I thought I would share how photography for me is about capturing a vision – or the essence of what enthrals me about a scene. It’s not always as easy as composing a shot and tweaking some settings in Photoshop or Lightroom. A wealth of software for processing photos puts amazing power into our hands. It’s often tempting to use go “all out” and create images full of effect and drama. Sometimes, though, power has to be used judiciously and with sensitivity.
Driving along the shores of Lake Wakatipu toward Queenstown a week ago the 1700 metre high rock wall of The Remarkables loomed ahead on my right. It had been raining heavily all night and day and the mountains were swathed in cloud and mist. I am always in awe of and fascinated by the way the the great sawtooth ridges stand one behind the other in ever lighter layers as the the air is rendered thick and white by the moisture it carries.
Only a panorama could convey the magic, scale and expanse of these mountains, so I found a spot in a roadside paddock with a massive ridge rearing before me into the swirling clouds. I shot my panorama quickly, so as to avoid getting rain on the lens. The camera was handheld on a fairly high ISO in order to keep my shutter speed high enough to avoid camera shake. I couldn’t wait to get back home and pull up the images on the mac.
The image I produced was a powerful, dramatic image, but the more I looked at it I felt it didn’t have the subtlety, the mistiness, the sense of the clouds being a moving, changing, enveloping and transparent medium. I had succumbed to the temptation with the powerful post processing tools available to go for maximum drama, contrast, colour and detail.
The more I looked at the image, and shots of mist, clouds and rain from other photographers, I knew I could get much closer to the impression I had of the scene. I brought up the Raw files and made a new version, trying to capture much more of the feeling of a wet day, the darker colours of wet grass and rock and softer clouds swirling in and out of crags revealing, hiding and layering the landscape far into the distance This new picture is a much better expression of my vision of The Remarkables that damp day.
The Technical Stuff
On the technical side, the panorama was shot as an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image. This means it is stitched together from a number of frames each composed of three exposures – two stops underexposed to capture details in the brightest part of the image; correctly exposed; and two stops overexposed to capture detail in the darkest areas. The three exposures were merged in Lightroom 5 to become 32-bit tiff files. 32-bit tiffs are able to hold the full range of lights and darks captured in the three exposures. Then I adjusted the key (centre) 32-bit tiff of the panorama to bring out detail throughout the tonal range. I also adjusted vibrance contrast and sharpness to get as close to the effect I wanted overall. The settings for this image were copied and applied to all the 32-bit frames in the panorama. At this point, I send them to Photoshop where they were merged into the panoramic scene.
Each of the images in the panorama became a layer with a mask which I could have modified were I not happy with the transition to the next image. Photoshop does a good job and in this case I was able to flatten the layers into a single image. Stitched panoramas like this one looked rather distorted, so using the transform tool set to “warp” I pulled corners and edges into line to make the composition look more natural and less like a “fisheye” image.
At this point, I opened the Viveza filter from Nik Software. This is an awesome tool with a really easy-to-use and effective interface for adjustments to brightness, contrast, saturation, shadows and colour cast in specific areas of the image. I really love the “structure” adjustment which is like a “clarity" tool which can be applied to specific areas selected by size, colour and tone. I used Viveza to balance the image, adjusting areas which are too light or dark or to balance colours and tones. It is great for selectively bringing out detail in shadows and making textures “pop”.
In this case, the shadows of many of the foreground trees were too black and distracting. Parts of the sky were either too bright or too dark so they led the eye in the wrong direction. They were also oddly distracting colour shifts in the sky which were balanced. The mountains were also flatter than I wanted, so more contrast was added to the foreground and the colour was heightened a little. With the image balanced as a composition and with colours, tones and detail as I wanted them it was time to play.
This is where I turned to Nik’s Color Efex 4, which is a collection of digital photographic filters for creating, retouching, and creative enhancement of images within Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop and Apple Aperture.
Color Efex Pro 4 also contains Nik’s premier U Point technology that gives you pinpoint control over what you want to do to your image and where exactly you want to do it. No longer are you limited to working with global changes and masking to accomplish your goals. Rather, now you can precisely control specific areas of your image with a couple of clicks of your mouse.
The other great feature of Color Efex 4 is the ability, to stack filter effects and then to save them as recipes. The software comes with a selection of preset recipes and over time I have created a number of my own. If I’m trying to create a series of images with a particular look, I’ll use a recipe as a starting point for each image in the series.
On the first attempt at this panorama, I used my own previously saved recipe “super cross pop” bringing together dark contrasts, cross processing, detail enhancement and vignette filters for a stormy, contrasty, noisy and dramatic look. This time I went for a subtler effect, bumping up colour contrast to emphasise those wet colours, while keeping overall contrast low so as not to wipe out the softness and transparency of the clouds and rain. Finally, in Photoshop I brushed in some contrast to the ridge in the foreground to make it stand forward and make it appear more three-dimensional. Oh, and I removed the fence on the left of the image, that really was a distraction from the composition.
I love both of the images I created, but I believe true artistry is having a vision and being able to realise it in your processing. The second image is much closer to my vision of the mountains that day
I plan to post more about the impressions and the process involved in creating my images. Please let me know if you have questions or suggestions and whether this was interesting and/or helpful for you. I would love to hear from you.