Friday, August 27, 2010

Photographic Technique: Iterative Composition

When I see an opportunity to capture a nice reflection I may capture a quick shot of the reflection to have one before the light or water surface changes, but then I spend time walking around looking to "upgrade" and add a more interesting foreground like this one, where the logs provide "leading lines" whch further draw your eyes to the subject. It'd still be nicer with some colorful sunset clouds of course, but less than optimal weatehr is all the more reason to ensure that your compositions are strong and make your images work as well as possible, whatever the weather.

It's certainly well worth the few extra moments of forethought and exploration while you're shooting. Your percentage of strong images will go way up when your shooting process is more thoughtful and deliberate than see, point, and shoot. It all starts with your mindset and intention; when an opportunity presents itself you deliberately set out to make the shot, and reshoot it after making it better, resisting the urge to simply take one.

Sure there are details along the way that can help, but it all starts with your intention and your shooting process.

I'm not presenting this as a perfect shot by any means, but it's better than the others I shot immediately prior, and it was about as well as I could have done without wading around in ice cold water and muck to fine tune the composition (subject placement, lines, angles, etc) even further. After exploring this shot to this extent I simply decided at the time that with three lakes within a couple of hundreds yards of me, searching out other locations, foregrounds and results would be a better use of my limited time as the sun continued to set.

For more technique tips search this blog for "technique" or "technique tips". To practice this, join me this October for one of our two field workshops in California's Eastern Sierra:
Mountain High Workshops: Fall Colors in California's Eastern Sierra

You may also use the NetworkedBlogs feature in the right column to follow this blog over on Facebook.

Photographic Technique: Exposure for Maximum Reality and Flexibility

Garnet Lake Sunset, originally uploaded by Jeff Sullivan.
To increase your successful exposures and the percentage of your shots which successfully capture what you saw, there are a number of things you can do while shooting to improve your odds.

It helps to understand that a camera does not "see" in the same way that our eyes see. A camera has one exposure for everything in the scene, while our eyes focus on one point, then change focus and exposure for the next point. so when we are present for an event like this, we see far more shadow and highlight detail than a camera will pick up. As with a camera, a photographic print reproduces the scene in a way that often won't enable your eyes to see or your brain to perceive the light the same way that they woudl onsite. To compensate for this and produce a more natural image and print, it's often helpful to increase shadow light when taking the shot (preferable) or afterwards when "developing" / editing it.

It is not always possible to perform the corrections while editing due to shadow noise, so it's better to optimize the shot as you shoot. All digital cameras worth shooting with (in my opinion) offer the ability to shoot and store files in the camera's native "RAW" format. While the common and smaller JPEG format offers smaller file sizes, it only stores 8 "bits" of data, or 256 colors per pixel. RAW formats offer either 12 bits (4000 colors) or 14 bits (16,000 colors), so when you go to adjust colors after shooting, such as simply lightening or darkening part of the image, there's far more of hte original scene's subtle information there to work with, and adjustments can be made in a much more subtle and natural-looking way as well, not having color or brightness simply make a massive jump to the next shade out of only 256 choices.

Once you have the camera set to capture RAW files, since digital files are free, I recommedn turning on yoru camera's Automatic Exposure Bracketing to take at least 3 exposures which you can select from later. I examine the results to ensure that the brightest exposure provides detail in the darkest shadows, and the darkest exposure preserves detail int he lightest areas. The middle exposure should be the best single exposure, at least in terms of being the best compromise between light and dark ones. All three exposures can be combined later in Photoshop using Layer Masking (they align best in the widest number of editing programs if you shoot on a tripod). Nikons can often shoot AEB sequences of 5, 7 or 9 exposures; it's your call how much data you want to store and to sort through later. In moast cases so many shots won't be necessary, but in some extreme cases having the extra information could prove very useful (hear that Canon?).

To obtain the best 3 exposures while shooting it is also necessary to adjust the whole AEB sequence up or down, using Exposure Compensation. I often shoot my three exposures with a spacing between them of +/- 1 1/3 stops, and with the whole sequence biased down (darker) 1/3 to 2/3 stops. This is not a "rule" it is just where I start. If I review the shots and the situation calls for it, I may expand the AEB spacing between exposures to the full 2 stops allowed by my Canon, and I may bias the whole AEB sequence up of down the full 2 stops allowed as well. For example, night star/Milky Way shots tend to need far more light than the camera estimates, while shooting a rising full moon often requires that one exposure be many stops darker to preserve detail on the moon itself, with tends to be much brighter than the surrounding landscape. If the automatic bracketing still fails to handle a wide range of light in the scene, you can use Aperture Priority (Av) mode to capture and optimize results for most of the scene, while setting your Manual (M) mode to be many stops away to capture the most challenging subset of the light (such as the bright full moon well after it rises and the surrounding landscape has gotten much darker).

Then there's the content of the shot to consider... while shooting. For a shot with a reflection like this, the part of the scene that is easiest to correct is the reflection, which will be close to 3 stops darker (8X times less light) than the direct view of that same object in the scene (in this case the orange clouds). Yet our eyes and brains perceive the direct light and the reflection as being the same intensity! To bring the exposure of I used a Cokin #121 3 stop graduated neutral density filter, which I positioned to darken only the portion of the scene from the horizon up (where the far side of the lake meets the mountain).

That adjustment while shooting was a great start, but some fine tuning of the light is still necessary in software, and I highly recommend Adobe Lightroom for that, since it offers three levels of fine tuning:
- software graduated neutral density filters which can correct for your hardware filter not being exactly right for the light present
- a "fill light" adjustment which can brighten shadows across teh entire scene
- a selection brush which can be used for burning and dodging selected items or regions of the image.
If some of the operations such as fill light start to make the image look less realistic, increasing contrast may be required to restore a natural look. I like to start with slightly underexposed exposures which already have high contrast and (in my experience) the most realistic color. There are always exceptions, but I don't find that the brightest exposures can be adjusted to look just like, or as good, as the darkest one. I'd strongly prefer to use the brighter exposures with less noise and more shadow detail, so I'll often edit 2 or all 3 exposures, but I simply find that the "keeper" is often still the darkest one. In that case it helps to have a camera with a sensor which delivers images with very low noise in the shadows.

So even having software that can do some of the adjustment, the physical GND filter is still necessary to do as much of it in the camera as possible, to avoid having too much noise in the shadows as you level out the light somewhat, just like our eyes would if we were there viewing the scene onsite. Similarly, having the physical GND alone is a great start but won't get you to the best possible result without software that has a software GND function plus some way to perform additional dodge and burn. And this all assumes that you shot and optimized 3 exposures on a tripod, with the files saved in RAW format.

Once you have these basic exposure tools and practices down, you can free yourself to focus on more strategic and creative things like composition, and to add creative elements such as motion/long exposure or light painting.
For more technique tips search this blog for "technique" or "technique tips". To practice this, join me this October for one of our two field workshops in California's Eastern Sierra:
Mountain High Workshops: Fall Colors in California's Eastern Sierra

You may also use the NetworkedBlogs feature in the right column to follow this blog over on Facebook.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Perseid Meteor Showers

My next photography adventure was heading out to shoot the Perseid meteor showers. After a realtively weak showing at the first night at Mono Lake, in part due to the large amount of dust in the air there (great for sunrises, not so great for seeing stars or meteors rising over the eastern horizon), I drove down to the higher and clearer Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.

This time I had spoken to Tom Lowe several times in the weeks leading up to the event and I decided not to wait to capture the crescent moon setting over the crest of the Sierra Nevada before driving up to the Patriarch Grove at 11,300 feet. Several other photographers on Flcir who had expressed an interest in shooting this event had communicated that they would not be making it after all, but photographer Jean Day was expecting to join us. As luck would have it, her truck was up on a jack with a flat tire, shortly after Schulman Grove, still 10 miles and at least a half hour to 40 minutes short of my destination.

Even worse, someone who stopepd to help had overextended the jack, breaking the handle in the process. I had both cans of Punture Seal and an air compressor built into my minivan, but my jack was too short, so I shot the crescent moon descending behind some communication towers while we waited for an adequate jack.

After several people stopped we eventually were able to get the truck down off its jack, and drive, inflate, drive, inflate our way to highway 168 before the leak in the tire got too bad to reinflate. Fortunately we had been able to flag down a flatbed tow truck on its way to another call, who would now be looking for her as he drove out. Jean urged me to get back up there and shoot, so I headed back up.

To make a long story short, I was off to a late start, but I found a shooting location which would not get lit up by late arrivals, and set my camera and intervalometer timer loose to capture hundreds of consecutive 30 second shots.

Olmstead Point Dawn Full Moon Set

In late July I positioned myself to catch the full moon rising at Mono Lake. It had rained during the day, but as I sat on the porch of the lcoal coffee shop waiting to see how the weather woudl turn out, it was clearing up nicely for sunset, and hopefully the moonrise. One of the nice things about photography is that the people really into it are a pretty relaxed and sociable bunch. I ran into filmmaker Tom Lowe at a coffee shop in Lee Vining, and he was heading out to Mono Lake as well. A young woman with an accent had shared the table and power for her laptop, and not knowing the area, when she heard we were going to a nice sunset location, she decided to follow along in her car.

We drove south out of town, and as I turned left onto a shortcut, Tom missed the turn and kept going towards the standard highway 395 to highway 120 route towards South Tufa. The woman, Rotem Retter from Israel who had come to the U.S. after serving in the Israeli Defense Force, made the turn. By now a large rainbow was forming in the remaining showers over the Mono Basin, so I stopped at a turnout near another photographer's car. This turned out to be Ron Wolf. We had seen each other's work on Flickr, but had never met.

As I continued on, I decided that the clouds would obscure the moonrise, but they were well posisioned for shooting sunset at South Tufa. I called Tom with the update, but by now he was already set up elsewhere, and decided to stay put.

The clouds were fine for sunset, but as i had suspected, they were too thick to allow the rising moon to show through. This is why it's critical to try to shoot as many sunset full moon rises as possible in a given year... there are only a dozen or so to start with, and weather will obscure many of those!

No problem... I could still catch the moon set at dawn. After having the June 26 partially eclipsed moon set at Olmstead Point behind a nearby ridge before it woud have set on the horizon, I decided to shoot this moonset there as well, so I could find a better shooting position that would enable the sunrise to proceed further as the full moon set.

It turned out even better than I could have planned. The sun was sending light rays over the Eastern horizon, while the moon acted as a gaint reflector, sending more of the sun's rays radiating back from the Western horizon.

I had high expectations for this sunrise, or at least high hopes. After all, I had looked up the moonset and sunrise times a week or two in advance, checked sun and moon angles for various locations in The Photographer's Ephemeris to select my shooting location, gotten up at 3:55 over by Mono Lake to make it here in time, and to place the foreground hill out of the way for the moonset I decided to hike up the granite slope across the road instead of down to Olmstead Point. To do this landscape photography thing right, it's a far cry from just arrive, point and shoot!

"A lot of people think that when you have grand scenery, such as you have in Yosemite, that photography must be easy."
- Galen Rowell

I continued to shoot as the clouds and light changed, and there were some majestic juniper trees on the hill which added nice foreground subjects. But I was done by 7am or so, with no plans for the day.

As with the prior sunset Rotem had decided to check out my shooting location, and having hiked Mt Dana the day before, she was eyeing Mt. Hoffman today. I had no plans for the "boring" mid-day light, and the trailhead was only a couple of miles away, so this time I tagged along.

After we moved food and scented items fomr our cars to bear boxes, we got an early enough start to reach May Lake while I could still catch a reflection with minimal wind.

The entire hike is only a 6 mile round trip, but the trailhead is at 8710 feet and you end up at approximately 10,850, so it's a healthy climb. I'm never particularly fast lugging 10-12 pounds of camera gear plus 3 liters (another 6 pounds) of water, but it's an enjoyable hike with a nice view.

Unfortunately there was a fire somewhere which cast a haze in the air. With the distinct possiblility of afternoon thunderstorms, after some rest and chatting with other hikers on top, while protecting day packs from persistent marmots wanting to steal food, it was time to make a hasty descent.

Don't Tread On Me

Don't Tread On Me, originally uploaded by Jeff Sullivan.

I was on my way down from shooting a sunset on Monitor Pass in when I came across a rattlesnake in the road. I rarely see rattlesnakes in the Sierra Nevada, but they're vital to helping control rodent populations and reducing the risk of bubonic plague and hantavirus, so I helped ths one off the road. Sadly, it was injured, perhaps by some ignorant motorist who would prefer a slow, painful death from black plague? I've never had a rattlesnake strike at me or act offensive in any way.

Instead, they warn me of their presence, and move in the opposite direction at the earliest convenience. They're shy, reclusive creatures and avoid us whenever possible. I always feel priveleged at having seen one.

"I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shewn and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?"
- Benjamin Franklin