Digital Photography Tips

  • New Article On PhotoCascadia: Canon 5D Mark II ISO Noise

    I have a new article on the Photo Cascadia blog detailing testing I did on ISO noise performance in the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. Out of all the technological advances in digital cameras in recent years I feel that lower image noise at higher ISO settings has had the largest positive impact on my photography. It is amazing to be able to shoot hand held at small apertures or in low light and also to capture night sky images without star trails and produce images that are not destroyed by noise.

    It turns out that there is more to the ISO/image noise story than I suspected. Even as cameras improved I assumed that regardless of how good the ISO performance was that lower ISO settings would always produce lower levels of image noise. Noise tests with the Canon EOS 7D that were posted on the web by Tony Loentzen changed that logic. His tests showed that the 7D actually produced cleaner images at some higher ISO settings. For example, he found that ISO 640 produced almost as little noise as ISO 100!

    Curious to find out if the Canon 5D Mark II behaved in a similar way I decided to conduct my own test. To see my test images and find out what I discovered you can read my article on PhotoCascadia.com. I'd love to hear your thoughts, questions and feedback.

  • How Many Exposures To Bracket For Exposure Blending Or HDR?

    As photographers we frequently struggle to overcome the limitations of our equipment in order to create the photographs we envision. One of the biggest limitations of traditional photography is the narrow dynamic range of light that can be contained in an image compared to what we see.

    Techniques for blending exposures vary from simple to highly complex. They can be accomplished using skilled layer masking techniques in Photoshop. We also have the option to use one of a rapidly growing list of exposure blending programs commonly referred to as High Dynamic Range (HDR) software.

    One of the most common questions I'm asked in classes and workshops on the topic of bracketing exposures for exposure blending and HDR imaging is, "how do you know how many exposures you need to bracket?"

    The goal is to capture all the dynamic range tonal information in a scene in a series of exposures. The sequence of images below shows four exposures I took of a high dynamic range scene on the Columbia River. Having all the shadow and highlight information recorded in the various exposures allowed me to blend them using layer masks to create the final image. I could have also used one of many HDR applications to blend the exposure values.

    To read the full article I wrote on the Photo Cascadia Blog go HERE.

    In the first exposure I noticed that both the shadows and highlights extended beyond the ends of the histogram.

    By underexposing a stop I was able to contain most of the highlights.

    Underexposing two stops enabled me to retain detail in even the brightest highlights.

    Finally I overexposed by two stops to get an exposure in which no shadow detail was clipped. I did take an exposure one stop over exposed but didn't end up using it in the final image.

    After careful blending using layers masks I did some additional processing for color and contrast to arrive at the final image.

    You can read the complete article on the PhotoCascadia.com blog.

    Please leave a comment or question below.

  • New Horizons In Photography With Better High ISO Performance

    Several months back I upgraded cameras from my trusty Canon EOS 5D to the newer model, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. The Mark II boasted a range of new features that made it a worthwhile investment, including a larger and clearer LCD screen, a stronger and more weather proof build, easier to navigate menus, customizable settings, HD video, a sensor dust cleaning function as well as greater resolution (21 MP), updated processors and firmware and reportedly better image quality. Over time I have found that, really, just one feature of the newer camera has fundamentally changed the way I can take photos. That feature is the greatly improved performance at higher ISO settings.

    Hand held at 1/40 second, f/9, ISO 500

    ISO is the standard by which the sensitivity of film or a digital sensor is measured. Better sensitivity, lower noise and improved in-camera noise reduction at higher ISO settings are hallmarks of the latest generation of digital SLR cameras, and high ISO performance will surely continue to improve in the near future. I have always used Canon digital cameras by choice, but the most current high end digital SLRs from Nikon, Sony, Minolta and others all have much better high ISO performance than their predecessors.

    Hand held at 1/100 second, f/8, ISO 320

    I haven't done quantitative tests to compare the high ISO performance of older DSLRs and current ones, but the improvements are so dramatic to be readily apparent with a simple inspection of the image files at 100%. There are plenty of independent testers out there who have done careful scientific comparisons if you want the raw data. My goal in this article is simply to share some images I have taken recently that either would have previously been impossible or would have required more equipment and more labor intensive techniques. Of course, you would need to see high resolution image files to get a complete understanding of the image quality, but for the purpose of this article I think these screen size images give you the main idea. I should also point out that in addition to improvements in ISO performance, improved noise reduction algorithms in software like Adobe Lightroom and Camera RAW, as well as improved image stabilization technology in lenses take some of the credit.

    Hand held at 1/13 second, f/4.5, ISO 3200

    How does better high ISO performance allow for new opportunities in photography? As the sensor becomes more sensitive to light as the ISO setting is increased, the camera is able to maintain faster shutter speeds in lower light conditions and still get a proper exposure. Essentially it means you can shoot in lower light situations or with smaller aperture settings without the need for a tripod. However, with past cameras the increased sensitivity to light at higher ISO settings came with an unacceptable trade off; increased image noise or digital grain. Until I acquired the Canon 5D Mark II, the higher ISO settings were generally useless to me. My images need to be very clean and sharp, so I would always shoot at the lowest ISO setting (ISO 100) to ensure adequate image quality. This almost always meant the need for a tripod to get a sharp image.

    Hand held at 1/15 second, f/5.6, ISO 3200

    Experimenting with the ISO capabilities of the 5D Mark II during my travels in Mexico this month have left me impressed and excited about the possibilities. I still use my tripod most of the time, but I find that in situations where a tripod is impractical, time prohibitive or creatively limiting I can often raise the ISO to between 200 and 500 to allow for fast enough shutter speeds for hand held shooting with a very slight loss in overall image quality. Images at these ISO settings are certainly good enough for publishing and even fine art printing. There are times when having the ability to photograph without a tripod is extremely freeing and allows for flexibility, mobility, spontaneity and creativity that wasn't possible before.

    Hand held at 1/20 sec, f/4, ISO 3200

    What's more, I have found that I can also hand hold my camera in minimal light situations, such as indoors or for night time city scenes, by increasing the ISO dramatically. I have increased the ISO to as much as 3200 and still been able to capture very usable images. A slight degree of noise in these images is acceptable to me for the fact that they would have been almost impossible to get otherwise. While I still return to the tripod if image quality is essential, it is exciting to be able to photograph people and other moving objects in low light conditions and not have them be blurred. Most of my night city photography does not include people because of the blurring of objects in motion with slow shutter speeds.  Being able to hand hold the camera and get sharp images of moving subjects indoors and at night opens a whole new world of possibilities.

    Hand held at 1/30 second, f/4, ISO 3200

    I'm sure the technology in ISO performance will continue to improve for some time. Within a couple of years there will be cameras that allow us to photograph in almost complete darkness with fast shutter speeds and produce noise free images. Until then it is exciting to know how good the ISO performance is right now, and that photographers have the ability to take photographs that were previously impossible or impractical.

    Hand held at 1/15 second, f/7.1, ISO 500

    If you found this article helpful, informative or otherwise useful, feel free to share it on the social media network of your choice using the handy links below. If you have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Thanks!

    Hand held at 1/30 second, f/4, ISO 3200

    New Photography Possibilities with high ISO Performance

    Several months back I upgraded cameras from my trusty Canon EOS 5D to the newer model, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. The Mark II boasted a range of new features that made it a worthwhile investment, including a larger and clearer LCD screen, a stronger and more weather proof build, easier to navigate menus, customizable settings, HD video, a sensor dust cleaning function as well as greater resolution (21 MP), updated processors and firmware and reportedly better image quality. Over time I have found that one specific attribute of the newer camera has had a bigger impact on the way I can take photographs than any other. That feature is the greatly improved performance at higher ISO settings.

    I haven't run any objective tests to make quantitative comparisons between older DSLRs and current ones, but there are plenty of independent testers out there who have if you want the raw data. My goal in this article is to share some images I have taken recently that either would have been previously impossible or would have required more equipment and more labor intensive techniques.

    Better sensitivity, lower noise and improved in-camera noise reduction at higher ISO settings are hallmarks of the latest generation of digital SLR cameras, and high ISO performance will surely continue to improve in the near future. ISO is the standard by which the sensitivity of film or a digital sensor is measured. I have always used Canon digital cameras by choice, but the most current high end digital SLRs from Nikon, Sony, Minolta and others all have much better high ISO performance than their predecessors.

    How does better high ISO performance allow for new opportunities in photography? As the sensor becomes more sensitive to light with increased ISO settings the camera is able to maintain faster shutter speeds in lower light conditions and still get a proper exposure. Essentially it means you can shoot in lower light situations or with smaller aperture settings, without a tripod, than at lower ISO settings. However, with past cameras the increased sensitivity to light at higher ISO settings came with an unacceptable trade off; increased image noise or digital grain. Until I acquired the Canon 5D Mark II, the higher ISO settings were generally useless to me. My images need to be very clean and sharp, so I would always shoot at the lowest ISO setting (ISO 100) to ensure adequate image quality. This almost always meant using a tripod.

    Experimenting with the ISO capabilities of the 5D Mark II during my travels in Mexico this month have left me impressed and excited about the possibilities. I still use my tripod most of the time, but I find that in situations where a tripod is impractical, time prohibitive or creatively limiting I can often bump up the ISO to between 200 and 500 to allow for fast enough shutter speeds for hand held shooting with a very slight loss in overall image quality. Images at these ISO settings are certainly good enough for publishing and even fine art printing. In some situations the ability to photograph without a tripod can be very freeing and allow for creativity and camera positions that weren't possible before.

    What's more, I have found that I can also hand hold my camera in very low light situations, such as indoors or with night time city scenes, by increasing the ISO dramatically. I have increased the ISO to as much as 3200 and still been able to capture very usable images. The value of these images in greatly enhanced by the fact that they would have been almost impossible to get otherwise. While I still return to the tripod if image quality is essential, it is exciting to be able to photograph people and other moving objects in low light conditions and not have them be blurred. Most of my night city photography does not include people because of the blurring of objects in motion. Being able to hand hold the camera and get sharp images of moving subjects in low light opens a whole new world of possibilities.

    I'm sure the technology in ISO performance will continue to improve for some time. Within a couple of years there will be cameras that allow us to photograph by moonlight without a tripod and produce noise free images. Until then it is exciting to know that ISO performance is at a level right now that allows for types of shooting that were previously impossible or impractical.

  • Blurred Water Effect

    I recently had a question from a photographer about achieving the classic blurred water effect that many landscape photographers use during full daylight. The blurry water effect comes from using a long shutter speed (.5 sec to 10 sec depending on speed of water) to allow the motion of the water to appear smooth.  In low light situations it can be easy, and sometimes unavoidable, to get a long enough shutter speed without any assistance. When more exposure time is needed also make sure you are using a tight aperture (f/22+) to let in less light and a low ISO (50-100) to decrease your camera's sensitivity to light. In slightly brighter conditions a polarizing filter, which holds back about 1 stop of light, can help give a long enough shutter speed to get blurry water. In brighter daylight conditions you might also need to use a neutral density (ND) filter, or combinations of ND filters, to block some light (3 stop up to 10 stops depending on how bright it is) and give you a slower shutter speed. Singh-Ray and other filter makers also have variable ND filters that allow you to "dial in" the amount of filtration you need.0383912-20090722-Edit

  • The Difference Light Makes

    Howard Prairie lupine right before sunrise.

    Howard Prairie lupine right before sunrise.

    Howard Prairie lupine at sunrise

    Howard Prairie lupine at sunrise

    For me, as for many photographers, light is the most important element in any photograph. Take these two photos for example. They were taken minutes appart during the June wildflower bloom in Howard Prairie in the southern Oregon Cascades. I like both, and other than the light, both are very similar. However, in the first image the sun has not yet crested the ridgeline so the scene is lit by indirect light that is being reflected from the sky and off of the surrounding landscape. It creates a very even wash of light with subtle transitions from darker to lighter areas and the feel that light is glowing from all directions, which it basically is. In the second image the sun has just crested the ridge and direct light is shining on the meadow and strongly backlighting the flowers and grass. The color is warmer, the contrast in the scene is much greater and there is a much stronger sense of the direction of the light. Knowing the characterisitics of different types of outdoor lighting situations helps me be to plan the timing of a photo to best convey the scene the way I envision it.

  • High Dynamic Range Photography Techniques

    This article is adapted from a presentation I recently gave to the Southern Oregon Photographic Association.

    High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is a type of photography that has seen a rapid growth in popularity recently. There are Flickr groups dedicated to it and it comes up regularly in photography forums across the web. In its most recent incarnation HDR photography involves combining multiple exposures of a scene using HDR imaging software, the most popular of which is Photomatix by HDRsoft. Just do a Google search for HDR photography or Photomatix and you can see thousands of examples of Photomatix HDR images.  The image below is typical of a lot of HDR images you will see out there. Some are technically excellent, some are uniquely artistic, some are captivating and some are just plain bad.

    The purpose of HDR photography is to create an image of a scene that has a greater range of light values than can be normally be captured by a single film or digital image. Depending on how it is used, HDR imaging software can allow the photographer to create an image that is closer to what the human eye perceives when looking at a high dynamic range scene. However, more and more it is being used to create surreal, whimsical or fantastical photo illustrations that don't necessarily reflect the human experience but fall into a whole new genre of photographic art (check out the Flickr group).

    I often use the basic concepts of HDR imaging in my work because I like to photograph in very extreme lighting situations that are awesome to experience in person, but impossible to capture with a simple click of the camera shutter. Sometimes I use HDR techniques to create images that are pure fantasy. Most often my goal is to attempt to recreate my personal experience in a way that is more accurate than my camera can record. Therefore, much of my HDR photography does not have the stereotypical cartoonish, haloed, surreal look that you will find in a lot of the current HDR images being made. I also do not normally use Photomatix or other HDR software to create my HDR photos. Rather, I employ a variety of other techniques first, depending on the situation, and turn to software as a final option.

    Before I get further into this discussion of high dynamic range imaging allow me to back up a bit and put a little context on the term "dynamic range". Most simply put, dynamic range, as it applies to photography, is the difference between the maximum (brightest) and minimum (darkest) measurable light intensities for a given scene, film, sensor, screen, etc. This range in photography is often referred to in terms of stops. A stop equals a doubling of the amount of light. A one stop increase in light results in double the light intensity and two stops results in four times the light and so on. The following dynamic range values are open to much debate among photographers and a lot of different values can be found depending on who you read or talk to.  So to avoid getting an argument started, let me point out that I'm using values I borrowed from other sources and only use them as simple reference points, not as the final word on what the exact values may or may not be.

    The human eye is said to have a dynamic range of as much as 24 stops. This would indicate that from the darkest shadow detail the eye can see, to the brightest highlight, the light intensity can double 24 times. That's a bit misleading however, because as we scan a scene our eyes adjust rapidly to darker and brighter areas and our brain quickly composites the various information into what seems like a single image. In reality, if a person is to look at one part of a scene without scanning (this is closer to how a camera does it and is called instantaneous dynamic range) , the dynamic range of the eye is something closer to 14 stops. However, we normally perceive a scene with the greater effective dynamic range because we naturally scan with our eyes.

    By comparison, slide film has a dynamic range of around 5 stops, print film around 7 stops and the data contained within a quality digital RAW file closer to 10 stops. The average scene you might photograph has a dynamic range of about 10 stops but the kinds of extreme lighting scenes that I like to photograph are often in that 14 to 24 stop range of human vision, and sometimes even beyond.  So the problem is that much of what we photograph is within the range of what our eyes can see, but outside the ability of a camera (film or digital) to record all at once. The result is that we often take images that either have shadows that are totally black (underexposed), highlights that are totally white (overexposed) or a combination of both. This can be really frustrating when you remember seeing an amazing sunset over a luminescent ocean, but your photos show only dark, muddy waves and a featureless white sky. Enter the need for HDR photography.

    HDR photography is basically any technique for creating an image that contains a higher dynamic range than can normally be captured in a single frame in a camera (either film or digital). There are actually many ways to extend the dynamic range of a photograph , but a great number of digital photographers are now going strait to the computer software solution. While there are some great advantages to the "Photomatix" approach, I'll point out some reasons why it might be worth it to have some other tricks in the HDR tool box as well.

    So, what are some of the different ways to create higher dynamic range images? The ones I'm most familiar with include:

    1. darkroom techniques (available to traditional film shooters with serious darkroom skills)
    2. graduated filters
    3. careful processing of a RAW image file
    4. double processing a single RAW image file and manually blending the two versions together using photo editing software
    5. manually blending multiple bracketed exposures taken in the camera
    6. using HDR imaging software to automatically blend a set of bracketed exposures.

    As it turns out, HDR photography is almost as old as photography itself (there is some good historical information on Wikipedia). In the late 1800's photographers developed darkroom techniques that enabled them to create single images from two or more separately exposed negatives. This allowed them to produce a positive print that maintained the right exposure in both a bright sky and a dark foreground. Later, Ansel Adams and friends developed the Zone System which was designed to identify the best exposure for any scene that would later allow for the greatest degree of tonal information to be recovered in print. While not truly HDR because he was still working within the limits of a single exposure, his techniques did greatly improve the ability to get a high level of dynamic range from the negative to the print.

    Graduated filters are perhaps the least post production intensive way to create HDR images. A graduated filter is generally a piece of glass or plastic that has a gradient on it that fades from dark (usually neutral gray unless a color shift is desired) to clear. The dark half of the filter is usually placed over the brighter sky with the transition lining up with the horizon and the clear portion over the darker foreground. The darker portion of the filter "holds back" some of the light (usually 1, 2 or 3 stops worth) while the clear portion lets all the light through from the darker foreground. While this doesn't actually extend the dynamic range of the film or digital sensor in the camera, it does help balance a high dynamic range scene so that all the tonal information can be captured within the range of the camera (see example below). The biggest advantage to using graduated filters is that everything happens in-camera so there is no additional post processing time required. All darkroom and computer based HDR techniques require anywhere from several minutes to many hours of additional time. On the down side, graduated filters have a straight transition line that is very difficult to fit on a scene that doesn't have a straight horizon, often resulting in a dark "grad line" cutting across trees, mountains, buildings or any other dark objects that project above the horizon.

    Shooting and processing RAW image files (most current digital SLRs have the ability to shoot RAW files as well as jpegs) isn't technically an HDR technique because it only uses the light captured in a single exposure. However, there is so much data captured in the RAW format that during processing using a RAW converter (many exist but most cameras come with RAW software.   Programs like Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop also support RAW processing) it is possible to recover both shadow and highlight detail that appeared to be outside the dynamic range when the image was taken. The degree of latitude, often one or more stops in either direction, can be enough to create a final image that has a much greater dynamic range than what the camera appeared to capture (see example below / click to enlarge). The advantages to this are that it is fast, easy and all done with a single exposure. One downside is that even RAW files are limited to how much dynamic range they can contain, so it only works to a point. Another is that trying to recover too much detail from deep shadows in this way can result in a high degree of digital noise.

    Sometimes, I find that a single RAW file contains all the tonal range that is needed for a properly exposed image, but I'm not able to get the entire image to look good with a single RAW conversion. In these cases I will do what is called double processing the RAW file to create two different exposures and then manually blend the exposures using various blending techniques in Photoshop. Exposure blending is a tricky art/skill in itself that takes a lot of practice to do well. Alone, it could be the focus of a multi-day workshop (I'll have to work on offering one), so there isn't time to go into depth here. I have a very basic post on the topic HERE. In the examples below, the first image was RAW processed to have the desired sky exposure. The second is from the same RAW image file, this time processed for the desired foreground exposure.  The third is the result of blending the two exposures in Photoshop. This technique works great as long as the entire dynamic range of the scene is contained within the RAW file. For that reason this technically isn't a true HDR technique either, but the results can be a much greater dynamic range than could be achieved by single processing the RAW file and way beyond anything that could be done with a jpeg capture or film.

    When the dynamic range of a scene is too great to be reigned in with graduated filters or to contain within a single RAW capture, I apply the manually blended multiple exposure technique. The blending techniques I use here are the same as the ones I use with the double processed RAW file technique, and again are a topic for a multi-day workshop. The advantage of this approach is that I can take as many exposures in the camera as I need to contain the complete dynamic range of a scene. Using this technique I can easily take a series of exposures that can contain the full dynamic range of just about any situation, including the full 24 stops of human perception and even beyond. The blending process for combining two or more different exposures is tedious and can take hours or even days, and if not done well the result is obvious and bad. So, I only use it on images that I think are going to be great. There are many advantages. Most important to me is that this technique produces the cleanest, sharpest, artifact free, data rich final images. Another advantage is that I have complete creative and local control over how I blend the exposures and what I want the final image to look like, allowing me to get as close as possible to what I envisioned when I took the photo. In the example below, the dynamic range between the sky and the foreground was way beyond the 10 stops I could contain in a single RAW file. I didn't want to use graduated filters so I could avoid the additional flare they can cause when facing into bright light and because of the irregular shape of the lighthouse projecting above the horizon. I bracketed four different exposures, but was able to create my final image by blending together just the darkest and lightest of them. I think the final result is not only appealing and believable, but also very high quality and noise free which means it looks great as a large print as well as on the computer screen.

    Finally we come to the technique that a vast majority of HDR jockeys are using these days, and that is to combine the tonal values of multiple exposures using HDR imaging software, most popularly Photomatix. The technique for capture is the same as the previous technique, namely shooting on a tripod to avoid camera movement and bracketing two or more exposures that can contain the entire dynamic range of a scene, often in one stop increments. Some HDR images contain as many as seven different exposures or more. Using Photomatix is much quicker than manually blending, usually taking about five minutes or so. The advantages are that when it works well, it can do an amazing job and can sometimes handle tricky areas that are particularly difficult to manually blend. It can be a huge time saver and, as noted earlier, can produce some amazing surreal effects and artistic styles that can't be obtained any other way. However, I usually only go to Photomatix as a last resort because, like with anything, there are trade offs. The controls in Photomatix are fairly blunt, making it difficult to make fine adjustments. Also, I find that what I see in the tone mapping (also a topic for another time) preview window is not always what the image ends up looking like once it has been rendered in its final form. Often times the resulting HDR image has strange color shifts, increased shadow noise, cartoonish colors, halos, edge fringing and an overall loss of contrast. Also, anything that moves in the scene from one exposure to the next creates weird ghost images in the final photo. In addition, the adjustments in Photomatix are only global, so any local adjusting that I need to do has to be done back in Photoshop, not saving me much time in the end.

    In the following example I first blended four exposures of an old house using Photomatix to create the resulting HDR image. The software did a pretty good job in some areas. The image certainly contains a wide dynamic range of tonal values, but I wasn't happy with the color in some areas, the overall contrast or the way that the movement of the clouds between exposures created problems in the final image. In addition, some areas of the sky were still overexposed. I fully admit that my skills using Photomatix are somewhat lacking, but I often find that no matter what I do, some images just don't succeed.

    Photomatix HDR image

    Not satisfied with the result, I decided to spend the time working on a manually blended HDR image. It took a lot of painstaking work, but I found that the resulting image was much cleaner, with better overall dynamic range, color, contrast and sky detail. The manually blended image also has close to zero digital noise, edge fringing or artifacting making it a much higher quality file for creating fine prints.

    Manual blend

    Manual blend

    The next photo (Double Falls) is of another high dynamic range scene. With a bright sky and very dark canyon I knew it couldn't be handled with a single exposure. I shot several exposures and then generated an HDR image using Photomatix. I felt that in this case the program did a pretty respectable job. However, I decided I would also try my hand at a manual blend so I could do a direct comparison. Even at web resolution, my hand processed HDR has greater tonal contrast and density than the Photomatix image. I was also able to make creative decisions about localized luminosity, color and contrast that I could not with Photomatix.

    While it is possible to get away with some digital artifacts and pixel degradation in web sized images, my large fine art prints have to be as sharp, clean and noise free as possible. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the Photomatix image had much more shadow noise than the hand processed image, as well as strange color shifts in the water and areas that were still blown out.

    Click to enlarge

    The Photomatix HDR image also experienced edge fringing and loss of sky detail where clouds had moved between exposures.

    Click to enlarge

    So, in conclusion, I find that having multiple techniques to capture and create images when confronted with high dynamic range situations allows me to better express my visual experience and artistic vision through my photographs. Often the use of graduated filters or shooting and carefully processing my images in the RAW format is all I need to properly render the dynamic range of a scene that is just a little greater than average. As the dynamic range of the scene increases I begin to employ more agressive HDR techniques, such as double processing and blending a single RAW file or bracketing multiple exposures in the camera and blending two or more of these by hand. Sometimes I even use combinations of these techniques. Does HDR imaging software have its place? Absolutely. I choose to use it when time is a factor, when the images will only be shown at lower web resolution so noise and fringing isn't as important, when I want to create something that has that very stylized "HDR look" or when nothing else I have tried works. In addition, I'm sure that HDR imaging software will continue to improve and advance. In the not too distant future, I fully expect to see digital cameras that have HDR sensors which will be able to capture 15, 20, even 25 stops of light or more in a single frame, which will make much of this discussion obsolete.

    I'd love to hear other tips, techniques, opinions and experiences regarding HDR imaging, so please feel free to leave a reply or share this post.

  • Organizing The Digital Photography Workflow

    I recently had the opportunity to take an amazing one day workshop on digital photography workflow from Mac Holbert, co-founder of Nash Editions, widely known as the world’s first digital printmaking studio focusing solely on photography. Prior to Nash Editions, Mac Holbert was the Tour Manager for the music group Crosby, Stills & Nash. He co-founded Nash Editions with Graham Nash in 1987. If you aren't familiar with Nash Editions or Mac Holbert I recommend reading this interview by John Paul Caponigro. John and Mac are both instructors with the Epson Print Academy.

    Mac Holberts's workshop revolutionized how I approach my workflow in Photoshop. While Mac knows and willingly shares a wide range of Photoshop actions, adjustments and techniques, it is his suggestions for how to organize and approach the digital photography workflow that I found most enlightening. As the saying goes, "give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for life". Mac refers to specific Photoshop techniques as the fish, but a well organized and purposeful work flow as knowing how to fish. He also points out that with a program as powerful as Photoshop, there are many ways to get to any single photoshop destination, but having a well organized workflow ensures that you don't end up at the wrong destination, such as with damaged pixels or with workflow steps that can't be reversed.

    Mac emphasizes that the digital workflow should begin with adjustments that directly affect pixels (those not made on adjustment layers) and more global adjustments and then proceed toward more and more localized adjustments. He also suggests that your Photoshop layer stack be organized to reflect this progression.

    A workflow following this type of progression might go something like this: start with adjustments that affect pixels, such as cloning, noise reduction and perspective adjustments. Then proceed to global tonal and color adjustments (made with curves adjustment layers) such as setting the black point, gray point, global contrast and global brightness. After those adjustments are made it is time to start targeting smaller regions of the image that need adjusting such as regional dodging and burning and targeted tone, saturation and contrast adjustments. Finally, the workflow is finished up with specific "spot" adjustments such as manual dodging and burning, tonal adjustments, midtone enhancement, local sharpening and so on.

    Keeping the layer stack organized to reflect this progression is paramount. The following graphic is the one the Mac uses to give a basic illustration of what a well organized layer stack might look like.

    My old workflow, largely self-taught, generally allowed me to achieve what I wanted with an image, but it was highly haphazard and disorganized, and I often worked myself into corners or created hard to resolve issues. I knew that there was a better, more efficient and less damaging approach. Mac's suggetions were just what I was looking for. If you ever get the chance to attend one of Mac's workshops, through the Epson Print Academy or elsewhere, I highly recommend it.

  • Photo Journal: Photographing Double Falls

    This amazing location required a 4:00 AM wake-up and a cross country hike through grizzly country in the dark up on Logan Pass in Glacier National Park. It was well worth the effort. Streams cascading off all sides of a bowl shaped valley converge at this narrow slot in the rocks. During the summer, melt water flows off the canyon walls in several places creating four of five separate falls, but in the fall just the two main falls remain.

    I first became aware of this waterfall from Galen Rowell's classic photograph. A couple of years ago it ran on the cover of Outdoor Photographer Magazine and included the following caption: "Light conditions like this are notoriously difficult to photograph. The contrast between the sky and the shadowed ground is too much for film or an image sensor to handle. At the time Rowell made this image, he used a split neutral-density filter to control the contrast. If he was alive and photographing the same scene today, Rowell would have used a digital camera. He'd have known that he could employ some sophisticated RAW-software techniques to double-process the image file."

    I took that advice and photographed the classic scene in two separate exposures, one for the sky and one for the dark foreground and then manually blended the two images in Photoshop to allow the entire range of light that I experienced to all be contained within a single image.

    The magazine caption also noted the irony that in a location famous for being on the continental divide, a place where water usually flows in opposite directions, toward the east or the west, would also be a place where so many streams flow together.

    Two exposure manual blend. Canon EOS 5D, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, 3 stop Sing-Ray split neutral density filter, circular polarizer, 3.2 sec @ f/10 (sky), 15 sec @ f/10 (fore ground), ISO 100

  • Longer Exposures For More Saturation and Luminosity

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    In situations involving low levels of light it can often be beneficial to obtain a longer exposure to allow the sensor/film more time to absorb color and glow. There can be a lot of color and light bouncing off clouds and hills that our eyes can't pick up. Cameras are able to "see" into low light scenes by leaving the shutter open and collecting more light. If I really want to pull as much light and color from a scene as possible I'll often use a neutral density filter (ND) along with my usual filter stack (polarizer and graduated neutral density when needed) and also set the ISO on my camera down to 50 in order to extend what was already going to be a long shutter speed.

    A neutral density filter is a neutral gray piece of glass or plastic that is placed in front of the lens. Since it is neutral it doesn't change the color of the image or do any other special effects. All it does is reduce the amount of light that can pass through the lens to the image sensor or film (kind of like wearing color neutral sunglasses). By reducing the amount of light coming in, the exposure time needs to be longer to get a properly exposed image. One effect of longer exposure times is the blurring of anything moving within the image (water, clouds, wind blown trees, etc.). Another affect is that if there is low level colored light washing over the scene it will saturate in the image over time. I use Singh-Ray neutral density filters because they are some of the most color neutral filters available and give excellent results. I also use Singh-Ray Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filters. GND filters are neutral gray at the top and fade to clear near the middle. They are used to hold back the light in one part of an image (like a bright sky) in order to balance the light across the scene.

    The two photos above were taken one right after the other, the first at 6 sec @ f/20, ISO 100 with a 3 stop GND for the sky. The second was taken at 30 sec @ f/20, ISO 50 with a 3 stop GND and a 3 stop ND. Quite a difference 24 seconds of shutter time can make.

  • Photo Tip: The Difference Light Makes

    Photography is all about light. Without it, no photo. However it goes far beyond that. The type, direction, color, amount and quality of light, as well as the photographer's ability to see and manage the light, are serious contributors to the success of a photo. The ability to see, feel and anticipate light as well as know how the camera will capture light are skills that take a long time to acquire. Some light is right for some scenes but completely wrong for others. The best way to learn what works and what doesn't is to get out and shoot in all lighting conditions and stick around to shoot the same subject as light is changing, all the while making special note of how the light looks to the eye.

    Sometimes it is difficult to know by eye just how much impact the light going to have on a photograph. The best way to realize the impact of light is to compare photos of the same subject matter under different lighting. The following two photographs really illustrate the value of such an exercise. These photos were taken less than two minutes apart, one before the sun rose over the horizon and the second, just after. There are times when the soft glowing light that comes just before sunrise gives perfect even, luminescent lighting to a scene, picking up subtle details and working its way into the deepest shadows. However, in this case, there isn't enough separation of elements or correctly angled surfaces in the scene. The even lighting causes the tree, rocks and mountains to appear muddy and not well defined and the sky washes out to an unattractive white.

    tree 1
    tree 2

    What a difference a little time makes. In the second image, just a few seconds later, bright, warm, low angle direct sunlight has broken over the horizon, side lighting the scene. It brings out color and adds needed definition and depth to the image, all things the eye looks for. In addition, the direct sunlight coming in at 90 degrees to the camera lens allow for the best polarization effect from a circular polarizer, enhancing the color of the tree and rocks and helping to darken the blue sky.

    The composition itself isn't particularly interesting, but the addition of the right light can make a surprising difference in how appealing it is to the eye. This is a great example of a particular type of light enhancing an image. Unfortunately, it isn't a perfect formula for success and you shouldn't try to achieve the same type of lighting for every image you take. In another situation you might find that the pre sunrise light actually creates the most appealing image.

    It all comes down to time spent shooting in all lighting conditions, becoming more familiar with what works and increasing your chances of being there when the light is right.

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