Freezing time

One of the cool things about digital photography is sometimes you just don’t know what you’re going to get when Photoshop finishes grinding away at whatever process you’ve asked it to perform.  Most of it turns out to be crap but every once in a while…

I love photographing waves crashing.  Don’t know why although I’m sure somewhere there’s a psychiatrist who would offer a few theories.  Perhaps it’s the dynamic nature of the water or the collision of the irresistible force and immovable object.  No clue; I just like making pictures of waves.  And since we’re talking about a moving object, sometimes you don’t really see the wave until you look at it frozen in an image.  Maybe that’s what I’m chasing – freezing time for a closer examination.

Well, what happens when you stack slices of time up and merge them together?  How about these slices –

I believe they are in reverse order (I’m not a blog expert by any means) but you get the idea.  I set my camera on a tripod and just kept firing the shutter as a wave came into the cove, trying to capture the moment it hits various rocks and sprays up in the air.  Usually I would find one or two images that were the most “dramatic” and work on this but this time I asked myself, “what would happen if I merged them all into a single photo?”

Well, you get this.

_C167523_color_stackThat’s pretty cool although I have no idea where the color shifts came from.  I guess Photoshop just gave up trying to make all the right colors end up in the right places for that many images and just said, “here, you figure it out.”

Here’s the interesting thought – color has meaning in B&W.  And I can use NIK’s Silver Efex Pro to simulate color filters in B&W film.  What would that do?  Turns out it does this.

_C167523Now that’s interesting.  I need to figure out how to deal with those big black patches (I think the wave spray highlights blew out in the merge process) but all the rest is neat.  Really gives a sense of the chaos in the cove as the waves continually beat on the rocks.  Don’t really need color to tell that story.  A bonus is the lighting on the rocks at the top – nice sense of the sunset that’s happen to the left of the image.  There’s even a couple of people standing on top of one rock.  Guess they were standing there admiring the view while I was firing off 10 shots.  Nice of them.

Don’t throw away your images, folks, they may find a home in an alternate processing scheme!

Old friends and new tools

When we lived in Michigan a pair of sandhill cranes nested each year in the shallow end of the lake below our house.  Their loud calls were the heralds of spring for us and one year they paraded around their new chick for the neighborhood to admire.  We came to love these ancient, tall birds being a part of our community.

Living in Nebraska sandhill cranes are an equally important part of spring in the center of the state.  The thousands of them migrating north draw in equal thousands of tourists to the Grand Island/Kearney area to glimpse the crowd of birds grazing in the fields near the Platte and resting overnight in the shallow river.

Little did we realize that Wisconsin is also a crane haven, being the primary nesting habitat for greater sandhill cranes that migrate each year from central Florida to hatch their young around the Great Lakes.  Gradually we saw them in the fields, then a large group of them in a small lake.  Finally, biking near the Horicon Marsh wildlife refuge, we were able to get close enough to admire them again.

I’ve seen cranes in cornfields, in marshes, in rivers and at the base of mountains but this is the first time I’ve seen them in a field of green.  It’s a nice background for their coloration and certainly makes it easier to spot them!  Very nice to see and hear them again.

I’ve been using the NIK plug-ins for Photoshop for so long I stopped looking at the filters offered there.  Today I had a chance to see a new addition for CS6 (I think).  It gives the ability to convert a photograph into an oil painting.  Well, at least into an image that reminds you of an oil painting.

Here’s a scene from this past weekend.  I wanted to catch the sun breaking through the clouds and this happened to be the composition that got the best lighting.  It’s not the most interesting composition, just playing around with light and lines and textures.  But it did seem to me a good candidate for less detail and more “painterly” appearance.  Enter the Oil Brush filter in Photoshop.

A little adjustment for saturation, reduction of contrast detail and application of the Oil Brush, and this is what popped up on my screen.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMakes a much more interesting image, don’t you think?  Now I have to find more of my photographs to use this own.  Next, see how it prints.


Look deep into my image

Landscape photographers, as a group, generally are looking for the greatest depth of field possible in their images.  The intent is to emulate what the viewer would see were they standing right there, with everything from their toes to the horizon in focus.  Although our eyes don’t actually work that way (we scan a scene and our brain pieces it all together in a way that makes it look like everything is in focus) it’s the way we expect a landscape scene to look so photographers work to deliver that in their final work.

In the good old days of view cameras this infinite depth of field was accomplished by tilting the lens downward a bit to expand the depth of field at the film plane (which was not tilted).  From William Henry Jackson to Ansel Adams this was the way you got wide depths of field in a landscape photograph.  When medium format and 35mm cameras came along with lenses fixed parallel to the film plane this wasn’t possible until the invention of tilt-shift lenses, which act somewhat the way a lens on a view camera works.

Another method has always been possible but until the invention of digital photography wasn’t easy.  You could always photograph sections of a scene, each in focus, and paste them all together to create a final image where all parts are in focus.  This was a very time consuming effort and the results not always satisfactory, or easily reproducible.  With digital processing, though, it’s just a few clicks away.

I’ve played around with this “focus-stacking” technique a few times in macro photography as a way to bring more of a small object in focus within a single image.  While at the NANPA Summit, though, I heard George Lepp talk about it as a way to expand depth of field in landscape photography as well.  It’s essentially the same process – take several images of different parts of a scene, all in focus for that part – only instead of cutting and pasting prints you let Photoshop combine the digital images into one, picking the areas that are in focus to generate the final image.

Here is an image made up from 17 individual images, each one made using a different focal point.  I put my camera and long lens (works best with a long lens to get the detail in the final image) on my tripod and made each image, gradually moving my focal point from right in front of my feet to the distant shoreline.  I then made adjustments to the exposure for each in Lightroom and moved the whole group to Photoshop to be turned into a panoramic – a vertical one.

As you can see in the follow three crops, each part of the overall image is in focus (well, mostly – I could have made more images to make sure each section was accurately focused).

It’s true that closing down the aperture will increase depth of field but the results will most likely not be this good.  First, long lenses have a narrow depth of field simply due to physics so I would not have been able to get the snow at my feet and the distant shoreline both in focus even if I closed the aperture to f/32.  And using a shorter lens (which will have more depth of field at the same aperture) would not give me the distant detail I want.  Second, closing down the aperture smaller than the “sweet spot” in a lens (usually in the middle of the aperture range) means lost detail due to light diffraction around the edges of the aperture blades, scattering the light as it reaches the sensor.  Granted, most of this wouldn’t be noticeable unless you really zoom into the picture or print it really big, but what’s the point of capturing detail across the distance of a composition if you can’t do that!?

But what about horizontal?  You can use the same technique but instead of a single row of images you’ll need to add one or more rows in order to get enough of the scene in the final image.  Simply make several images in a row, point the camera up or down to a new focal point (with some overlap of the prior row), make several images in a row, etc. until you have enough rows to cover the scene.  I usually then make traditional panoramics of each row of images and then the final image from combining the panoramics.  Photoshop will combine either vertically or horizontally when it realizes you have overlapped enough of the scene.

Obviously this works best where nothing in your scene is moving.  It’s fun, though, to be able to create images that look like the way we expect reality to appear.

Icy contrasts

ISO 100, 71mm, 40 sec., f/3.5

ISO 100, 71mm, 40 sec., f/3.5

ISO 100, 71mm, 1/200 sec., f/7.1

ISO 100, 71mm, 1/200 sec., f/7.1

ISO 100, 24mm, 1/400 sec., f/8

ISO 100, 24mm, 1/400 sec., f/8

When you have shadows, work with shadows.  This is the perfect time of the year for black and white.  Use low angled light (just before sunset or right after sunrise) to bring out the surface texture and details.  Work with exposure to make sure you keep details in the shadows and highlights (yes, that’s a 40 second exposure above – another moonlight image).  Traditionally you want some pure blacks and whites in an image as reference points but with ice and snow that can look too contrasty so I’ve backed down on each a bit.  For the Zone System enthusiasts out there all these images have tonal ranges between Zones 2 and 8; pushing to 1 and 9 gave me too much stark appearance.  If all that means nothing to you then read up on Ansel Adam’s exposure techniques or play around with your own exposures until you get what you want.

If you want to play around with Adam’s Zone System keep in mind the intent was to visualize tonal attributes in the final PRINT, not the intermediate negative (or RAW file for digital).  Many of Adam’s negatives were actually somewhat flat – he brought contrast to selected areas in the printing and developing process.  For digital, keep your histogram even across the center and then post-process to spread information to pixels at the ends to get the contrast you want.  Use local dodging and burning (or adjustment brush in Lightroom) to enhance selected areas.  If I do that to these images I’ll post what I get and how I worked it out.


Airplane doodling

I rarely use my laptop for image processing – calibration of the screen is always questionable and brightness gets changed depending on ambient lighting.  Still, what is one to do on a four hour flight when all the magazines and shopping guides in the seat back have been read and battery life on the Kindle precludes getting involved in yet another novel?  If nothing else, it’s a good time to exercise the laptop battery!

Pulled up the following random shots to see what I could do with them, trying to get some depth or detail that would make them interesting to look at for a bit.  Looking over them I’m struck by some common themes, which apparently I included by reflex while looking through the viewfinder.  That’s pleasing – that I’m seeing in the images while creating them aspects that will be interesting after they’ve been created.  For example, each has a pretty obvious subject, either due to contrasts, colors, focus or placement.  That alone is a big improvement in my photography.  Glad to know I can recognize what I’m making an image of!  Also, there are interesting features other than the subject but they complement rather than overwhelm the subject.  Balance is a great thing in images, at least in the type I like making, so it’s again good to realize I’m starting to see it.

On my laptop screen it’s good to see the exposure and processing turned out pretty good.  I’ll have to print them to see what they’ll look like but so far I’m surprised at how well working in a dark plane on a questionably calibrated screen actually turned out.

Does raise an interesting question.  Is an image only “real” once it has been printed?  Vote now and vote often.


Click on any image to see a larger version.

Take what you can get

Every once in a while photographs are simply the result of serendipity, some crashing together of incidents that were never intended to coincide but manage to do so.  For example:

This is famous Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD, the only known one in the world.  Every year the town decorates the exterior of the building in corn to portray that year’s theme of the corn festival.  All the corn is grown in the area and all the work done by townspeople.  As Mitchell is right off Interstate 90 between Sioux Falls and Wall Drug (or Rapid City, or Sturgis – pick your reason for being on I-90) the Corn Palace sees quite a bit of tourist traffic even when the festival is over.  This year was touch and go – the drought seriously impacted the quantity of corn in the area, especially the unique colored corn used for the designs.  But they managed to finish it up and everyone is enjoying this year’s tribute to youth activities.

I was in Mitchell for a couple of days on business and decided to make some images as the tourist crowds were small during the week.  Some were made before sunset and some afterwards as they light up the Palace.  The building is downtown so the opportunities for different compositions are pretty limited but it wasn’t until I started looking at my files today that I realized I had two images taken at different times that were almost the same perspective.  And that’s how the above picture came about.

Here’s the daytime image:

And here’s the night version:

I dropped them both into Photoshop as Layers (images stacked on top of each other) and reduced the Opacity of the daytime version until I got the view of the lights I wanted.  Here’s my Photoshop Layers palette:

You see the Opacity of the top layer is down to 26%, which means only that much of the image’s luminosity is showing through.

After that it was just a matter of tweaking the night image a bit in order to line up the lights with the structure (it’s not a perfect job but not bad for 5 minutes of work).  And I get a final image that looks like I waited until after sunset.

Never believe what you see in a photograph……