For some time now, I’ve been intent on making a preliminary attempt at focus stacking. It’s not critical to my work, but I often think I should add as many tools as I can to my photographic toolbox. I’m already pretty good with High Dynamic Range (HDR), which is a form of exposure stacking, so focus stacking seemed like the next move.
Stacking is a way to blend more than one image. Focus stacking is blending several images, each of which is focused at a different point. The idea is to use sharp portions of each image to create a new image with more in focus. This can be useful for landscapes that have compositional elements at locations both very close to the camera, and very far from the camera, but it is an exceptional tool when it comes to macro photography of very, very small objects, in which focus ranges are so close that depth-of-field is razor thin.
The basic process is to import images of different focus areas into Photoshop, then tell Photoshop to blend them. You can put it into search engine to find a step-by-step, which is what I did. It wasn’t at all difficult.
For this attempt, I made one image for every rifle cartridge in the image, moving focus from one to the next.
This is my first try, and it’s incredibly rough. Obviously I need to read more about how to finesse this technique, and I need to practice. There are many more applications available in addition to Photoshop, but I have Photoshop as part of my Adobe Creative Suite, so it seemed like a good place to start.
Thanks to my relationship with the Pontotoc Technology Center, I have access to all the applications in the Adobe Creative Cloud 2020 suite. This software is super powerful, versatile, and complex. The suite includes applications for photo editing, video and motion production, design and layout, augmented reality and 3D, user experience and user interface, and social media.
I am essentially a photographer, photo editor, and writer, and have literally never even opened some of these very powerful programs, though I have a cursory knowledge of Adobe Premiere Pro I made myself learn so I could integrate it into teaching a class.
For day-to-day photo editing, I use an older version of Lightroom Classic at my office every day, which I don’t love, but the newest iteration of Lightroom Classic has become my go-to photo editing application. It’s not the image-altering behemoth that Photoshop has become, but it’s easy to stay organized and work to edit images in it.
Adobe struggled with their naming conventions when advancing the suite, so Lightroom is Lightroom “web,” and Lightroom Classic is the real thing. Yeah, lame, I know.
One thing I like about Lightroom is the ability to add “looks,” in the form of presets, which are available both for purchase and for free. I can also build my own “look” presets and save them… honestly, I expect that will be how I end up using presets in Lightroom Classic.
My bigger goal, though, is to learn, learn, learn. I want to learn how to use more of these software applications, but also how they can improve my storytelling narrative. Great things are ahead!
Sometimes when I remember events in my life from when I was younger, I wonder why I didn’t take as many photos as I imagine I should have. I am, after all, a professional photographer, and I should have been the one to document that ski trip in 1990, that nighttime glow-in-the-dark Frisbee game, that beautiful 105mm lens I sold.
So why didn’t I take all those pictures back in the film era?
It wasn’t like that back then. Digital photography, particularly smartphone photograph, has created the misperception that we all need a thousand photos of our lives every day, and if you aren’t photographing every meal and every sunset, you are a flip-phone neo-Luddite.
Shooting lots of frames equalled expensive processing, or in my case, laborious darkroom work. It’s easy to forget that one of digital photography’s most revolutionary aspects is its affordability. You can shoot 10 or 100 or a 1000 images, with very little added cost. Have you priced a roll of film and the price to get it developed lately? It was expensive in 1990, too.
I actually was taking a lot of pictures. If I shot 20 frames at a friend’s birthday party, his wife might have shot three frames with her point-and-shoot.
I often feel this way about the slim number of electives I took in high school. I see kids today active in sports, farm and ranch, yearbook, web development, cheer, and more, and wonder why I wasn’t. But, it wasn’t like that back then. My school allowed one non-academic elective, and for me, it was yearbook.
I want to marry these thoughts with a trend I have been observing recently…
There is a huge hipster/millenial move right now toward shooting film. I certainly find any efforts to amp our creativity to new levels very laudable. I don’t, however, think shooting film is the way I want to go, and here’s why…
If you are scanning your film to create a digital product, you are shooting digitally. The only way to shoot completely analog is to develop your film and print your film using an enlarger. Doing otherwise creates an unnecessary and wasteful step in creating a digital image.
Photographers are feeling out-competed by a crowded market, and want to step aside and be thought of as geniuses or magicians again. I feel this, too. Rank amateurs are learning to photograph the Milky Way by watching YouTube tutorials, taking that away from professionals.
When digital arrived on the scene in the late 1990s, it was the solution to all the problems we faced with film. With film, grain was obvious at even modest ISO settings, film stuck us with one ISO setting for each roll or film, film faced the possibility of accidental exposure ruining film or paper, film required a time-consuming process that created pollutants, film only allowed a limited ability to review images in the field (Polaroids) and and film had a higher-than-digital cost per frame.
Some photographers claim they like the “look” of film. But photographers almost always make some kind of “look” edit in software to their scanned film files, usually in a way they could do better with an original digital file.
It’s absolutely true that I made many great images on photographic film during the first half of my career, but it is equally true that I heard many great songs on AM radio when I was growing up, but I haven’t tuned to an AM radio station to listen to music in 20 years.
I feel convinced that this hipster movement is just a fad. I’m certainly glad that someone out there is having fun with film, I am aware that there are reasons to keep film alive, and I am in possession of a number of great film cameras in good working order. But there are very few new film cameras being made, film is getting harder to obtain and more expensive, and when was the last time you used an enlarger to make prints in a real darkroom?
If you feel like you are struggling creatively, maybe you don’t need either film or a new digital camera. Maybe you need to find a narrative. You need to take your imaging from technical recording to storytelling. You need to push the limits of fundamentals like light and composition. Nothing between your hands will inspire you as much as anything in your heart.
Note: I wrote this here first, but used it as my June 1, 2019 column.
I am in the middle of one of the busiest times of the year: back to school. This involves, among many other things, putting together our newspaper’s football preview section. The photography, of course, falls almost entirely on me, and involves making hundreds of images, from player headshots to team photos to features of our “players to watch.”
One of my best strategies in these crazy busy August days is to stay as much caught up with my editing as I can. As I speak, I’ve shot four football media days and one softball media day, all on top of my regular schedule, and I have edited and submitted every image. No one ever waits on Richard at my office.
This “best practice” applies to all photographers. Unedited images sitting in your camera or on a computer hard drive somewhere might as well not even exist. No one likes to wait, and editors and clients hate waiting for their pictures. Don’t believe me? Wait a month before you start to edit a wedding you shot, and enjoy the constant phalanx of phone calls and emails. “Where are our pictures?!?”
Another reason this is a best practice is that staying ahead of the ball lets you stay better organized, both mechanically and in your head. I have seen students and fellow photographers browse through thousands of images on the backs of their cameras, on their phones, or, and this is the worst, one media card after another, trying to find just one image in a sea of images. Here’s a tip. You can’t find “Johnson Wedding 2016” in your camera or on your phone, but I found “Reeves-Milligan Wedding” in just a few seconds on my laptop. I just opened a search and typed the words.
If this kind of organization isn’t your thing, it might be worth considering hiring someone to do it for you – an office manager or editing partner. Most of the complaints I hear and read about photographers are about timeliness and organization. And nothing can sour your reputation like angering your customers.
As the photographic world knows, or at least loudly claims, amateur photographers shoot JPEG files and pros shoot RAW. I know this because photographers who make these claims trumpet them loudly, often with wearable memes like “I shoot RAW” t-shirts. There are even a few pictures floating around the web of photographers wearing such gear while holding a film camera, and at least one popular webizen has dubbed film to be “real raw.”
The day your camera was born, it was set to make JPEG files. When you pulled it out of that good-new-smelling Styrofoam clamshell and charged up the battery and were ready to shoot, you were shooting JPEGs. There’s nothing wrong with that. JPEG is robust and easy to use. Almost all of the images you see on the web, and every image you see here richardbarron.net, is a JPEG file.
When I first tell my students about raw files, I explain to them that while you might like the results of shooting JPEG files, those files are married to your camera settings. If you have your camera set to “vivid” color, for example, you are stuck with a vividly-colored image. The same goes for white balance – you are mostly stuck with the white balance you set in your camera – except that you can get white balance very wrong when you are shooting. RAW files are a great way to avoid this marriage of settings. Although your RAW file might be tagged as vivid color or tungsten white balance, you can change those values as soon as you open the image.
Why is this? The biggest reason is that JPEG files contain 8 bits per channel, meaning they contain 256 brightness levels per color: red, green and blue. RAW files record 12 bits of data, creating and storing 4,096 brightness levels per color, or 14 bits, creating 16,384 different brightness levels per color. Add to this the fact that we paid for all those colors when we bought our cameras, and then throw most of them away when we make JPEGs, RAW files make even more sense.
My students and I were shooting recently on the bridge over the pond at the Pontotoc Technology Center, and ran across some beautiful light. We took turns posing for each other, and the JPEGs looked great right out of the camera. In fact, since I had my settings on vivid, the images popped beautifully, and really made a great first impression.
I shoot in many circumstances that require settling for incorrect or ugly white balance, under or over exposures, and challenging lighting scenarios (like sports and spot news), and I am always glad when I can fine tune everything back at the office.
I can’t begin to count the occasions when having a RAW file saved an image. I tell my students to start by setting their cameras to shoot both JPEG and RAW files, but as the years go by, I have less and less use for that tagalong JPEG.
In the ocean of photography, there are few waters as muddy as the use of the unsharp mask. This filter, commonly found in Adobe editing software like Photoshop and Lightroom, but also used by a myriad of other programs, uses an algorithm of contrast enhancement to, typically, increase the perceived sharpness of an image. I won’t go into to much detail about how this is accomplished, but I will give some guidelines about its use.
Unsharp mask does not add any actual detail to an image. In fact, it is somewhat destructive, particularly if overused.
Unsharp mask should never be applied to an image being archived for your files.
Unsharp mask should never be applied to an already sharp image, except…
Unsharp mask is usually a necessary step when printing images, since most printers yield images with a slightly soft look, and…
Some degree of unsharp mask can make photos for web look better on most monitors, most of which don’t display enough pixels per inch to make unsharpened images look good.
Unsharp mask will sharpen everything, not just details. It is difficult to use unsharp mask on noisy images, since it sharpens the noise along with the details.
With that said, it is possible to use a combination of noise reduction and unsharp mask together to create a usable image from a not sharp file. This combination sacrifices resolution to make an image appear sharper in print on the web.
Occasionally I can rescue a not-very-sharp image with unsharp mask. Often this is the case in my work since I shoot news and sports and sometimes get images of great moments that aren’t quite sharp. It’s easy to take it too far, or to hopelessly pound a bunch of unsharp mask into a really soft image.
I use some kind of sharpening on all the images for my web site and social media. In addition to giving my work a little more “pop” than most of the images on the web, it helps overcome the image compression algorithms used by social media sites.
Finally, don’t let any know-it-alls on the internet (including me) tell you to “never” or “always” use the unsharp mask, or tell you your use of it was somehow wrong. It is a tool in the toolbox, for use as your creativity demands.
In many of my classes, people want to know how to organize their photos. They are mostly lost about how to arrange files and folders on their computers. I’ve known many professional journalists – people who should know better – who have essentially no clue how to organize computer stuff. I don’t fault them, though, because the truth is that life in the information age is bafflingly complex, and photography is now an information technology.
An unhappy social media experience...
“Sorry facebook friends trying to get my photo’s [sic] back. Got new cell ph [sic] & when they were transfering to my new Ph [sic] they lost my STUFF. Not happy…”
When I got my first professional photography jobs, in college, we organized our image files, which at the time were photographic negatives, in traditional containers like spiral notebooks or cardboard boxes. Even the busiest of us on the busiest days were unlikely to shoot more than six or eight rolls of film – maybe 300 images. I kept the same basic organization until the digital era, ending with my last photographic negatives in May 2005, the year my newspaper traded away our last film camera, a Nikon F100.
On a big news or event day now, I can shoot a thousand or more digital frames in my efforts to provide something for print, something for the web, and something apart from that for social media.
It can be baffling to look at that many images on a screen, and the temptation is to either make no effort to edit them, or to grab the best five or six from a shoot and orphan the remaining files. The worst possible option is to tell your computer to upload them all to your Flickr or SmugMug or 500px or Pinterest account, since, as I have pointed out before, no one has time or desire to look at a thousand photos of anything. And consider that if you don’t have time to look at all your photos, why would anyone else?
On our phones the situation gets even more baffling. I’ve stood in front of someone who searched her phone for two minutes or longer to show me a photo, only to finally just give up. The reason is clear: most people shoot many dozens of photos every day, then make no effort to organize them.
Overheard As I Wrote This...
“I’ve got these photos on my computer at home, but I don’t know how to get them off.”
This is one of my biggest peeves in the digital world: people who print digital photos and bring them to us to scan to make them digital. It represents, in my estimation, a kind of willful ignorance.
I discuss all this as I sit at my computer at home and work to finish folder after folder of images. It’s a pretty straightforward process of deleting the genuinely worthless images, grabbing and editing the really captivating pieces, then going back to look at the rest of what’s left behind to see if there might be a pearl among the swine. It’s not a bad workflow, but it comes with a couple of caveats. 1. As you get tired, you tend to get less clear about how you want to edit your images, and 2. If you get in a hurry, you tend to throw out more images so you don’t have to deal with them. This sort of “get finished itis” is one reason I make myself edit in random order sometimes.
I am still amazed sometimes when people come to my newspaper and ask for photographs or their family or friends, but have virtually no additional information, as if every reporter and editor remembers every word we ever published. Or maybe it’s that their world view is so myopic that they really don’t understand how much information is out there.
On our office wall at home is a rack of CDs and DVDs, all with the spines labeled clearly, with names like “Ashford Wedding 2012,” or “Perfect Ten, Anniversary 2014.” It’s an analog approach to organizing digital files, and might be worth consideration if you have difficulty keeping your computer world in order.
Getting organized might be one of the most difficult aspects of photography, as it seems to be in much of life. Don’t rely on your phone, the cloud, or someone you know. Do it yourself. Take the time to learn how. It is hard work, but in the end, it’s worth it.
For the last 15 or so years, the main terminal for delivering photographs to our audience has been the computer and its accessories instead of their predecessors, enlargers and chemicals. The interface between the photographer and the computer is software, computer programs that allow is to view, edit, and deliver images in the 21st century. Here is a rundown on some of the software with which I have become familiar.
Adobe Photoshop: this is the ultimate in image editing, graphic design, and desktop publishing. It’s power to manipulate every element of an image makes it very attractive, particularly for artists and designers, but also for photographers who want control over every pixel. The down side is that it is expensive and complex, requiring a steeper learning curve than its contemporaries. There are a couple of features that make Photoshop my first choice. One is actions, which allows me to assign a function key to do groups of things to an image all at once; for example, I can create an action that will add yellow, darken the blacks, filter noise, apply the unsharp mask, and save the image, all at the touch of one key. Another is history, which allows me to got back through my edits one step at a time to see what I did and how it worked.
Photoshop is integrated with Adobe Bridge, which acts as a kind of digital contact sheet and file manager. You can do some edits to one image, like noise reduction and white balance, then apply those edits to all the images in Bridge.
My first experience with Photoshop was in 1998, when I was given a beige Apple G3 computer and Adobe Photoshop 5. There have been a long series of incremental upgrades to Photoshop, and it is now part of Creative Cloud.
Adobe Photoshop’s little brother is Adobe Photoshop Elements, in version 14 and priced at $99 as I write this. In all honesty, unless you are a graphic artist or designer, Elements can do just about anything to an image you will need. For a lot of professional photographers, the biggest item Elements does not have is the ability to work with 16-bit files. There is a comprehensive list of the differences here, but in the end, for day-to-day photo editing, Elements is a powerful and impressive application.
My friend Michael often uses Elements because it starts up faster.
A pitfall of Photoshop is that it can, as I have discussed on a number of occasions, make pictures lie by adding or removing critical elements, over or under emphasizing elements of human features (from supermodels to war scenes to O. J. Simpson), and creating images that imply someone is saying or doing something they are not. Over the years, such editing has mislead readers and ended the careers of several leading photographers.
Increasing in popularity in recent years is Abobe Lightroom. This combines some features of Photoshop with some features of Bridge, fusing them into a somewhat simplified interface. To me, Lightroom seems like Everyman’s Photoshop. While it has some powerful image management tools, I find its interface less intuitive than Photoshop. I actively dislike the way Lightroom pops hidden toolbars up when you mouse over them.
One serious downside to Lightroom for me as a professional who needs to quickly edit images is the fact that you have to import images into Lightroom before you can work on them, then export them to a file to use them. The reason for this is that Lightroom keeps your edits in its database so they remain “non-destructive,” so you always keep your original photo, but that’s a little patronizing to those of us who figured out how to manage files and edit copies 16 years ago.
Lightroom provides “Publish Services” like Behance, Facebook, and Flickr, with the option of adding more, it seems to me that over the years, applications that try to hold your hand are destined for the scrap heap. Social media integration is both ineffective and etherial, meaning that one day AOL is on top, the next day MySpace is on top, the day after that Facebook is on top, and so on. As I wrote this, I had no idea what “Behance” was, and going to its web site didn’t clear it up much.
Essentially, I need to double-click a photo, smoothly and quickly edit it, save it, then send it where I need it, to a folder on a server usually. Lightroom fights me at every turn.
Apple computer users, particularly those who use the iPhone and iPad products, are familiar with Apple’s Photos, which until recently was called iPhoto. Apple retired their fairly good Aperture application and merged it with iPhoto to create Photos with the goal of integrating desktop editing with phone and tablet editing. If Lightroom is an amateur product, Photos is the kid’s product. It has the few basic controls, but beyond that doesn’t have the tools, particularly brushes, that are critical for professional editing.
Maybe in the end, the applications that try to do everything for you are for people who always struggled with that. That’s not me: my photos are organized by date, and indexed according to name and caption information, since we had to do this from the start of the digital age, long before Photos and Lightroom even existed, and this will probably be the only organization method that will stand the test of time. The reason for this is that software isn’t developed for your needs, but for the software company’s profits. If it doesn’t make money, it will disappear. Don’t believe me? Remember PictureProject? MyPictureTown? EasyShare? Microsoft Photo Editor?
In conclusion, my first choice for photo editing is Adobe Photoshop, followed quite closely by Photoshop Elements.
I am in the middle of teaching another Digital Photography for Beginners class at the Pontotoc Technology Center. It’s a good group.
As my readers and students know, I am an advocate of the RAW file format. I feel that while JPEG is a robust and easy to use format, it can, in many situations, cheat us out of the imaging potential of our expensive, sophisticated camera.
What's the Difference?
JPEG, Joint Photographic Experts Group, is a a lossy compression file format that almost every computer in the world can read. It is the default file format for nearly every new camera. It makes files with 8-bits of data per color per pixel, meaning each color is expressed by a number from 0 to 255. Additionally, too much JPEG compression can create JPEG artifacts, which can’t be easily fixed or removed.
RAW is a proprietary file type unique to each digital camera, that requires special software to access. It is a lossless, sometimes losslessly compressed, file format that creates up to 16-bits per color per pixel, meaning that each color is expressed by a number from 0 to 65535 or higher. Since RAW files don’t use the lossy compression that JPEGs use, it does not create compression artifacts.
One situation where shooting RAW is indispensable is sports in low light, particularly in weird low light. I was in that situation last week in Roff, Oklahoma, a small high school with a cozy gym that is always packed with fans. With lights that have a yellow-green spike, and yellow floor, chairs, uniforms and fan clothing, the yellow quickly overwhelms any effort to pick a correct in-camera white balance. The only solution I’ve found is to shoot RAW, then aggressively dial out the yellow-green in Adobe’s Camera RAW dialog. There’s just not enough color data in an 8-bit JPEG to accomplish this.
As you can see, between click-balancing with the eyedropper tool, and active correction and desaturation of the yellows, it is possible to convert a yellow mess into a very usable image…
The modern photographic lexicon owes a lot to electronic technology. I’m not just talking about digital cameras; in fact, the technology to which I refer can apply to film as well. This technology is broadly discussed as “post-production,” often simple shortened to “post” on photography web sites. I don’t think this is a particularly good moniker because I think of all the steps of photography as part of the production process, so editing and printing are “production,” not “post-production.”
I set myself up for a significant editing challenge on a recent road trip to the desert. I photographed Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado near Page, Arizona. On a previous occasion, I shot it with my 12-24mm Tokina lens, which gave me fairly good results, but despite being zoomed out as wide as possible, I still wasn’t getting the epic, broad, expansive panoramas I was seeing on the web by other photographers.
My solution depended heavily on software: shoot the scene with my 10-17mm Tokina fisheye, and “unbend” the curved lines characteristic of the fisheye lens using Adobe Photoshop to create a sweeping panorama. I’d never done this exact edit before and hadn’t checked it out, but felt I could achieve it one way or the other.
As it turned out, Adobe Photoshop made it quick and easy, and the result was exactly what I wanted.
For decades before the internet and expensive color printing presses, many, or even most, photographs were in black-and-white. The first films were all black-and-white. In practice, the first color film was Kodachrome, introduced in 1935.
My career followed a similar evolution. In high school and college, our newspapers were 100% black-and-white, and our yearbooks only had one color section, which we had to send to the printer at the start of the year. When I became a career photojournalist, we used color so infrequently that we referred to its occurrence as a “color project.” It wasn’t until 1991 that my current newspaper, The Ada News, got the equipment to produce in-house color.
So there was a lot of black-and-white for a long time. As color became more common in print (including some very handsome hardcover books my wife and I have made in recent years), and with the advent of the digital era, black-and-white has evolved from the norm to largely a form of artistic expression.
It’s easy, staring at an smartphone or a tablet, to be satisfied with nothing but color images. But there are those of us who see black-and-white as more than in homage to our past, but as a very compelling visual option.
The question then becomes: how do we get our digital color images into black-and-white, and what is the best way to do this?
One option is to set the camera to black-and-white mode. I do this once in a while, since it forces me to “think” black-and-white at the time I am shooting. The downside is that it limits what I can do with the images later.
Another option is the “app” option. “App” is lazyspeak for “application,” and there are various applications, like Instagram or iPhoto, that have one or more black-and-white options.
My go-to workflow for black-and-white from a color image file is Adobe Photoshop’s channel mixer function. The channel mixer is more sophisticated that mere grayscaling, and offers some of the best options for fine-tuning how the colors in the image are converted to grays. I am particularly fond of the channel mixer in more recent versions of Photoshop, which offer presets that emulate the way black-and-white film responded to filtration.
If you have the software, it’s worth a try. Black-and-white still has the potential to amaze.
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 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.
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.
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.
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…
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…
As we all know, each of us is a product of our era and circumstance. I entered photojournalism in the early 1980s. It was during a period in which black-and-white photography was probably at its zenith. Kodak, Ilford, Fuji and Agfa were all making exceptional silver-based black-and-white films. Most of the images I made for newspapers were in black-and-white.
One concept I learned early in those days was that of grabbing the viewer’s attention, and one way to do that in the 1980s was to darken the corners of the frame, leading the viewer’s eye to the center of the image. As the decade progressed, we photojournalists, either on our own or influenced by each other, used this technique more, and more dramatically than ever before. In the darkroom days it was called “burning” or “burning in,” since after exposing the print to the baseline amount of light, we could open the enlarging lens to a bigger aperture, and using our hand or a piece of cardboard, we would expose the corners to more light from the negative, making that part of the print darker. (If you are confused about the “more light = darker image”, just remember that when printing a photographic negative, everything is exactly that, negative.)
By the late 80s, the technique was being used so frequently and so overpoweringly it began to be known as the “hand of God” technique. Photographers were burning the corners of their prints so much that they were sometimes black.
The 1990s brought more use of color in newspapers, and this corner-burning technique looked wrong in color, so it slower faded from vogue. To this day I still sometimes burn corners in Photoshop, but only to equalize exposure so the corners aren’t too bright. In the end, the objective is to give our audience, in my case the reader, an image that unhesitantly explains the subject.
A popular technique for managing contrast in imagery is called High Dynamic Range, or HDR. Typically the technique employs combining three or more images, identical except for exposure, using software.
Photographing the same scene using different exposures is called bracketing. Bracketing was a necessary evil in the days of film, in situations involving complex light that was difficult to meter. We would make three or four or five bracketed images, then pick the best-exposed of the bunch for our final product. Ansel Adams, possibly the greatest nature photographer of the 20th century, regarded bracketing as lazy and imprecise, but of course, he wasn’t shooting news and sports, and could take his time to analyze exposure and contrast.
With digital photography, particularly with features like histograms and blinking highlights, getting the correct exposure no longer requires the “spray and pray” exposure method. Still, bracketing is a feature of almost every digital SLR on the market, and it allows us to create some very interesting images. HDR is easy to abuse, and sometimes the result can be disturbingly garish and unnatural.
Blending several different exposures works by capturing the highlights in the images exposed to properly render the bright parts of the image, and capturing the shadow areas in images properly exposed for the dark portions of the scene, and blending them together.
The example before you is, I hope, interesting and exciting without crossing the line into garishness. I made it at Waterholes Canyon in Arizona in May. I had the canyon to myself, so I had all the time I needed (unlike at Antelope Canyon, which was so crowded it was difficult to find time or space to work patiently.) I had a small tripod with me, and with my Nikon D80 on it with my 12-24mm, I made the three images you see to the right, bracketed at two-stop intervals. I then used a program called Photomatix Pro to blend them. This program has a number of built-in presets for various blending effects, from “Fusion” , which is quite mild, to “Painterly,” which is quite wild. The final image below used the “Compressor – Smooth” blending method, with a few tweaks of the sliders to get the values I wanted. I then exported to image as a 16-bit TIFF, which I edited in Adobe Photoshop with a few more modest tweaks, including using the brush tool to make the sky bluer.