How Did I Capture/Generate That Sunset Photo?

I was a bit surprised at the number of questions I received regarding the sunset image below [Click on images to view them larger on flickr. Then click “ALL SIZES” above the image on flickr to view it large].

http://www.flickr.com/photos/michaeltuuk/4306777514/

Pennybacker Sunset

Most questions came from people who (as far as I know) do not have any particular knowledge or experience with photography. I’ll try to explain how this image was done in a generally non-technical way. No *promises* that I won’t use geeky terms and all that though…

First question — Can I see it larger (and in better resolution than facebook)?  Yes.   Click on the image above to view it on flickr then click on “ALL SIZES” above the photo to see a large version.

In answer to another question: No, this isn’t a painting. This image was generated using 5 exposures from the camera and processed in various pieces of software. I didn’t do any “painting” on the computer — all the colors and light that you see came from information in the 5 image files from the camera.   However, depending on how you process an image it can look very much like a painting.   In software all the pixels are manipulated in a myriad of ways — more or less saturation, brightness, etc. to bring out or tone down the colors.   Check out http://www.hdrspotting.com and you’ll see some images that very much look like paintings.

Another question — Is it “fake”? Only if your definition of “real” is “light straight into the camera, image straight out of the camera”.   In that case it’s very fake, as are 99.999% of the images you see in books, magazines, catalogs, black and white, etc.  All those images are manipulated (often heavily) in some form or fashion.   Ansel Adams was famous for spending hours in the darkroom manipulating portions of his prints…are his images fake?  Also, when you put any sort of filter in front of your lens you’re manipulating the light and making the image look different.  Even your (digital) camera does processing on the image before generating it. Two different cameras may give slightly different results when capturing the same scene.

Whether or not various effects or manipulations are desirable and/or attractive is a completely subjective matter.   Sometimes I like it, sometimes I don’t.  Sometimes I like a strong effect, sometimes very subtle.  This is true with respect to any type of photography or art.  Could say tons more about that but I won’t bore you further.  My personal opinion is that if you are honest — not misrepresenting how the image came about or how it was manipulated — then the only thing that matters is whether you and/or your target audience/client like it.

I’ll attempt to explain a bit of the “What, Why, and How?” of this type of image in as non-technical terms as possible.

The term for this type of image is “HDR” which is an acronym for “high dynamic range”.  If any photogeek reading this wants to get into a debate about what is properly called “HDR” versus “tonemapping”, just know that I don’t care.   If you think I’m poisoning the photography world with incorrect usage of the term “HDR”, I can live with that.

Why use HDR?  The reason is to capture all the different levels of light in a scene.   The human eye can roam around a scene and dynamically adjust to a wide range of light levels.   A camera — even a high-tech one — cannot handle this wide range when capturing a scene with large disparities in light/dark.  The camera makes a guess at the best exposure which results in some areas being too light, some too dark.  When using HDR one generally takes three to five different exposures, some exposed to capture the dark areas (long exposures) and some the bright areas (short exposures).   Think about pictures you’ve taken of a sunset in the past.   You usually end up with one of two results: Either the sky looks great but the landscape (or your wife) is a black silhouette or the landscape is normal and the sky is completely white (all the sunset colors are gone because the camera over-exposed that portion of the image).  If one of these is the effect you’re after, great.  If not, you need to use special filters, use software, or a combination of both (I don’t use filters personally).

After capturing these multiple exposures I shove them through some software (Photomatix in my case).   The *very* simple explanation is that the software merges the multiple exposures into one image such that each area is properly exposed.  A really strange image results from that step.  I then use Photoshop to ‘fix’ some of what that software did by bringing in pieces of the original exposures from the camera.  After this it’s the usual brightness, contrast, saturation, etc. adjustments that many of you probably do on your own images in the software that came packaged with your camera or maybe on Picasa.  Understand, that’s an extremely paraphrased version of what goes on.   The total time to do this varies but the ‘Pennybacker Sunset’ image took approximately 1.5 hours (included two complete restarts because I messed things up beyond repair…I’m new to this HDR stuff).

Maybe I’ll write my own tutorial someday as I seem to be settling in a general groove in the way I’m processing my images. However, I think you’ll be far better served by reading tutorials from the others I list below.   I’ll let you hunt for their tutorial links just so you have to check out their sites a little.  I’ve used information from each of these — very helpful.

Trey Ratcliff (http://www.stuckincustoms.com)

Jim Nix (http://www.nomadicpursuits.com/blog/)

DefinitiveHDR (http://www.flickr.com/photos/wattsbw2004/3813241017/sizes/o/in/set-72157622217360218/)

Dave Wilson (http://davewilsonphotography.com)

Well, I’ve probably created more questions than I’ve given answers.  If you’d like to see more images you can add me as a contact on flickr and change your settings to notify you when I add photos (not all of them are HDR).  My flickr site is http://www.flickr.com/photos/michaeltuuk.

Here’s a parting shot from the evening that I took the sunset shot.  Click through to the flickr page to read a bit about this one.  Be sure to click on “ALL SIZES” to see it best.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/michaeltuuk/4308583482/

Parting Shot...Last Light Above Pennybacker

Mike

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3 responses

  1. Hey buddy, thanks for the mention. Great photo! I think it is one of the better 360 bridge shots I have seen and looks great in HDR. Well done and thanks again! Jim

    January 28, 2010 at 11:58 am

  2. Michael,

    This is one of the best Pennybacker shots that I’ve seen. Great tip on the small f-stop to intensify the starring effect. Absolutely stunning HDR work also. One of these day’s I’ll sit down and learn how to make that work. =)

    You have got a great photoblog here, I’ll be back often!

    AJ

    February 7, 2010 at 12:52 am

  3. Thanks, guys. Credit again goes to Pete Talke for the aperture tip — I’m still learning all this myself but having lots of fun.

    February 11, 2010 at 9:52 pm

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