Monthly Archives: September 2012

Ghosts of Grand Central

Wandering around New York with my camera after an absence of many years was in some ways a dissonant experience. I grew up in New York City, but the New York of today is not the New York I remember from the years of my youth and as a young adult.

Of course, one can’t go home again and the only thing constant is change. But somehow this visit to my old stomping grounds made me feel particularly spectral, as if the photographer Harold of thirty years ago was also present and sensing my contemporary presence. To the Harold of the past I would have seemed like a ghost, inhabiting a future world that would have been almost unimaginable.

Past and present merged as one, and I tried to express this very odd feeling in my image of Grand Central Station and its ghosts.

Ghosts of Grand Central by Harold Davis

Ghosts of Grand Central © Harold Davis—Click for larger image

How this image was made: When I walked through Grand Central Station I knew that I wanted to show this vast public space filled with people, many of whom would be partially blurred and therefore “ghosts.” Obviously, to achieve this effect I needed a long exposure.

The first hurdle was that when I took out my tripod a gentleman in camouflage khakis carrying an automatic weapon came over and told me I couldn’t use it. This was in keeping with much of my experience trying to photograph in New York—pulling out my tripod often led to its prohibition.

So I found a balcony railing on which I could rest my camera.

The next problem was that there was too much light for a long exposure. I solved this issue in two ways. First, I added a neutral density filter that cut the amount of light coming into my camera by a factor of 8. I then made a series of exposures at 4 seconds, f/22 and ISO 100.

The second way to extend the exposure was to rely on stacking. Stacking is a post-processing method for effectively extending the length of an exposure by aggregating shorter exposures. A common use is to extend the effective time of night exposures to create circular star trails as in Stars My Destination.

By extending the exposure time using a small aperture, a neutral density filter, and stacking I accomplished the intermittent blur I was looking for. People who stood still appeared solid and “real,” while those who were moving became spectral and blurred ghosts.

In this image I used the technique of stacking a little differently from stacking star trails, in which one wants the brightest pixel in a stack to be the one selected: In Ghosts of Grand Central I made two stacks, each consisting of six images, for an aggregate exposure length of 24 seconds. In one of the stacks I elected to choose the darkest pixel at each point. This is accomplished in the Photoshop Statistics action by setting the stack mode to Minimum.

The second stack used the Range stack mode, which is a statistical method that renders the spread between the darkest and lightest pixel at every point.

I combined the two stacks using a gradient, so the background of Grand Central Station (created with the Minimum stack) looked fundamentally as it does in “real life. But the foreground and floor of the space, created in the Range mode, was spectral and ghostly with some figures rendered normally and others as negative space.

Lush and Faux

In New York’s Central Park the lush—but artificial—landscapes make the cityscape look almost pastoral in its beauty. Central Park is the landscape architecture masterpiece of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, created in the mid 1800s.

Central Park by Harold Davis

Central Park © Harold Davis

Almost everything about the landscape of Central Park—lakes, meadows, hills, and rocks—was artfully and artificially created and placed. The result is an apparent pastoral paradise in which glimpses of the city only seem to enhance the lush natural landscape. The building shown reflected in the man-made lake in this image is the tower of the luxury Sherry Netherland Hotel, located along Fifth Avenue at the southern end of the park.

When designing Central Park, Olmsted and Vaux turned to the Yosemite Valley floor as a source of inspiration (Olmsted had visited Yosemite a few years before beginning the Central Park design). Compared to the wilderness landscape, Central Park seems faux (if you’ll pardon the rhyme with “Vaux”)—but certainly a wonderful enhancement to life in New York.

How the image was made: This is five exposures taken with my camera on a tripod. Each exposure was shot at 18mm, f/13, and ISO 200. Shutter speeds ranged from 1/2 a second to 1/320 of a second. I used Photoshop and Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 to create a single composite High Dynamic Range (HDR) image.


If you go into any restaurant these days and look at the diners who are eating alone, most of them are likely to be playing with their smartphones. Some of these folks are checking email and some are surfing the web. Others, like me, are often using the camera in their phone to take and process photos. For example, creating semi-abstract images of packets of sugar while waiting for the first cuppa of the morning.

Sugar Packets by Harold Davis

Sugar Packets © Harold Davis

It’s well known that the iPhone camera is now the most used camera in the world. If not the world’s best digital camera, it is the camera that is always with one. But—like more professional digital cameras—if you treat it as just another camera that renders static and realistic images via a sensor (instead of film) you are missing most of the creative potential.

Digital photography is a completely new art form and a whole new ballgame. This is true if you make digital images with a DSLR, and also true if you create with an iPhone. New mediums require new thinking, new tools and new ways of seeing.

Case in point: While bored and waiting for breakfast in a restaurant on a recent trip, I created the image of sugar packets shown in this story using the Slow Shutter Cam iPhone app. Somewhat astoundingly, Show Shutter Cam lets you adjust effective shutter speed, blur, and exposure after the fact—you tweak these things following composition and image creation, and then save the image to the Camera Roll.

In other words, I was able to completely control the blur in the impressionistic image of sugar packets I had made by adjusting a slider after the photo had been made.

A new paradigm. Sweet.

New York Night in HDR

On a rooftop high above New York the lights of the city sparkled in the night. From so far above even the noise of the city was muted—all I could hear was an occasional siren far below, echoing in the strong wind.

New York at Night by Harold Davis

New York at Night © Harold Davis

To make this image, with my camera on a tripod, I used manual exposure control to snap five exposures. I used my 10.5mm fisheye lens. Each exposure was at ISO 200 and f/3.5. The shutter speeds ranged from 2/5 of a second to 15 seconds.

I was on the road and didn’t have much time for elaborate HDR post-processing, so I simply fed the images through Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 at the default settings, with the results you see above.

In fact, as the author of Creating HDR Photos: The Complete Guide to High Dynamic Range Photography, one kind of HDR or another informs most of my photography.

Want to learn my HDR thoughts and techniques?

I am giving my much requested all-day HDR Bootcamp workshop on Saturday, Jan 12, 2013, in downtown Berkeley, CA. The workshop tuition is $195.00. Click here for information and registration.

Here are some comments of participants from my previous HDR Bootcamp workshop:

  • “Great day to learn how to better take and process single and bracketed images for maximizing dynamic range.”
  • “Excellent. Great new material and clear explanations of techniques and new software.”
  • “Harold offered an excellent overview of HDR technique. He took the time to ensure that each of us was able to follow along in making HDR images manually and then in processing them in several different software programs.”
  • “Incredibly helpful workshop. I feel like I now have the knowledge to do HDR the right way.”
  • “This ‘Bootcamp’ was well organized , well paced, good value-added content. I enjoyed it and got a lot out of it.”

Click for the Jan 12 2013 HDR Bootcamp All-Day Workshop information and registration.

9/11 Memorial

At the 9/11 Memorial the water pours endlessly down into what used to be the cellars of the World Trade Towers. This is a place of sad and melancholy wonder—and I am reminded how the wounds inflicted on New York City have yet to heal. Please click the image to view it larger.

World Trade Memorial by Harold Davis

World Trade Memorial © Harold Davis

Photographing Flowers on a Lightbox for Transparency

So far as I know I am the inventor of my process for creating images of flowers using a lightbox that are transparent—actually, images that seem translucent. This process relies on digital capture and post-production techniques and would not have been possible in film photography.

Like all photography the technique relies on illusion. Specifically, the illusion in this case has to do with the fact that lighter areas in an image can appear more translucent to the human eye—whether or not they actually are. The reality is that the effect has to do with color differential rather than degrees of opacity, but this is not the way the difference is perceived.

Papaver and Iridaceae

Papaver and Iridaceae © Harold Davis

The technique for creating these images involves four distinctive stages, with aspects worthy of commentary at each stage:

  1. Manually bracketed HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography using backlighting
  2. Combining the bracketed exposure sequence using hand-HDR
  3. Adjusting the combined image
  4. Placing the image on a scanned or textured background (this step is optional)

The key observations about the HDR process I use in this technique are that it is high-key and that it is manual. High-key means that I throw away everything to the right of the histogram, I am really only looking for frames that are “overexposed” (at least according to the in-camera light meter). Manual means that I am not using an auto-bracketing program. There is more information about this style of HDR in Creating HDR Photos on pages 82-85.

In my book Photographing Flowers: Exploring Macro Worlds with Harold Davis there is a spread showing both the photographic setup I use for this technique and the manually bracketed exposure sequence that I used with a specific image (pages 184-185).

Putting together the bracketed exposure sequence is also a manual affair. Essentially, I start with the lightest image (to use as the white background) and use Photoshop to selectively paint in the contrasting areas I want for the final image. Usually this involves 4-6 different exposures and layers. I then often very selectively paste in some structurized details from an automated HDR program such as Nik HDR Efex Pro.

Schizanthus Grahamii and Iceberg Roses

Schizanthus Grahamii and Iceberg Roses © Harold Davis

With Schizanthus grahamii and Iceberg Roses (shown above) I used a 40mm macro lens, and with my camera on a tripod shot six exposures with shutter speeds ranging from one second to 1/100 of a second. Each exposure was at f/10 and ISO 100. I combined the images starting with the one second exposure version (the lightest capture) as the bottom frame.

The image was finished by placing it on a scanned paper background. The formula I usually use is to blend the floral on white into a scanned background at 15% opacity using Normal blending mode, and (using a duplicate layer) also at 85% opacity using Multiply blending mode.

My technique for placement on a scanned paper background is shown and explained on pages 190-193 of Photographing Flowers.

Peonies mon amour

Peonies mon amour © Harold Davis

Of course, another issue is the paper I print the image on—using special Washi such as the Moab Moenkopi Unruyu I used to print Peonies mon amour (shown above) can increase the appeal of an image greatly.

If my technique for photographing flowers on a lightbox intrigues you, may I suggest the Photographing Flowers for Transparency workshop I am giving in December 2012? This is a one-time special purpose event that will include demos and a chance for participants to try their hand at the technique with my guidance.

Foggy Bottom

Most of the Bay area was sunny and blue, but a swath of fog washed in from the Pacific and buried the Golden Gate. From beneath the bridge pilings on the Fort Point battlements the view up of the Golden Gate Bridge seemed ancient and mysterious—subject matter that clearly beckoned for treatment as monochromatic HDR (High Dynamic Range) with its contrasts between the bright fog and the dark details of the bridge girders.

Underneath the Golden Gate by Harold Davis

Underneath the Golden Gate © Harold Davis

With my camera on my tripod pointing straight up, and a wide angle focal length (12mm), I made nine exposures. Each exposure was at f/8 and ISO 200. I manually bracketed between 1/50 of second (lightest) and 1/2500 of a second (darkest).

Putting the bracketed exposures together in the digital darkroom was a bit time consuming. My primary tool was Nik HDR Efex Pro 2, but I also used some hand-layering in Photoshop. I used the color conversion process to increase contrast and to continue to increase dynamic range—so when the time came to convert color values to black and white it wasn’t hard to create an interesting monochromatic image. My primary black and white conversion tool was Nik Silver Efex 2. I also used a Photoshop’s B&W Adjustment layer, choosing the Red Filter preset.

For more about my monochromatic HDR techniques you might want to take a look at my books Creating HDR Photos: The Complete Guide to High Dynamic Range Photography and Creative Black & White: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques. Also note an upcoming HDR Bootcamp workshop and a digital Black & White Masterclass.

Here’s the color version of the image (before the black and white conversion):

Underneath the Bridge © Harold Davis

© Harold Davis

And, just for fun, here’s a monochromatic inversion, created mostly by inverting the luminosity information in the monochromatic image, kind of like what one would have looking at a film negative as opposed to the positive print that could be made from the negative:

Luminosity Inversion © Harold Davis

Luminosity Inversion © Harold Davis