Burn, Baby, Burn!

By , January 27, 2014 4:56 pm
Surprise Valley, Maze District, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, June 2012: combining deep shadows and bright sunlit highlights, this is an example of a good use of High Dynamic Range, or HDR.

Surprise Valley, Maze District, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, June 2012: combining deep shadows and bright sunlit highlights, this is an example of a good use of High Dynamic Range, or HDR.

The High Dynamic Range (HDR) mania that swept the photographic world a few years ago finally seems to be finding its proper level. For a while, every other image we saw on forums and photo sites was some iteration of HDR, and it was tiresome. Its presence illustrated a profound truth: artistic creativity cannot be manufactured through hardware, software, or, and I cannot emphasize this enough, following trends.

HDR isn’t an invalid or destructive tool in the photographic toolbox, however. In fact, in the right hands and the right circumstance, it can genuinely dazzle.

Since the technique usually involves a piece of software merging several images that are identical except for exposure, and since I shoot mostly news and sports, I use techniques that are slightly different than mainstream HDR.

In the field, I sometimes make images that simply have too much dynamic range. Whites are too bright and darks are too dark, especially when considering that they will appear in the limited-gamut environment of newsprint.

This is the image in question as it looked straight out of the camera.

This is the image in question as it looked straight out of the camera.

This happens all the time, but I thought about it Saturday as I covered a grass fire northwest of Ada in a community known as Oil Center.

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Every firefighter knew me and said hello to me, which is nice. The Oil Center Fire Department Captain said, “you’re costing me a lot of ice cream,” explaining that every time a firefighter gets his picture in the paper, he has to buy ice cream for the whole firehouse.

It was sunny and windy as I worked the fire, such that deputies had to close a portion of highway 3W for a short time due to smoke. I got into the smoke myself, and smelled like it for the rest of the day.

This is the exposure control interface in the Adobe RAW dialog.

This is the exposure control interface in the Adobe RAW dialog.

As I worked, the bright sun hit the light smoke that is typical when dry grass burns, and turned it brilliant white. Beneath it was the charcoal grey of scorched earth. The firefighters wore bunker gear, including helmets that cast deep shadows in their faces. It was a very high-contrast situation.

My options:

  • Fill-flash. This really only works quite close to the camera, since flash competes with sunlight, and gets darker as the subject moves away according to the inverse square law (Wil Fry noted that citing the inverse square law might be a bit smug.)
  • Trying to shoot bursts of three nearly-identical frames to merge using an HDR tool.
  • Use some kind of graded filter to darken the sky while preserving the other portions of the image.

All of these options are slow and cumbersome in the fast-moving environment of spot news, so I (and those like me) shoot first, as the saying goes, and ask questions later.

I got back to the office with some decent images, but the image in question is pretty contrasty. My go-to workflow in these cases is…

  • Open the RAW file in Adobe Camera RAW dialog…
  • Adjust exposure for midtones…
  • Use the recovery slider to tone down the highlights…
  • Use the fill light slider to open up the shadows…
  • Open the image in the regular Photoshop interface.

As you can see, using these tools goes a long way to taming the contrast…

This is the image after being manipulated in the Adobe RAW dialog.

This is the image after being manipulated in the Adobe RAW dialog.

Finally, I like to use the old school tools like burn and dodge to fine-tune the image, which I then caption and copy to the server for my editor…

Some burning and dodging brings the tonal values to where I want them.

Some burning and dodging brings the tonal values to where I want them.

2 Responses to “Burn, Baby, Burn!”

  1. Wil C. Fry says:

    Thanks for the ‘Barron bump’ link. I should clarify that it’s only smug if used smugly; it would certainly be appropriate in a discussion such as this. :-)

    One thing that struck home to me quickly when working for the newspaper: there’s a huge difference between processing for a backlit LCD computer screen and processing for a printing press, especially for the all-black-ink Goss Community press that my paper used.

    The paper itself wasn’t white, so there were never any “blown highlights” — the brightest thing in any image would be a light gray or off-white at best. And anything 60% gray or darker would bleed to black. It took a while to learn how badly the images had to look on my screen before they’d look good in our newspaper.

    I often processed every image three ways: (1) very light grayscale for the press, (2) more accurate grayscale (or full color) for the internet, and sometimes (3) slightly different version for printing to photo paper.

  2. Robert says:

    The cat in the sidebar is looking at my mouse.

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