photography from the ground up

HDR

HDR: Thus I Refute Photographic Snobbery

I recently received an e-mail which made the argument that HDR is a polarizing subject in the photographic community. It led me down that road that forks and forks again and…well, you know.  Are we as photographers to believe that we are (and should be) fenced in by rules? In this case the rules are about technique and processing. When photography was in its infancy, it was considered to be outside the realm of “serious art”. Now, nearly one hundred years later, it has become acceptable, but only if it fits in a certain box.

So, I am having trouble coming to terms with the ongoing debate inside the photography community concerning HDR processing. I consider the ability to blend exposures to expand the dynamic range of an image to be a wonderful addition to the photographer’s toolkit. There seems to be some divisive opinion about how much processing is allowable. What bothers me about this debate is one very important consideration: CREATIVITY! If someone’s vision requires that heavy and obvious HDR look, then who has the right to tell them it’s too much? Each one of us is different; we each see things in different ways and wouldn’t life be boring if we all agreed on everything?

This first image was made in the Bisti Wilderness last year. The landscape was other-worldly, and the dramatic sky added even more to that impression. In my post processing, I consciously emphasized that quality by making the HDR effect more obvious. I used a tool to help me achieve my vision.

The second image is from the same trip. It was made about an hour after the first. By then the skies had cleared somewhat, and, while the landscape is by no means common, it doesn’t quite have the alien feel of the previous image. This is also an HDR exposure fusion, but I backed off on the processing; I used the technique to enhance the contrast and to make the sky pop a little more.

So, two HDR images that express two very different emotions. I think I have succeeded in capturing my vision for each of them, and that is the point of art.


Out There In The Rocks-Chapter II

We went back to the Lybrook Badlands yesterday to do some more exploring and to come up with a format for a photo tour in the area. Just after leaving the paved road, we came across two guys parked on the side of the road. We stopped to talk and learned they are from Paris, France, and are traveling the southwest to photograph some of the more popular places. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Lybrook is on their list.

They were uncertain about the weather and asked if they could tag along with us. We agreed and set out to see what we could see. This photo shows Dominic, his son Frederic, Robin and me in the heart of the badlands.

Because of the conditions, heavy clouds with intermittent rain, I decided to shoot all HDR (exposure fusion) images. I have found that this is a good way to achieve depth and contrast in this kind of light.

These first three images were made right on the side of the main dirt road that leads into the Lybrook badlands. We weren’t more than a couple hundred yards from our vehicles as we photographed this small collection of hoodoos.

As you can see from the stormy skies, our concerns about the weather were well founded, but we decided to continue on; we all had rain gear and the means to protect our camera gear from the elements.

There was some blue sky as you can see in this image of what I dubbed the Hoodoo Playground. At this point, no rain had yet fallen, but I could smell it on the wind and knew it would be only a matter of time. As some of you who have read my previous blog entries may know, I am energized by this kind of weather. So, why the sudden shift in my attitude? The roads in this area have a high clay content; when it rains hard enough they can quickly become impassable quagmires. As much as I enjoy spending my time making images out here in the rocks, I didn’t relish the idea of spending a night in the Jeep waiting for the roads to dry out.

As we entered the main section of the badlands, the lightning began to flash and the thunder began to roll, but none of us showed the slightest hesitation at continuing the trek into the oncoming storm. By the time we reached the place named Hoodoo Cove, the rain began to fall, not hard, but steady, so we headed back towards the parking area to be in a better position in case we needed to make a run for the cars.

I couldn’t resist making one more image before we left. Even though the rain had begun to fall, there was a break in the overcast that allowed the sun to light part of the rim. It seemed somehow fitting that this dwarf Ponderosa Pine was sharing some of the rays.

When we were about a half mile from where we parked, the rain let up and then stopped altogether, but the storm still moved all around us. We headed up a wash between two prominent buttes to continue our exploration. I made this image from a high point on our trail, we then continued on through the notch towards the darkest part of the cloud cover.

We spent another two hours wandering the washes and climbing around the incredibly complex terrain, getting to know the place a little better. As we made our way back to our vehicles (again), I made this last image. to remind myself how fragile life is and how easily it can come to an end in a place such as this. At the same time, I was looking forward to our next trip out here.


My Inclement Muse

I have been taking stock of my creative drive, attempting to disassemble it and discover what makes it tick. What I have found doesn’t surprise me. I have known it all along, but putting it into words seems to help sustain it. One of the things that drives me is a love of inclement weather: snow, rain, stormy skies–I could do without wind. When the weather turns foul, my spirit soars. I get a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach, and anything seems possible.

If I can throw a remote location into the mix, then I’m a happy camper. Mother Nature in all her power and glory! Both of these images were made in such locations, under such conditions. The first one is The Eagle’s Nest in the Bisti Wilderness. It had just started to rain, a typical New Mexico summer thunderstorm. I have to admit that I was a little concerned about being several miles from the car, in wide open spaces with lightning flashing, but the muse told me to just make the best of it. I named this image after her.

The second image was made on the side of the road between San Luis and Torreon, NM–Yes you can find stuff like this just lying around next to the road, all you have to do is get out and look for it. I didn’t go more than a hundred yards from the car to make this photograph. Unlike the Bisti image, there was no immediate threat of rain and shelter was within easy reach, but that did nothing to diminish the pleasure and satisfaction I got upon releasing the shutter.


Landscape Photography On An Overcast Day

Everyone knows you don’t shoot landscapes on an overcast day. The light is too flat to get any depth in your images. Right? One of the things I learned a long time ago is: Learn the rules, but take them with a grain of salt.

One tool that is available to those of us who dabble in the digital realm is HDR or High Dynamic Range for the uninitiated. Normally, if you expose for the highlights in a contrasty situation, the shadows will be blocked up with little or no detail in them, and vice-versa if you expose for the shadows. By making a number of exposures 1/2 to 1 stop apart, a photographer can then combine those images to expand the dynamic range of the photograph–the dynamic range is the spectrum of tonal variations from pure black to pure white that can be captured by a camera. Another effect that can be achieved by combining multiple images is a heightening of contrast in an otherwise flat image.

On a recent photo excursion to the Ojito Wilderness, I had occasion to test the efficacy of this technique. We had started out on a partly overcast day to hike and photograph in a part of the Ojito known as the Colored Bluffs. The closer we got to our destination, the heavier the overcast grew until it obliterated the sun and the nice puffy clouds that had been there a short time before. We began our walk hoping for some better conditions,

As we reached the top of the mesa, the entire landscape changed and we were rewarded with incredible vistas in every direction. The light was still flat, but the visual cornucopia before us made that seem almost irrelevant. Everywhere I looked, there was an image just waiting to be captured. So, I happily started shooting, all the while telling myself that I would have to return on a better day. I realized right away that I would need to blend exposures to get the most out of the images I was capturing. I bracketed five exposures for each scene I shot.

This first photo was taken near the point where we emerged from the wash on top of the mesa. The colors were more saturated because of the overcast, and this dilapidated fence line seemed to invite me into the canyon.

As we continued along the trail, we came across this small clump of rabbitbrush, which was juxtaposed against the colored bluffs in the background. The plant was a contrast in the stark landscape, but it also provided a harmonious counterpoint to the scene.

We were constantly aware of the overcast and the declining sun, but we couldn’t seem to turn back. We had the “let’s just see what’s over that next rise” syndrome. Finally, we came to a high place on the trail which was our “turn back no matter what” point. This is the view looking northwest with Cabezon visible on the far horizon. A fitting climax to a wonderful journey of discovery.

We slowly made our way back towards the parking area. This is the view looking west where the bike trail heads down off the top of the mesa. I was excited about the images and exhilarated by the possibilities this place holds. I also confirmed my belief that it is possible to make passable, or even great images on an overcast day. All of these photos were shot RAW with initial processing in Adobe Lightroom. They were then blended in Photomatix Pro using the Exposure Fusion tool, and final processing was done in Adobe Photoshop.


The Rio Puerco Valley

The Rio Puerco begins its journey to the Rio Grande high in the Nacimiento Mountains of northwestern New Mexico. Its course wanders through San Pedro Parks and the Santa Fe National Forest before leaving public lands near the village of Cuba. From there it follows the western edge of the Jemez Mountains past the village of San Luis, the ghost town of Cabezon, and Cabeon Peak. This first image was made along County Road 279 between San Luis and Cabezon.

The Rio Puerco is an ephemeral flow; most of the time there is no moving water in the deep arroyo that has been carved out over the ages. When there is enough water to fill the stream, it is usually a muddy brown from the sediment being carried by the “ flood”. I made this image after heavy rains transformed the channel at the place where BLM road 1114 crosses the Rio Puerco west of Cabezon Peak. It is my first attempt at HDR imaging; it may be a little over the top for some tastes, but I still like the effect.

A little farther south from this point, the Rio Puerco meanders past Cerro Cuate, and turns to the south. It is here that the river begins its journey through the Cabezon Wilderness Area. As the road begins to drop down to the edge of the wash, there is an expansive view of the valley with Cabezon on the left, and several other mesas and lesser peaks in the distance.

From here the road crosses the Rio Puerco and continues south following the course of the streambed, which, in places is more than a mile across. Several miles beyond the river crossing is the ghost town of Guadalupe, which thrived as a farming and ranching community from the early 1900’s through the 1950s, but drought and overgrazing forced the inhabitants to leave the area. Now all that remains are some dilapidated adobe ruins and some weathered corrals.

About three miles beyond the town, high on a mesa are the Guadalupe Ruins. There are about twenty rooms and three kivas at a location which commands a broad view of the valley to the north and the south. This was an outlier of the Anasazi Chacoan complex which thrived in the area from around 900–1150 CE. Like the people who inhabited the town of Guadalupe, the Chacoan people were also driven out by drought and resource depletion.

If you choose to visit this remarkable place, remember to respect the land and the people who have lived here: take only photographs, leave only footprints.


Murray Reynolds Falls

Here is yet another image from Ricketts Glen. Murray Reynolds Falls is the last waterfall going downstream on Kitchen Creek in the main part of the park. Adams Falls is a couple of miles downstream on the other side of Hwy 118, but is usually accessed from a parking area just off the highway. I would say this is the most idyllic of the waterfalls in Ricketts Glen. The emerald pool and the trees which surround it create a sense of calm contentment.

Despite the idyllic feel of Murray Reynolds, it was one of the more challenging places to make an acceptable image. The light breezes had begun to kick up by the time we reached here, and the many overhanging leaves were constantly in motion. Normally this would not be a huge problem, but when you use a slow shutter speed to convey the motion of the falls, you also get the motion of the leaves. I have a few other images of these falls that I think are better than this, but this is the only one in which the leaves are not motion-blurred.

Again, this is a five exposure blend, Initial processing was done in Lightroom, and then blended using the Exposure Fusion module of Photomatix Pro, final adjustments were done in Photoshop


F L Ricketts Falls

F L Ricketts Falls is the last waterfall I photographed in Ricketts Glen. As I was setting up this shot, I brushed my camera which was mounted on the tripod. The whole thing fell forward and landed lens down on a rock. I held my breath as I inspected the damage. Luckily, the only thing broken was the 3 stop ND filter which had shattered on impact. Silently cursing my inattention while reminding myself to be more careful in the future, I screwed on my 2 stop ND filter and adjusted the exposure settings. Although this is not the best image of the day, it is probably the most memorable due to the near tragedy of a broken favorite lens.

I used my usual camera/lens configuration (Nikon D700/Nikkor 17-35 mm f 2.8 wide angle zoom lens) mounted on a Bogen tripod with a 2 stop neutral density filter. I bracketed five exposures which I edited in Adobe Lightroom. I then combined them using Photomatix Pro’s Exposure Fusion mode, and did the final adjustments in Photoshop.


Life In The Wilderness

This is another image from my exploration of the north end of the Ojito Wilderness back in July. This little clump of cacti was nestled in a small cul-de-sac. The contrast between the green, growing vegetation and the hard, immutable rock is what piqued my interest in this scene. Add a dash of great atmospheric conditions, and voilà, a photograph!

This is a blend of three source images. The dynamic range was just beyond what could be captured in one exposure. When I exposed for the foreground, the clouds were blown out, so I bracketed three exposures. I did my initial adjustments in Adobe Lightroom, then used the Exposure Fusion tool in Photomatix Pro, and cleaned things up in Photoshop. This is pretty much my normal workflow in a situation like this.

Nikon D700, Nikkor 17-35 mm f2.8 zoom lens, circular polarizer, Bogen 3021 PRO tripod.


Ojito Fairyland

This image was made in the northwest corner of the Ojito Wilderness. I spotted this area while driving the back road to Cabezon. The next day a friend and I armed with cameras, tripods, backpacks, a GPS, and plenty of water set off in the general direction of what Robin calls the “yet to be reached mountain”. That would be the butte in the background of this image, and while we did not get there on this trip, it brought us to this wonderful place full of sandstone marvels that stopped us in our tracks. We spent the remainder of the evening exploring and photographing our new found fairyland.

I made this photo using my usual setup: Nikon D 700 with my 17-35 mm f2.8 wide angle zoom lens and a circular polarizer mounted on my Bogen/Manfrotto 3021BPRO tripod. I set my aperture at f22 for maximum depth of field and ISO was set at 100. I bracketed five exposures and did my initial processing in Adobe Lightroom. I then blended four of the exposures using the Exposure Fusion feature in Photomatix. Final processing was done in Photoshop


Cabezon-The Hard Way

Yesterday I took a little drive out through the Ojito Wilderness. When I reached the point where I usually turn around, I decided to keep going up the pipeline road which eventually ends near the village of San Luis and the volcanic neck known as Cabezon (Spanish for big head). The distance is only about twenty-three miles, but on a dirt two track with several stops to scope areas for future photo hikes, and to make a couple of exposures, the trip took me nearly six hours.

I was hoping to capture Cabezon bathed in the evening light, or lit by the sunbeams that were shining down through the breaks in the clouds, but this was the best light of the entire evening. I bracketed five exposures (-2, -1, 0, +1, and +2) and blended them in Photomatix Pro. This is the result.

Equipment: Nikon D700, Nikon 17-35 mm wide-angle zoom lens, circular polarizer, Bogen tripod.

Camera Settings: f22, 1/8th, 1/4th, 1/2, 1, and 2 seconds, ISO 100


Harrison Wright Falls: a case for HDR imaging

This is an image of Harrison Wright Falls in Ricketts Glen State Park. Wright was a friend of R. B. Ricketts for whom the park is named. It, along with Adams Falls, is considered to be the most photogenic of all the waterfalls in Ricketts Glen.

Photographing the waterfalls in Ricketts Glen can be a challenge: the canopy of old growth hardwood trees can be as thick as a jungle in places, but elsewhere, the cover opens up allowing the sunlight to penetrate and illuminate the scene. Such is the case at Harrison Wright Falls, and as any photographer knows, this combination of highlights and shadows can make it difficult to make a good exposure.

While photographing this scene, I used a 3 stop neutral density filter to darken things enough to allow me to use a slow shutter speed. This renders the moving water as a silky blur, and in this case causes the falls to look almost like a sheer curtain. All of these measures achieved my goal of capturing the waterfall in an aesthetically pleasing way, but the shadows were almost totally blocked up, and there were several hot spots on the falls. Here is the image as initially processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

I decided that this image would be a good candidate for an HDR image (I had bracketed at least three exposures for each photo I took on this trip). I used Photomatix Pro, and tone mapped one using the details enhancer feature, and made another using the exposure fusion tool. I still could not get what I was looking for, so, starting with the original image, I created a second layer in Photoshop, and copied the exposure fusion HDR image to it, and then I adjusted the opacity of the new layer until I found what I was looking for. The result is the first image seen above.

There are many photographers out there who say that this kind of manipulation is not real photography, that it does not render an image that is true to the scene that the eye beheld. But, the eye has the ability to see detail in highlights and shadows, a dynamic range, that is far greater than the that of a camera. So, is this kind of processing really cheating, or is it just another tool in the photographer’s arsenal that will enable him to more effectively capture the scene before him, and share his vision with the world?

Equipment: Nikon D700, Nikon 17-35 mm f2.8 zoom lens, 3 stop ND filter, Bogen tripod.

Camera Settings: f 22, 1, 2, 4 sec., ISO 100


Ganoga Falls

At ninety seven feet, Ganoga Falls is the tallest waterfall in Ricketts Glen. It is a classic example of a “wedding cake” waterfall, so named because of the tiered structure. Wedding cake falls typically consist of numerous small cascades that spread the flow giving the water a diaphanous glow.

Once again, due to the high dynamic range of the scene, I blended four source images into this final image using the exposure fusion workflow in Photomatix Pro. I then made the usual curves adjustments in Photoshop.

Equipment: Nikon D700, Nikon 17-35 mm f 2.8 zoom lens, 2 stop neutral density filter, Bogen tripod.

Camera Settings: f22, 1/2, 1, 2, and 4 sec., ISO 250.


Ferngully

This is another image from Ricketts Glen. We were almost to the confluence of the two forks of Kitchen Creek when I spotted a small stream entering the main flow from the west, so I bushwacked up through the watercourse for about a hundred yards, and I was rewarded with this little cascade. The scene brought to mind an animated movie that was a favorite of my girls when they were small.

I started with my regular workflow in Adobe Lightroom, then I did a three exposure fusion in Photomatix Pro, and finally some curves and color balance adjustments in Photoshop.

Equipment: Nikon D700, Nikon 17-35 mm zoom lens, 2 stop ND filter, Bogen tripod.

Camera Settings: f22, 8/10ths, 1/3rd, 3 sec., ISO 250


Adams Falls

My daughter Lauren and I hiked Ricketts Glen yesterday. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, Ricketts Glen is a State Park in northeastern Pennsylvania. Many people come for the camping, fishing, and boating which is available at Lake Jean in the upper part of the park, but for me, the real attraction is the waterfalls.

The Falls Trail is a three and a half mile hike which drops about 700 feet in the first mile as it cascades through Ganoga Glen. At Waters Meet, the trail heads up through Glen Leigh for another mile before it tops out at the Highland Trail, which brings you back to where you started. There are twenty two named, and numerous unnamed waterfalls  along the way. They range in height from 11 to 97 feet; they are all spectacular, each in its own way.

Adams Falls is unique in that it is not within the main part of the park. It is several miles downstream from the rest of the falls, and is actually only a stones throw away from a state highway. It is also, in my opinion, the most beautiful and dramatic of them all.

Equipment: Nikon D700, Nikon 17-35mm f2.8 zoom lens, 2 stop neutral density filter, Bogen tripod.

Camera Settings: f22, 1, 2, 4 secs., ISO 250


Refuge 2

Another HDR image of the one of the tinajas at San Ysidro trails. I’m wondering if there is still water in them since we haven’t been getting precipitation as regularly as in the early spring and winter. This is actually the first of the pools I came across. You can see the chute where the water flows (when it flows) in the upper center of the image.

I used three source images exposed at -1, 0, and +1 EV, and mapped the blend using the details enhancer workflow in Photomatix Pro.  Details enhancer produces the most extreme results of the three different methods available in the application. For this photo I used minimal settings so the effect wouldn’t be over the top. Finally, I applied a curves adjustment in Photoshop to boost the contrast, and correct color.

Equipment: Nikon D700, Nikon 17-35 mm f2.8 zoom lens, circular polarizer, Bogen tripod.

Camera Settings: f22, 1/10th, 1/20th, 1/40th sec., ISO 100


Hoodoo Overload

Another image from Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah. As we moved through this amazing landscape, and became accustomed to finding a new surprise around practically every corner, we reached a point of saturation. It was my companion who coined the phrase when she said:“I think I’m in hoodoo overload!”. This is the photo I was setting up as she uttered those words. Anyone who has been to Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah is probably familiar with the feeling. There is just so much out there, and before one thing has a chance to register, another is vying for your attention.

This is a high dynamic range image blended from three source images. The textures in the foreground shadows were not as visible in the normal exposure. I used the exposure fusion workflow, and finished up the processing in Abobe Photoshop.

Equipment: Nikon D700, Nikon 17-35 mm f2.8 zoom lens, circular polarizer, Bogen tripod.

Camera Settings: f 22, 1/8th, 1/15th, 1/30th sec., ISO 100.


Timelines

As many times as I have seen erosion patterns in sandstone, siltstone and claystone, I am still captivated by the play of light on these landscapes, and, when I am in such a place, I can’t help but feel that I am looking at the wisdom of the ages reflected in the wizened face of the earth.

This image is one of the last I made on our trip to Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah at the beginning of April. We were walking through a wash heading back to the parking area when I spotted this scene. I bracketed five exposures, but in the end, I only used four–the brightest one was causing the highlights in the middle ground to blow out.

Equipment: Nikon D700, Nikon 17-35 mm f2.8 zoom lens, circular polarizer, Bogen tripod.

Camera Settings: f 22, 1/10th, 1/20th, 1/40th, 1/80th sec., ISO 100.


Blue Mesa Symphony

I made this image as we were leaving Blue Mesa. I’m not really a fan of overlooks; people have a tendency to think that once they’ve seen something from an overlook, they have experienced all there is of that particular place. In this case, however, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the view.

We had already hiked down to the base of the mesa, and had seen it up close and personal, but the wider view afforded by the overlook was pretty amazing as well. The bands of color are caused by the different minerals present at various times during the area’s geologic history. I think this is one of my favorites from the entire trip.

This is another Exposure Fusion HDR made from four source images in Photomatix Pro.

Equipment: Nikon D700, Nikon 17-35 mm f2.8 zoom lens, circular polarizer, Bogen tripod.

Camera Settings: f 22, 1/10th, 1/20th, 1/40th, 1/80th sec., ISO 100.


Sleeping Giant

I made this image in a part of the Petrified Forest known as the Crystal Forest. At one time many of the petrified logs there contained quartz and amethyst crystals, but souvenir hunters have removed most of the best pieces leaving very little for the rest of us to enjoy. The removal of these crystals is one of the major reasons the Petrified Forest was granted National Park status. It is now illegal to remove anything from the park.

The Crystal Forest is still a remarkable place to visit. There is a short 3/4 mile paved trail which meanders through one of the highest concentrations of petrified logs in the park, and while I would much rather be out hiking through a wilderness, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

This is a five exposure HDR image processed as an exposure fusion in Photomatix Pro.

Equipment: Nikon D700, Nikon 17–35 mm f 2.8 zoom lens, circular polarizer, Bogen tripod.

Camera Settings: f 22, 1/20th, 1/10th/ 1/5th, 1/2, 8/10ths sec. ISO 100