Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Devil's in the Details

Medicine Lake - Jasper National Park, Canada
Canon 5D mark II + Canon 24mm f3.5L TSE
5-shot bracket - HDR
Geek alert... this post focuses on the digital techniques I used to produce the leading image. So, if you’re just interested in the picture, here are the liner notes... you are looking at the long view of Medicine Lake in Jasper National Park. The photo was captured around 4:00 p.m. on a summer day just as the light began to soften.

I wish this image was as easy to produce as it is to describe, but in practice, it required a lot more forethought. Tamy and I spent 16 days exploring the Canadian Rockies. During our travels, we focused on wildlife, flowers and landscapes. I had seen so many amazing images of Lake Louise, I knew that this was something I had to have for myself. After spending many early mornings and late evenings working the iridescent blues of Canada’s most famous lake, and getting the shot in “the can*,” Medicine Lake was next on my hit list. We visited the Medicine Lake area at least four times during our four-day shoot in Jasper, and each stop was more disappointing than the last. We’d arrive early and shoot the pre-dawn light and stay late into dusk, but we just couldn’t get the conditions that I had envisioned. My attempts were fraught with complications like overcast like, cloudless skies, or choppy water. During the final pass out of the Medicine Lake area, I impulsively stopped and dragged out the gear to make one last attempt. It took about 30 minutes to set up this shot, as I wanted to position the tripod as close to the ground as possible, level the horizon and build the composition. It was around 4:15 in the afternoon and, being a mid-summer day in Canada, the sun produced many deep shadows and bright highlights throughout. To counter this impossible situation, I produced a 5 stops series of bracketed images in order to capture all of the details from shadow to highlight.

In the initial edit, I was pretty disappointed with my Medicine Lake series. All of the images had serious flaws that I couldn’t see past, so I relegated the photos to my increasingly large pile of non-selects. Thus, a blog-post is born. I need something to say or something to share, and this challenge and frustration seemed as good as any idea I’ve had in the past. 

I pulled up my five shot series from Medicine Lake in Aperture 3.4.3, examined the histogram for each shot, and exported the files as tiffs into my “HDR folder.” In general, I am not overly fond of HDR (high dynamic range) images, and when using this technique, I lean towards the side of realism. The five shots were then imported into Photomatix Pro v4.2. Here I decided to “align the image according to features,” “reduce noise in shadows,” and “reduce chromatic aberration.” The program did it’s magic and spat out a cartooned version of what I had hoped to see.... this is why I generally dislike HDR! Rather than accepting the tone-mapped surreal product that greeted me, I used the program’s “Exposure Fusion,” option and began to tweak the black and white points. After adjusting the luminance and saturation, I saved the file and imported it into Photoshop CS5. In photoshop, I created a layer mask, adjusted the levels and then began to question whether the final image would be worth the effort. Looking at the post, I’m not sure that it is, and that’s why I think my process is worth these words in this blog. With the levels set, I created another layer mask where I adjusted the shadows and highlights. The global adjustments were over the top, so I painted back the dark tones except for the trees in the foreground. The use of the shadow tool often produces a flat image, so I needed to bump up the contrast. Because a global adjustment would wipe out the shadow mask I just made, I created another layer and used the Unsharp Mask tool at 20 sharpen, 80 radius, and 0 threshold to create some pop. The effect was overwhelming, so once again, I decided to “paint in” the contrast where it was needed. In a final step, I applied a minimal Smart Sharpening to the image and prepped the file for printing and web output. 

Post-processing is a necessary evil of the present. The film guy of the past would have taken the shot, edited the slide and tossed this image into the bin. The blown highlights and black shadows would have made for a lousy film shot. But hey, it’s 2013 and computers can do magic with troubling light. Digital now offers the opportunity for a hack like me to challenge my vision and capture a moment that I would have avoided in the past. Here’s to the “modern era!”
  • For you photo-noob’s, the phrase “in the can,” is a reference to film. Film, much like the LP, is ancient history. Film is a thin flexible piece of plastic or other material coated with a light-sensitive emulsion like silver halide. When you finish a roll, it goes in “the can,”... a metal or plastic film container ;-{> .

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