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:
- 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
- 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!)
- What Technical Controls will enhance the scene before me? e.g. lens, filters, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation
- 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
So, 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…
If 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 QuietLight.ca, if you see one you are wondering about, suggest it for a future Before and After column.
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Thanks for reading!