Photo Cascadia Blog
Archive for the ‘Image Processing’ Category
I’ve been a little bit out of the loop for a while now tending to my baby who’s now almost 5 months old. Those who say it gets easier after the first 3 months must have had better luck. He is a real sweet guy, doesn’t cry much, and we are having a great time with him, but boy is he a challenge to get to sleep! Unfortunately his sleep has regressed for now. He was sleeping 7-9 hrs straight at night, and for the past month he has been at about 3 hr stretches at first, then less until morning. I know this is better than some, but it is sure hard to get used to when he was doing so much better. He has been diagnosed with acid reflux so we are pretty sure this has been part of the challenge.
I apologize to the people who have been waiting so long to get in on a workshop, but plan to start getting busy soon-things just take a bit longer with the new one around!
I have contacted most of you who wanted a workshop last season and gave you first grabs at my schedule for this year. I have filled up one workshop, and some private spots, and am tentatively scheduling another for May 29-31st. Cost would be $495/person and I am keeping it at 5 people max. This workshop would start a bit before sunset on the 29th, and end after a sunrise shoot/early morning shooting on Sun. This would be in addition to any private or small groups I can fit in as well around the same timeframe.
I am also accepting clients for other times of the year as well if my schedule permits.
More information on my workshops can be found here.
Feel free to fill out a contact form on my website if you are interested in setting something up and I will try my best to accommodate you best I can.
If you are just interested in finding out a bit about my editing tips and tricks, my set of image editing videos can be purchased here.
In the last part of this series I talked about starting the process of pre-visualization in the field, you can read the first part of the series here: http://www.photocascadia.com/blog/pre-visualization-part-1-starting-the-process/#.VB9OpksyPiM Just as important, is continuing the pre-visualization through my digital processing workflow. In this segment I’ll talk about how I use my pre-visualized idea to control my image throughout the workflow.
Just like in the field, I want to have a roadmap to help guide me through the processing. I remind myself what I’m trying to achieve with this image and what I’m trying to communicate. This helps to guide me while processing. Typically, this leads to a lot of problem solving, trying to figure out what tools and techniques in Lightroom and Photoshop will help me realize my final vision. I usually experiment quite a bit. Along the way I discover what is working toward my final vision for the image and what is not. A lot of times I like to walk away from processing and come back later, this gives me a fresh perspective and a chance to re-evaluate how the image is turning out according to my vision.
This is just a guide however. During this process I’ll often evolve my overall vision for an image. If a particular technique is working really well and starts to take the image in a new direction that I find compelling I’ll consider adjusting my pre-visualized ideas. It’s common for images to turn out even better than I had imagined, of course it goes the other way as well. I’ve had many stubborn images that just don’t turn out the way I had anticipated, but most of the time they come pretty close to my pre-visualized idea.
Here is an example of carrying the vision I had for this image in the field through my digital processing workflow. The color, tone, and overall mood was being lost in the Raw capture. It took a lot of work in Lightroom and Photoshop to bring out the potential I had seen in the field. Having that pre-visualized idea in my head helped to realize my vision for this image. Even though this was a single exposure capture, I used many of the tools and techniques that are covered in my Tonality Control Video, you can learn more here: http://www.zschnepf.com/Other/Videos2
On the topic of creating high dynamic range (HDR) photographs I was recently asked a question about the viability of taking a minimal number of bracketed exposures in a high contrast situation and later filling in the gaps in the exposure range with digitally generated exposures. While this isn’t a new concept in high dynamic range photography, it is one that comes up frequently and isn’t entirely intuitive. I felt that others might benefit from reading the Q&A or sharing their own thoughts on the topic.
QUESTION: I photograph with a Nikon D5000. One of the features I am less than satisfied with is that auto bracketing is limited to three exposures. Sometimes that is simply not enough. The conventional wisdom seems to indicate:
1. don’t spread out your brackets more than one or two exposure values (EV).
2. Lightroom/Adobe Camera Raw can safely push/pull an exposure ±2 EV
What if I exposed three captures -3 EV, 0 EV and +3 EV? Then I should be able to make virtual copies of these in Lightroom, spreading each ±1 EV and the ends also ±2 EV. I would then end up with effectively an 11 stop range which is large enough for all but the most extreme lighting conditions I have encountered.
Do you think this technique has a decent chance of producing a quality HDR image? Note that my goal is to produce fine art prints, so to be useful for me it would have to produce very clean digital negatives.
ANSWER: The first consideration is how the high dynamic range image will be created. You can combine bracketed exposures using one of many HDR software applications or you can manually blend exposures using masking techniques. Exposure requirements will vary depending on the contrast of the scene and the blending technique. Having a full set of exposures at one stop increments can be more important for HDR software than manually blending exposures. HDR software usually does best (and often requires) being given a full range of exposures with narrow and consistent EV increments, as you point out. One stop is common, but I know people who go to extremes and bracket in 1/2 or 1/3 stops. I don’t use HDR software in my workflow. All the HDR software I have used tends to create image quality and adjustment control issues of various types, regardless of how the bracketed exposures were created.
Even though I usually take a full range of exposures, often only two of the exposures are required when manually blending using masking techniques. If I have one complete exposure for the sky and one complete exposure for the landscape, then I only blend these two exposures and keep my life simple. This video from my Extending Dynamic Range tutorials demonstrates a simple two exposure blend.
You may get lucky while using your camera’s three shot auto bracket feature and find that you captured the precise two exposures you need for such a blend, but since every scenario is different there isn’t a reliable way to reproduce this every time.
In more extreme contrast situations there may be brighter areas of the sky or very extreme areas of shadow and highlight in the landscape that require the use of additional exposures. When manual blending, one can make decisions about which exposures and how many exposures to use on an case by case basis. Having a full range of exposures to choose from is helpful in this respect. Blending exposures with masks is a challenging skill, but with practice I find that better control and better final image quality can be achieved. Some very fine printed images are being created with HDR software to be sure, but if the best quality is your goal you will eventually run into some downsides.
So, if you don’t capture a full range of exposures is it a good option to fill in the gaps digitally? As you describe, it is possible to create virtual copies in Lightroom with different EVs. Per the “conventional wisdom” Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw certainly can be used to push or pull exposure. However, to what degree this can be done and what can be considered “safe” is subjective. It depends on whether you push or pull the exposure and what side affects you are willing to accept.
If the best image quality is your goal, having “properly” exposed captures can be just as important as the number and increment of those exposures. What constitutes a “proper” exposure isn’t necessarily intuitive. Digitally reducing exposure (pushing) in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw is generally “safe”. In fact it can actually be preferable. One way to hide noise in an image is to digitally decrease exposure making the image darker. Intentionally over exposing (also known as Exposing To The Right or ETTR) and then digitally lowering the exposure produces better image quality. This is why ETTR is commonly advocated in digital photography. When it comes to bracketing, digitally creating +1 EV and +2 EV exposures from a +3 EV capture in Lightroom should give great results in the mid-tones and shadows. The highlights will be clipped but these should be contained in your darker exposures. For a more complete run down on the virtues of ETTR and some examples check out this article by Jeff Schewe.
Digitally increasing exposure (pulling) is where you will run into problems. Dark regions of an image are very data poor so they have a low signal to noise ratio. The reason they are dark is because relatively few photons (signals) were collected by the sensor. Digitally increasing the exposure of underexposed images boosts the signal but also boosts the noise. With a low signal to noise ratio the noise will overpower the signal. An image captured at -3 EV and then digitally lightened two stops to -1 EV will show substantial quality issues. For best image quality it is preferable to avoid lightening dark areas as much as possible.
If you are using HDR software the following is important to note. As far as I know, no HDR software is capable of reading the exposure adjustments you make to raw or DNG files in Lightroom or Camera Raw. Raw adjustments are only parameters contained in the metada and HDR software does not access these parameters. This means that in order for HDR software to use your digitally bracketed exposures you would first need to open the virtual copies and save them as tif files with different EVs, and then load the tif files into the HDR software.
So, your proposed technique can work to an extent if you take the right steps. In many cases it may even produce very good results. However, to minimize noise, it would be best to create your digital exposures by always lowering the exposure of the brighter frames and not the other way around. For example, generate +1 and +2 EV virtual copies from a +3 EV capture, -1 and -2 EV copies from a 0 EV capture and -4 and -5 EV copies from a -3 EV capture.
There are occasions in which I will create exposures digitally for the purpose of blending. Sometimes I fail to take a complete range of bracketed exposures or I’m not able to use one or more of my exposures due to things moving in the frame between shots. At a minimum I make sure I have one exposure for highlights, one exposure for mid-tones and one exposure for shadows. Usually I try to capture a full range of exposures if I can. This ensures the most flexibility. A properly exposed series of images with one stop increments will give you a more complete gradient of tonal information to work with compared to capturing just three exposures taken at three stop increments.
Taking all of the above into account, let’s address the central motivation behind your question, the limited auto bracketing capability of your camera. If your camera would auto-bracket more than three exposures it is unlikely that you would be considering using digitally created exposures in the first place. I recommend making it a non-issue by not using the auto bracket feature at all, regardless of how many shots your camera will bracket. My camera will auto bracket up to seven EVs but I never use auto bracketing unless I have a specific reason to (such as hand-held bracketing for example). Nearly every scene requires a different number of exposures and the range of exposures is rarely centered perfectly around the meter’s 0 EV. Using an arbitrary number of auto bracketed exposures means regularly capturing too many or too few exposures (in your case with a max of three, usually too few). And if the actual exposure is shifted from what the camera meter picks as 0 EV, then you might have the right number of exposures but going in the wrong direction. Manually bracketing exposures solves these issues. I take my first frame at 0 EV and then I check the histogram. Sometimes one exposure is all I need. If the histogram shows clipping of highlights or shadows or both, then I compensate my exposure up and/or down one stop at a time until I have one frame with a histogram that properly exposes for the shadows, one frame with a histogram that properly exposes for the highlights and some number of one stop increments in between. Sometimes the scene dictates two exposures, or three or five or eight or eleven. Whatever the contrast range requires, this technique ensures that I have what I need, but not more. This video from the Extending Dynamic Range series illustrates this concept further.
Another manual bracketing technique I use is tonal region bracketing using my camera’s live view feature. In aperture priority mode I move the exposure target box around on the screen to various tonal zones, such as an area of brightest sky, mid-tone land and dark shadows, and take a shot in each zone. The camera automatically adjusts the exposure for each zone as I shoot. The result is a series of exposures that should contain the proper exposure for each tonal zone. They may not be one stop increments, but as long as I have optimal exposures for highlights, mid-tones and shadows I don’t care. Of course, this technique doesn’t work well when using HDR software which expects consistent EV increments.
Finally, not every scene we encounter has high contrast light so bracketing is frequently not necessary. When photographing in balanced, low and medium contrast light situations all the tonal information readily fits within a single exposure. I regularly come across people auto bracketing nine exposures in low and moderate contrast light, just as a matter of habit. In such situations it isn’t necessary to take two exposures, let alone nine. I start with one exposure and look at the histogram. If I see that all the tonal values have been captured, I’m done. Taking valuable time and filling up memory cards with additional exposures is something I do only if I absolutely have to. Many of my images are captured in a single exposure. With a single exposure I attempt to get a proper exposure (ETTR) without clipping the highlights. In post this enables me to decrease the EV and do as little shadow recovery as possible. This gives better results than starting with an underexposed image and trying to lighten it to bring out shadow detail. Again, see the Jeff Schewe article for more insight into why this is the case.
Like the guys here at Photo Cascadia, many readers of the Photo Cascadia blog have been using Tony Kuyper’s luminosity mask tutorials and Photoshop actions for years. Many readers are also aware that Tony recently produced an update to his custom actions panel. Despite how well known Tony’s resources have become in the world of outdoor photography, I’m sure we have some readers who haven’t run across luminosity masks yet or who have heard of them but aren’t exactly sure what they are or what they do. With the recent release of Tony’s update, as well as the release of Photoshop CC (2014), I wrote this article to quickly bring everyone up to speed.
The update of Tony’s TKActions Panel became necessary when Adobe announced that the 2014 version of Photoshop CC (released on June 18, 2014) would require custom panels to be coded in HTML5 and would no longer support the use of panels built with Flash, like the original TK Actions Panel was. One option for Tony would have been to recode an exact copy of the original TK Panel with HTML5, a painstaking process in its own right. However, Tony felt that he could make the panel even better, so he spent a lot of time consulting with myself and other experienced users and adding new actions and powerful new features to the TKActions Panel. As a result, not only does the panel continue to be functional (thankfully) for those of us who are using Photoshop CC (2014), but everyone, including Photoshop CS5 and CS6 users, gets the benefit of all the new features.
So what are Luminosity Masks and what does the TKActions Panel do (this article explains the basics)? Luminosity masks are created with the use of luminosity selections which can be generated from Alpha Channels in Photoshop. One of the most important aspects of Photoshop is the ability to make selections and masks. Luminosity selections are very precise and self-feathering selections based on the luminosity, or brightness value, of every pixel in an image. Using luminosity selections to create luminosity masks provides an unparalleled degree of control over image adjustments and provides access to an endless variety of creative image developing techniques. In the following video I demonstrate some of the basics of luminosity masks.
It’s possible to manually generate all the luminosity selections and masks in Photoshop, but doing so is a time consuming endeavor requiring a carpel tunnel inducing number of mouse clicks. To streamline the use of luminosity masks, Tony started creating Photoshop actions that would automatically reproduce all the repetitive procedures required to make them. The TKActions Panel adds even further efficiency and functionality to the actions. The panel is a command center from which to launch the various actions with a single click.
Some of the features in the updated version of the panel include:
1) A new two-tab layout for improved efficiency
2) Color-coded sections
3) “View” buttons to provide a visual overlay of which pixels are actually selected
4) Zone masks that focus adjustments to very narrow tonal ranges
5) Web-sharpening actions for vertical and horizontal dimensions and for high-definition dimensions
6) Several new buttons to correspond to some techniques discussed in recent blog posts.
7) One-click live selections (instead of Ctrl/Cmd-clicking a mask)
8) New buttons for creating adjustment layers and changing blending modes
9) Simplified subtracted mask generation
10) “Progressive actions” for experimenting with many different options
After years of studying Tony’s tutorials, using his techniques and developing some of my own, he and I began collaborating to produce video tutorials to help people learn how to utilize luminosity masks and get the most Tony’s actions.
If you are interested in learning more about luminosity masks and Tony’s techniques in general there are many resources available. Tony maintains a substantial library of free luminosity mask tutorials on his website and his blog. Additionally I have several videos available to view on-line that will give you a good preview of what is possible. The video excerpts at the bottom of this page are from the tutorial series I produced called The TK Panel. The series is the direct companion and resource for all the new features Tony has added to the updated panel.
In addition, Tony’s luminosity mask tutorials and tools have become indispensable to photographers and Photoshop users around the world. Many have taken time to write about them on their own. Some of these include John Shaw, Alister Benn, Richard Wong, Michael Breitung, Don Smith, André Distel and Ryan Cary.
All of Tony’s actions and tutorials, as well as the video tutorials I produced to go with them, are available on my website (OutdoorExposurePhoto.com) and also on Tony’s Special Offers page. I hope this information on luminosity masks in general and the update on the current TKActions Panel has been informative. Feel free to contact me or leave a comment if you have questions or anything to share.
Photographing in Fog
By David M. Cobb
Fog is the great equalizer in landscape photography; it can simplify the composition by eliminating all the background “noise” which can clutter an image. It also adds an air of mystery and intrigue to heighten the drama of a photo. When shooting fog you need to check your histogram and move your exposure time accordingly. Cameras tend to underexpose an image in mist, so I’m often shooting at +1 on my metering. Your white balance can come into play too, so experiment with the mood of an image. At 4000 Kelvin the fog will have that cool blue hue which can give a feel for the chill in the air, or at 6000 Kelvin you can punch up the warmth of an image if you choose. When processing your photo, you can play with the white balance for the look you like best. I also don’t add much contrast to foggy images when processing, because the more contrast you add the less fog you’ll have in the photo.
While photographing in the fog I pay attention to my exposure time. If it’s a thick “pea soup” fog, I may adjust my aperture to f8 or f11 for a shorter exposure time. The longer the aperture stays open the thicker the fog will be in your photo. In fog, I really don’t worry about depth-of-field too much since the mist will shroud the image in the distance. If the fog is light, but I’d like to give the illusion that it’s thicker, I might shoot at f16 or f22 for a longer exposure time. For the interval the aperture is open fog keeps rolling by, and the fog in the photo will appear thicker than it actually was at the time.
There are different types of fog and they act differently. Along the coast the fog will come and go with beautiful breaks of light from time to time. This type of advection fog is harder to predict as warm air moves over cool water, but it appears like clockwork at certain times of the day in the Redwoods. Another type of fog (called mixing fog) originates from natural geological phenomenon like geysers, hot springs, or even warm lakes. On cool mornings or evenings this fog will be thick, but recedes quickly as the day warms. I enjoy photographing radiation fog a lot too, and I find this kind often on fall mornings as temperatures near the surface of the land are below dew point. You can predict this variety of condensation more accurately by checking temperatures and dew points online for the area you’re photographing. If you have clear skies and a calm morning, chances are you’ll get some good morning conditions for photography. I’ve also captured upslope fog as warm air is pushed up a mountain valley until it condenses. I’ve been in this type of fog many times, but I’d rather photograph it filling the valley from the mountains above.
A couple more pointers on fog: if it’s thick fog concentrate on form and shape since that’s what will carry the image, and if the fog is breaking then concentrate on light because it can be spectacular. And if you are in fog, don’t forget to check your lens now and again since you may need to wipe off a few water droplets from collecting condensation.
In my experience, one of the types of light that cameras have a difficult time capturing correctly is the subtle, glowing, ambient light you see early and late in the day in deep forest settings. It is a very soft light but it has a certain richness and luminosity to it, as if the foliage is almost lit from within.
An unadjusted raw file never quite captures it, and simply increasing saturation or contrast doesn’t render it accurately. The Orton technique and many other soft glow methods generally do a better job of increasing saturation and low frequency contrast in a way that is more satisfying, but I find that these techniques often create too much blur or glow, or they block up the shadows too much.
In this short video tutorial I share a couple of techniques for enhancing this type of deep forest light that I have found particularly effective. They work best with soft, subtle, low contrast light but you could experiment with higher contrast light as well and see what you get. (Make sure to click on the gear icon to view in 720p. For best viewing click on the YouTube icon and watch at 720p using the Large Viewer.)
If you have questions or comments leave me a message below or on YouTube. You can also check out my YouTube Channel for more image developing tutorials. You can also visit www.outdoorexposurephoto.com for complete sets of video tutorials and get more information on Tony Kuyper’s TKActions Panel.
The answer to this question, as with so many questions, is it depends.
Adobe’s release of Lightroom 1 was way back in 2007, but by that time I had already been immersed in Photoshop for seven or eight years. The purpose of Lightroom was to create an application that improved overall workflow efficiency by utilizing an image database (or catalog) to store metadata changes and image developing parameters without actually needing to change the pixels of the original image file. In the early days I found Lightroom’s ability to organize, keyword and search my image collection to be a big improvement over Photoshop’s bridge. I also found that, while the types of raw image adjustments the Develop Module could make were similar to Adobe Camera Raw, I really preferred the Lightroom interface and how it integrated seamlessly with the other Lightroom modules. But that’s about as far as it went. At that time the Develop module had very few adjustment options and all adjustments were global, which meant that they were applied uniformly across the entire image. Like Adobe Camera Raw, Lightroom 1 was good for making base level adjustments to raw files, but any complex, creative or localized image developing work still needed to be done in Photoshop. Seven years on we have progressed to Lightroom 5 (Lightroom Mobile was just released last week). Each new version of Lightroom has introduced improvements and new functionality. I now consider Lightroom to be a very full featured image developing solution in its own right. But does it render Photoshop unnecessary to the outdoor photographer?
Click on each image to enlarge.
I find that more and more photographers I interact with use Lightroom as their complete and only image developing application. In addition to these “Lightroom only” users there are also those who use only Photoshop (including Bridge and Camera Raw) and those who utilize both Lightroom and Photoshop as I do. A common question from all three groups is, with all the current developing features and abilities that Lightroom 5 has, is Photoshop really necessary? In this video chapter from my recently released tutorials, Lightroom Essentials, I demonstrate developing an image entirely using Lightroom. Hopefully it will help some folks get a better feel for if Lightroom is able to do everything they need or not.
In the end, whether Lightroom is the only image developing application you need or not truly does depend on what your image editing goals and expectations are. Lightroom is considerably more affordable than Photoshop, and for many photographers it now has more than enough image editing power and functionality. The following is a bullet list of some features in the Lightroom Develop Module that allow it to function as a complete developing solution for many of us. I teach how I use these features and many more in my Lightroom Essentials tutorials. Visit my website to get more information and watch additional chapters.
- Spot removal tool now allows for more complex non-circular cloning and healing.
- Gradient Filter, Radial Filter and Adjustment Brush make it possible to apply “layers” of localized adjustments and even create basic masks to control adjustments.
- White Balance controls, Tone Curve and HSL controls provide alternate ways to balance and correct colors.
- Tone Curve provides powerful and flexible tonal and contrast adjustments.
- B&W adjustments provide tools for creating dramatic black and white images.
- Like Photoshop, image sharpening can be applied in three stages (input sharpening with the Detail tab, creative localized sharpening using the Gradient and Radial Filters and the Adjustment Brush and output sharping on export or printing) for optimal image sharpness.
- The Lens Correction tab has tools for making transformations and perspective corrections as well as for correcting lens distortion and vignetting.
- Because all adjustments are only recorded as adjustment parameters in the Lightroom catalog, the actual pixels of the original image files are not altered so all Lightroom developing is essentially non-destructive and backwards flexible.
Many photographers find they still need the power, flexibility and precision provided by Photoshop’s multitude of adjustments and filters and its ability to work with layers, selections and masks. Following are just a few of the things that can be accomplished with Photoshop but not with Lightroom.
- Multi image blending techniques including: exposure blending, motion blending, focus blending, star stacking, pano stitching, white balance blending, compositing and much more.
- Using channels to create Luminosity Selections and Luminosity Masks.
- Blending Modes and Blend-if control.
- Ability to access other color modes such as Lab Color.
- Multiple ways to create highly refined selections and the ability to target adjustments with selections.
- Limitless options for creating and combining different kinds of adjustments for color, contrast, clarity, sharpness, saturation and tonal adjustments.
- High level of control, flexibility and precision in Photoshop (with a lot of knowledge and practice) allows images to be refined to a degree that isn’t possible in Lightroom.
Personally, I find that for many images I AM able to work entirely within Lightroom. But for my very best images I need the expanded and flexible adjustment options and the ability to make highly accurate, refined and subtle selections (especially Luminosity Selections) that Photoshop provides. The ability to combine or blend elements of multiple exposures or frames is critical for many of my images as well. For me, both Lightroom and Photoshop are essential tools in my workflow.
One of my dreams has always been to photograph the Northern lights under a fresh blanket of white snow. A few years ago I got a chance to photograph the northern lights in the Canadian Rockies. I happened to be on a workshop at Abraham Lake shooting winter landscapes when we received an unexpected stunning display of lights. At this point I had no experience and was not sure even how to do it; all I knew was the photography mantra, “expose to the right always”. So I made the mistake of shooting the northern lights for thirty seconds or more to get the scene exposure on the right side of my histogram. During my moments of excitement and panic I did not even think to look at the images, just the histogram. I learned a hard lesson that night as the final result was a series of images that had all been overexposed. This overexposure caused all the Northern lights to blend together with no detail or patterns. A lot has happened since then in terms of camera equipment technology and photographer progress. With the year 2014 being a great year for Northern Lights I thought I would write a brief article on my experience and what I have learned.
When it comes to locations and where to find the right places to shoot the Northern Lights there are a few places that always win the hearts of photographers for their visual beauty. As most know the Northern Lights are called that for a reason, because they are seen in the higher areas of the Northern Hemisphere. The areas that I find the truly most scenic are Iceland, Norway/Scandinavia, Alaska, and Canada/Yukon. Each has its pluses and minuses which are beyond the scope of the article.
This year has been predicted to be a fantastic year for Northern Lights so I decided to plan several trips based around photographing them. For my first trip I visited the countries of Sweden, Finland, Norway, and more specifically the Lofoten Islands. I had never been there and had seen all the images with fresh snow and snow capped mountain peaks. It was exactly what I had been looking for. From research I knew driving would be extremely difficult in the Lofoten Islands so I decided to take a photo tour where I would not have to worry about that. If you have ever photographed with me you know that was a smart decision. It was nice to be able to just be taken to places without worrying if I would end up lost and frozen somewhere in the night. Some nights it was -28 and a few seconds in this temperature and you felt the numbness already. The other advantage of taking a photo tour is the instructors will know the best places to go when the Northern Lights do happen. The last thing you want to be doing is trying to find a place when the lights occur. Not only was this advantageous to have instructors take you to the right places but they also have the knowledge of where the lights are most likely to happen and when. This was really helpful so that you did not have to stay up all night looking out the window when you have already been shooting all day.
So how are you supposed to photograph Northern Lights? With experience the following is what I have found works best.
The first thing I want to talk about is shutter speed and how long you should expose the image. This depends on the light available at each scene and the elements of the scene. The most important aspect I found to be essential to shooting aurora is to make sure you don’t overexpose. What I found works best to capture detail in the Northern Lights is anywhere from five to twelve seconds. Any more than this and the lights just blur into one another and you lose the stunning movements of the lights. I adjust the shutter speed based on how fast the lights are moving. When you get high action movement in the lights adjust your settings to have a shutter speed of five seconds. This short shutter speed will allow you to capture all the stunning patterns and movement of the Northern Lights. When the lights are barely visible I was up around twelve seconds. I adjust my ISO so that I would be able to get the proper shutter speed. I photograph with a Nikon D800 with a 14-24/2.8 lens, a good camera and lens combination for night photography. I found that most of my images were taken at ISO 1600 and a few at ISO 3200 for the short bursts of light. In hindsight most of the images that I took at ISO 3200 are too noisy for large printing. It goes without saying that newer cameras will do better with noise and low light situations. I also recommend using a lens that has an aperture of 2.8 or less. Shooting an f/4 lens I was not able to shoot the lights with minimal noise and fast enough shutter speed. If possible an aperture of 1.4 or 1.8 would be even better. For focal length I always use as wide angle a lens as possible. Using a 14mm lens I was able to capture most of the patterns in one image. I have seen plenty of fantastic images with a fish-eye lens as well.
So, what happens to the rest of the elements in the image when shooting specifically for the Northern Lights?
When shooting just for the lights, the rest of the elements went completely dark and had no detail. This meant I had to do another exposure just for the rest of the scene and manually blend the two images together in post processing. It is vital that you use a strong tripod with a sturdy ballhead to prevent any kind of movement during the shot especially when shooting on the ice. The first night of shooting Northern Lights we visited a frozen lake surrounded by mountain peaks. The creativity of shooting Northern Lights has been improving and the best images today almost always include the foreground. So being that I was on a frozen lake I looked for ice cracks that would provide great leading lines to connect the foreground to the background. To properly expose the complete scene you need to take at least two images. One image should expose for the Northern Lights and a second image that exposes for the foreground and the other elements in the image. A critical consideration for exposure in the foreground is the elements present. If there is plenty of snow, especially in the foreground, your exposure will be much less. After the images are taken I usually shoot another image with my hand in front of the lens to signify the end of the series of images. Later in Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Bridge I can stack those images as the same set or series. This is very helpful later on when trying to sort what image goes with what. So I shot the Northern lights at ISO 1600 for nine second and then exposed for the foreground ice, which was anywhere from thirty to sixty seconds. I then manually blended the two in Photoshop.
The next component to photographing Northern Lights successfully is Aperture and focusing. Aperture is a constant from my experience. I need to be at an aperture f/2.8 (lower if I had a faster lens) always to get a fast enough shutter speed to capture the patterns in the Northern Lights. Combining an aperture of f/2.8 and ISO 1600 allowed me to achieve a shutter speed of less then ten seconds. The trickiest part for me was the focusing. I started by focusing on the background first to make sure I got the Northern Lights in focus. I set this up by looking at my LCD live view and focusing on a star in the distant sky. I go in at 100% preview until I find a bright star and then rotate the focus until it is sharp. Once that has occurred you can shoot the background Northern Lights with the assurance you have those sharp. Double check after by checking the LCD review of the image at 100% to see if all the stars are sharp. You know you are in the right area if you are focusing on infinity and then pulling back a smidge from that. If that all seems like too much work you can practice test shots during the day and marking on your lens where the background is in focus and use that mark on the lens later when shooting Northern lights. There are other ways that people use to focus on background stars but I found these methods worked best for me. Once you are confident the background Northern Lights are sharp, refocus for the foreground without moving the tripod or the camera position. If you are going to later blend the two images together in post processing there can be no movement in the camera. In my experience this was the hardest part in the process. I tried a couple of images where I shot one image focusing only on the background but all my foreground elements would be soft. So I would say it is imperative to refocus for a second shot. Once I got the hang of that process I took it one step further and took several images focus bracketing at several different increments blending all the images in post processing.
How do you focus in the foreground when everything is in complete darkness? The answer is bringing some sort of light like a LED light or your headlamp. Find an object in the immediate foreground you will want to include in the image, shine the your light on it and then focus on that. Use the LCD preview at 100% to make sure everything is sharp. There are many techniques that people suggest when it comes to focusing on subjects in the foreground, but for me I chose the most important element of the foreground I wanted and used that. This works well except if you are in a group or a workshop where everyone is photographing in the same area. Shooting with several other participants in the workshop in a wide open space with head lamps buzzing everywhere lead to contamination of light in most of my images. Even though people are spread out, any kind of light that people use can show up in your images. No matter how far away I seemed to get away from the group I could see other photographers flashlights in my images. So be wary if in a group situation. For this reason I tried to avoid using any light and use my best estimate for focus. This proved to be a big mistake and I lost several images to the foreground being soft.
To overcome this obstacle I decided I needed to wait till the next day. I would practice during the daylight and mark my lens where the optimal sharpness point should be; choosing to focus on something one-third into the foreground scene. When testing I looked for a similar situation that I would find myself in while shooting the Northern Lights. I was looking for something where the foreground element would be similar such as a rock, ice crack, etc. This foreground subject would be right in front of me with the mountain peaks in the far background. Once I found the spot of optimal sharpness I marked this on my lens. I could then go straight to that focus point the next time I was in the dark and shooting in a group situation. I want to note this was not the ideal situation and the focus was not always a 100% but it was the best I could do under the circumstances.
The last thing I did was take some time to just enjoy the Northern Lights without doing any shooting. Just enjoy the amazing show that so few people ever get to see!
If you have any tips that you have found helpful when photographing the aurora consider sharing them in the comments as I’m sure others would love to read them.
Sometimes I find that producing a print that looks as good hanging on the wall as I want it to can be a challenge. In many cases, as long as I have carefully developed my images on a calibrated monitor, ordering a print through a print lab or printing on my own photo printer yields very good results. However, there are times when producing a print that looks right displayed in it’s intended location is elusive. The light source in which a print is viewed greatly affects its apparent brightness, color and contrast and the particular print media will also affect resolution and sharpness.
Soft proofing in the computer is helpful for getting a print under perfect lighting conditions to more closely match the way it appears on the screen. I have a previous article and video on soft proofing in Photoshop if you want to check that out. While soft proofing is good for compensating for paper color and brightness, it can’t help anticipate how the texture of the paper, viewing distance and room lighting will affect how the image will look when viewed in its environment.
Hard proofing is a way to make fine adjustments for such variables. Hard proofing is the process of printing a test print, evaluating it in the intended viewing conditions, making adjustments, printing again and repeating this process until you are satisfied with how the print looks. Obviously, hard proofing can be time consuming and expensive. I don’t do extensive hard proofing for every print I make, but when a print isn’t living up to expectations I use a technique allows me to get the print right. This technique can be used to optimize any variable that will affect how your final print will look, such as brightness, color balance, contrast, saturation and sharpening.
If I’m going to spend time writing an article I would much rather be writing about a creative image developing technique or sharing stories and images from a recent photo trip than debating the merits of a software company’s business choices. However, in this case, I’m making an exception because, not including my actual camera equipment, Adobe Photoshop is the single most important tool I use. I know this is the case for many people who follow the PhotoCascadia blog as well. Now was the time to write because the decision to move to Adobe’s Creative Cloud subscription model or stick with Photoshop CS6 is becoming somewhat time sensitive.
If you are not already a Photoshop CS user or if you have already subscribed to Adobe’s Creative Cloud, this conversation probably doesn’t impact or interest you much. If you are not aware of the factors involved in making the choice, allow me to bring you up to speed.
For a few years, Adobe has been developing a cloud based, subscription model for most of its professional software, including Photoshop. In the first half of 2013 they announced that while Photoshop CS6 would still be available for purchase and supported (for an undisclosed duration), they would no longer be offering new versions of CS under the old perpetual license model. Owning a perpetual license means that once you pay for the software you are able to use it indefinitely. Instead, anyone who wants to use updated versions of Photohshop must move to Photoshop Creative Cloud (CC), which is only available with a subscription and not a perpetual license. Under Adobe’s current subscription terms, you can only use the software as long as you pay for a subscription.
I’m not opposed to the cloud concept or a subscription model per se. There are many advantages and the actual experience of using Photoshop is effectively unchanged. The Creative Cloud enables Adobe to release updates and new features in real time instead of waiting for the release of a new version. It also gives Photoshop some cloud based functionality and connectivity that many people may find useful. I can also see why it is a good business model for Adobe. Perhaps the most fundamental is that as a program matures it isn’t possible to produce monumental upgrades and improvements as frequently. With fewer people feeling new versions are worth the upgrade price, the subscription model is one way to ensure a continued income stream necessary to stay profitable as a business.
There have been a host of inaccurate fears and rumors floating around the web that caused the real issues related to Creative Cloud to become a bit obscured. Some are about not being able to use Photoshop CC unless connected to the Internet or only being able to store image files in the cloud and not on your computer. Such concerns aren’t founded. This article does a good job of clearing up many of these erroneous concerns.
Initially there was also a big backlash from Photoshop CS users about the price of a Photoshop CC subscription. At $20 a month for a “Single App” subscription, the cost of subscribing to Photoshop is more than double the cost of upgrading a perpetual Photoshop license with every other new version, which has been the requirement.
There is also concern in the Photoshop user community that the terms of the Creative Cloud subscription stipulate that when a subscription is no longer paid that Photoshop CC becomes deactivated. This is perhaps the bigger concern for me. For example, if I was to stop a subscription to Photoshop CC after 10 years of paying $20 a month, a $2400 expense, I would essentially be left with nothing. True, I would still have all my image files and the freedom to access them with other software. Unfortunately, as someone who uses Photoshop layers as part of a non-destructive workflow (one of the main reasons to use Photoshop in the first place), all of my layered PSD and TIF files would still only be accessible by Photoshop. So really, once I move to CC I am pretty much committed for life and this just doesn’t seem right.
There are a few applications available that are coming close to replacing the functionality of Photoshop, but to date they are not fully compatible with or have all the capability of Photoshop’s layers and layer masks. They might provide a good alternative for people not dependent on Photoshop’s layer system. I will keep an eye on them for future expansion of functionality and compatibility with Photoshop layers. Two that seem particularly promising are GIMP and PhotoLine.
For now it is still possible to go back to CS6 once a subscription to CC is terminated and Adobe has said it will support CS6 with the next version of both Mac and PC operating systems. Whether they will continue support beyond that is not known, but it seems unlikely that CS6 will still function on the operating systems of 2024.
My suggestion to Adobe was to use the model cell phone companies do. Subscribers commit to a two year subscription. At the end of the two years one can choose not to re-up. The software would still work (like your cell phone still works after the contract ends), but will stop receiving updates and support. Renewing the subscription for another two years would keep the updates and support flowing. Needless to say, they haven’t taken me up on my suggestion yet.
So, what’s the conundrum you may ask? It seems pretty cut and dry. Either you do not accept the Creative Cloud subscription terms and you make due with CS6, or you do accept the terms and you get a subscription and move on.
It turns out that in September Adobe made the decision even more challenging. Essentially they bet that some holdouts might give up principles for the right price. Responding to the outcry and lack of subscriptions from photographers they offered a special Photography Package to anyone who already owns Photoshop CS3 or newer, providing an upgrade to Photoshop CC plus Lightroom 5 for $10 a month with a one year contract, seemingly a much more reasonable deal. The hitch is that the offer expires at the end of December, placing pressure on holdouts such as myself to resign to sticking with CS6 forever, giving in and subscribing now or paying $20 a month for Photoshop CC at some point in the future. Well played Adobe. Note: within hours of posting this article I learned that Adobe has now opened it’s $10 per month Photoshop CC + Lightroom 5 subscription to anyone until December 2, 2013. (no previous Photoshop CS purchase required). Read more here.
So what have I decided to do? I bit the bullet and signed up but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should too. For the type of image developing I do, there aren’t really any other options than Photoshop. Since part of my job is as a digital photography educator it is also important that I’m teaching with the most current tools. Without new versions of CS coming I’m pretty sure I would be forced to subscribe to CC eventually. I decided it would be better to try it out at $10 a month now than be forced into it at $20 a month later. After my year is up I will take a look at how, and if, the subscription model has evolved and determine how to proceed from there.
What are you doing or going to do? Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts on the matter. They may help others decide whether to stick to their guns or bite the bullet.