Category: Field & Screen

St. Catharines Photographic Club

On Tuesday of last week, I “opened the season” at the St. Catharines Photographic Club, St. Catharines, Ontario. With the Niagara Escarpment wine country and Niagara Falls so close, the topic of my presentation, ‘Landscape Photography as Artistic Expression’ seemed appropriate for a good many in the audience of about 75 or so.

From my perspective, we can be greeted with a beautiful scene in front of us and capture it in an ‘ƒ8 and be there’ way, but there is so much more we can do as artists to accentuate the scene. For better or worse, as photographers our ‘canvas’ (our viewfinder) is always filled with a scene. It’s a blessing as it gives us a starting point; but it’s also a curse in that we now must work hard to ensure all the elements contribute to the final photograph we see in our mind’s eye.

The Landscape Photographer's Toolkit - copyright Terry A. McDonaldEssentially, we are ‘assembling’ a photograph to represent our vision of the scene by using the various elements provided to us:

  • the Ambient Conditions provided by the weather, time of day and time of year;
  • the Aesthetic Elements of camera position, leading lines and other compositional elements; and
  • the Technical Controls at our disposal: choice of lens, filter, aperture, shutter speed; using a tripod, shooting in panoramic or making an HDR exposure blend.

But that only gets us as far as, what I like to call, a ‘machine file’ generated by the camera. From there, we continue our artistic explorations by applying ‘subtle and discreet’ post-capture processing techniques to further enhance and re-create the scene as we experienced it.

If all we do is reproduce what was there, are we truly adding anything of ourselves to the final work? This is the crux of my goal as a photographer: “to interpret the art inherent in nature’. Nature is spectacular just at is, but sometimes it needs some help to clarify and accentuate the beauty that exists. That’s where the astute and passionate eye of a photographer comes in. For me, the ‘interpretation’ is my take on the what nature provides as art for us everyday.

Overall, it was an excellent evening with many thoughtful questions from the audience. It was also great to see the level of involvement of many members and the high quality of images as evidenced by their website.

I hope to return to St. Catharines in the future to work with Club members on a landscape photography workshop or two. If that’s something you would find helpful – hands-on instruction in the field – then be sure to let the Club know. Alternatively, I am more than happy to lead small groups in ‘field and screen’ workshops where we spend the morning out shooting and the afternoon editing. Just drop me an email if you’re interested.

In the meantime – get out and get shooting. It’s autumn and the colours are arriving. And, if you get out early enough into the rural areas, you will capture some of the wonderful foggy mornings we’re having.

Miss the darkroom? There’s an app for that!

Apple’s App of the Day today (28 Dec ‘17) is Darkr. I don’t usually look too closely at the AotD, and sometimes not for days or weeks, but, as a photographer and former large format and darkroom enthusiast, this one certainly caught my eye.

Select your camera format or work in the darkroom

Darkr takes me back to simpler times, at least that’s what my heart is telling me. It is both a large format camera (and medium and “pocket” format camera) and a Darkroom all built into an app. What a thrill it was for me to lie in bed this morning and have an upside-down-and-backwards view camera image on my iPhone (also available for iPad, but my iPad Air has only a 5mp Camera), complete with etched grid lines and a loop for focusing. Anyone who has ever worked with a large format camera would appreciated this view.

When I say “large format, l’m referring to the old-style cameras with a leather bellows in front. For years, I used a beautiful Zone VI cherry wood field camera that made beautiful 4×5″ negatives. Yes, that’s inches – about half the size of the iPad screen I’m writing on right now. But 4×5″ was just the beginning; large format included 5×7″, 8×10″ (one of Angel Adams favourites) and 11×14”. There were even 16x20l versions that shot Polaroids! It was a huge industry through the late 19th century and right through the 20th century. I bought my “old-style” 4×5 camera in the 1990s! Working with negatives and transparencies that large meant the image quality was untouchable.

But alas, that era is behind us. My Nikon D800E captures more detail than my 4×5 could and my Sony RX-10iii isn’t far behind. The methods of working on a tripod may still be there, but the mystique of working under a dark cloth with a loupe around your neck and a pocket full of yellow, orange and red filters is gone, along with developing negatives, making test strips, changing contrast grades, and burning and dodging to make prints. BUT…

Darkr brings it all back again…

Yellow filter selected. Yes, it’s upside-down and backwards – it’s large format, after all!

…without the dark cloth and tripod, darkroom chemicals and water usage. As I said, as I lay in bed this morning, I set up my large format camera, selected ILFORD HP-5 film, put on a yellow filter, used my loupe to select the focus point, chose my shutter speed, tilted as needed, and “click” made my first exposure.

4×5 neg, complete with notches in top left.

This first exposure became a beautiful and classic 4×5 negative, complete with cut notches in the top left! From there, I entered the Darkroom where the immersive experience continued sans red light and chemicals. Honestly, I do miss the other-worldly experience of entering a darkroom with the acrid smell of stop bath and the earthy smell of developer (but not the mixing and washing).

In the Darkroom, I was presented with a series of horizontal test-

Test strips. Scroll up and down to change time; scroll left and right to change contrast.

strips. Swiping up increased the time, swiping down, the opposite. Swiping left and right changed the contrast, just like a multi-contrast head on an enlarger or multi-contrast filters. The filters are even coloured correctly – the level of detail the creators of the app have included is amazing, but not without some need for improvements (see below).

Toning options are available once you have a good-looking “print”.

Once you have a basic print, there are a variety of typical darkroom options: Crop, Dodge, Burn, Blur and Tone. The dodge and burn options take a little getting used to, but are great once you do. The best part, though, is how each option you use is stored as a layer. This digital advantage lets you revisit what you’ve done and change things about, although cropping really must be done first.

Final print – my first darkroom print in over 17 years!

So, why bother? As one commenter said, “I did darkroom processing for real…and I now realise I don’t miss it at all.” While I, too, am in this category, Darkr seems to retain well the methods and thought behind using film and darkroom processing, without the hassle of chemicals and water use.

Can you make “better” black and whites in other apps? Perhaps, especially with the near-endless sliders and options of apps such as Photos, Polarr and high-end apps like Lightroom. But there’s something about simplifying options that clarifies the process. For example, test strips: rather than constantly “playing” with sliders until things “look good”, going back and forth between whites and blacks and shaows, exposure and contrast, with Darkr, you are using a combination of exposure and contrast – two options – to attain your base print.

From there, you can apply dodging (selective lightening) or burning (selective darkening), just like using adjustments brushes in Lightroom. Lastly, you may (or may not) tone the image – selenium, cyanotype or sepia – in varying degrees.

Perhaps it’s nostalgia speaking more than practicality, but I feel apps don’t always need to be pragmatic and efficient to be useful. If anything, this simplification teaches one to be more observant. To the observant, the varying times of the test strips offer insights 8nto the relationships between light and dark, as does the switching of contrasts.

Perhaps this is my own darkroom experience talking and these nuances are not readily apparent to newbies, but I see this as not only nostalgic fun, but a good training ground of sorts, from the upside-down-backwards view presented by the Large Format  option to the selections of time and contrast. The limiting factor is the 12mp camera on the iPhone. If this system could be used with a 20mp+ camera, it would certainly be more enticing. That being said, you can import photos from Photos to work on them in the Darkroom.

The best part, though, is the price: Darkr is only $3.99. Actually, it’s free, but paying the $3.99 does two things: it supports the developers to keep refining the app (I have some improvements I’d like to see, and it unlocks some of the refinements that make Darkr so much fun.

Some of the improvements I would like to see include:

  • Spot metering – I would like to read my highlight and shadow areas to allow me to use…
  • Zone system placements; shadows with detail on Zone II – the “West Coast, Ansel Adams” way or highlights with detail on Zone VIII as Fred Picker invented on the East Coast;
  • Orange filter, for when yellow is too little and red is too much;
  • Cold and warm-tone papers options would be nice, even different paper bases;
  • Adding a cold-tone selenium effect of slight purple cast would be welcomed;
  • Vertical test strips are needed to accommodate checking different parts of a print. Making the print above would have benefitted from seeing the bright white of the duvet in the same strip
  • Lastly, the app needs a way to maintain the proportions when cropping (or select an aspect ratio).

I should note that these “improvements” may already be built into the app and I missed them. I’ll be spending more time with Darkr over the next few days and hope to discover more of it’s secrets.

GRIPS K-W Presentation follow-up

Many thanks to the folks at the Grand River Imaging and Photographic Society for hosting my presentation tonight. There are many excellent photographers whose questions and discussion added well to the evening.

A few people inquired about the “Nature Photographer’s Toolkit” I created to help organize ideas around how to approach scenes and subjects in nature photography. I’ve added a copy of the slide below. I hope it serves as a useful guide and reminder to explore a number of different avenues when in the field and in front of a screen.

Remember: Three-quarters of the effort in making photographs is done in the field before the shutter is released and half again occurs on-screen, for every compelling photo is greater than the sum of its parts.

London Camera Club – Field & Screen

This past week I was in London, Ontario enjoying the hospitality and good will of the London Camera Club. This is a vibrant and welcoming club that successfully offers programs to a wide range of photographers from beginners to highly experienced shooters – a tall order, well-achieved. Have a look at their website for some truly excellent and creative photography.

On Thursday evening…

…I spoke about exploring “My Own Backyard”. Despite having travelled and lived in many exciting locations around the world, I always come back to the importance of each of us being “experts” in our own backyards. After all, we are surrounded by landscapes and nature here in southern Ontario and we have four seasons in which to make very different and unique photographs.

Photographed two weeks ago on my way in to work.

Quite literally, our backyards become our “playground” for trying new equipment, new techniques and new ways of seeing. One can dash out, take a few shots, with a new lens or trying focus-stacking for example, then head back in, upload and being working on images within minutes. Or, simply, spend a few hours exploring shapes and colours in the garden at various points through the year. But, your backyard can also be stretched, and should be, really, to local conservation areas, country roads and, if you prefer cityscapes in your city’s downtown. Every city now has a few dilapidated buildings waiting for an empathetic eye. Over the years, I’ve made some very memorable photographs on my drive to work and have been visiting the Arboretum at the University of Guelph for 30 years of photographic inspiration.


was devoted to a “Field and Screen” workshop: a few hours in the morning out at Westminster Ponds followed by a few more hours in the afternoon processing images from the morning. It was pleasing to see a number of photographers using tripods – cumbersome, but necessary, as we had a slightly dull, humid, misty morning with the constant threat of rain as well as some fall colours to accent our photographs. I was also encouraged by the comments from participants who had never explored close to home like this. So often, we get comfortable with the views and scenery around us and we stop seeing them for their uniqueness. We forget that although they are the “same old, same old” to us, they are new for others, especially when we apply our photographic eye to bringing out the details others have stopped seeing. This is the beauty of working close to home.

I’ve posted a gallery of photographs I made during the workshop. I’ve added a couple of Before/After screenshots to show the initial imported “from the camera” raw image versus the “finished” screen image. I’ve also included some “Detail” photographs; these are cropped portions of larger photographs which, in themselves are engaging views I would have liked to spend more time exploring.

Thanks to Matt Litwinchuk for organizing the evening presentation and Saturday’s workshop and to Bill Niessen for his technical troubleshooting duirng the afternoon Screen session.

If you have any questions about the shooting or processing – please ask! As well, comments are always welcome. If you want to keep in touch regarding workshops, just subscribe to my blog using the panel to the right.

Are you editing your photos?

None of the photographs I make and publish are straight out of the camera. They could be, but they wouldn’t have the same impact as there are always improvements to be made. Besides, I want the photograph to represent what I saw and felt, not the machinations of an inanimate box with optics.

If you are shooting jpegs and you’re perfectly happy with them, then perhaps spending the time to learn and do photo editing is not for you. But, if you aren’t satisfied and you can see improvements to be made then read on…

Just to be clear, I’m editing with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, the industry-standard, fully professional app used by millions of Mac and Windows photographers around the world. However, there is a fairly steep learning curve for LR and it’s not the app to use for casual editing. Years ago, I started up the BYO Laptop course on Lightroom at Mohawk College in Hamilton. After 10 weeks of covering all the basics and some in-depth work on importing, organizing, developing, pre-sets, printing, books and black-and-white etc., users still found they needed to be actively and regularly using LR so as not to forget all it’s intricacies. Lightroom is an amazingly complete app, and I use it everyday, but it can be overwhelming without some good tutorials.

LR’s Before-After view showing the difference editing can make – not significant for this photo, but certainly an improvement from dull to glowing.

If you want to get started editing photos, begin by identifying the photos in your collection needing some improvement. We all have photos that need “rescuing” from mistakes we’ve made like under– or overexposure or poor composition. These are mistakes that should be corrected in-camera, but may be a good starting point for you to learn the extent to which photos can be “processed”. No doubt, though, you probably have others that are just lacking that bit of extra “umph’ (I know, how photographic!) to raise them from good to brilliant. Often it’s a slight adjustment to contrast, a raising of the shadows or taming of highlights or a little extra saturation.

This is where craft meets artistry. Photo editing works best if you have a preconceived “visualization” of what you want the photograph to look like. Many photographers start with a “meh” photo and try to breathe life into it using push-button pre-sets. While this can work, and it can teach you what’s possible, it’s better to start with the vision of what you want the photo to look like, then work towards it by learning what each of the options can do, and not do, for you.

Apple Preview > Tools > Adjust Color brings up this handy photo editing panel.

If this sounds intimidating, start with one of the best but basic editing apps out there – the one that’s already on your computer: if you have a Mac, it’s Preview (not Photos, not yet); on Windows 10, it’s Photos. Now, I can’t speak to the Windows experience because I don’t use it, so have a look at this article for some guidance.

Apple’s Preview is easy to use because you can open a photo already on your computer and make small adjustments to it. If you only want to edit a few JPEG files, Preview is the way to go – have a look at this comprehensive article from (surprisingly!) Forbes magazine. My only caution with Preview is that what ever changes you make become permanent once you hit “Save”. I highly recommend duplicating the photo first and adding “-Edit” to the filename, so that you can always go back to the original if you mess up.

Photos for macOS and iOS is much more complete. You can use it in Simple mode to make moderate adjustments or you can open a dozen or so various panels for a more complete editing suite (see below). It will edit both jpeg and raw files; more importantly, the editing is “non-destructive”, meaning, it is not changing the original file, but writing the edits in the background as a set of instructions that are applied only when you export or print the photo. Photos also allows you to add 3rd party extensions that further extend its capabilities.

In fact, Photos is almost as good as Lightroom. It only lacks LR’s ability to add graduated masks, adjustment brushes and bulk editing. LR is also the best possible photo app for printing, but that’s a whole different blog post.

The best article I could find to get you started with Photos is this one from MacWorld. There are also dozens of tutorials and videos online; all you need to do is Google, “How do I (fill-in-the-blank) with macOS (or iOS or Windows) Photos?” The other part of learning to edit is simply exploring; e.g. What happens to my photo when I do this?, but be sure to use the “Undo” button (or Command-Z my favourite keyboard shortcut!)

macOS Photos offers much more complete editing when you select “Adjust” then the blue “Add” in the top right.
macOS Photos – This is the simplified adjustment panel.

Other photo editors include Photoshop (Mac/Win), Pixelmator (Mac only) and Affinity Photo (Mac/Win). Photoshop isn’t really a photo editor, it’s more of an image compositor with editing adjustments that can be applied to photos. People still use it for editing photos because that’s all that was available for years. It has since been eclipsed by Adobe’s Lightroom which was designed from the ground up for photography. To fill the price gap between free and Lightroom, Pixelmator was introduced some years ago. It has since been eclipsed by Affinity Photo.

“AP”, as it’s known, is currently the leader of the pack for low cost, high-end editing, even giving Photoshop a run: AP is now considered Photoshop’s most capable replacement at about 1/10th the cost and it has a near equally-capable iOS app for newer iPads. An alternative to Lightroom is the more expensive, but very capable Capture One, used by those who can distinguish even higher-quality raw files from Lightroom’s (or claim to, anyway!)

If you’re bent on learning Lightroom (or any photo editing app, actually), give me a call or drop me an email. I can get you up and running in a few hours.

If you want really good black and white, then consider getting to know Lightroom.

Tiffany Falls, May 2017

This morning, I led a one-on-one workshop for artist Susan Leite, a member of the Hamilton Camera Club, who missed my presentation of Creating Compelling Landscapes. Tiffany Falls Conservation Area in Ancaster, Ontario, is one of those near-ideal places to learn about landscapes. A well-maintained, and easily-walked side trail of the Bruce Trail leads up the valley, across two bridges to a platform in front of a class cascade waterfall – Tiffany Falls – some 21m (70 feet) high.

As the point of this morning’s workshop was specifically landscape photography techniques, we were looking for “classic” landscape views that would include a strong foreground element set in the context of the background, connected through the mid-ground with a leading line, a “pathway” that would help the viewer navigate through the photograph. Assembling these elements is the job of the photographer. They are “out there” far more often than many photographers realize; recognizing them and actively, purposefully composing the photograph to include them is what makes them work.

At times, though, it is a challenge: as we noted this morning, much of the valley and river bank has the scrubby-looking remains of cut trees. Trees that naturally fall have an organic look to them; cut trees have sharp, rather obvious and totally un-natural edges where they were chain-sawed. There were also many parts of branches left from the cuttings that have not decomposed as one might expect leaves and small branches would do over a season or a year, so they, too, left (to my eyes anyway) a bit of a slash-and-burn eye-soar to an otherwise beautiful valley. If you have ever felt the need to remove unwanted outgrowth of trees and plants, consider going for a removal service.

So, that’s a bit of the context of the location. The morning, itself, was overcast and still, making for near-ideal conditions for photographing in a forest. The contrast was easily managed; just the sky, filtering through the upper canopy, created difficult lighting. Photographers learn quickly, though, the importance of being flexible and working to the conditions provided by Mother Nature: when given a white sky, work to eliminate it from photos – and that’s we did.

This morning, thanks to the recent rain, Tiffany Creek had an excellent flow. It’s been a cool, wet spring – ideal for gardeners and photographers of nature and landscapes . So often, the rivers and waterfalls of southern Ontario suffer from a lack of water. Not this spring – the rivers have been well-flushed!

The Basic Set-up

Both Susan and I were using “bridge” style cameras – hers, a Lumix FZ-200 with an excellent Leica lens, and my Sony RX10iii – on travel-style tripods (both MeFoto Roadtrips). We had both come to the same conclusion regarding carrying equipment in travel-style conditions: less is more! We were both using ND filters and my Polarizing filter. The ND filters slowed shutter speeds to capture more movement in water; the polarizing filter reduced the glare off the water and foliage (see comparison photo).

We set our cameras to Aperture Priority, using Exposure Compensation to adjust exposure when clipped highlights showed in the histogram. In these situations, shutter speed is less important than the need for adequate depth-of-field to maintain sharpness from foreground through the background. Obviously, in breezy conditions, shutter speed matters, but with the still morning, we had some leeway. With small-sensor bridge cameras, this is achieved in the ƒ5.6 range. On the 1″ sensor Sony, ƒ5.6 is equivalent to ƒ15 on a full-frame system; with Susan’s FZ200’s 1/2.3″ sensor, ƒ5.6 is the same as ƒ31 on a FF system – plenty of depth of field for most landscapes! Any smaller than ƒ5.6 will result in increasingly unsharp edges due diffraction, the bending of light through the smaller aperture.

We also had a discussion about ISO. To maintain the highest image quality, I always recommend using the lowest ISO that will provide the maximum dynamic range (the difference between pure white and pure black). For many DSLRs, it’s ISO200. For the Sony RX10iii, it’s ISO64; the FZ200, ISO100.

Susan also set up her self-timer to delay each exposure by 2 seconds to eliminate camera shake from shutter activation by hand. Using tripods that were shorter than normal for comfortable viewing, we also chose to use the LCD for final compositions. However, working on a tripod can be very restrictive when composing, so I always recommend using the quick release to remove the camera and actively compose “free-hand” by moving in and out, up and down and side to side. You really need freedom of movement to find that compositional “sweet-spot”, then set-up the tripod to match that precise location.

In the field…

Now for some photos. We both agreed, the ferns and other greenery along the river bank were great foreground objects with lots of detail. As well, the river itself provided and natural pathway through the various scenes. When the river seemed rather straight, it was important to manouevre to “help” it into a more diagonal position; diagonals are always preferred for compositions as they create more dynamic movement than straight lines.

ƒ5.6 @ 1sec., EV-1, ISO64 w/ Polarizing filter and ND filter

Wandering up the trail took us to this point, where we could just begin to see the waterfall through the trees. The foreground element was in place with the greenery and rocks and the curve of the river became the natural pathway through the scene.

The 1-second exposure provided appropriate movement to the water while the -1 exposure compensation was required to prevent the highlights in the distant waterfall from clipping.

I highly recommend this method of exposure, where you expose as “high” as possible on the histogram without clipping the highlights – commonly referred to as ETTR or Expose To The Right. This allows more photos to be recorded in the shadow areas, reducing the amount of noise when the tonal values of shadow areas are lifted. Due to the beautiful, lower contrast lighting of the morning, this technique wasn’t absolutely essential, but it is good practice to get the most out of any sensor.

The overall appearance of this initial exposure is a bit on the dark side. The shadows are open, and the whites are near white, but the mid-tone greens appear drab rather than lively. That’s okay! The camera is simply a tool for recording a file that can then be processed – just like negatives were processed – into a final photograph that matches the way I saw the scene. The camera can’t do it all. Jpegs from many cameras are excellent, but there are still techniques that can be applied to further improve the photograph. This is way shooting raw files has become the default, especially amongst fine art photographers. It’s the difference between a “machine print” from a negative and a custom print, made by yourself or a professional printer. Learning a few simple manipulations in an app like Lightroom can go a long way to improving your photographs.

On Screen…

Back at home, in Lightroom, I made the following adjustments. Lightroom is designed to be handled “top down” starting with White Balance then moving through Exposure, Contrast, etc. I often start with Whites and Blacks, using Lightroom’s “Auto-Whites” and “Auto-Blacks” feature (NOT the “Auto” button you see there) to pin down the darkest and brightest pixels. Holding the Shift key and double-clicking on the word “Whites”, then doing the same on “Blacks” will do just that.

From there, I move to Exposure. Now, you might think “Wow, +1.20 in Exposure is a lot!”, but it really isn’t. Exposure in Lightroom lifts the mid-tones – exactly the tonal range that needed lifting. Rather than using the sliders, which can be rather clunky and imprecise, I use the number boxes and increase exposure using the cursor key while looking at the photo (not the adjustment slider!). The Cursor will raise the value by 0.10 each time; holding Shift and pressing the cursor will raise the value by 0.33. When making adjustments, it’s better to start out with big leaps and going past the “ideal”, rather than trying to creep up to it in small hops. Once you beyond what”looks good” you’ll know right away; you can then use the fine tuning of 0.10 increments to nail down the ideal increase.

This same principal is true for all the other adjustments: use the cursor keys for +/- 1; Shift-Cursor changes it by +/- 10. The Shadows improved with a small bump to +20. Clarity – the adjustment to raise or lower local contrast – is great for giving very fine separation between light and darks, such as the edges of leaves or the bright water agains the dark. But too much clarity can make the photograph look artificially etched, so +10 “worked”. Bumping the Saturation to +10 gave the leaves just a little more punch.

With the gross changes made, it was now time to look at how I might shape the photograph using graduated filters and local adjustment brushes. Here is the photo with those initial tonal adjustments. It’s bright and has a three-dimensional presence. But, to me, the foreground area in front of me seems just a bit too bright. Pulling in a Graduated Mask with decreased Exposure, seemed to work except the greens seemed dinghy, so I increased the Clarity and Contrast. This allowed the greens in the mask to better match the greens in the rest of the photograph.

This shows the area that was masked, followed by the resulting photo.

This is an improvement, but now the water in the river seems a bit dinghy. I felt the whites of the turbulence should have better separation from the darker river bed. Using an Adjustment Brush, I painted over the river water, adding additional contrast (30), reducing the shadow values by -30 and increasing the clarity by 40 to provide that local contrast separation. lastly, I made the tones cooler using the Colour Temperature adjustment. I find the rock of the river beds in this area to be rather yellow, often with algae; cooling it down a little helps to “restore” the river, if only photographically.

 This photo shows the area of that was “brushed”. These Grad Mask and Adjustment Brush features of Lightroom allow an almost infinite series of adjustments, that I find even more intuitive than Photoshop layers. As well, they add virtually nothing to the overall file size as they are simply instructions in a text file as opposed to pixel-level changes. To accomplish the same “feats” in Photoshop, would bloat the file to be 3, 4, 5, even 10x larger than the original. It’s the beauty, and simplicity, of non-destructive  editing.

Crop and Transform to straighten

Finally, the photograph was coming together, but needed a little more “massaging”. First, I’ll take you back to my printing days in the darkroom. Often we would introduce a very light vignetting of about 10%. It’s not apparent to the viewer, but it acts in an almost subliminal way to contain the eye within the photograph, especially in prints that would be matted in white then framed. The white mat draws the eye to the outside; the vignetting helps to pull it back in again. Lightroom has Vignetting under “Effects” and, really, -5 to -10 should be enough, but not too much to make it obvious.

Lastly, I felt the scene could use a little cropping and straightening, as shown in this photo. Ideally, this is done in the field and I lament having to do so on screen, but adding a slight “Transform” of -10 on the Horizontal and +20 in Aspect returned the image to what I remember of the scene. There is, now, a progression of light from the top, where one would expect it, gradually dimming to the bottom, where one would expect it to be darker, given the canopy of trees above.

In the gallery below, I’ve included the four progression images so you can see the subtle changes that may not be apparent looking at them separately as they are presented above. As well, you’ll find a few other photographs from this morning. If you have any questions, be sure to add them to the comments below.

Field & Screen #1 – A Sunny-Day Landscape from Killarney


Right-click and open this in a new tab to follow along.
Right-click and open this in a new tab to follow along.

Something I’ve wanted to do for some time now, is provide a “look under the hood” describing the photography techniques I use to make some of my photographs, both in the field and in post-capture processing on computer. This is the first, using a recent photo from Killarney Provincial Park in Ontario’s near north. I chose it because it was made NOT during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset, but rather in the mid-afternoon (2:39:57PM according to Lightroom!) when many people are active with a camera.

My wife Laurie and I had stopped for lunch on a quiet bay on OSA Lake – perhaps the most beautiful lake in Killarney with its vermillion blue colour. And, as you can see from the photo, it was a perfect summer day. What is particularly fetching about this part of Killarney are the white quartzite ridges of the La Cloche Range, the 2.5-billion-year-old eroded roots of mountains once higher than the Himalayas. As a photographer, it was the contrast of these rugged hills against the deep blue sky and lake with the rich green of the early summer coniferous forest that caught my creative eye. My goal in photography is to “reveal the art inherent in nature” and this seemed an ideal opportunity.

When working on any set-up, my mind is constantly going over four key aspects of photography – what I’ve come to call the Photographer’s Toolbox:

  1. How can I use the Ambient Conditions to my advantage? e.g. weather, time-of-day, season and lighting angle, quality and colour of light
  2. What Elements of Visual Design are at my disposal? e.g. foreground anchor, leading lines and pathways, shapes such as diagonals, S-curves, C-curves and triangles, camera angle (high vs. low), horizontal or vertical format and rule of thirds (or not!)
  3. What Technical Controls will enhance the scene before me? e.g. lens, filters, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation
  4. How might Post-capture Processing be used to reproduce what I visualized in the field? e.g. cropping, contrast, clarity, graduated masks, cloning, etc.

It works like a continually-scrolling flight checklist as I assess the scene and its potential, choose a location and camera angle, set-up the tripod, select the lens and settings on the camera and, ultimately, make the initial exposure and subsequent exposures as I assess the image on the LCD. Granted, the LCD is small, but it is better than what we had in the film days, which was nothing! I enjoy working with the LCD as it is reminiscent of my 4×5 days viewing the (upside-down and backwards) image on a ground glass.

Actually, the LCD plays a far more important role in assessing exposure. I’m a proponent of the ETTR method: Expose-To-The-Right, which I’ve written about previously: Exposure Part 1: M, A or…? and Exposure Part 2: All Hail the Histogram (both are PDFs of previous newsletters).

Ambient Conditions:  On this fine sumer day, I had a perfectly blue sky and high overhead lighting – not the ideal for landscapes – but I did have the colour contrasts working for me. The sun was behind me providing rather flat lighting, but again the colour contrasts help make up for it.

Elements of Visual Design:  The real work began with the all-too-common problem of landscape photographs: foreground. Although we often think of landscapes as being the “grand vistas”, every compelling landscape is anchored with a detailed foreground that invites the viewer to participate in the landscape. Without a decent foreground, everything else simply looks far away and unreachable. A detailed foreground also introduces movement into and around the photograph – very important if you want to keep the viewer’s interest for more than a few seconds.

In this case, there was some of the pink granite that also graces Killarney’s shores and ridges. But, the photograph needed something more to engage the viewer. Wait a moment… the canoe. I know, it’s a Canadian cliché, but at least it’s not red! Actually, if it was red, it may have been too much with the vivid blues and greens already present. Rather then “place” the canoe in the centre, it kept it to one side to create movement and on a slight angle pointing in the direction I want the viewer’s eye to follow. This is critical (and may sound contrived), but it is done all the time in art: subliminal pathways which cause the viewer to follow a certain path.

Snap 1
Snap 1 – Composition and Movement

In this case, your eye first lands on the bright bow of the canoe – the viewer’s eye always lands on the brightest part of the photo first. From there your gaze is guided by the canoe back to the ridges on the left, then it swings across the ridges towards the right, back down to the foreground rock then along the angled shoreline back to the canoe. The tree shadow in the bottom left helps to point your way into the photo again. You will notice the movement around the photo is clock-wise – a natural and intuitive movement for people. If I had placed the canoe on the right side of the scene, there would have been similar movement, but because we, in western cultures, read from left to right, your eye would not as likely be drawn to the empty left side of the photo.

When composing a photograph, work with the camera off-tripod. This gives you the freedom to move up-and-down, side-to-side, forwards-and-back to find the exact point, as American photographer Fred Picker once said, “where the scene is looking back at you”. For me, that’s when all the elements are aligned to provide a flow through the scene – difficult to describe in text (which is why hands-on “live” workshops are so helpful). I keep in mind the Rule of Thirds but work with it as a guide to remind me to keep things off-centre. Notice the horizon line, where the hills meet the lake, the foreground shore and the canoe itself – nothing is in the centre. This helps create the movement shown.

Technical Controls:  For most landscapes, I use a wideangle lens; in this case a 24mm ƒ2.8 Nikkor-D. With the camera tilted down and a small aperture (in this case ƒ11), everything from the foreground to the background will remain in sharp focus. I try to keep my aperture to ƒ11 as it is the “sweet spot” for this lens: it provides the maximum depth of field with the minimum softening of details due to diffraction (excessive bending of the light around the edges of a small aperture). I also used a circular polarizing filter. Often I don’t use a polarizer (a) with digital because the resulting blue skies are too saturated; and (b) with a wideangle lens because one part of the sky becomes more polarized than other parts. In this case, however, the polarizer pulled the greens and bright white quartzite from the hills and there was no obvious variation in the polarization from left to right (probably because the sun was directly behind me, lighting the sky more or less evenly).

I used the exposure recommended by the matrix metering in my camera, then reduced it by 2/3 of a stop. At full exposure, the canoe was showing blinking highlights on the LCD, telling me it was being recorded as pure white. Using exposure compensation to reduce the exposure kept those highlights in check. It made the rest of the photo appear under-exposed, but that’s irrelevant as it is easily corrected in post-processing.

Snap 2
Snap 2 – Original raw file with Exposure and Grad Masking

Post-capture Processing:  So here is the initial raw file opened in Lightroom. By the way – I use Lightroom for all my post-capture processing. I have yet to find a reason to use Photoshop except to blend images for focus-stacking or panoramas, neither of which I do much of.

My first step is often to click the “Auto” button, just to see what Lightroom does with the file. Its algorithms are usually pretty good, and while never perfect, they give me some ideas about how to adjust the image. Surprisingly, LR recommended increasing the White point, but then controlling the Highlights with reducing them. It may sound counter-intuitive, but LR “sees” the whites as the brightest 5%, and the highlights as the next 15% or so of the brightness scale. This tells me there was a little headroom to raise the Whites – a good thing for clean, crisp-looking photographs.

The opposite is true for Blacks and Shadows. There was room at the bottom to further drop the Black point. Raising the Shadows adjustment is always helpful for pulling detail out of the shadows. I raised the Clarity slightly to 10 as I found it gave better separation in the small wavelets on the water and better edge to the foreground rock. One thing you will notice (on the original LR view above) is that all my values are round numbers. I know I’m being pedantic about this, but I find the sliders to be ridiculously gross in their adjustments, therefore I use the cursor keys. By holding down the Shift key when “cursing” the values jump by 10 instead of 1. Rarely do I notice a difference of 1 or even 5, but, when I do, I use it.

Now for the adjustment masks and brushes. I use the Graduated Mask (M) frequently. I excepted to use it for the sky, but found that after the Tone adjustments, the sky was fine and natural-looking. I did add a Graduated Mask to the bottom 1/3 of the image, up to the base of the canoe. I often do this to help “contain” the viewer so they don’t go wandering out of the image. It is subtle (even subliminal), but it works. In this case, I adjusted the Exposure to –0.80. After doing so, the pink granite seemed a bit grey, so I increased the Saturation by 30. In this photo, there was no need for the Adjustment Brush (K).

Snap 3
Snap 3 – Cropping

Next, comes Cropping (R). For this, I made a Virtual Copy (Cmd+’), leaving the Master File as is – fully “processed” but uncropped. When envisioning this scene in the field, I saw it as a long and wide scene, similar to a panorama (2:1 ratio), but not quite, so  I chose a 16:9 ratio. Some photographers are loath to crop – I’m not one of them. I feel that the engineer who came up with the 3:2 ratio in the 1920s (Oskar Barnack of Leica cameras) shouldn’t dictate to me how the world should be viewed. I see in squares (1:1), sometimes in 4/3s (4:3 ratio), sometimes in 4×5 and sometimes in 3:2 as is the original aspect ratio of my camera. There are other times when the prescribed ratios just don’t work – and that’s okay, too.

Snap 4
Snap 4 – Spot Removal and Post-crop Vignetting

As I am working through the process, I am always looking for distractions that might catch the viewer’s eye, pulling them away from the point of the photograph. (I’m also looking for dust spots, usually in the sky, that need cloning out!) In this case, there are very few distractions, just some waves in the bottom right of the photo. I used the Spot Removal (Q) tool to clone three small areas as shown in Snapshot 4.

Lastly, I often add an Effect called Post-Crop Vignetting. This reduces the exposure in the corners and edges of the photograph. When used to a high degree, your photo can look like it was shot through a telescope. In this case, I want to apply just a little for the same reason as the bottom Grad Mask – to subliminally keep the viewer within the photo, away from the edges. It’s a technique that’s been used for decades – way back to the darkroom work done by Ansel Adams. When used correctly it is not overtly noticeable, but works.

OSA Lake and Killarney RangeSo, now it’s finished! Well, almost. Often, after doing some editing (processing), I will put the photo away for a while and come back to it a few days or a week later. With fresh eyes, I will often see something I didn’t notice before because I was too involved in the details of the image. So far, I haven’t done this; when I do, I will add those steps to this workflow and let you know.

Note: I’ve made a black-and-white version of this photograph which I think I prefer over the the colour. Here it is: you decide…

OSA Lake and Killarney RangeIf you have any questions about this process and/or the techniques used, let me know by adding a comment below. When looking through my photos either here, on Flickr or at, if you see one you are wondering about, suggest it for a future Before and After column.

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Thanks for reading!

January 2011 – Bleak Midwinter

To me, it’s been a bit of a frustrating winter. When we’ve had good snow, I’ve been committed to other things. Then, when I had time, the warm weather and rain arrived. When the cold weather returned at the beginning of January, I was ready for it. Finally, some snow!

Flurries, Starkey Hil



Original raw capture. Although the image appears underexposed, the red areas shows snow that has been recorded as pure white (but is later recovered).
Original raw capture. Although the image appears underexposed, the red areas shows snow that has been recorded as pure white (but is later recovered).

Ambient Conditions

This was an overcast day with steady flurries. I knew there wasn’t a lot of contrast to work with, nor was there any directional light to create texture – so necessary for many winter photos. However, with the snow clinging to the branches, there was at least some contrast I could make use of.

Visual Design Elements

My original intention was to concentrate on wideangle and set my zoom to 24mm. There was a beautiful cedar rail fence between me and the scene that was lightly frosted in snow. At first, it seemed like an ideal image with the fence as a foreground element, but I soon realized how much of a barrier the fence was to the rest of the scene.

I moved up to the fence and immediately the scene opened up more with the foreground diagonal of the raspberry canes providing an ideal leading line from front left to mid-right. The line continues to the left following the open snow patch; the viewer’s eye is then led back to the right by the background snow patch. To me, this assemblage of layers gives the feeling of depth I strive to create in my images.

2011-BleakMidwinterHistTechnical Controls – 
72mm f/8 @ 1/140; ISO 100; tripod

The final exposure was 1 stop greater than recommended by the light meter and was achieved by dialing in +1 stop of exposure compensation. The added exposure shifted the tones to the right of the histogram, raising the highlights to the threshold of pure white  without blowing out the brightest whites to pure white.I would have preferred a faster shutter speed as there was some wind to contend with. I also would have preferred ƒ11 to maintain depth of field. I couldn’t have either, so I had to compromise by knowing I would need to crop off the foreground which could not be kept sharp.

Post-capture Techniques

After importing into Lightroom, I immediately cropped the image to remove the unsharp foreground raspberry canes and took a slight bit off the top to avoid the distraction of the sky. I don’t usually start with cropping except I had pre-visualized the image this way when composing in field. White balance was fairly accurate with only a slight tint change of 6 towards green.

As you see in the original capture, the tree branches and snow have a “mushy” look to them, so my next move was to raise the contrast – but not  with the Contrast slider. Instead, I increased the exposure by +0.5 which also meant a small amount of Recovery was needed to prevent snow becoming pure white. The Black Point was then increased to 20 to bring the greys back down. In doing so, the image became a bit too over-saturated, so Saturation was reduced by 10.