Monthly Archives: October 2011

Pfeiffer Beach by Moonlight

This is a two minute exposure by bright moonlight diffused through a layer of clouds taken at Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, California. For this image I concentrated on the reflections in the pond, and contrast between wet and dry sand, rather than the famous rock tunnel.

I shot the photo at the end of a long night with some members of my Digital Black & White workshop at the Center for Photographic Art. Interested in my workshops? Subscribe to my email list to be kept current, or join the Photography with Harold Davis Meetup.

Exposure data: 24mm, 2 minutes at f/4 and ISO 320, tripod mounted; multi-RAW processed, and converted to monochromatic using Photoshop B&W Adjustment layers and Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.

Rocks, Weston Beach

Looking straight down at the rock formation at Edward Weston Beach in the Point Lobos State Reserve, near Carmel, CA, I was struck how the rock formation looked like a shell—perhaps the polished interior of a mussel shell.

As I conceptualized my photo, I kept in mind the shell shapes that this rock formation evoked. It was high tide, and the rock had bright pockets as well as small, dark tide pools with colored rock inside. Clearly I needed more than a single exposure to capture the entire tonal range of this subject. So I shot five exposures, at shutter speeds from 1/30 of a second to 3/5 of a second. Each exposure was at f/36 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.

To combine the exposures, I started by converting a RAW exposure for the background, then used the lighter exposures to layer-in adjustments to the areas that were deep in shadow and too dark.

The City is the Cheese

This is a view of downtown San Francisco across the Marin Headlands from West Point Inn on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais. I shot the photo in 2010, late in the afternoon as fog was starting to roll in across the Headlands.

I like the comment on Flickr about my photo: “Quite quite beautiful. Like a fog/landform triple croque-monsieur. (The city is the cheese.)”

Web Architecture

When I drop Katie Rose off at Step One, the area around her pre-school is often in the clouds, with drops of water clinging to flora—and spider webs.

The other day, I brought my camera, and paused to admire the marvelous but ephemeral architecture of the spiders.

There was a stiff breeze, so I shot needed a fairly fast shutter speed. I also needed a bit of depth-of-field to get most of the web in focus.

All photographic technique amounts to compromise in the face of what is practical. In this case, I boosted my ISO to 500. With my lens set to a 65mm focal length, I shot at 1/100 of a second shutter speed and an aperture of f/14.

This was an underexposure by about 2 EV compared to an average light meter reading—in essence I captured the waterdrops on the web at the expense of letting the colorful background of the out-of-focus tree go dark and dull. As I teased my image out of the RAW file I adjusted this, so that the waterdrops are vivid, and the background also appears bright.

Intricate Detail of Nature’s Perfection

Intricate Detail of Nature's Perfection

My image, Intricate Detail of Nature’s Perfection (shown above), was a winner in the 2011 North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) contest. Today (October 24, 2011) Intricate Detail graces the front page of the NANPA site.

The original stories I wrote about the making of this image: Beyond the Fields We Know; Intricate Details of Nature’s Perfection.

Fog on the Coast

The sun was battling the fog, with the line of the coast the demilitarized zone. First the fog bank standing out to sea would ride in, covering the shore. Then the sun would strike back, burning off the fog and revealing the sea cliffs with clarity.

I stood at the bottom of a steep stair-and-ladder, watching the waves at high-tide and the play of fog, sun, and shore. Clearly, the scene lacked color—so I envisioned a monochromatic image from the get-go.

It was a little hard to compose my photo, because I was facing into the sunlight and the fog made the atmosphere thick and hard to see through. I did my best.

I radically underexposed compared to an average light reading. In processing, for my first pass at RAW conversion I lightened up the file considerably, by about 2 f-stops. Then I did a second pass through Adobe Camera RAW (ACR), this time with darker exposure values. I layered in portions of this darker pass to reveal details and structure in the sun, trees, and cliff.

Exposure data: 26mm, 1/1250 of a second at f/13 and ISO 200, hand held.

Succulent

Briefly noted: I shot this succulent in the gardens at Esalen using my 85mm Nikon PC-E Micro-Nikkor f/2.8D tilt-shift macro lens. A tilt-shift lens helps correct lines of perspective when they might otherwise be distorted, and operates kind of like a view camera “lite.” In other words, the tilt-shift lens has some of the side-to-side and up-and-down movement of the bellows in a view camera, but not quite the full range of movement.

The tilt-shift capability is most often used in architectural photography, but I enjoy using it for macro photography as well. You can think of this capability as a non-virtual version of post-production warping.

To make this image, I took five exposures at a shutter speed range from 1/8 of a second to 2.5 seconds. My camera was tripod mounted. Each exposure was shot at ISO 200 and an effective aperture of f/64.

I combined the five exposures using Nik Merge to HDR Efex Pro and hand-layering (hand-HDR) in Photoshop. The monochromatic conversion was accomplished by using several Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 presets in combination.

Bamboo

Sometimes simple is best. I worked hard to achieve simplicity in these images of Bamboo, cut from a variegated plant around the corner from where I live.

It is well-known in the neighborhood that I wander with pruning shears looking for likely subjects, and some folks have given me explicit permission to “harvest” anything I fancy for photographic purposes. I assumed permission with the Bamboo hedges growing wild between the sidewalk and the street!

Variegated Bamboo

Clearly, simplicity does not mean without artifice. The process of building up the bamboo for photography was labor intensive—and somewhat painful in a literal sense. Post-production work and the creation of the Japanese-style backgrounds also took some effort.

I like to quote the American poet Randall Jarrell: “Art being bartender is never drunk.” The pains that this work took me, and the cuts the bamboo inflicted on my hands, should all be irrelevant, or even unknown, to those who view the images. Even though the cuts were impressive to my kids.

Of course, I had a great deal of fun creating these pieces. I’m also enjoying the control I have over the final look of my images these days. I truly feel in command of my craft.

But to write about the difficulties of creation along with the statement that people shouldn’t really be aware of these difficulties—they should lose themselves in the apparent simplicity of the work itself—is a kind of act of self-referential post-modernist absurdity. Well, I guess I’m entitled to a bit of that, too, as long as I keep it within reasonable limits!

Bamboo 2

Related recent stories: Glass Spiral; Scabiosa Pods and Ferns; HDR is technique, not style.

Glass Spiral

The image above was shot through a magnifying lens straight down on a turned-over glass. You can see a bit more of the magnification in the shot below, showing various glass circles.

Both images used the post-production techniques I showed in Scabiosa Pods and Fern and HDR is technique, not style. Time permitting, more to come!

Circular Magnification 1

Sweet Melancholy

There’s nothing like watching rain from inside where it is warm and dry to usher in feelings of sweet melancholy. Yesterday, a warm and gentle rain fell like a curtain of moisture across Berkeley, California.

It was too wet to photograph outdoors, but my shutter finger was definitely itchy.

Looking out a rear window I saw the pattern of waterdrops on the glass made fanciful colors from a neighbor’s yard. I shot with my camera on the tripod, combining three exposures to get the depth-of-field right. I used the f/5.6 exposure for the overall background, and exposures at f/14 and f/32 to render some of the waterdrops sharper.

Exposure data: 50mm macro, 3 exposures (1/60 of a second at f/5.6, 1/13 of a second at f/14, and 3/5 of a second at f/32), ISO 100, tripod mounted; exposures combined using hand-layering in Photoshop.

Scabiosa Pods and Fern

Possibly I am obsessed. The same set of shooting and post-production techniques that work to make imagery of glassware look something like antique drawings also work on ferns and seed pods.

Stop me before I veer completely off the reservation into a land of faux botanical illustrations.

Above, scabiosa (Pincushion flower) buds, purchased at Berkeley Bowl; below, a fern from my garden.

Fern

Sun and Waterdrops

The day started with a massive downpour. Then there was a sunny interlude before the rain began again. Things continued in this intermittent vein.

I took advantage of a lull in the rain to photograph waterdrops and sunshine (a rarer combination than one might think).

Things were moving quickly. My usual approach to waterdrop photography is surprisingly formal, using a tripod and fully stopped-down lens. Today I decided to try a different approach.

I hand held my camera, focusing on some waterdrops on a clump of flowering Jasmine backlit by the rising sun. Using manual exposure, I made sure to pick a fast enough shutter speed (1/400 of a second) so the waterdrops would be sharp even though they were in motion. Then I focused on the waterdrops and fired off about ten shots. By then, the sun had moved out of the frame.

This was the best of the bunch, with the wildness of the solar refractions and rays in contrast to the controlled focus of the waterdrops on the Jasmine bud.

Exposure Data: 50mm macro, 1/400 of a second and f/10 at ISO 320, hand held.

HDR is technique, not style

Among the many misconceptions about HDR (High Dynamic Range) image creation is a big mistake: the belief that HDR represents a style, or a particular look.

Photographers who subscribe to this particular misconception, whether they are for it or against it, tend to think of HDR imagery as bold, highly colored, and unrealistic—often represented by over-the-top sunsets or hardcore and gritty urban environments.

Goblet

In fact, HDR is a technique, or rather a set of techniques, that can be used to extend the range from light to dark in an image—and how that range, called the “dynamic range” of an image, is mapped into the final version of your image. Here’s a comparison that may help you wrap your brain around this concept. The world around us is three-dimensional, and it is not physically possible to show three dimensions in a flat, two-dimensional print. But perspective rendering, and the way our brains work, make it so that we visually pick up the cues in a two-dimensional photo (and some paintings)—and “see” the subject of the photo as three-dimensional. In the same way, HDR is a technique that allows image creators to render apparently coherent a greater dynamic range from light to dark than in a normal photo.

That HDR is technique and not style is made abundantly clear by the wealth of options in the leading automated HDR programs, Nik’s Merge to HDR Efex Pro and HDRSoft’s Photomatix. Automated software is not the only way to extend dynamic range—I often prefer to multi-process my RAW files using Photoshop’s
layers, masks, and blending modes. I’ll also often hand-layer captures shot at differing exposure values rather than letting Nik or Photomatix handle the exposure blending. But getting back to my point, even within each of the automated HDR programs there are literally thousands of choices that one can make that change the visual style of the result.

Glass Medley

With the images of glassware shown along with this story I wanted my final results to look like old-fashioned etchings or pen-and-ink drawings. I shot each image using a mirror placed in front of a lightbox. The technique was pretty similar to what I’ve often used with transparent images of flowers.

I bracketed shutter speed in a wide range, and ended up putting four or five of the bracketed versions through Nik HDR, using a custom preset I’ve developed to enhance the etching look. I also did some hand layering in Photoshop, and some post-processing to add sepia tonality, retouched some problem areas, and bumped-up the painterly effect.

Certainly, these images were constructed in large part using HDR shooting and processing techniques. In look and style, however, they are pretty far from the way HDR is conventionally supposed to look. HDR is a toolset, not the result—with the result only limited by your imagination!

Cruet

Anemone and Water Drops

How fine it is to take advantage of a light rain, and photograph waterdrops caught in a spider web!

A small, delicate flower, an anemone, is behind the web and refracted and reflected in the waterdrops.

Here’s the Waterdrops category on my blog and my set of Waterdrop images on Flickr.