects the lens from falling rain drops. This works best if the lens hood is long and the glass sits back inside it. This is why I tend to avoid using a wide-angle lens in the rain if at all possible. Lens hoods for wide-angle lenses provide almost no protection from rain. All the shots shown here were taken with a 24-70mm lens. When extended to the 24mm setting, the lens is close to the open end of the lens hood, so I had to take more care when using that setting.
5. When not shooting, keep your lens pointed down – don’t invite rain onto your lens, try to keep the camera pointed downward.
6. Use a cable release - anything you can do to keep a wet hand from touching the camera will help keep it dry. I use a cable release which hangs down out of the Rainsleeve. Alternatively, I could trip the shutter button through the Rainsleeve, but with long exposures, it is good practice to use a cable release anyway.
7. Have a lintless cloth handy – just in case you need to wipe stray water off your lens. Take a look at the lens occasionally to look for water drops (which are sometimes hard to see through the viewfinder).
8. Avoid the sky in your compositions - at least if the sky is uniformly gray (as it is often is around here when it rains). For most of the subjects I photograph, the sky (even if not uniformly gray) is very much lighter than the subject, creating huge contrast problems. Expose correctly for your subject, and the sky becomes a overexposed white blanket. Expose for the sky, the subject is a dark mess. HDR is a possible solution, but if there is no contrast within the sky itself, that doesn’t help much. It’s best to just keep the amount of sky in the frame minimized.
9. Pick subjects that can be photographed without much sky - it is easier to keep the sky out of your compositions if the subject can be photographed without the sky being prominent. If you’ve never been to where you are going, and don’t have an idea whether the sky will be prominent or not, many subjects can be researched on Flickr to give you an idea. (For example, look at this Flickr search for the Cedar Creek Grist Mill, my main destination last Friday.)
10. Use a polarizer - using a polarizer can make a big difference in your images. When everything is wet, everything has reflections. With that big gray sky above, there are a lot of annoying reflections in any composition. Of course, using a polarizer cuts down on the light entering the camera, making the use of tripod (#3 above) even more important.
11. Watch out for wind – wind complicates matters considerably. With a stiff wind, rain no longer fall vertically. Wind demands even more care to keep things dry.
12. Use a memory card with enough storage - start your photo shoot with a fresh memory card and one with enough storage for the entire shoot. You don’t want to open up the camera to change cards and get water inside.
13. Consider your lens choice carefully and change lenses out of the weather - you don’t want to change lenses in the rain; there is too much chance of getting water inside the camera. Before you leave you car, put on the lens that will give the most shots. Consider using an all-purpose, travel zoom, like an 18-200 mm or similar (of course, such lenses typically have less light gathering power than other lens with less zoom range, making tripod use even more important). If you do have to change lenses, do so in shelter or with much care if still outside. (BTW, I do not own travel zoom. I try to restrict my compositions to those requiring a single lens. In last Friday’s case, I only used my 24-70 mm lens).
That’s it for now. Do have any other hints for photographing in the rain?
Over the past couple weekends, I’ve led two photo scavenger hunts. Participants in the hunts had 3 hours to photograph a list of 20 topics, such as: color, contrast, bark, soft, old, action, life, and ugly. The area I chose for the hunts was the Old Town portion of the Tacoma waterfront because of the wide range of possible photographic subjects (and, quite frankly, the nearness to my house). I think all the participants would agree, it was a fun time. Because there were two hunts, for two different clubs, and a few people members of both clubs, I made two separate lists with only a couple topics repeated on both lists.
Doing a scavenger hunt is a great way to push your photographic vision, to force yourself to think outside your normal “box.” Want to give it a try? Here’s a list of my favorite topics compiled from the two different lists I used over the past two weekends (minus topics specific to the place). Go someplace you think might have good photographic opportunities, give yourself 3 hours, and try to get a good image of everything on the list. Try for something different from your normal routine shot, be creative and push the envelope!
I’d love to see some of your results or hear your thoughts on whether this is a worthy exercise. Send me some of your results, and I’ll post them in my blog.
Here’s the list:
- time (many people in the hunts I led photographed a watch or clock; try to think a bit more creatively and make a photograph that shows time itself)
- person/people (try to make it someone you don’t know)
- contrast (many options here, contrast between objects, contrast between light and dark, etc.)
- negative space
- autumn (if in the southern hemisphere, substitute spring)
- photographer’s choice (photograph anything you want)
To give a bit of inspiration, here are a few of my shots for the above topics. (Disclaimer: for the actual scavenger hunts, participants are required to take jpegs, so the images submitted have no post-processing. The images below have undergone post-processing with Lightroom 5).
I’ve heard photography described as the art of capturing light, and perhaps I’ve been guilty of describing it that way as well. Photographic tips often talk about looking for dynamic light, chasing the good light, etc. Yet photography is more than light, it is also time. Consider your camera. Leaving ISO aside, there are two ways to control exposure: changing the aperture and changing the shutter speed.
Time is an essential part of photography. Too little time, and your image will be black; too much time, and it will be white. Every photograph captures a slice of time. Sometimes a very small slice, a small fraction of a second; sometimes a long slice of minutes or even hours.
The human eye is better at capturing light than a camera. The human eye can see detail through a very large dynamic range compared to the best DSLRs out there. This is why HDR is popular, why there camera accessories like split-neutral density filters. But, at least in my opinion, the camera is better than the human eye at capturing time. My camera can capture the action of a running gazelle much better than my eye can. Similarly, it is much better at capturing the movement of the stars across the night sky.
Time makes every photograph unique. Each image captures a different piece of time, and each piece of time is different. I use to tell my kids when they were young, that if they wanted to see something no one in the world had ever seen before, pop open a peanut shell. No one in the world ever saw that particular peanut before (and no one would see it again after they ate it). The same is true for photography, want to capture something no one has every photographed before, take a picture, any picture – you’ve just captured a bit of time that will never be captured again. Okay, I hear you. If you take two photographs one second apart, you have two nearly identical photographs (the extreme example, I guess, being two studio-lit shots of a still life taken seconds apart). I didn’t say your capture would be exciting, only different (and perhaps not even on a visible scale). Making that capture of a small slice of time exciting, making the image worthy to look at, is where the art comes in.
The act of capturing time with a camera is not art. Instead making that capture an experience (both for the photographer and the viewer) is the art of photography. Just like composition makes a big difference in photography, selecting the correct small portion of time to record also makes all the difference. Look at the four examples below of the Colorado River taken from Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah, taken minutes apart and all processed the approximately the same way in Lightroom and Photoshop. I took the first two before sunrise, four minutes apart. The third was taken seven minutes later and the fourth seven minutes after that. Depending on your tastes, the second or the third ones are clearly superior than the first or the fourth (my favorite is the second one). A few minutes made all the difference here.
Selecting the correct time to press the shutter button is not limited to the quality of the light at the time, it also is dependent upon the subject. The best people shots come with when the subjects are showing their emotions to the camera, something that is difficult to capture because it is often so fleeting. And this timing aspect is not limited to people. When shooting scenes with flags flapping in the breeze, for example, I will usually take many shots, just to capture one where the flag looks good. Here’s a couple more examples. The first image, taken on Caye Caulker in Belize, is a little girl fishing with her father. I snapped of a dozen shots, but this is clearly the best, with the girl lightly touching her father. As you might imagine, a girl of this age didn’t hold that pose long, but was quickly looking this way and that, and interacting with a brother just out of the frame. The second shot is of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, I wanted an image with the swans in the pond, and was lucky enough to capture them in a good , with one looking directly at the camera. The birds were only in this position for a quick moment, and all the other shots I took don’t come close to the quality of this one.
The length of time captured in your image also makes a difference and, as I mentioned above, can reveal things not readily apparent to the naked eye. This is true both for short exposures and for long ones. For example, in the following image of snow geese in the Skagit River delta area of Washington State, the very short shutter speed was able to capture some unique looking wing angles and positions. In the second example, of the ferry dock at Steilacoom, Washington, a long shutter speed created beautiful patterns in the water. If you are a regular viewer of my photography, you likely know that I love using long shutter speeds for the effects of it creates – the effect of compressing many seconds of time into a single image.
Sometimes two different sets of time can both be important to an image. In this example, taken from my trip up to Harts Pass several weekends ago, a long exposure was necessary to capture the stars. For images such as this, too short a shutter speed will not show many stars; too long a shutter speed will result in star trails instead of points of light. The shutter speed for this image was 20 seconds. (Generally, for star shots without trails, you will need to shoot at 30 seconds or less). However, in this image, I wanted to add some foreground interest, and I chose to do light painting on the tree. I painted the tree for just a couple of seconds, running the light from the flashlight briefly up and down the tree. More than a few seconds would have made the tree too bright; less, too dark.
Here’s one last example of the importance of time to photography. The image below is of a tree with colorful leaves taken while moving the camera vertically downward. I used a shutter speed of 1/8 second. A longer shutter speeds would have resulted in too much blurring; a shorter shutter speed, too little. The proper shutter speed for this type of shot will vary greatly depending on the subject and the amount of camera movement.
These are just a few examples of the importance of time to photography. I’m sure you can think of more. Photography is nothing without light, but it is also nothing without time.
David duChemin is a wonderfully talented photographer that I follow. Though he resists being labeled, I’d call him a travel photographer – he truly has a knack for portraying a sense of place through images of people and scenes beyond the typical tourist shots. I’ve enjoyed most of his hard-copy books as well as a few of his ebooks.
Earlier this week, David announced on his blog that his first (at least I believe it’s his first) ebook is now being given away for free. The book, TEN, Ten Ways to Improve Your Craft Without Buying Gear, is a short, educational book on how to improve your photography. While most of its tips were not news to me, his fun writing style and suggested exercises in the book made me think about my images and my approach to photography. Topics covered include creating contrast, creating depth and balance, changing perspective, and looking for “good” light – all topics I like to cover when teaching photography myself.
If you are looking to improve your photography, this short little ebook can certainly help. You can download the ebook at David’s blog.
The cover image of David’s book is used here with permission.
Western Washington has had nice summer weather most of July. Most evenings, there have been few if any clouds, which of course makes for very boring sunset shots. However, when the weather is like this, the hour after sunset brings gorgeous light. Even as it gets too dark for humans to see color well, there are wonderful colors out there to be recorded by your camera.
The period after the sunset (and before the sunrise) is called the blue hour. During the blue hour, sometimes the light is blue, as a result of the blue sky, but other times it is wonderfully warm. This warm light has been referred to as salmon light by the guys over at Photo Cascadia. Whether blue or salmon light, these cloudless evenings can make for good photography. For some reason, I’ve found better luck with the blue hour after sunset rather than before sunrise, but maybe that’s because it’s so hard for me to get out of bed in the morning (especially when the sun rises before 6 a.m., like it is doing now).
I’ve found a online calculator (by JetKo Photo) for determining when the blue hour will occur. However, I’m not sure one is really needed. All you need to know is that after the sun sets, keep the camera out and keep shooting away, even as it gets quite dark. All you need is a tripod and a camera that allows for long exposures. Many DSLRs, in the auto exposure modes, will only allow shutter speeds up to 30 seconds long. When hunting blue hour shots, be prepared to go to manual mode and use the the blub setting on the camera. (Don’t make the same mistake I did recently when first using my newest camera in the blue hour – learn how to set it to blub before setting out).
So after sunset, don’t get blue and put your camera away. Keep that camera out and capture the blue hour.
A couple of years ago I purchased an infrared filter, used it perhaps once, stuck it in the camera bag, and have been carrying it around ever since. Earlier this month, I thought it was high time I tried it out again. My subject was Riverfront Park. It seemed like a good time to try. It was the middle of the day, with bright sunshine, and I was somewhat unimpressed with my “normal” shots.
So I pulled out the infrared filter. Here are three samples of one scene from the park, one shot normally in color, a black and white conversion of the color image, and the infrared shot. All were processed in Lightroom.
While I like the infrared image the best of the three, I can’t say I’m overwhelmed with it. It certainly seems to be lacking a bit of the character I normally associate with infrared – namely very dark skies and very light foliage. It may be that my camera (Canon 6D) doesn’t transmit much infrared. Or perhaps there is an issue with the subject I picked. Any experienced infrared photographers out there want to give me some advice?
Since I always shoot in RAW, I almost always have the camera set on auto white balance (since I can change it during Lightroom processing). My Canon 50D does a fair job with the white balance, though I usually have to bump the purple a bit (the images are a bit green). I’ve just picked up a Canon 6D (more on this in a later post), and the auto white balance seems to do even a better job. However, in certain situations, the auto white balance setting is totally fooled. Such was the case when I shot in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Reina Sofia Art Museum in Madrid on my recent trip. It seems that my camera, if not most cameras, have a hard time with artificial light – often because there are multiple light sources (with different color characteristics) plus colored reflections off painted walls.
I suppose a quick primer on the color of light and white balance is needed (if you know about this stuff, skip this paragraph). All light has color. Daylight is naturally a bit yellow and warm. However, the same daylight in the shade is often blue because of the light coming from a blue sky. Light from tungsten bulbs is very warm and orange-yellow; light from fluorescent bulbs is green. The human eye does see these colors, but the human mind overrides what we see because the mind “knows” what color things are supposed to be and corrects for the “wrong” colors produced by the light. For example, snow is white, right. So when we look at a snow field in the shade on a sunny day, we see white snow; but in reality, the snow is blue in color. Same for a white piece of paper being lit by a tungsten lamp, it looks white, but in reality, it is colored orange -yellow. (Want proof? Try this experiment. Take a plain white piece of paper. Set it upright against the base of a table lamp with a tungsten bulb by a window. The paper should look white. Now, go outside [preferably at dusk, while there is still light in the sky] a ways off from the house and look back in the window at the paper. It should look orange or yellow tinted. This is because your mind is now “correcting” for the outside light, not the inside light.) While our minds can do this nifty little trick, cameras cannot. This is why digital cameras have white balance settings (and film cameras have different types of film for different light conditions). The white balance setting attempts to correct for the color of the light to make white white, black black, and grey grey. If you shoot JPEGs (instead of RAW), it is important to get the right white balance setting, or you may end up with color tints you don’t want (for example, using a daylight setting in the snow example above will result in blue snow in your image).
White balance settings in cameras are far from perfect. Often a scene is lit by more than one type of light (a scene with significant areas of both sunlit and shaded subjects for example). This is why I like auto white balance and shooting in RAW – the camera makes a guess, but if it is wrong, I can easily fix it.
However, sometimes I have no idea what the color of the light and no idea what the true color of the subject is. In these cases, it is difficult to get the color right. In these situations, following best photographic practices, you should set a custom white balance for your camera (many digital cameras have this option, it typically involves taking a photo of a white or 18% gray piece of paper. Alternatively, you can take your image of the paper with any white balance setting, then in Lightroom, correct the white balance by using the white balance eyedropper tool [also known as the white balance selector tool] on the paper). While it doesn’t take very long to set a custom white balance, it is only good for those exact light conditions. If you go to a different room, say in an art museum, you need a new custom white balance. Needless to say, I’m typically not that dedicated. So when in the art museums on my trip, I just used auto white balance and thought I’d try to correct later.
When I looked at the art museum photos after the trip ended, they typically had orange color casts, as in the examples here (Girl in the Window by Dali from the Reina Sofia Art Museum, and By the Seashore by Renoir and The Dance Class by Degas both in the Metropolitan Museum of Art). In Lightroom, I played with the white balance, but couldn’t seem to find a setting I liked.If I only had a neutral color (black, white, or grey) in the images, I could use the Lightroom’s custom white balance eyedropper tool and correct the color cast. My frustration was made only worse by the realization I had no idea what color Degas, Picasso, Renoir, Dali, or Van Gogh, etc. intended in their paintings, even for those areas that looked white, black or grey.
However, I soon figured out how to restore the correct color to the art masterpieces. It is my habit, when taking photos in a museum, to also photograph the explanation for the exhibit I’m photographing so I can remember exactly what it is. So in this case, when I took a photo of a painting, I also took a photo of the explanatory card next to it listing the painter, name of the painting, etc. Whether on purpose or not, it turns out, at least in these two art museums, the explanatory cards are printed on neutral-colored papers, and being next to the paintings, they are lit by the same light source.
With this realization, in Lightroom I opened the card photo for a particular painting in the Develop module and used the eyedropper tool on the card paper. Then copying the white balance settings, applied the same settings to the photo with the painting. It was as if magic, suddenly the colors popped and the paintings looked even better than I remembered them in the museums. Masterpieces restored by the magic of custom white balance.
I had the opportunity last Saturday to attend the fall meeting of the Nature Photographers of the Pacific Northwest (NPPNW). The invited speakers were John and Barbara Gerlach, who spoke on mastering digital exposure and advanced flash techniques for nature photography. John Gerlach made a strong case for using manual exposure settings, and I may have to try out his techniques – normally I use aperture priority about 90% of the time. His technique involves picking an aperture or shutter speed you want to maintain, taking a picture, and examining the RGB histogram. Then the shutter speed or aperture (whichever you don’t want to maintain) should be adjusted until the RGB histogram reaches the right side (assuming there are highlights in the image). That’s it; the exposure is set. So if light conditions don’t change, your exposure is good even if you recompose.
A big part of NPPNW meetings are their digital and print competitions. There are three categories for both the digitally projected and the print competitions: plant life, scenics, and wildlife. Because this its a nature photography group, images should not show the “hand of man” in a prominent role. Members are allowed to submit 3 images for the projected competition and 2 prints. I was lucky enough to tie for first place in the projected scenic category and take 1st place in the scenic print category (I also won 3rd place in the plant-life print category, but as there were only four prints entered, I didn’t take it as a big honor). Regular readers of my blog will recognize the two winners from earlier posts. The image below of the Tatoosh Range won in the digitally projected category – I used this image to explain my technique to stop the wind. The other image below, from Beach #4 in Olympic National Park, won in the print category – in a previous post I explained my vision and the (rather lengthy) processing behind this image.
The image above is another from my trip to the beach last month. It is my favorite of the whole trip, and I recently made a print of it. I thought I’d tell you how this particular image went from just an idea to a final print. However, if you want to skip all the details, and just see what the original RAW image looked like, you can just compare the final processed version above with the unprocessed RAW image below.
Prevision: It was near sunset and the tide was low. I had wanted a sunset shot with tide pools in the foreground, but that idea was out because of the fog bank I described in my earlier post . Instead I thought about an image with tide pools and the incoming waves mist-like on the shore. Because it was so gray out, for color I needed starfish (which are naturally purple and orange on this part of the coast) and green sea anemones. I wanted the starfish and selected tide pool to be the focus, with the rest of the image dark and misty (from the waves).
Camera Work: I found a several promising tide pools, some of which I showed in the earlier post. I spent a lot of time at this one, I thought the composition looked good, with the tide pool opening to the right rear and the big cluster of starfish. To blur the incoming waves into a mist, I knew I needed a long exposure, which forced me into using a small aperture. The final image was taken at ISO 100 and f/22 for 8 seconds. Obviously I used a tripod. I needed to be close to the tide pool, requiring a wide-angle lens to capture the entire scene. I put on my 10-22mm zoom and set it to 22mm. Finally, I wanted the center of interest to be the starfish on the far side of the pool. This was actually close to the darkest part of the scene. To help I used a flash to light up the far side of the tide pool. The original RAW capture, with just Lightroom defaults, is shown below.
Lightroom Processing: As you can see, even with the fill flash, the rock with the starfish was very dark. I knew it would take some dodging and burning work to bring it out to my original vision for the image. However, first things first. I always do global adjustments (those affecting the whole image) first before targeted ones. Usually my first step is to level the horizon and use LR’s lens correction feature. I typically use a bubble level on my hot shoe to help keep the horizon level when I shoot, but with the flash, that wasn’t possible. With the wide-angle zoom, there is a lot of distortion and chromatic aberration, both easily fixed in LR.
Next I adjusted the white balance. I slid LR’s blue-yellow slider to the right (yellow) to add warmth to the image.
The image needed a bit more contrast, so I then set the white and black points by using the Whites and Blacks sliders. In this case, I moved the sliders to broaden the histogram and add just a little clipping of both blacks and whites.
I knew I wanted to essentially invert the luminosity of the image, making most of the image darker and lightening up the back wall (which is dark in the original capture). To most effectively do this, I darkened the whole image by significantly moving the Exposure slider to the left (about 3/4 a stop), then recovered that much in the dark areas with the Shadows slider, moving it to the right.
This was generally it for global adjustments, at least initially. Now it was time to work on problem areas to bring out my vision. First, the sky and water was still too light. So I added a Graduated Filter in LR. I used a relatively soft edge, and set the center of the gradient about 1/4 the way down from the top, reducing the exposure by another 1/3 stop. Then to add a bit more contrast to the background rocks and water, I adjusted the Contrast slider on the filter to the right.
Next I knew I needed a lot of painting with the Adjustment Brush. First I needed to lighten up the main area of interest – the tide pool and nearby rocks. The following shows where I added the brush and the effect. I added about 1/2 stop with the Exposure slider and even more with the Highlights slider to bring out the highlights.
It was still to dark in my primary subject area, so I painted a second time in the area shown below. This time I added another 1/2 stop in exposure, with lighted up the shadows more, added some “crispness” with the Clarity slider, and bumped up the color with the Saturation slider. (Normally, I do not use the Saturation sliders much in LR. I more typically use the Vibrance slider as a global adjustment. Here, to really emphasis the back wall of the tide pool, I didn’t use the Vibrance slider at all, and only used the Saturation slider with targeted adjustments).
Now it was time to work on the water in the tide pool. I wanted the highlights in the water to show better, and for there to be more contrast between the light and dark portions of the water. So I added a little exposure and bumped up the Highlights and Contrast sliders. I also upped the saturation slightly.
That helped with the water, but I wanted the white areas of the water in the tide pool to be more pronounced, so I painted those areas with another adjustment brush to lighten them up.
I wanted to add a bit more color and lightness to the starfish and anemones (on the rock and in the water) in the foreground. So I added another adjustment brush, upping the exposure slightly and adding some saturation.
At this point, I liked the luminosity of the areas I had used the adjustment brushes on, but thought the rest of the image was too bright for my original vision. So I decreased the exposure slider by another 1/2 stop to darken the whole image.
Then I restored the exposure values to each of the previous adjustment brushes, adding back the 1/2 stop of exposure only in the brushed areas.
Then to further focus the eye to the center of the image, I added a vignette with the Post-Crop Vignette slider.
With that done, some of the rocks on the left still seemed a bit too bright. So with another adjustment brush, I made them slightly darker.
And, the white water at the mouth of the tide pool still looked a bit dark to me, so I added a seventh adjustment brush to brighten up this area a bit.
At this point, I was close to the final, pre-Photoshop image. However, with all the adjustment brush work, the image had lost contrast (mainly by darkening the highlights). I needed to re-establish the white clipping point to gain back the lost contrast. So I adjusted the whites slider upward and also fine-tuned the color temperature (cooling the image slightly).
But with that adjustment, some of the white water at the mouth of the tide pool was too bright, so I deleted part of the seventh adjustment brush.
Now it was time for some touch-up work with the spot removal tool to remove sensor dust spots (I’m bad, I don’t clean my sensor nearly often enough). The dust spots were very visible because of the small aperture used on the image. I was able to fix all of them except one straddling the surf line near the upper center of the image; I knew I’d need the cloning tool from Photoshop to fix that one.
At this point, I was done processing the RAW image in Lightroom. Though it looks close to my vision, I thought I could improve it a bit further in Photoshop (in addition to fixing the final dust spot). Before sending it to Photoshop, I applied some noise reduction.
Photoshop Processing: The first step in Photoshop was to adjust the global contrast again, this time using Curves, giving it a slight “S” adjustment, and giving the image some more pop.
I occasionally use a luminosity masking technique, known as the Triple Play, created by Tony Kuyper to improve the shadows and highlights when in Photoshop. I tried it out, and in this case, the Triple Play lead to a slight improvement in both the shadows and highlights.
I cloned out the final dust spot that I couldn’t fix in Lightroom. And then refined my previous Lightroom brushwork painting on a dodging/burning layer.
The final step was to apply a bit of sharpening and the image was complete. I use an adjustable sharpening action based on the book Real World Image Sharpening with Adobe Photoshop CS2 by Bruce Fraser. The sharpening applied here is intended to sharpen to remove the slight blur caused by the camera. With that, the image was complete and my vision was realized. Easy right?
After the processing was done, the only thing left to do was make a print (I do additional sharpening prior to printing after resizing the image). I made 10×15-inch print, matted it, and it is now hanging at the gallery in Gig Harbor where one of my photo clubs (Sound Exposure) hangs their work.
You might be asking, “how long did all this processing take?” Though I didn’t time myself, it took much less time to do than to write this blog post. I’d guess the complete processing, from RAW to the final photo below (not including printing) took about 30 to 40 minutes. I don’t spend that much time on every shot; but in this case, I think it was well worth it.
I previously mentioned that I am working on several personal photo projects. One of those has reached its conclusion. As a member of the Mountaineers, I decided to document the “remodel” of the Tacoma branch’s clubhouse. The remodel involved tearing down the old building, except for a portion of one wall, and then building a whole new structure. Approximately weekly from January through August, I took shots of the clubhouse as it went down and back up again. I’ve made a couple of videos with those shots. The club will be showing them at the Grand Opening of the new facility this coming Thursday. However, I’ve posted them on Vimeo with links here.
Obviously to do a series of shots like this, you want to shoot from exactly the same spot with exactly the same setting every time. I found this is easier said than done. When I shot the images, I took two sets of shots from each vantage point. Using my 24-70mm lens, I shot one set at 24 mm and another set at 28 mm. Additionally, I always used aperture-priority mode with the f-stop at f/11 and ISO at 100. I had the camera on my tripod, and I always set the tripod feet in the same spots.
After taking shots for several weeks, I found I was more successful with the zoom set at 24 mm instead of 28 mm. I found that when I set it at 28 mm, it was difficult to set the lens consistently at 28 mm – sometimes it would up being at 27 mm, sometimes at 29 mm. I suggest if you try the same thing, and use a zoom lens, always set the lens at one end or the other of its zoom range for more consistent results.
Another difficulty resulted from my tripod, which has a ball head. With this tripod head, it was difficult to always get the camera pointed exactly the same direction and angle. I used a bubble level on the hot shoe to help and tried to line the edges of the frame at a consistent spot on the neighboring building. Even so, I found considerable variation between shots taken in different weeks. Consequently, I rotated and cropped each image in Lightroom, attempting to get the orientation exactly the same for each image. I was somewhat successful, the building does “wander” a bit back and forth between images, but it isn’t too objectionable in my opinion. Overall I’m happy with the result.
Wind is often the bane of nature photographers. We are often photographing in fairly low light conditions at sunrise or sunset, and often want a wide depth of field, so end up using small f-stops. Most of us know that using high ISOs leads to objectionable digital noise. These conditions all combine to require a slow shutter speed. So what do you do if there is a breeze moving your foreground around. Not a problem with rocks as a foreground, but what about wildflowers?
The above photo of the Tatoosh Range was taken at Paradise on the Golden Gate trail last month shortly before sunset. To get both the flowers and the mountains in acceptable focus, I took one shot with the aperture at set f/16 and the ISO at 100. This resulted in a shutter speed of 4 seconds (I also used a split neutral density filter). There was a breeze and it was impossible to get a frame without some movement in the flowers.
I then shot another image with the aperture at f/11 and the ISO set to 1250. This allowed the shutter speed to be 1/8 seconds. This was enough to stop most of the flower movement; but as you might imagine, the noise was unacceptable.
To get the above image, I processed both photos in Lightroom and imported them into Photoshop. I used the low ISO image as the background layer, then added the high ISO image in a new layer and added a layer mask filled with black (making none of the high ISO image visible). Then, using a soft brush, I painted white on the mask wherever the flowers were soft due to movement from the breeze. The end result is the image above. Below are close two closeups that show the before and after effects of painting the high ISO image onto the low ISO one.
This technique to stop the wind doesn’t always work, but when it does, it can save a shot.
For several years now, Tanya has insisted that I get set up to do a photo booth. This year, I finally said yes – of course, that was before I knew what was involved. Now, hundreds of dollars and much time later, I have photo booth capabilities. Tanya is the chaplain/spiritual counselor at the local GLBTQ youth center, and specifically she wanted the photo booth for activities related to the youth center. So, the two previous Saturdays, at events related to Tacoma Pride week, I’ve had the booth set up and it worked great. The sample shown here is of Tanya and her friend Diane.
It is fun to watch people in one of these booths. Some people really act like crazy, and others stand rigidly at attention. Most people have fun with it, and really like seeing their photos print out about one minute after having them taken.
I have the equipment set to take four shots five seconds apart and then print them out on a half sheet of letter-sized photo paper (5.5 x 8.5 inches, 14 x 21.6 cm). One of the hardest parts of finding equipment for the booth was finding a battery-powered printer that can print on sheets that size. Most portable printers only print on 4 x 6 inch (10.2 x 15.2 cm) paper. The answer was the Canon Pixma iP100, which can print on letter-sized paper. I’ve very happy with the quality of prints from the iP100. My complete equipment list is as follows:
- Canon 50D with battery grip and two spare batteries
- 10-22 mm lens
- Canon 550EX speedlight with 8-battery pack (and spare batteries or spare speedlight)
- Interfit Strobies 24×24-inch Softbox
- light stand
- laptop computer with extra battery
- wireless mouse
- DSL Remote Pro software (by Breeze Systems)
- Canon Pixam iP100 printer with optional battery (and spare)
- white background
- USB cords to connect camera and printer to laptop
- printer paper and spare ink
This equipment can be set up in a relatively small space, like a 10×10-foot street booth (like I did on July 14th) or in the corner of a room (as I did on July 21st). People step in front of the background and see themselves on the laptop screen. They press the mouse button, and the laptop shows a count down until the photo is taken. It shows the resultant image, than starts another count down. After four shots have been taken, the software resizes the images, places them into a single file, and send the file to the printer. The software allows for much customization, including number of shots taken, time between shots, size of prints, customized footer, etc.
My largest concern prior to actually setting up the booth was for the laptop and printer batteries to be drained. However, I’ve found that the camera batteries are the first to go. It’s as if the camera is constantly on live-view mode (though there is no view on the camera’s screen, only on the laptop), which is very power consumptive.
If you are interested in any hints or advice on setting up a photo booth, send me an email and I’ll gladly help.
Fine-art photography is photography that displays the creative vision of the photographer as an artist. While fine-art photography can be either in color or black & white, in today’s digital world, black & white photography is quintessentially art since it comes as a result of an artistic choice on the part of the photographer.
Guy Tal’s latest ebook, Creative B&W Processing Techniques Using Adobe Lightroom & Photoshop, explores Tal’s techniques for creating fine-art black & white photography. However, this book does not offer any formulas or “prescriptions” on how to make black & white images. Indeed Tal does not give such advice, stating that while “it’s very easy to create high impact images by simply following prescriptions or using automated tools … such methods merely produce cookie-cutter works that, despite being visually appealing, tell me [Tal] little about what the photographer was thinking or wanted to express.” If you are looking for quick and easy methods to make black & white images, this ebook is not for you. Instead, if you want to create black & white images that express your inner vision, this book will definitely help you on that path. I highly recommend it for any photographer who enjoys black & white, wants learn to think holistically about their craft, and has the twin goals of improving their artistic vision as well as their photography.
It’s not surprising that Guy Tal would write a book with few prescriptions that is heavy on following your own vision. Tal is an extremely talented landscape photographer who has made unique images for years. I first became aware of Tal approximately 10 years ago when I first starting doing digital photography. Last year, I started following his blog. While I have always admired his work, it was through his blog that I learned how seriously Tal takes his art. He often discusses photography as art. For example, some of his recent blog posts are titled The Case for Landscape Photography as a Fine Art and Photography and the Creative Life. He continues his emphasis on art in his new book, where he explains in detail the creative visioning process that goes into digital black & white photography.
That’s not to say the book does have technical details as well. He discusses RGB values, how color is mapped into black & white tones, how histograms relate to the Zone System, bit depth, color spaces, how digital noise is different in the different color channels, etc. There are plenty of technical details in the book. So many, in fact, that occasionally I found myself wishing for less. However, when Tal does go into technical details, he does so usually to make a valuable point about why such knowledge is important to the black & white photographer artist. For example, he explains how digital sensors record red, green, and blue (RGB) values for each pixel, how with an 8-bit file there are approximately 16.7 million colors possible in an image, and how for a 16-bit file there are over 281 trillion possible colors. Why is this important for black & white? Because, as Tal explains, when the RGB values are reduced to gray tones, the possible number of tones falls dramatically – for example, there are only 256 gray tones possible in an 8-bit file. That is too small a range to give smooth transitions in many images, which leads to banding, posterization, or other artifacts. Therefore, it is critically important in digital black & white photography to shoot 16-bit files (which have 65,536 possible gray tones).
The book is set up almost as a text-book, with each chapter ending with a set of exercises or questions to test the readers knowledge of the subject present (answers are given in the back). After an introduction, Tal discusses the importance of color to black & white photography. He states, “while it may seem intuitive to think about B&W photography as the elimination of color … such characterization is, in fact, inaccurate. Rather than eliminate color, the B&W photographer converts (or maps) colors into tones, that is, degrees of lightness.” The idea that color is mapped into gray tones is important to all aspects of digital black & white photography, so Tal presents it right up front.
The rest of the book follows Tal’s general black & white workflow, which builds upon a creative process framework Tal presents in one of his earlier books, Creative Landscape Photography. The steps to the workflow are:
- and Presentation.
One interesting fact about his suggested workflow is that three of the six steps occur before pressing the camera’s shutter release – a demonstration of Tal’s emphasis on the artistic aspects of photography.
Tal defines Concept as “the instinctive realization that there is an image to be made.” It is “a significant impression … an inner voice whispering ‘there’s something here.’ “ He discusses training your brain to become more aware of these impressions, to know when there is a new concept to be had. According to Tal, developing your own concepts is important because with the advent of digital photography and the abundance of work on the internet, “the challenge of distinguishing one’s work is no longer one of technical skill but rather of creativity, personal expression and originality.”
He describes Visualization as “a mental process aimed at imagining the different ways in which the concept can be realized in an image and picking the most effective one.” Visualization “is not a momentary decision point” but is rather “a process of ongoing refinement that drives all activities from the moment of inspiration until the image is finished.” This process requires the photographer to have an ability to imagine how a scene will look in gradations of tone, including the multiple possibilities of those tones (since any given color can be translated into multiple different tones). He suggests developing such ability takes time and effort to perfect.
Tal’s discussion on composition is relatively short, since composition is not unique to black & white photography. For Tal, composition is more than the arrangement of visual elements within a frame, it is “a visual language that can be applied in order to communicate facts, emotions and thoughts.” He reminds his readers that different compositional options than originally planned can become available, so a photographer should take care not to exclude different options for the sake of their original concept. Only working on first impressions can lead a photographer to miss out on “other stories the scene has to tell.”
Capture is the process of using the camera to record light. He considers the capture one of securing the raw data necessary to create an image, not one of making a final image. He states: “creative photography is not a sport. No trophies are awarded for getting the image ‘right’ in the camera and/or in a single exposure, despite the attitudes to the contrary. Therefore, the proper way to approach the capture phase is not with the aim of rendering the final image in-camera, but rather as a process of harvesting raw materials to be used later in making the final image.” He goes on to explain several best practices to use to help ensure capturing the highest quality data from which to make the final image.
The Processing phase is “where most the ‘heavy lifting’ of B&W image-making occurs,” and Tal devotes a large section of the book to it. He does assume his readers are generally familiar with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, and suggests his earlier book Creative Processing Techniques for those who are not. One is not surprised, at this point in the book, that Tal’s processing workflow is “visualization-driven” rather than formulaic. He believes in having a final vision of what your image should look like to guide your processing. His work follows a non-linear workflow, which leads to iterative processing of an image where the photographer identifies gaps or weaknesses where the image doesn’t meet the final vision, uses adjustments to fill those gaps, re-analyzes to identify additional gaps, adjusts again, etc., until the final image is reached. His general workflow phases are: RAW conversion, analysis, global adjustments, local adjustments, dynamic visualization, master file, and output.
Guy Tal uses Adobe Lightroom to handle RAW conversions, though his techniques could be applied with other software. He does not attempt to make the final image in Lightroom, preferring the more powerful capabilities of Photoshop for that. He considers Photoshop essential to image processing, and suggests that reasons photographers give for not using it “generally fall into one of three categories: lack of time, lack of skill, or lack of motivation.” This is one of the few points I disagree with Tal. Although I do own and use Photoshop (granted several versions old), I think outstanding, creative images can be made using only Lightroom – such as the work of David duChemin (another photographer who emphasizes photographic vision). That said, I do agree for many images, and particularly for black & white images, Photoshop is superior for processing.
Because he does not use Lightroom beyond RAW conversion, his approach is to create a RAW-converted image that does not look like the final visualized result. Instead the converted image should be the best starting point for later editing to create the visualized result. Therefore, the converted image often ends up not looking particularly good, and generally has low contrast. Tal generally uses Lightroom to set white and black points, adjust the mid-tones, and adjust the white balance. He does not necessarily adjust the white balance so that the image looks good, but rather adjusts it with an eye toward how the conversion from color to black & white will occur and how it affects digital noise. Though I have made many black & white digital images, using the white balance to improve my final result was one concept I was not familiar with, and I found this section very enlightening.
Next he discusses global adjustments – those adjustments that affect the complete image rather than parts of it (local adjustments). The most basic global adjustment is the actual black & white conversion. Though there are many methods of converting to black & white in Photoshop, Tal recommends using a Black & White Adjustment layer (available in CS3 and later versions). He also discusses using a Hue/Saturation Adjustment layer to modify the results of the black & white conversion. The other major global adjustment he discusses is toning.
Tal follows with a discussion on local adjustments. Here Tal talks about using layer masking and multiple Black & White Adjustment layers to convert different portions of an image using different tonal relationships (for example, making blues darker in one portion of an image and lighter in another). He also discusses selective dodging (lightening) and burning (darkening); hybrid images, images that combine both black & white and color (color popping); and hand tinting. He ends the processing section of the book by giving an enlightening, in-depth example of the processing of a single image.
The final step in Tal’s workflow is Presentation. Although there are various types of presentation, Tal focuses on prints, which he states are “the quintessential product of a fine-art photographer.” Digital printing of black & white images presents special problems. The inkjet printers commonly used for digital prints use color profiles to obtain the correct color. Theoretically, a perfect profile can be used to print a black & white image, but even a tiny variation from the perfect blend of inks will cause a visible color cast to a black & white print. Because profiles depend upon a large number of factors, including temperature and age of the equipment and ink, color casts are common when printing black & white images with an inkjet printer. Tal discusses this issue and gives several options to get around it.
Overall, I am favorably impressed with Tal’s book and highly recommend it those wanting to improve their black & white imagery. However, it is not for everyone. Photographers who are looking for easy methods and formulas to create black & white images will be disappointed. The book is not a “how-to” manual, but rather the book is about creating your own vision and how to achieve that vision using best practices. It is definitely written for the photographer who wants to create art and is not afraid to take the time to do so.
Creative B&W Processing Techniques is available from GuyTalBooks.com for $9.95. It is well worth it.
Earlier I wrote about stepping toward greatness in your photography, concerning a 10-step approach outlined by Steve Simon in his book The Passionate Photographer, Ten Steps Toward Becoming Great. That post also discussed step one: working on personal projects, and I described several personal projects I’ve been working on.
Step two is volume – shooting lots of images to improve your craft. Not just shooting for shooting’s sake, but shooting volume with a purpose. By taking lots of shots, you can learn from your successes and mistakes, such as which compositions work and which don’t, as well as making sure your subject is covered from all angles.
To illustrate these concepts, I give you 24 images I took of the Freeze Community Church outside of Potlatch, Idaho from my trip last week to the Palouse. While at the church, I made a conscious effort to really try to cover it from all angles (at least the angles where I thought the light was good enough). Since leaving the site, I’ve thought of at least five or six additional compositions I’ve should have tried – obviously I need to keep working on this step. On your next photo shoot, try to really cover your subject and let me know how it goes; do you think of any shots you should have taken but didn’t?
In his book, Simon mentions that rarely is your best image of a subject the first one taken. How true this is. In travel photography in particular I’ve noticed this. When I finally reach a particular site I’ve been itching to photograph, I’m excited by the scene, and hop out and start taking pictures immediately. That’s fine, but rarely are those images any good. Further, those images are almost never unique. They typically are the same tired images that every tourist with a point-and-shoot or camera phone takes (no offense to those of you that only shoot with point-and-shoots or camera phones; I’m just trying to illustrate my point).
To get that great shot, that unique shot, I need to investigate the subject and cover it from multiple viewpoints and with multiple compositions. I admit, even though I typically shoot a lot of images (see this earlier post), I get lazy and don’t cover each subject like I should. And I know better; if you are like me, how often do you find your best image of a particular subject is one taken near the end of your session rather than at the beginning? I think this is true of other forms of photography besides travel; I’ve found it true in portrait photography as well (at least until the model gets tired).
Taking lots of shot also opens your mind to angles and compositions you may not have seen earlier – both earlier in the particular session and earlier in your photographic career. Several photo clubs I belong to have an annual scavenger hunt, where each participant is given a list of topics to shoot. Later, at a club meeting, the images taken by all the photographers for each topic are shown. I’m always amazed how other photographers, given the same subject as I, come back with some incredible images that I did not even come close to seeing. I’ve found that when I practice shooting a subject with as many compositions as I can think of, my mind becomes more open to potential shots. In other words, I’m training myself to see more potential images, and all it takes is practice – the practice of shooting, shooting so more, and shooting until it hurts (mentally that is, when I can’t think of one more composition).
It’s really quite easy to do, but something most of us don’t because we are either lazy or just unconsciously trained by today’s fast paced society to get it done fast and get on to the next thing. You need to fight the urge to settle for immediate gratification (common in today’s social media driven world), i.e. hopping out of the car, grabbing a quick shot, and then heading on to the next spot on your list. If you want to improve your photography, take time to cover subjects in detail. You will come home with better images, and you will train yourself to see better images. Give it a shot, well actually, lots of shots.
I recently read a blog post by Tim Grey on photographic perspective. In it, Tim Grey asks his readers:
“Is it ever ‘wrong’ to present an image as ‘real’ if we’ve used a bit of perspective to create a scene that isn’t exactly representative of reality? Creating tricks of perspective can be done very easily by changing your position relative to the subject or changing lenses on the camera. Is that wrong? “
In response, I commented:
“I don’t believe it is wrong to present something as ‘real’ just because of the perspective. Perspective has been an important part of photography as long there has been cameras. Am I suppose to label every image taken with a telephoto lens as ‘this image may not represent reality as you experience it if you visit this location?’
I love taking telephoto shots of Mount Rainier, such as the one shown here [my original response included a link to the the image shown below]. When showing images like this, many people comment on how it can’t be “real”, the mountain is not that close. But this is what the camera sees. It’s the same as the human eye sees at the same location, it’s just that the human eye also takes in a much broader view, so the isolate perspective is not realized. If you use binoculars from the same vantage point, you would get essentially the same view. Is the view from binoculars not ‘real’?”
I thought I’d explore this a bit further in this post. The image above and the image below, both of which show Mount Rainier, but with differing perspectives, where both taken from the spot just 4 minutes apart. The one above (which is actually a HDR image with 3 exposures) was captured with a setting of 24 mm (38 mm equivalent) on my 24-70 mm lens, and thus represents slight wide-angle view. The one below was taken with a setting of 175 mm (280 mm equivalent) on my 70 to 200 mm lens, and represents a telephoto view.
It’s images like the one below that get comments about not being real (I’ve been asked more than once if I’ve photoshopped the mountain in). It is easily shown that the image below is real, with no Photoshop trickery (at least if you believe the upper photo is “real”). If I crop the upper photo to the same field of view as the second photo (as shown in the third photo), the compressional distortion is the same, and the photos look very similar (except of course for the quality on the extremely cropped version). FYI – the pier in front of the buildings on the photo below is Les Davis Pier, featured in my last post on night photography.
I love to play with perspective distortion in my images, using various focal lengths and camera to subject distances to expand (with wide-angle shots) or compress (with telephoto shots). There is a good explanation of the phenomena on Wikipedia.
Since Tim Grey inspired this post, I might as well put in a plug for him. Tim teaches about digital photography and imaging. He provides an excellent, free daily email service that provides answers to digital photography questions – often involving processing with Photoshop or Lightroom. I’ve gotten is daily email for years, and can highly recommend it.
“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!
A neighbor of mine asked me this weekend to stitch together a set of images he took in New Zealand into a panorama. It was an easy enough task, except that it seems the camera was on auto when the photos were taken. This led to very nicely exposed individual images, but there were exposure differences between the shots. With exposure the differences, the images in your pano might stitch well, but it will be obvious where one ends and the other starts. In this case, it took some Lightroom and Photoshop time to get the images tweaked so they better matched.
I’ve taken a few panoramic images (four of which are shown here) and along the way have learned a few secrets to successfully shooting panoramas. The two main secrets to shooting successful panoramas are to 1) keep all the camera settings the same for all the shots – this includes exposure, focus, and focal length, and 2) to move the camera along a level plane, typically either horizontal or vertical. Here are some hints to shooting panos:
- shoot in manual exposure mode – use your camera’s meter to get a f-stop and shutter speed, than turn the camera to manual mode and set the f-stop and shutter speed to the same settings; do not change them through the series of shots
- for jpegs, shoot with manual white balance – do not use auto white balance, pick one setting (such as cloudy) and leave it there
- better yet, shoot in raw – and then process the images exactly the same way prior to blending (more on my workflow below)
- shoot in manual focus mode – use the autofocus to set the focus, than turn it off and shoot all the images without changing the focus
- use a tripod – to help keep the camera level and moving in a single plane; if you don’t have a tripod, be careful to move the camera in a single plane. When handholding, most people have a tendency to sweep upward or downward. Even with a tripod, without special equipment, it is difficult to a good series of shots without some movement off your preferred plane.
- consider photographing with the camera vertical for horizontal panos and horizontal for vertical panos – though following this advice will result in more images , it will give your panorama more width (and more fudge room for imperfect sweeps)
- don’t compose the main subject too close to the edge of the frame – after stitching the images together, you will need to crop off where the frames do not line up exactly; you don’t want to crop off part of your main subject
- it’s better not to use a wide-angle lens – wide angle shots have distortions which make it more difficult to stitch properly
- compose the first shot at either end of the pano, then take a picture with your hand or fingers in front of the lens; do this again at the end – this marks the beginning and ending of the series, making it easier to figure out which images belong together when doing the stitching
- overlap the shots by at least 20 to 25% – I typically look for some distinct feature about 1/3 off the right side of the frame (when shooting a horizontal pano sweeping rightward), take the shot, than recompose with that distinct feature on the left-hand frame edge for the next shot
- shoot fairly quickly – to avoid having changes in light, clouds, etc. between frames
I almost always shoot in raw, and my basic processing workflow for panoramas goes like this:
- Import the images into Lightroom and adjust the white balance (even if the auto white balance looks fine, move the sliders a little so auto is no longer selected) and correct the chromic aberration on one image.
- Copy those adjustments and paste to all the other images.
- Select all the images, right click on the mouse, and select the merge in Photoshop option.
- Allow Photoshop to merge with its auto settings – most times this works well, occasionally I’ll need to try different setting or even do it manually
- After Photoshop merges the images, check the seams to see if they match well, and if so, save the file and go back to Lightroom.
- In Lightroom, select the Photoshop file just created, go to the Develop module, and now start my normal processing workflow (which is the subject of another post)
In another break from the Southwest series of posts, I recently spent several hours with the Mountaineers at the Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle. My friend and fellow photographer Gerald Reed led the trip several weeks back in mid-November. This trip gave me a chance to practice with my macro work, which I don’t do nearly enough. I use a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro lens with or without a set of extension tubes. Using natural light through the conservatory windows, a tripod was necessary for these shots, particularly on the cloudy, rainy day we were there. However, that cloudy sky did provide a nice light without a lot of contrast to work with. Luckily the conservatory allows tripods on weekdays (we were there on a Wednesday).
Macro photography is a different world. It’s amazing what things look like when you really get in really close. It takes a practiced eye to spot good compositions when looking at a greenhouse full of plants, particularly when looking for composition of several inches or less.
The other challenge with macro work is depth of field. Even with small apertures, the depth of field is amazingly small. For example, with my 100mm lens set to f/16, if I’m shooting from 10 feet (3 meters) away from my subject (which I normally wouldn’t do for macro work, normally I’d be much closer), the depth of field is 1.81 feet (55 centimeters). However, if I am shooting from only 1 feet (30.5 centimeters), a much more typical distance when doing macro work, the depth of field at f/16 is only 0.15 inches (3.8 millimeters). Move 25% closer, to 0.75 feet (22.9 centimeters), and the depth of field drops more than 50%, to 0.07 inches (1.8 millimeters). (I used the equations provided by DOFMaster for these calculations. The DOFMaster website also contains a convenient, on-line depth of field calculator for larger working distances.)
The extremely small depth of field makes focusing very critical – you purposely need to think about where to focus and how the composition will look with potentially large areas of the frame out of focus. If you try this type of photography, play around with your aperture to see what different results you can get (as I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I’m an habitual bracketer, including bracketing by aperture). By choosing a large aperture, you can force most everything out of focus to create more “artsy” images. Or go for a larger depth of field with a small aperture (though with very small apertures, you lose sharpness as well; though my macro lens goes down to f/32, I almost never use that aperture because it is so unsharp). If you want a wider depth of field that even a small aperture can’t give, you may have to give up magnification and back up from the subject to increase the depth of field.
In macro photography, your subject needs to hold still. Even using fast shutter speeds to freeze movement, this is true because of the limited depth of field. It’s very easy for a flower moving in the breeze, or a wandering bug on that flower, to move outside the depth of field. This is why I am so impressed with all those photographers who get great macro shots of insects. That’s why, as a relative beginner to macro work, I like working with plants – they don’t move on their own accord. A conservatory makes it even easier, no natural breezes to deal with.
Breaking from my blog series on the American Southwest, I’m posting something completely different. As I have mentioned in earlier blogs, I am the chairman of the Photo Committee of the Tacoma branch of the Mountaineers. We occasionally have field trips to photograph instead of our regular meetings. Earlier this month, I led our group to downtown Tacoma to try some night photography. Unlike a similar trip earlier this year (described in this post), I did little light painting, mostly relying on existing light (with one exception, in the image of the Pantages Theater below, I used a flash to light up the sculpture in the foreground).
Photography at night is a special experience. Things always look different, and it isn’t always obvious how the camera will see the available light, especially if long exposures are used. Skies that are black to the human eye can pick up a tint, typically orange in urban areas (from sodium vapor street lights). Other lights may give off a more yellowish -orange (tungsten lamps) or greenish (fluorescent bulbs) tones. Then there are neon lights of all colors. Changing the color balance when processing the images can add new twists to the color.
Besides showing colors the human eye can’t normally see, I love long-exposure shots for another reason – they compress time into a single instant. Car lights become red and white trails, people can become ghostly shadows, objects that move into a frame during an exposure can seem half there. These are more results that are not totally predictable.
Here are some shots from one November Tacoma night (even though taken on a single night, I thought the title “Tacoma Nights” sounded better than “Tacoma Night”; a little literary license); I hope you like them.
I’m continuing my series of posts about my trip to the Southwest with a look at New Mexican churches – adobe churches in particular. I’ve always enjoyed photographing churches, at least those with classic architectural styles. And in New Mexico, there is nothing more classical than adobe.
If you are interested in seeing churches such as these, I highly recommend traveling the high road between Santa Fé and Taos. There are a number of highly photogenic churches along this route, many described in Laurent Martes‘ excellent book on photographing the natural landmarks of Colorado and New Mexico (okay, I know churches aren’t natural landmarks, but the book is titled Photographing the Southwest Volume 3 – a Guide to the Natural Landmarks of Colorado & New Mexico and does mostly cover natural subjects). By traveling this road, you’re bound to come up with at least one or two decent images – there is always at least one church with good light upon it.
My biggest question concerning the adobe churches I photographed was how best to portray them – in color or in black and white? I leave it to you to decide, providing most images in this post with both versions.
I think they look good both ways, but if forced to make a choice, I’d generally chose the black and white versions. There are exceptions, of course; ever photograph is different. In the examples given here, I do like the black and white images better; they generally do a better job of conveying what I want the to convey. I love the look of a cross on a church really standing out – and that works well with these images except for the image of the San Juan de Los Lagos steeple and black cross, there the color version portrays my vision better. I also love the high contrast of the black and white images. However, I’d like to hear your comments – color or black and white?
For those who care – these black and white conversions were all done rather quickly in Lightroom. If I get serious about any of these, I’ll probably redo the conversions in Photoshop. I like both programs for how easy they make black and white conversions and the ability to adjust the brightness of each color in the images separately. This makes it very easy to turn an all blue sky dark (and make those crosses really stand out).
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?