Living in the clouds
So, I don't know if I've been in a creative slump recently, or just super busy. I've really wanted to get out and make some images, and often carry my camera with me. I just don't see too much that cat catches my eye while running from here to there. I was out shopping in Winchester this weekend and it was gray dreary afternoon, having rained for the last couple of days. I happened to be passing by a tennis court that was completely empty. Not surprising, since the weather was so bad. The thing that caught my eye was the wet clay and the way it shined. I broke out my trusty 8-16mm and just started trying different things. This is the best of the bunch and it was really fun trying out different angles. Hopefully this will get me inspired to get out and do some more!
In Anatomy of an Image: Scotts Run WaterFall (Part 1), I described how I got the raw material that will eventually become the image above. My goal was to create a moody, textured image that highlighted the blurred waterfall. In this post, I'll show how I used HDR Efex Pro from Nik Software to create this image. In the interests of full disclosure, the walk-through is a recreation of the editing process, so the result will be a bit different. With that caveat in mind, on with the show!
When we left off, I had chosen this set of images, bracketed 3 EVs apart:
HDR Efex Pro has a large number of parameters you can change. In order to make the parameters less daunting, there are a number of presets available, the idea being that you choose a preset that looks promising and start working from that point. Once the bracketed images were loaded into HDR Efex Pro, I quickly scanned the Presets column for something close to what I was looking for. I chose the Realistic (Strong) preset, as it really brings out the textures in the image.
Note that clicking on these images will show you the full-sized image.
There is a lot going on in this image that distracts from the two subjects I wanted to emphasize: the large foreground rocks and the waterfalls. Relative brightness is one way you can change the relationship between objects in a scene, so I wanted to make the main subjects brighter than the surroundings. The first step was to darken the image globally using the Exposure slider.
Now that all elements of the image were subdued, I could start bringing out the subjects from the busy scene. All of Nik Software's products use what they call Control Points. A Control Point (CP) can be placed on an image and it will intelligently allow you to alter the image around that point. It is smart enough to know about object boundaries and blend the effect so as to not look contrived. The first subject I wanted to liven was the large waterfall. I placed a control point on the fall and turned the exposure up a bit.
Once the CP is placed, it has sliders that allow you to change parameters for things like Exposure, Contrast and Saturation. The CP examines the image and applies these changes in an intelligent way You can see this by examining the mask for the CP. The mask checkbox (circled in red below) shows the CP's sphere of influence by making the image dark where there is no effect and light where the CP is effecting the image.
Whatever changes were made to the CP, they were made only to the light areas. How easy was that! Creating a mask in Photoshop would have been much more tedious.
The next step was to continue tweaking the brightness in both waterfalls. I added more control points along both falls and adjusted the brightness.
The next step was to work on the foreground rocks. Lightening them up was a snap with a single control point. Notice that one of the other parameters you can adjust is Structure. This parameter increases local contrast to yield more detail and sharpness.
Just for fun, lets look at the CP masks:
So far, so good, but it still needed some work. As-is, the edits to the subjects looked a bit obvious and ham-handed. I wanted to add some interest to the background so I globally boosted the Structure and Saturation. This brought out the color of the fallen leaves a bit.
It was looking pretty good now, but the area between the two waterfalls was a bit distracting. I then added a CP on this area to darken it up a bit.
Still looking for a moody feel and needing more focus on the subjects, I added a vignette. This effect will darken the edges, calling attention to the center of the photograph.
Exactly the look I was shooting for! Now it was time for tweaking to clean things up. As you can see below, I adjusted the global Stauration, Structure and Warmth. Also, I added a few more CPs to do some minor adjusting where there were some distracting bright points.
I'm pretty happy with the result now. The main subjects of the image, the waterfall and the foreground rock, are now obvious, but there is still plenty for the eye to explore.
As I stated before, the steps above are a recreation of the original edits. Looking at them side by side, original on the left, and the recreated version on the right, I think I might like the recreated version more. Which one do you like better?
This weekend, my son was interested in going for a hike and seeing a waterfall. I'm always up for photographing waterfalls, so we headed to one of my favorite spots at Scott's Run Park. This is an amazing place, probably only 10 miles outside Washington DC, but you would never know that it is so close to the hustle and bustle of a huge city. Unbeknownst to me, the day we went (January 1) was a national push to get people out to their state parks. On the day I thought everyone would be home nursing hangovers, the parking lot was mobbed with hikers! It seemed that getting a shot of the falls without people in it was going to be impossible. Luck favors the prepared though, so we set off to the falls with gear in hand.
My son, who is eight, hiked like a trooper, scrambling over rocks larger than he and climbing up some pretty steep hills. We finally got to the base of the falls and I was disappointed to see that there were lots of people around. Drat! Oh well, we were here to see waterfalls and I figured I would at least scout the location using my Sigma 8-16 mm ultra-wide-angle lens. We could always come back later on a less busy day.
Whenever my son sees me get out the tripod, he rolls his eyes and I can almost hear him groan “Not again…” Eight year olds are not known for sitting still and especially hate adults obsessing over minute changes of a tripod angle. Thank goodness cell phone reception was good, so I gave him my iPhone to use while I was setting up the shots. Watching train videos is his favorite pastime, and that would keep him from wandering around and landing in the drink!
When it comes to waterfalls, I love the blurred dreamy effect of a slow shutter speed shot. Therefore my primary goal for these shots was to use a slow shutter speed. I find that for this particular waterfall, 1/2 second is the bare minimum to get this effect. A tripod is necessary for a shot this slow plus it helps with maintaining the exact placement of the bracketed shots for HDR.
As soon as I got the camera and tripod set up and switched Live View on, I could see that the spot I had chosen was going to be fantastic. The 8-16 mm Sigma has some pretty heavy vignetting, but it worked to my advantage here.
The foreground rock and the waterfall in the background were the lightest objects in the scene, emphasizing the relationship between the two. “This could be a very cool image!” I thought to myself. If only there were no people…
With all the tripod adjusting and LCD ogling, I hadn’t realized that some dark clouds had rolled in and it was starting to sprinkle lightly. Apparently all the other folks, out for a more leisurely hike, decided to pack it in and go home. Never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I started shooting in earnest. I little light rain was not going to kill what looked to be some really nice shooting! Yes, I had to wipe off the camera every once in a while, but it had the advantage of lowering the light to get a good slow shutter speed. This lets the running water turn into the ethereal flow that looks so good!
I adjusted my position a bit and took a few more shots. Over the roar of the flowing water, I heard “Dad, its time to go!” The rain was getting a bit stronger now, so I conceded and started to pack up. While I knew I could have stayed for another hour at least, I was happy with the fact that I got some good shots.
Once I got home and started looking at the images in Lightroom, I realized that this was the sequence that looked most promising.
Each one of the shots allowed me to capture detail in a specific area of the scene: mid tones, highlights and shadows. The next step was to use HDR software to combine these three images into one that holds detail in all three areas.
In Part 2 of Anatomy of an Image: Scotts Run WaterFall, I will be showing, in a slider-by-slider description, how I turned the raw images above into a single image that gently guides the viewer through the scene and captures the feeling I had at these fantastic waterfalls.
Manual Mode on older cameras has always been a pain to use. It required a lot of forethought and button fiddling; then, if the light changed or you moved significantly, you had to do it all over again. While doing some playing with my Canon EOS 60D, I have discovered that Manual Mode is now really easy and relatively foolproof!
While walking around my yard after a rainstorm, I spied a big leaf on the ground that had some large water droplets. The sun was low in the sky, making some interesting shadows and specular highlights from the droplets. I knew that I wanted the droplets as well as the vein structure of the leaf to stand out, so I attached a macro extension tube to my trusty Sigma 18-200mm.
I had two challenges with this macro shot. The first was the very shallow depth of field, easily resolvable by stopping down to a small aperture. The second was that I was hand-holding the camera and wanted to avoid camera shake. When using the extension tubes, the old "shutter speed should be greater than 1/focal length" rule goes out the window. I use at least double this value and usually more.
Most of my shooting is done in Av (aperture-priority) mode so that I control the depth of field and let the camera choose the shutter speed. I also usually have the camera in Auto-ISO mode, so the camera can vary the ISO. I have found empirically that, with an aperture I set, the 60D then picks an ISO that gives a shutter speed of around 1.5 times the 1/focal length value.
For example, when I pick an aperture at a 100mm focal length, the camera sets the shutter speed to around 1/150 and picks an appropriate ISO. I am assuming that the approximately 1.5 multiplier accounts for the fact that the 60D is a crop sensor camera. Nonetheless, I knew that the camera-chosen shutter speed was not going to be fast enough to let me hand hold and get sharp images at this magnification. I was going to have to outsmart the camera!
Knowing that I wanted a shake-free image and good depth of field, I switched to Manual mode and selected a small aperture and fast shutter speed, fully expecting to have to continually tweak as the light and my composition changed. Much to my surprise, no matter how I moved and how the sinking sun changed the light, the exposure was spot on!
While shooting, I didn't give this pleasant coincidence much thought; the histogram looked good and I was able to keep the exact shutter speed and aperture I wanted. Only after the images were downloaded and being edited did I start to question how this worked. It seemed to me, with the changing light and changing composition, it would be impossible for a fixed aperture and shutter speed to always give "correct" exposure. I scratched my head for a while then realized the answer; shutter speed, aperture, and ISO together make up the exposure. It was the Auto-ISO mode that allowed the camera to vary something to get a correct exposure. As the ambient light decreased, the camera set a higher ISO; as my composition changed to include brighter subjects, the camera set a lower ISO.
Never having worked with a camera that had Auto-ISO, I didn't realize how powerful this feature is. I can now set the two most important exposure components to my liking for maximum creative control and still have the ability to shoot quickly in dynamically changing light conditions. With Auto-ISO turned on, I can choose how deep the depth of field is and whether the action is frozen or blurred, all without having to worry about exposure!
There are some caveats to this approach:
- Once in Manual mode, there is no Exposure Compensation; you have to use whatever exposure the camera chooses. If your subject requires exposure tweaking, you will either have to set a specific ISO or move to another mode.
- Non-professional cameras have a relatively narrow ISO range, which limits the range of aperture/shutter speed combinations. My 60D ranges from 100-6400; seven stops. This is not too bad though, considering many lenses have about this range also.
- The ISO can change drastically, depending on the light. Many purists want ISO as low as possible to avoid noise. My personal belief is that noise is the last thing you want to optimize for. Part of a good image is that it is sharp where it needs to be and has depth of field appropriate to the subject matter. If the image is noisy to satisfy these other characteristics, so be it; I can overlook noise in an otherwise compelling photograph. An out-of-focus or blurred image that is noiseless is much less interesting. Besides, noise reduction technology is getting better all the time. Noise that might be distracting today may be able to be removed next year.
Just like any other technique, this one has its plusses an minuses and is not applicable in all situations. Its just one more tool in your toolbox. Go out and give it a try; let me know how you fare!
I was listening to some old photography podcasts recently, and heard a great interview with Michael Orton, the inventor of the Orton Effect. He developed this technique in the 1980's and it involves overlaying two overexposed slides of the same image to create some very interesting effects. I thought it might be fun to give it a try, so I grabbed some old bracketed shots and ran them through the technique. The results are not too bad! Note that this started as a series of 3 bracketed shots for HDR, run through HDR Efex Pro.
I've been playing with an ultra-wide angle lens (10-20mm) and I'm loving it! This is an image taken inside the old Smithsonian Castle in Washington D.C. Ultra-wides present some interesting challenges but can be quite rewarding when you get it all sorted out. Ken Rockwell provides some great tips at How to Use Ultra-Wide Lenses.
Who can resist puppy dogs? Kathy at Abundant Life Havana Silk Dogs contacted me to photograph her new litter of puppies. What adorable little balls of energy! Baby animals are about the hardest thing in the world to photograph. They are bouncy and jumpy, never standing still for a shot. You just need to persevere until they tire out enough to slow down!
Thanks to Kathy for the opportunity to photograph these cute little pups!
Living atop the Shenandoah Mountain, I see my share of fog. It can be bright and sunny down in the valley, but it's not uncommon to have fog for a large part of the day in the Spring and Fall seasons. I know that many people don't like fog, but I love it. This low-flying cloud provides a velvety softness to the atmosphere as well as deadening almost all sound. This really gives a feeling of being in your own ethereal world.
I have struggled to capture the feeling of the fog in a photo. Most turn out as a subject with a gray featureless background. I think this one really nailed the feeling.
The old adage "f/8 and be there" is a great one, reminding us the most important ingredient of a good photograph is actually taking it, and letting go of all of the technical considerations. A case in point is this image.
I took this during the big snowstorms of 2010 and think it is a pretty successful image. From a technical perspective, it has a lot of problems. First and foremost, it is a pretty heavy crop of the original image, below.
As you can see, the deer by itself is only a small portion of the original, weighing in at only 586x878 pixels. That's only half a megapixel!
Another problem is that I made the shot hand-held from the inside of my house, through a double-paned window. Talk about a crappy lens!
There are a lot of things I would like to change about this image. It could have been a lot bigger with a 30 megapixel camera. It could have been sharper if I had used a tripod and a better lens. I didn't have any of these, but I managed to capture an image I like enough to print and hang on my wall!
I have this image on my wall at home as a gelatin-silver print from the old film days. I just realized that I haven't posted it anywhere, and remembered that I had scanned the negative a number of years ago.
Pulling that old scan out reminded me that I had a huge archive of scanned negatives I had basically forgotten about. I'm really looking forward to going back through those and making digital copies.
Seeing this has also reminded me how much I prefer digital imaging to analog. I used to load my own bulk film into canisters, develop the film, and make prints with an enlarger in a closet or bathroom. While I shot a lot of film, I didn't have a whole lot to show for it, except a bunch of negatives. Making prints with chemicals and an enlarger is a huge time sink. Not that digital isn't, but the difference is that analog processing required huge blocks of time, whereas digital lets me work at my own pace. Once chemicals are mixed and poured, they go bad, so I would essentially devote a whole weekend to print making. How often do we have the luxury of spending an entire weekend doing something?
This image has been quite popular on Flickr, so I thought this might be a good one to christen the blog. It was taken at Scott's Run Park in McLean, Virginia. I took it quite a while ago, back when my Canon G1 was new.
It had been raining quite a bit the week before, and I wanted to get a really delicate shot of the water. I didn't have enough ND filter to really slow it down, and I was experimenting with Infrared, so I figured I could kill two birds with one stone.