Monthly Archives: August 2006

Beyond the Cliff

Along the far side of the Golden Gate Bridge, in Marin Headlands, past the initial fortifications, you can follow a trail down to Kirby Cove. A little way down this trail is a side path that takes you to some World War II vintage fortifications. Unlike the vista points above, there are no fences here to stop one from scrambling down the cliffs. So you can make your way down a ways, for this direct view of the Golden Gate Bridge rises from the cliffs (double-processed from the RAW for the darker cliffs and the lighter bridge against the sky).

Click here for an image from above of the Golden Gate Bridge at dusk, one after dark, and looking out the Golden Gate from above Kirby cove by moon-and-star light.

Origins of Life

Close up, these water drops on a web look like amoebas or some other primitive creatures to me. But in this photo, the water is evaporating, and you can pierce the veil to see the web:

Piercing the Veil

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By the way, “piercing the veil” is a legal expression describing what you have to do to get at the human malefactors who may hide behind a corporate facade. It’s fun to use a legal trope to decribe water drops in my garden!

A Pixel Is a Pixel

I post-processed this photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge by early moonlight from Fort Mason by sandwiching four different conversions from the RAW negative using Photoshop layer masks and the Paintbrush tool.

Recently, Reuters photographer Adnan Hajj was in the news when he was fired for manipulating a photo of Beirut being bombed by an Israeli air raid. Based on the photos published in the New York Times story, Hajj used a clone tool to crudely amplify the plumes of smoke coming from downtown Beirut. It’s not clear whether the purpose of the digital manipulation was politically based, or rather (more likely) to make the manipulated photograph more salable.

These two photographs (mine and Hajj’s picture of Beirut burning) are very different in content and purpose. Why do I bring the digital manipulation of these two wildly divergent photographs up in the same story?

Because all digital photographs are manipulated, either by software or the software’s operator. A pixel is a pixel. The processor in a digital camera manipulates the photo when it captures and saves a RAW image, and manipulates it more if it converts it to the JPEG format. And a photographer with the time, effort, and skills can “paint” a photograph pixel by pixel. Or use higher-level tools to paints pixels with greater efficiency and subtlety. As I did in my photo of the Golden Gate Bridge and Adnan Hajj did in his photo of the war in the Middle East.

So all digital photos are manipulated. What are the morals of this sea change for photographers, photo editors, and those who simply look at photos?

For photographers, just because you can manipulate an image doesn’t mean that you should do so. There’s a different duty of care and responsibility on a news photographer like Adnan Hajj, whose goal is to is to accurately portray current events, than there is on me since my goal is to produce aesthetically pleasing images. At the very least a photographer should be prepared to state whether an image has been manipulated in post-processing. Furthermore, if an image is represented as an accurate portrayal, then any manipulation should be “honest.”

I am prepared to state right now that every single photograph of mine has been manipulated. Can we all say together that digital captures straight from the camera don’t look terribly good? Unmanipulated digital photographs miss nine tenths of the potentiallity of this exciting new medium, which combines photography with digital manipulation.

Of course, if you grant that some post-processing manipulation is required for all photographs, honesty in this manipulation is a very subjective matter. This puts photo editors in a very tough position. In the New York Times article about the Adnan Hajj affair, Jonathan Klein, the chief executive at Getty Images, the world’s most important stock photo agency, is quoted as saying that the only way to avoid problems like the Hajj manipulated photos is to “employ people of integrity” and if there are abuses “not only take action, but take visible action.”

Making an example of digital malefactors is shutting the barn door after the equine creatures, digital or otherwise, have escaped. It won’t really stop the problem. In the case of the Adnan Hajj photos, the manipulation is pretty obvious at sight to anyone who is familiar with way cloning works. So photo editors need to be better educated about how software like Photoshop works, and how to spot manifestation of manipulation.

It sounds like one of the reasons that the Adnan Hajj photos got published was that the process was rushed. Slowing down and really looking is a partial solution to this issue. More important, organizations that are vouching for the verasimiltude to life of their imagery need to implement workflow that helps to guarantee the authenticity of the process.

Everyone who looks at photographs—and that is all of us—needs to know that digital photographs are artifacts that can be constructed one pixel at a time (or using tools that operate on pixels in bulk). It has always been possible to manipulate photography, but with digital photography it is necessary, easy, and sometimes very hard to detect. (Of course, the fakery is not hard to detect with the Adnan Hajj photos.)

There’s also a thin line between manipulating a news photograph in post-processing, and staging an image. There have long been charges that some of the most famous examples of war photography have been staged, going back to the heyday of silver halide photojournalism.

Skepticism is called for. The further implication is that the context of the photograph (and the person or organization vouching for it) has become increasingly important.

Wonderful Water Worlds

A good and bright morning in the garden, with the chance to photograph all these wonderful worlds of water.

Some of my water drop worlds are well defined with sunbursts, others look like stained glass, and still others are bright worlds that are more about sunlight than water.

The photo at the bottom of this series is part of the McClamp Bubble sequence, and shows my garden reversed and upside down in the water world!

Here’s a link to my water drop photo set on Flickr!

Water Marbles

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Dahlia Drops

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Party Time

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A Visit to My Garden

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Golden Gate Sunset with Flare

From Indian Rock near my home in Berkeley, this view of the Golden Gate definitely has “flare!” Lens flare.

A Different Light

These two photos represent a different “take” on the water drop theme: like Different Signals they are more about the effects of light on the drops, and less about the worlds within drops.

Tripping the Light Fantastic

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Different Signals

This water drop photo differs from most of my water drop images because it is an exercise in selective focus and relatively low depth-of-field. It was exposed at f/8 for 1/80 of a second, and a single drop on the spider web strand is apparently sharp. More typically with these photos I stop the lens as far down as it will go, and make a much longer exposure.

Here’s more about my water drop photo techniques.

Stanislaus River Dawn

Julian and I went rafting on the Stanislaus River with his cousins David and Steven, Uncle Chris and Aunt Dejonghe (my nephews and in-laws). A good time was had by all.

In the early morning at the campsite by the put-in, there was a cool mist over the river (shown here). But later on in the day it was hot hot hot!

I’ve often thought that river trips are dream-like: the slow progression to putting-in, and the one-way trip with a logic all its own. Once you are on a river you do not know where it will take you, and most of the choices are made by the river.

My Favorite Worlds

If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know that I’ve been photographing water drops. And that for me, each water drop is a world, as Blake put it, in a grain of sand. (Here’s a fairly complete selection of my water drop photos on Flickr.)

The two photos in this story are among my favorites of my recent water drop worlds. Everything seems to come together in the photograph of a single drop above: sharp focus on the drop, a nice sunburst, and a nice inner world showing the white Scabiosa atropurnea (“Snow Maiden”) that hosts the water drops and shows drops within the drop.

The photograph below shows a cosmos full of water drops, each caught by the thin filament of a spider’s web, and on and on into an apparent infinity.

Both photographs were captured with the same gear, and roughly the same setup. That is, my wonderful Nikon D200, my stupendous Nikkor 200mm f/4 macro lens, a 36mm extension tube and a +4 diopter close-up filter, mirror lockup, and a remote trigger. The single drop (above) was exposed at f/36 for 0.2 of a second, and the multiple drops (below) at f/40 and 0.8 of a second (both ISO 100).

To digress for a second, the 200mm f/4 Nikkor macro is as heavy as big telephoto lens (which it kind of is at 300mm 35mm equivalence). One of the things about it that really makes my life easier is the built-in tripod collar. The tripod collar lets me shift the center of gravity forward on the tripod (by mounted the lens rather than the camera). It also lets me change the orientation of the photograph by loosening the screw that holds the collar in place and rotating the lens. Meaning that I don’t have to move the camera at all. A big, expensive, special purpose lens. But well worth the price if you do much macro work.

Water Worlds

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Golden Golden Gate Bridge

This is the final exposure from the other night on Marin headlands. Here’s an earlier view looking towards the Golden Gate Bridge bridge (and from a position slightly closer to the bridge), and a moon-and-star-scape taken, well, thirty seconds or so before this exposure (but looking in the opposite direction).

I think that I like this view best of all my Golden Gate Bridge views because as Nadine put it on Flickr, the photo shows a bridge that is “TRULY the GOLDEN GATE Bridge.” Yes, this bridge is golden.

In common with the other late evening (or nighttime) views, and indeed many of my landscapes, I post-processed this photo by exposing the RAW image several times and combining the different exposures. This process can feel a lot like combining photography with painting, since the amalgamation is often achieved by used the Photoshop brush tool on a layer mask.

It is emphatically not high dynamic range (HDR) photography, which stitches together multiple images with different exposures taken at the same time. I think I get more natural-looking results with multi-RAW processing than any HDR imagery I’ve seen. I’m also not quite sure why one needs the extra exposure range from many original images, since the RAW conversion itself gives you six stops of latitude.

These six stops range from -3 f/stops to + 3 f/stops, centered around the actual exposure. Bear in mind that f/stops are the denotation for the opening of the lens diaphragm, and are on a logarithmic scale. Each full f/stop lets in half the light of the f/stop that is next smaller. By the way, and somewhat counter intuitively, the smaller the f/stop number the larger the lens opening. So f/40 means that the lens is only open a little bit in its center, while f/2.0 probably means that the lens is open all the way (or almost all the way).

The 6 stop range means that from lightest to darkest with a RAW conversion the ratio is 1:1/2^6. (2^6 is notation for 2 to the 6th power.) Multiplying this out, 2^6 is 64, so in any RAW capture you have a 64X exposure range. This should really be enough for any exposure that doesn’t have over-the-top burn out aspects, like direct digital sun captures, which often look like dripping hard-boiled eggs no matter what the exposure settings. Even in this successful direct-sun capture, the sun is basically highlighted out.

It’s important in this time of a new and vital digital technology and craft not to lose sight of basics like how to expose photos, and the relationship of one f/stop to the next.

Starry Night

This is a photograph looking away from the Golden Gate Bridge out the Golden Gate towards the open ocean. On the right you can see Point Bonita. If you look hard in the larger version of this photo, you can see the Point Bonita light. On the left, there’s a boat, Point Lobos and Land’s End, and the ambient lights of the Sunset district of San Francisco.

I was photographing the Golden Gate Bridge after dark. I turned round, and saw this beautiful moonscape. I thought I might as well try to capture it, although you never know what you are going to get with these kinds of exposures. A key point: I used the menus on my Nikon D200 to turn on the long exposure compensation since this image was exposed for thirty seconds.

I like best the way the stars appear in the nighttime sky.

I processed the RAW original four times in Photoshop to come up with the version you see here. First, I created exposures for the sky and ocean. I added them as layers, and used a layer mask and a gradient to combine the two layers.

Next, I processed the RAW file a third time to expose properly for the moonlight reflected on the water. I combined this layer with what I had already done using a layer mask filled with black (hiding everything). I painted on the black layer mask with a white brush set to varying opacities to bring out the reflected moonlight. I used less opacity and flow towards the edges of the area I wanted to bring in, and more towards the center.

Finally, the moon itself needed some work. In fact, the moon was much brighter than anything else in the image. So I did a fourth RAW conversion to expose for the moon. This meant boosting the shadow slider, dropping the brightness slider, and lowering exposure as far as it would go. I then used the same layer mask painting technique as I used with the reflected moonlight, with concentric rings of greater opacity towards the center of moon.

While it was not trivial to shoot this image in the field, the main issues there were things like getting my tripod set up in the dark, not falling off a cliff, and so on. It’s a fair statement that most of the intellectual effort with this photo took place in the post-processing.

Also true: what I “saw” when I took the photo was beautiful, but it did not “look like” my final image. A couple of reasons: the camera sensor picks up light spectrum that is invisible to the the human eye. And my post-processing resulted in an image with a greater range from light to dark than any conventional photograph could have rendered from the scene.

Convergence

I went over to the Marin Headlands to photograph the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset. At first, with the D200 on my tripod, I used a polarizer and stopped the camera down as far as possible to get the car headlights to solidify.

As the lights of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the stars came out, my exposures grew longer and longer. From what I could tell on the LCD viewer, my images were starting to look a little murky and pixelated (I almost wrote “grainy,” but I realized in time we don’t have grain any more!).

So I reversed course, and opened the lens up wide. After all, with a fifteen second exposure, headlights will look like a solid line without making the exposure any longer. I also used the Nikon D200 menu to turn on the long exposure option. This reduces random pixelation within an image exposed for more than eight seconds at the expense of taking longer to save the image (for a while I wondered why the camera was flashing “JOB” at me) and of making the image file size larger.

Back home, on my computer, I realized that the bridge, its shadow, and the light it projected all approached convergence. As did the image I saw in my mind’s eye when taking the picture and the digital photo I was viewing on the computer!