Archive for the ‘Photography Techniques’ Category

Quick and Easy Exposure Blend Technique

Thursday, April 12th, 2018

Exposure blending has become a regular tool in the digital darkroom for a lot of photographers. Exposure blending allows you to create an image of a scene in which the dynamic range of light was too great to record in a single exposure. Instead of blown out highlights or ink-black shadows, exposure blending makes it possible to retain good color and detail in the brightest highlights and deepest shadows and also do it in a way that looks natural. As the dynamic range capability of cameras continues to improve there are fewer situations which have a dynamic range beyond a single exposure, but there are still many cases that do.  And even if highlight and shadow recovery is possible from a single exposure, exposure blending can sometimes offer gains in final image color, clarity and noise.

 

But exposure blending can be a challenging and time-consuming technique, depending on the characteristics of the image.  In this video tutorial, I demonstrate a fast and easy way to accomplish natural looking exposure blends using the TKActions V6 panel which works for a lot of common high dynamic range situations landscape photographers encounter.

If you are viewing this blog via email you can view the video at this link: https://youtu.be/FxDIIP-5-40

The steps I demo in the tutorial are as follows:

  1. Start by making basic raw adjustments to the exposures.
  2. Open the exposures in Photoshop as smart objects.
  3. Stack the smart objects as layers in a single image document with the dark layer on top.
  4. Select the top layer and turn off its visibility.
  5. Turn on Layer Mask mode in the V6 RapidMask2 module.
  6. Click the Composite or Lights-1 mask button in the module to apply a Lights-1 mask to the top layer.
  7. Turn the visibility of the dark layer back on.
  8. Paint on the Lights-1 luminosity mask with a soft black brush to further mask out the landscape area of the image.
  9. Fine tune the raw adjustments to each of the smart object layers to help them “match” or blend in the transition zone.

That’s it. Make sure to watch the video to pick up some additional tips and variations on the technique. Most exposure blends done using this technique can be accomplished in a minute or two once you get the steps down.

I hope this helps you out when you need to blend exposures. Leave me a comment or question if you have one and I’ll get back to you.

Photographing Lighthouses

Monday, March 19th, 2018

“Lighthouses are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation and our ultimate connectedness to each other.”  – Virginia Woolf

I love photographing lighthouses; they can be so majestic, mysterious, beautiful, and yes even foreboding. We have quite a few along the Pacific west coast where I live, but I’ve photographed them all over the world. As with any subject, it’s not the thing (the lighthouse) I photograph, but it’s the light around it which enhances the subject. I also prefer to photograph lighthouses either at the golden hour or in the soft light of pre-dawn or dusk, so for me a tripod is essential.

I don’t go too wide when photographing my lighthouses. I often use a 24-70mm lens to capture a foreground, but not wide enough to make the sides of the lighthouse go wonky. You can straighten things up a bit in post-processing, but it never seems to look right.

Also, I try to tell a story when photographing a lighthouse. I might include a passing ship, or I photograph on a stormy day to convey to the viewer why that lighthouse exists in the first place. Sometimes I might use a telephoto lens to capture my lighthouse in front of a setting moon to suggest the story of the tides. I might also use the lighthouse as a small counterpoint in the image, to give a sense of its remoteness. Use your imagination; there are plenty of lighthouse stories to tell with an image.

As with many landscape images, when photographing lighthouses use a foreground. Some interesting colored stones, fence lines, dune grass, pools reflecting the lighthouse, or jaggedly formed rocks all make great foreground subjects. Take your time and look for what works best with your subject.

Use a leading line. This not only enhances your foreground, but it gives the image more dimension. Coastal shorelines are the most obvious choice. Other suggestions for leading lines might be the reflected light of the setting sun or moon on the ocean, footprints in the sand, breaking waves, or the fence line around the lighthouse.

If the lantern is still functioning at the lighthouse, try to capture the catch-light. As with wildlife photography and capturing that glint in the animal’s eye to give it life, the same is true for a lighthouse. Wait for that light and make sure you capture the glint in the lighthouse’s “eye.”

Change your perspective. Get high above the lighthouse if you can, and shoot down or walk to the base of the lighthouse and shoot up for a different look. Sometimes a piece of the lighthouse can be more interesting than the whole. It might be some old paint, a rusty slab of metal, a cool window, a handrail, the spiral staircase to the lantern, or a detail image of the lantern itself; whatever it is take your time to explore and find that interesting piece.

I hope these handful of tips help you the next time you head out to your favorite lighthouse, whether it be a stormy weekend or during a sunny vacation.

Tips And Tricks For Photographing Northern Lights

Monday, March 12th, 2018

What Are The Northern Lights And Why Do They Happen

* The most important thing when trying to predict Aurora is looking at the KP index on a scale from 1 to 9 in terms of geomagnetic strength
* Aurora Service Or Aurora App that have Aurora alerts.. www.aurora-service.org, Also check sites for weather like yr.no to follow the weather.
* Northern Lights caused by plasma reaching the earth from the sun. So when we detect charged particle activity on the sun it reaches the earth three days later. This is how scientists predict Northern lights and why we get a three-day forecast.
* So when the charged particles bombard the atmosphere with magnetic activity we see the lights at latitude 69 or 70 degrees.
* The three important concepts when looking at northern lights are the solar activity, solar wind, and the Earth’s magnetic field.

When and Where To Go

* Best times to go are from November-March.
* We seem them in polar latitudes around 69 or 68 degrees north.
* Good locations are Lofoten Islands, Northern Canada, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, and of course Alaska.
* You have the best probability of seeing the lights in the months of January, February and March.
* It is important to be very patient as many of these places can have many days of storms and cloudy weather.

Settings On Camera, Composition And Planning

* When photographing Northern lights its important to know your camera and settings for the situation.
* Because it’s very exciting to see the Northern lights for the first time it’s very common and normal to get overexcited. So the goal is to be able to resort to some pre-planned settings.
* Look for the lights to appear to the north of you and above you.
* Sometimes they become so strong that they do appear in some southern latitudes.
* So when scouting, plan for compositions that face to the north
* Most people forget composition when they first see the lights. Don’t only photography the sky. Try to include foreground, midground, and background.
* Try to give it some context. Tell a story with your images.
* Be careful of what’s called false exposure as your eyes get used to the dark and you start to adjust your exposure based on your LCD. The images look perfectly exposed in the dark but later when we process they are too dark.
* Always check your histogram and make sure you have information to the right of the camera – this is very important
* Try light painting with a flashlight to expose the foreground if you are by yourself’
* Highlight with a flashlight from the side. This achieves some depth and shadows.
* When the moon is full the landscape is nice but much harder to get detail in the lights.
* The best situation is a 20-30% moon so you get a bit of light on the landscape but you can still get details in the lights and also get stars in the image.
* Try including a person in the image as it provides perspective and mood. Also, it helps if the viewer can imagine they are in the scene watching the lights. It helps if the subject is looking at the lights or has a headlamp on. This really helps people connect with he image.
* Add another dimension by looking for reflections or water such as a river and creeks. Make sure to get a low angle to include the lights and color in reflection.
* Panos can be achieved but there has to be very little movement in the lights.
* Pano Verticals work well so you can get all of the lights and a strong foreground. This is a great way to have one exposure for the foreground and another for the sky.
* Make sure to look for patterns and textures in the foreground. For example, I will look for ripples in the snow that lead towards the lights. If I am photographing a subject in the foreground I will use its shape to be pointing towards the lights.
* Look for shapes in the landscape that mimic the northern lights.

Equipment

* A good camera with a sensor that is higher quality that offers a good dynamic range is always a great start when photographing lights.
* Some of the best cameras for photographing Northern lights are Nikon D850/800 Series and the Sony A7 Series. The Canon 5D Mark IV does a great job as well.
* Having a wide-angle lens with at least f/2.8 is helpful.
* F/4 makes shooting lights very difficult as the shutter speeds needed to achieve the same exposure as a 2.8 is too long
* The biggest challenge when shooting northern lights is the focus:
It’s important to always review your images by zooming in on the stars and landscape subjects and checking for sharpness.

How to Focus In The Dark

* Focus in Live View and enlarge an area that has stars. Move focus ring to make the star a perfect dot.
* Infinity is not really infinity, but optical infinity, so for most lenses the infinity is slightly off the camera’s infinity mark.
* Remember the exact position of focus on the focusing ring to reset your focus in the future.
* You can tape the lens at the point of focus so the focus doesn’t get bumped.

Settings on Camera

Settings for your camera will always be based on the intensity of the lights as well as movement. Generally if the lights are moving quick and strong I try to keep my exposures under 10 seconds. If they are very faint on a moonless night I’ll be closer to 30 seconds. I will describe if you a few different scenes and the settings I use

Moonless Night and Lights Are Low

ISO 2000 – ISO 3200
20-30 Seconds
2.8

Full Moon
If lights are intense good for landscape

ISO 800
10 Seconds
F/4

(If including a separate exposure for foreground)
ISO 1250
30 Seconds
F/9

Strong Northern Lights and Moving Fast

ISO 1600- ISO 2500
8-10 Seconds
F/2.8

Processing in Camera Raw/Lightroom and Photoshop

* Shift the color temperature and tint to the cooler temperatures so more blues and green. It reflects the mood and story you are trying to convey with your images.
* Increase the exposure.
* Use the orange HSL slider to reduce light pollution. You only want green blue and white tones.
* Decrease Saturation a tiny bit.
* Add clarity and contrast for sky and lights with a graduated filter in LR/ACR.
* Decrease highlights in areas that might get blown out’
* Hue/Saturation – decrease vibrancy and saturation In snow and trees.
* Color Balance – Shift towards the blues
* Add a curves adjustment to the northern lights to add more clarity and contrast only in the lights with radial filter
* Bring out the highlights using luminosity masks.
* Try applying some Orton glow and te3xture in the foreground by way of a high-pass filter.

Winter Trees… Without Snow

Monday, February 5th, 2018

It feels like during any given season we as nature photographers spend time chasing after the elements that first and foremost speak to the season. I would say this certainly applies to trees as well. When someone says fall, we think of trees with colors of a vibrant the sunset. When someone says spring we think of lush glowing greens. When someone says summer we think of them being full to help balance out the scene whatever color that may be. Of course that is some of the list as there other elements that come to the front of our mind for specific seasons whether it’s related to trees or not.

Fog Shrouded Forest – This scene if was all or mostly evergreen trees would be nice yet to me not nearly the same. The many details on the branches in the dense fog is what makes this scene for me.

I can say when it comes to deciduous trees in my early days of photography I always wanted trees to be filled with something, Whether it was green in spring, yellow in fall, or anything else in between because it made sense that would be more photogenic than a bunch of naked trunks and branches. Come on trees, get some clothes on for this photo shoot!

After a number of years photographing I realize now that I am drawn to trees with their stark beauty as much, and sometimes more, than than when they have their coats on from spring to fall. I am specifically talking about scenes without snow because in locations with multiple seasons we naturally think of winter and snow. The intent here is to illustrate there is much more in winter than a cold snowy scene of trees, even though I will admit I sucker for a great photo of snow covered trees.

Here are some reasons why you might think about photographing these more in the “off season” if you don’t already.

  • Different Focus – When the trees are bare of leaves you can no longer rely on the colors of the leaves that may add to the overall compelling scene. Instead I feel like you have increased focus on composition and other elements that might normally be side dishes to the overall show.
  • Hidden Details – With the leaves gone for the season you can see the details underneath that are normally hidden from view. I have some photos where the detail from many thin stark branches is what makes the photo.
  • Contrasting Elements – When you have evergreen and deciduous trees together they can sometimes lack contrast depending on the season. When it’s winter time there is no question. It can provide much needed contrast to specific photos.

Here are some more of my favorites over the years falling under this theme.

Wetland Layers – In The Grand Tetons before leaves started budding I caught this scene of yellow and orange branches from the ground bushes against the empty trees in the back.

Stark and Slender – Trees from a fire decades ago still stand mostly barren while the undergrowth is growing. In spring this glows green (see the contrast here). Yet this stark muted scene stood out to me. As an aside this is likely the type of scenes will start to photograph in the Columbia River Gorge or other locations that have been damaged by wildfires.

Final Flames of Fall – To me this single tree with fall foliage stands out because of all the other stark and colorless trees around it.

Organizing Chaos – The sunset and ground bare ground foliage glows in the sunset light.

Around The Corner – Many smaller trees and bushes bare during winter are reaching up like arms to the light above.

Exposed – With this winter scene there is more more emphasis on the beautiful water and colorful mossy greens along with what is behind this small forest of trees. Something hidden most months of the year.

Outcast – This lone aspen in Grant Teton National park stands out in stark contrast from the giant evergreens surrounding it.

Pure Elowah – If you photograph this scene outside of late fall to very early spring you will have leaves on the trees blocking the view of the waterfall. Another case where a leaf-less tree is in your favor.

 

Tips and Tricks To Add Impact To Your Autumn Images – Kevin McNeal

Monday, October 30th, 2017

 

In this article, I’m sharing 20 of my favorite tips to enhance your autumn photography. I hope you can put some of these ideas to use as you explore with your camera in the fall.

1) Create a surreal mood by trying to include a sunstar that showcases your subject. The sun sets as an anchor point that guides your viewer to the subject.

Images from Yosemite National Park in the Lower Yosemite Valley

2) Create a warm overall balance with your images when including the colors red, yellow, and orange.

3) Early mornings in autumn are fantastic for finding mist and atmospheric conditions.

4) Look to include the color red when photographing autumn colors and blue skies.

5) Try to add variety to your autumn collection of images by including wide-angle images, telephoto images, abstracts, and macros.

6) Don’t forget to look on the ground and include fallen autumn foliage. Using a very wide angle approach and getting as close to the ground can offer a very different perspective.


7) Look to photograph solo trees of one color, set against the background of a complementary color.

8) Use a mix of different shutter speeds to get varying moods of autumn images. For example, I like to use fast shutter speeds to capture the leaves as they fall. I use long exposures to create a softer mood with the movement of water, clouds and foliage.

9) Include many element layers when photographing wide-angle scenes. I look for a foreground that will immediately capture the viewer’s attention. Use composition techniques to connect the foreground and background through the use of leading lines and depth. The more layers the more three-dimensional the image.

Image from the Dempster Highway in the Yukon

10) Reflections double the color and add that wow factor to autumn images. Look for ponds or small lakes that are more likely to be calm and still.

11) Don’t be afraid to include people in the image to give a perspective of scale and mood. To really add another dimension to the image look for people doing activities in the autumn surroundings.

12) Look for themes or commonalities when photographing autumn colors. One of my favorite themes is photographing barns and churches surrounded by color.

 


13) Photograph in forests in the early morning when the sun is just coming up. The early warm light sets against the dark setting of the forest create an ethereal feeling to the image.


14) Try to find higher vantage points that offer a unique perspective of the autumn colors that most people don’t see. Many hiking trails in parks have this option. It’s always a special treat when you reach the top and you look down into a valley of color, or endless mountain ranges, or the stillness of a lake below.

15) Take it a step farther and look into adding aerial photography or drone photography into the mix. This can lead to fantastic images of winding roads through fall colors.

Images from the Dempster Highway in the Yukon

16) Autumn season is a great time to look for weather changes and unique weather systems. These types of conditions adds a special element of drama to the images.


17) Get out into the backcountry and away from other people for to photograph lesser known landscapes. I love to get deep into the mountains and find idyllic mountain settings combined with fall color.

18) Shooting a variety of subjects and elements when it comes to autumn can enhance your fall color portfolio. I like to include lakes, rivers, creeks, waterfalls, forests, and ponds just to name a few.

19) Get out in the rain. One of the best conditions for shooting fall colors is overcast weather. I especially like it when it’s slightly rainy which gives the fall colors an extra boost of vibrancy.

20) Have fun and try to be creative whenever possible. Get out of your comfort zone.

Thoughts From a Juror

Monday, October 23rd, 2017

This year I was asked to be the juror for a show at a gallery in the Columbia River Gorge and after doing it felt it would be worth sharing some thoughts about it, mostly what went on in my head process and thought wise. Most of my experience to date has been critiquing photos of workshop participants over the years with a little judging through photo organizations in the past. Not to mention the judging we all do of our own work as photographers, sometimes being harder on ourselves than anyone else might be. I know I can fall into this too.

Before jumping into this I do want to make a comment as someone that has entered photography shows or contests a number of times throughout my photography career. Regardless of how well I have done in any photography contest I never take it too seriously and neither should anyone else. I don’t mean it in a way that it’s no big deal at all. I mean in the sense that there are many factors that go into how you may or may not place in a photo contest that those who don’t place in the top shouldn’t get down on their work and those that place well shouldn’t get overconfident in their work either.

To add to this everything I am stating here is of course only my opinion. Someone else judging could have seen things differently and with different results. I chuckle a little at the many back-seat judging comments I see for any well-known competition posted online. It is art after all and is very subjective!

I think what is interesting about this experience that you don’t always get is the ability to do final judging based on actual printed pieces of art. With everything we do digitally today, often who wins is decided based on a digital file instead of a final printed photograph. In this case that certainly played into how I landed where I did for the winners. It’s a whole other element that can make, or break, the outcome in my opinion.

The first round of judging was online. This was to determine who would be in the show. This would not determine top finishers. This is a more straightforward process since a much larger selection of photos can be picked for the actual show itself compared to the small number I would need to select as winners.

Fast forward to the week of the show and I went out to view all of the photographic pieces as they were being set up for the show’s opening. Everyone had the freedom to print their work as they wanted which ranged in size from very small to large, and mediums ranging from metal to more traditional framing. I took my daughter with me and she learned a lot about the process which she appreciated as a budding photographer. She saw it wasn’t something I came in and could easily decide right away. There are a number of great entries.

What got me to even think about this as a blog post was the process of selecting the top entries. I had not expected the process to be as enlightening to me as it was, for a couple reasons.

One reason is how I went about deciding and the process of elimination that ensued. It would not be appropriate for me to take photos of the photographs to display here (which is why you don’t see any) yet there were a number of reasons I took even beautiful photos out of the running. Adding the print element really made a difference as some pieces looked great while others had some deficiencies or other personal conflicts that made it harder to justify bringing them into the winners circle.

From a physical print perspective here is what stood out to me on a number of pieces as to why they were not chosen. My intention of mentioning this is for general education to those that want or need to print for a show in the future.

Bright Spots – One piece had a few small lines that after further inspection appeared to be part of the image. Unfortunately, they were very bright compared to the dark part of the image they were in and looked more like scratches when viewing it. My eye kept coming back to them instead of the beauty the rest of the photo offered.

Photo Edges – There shouldn’t be a very small piece of an object barely showing itself along the corner side of a photo that. When I see this it looks like it’s unintentional having such a small piece. It’s more a distraction to the eye than anything.

Highlights – There are certain scenes where having highlights overexposed or blown out look fine or even can enhance the photo. Yet there was at least a couple where the blown highlights didn’t add to the image in my opinion.

Iconic Spots – I was intentionally looking for shots I felt were a little different from usual or if they were taken from a very popular spot were more unique in nature. Personally, if you are photographing a very popular location the bar goes up for how well composed, processed and printed it is.

Focus/Blur – I am not sure if it was the quality of the lens or focus stacking challenge yet a couple pieces did not look as clean as they should in a couple spots. By the overall composition, it did not seem like it was intentional for the areas to be as soft as they were.

Noise – If you have very dark areas of the image they should be very low to no noise. When a digital file clearly shows noise in the shadows you can be certain it will only be magnified when you print it. Only a textured medium like canvas can conceal some of it.

Chromatic Aberration – I consider myself very open to different and unique art and how others might see the world differently. That said I find when there are noticeable issues like “purple fringing” or other colors that it takes away from the overall scene.

Distractions – I always say as nature photographers we are trying to take a chaotic scene and figure out how to simplify with as little distracting elements in the final piece as possible. Between composing, cropping and editing we work to make it our interpretation of the scene.

 

Here are some reasons why the winners were picked to contrast with those that weren’t.

Simplicity/Clean – Photos were kept pretty clean composition wise as far as minimizing distracting elements.

Unique Point of View – The photos were taken from unique or different vantage points making them stand out from the others.

Different Take on Icon – Although one was a local iconic subject it was a different take on it that I had never seen before.

Print Presentation – Clean and little to no visible issues like noise, digital artifacts, etc.

I want to reiterate the intention of this post is to share my experience. There were plenty of photographs that had only minor “issues” and are great photographs in one way or another. At the end of the day, I needed to narrow it down and this how I went about it.

Lastly, shortly after leaving from judging the photos I thought about the final pieces I picked and to see if there was any theme. I didn’t expect there to be anything. Well, that didn’t prove out to be the case. For the final four photos, they all had elements of water, fog and or snow. I did this 100% in my subconscious not knowing it at the time. It’s very interesting how I gravitated towards these because I am someone that tends to like feeling colder instead of hot. All three elements tend to represent feeling cool or cold. I found this observation very interesting.

The photos in the post are photos I have entered and been a finalist or placed in various contests over the years. I am sure there were similar thought processes going on when my work was being viewed by someone else!



Transitions

Tuesday, September 26th, 2017

 

I remember reading one of Galen Rowell’s books on photography, one of the themes he consistently talked about was shooting during times of transition.  Seasons, weather, light, and atmosphere are a few notable examples of elements I try to capture in transition.  If you can combine more than one of those elements in transition together, the chance of capturing a spectacular moment increases.  It really stuck with me, I think most of my best images are captured during rare transitional moments.  A storm moving in, or out during sunset, or sunrise is hard to line up, but when you do the results can be spectacular. You can also get rained out and not see any good light, but the potential to see something spectacular is much higher while these things are in transition.  The images below are good examples of capturing different elements in transition.

Breaking Dawn

This image was captured in Joshua Tree National Park late February this year.  I was on a photo trip with good friends Sean Bagshaw and David Cobb.  We got caught in a wet storm the day before, but the forecast was calling for clearing skies followed by clear blue cloudless skies for several days.  I had always wanted to photograph the Cholla Garden in the park.  With transitioning weather, light and the seasons all coinciding I thought our odds were pretty good to capture something special.  The next morning, I was a little dismayed at first.  The clouds weren’t lining up to catch the under lighting of the pre-dawn sunrise.  We waited patiently and as the sun was rising above the horizon, it shone though the breaking storm clouds creating the spectacular light rays in the background as well as backlighting the needles creating the wonderful glow.

Keyhole Arch

When I was planning to photograph Keyhole Arch on the Oregon coast, I was trying to line up a transitioning tide, with transitioning weather as well as light.  This session was challenging.   The tide was coming in, a storm was clearing out, and the sun was setting.  The next challenge was capturing a wave flowing over the rocks, another transitional element.  Everything lined up and I was able to capture what I had envisioned in my head.  This shot is all about transitions, it’s also a good example of how much planning goes into certain photographs.

Mt Hood Majesty

I attempted this photo several times, but was never able to capture the light and conditions I had in mind.  This is a popular backcountry ski spot and Mt Hood generally isn’t the coldest mountain, I could never time a weather window with good light and pristine snow.  Finally, I decided to do it right.  I watched the forecast for a cold winter storm followed by a window of clear weather.  I finally saw a weather window that looked promising and decided to go for it.  I packed up my winter camping gear, and set off at 3am from my house in Portland.  I started hiking in the dark in the middle of a winter storm.  It took me 7 hours to snowshoe up to this ridge because of all the fresh cold powder snow that had fallen.  Long story short, I spent 4 days in my tent on the ridge hoping to capture the pristine snow in good light.  On the last night of my camping trip the storm started clearing up, but not in time for sunset.  The next morning I was up really early and was treated to the most incredible morning of photography of my life.  The landscape was completely covered in a pristine layer of deep, cold powder, the air was crystal clear, and there wasn’t even a breath of wind. The mountain that had been hidden behind the storm the whole trip was revealed in spectacular fashion as the sun rose.  All my hard work and planning payed off and I was able to capture a very rare moment.

Gothic Peak

This image of Gothic Peak near Crested Butte Colorado is another great example of capturing multiple elements in transition.  Sean Bagshaw and I found this location during our trip to Colorado a few years ago.  The Fall color was exceptional, but we knew the scene would be even more incredible if we could line up the fall color with the first snow of the season.  A few days later, while we were in another part of the state, we saw a snow storm would be moving in and quickly back out.  We packed up and made the drive back to Crested Butte.  We hiked up to this location in the pitch black, frozen snow.  We arrived on the ridge well before sunrise.  It was extremely cold on the exposed ridge, but the sun was rising and we could see our prediction was materializing.  The fall color was at it’s peak and the storm had left a pristine layer of snow.  It’s pretty rare to be able to line up conditions like this, Sean and I felt privileged that we were able to witness and capture this rare moment of elements in transition.

The Big Picture: Why Perfect Technique Does Not Always Improve a Photograph

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

 

You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” —Mark Twain

A little secret that is well known to educators is the concept of the “good lie”. It encapsulates the idea that any course of instruction is bound to be incomplete or imperfect, but learning has to start somewhere. When we first begin to study any complex subject, we need some structure, some kind of foundation on which to build our understanding of it. For example, when I was beginning my studies in art history, my professors introduced me to the subject of ancient Greek sculpture by emphasizing the evidence regarding known sculptors, what each had contributed to the art, and why any of it mattered. I later learned just how much of this introduction amounted to optimistic conclusions based on ambiguous evidence, but that education brought me to higher levels of understanding. By the time that I started working on my doctoral dissertation, my research was focused on some of those points of weakness as areas where I could make my own contributions, and my professors were encouraging such questioning because the “good lie” was only ever a starting point.

Learning photography involves a similar progression through structured principles into personal discoveries. As landscape photographers, we learn our craft as a combination of in-field methods, compositional rules, location research, weather chasing, and post-processing solutions—all of which amounts to the “good lie” in our field. Together, these ideas provide a useful framework through which we can develop our creative sensibilities, but the framework itself is merely a way in.

To be sure, craftsmanship is an essential part of the photographic process, and good technique is often crucial to the success of a creative motivation. The sheer spectacle of technical virtuosity alone can provide a special frisson: prickly sharpness, masterfully controlled tones, or precise calculations of celestial events—all count among the many technical accomplishments that tend to delight viewers of landscape photographs. Regardless, perfect technique hardly amounts to the holy grail of photography. Despite its many virtues, technique is fundamentally reproducible, is always subject to becoming obsolete, and can become a visual crutch and a developmental cul-de-sac. For anyone who wants to keep progressing in their photography, creativity is the higher good. Therefore, it is important to be open-minded about craftsmanship and to acknowledge that creativity is a messy place.

Keeping the following caveats in mind can help to ensure that perfection doesn’t become the enemy of the good.

Spring Back by Erin Babnik

This photo departs from my usual standards in many ways: through its range of tonality, through its irregularity of detail, through its impressionistic approach in general. What I might consider unacceptable imperfections in other cases are precisely what give this photo the character that I find appealing.

 

 A Perfect Lemon is Still a Lemon

There is an old joke about a person looking for his keys under a street lamp. When a passerby asks him if he’s sure that it’s the area where he lost his keys, the man replies, “No, I lost them a block away, but the light is better here.” The process of making a good photograph can go wrong in the same way, by letting some unimportant factor dictate a direction. I often find participants on my workshops abandoning a great composition that they saw because it would require some minor compromise, choosing instead to photograph something less interesting that they can make ‘perfect’. Sometimes you just have to seize a moment or follow through with an idea however you can because it will result in a powerful photo regardless. Even if it means that you have to use a high ISO or shoot handheld instead of using a tripod, it’s better than not getting the shot at all. When technique starts dictating which ideas to pursue, then it’s probably time to cut the chains and enjoy some creative freedom. No amount of masterful technique will improve the photos that we never make!

The Devil is in the Details

According to the law of diminishing returns, sometimes ‘good enough’ really is…good enough. The value of technical quality does have its limits. After all, the world’s most compelling photographs do not tend to be studies in technique, and most viewers do not even notice many of the technical shortcomings that typically make photographers cringe. Laboring in the service of perfect technique can easily become an unnecessary hinderance to progress, causing a photographer to leave projects unfinished or to become too frustrated to begin a new one. I remember once spending days on processing a photograph with a delicate color palette, shifting hues and tones by minute amounts ad nauseam in my efforts to achieve the perfect balance. I shared some of the variations with a friend who has an excellent eye for such details and who was very enamored with that photo. He carefully compared all of the versions and finally said, “I doubt that any of these differences even matter,” and he urged me to release the photo and move on. It was great advice.

Imperfections Can Create Character

As Edgar Allan Poe once wrote, “There is no exquisite beauty…without some strangeness in the proportions.” He finds this strangeness in the abnormally large eyes of the woman he loves and delves into describing the depths of her character that he sees through them. Beauty in photographs can also come about through such strangeness, typically created by some imperfection in the pictured elements or by some irregularity in their presentation. A leaning tree or burned out snag can break up regularity and give character to a forest scene in the same way that film grain or soft focus can. Even ancient Greek architects seem to have understood the power of imperfection when they made temple columns bulge in the middle instead of being perfectly straight vertical elements; the more emphatic examples suggest an interest in giving the temple some life, some character, as if its columns were bulging like muscles while supporting the temple’s entablature. Similarly, a high level of refinement can sap the life out of a photograph, causing it to it look too mechanical. It is possible for a photograph to be lacking in vitality simply by appearing too perfect.

Craftsmanship has always been one of the great joys of artistic creation for me, and I both exercise and teach it with great enthusiasm. “The good lie” is good for a reason, providing an important foundation and a perpetually useful touchstone. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that it has its limits, its exceptions, and its missing links—and sometimes making a substantial contribution to your portfolio means stepping outside that box. The pursuit of perfection has the potential to elevate a photograph significantly, but it can also smother its fire or prevent us from creating a photo at all. Ultimately, it’s the pursuit of our own goals that should tell us which direction to go. When creativity is hiding in the shadows, we’ll never find it by looking in the light.

The Lost Ark by Erin Babnik

The clouds were moving quickly this day, changing the quality of the light in addition to the character of the sky from one minute to the next. Upon seeing an opportunity taking shape, I had to pluck my camera off of my tripod and quickly reposition myself on my elbows to catch this moment before it was gone forever. A small aperture gave me the depth of field that I needed to get it all in one quick exposure at the cost of some diffraction, and there was no way for me to set up my tripod perfectly in the time that I had. The resulting image is plenty sharp to print large, although focus stacking and the use of a tripod could have made it that much sharper—but prioritizing those techniques would have meant missing the moment.

 

Inner Glow by Erin Babnik

When I found that condensation had filled my lens with moisture behind its front element, I almost packed it up to use my telephoto lens instead, a choice that would have limited my options a lot at this location. I decided to keep shooting with the water in the lens regardless and discovered that the condensation gave a wonderful glowing quality to my backlit composition.

 

All or Nothing by Erin Babnik

I spotted this moment unfolding much further away from me than some closer options that I liked less. I knew that the composition I wanted would require a significant amount of cropping with the lens that I had, but I was very excited by the rare and wonderful play of atmosphere and backlighting. I decided that a smaller photo of something that I really liked was preferable to a full-sized one of something less interesting to me.

 

Octopus's Garden by Erin Babnik

Getting the tones and colors of a photo dialed in so that they harmonize and balance perfectly can consume an enormous amount of time and mental energy, and eventually you reach the point of diminishing returns and need to move on.

Have you ever had issues of technique keep you from pursuing a moment or an idea? Do you have any photos in your portfolio that would not exist without some compromise? Please feel free to share in this discussion with a comment below!

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Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Slovenia, traveling and photographing extensively from home bases in both locations. Make sure to bookmark Erin’s site at www.erinbabnik.com. You can also follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

How To Get Great Online Prints

Friday, September 8th, 2017

The master digital image file and the final print.

Note: Readers have asked some great printing questions in various locations, so I’m compiling them along with my answers at the end of the article so they are all in one place.

I often get questions about how I prepare an image for printing with an online print lab for best results, so I’ve collaborated with Artmill.com to create this tutorial which we hope will help you get great prints.

Printing online can be as simple as uploading phone pics to a lab directly from your smart phone or as advanced as working one on one with a professional print master to go through a multi-step hard-proofing process to fine tune every aspect of the final piece. Most of us who are photography enthusiasts will take an approach somewhere in the middle. Just a few simple pointers can really elevate the quality of your prints.

In the video below, I take you through my process of preparing an image for printing online. In both Lightroom and Photoshop, I cover how to address color accuracy, contrast, sizing, sharpening and the most common print challenge…prints that come out too dark. In the video, I unbox the print so you can see how it turned out.

Artmill was kind to provide the promo code OUTDOOREXPOSURE for my viewers/readers. You can use it at http://www.artmill.com to get 15% off your first order.

For more tips on printing make sure to read Zack Schnepf’s article on the Photo Cascadia blog: www.photocascadia.com/blog/5-essential-tips-when-preparing-images-for-print

You can also view my tutorial on soft proofing in Photoshop: https://youtu.be/ND_GzCueX4s

Just to be clear, I don’t work for Artmill and I was not paid to do this video. We felt some information on this topic would be welcomed and they were kind enough to provide the printing. The print itself will be auctioned as part of a fundraiser for the public library here in my home town.

Your Q’s generated by the video and my A’s:

Q: I’ve been wanting to try an online print, but worried I would mess it up.

A: If you haven’t printed online before I suggest ordering a small test print on photo paper first and if you like what you get, then order a larger, more expensive print. Some labs even offer a free small sample print on your first order for proofing purposes.

Q: I have had such awful experiences with online prints! Always dark, grainy, out of focus.

A: It’s important to remember that the print can only be as good as the original image file. Issues that may not be noticeable at a small size on screen, such as noise or soft focus, will become very obvious in a large print. It’s important to zoom in to 100% magnification to inspect and evaluate images. If you see noise, focus or other issues that bother you at this magnification then they will be visible in a large print…and the larger the print the more visible they become.

Q: When you were in Photoshop did you increase the size of the image? I always thought this would make it blurry and lose sharpness and detail.

A: Yes, I did enlarge the image in the video…both in the Lightroom example and the Photoshop example. If you want to print a photo bigger than the size it comes out of your camera it must be enlarged somehow. You can either do it or the print lab will do it…but somebody is doing it. There are two ways that Photoshop can enlarge images for printing. It can either increase the number of pixels in the image (interpolation) or it can increase the “size” of the pixels (decrease the pixels per inch). Taken far enough, both of these methods will eventually lead to decreased image sharpness and detail. But Lightroom/Photoshop now do an excellent job enlarging. I find that I can at least double the output size of my original image file and still get excellent results. For example, without any enlarging an image from my 30.4 megapixel Canon 5D4 will print at roughly 15 x 22.5 inches at 300 ppi. This means that I can enlarge up to 30×45 at 300 ppi with very good detail and even up to 40×60 or larger if the image is very clean or when printing on textured paper or canvas, which doesn’t show as much fine detail anyway. Depending on the viewing distance, you could potentially go even larger. I have printed wall murals 15 feet high that look great because you have to stand back several feet to view them. They are not as sharp up close, but that’s not how they are meant to be viewed. So, if you want to print images larger than they come out of your camera I say go for it!

Q: Before you apply the sharpening for print, do you remove all other sharpening that might have been applied before in Lightroom?

A: I learned from the photography gurus, Mac Holbert and Jeff Schewe, to think of image sharpening in three phases: input sharpening, creative sharpening and output sharpening. Input sharpening is the fine sharpening you can do in LR or Camera Raw to tighten up the fine edges and optimize clarity that is lost with digital cameras (caused by low pass filters and pixel bleed). Creative sharpening is the interpretive and often localized sharpening (or blurring) and clarity work we do during the developing process to help guide the eye, create depth and dimension and showcase elements. Output sharpening is the sharpening done to an output copy to optimize the image for the particular output at the particular size. For example, an image sized to 1000 pixels wide for viewing on the internet has different output sharpening needs than an image sized to 18,000 pixels wide for a 60 inch print on canvas. All three of the sharpening passes are independent of the other and need to be determined on a case by case basis based on the qualities of the image and the intent of the photographer. But, in short…all three types of sharpening work together so don’t remove one to add the other. You do want to carefully evaluate and adjust them as you go to make sure that they are working in concert with each other, however.

Q: Do you also increase the exposure, contrast and vibrance when printing on your home printer?

A: Yes I do, but at home I can also soft proof with the ICC profile for my printer and the paper I’m using and I can run test prints and make adjustments until I get it just right…so the process is a bit more scientific.

Q: You selected the printer resolution of 2880 x 1440 in Output Sharpener Pro. How did you know what to select there?

A: This is another question you could ask your lab to find out what settings they use and be the most accurate, but the differences will be slight. On my own printer that is the ink dot resolution I print with. I didn’t ask Artmill what printer resolution they use so I went with that to be safe. Choosing a lower resolution in Sharpener Pro adds more sharpening to compensate for fewer dots of ink. If I don’t know the ink dot resolution the printer will put down on paper I feel it is better to err on the side of under sharpening than over sharpening.

Q: Are the Nik/Google plug-ins still available? It was great when Google made them free…but then I heard they were going to stop offering them. If they are still available then people should grab them while they can.

A: Yes still available at the moment. There are other options as well, including PhotoKit Sharpener 2.0 by PixelGenius, Topaz and others.

 

 

Sean is a full-time photographer and photography educator. You can see more of his images and find out about his video tutorial courses and upcoming workshops, tours and classes on his website at www.OutdoorExposurePhoto.com.

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The Photographers High

Monday, July 24th, 2017

There are many reasons each of us choose to pick up a camera and take photos. Today everyone is a photographer with cameras practically attached to our body in one way or another. Give it a few more years and they will be physically attached to all of us. Yet why we do photography and what we feel while doing it ranges significantly. A person might take a small number of photos occasionally snapping on their phone to remember a moment as personal keepsake. Another one is taking tens of thousands of frames a year as professional photographer in some calculated fashion to deliver certain types of photos to clients. Yet another photographer might take a smaller number of high quality photos only when they feel inspired and connected to a scene or moment. The list could go on and of course many of us likely do it for a combination of reasons. You get the idea.


Over the years it’s dawned on me there are scenes and moments I experience that quiet literally put my body in a moment of experiencing a high. The endorphin rush can bring on a sudden state of euphoria. I am not a drug user and have only used prescription pain meds a few times when warranted yet I can imagine there has to be some similarity to the highs one might experience out in nature that are comparable to what we can do ingesting drugs or chemicals in our body. Come to think of it the infrequent high I get when running is similar to what I experience on occasion with photography. After all, there is a reason we have the term natural high. This is certainly one reason why I do photography. The experience in the field before you even get home to process the photo can be exhilarating.


This is certainly not the only reason that keeps me coming back to “shoot up” for another high yet it’s definitely a strong one. Why is it that many of us go through funks or down periods in our artistic pursuits? It’s because we are no longer experiencing that high and we have to find new ways to bring it back. Not much different than building up a tolerance to something and no longer getting the same response in our mind and body. Unlike those addicted to drugs or alcohol that need to be looking for ways to cope without, we as outdoor photographers should be doing the opposite and looking for ways to bring that high back.

Now don’t confuse this topic with needing to be obsessed or constantly engaged with photography to find pure enjoyment and highs. That is definitely not the case. Sometimes it might be fully immersing one’s self while other times it’s stepping back and finding balance. In this post are photos where I have experienced a high of sorts that I can still recall to this day.


If you are off your game and not feeling into it like you used to be, here are some ways to bring it back or keep it going. All of these I have used personally at one time or another.

1) The Gear – Force yourself to use different or less gear. I very recently took a short trip with the primary reason being photography and I left my most used lens at home, my wide angle. You are correct I didn’t even bring it with me just in case!

2) Get Social – If you tend to photograph by yourself most of the time, then try going out with others. Plenty of ways to make this happen in today’s connected world. On the flip side if you always go out with others spend some time going out on your own.

3) New Places – If you tend to go back to the same places all the time it may not be giving you the same level of satisfaction you once felt. Spread your wings and fly somewhere new, or fill the gas tank and head down the highway.

4) Switch Modes – Try different types of photography. If you always photograph nature landscapes then if for nothing else but to provide a different perspective try macro or abstract. Heck, maybe even get out for a stroll city streets for photos.

5) Continuing Education – Take a class, workshop or read a book on photography. These can help provide different ways of thinking and new inspiring ideas. Inspiration often comes from what you are surrounding yourself with. Closing yourself off won’t help.

6) Take Five – Sometimes it’s simply stepping away from the camera for a short period of time to do something different altogether.  Doing this can restore that desire and love for all things photography.

Best of luck that you find the natural high you are looking for with all your photography experiences! If you have additional tips to keep the inspiration and excitement flowing, feel free to share it here.