Last weekend, after spending the day touring Boston, I walked across the pedestrian bridge (near the left side of the above image) next to Seaport Blvd which connects downtown to the old seaport district. The bridge is part of the South Bay Harbor Trail. I stopped for dinner and waited for the sun to set behind the city. As I neared this photo spot I found that four photographers were already sitting there — tripods and cameras already set up. I walked toward them and without a word stopped 10′ in front of them and pretended to set up my tripod. Silence. After a few seconds I turned and said I was just kidding and relieved laughter set in. I asked if it was OK to set up just behind them and they were nice enough to extend an offer to make room in the middle of them if I wanted (I just set up behind and above them).
My intent was to bracket a bunch of exposures as it got darker using f/22 to get a starburst effect. I switched to f/8 because (1) I really wasn’t getting much of that effect, (2) f/8 is good and sharp, and (3) my exposures were getting longer than 30 seconds and I was too lazy to start timing the exposures manually even though I was using a remote 🙂 White balance was set to daylight. That’s somewhat arbitrary since I always shoot in RAW but it helps keep things consistent when viewed in the LCD. I included a couple of straight-out-of-the-camera exposures below so you can see a sample of what I was working with.
On my flight home I plugged six exposures into Nik HDR Efex Pro. My personal default is to use the realistic-subtle preset as a starting point 99% of the time and I tweak a bit in Nik. Tweaking and saving complete, I took the Nik output into Photoshop along with a couple of the darker exposures and masked in a few spots which were still over-exposed after the HDR junk. I toned down the colors in the water and burned the sidewalk darker a bit (more on the dodging and burning below). Relative to colors, I did want an “HDR look” to this image but I sometimes find the reflections and colors on the water to be a bit overdone for my taste in these skyline shots. I also dropped the overall saturation by 20 points to bring it back to realistic colors as tools like Nik HDR Efex Pro and Photomatix tend to saturate everything a lot.
Finally, since the perspective wasn’t too bad I decided to fix it by stretching out the top corners a bit and aligning the buildings with rulers to make them more upright on the edges (the SOOC images above do not have that correction). If you do too big of an edit like this it can degrade the image but it’s fine for this one. The final image turned out crisp and sharp at high resolution.
This screenshot shows my dodging and burning layer. A trick I learned watching a Joe Brady video (something about Photoshop for landscapes sponsored by Xrite) is to create a new layer, fill it with 50% gray, then dodge and burn on that with black/white. There’s no real need for that but the layer gives you a visual to show where you’re doing your adjustments.
Each year my mom sends hand-made Christmas ornaments to family and friends. They are usually very intricate in both structure and painting. It’s a bit harder now with our large family size but ours are typically personalized with our first names painted on the ornament. She does exceptional work on crafts like this. We always encouraged her to make a business out of her various crafty things but she was never interested.
Before the tree came down this year I decided to grab quick shots of some of the ornaments. While the crafts stand on their own artistically I’ll throw out a few comments on how I shot them. First off, I didn’t light them except with the lights on the tree and the ambient (tungsten) light in the room. I used a tripod and bracketed the shots thinking that I might even do some HDRs given the large difference between the shadows and the lights on the tree. In the end the only HDR is shown at the top of the post…it’s just OK photographically IMO. I didn’t spend any time in Photoshop trying to make it better. I experimented with aperture. I didn’t get enough DOF with f/2.8 — even when considering only the ornaments and not the tree and lights. Using f/22 gave interesting starbursts in the lights of course but required either very long shutter speeds at low ISO or a higher ISO which I avoided since I was planning on HDRs. Of course I could use any shutter speed I wanted but I was simply too lazy to do manual exposures/bracketing above the 30 second maximum sans “bulb” mode. I didn’t want to do starburst HDRs that badly. So, I ended up processing individual frames with apertures ranging from f/6.3 to get some bokeh vs. f/22 to get the starburst effect. Lightroom was used for some simple adjustments — mainly clarity, contrast, sharpening, and vignette. A variety of combinations are posted here.
For purposes of scale here’s a (blurry) picture of the above ornament with a quarter held next to it. Other ornaments are shown below.
I always liked the stars that adorn the gates and fences on the Texas Capitol grounds. I played with variations of this shot for a while but couldn’t seem to capture what I really had in mind — both the star and the Capitol in focus, with this perspective. The formula may exist but I didn’t figure it out. The wide-angle lens (used for this shot) gave a perfect perspective but I had to use a focus distance which precluded a deep depth-of-field. Stepping back with the wide lens pulled in some out-of-balance elements (IMO) of the gate unless I centered the star (blocking the Capitol building). Tried the 24-70mm but the bit of added compression in perspective wasn’t quite to my liking. That compression does help square up the star and Capitol relative to each other but again, it wasn’t what I was after.
I decided to post the shot anyway — still an interesting shot IMO and I hope you enjoy it. It’s interesting how the tonemapping process turns the background blur into a somewhat dreamy scene while keeping the star a nice, realistic focus point. I might experiment with this shot again someday.
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].
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/)
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.