Revisiting Past Images

One of the beauties of photography as an artistic medium is the ability to revisit your work with new tools, and new eyes, and recreate your image without revisiting the original scene.  I have read and followed the sound advice to save most of my images, deleting only those that are technically incorrect or completely beyond salvage; the countless storage drives in my various closets speak to that fact!

I have found that I infrequently look through the “deep cuts” – the images that did not catch my eye on the first pass.  I have, however, found myself drawn back to images that did not quite work the first time around.  A couple of these newfound “keepers” are the topic of this blog.

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The first image came from a disappointing evening shot at Hunt’s Mesa overlooking Monument Valley.  The sky was uninspiring and the sun was not cooperating for any decent lighting for the anticipated sunset.  I shot for a couple of hours without much to show, and never really edited any of the images beyond the cursory initial review.

A couple of years later, I revisited that evening’s shots and found that my new eyes found a better image hiding inside this shot.   I could not transform the sunlight, but with cropping to remove the blasé sky and moving to black & white it became possible to bring out the texture and flow of the of the valley.

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The second image just caught my eye yesterday.  Taken in 2012 in Capri, the view of Mt. Vesuvius caught my eye from some balcony extending over the sea.  I initially tried to accentuate the blue sea and crop in a way teat saved the entirety of the interesting cloud formation; however, this left me with an unsatisfying square image, no movement, and an uninspiring boat in my poorly defined foreground.

Upon revisiting the image, I saw the narrowed edit within the frame.  The clouds were dynamic enough to survive this narrowed edit, and now my foreground boat tied together visually with the ominous volcano and clouds to create visual movement for the viewer.   Then I converted to Black & White.   Now, my uninspiring foreground sailboat became a clean, dark visual anchor in the foreground juxtaposed with the fluffy white clouds in the distance.  Now I had an image I liked.

The lesson here is to take a look with fresh eyes and see if a change in composition, coloration, or some other element modifiable in post-processing may allow your image to come alive.  In those in-between times when you are not able to create new images, look to your older ones and see if some of them might have a scene waiting to be unveiled!

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32 bit processing: The Landscape Photographer’s HDR

 

Watchman, Zion National Park

The Watchman, Zion National Park. An iconic location for sunset capture, achieving tonal balance is challenging, with river and trees dimly lit, the shadow side of the mountain dark, and the last rays of brilliant sunlight highlighting the Watchman’s face.

 

Anyone familiar with modern photography, even simple magazine image appreciation, has seen HDR (high dynamic range) images.  Various shooting and processing techniques push the boundaries of “regular” processing and can create surrealistic imagery.  This works effectively, or horribly, depending on taste, for many urban settings, such as dark alleyways, people images with striking fashion choices, or metallic imagery, especially of vehicles.  However, this over-processed look rarely suits traditional landscape subjects well.  Yet, many landscape images could benefit greatly from widened tonal range available only through image bracketing and some method of dynamic processing.  Enter 32-bit file processing!

Conventional shooting wisdom in slot canyons calls for complete avoidance of any daylight to avoid burning out the otherwise dimly lit canyon. But when incorporating that daylight makes the image, as in this shot, or the newly famous shot by Peter Lik, bracketing and post-processing is absolutely essential.

 

32 Bit file processing widens the available working dynamic range while maintaining the ability to produce photorealistic images, making it the perfect solution for landscape images!

 

Before one can hope to utilize this editing strategy, you must tailor your shooting to maximize captured data capture and optimize image quality for file merging.

  1. Shoot in RAW – all the time.
  2. Bracket shots – at least 2 stops (3-5 images), 3-4 stops are better (7-9 images).
  3. Use a tripod

There are entire articles and book chapters dedicated to the debate about JPEG vs. RAW files – in short, RAW is always the better option for landscape shots.  RAW files are much larger and require post-processing than JPEG, but the data captured, and thus the ability to post-process, far outweighs that trade-off.  Further, with digital memory being free, there is little reason not to bracket landscape shots. A minimum of 2 stops (5 shots on Nikon) is good, and frequently 7-9 captures will yield the best results.  Finally the best landscape images will always come from a tripod – even in decent lighting, to lock down framing and provide maximal camera stabilization for crisp focus.

 

There are numerous blogs and videos available on the 32 bit process.  I became aware of the technique through reading an article by William Neill, “Natural HDR” from June 2013 Outdoor Photographer, pp.30-33.

I also found this video walk-through particularly helpful:

http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/high-dynamic-range.htm

 

Lightroom 4.1 or later can recognize 32 bit files.  I have used Lightroom 4 (now 5) and Photoshop CS6 for my workflow, although there are many other software options to work with.  Adobe Camera Raw will also work with 32 bit files.

 

The conversion process is straightforward:

1. Highlight images, go under “edit in” heading, choose “Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop”

Step 1: Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop

 

2. Files will eventually open in Photoshop in the HDR panel.  In the upper right area of the panel you will see “Mode”  – this will default to 16 bit.  Simply change this to “32 bit” and click “OK.”

Step 2: create 32 bit file

 

3. Now in Photoshop, “save as” a 32 bit tiff file with no compression.

Step 3: Save as 32 bit Tiff

 

4. Now reload this image in Lightroom (or Adobe Camera Raw).

 

Representative image of 32 bit file

 

As you can see, the initial 32 bit files look TERRIBLE on the screen, because the computer does not have the capacity to display it effectively.  Thus, your image will inevitably initially appear worse than it did prior to processing.  Don’t fret about this; the 32 bit file is merely a means to make available the wider dynamic range for final processing.  This file will soon begin to take shape as you process your image.

Once you get back into Lightroom, the true advantages and magic of the 32-bit file will begin to show themselves. First of all when you look at the exposure slider you’ll see that you have 10 stops of tonal range at your disposal!

How you proceed from this point is a matter of opinion and taste, and a quick search on the Internet will show you multiple different ways to follow. I have found the following strategy the best way to proceed.

I first set the exposure so that the histogram is well balanced, generally in the middle with a slight right shift.  Second, I reduce highlights as much as needed, often all the way down to -100. Third I increased the shadows as much as needed, often all the way to +100.  Fourth, I widen my histogram as much as possible so that I can have as much tonal range available.  This means pushing the white slider to the right (plus), well below the point of clipping the highlights but enough to expand the range, and moving the blacks lighter to the left (minus), again avoiding clipping anything unless it is artistically desirable.

This round of edits should get your photo into good working order. From this point you can proceed with your regular stylistic edits, including Clarity, Vibrance, Tone Curve, and Sharpness, plus contrast and any color curve edits you would otherwise make.  This may be the end of your editing work.

Having visited Horseshoe Bend on multiple occasions, I sought out an unusual composition on my last visit. While not iconic, I felt the visual and spiritual movement of the water through this view. A single round of edits brought tonal balance to the image.

 

However, if you find that your image still needs Tonality control, especially in Highlights or Shadows, this is the moment where the 32 bit file really stands out. 

If more tonal range control is needed, simply export this edit version as a tiff file (now a 16-bit file), and then re-upload that image, and start all over again with full tonal range!

I have also experimented with 32 bit processing for images where tonal range was not problematic.  In some instances there was no benefit; however, I found that some really “popped” after this processing – you may want to give it a try as well.

While sunset at Delicate Arch was tonally balanced from the outset, I still took a set of bracketed images through the 32 bit processing process and found that each layer of my image “popped” more than any individual capture from the evening.

 

So, the next time you are faced with a tonal challenge, make the necessary alterations to your shooting style to allow for 32 bit processing once home – you’ll be glad you did!

Horseshoe Bend Sunset: The final product of 32 bit processing, highlighting sky, river, and rock in its full glory.

 

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Reinterpreting Slot Canyons in Monochrome

Vortex in Monochrome

Filled with vibrant, ever changing hues, with light bouncing off the multifaceted rock formations, the slot canyons evoke visions of kaleidoscopic color patterns, and most images reflect this color palette.

I recently “revisited” my latest set of images captured in the Antelope Canyons near Page AZ and reinterpreted a few select ones in monochrome.  A couple of these images can also be found in their color versions in the “Antelope Canyon Gallery” portfolio page, while others did not catch my eye on the first color viewing but have captured my imagination in monochrome.

Monochrome Wave

As an admitted Black & White enthusiast, I am drawn to monochrome images that capture texture and movement, and while most scenes lend themselves better to either color or B&W processing, the canyons are one of the rare locations that can produce fabulous images in both.

I’d be interested to hear your feedback as to which you prefer – color or B&W.

Enjoy!

Wave, soft texture, monochrome

Wave, soft texture, monochrome

Second Wave, monochrome

Chief, monochrome

 

Undulations, monochrome

 

Primordial, monochrome

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Ancient Egyptian Obelisks of Rome

1. Vaticano in Saint Peter’s Square

The ancient Egyptian Obelisk, an early religious symbol to the sun god Ra, fascinates visitors to Rome, which contains more Egyptian obelisks than any other single location and hosts nearly as many as the entire country of Egypt today!

Only 33 Egyptian Obelisks remain intact; only nine remain in Egypt, while eight were set up in Rome at the height of the Holy Roman Empire and still grace Rome’s cityscape today.  For more information about the Egyptian Obelisk I recommend you visit the Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obelisk

I became fascinated with the Obelisk, with its mix of antiquity, religious iconography, and architectural form, after visiting both Rome and Egypt within a year of one another.  Once I found out that so few remain in the world, a photo quest formed, like an old-fashioned scavenger hunt, but using photographs to document my subjects along the way.  I have begun my hunt and now have one section complete!

Photography lends itself particularly well as a hobby to a large-scale scavenger hunt of whatever moves or intrigues you.  We live in a world of lists, and it is easy to find a subject matter and follow it with camera in hand to capture images that inspire you.

My trek will hopefully lead me through eight countries on four continents to complete my collection.  For now, I have photographed Obelisks in New York, Paris, Florence, Egypt, and have recently completed my collection of Egyptian Obelisks in Rome.

Map by Maps-2-Go app: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/city-maps-2go

Map by Maps-2-Go app: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/city-maps-2go

In the map above, Red dots (numbered 1-8) signify Egyptian Obelisks in Rome, while blue dots (lettered A-E) represent Roman Obelisks, easily as beautiful but from a slightly later time period.  What follows are my images from the eight Egyptian obelisks in Rome, along with a few of the Roman offerings as well.

 

1. Vaticano in Saint Peter’s Square at Night

The centerpiece of St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, the Vaticano, without hieroglyphs, serves both as an iconic and ironic pagan symbol in the heart of the Catholic World.

2. Flaminio in Piazza del Popolo

Standing in the center of the famous Piazza del Popolo, Flaminio can be viewed from multiple angels, including the steps of Santa Maria Del Popolo (as seen in my “Streets of Rome” post, an ancient and well-preserved Church made recently more notable from Dan Brown’s novel “Angels and Demons.”

3. Solare in Piazza di Montecitorio

Hiding around the corner from Fontana di Trevi, Solare is easily missed but a beautiful site, nicely juxtaposed visually with the Chamber of Deputies building.

4. Minerveo near Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

The short, unassuming Minervio stands in the shadows of the Pantheon outside the plain exterior of Santa Maria Sopre Minerva, which contains fine treasures inside, including Michelangelo’s Sculpture of Jesus.

4. Minerveo Bernini’s Elephant

Perhaps more famous than the obelisk itself is the base, a comical elephant carved by Bernini.

5. Macuteo in Piazza della Rotonda with Pantheon

Macuteo basks in the majesty of the Pantheon as the centerpiece of Piazza Della Rotonda.

5. Macuteo in Piazza della Rotonda

 

5. Macuteo Barigioni’s Fountain

Barigioni’s fountain contains exquisite detail encircling the water surrounding Macuteo.

6. Dogali near Baths of Diocletian

Relatively off the beaten path, Dogali is commemorates the battle of Dogali, but the area is in relative ruins.  The park has been taken over by Gypsies and the base of the obelisk is covered with graffiti.  A pure tragedy, this Obelisk has fared much worse than its original companion from Heliopolis, which now graces the Boboli gardens in Florence, once the home of the Medici family.

7. Lateranense in Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano

Lateranense stands as the tallest and largest Ancient Egyptian obelisk in the world, just outside  St. John Lateran’s Basilica, another ironic juxtaposition of pagan idolatry combined with one of the properties of the Holy See.

7. Lateranense

When viewed from beneath, Lateranense appears to reach out to the sun…

8. Matteiano in Villa Celimontana

The most hidden and hard to find Obelisk in Rome is Matteiano in Villa Celimontana.  The unassuming Obelisk has been moved and rebuilt multiple times in its history, and now stands at the end of a walk down a left turn in the park.  One would never find this Obelisk casually, and even when seeking it out, it is still quite hard to see.  It has clearly been reconstructed without many of its original hieroglyphs and has lost much of its luster, but it serves as the final piece of the set for the Egyptian Obelisks in Rome.

8. Matteiano in Villa Celimontana

The point of this blog is much less technical, but hopefully both educational and inspirational.  Perhaps you too may want to join in the hunt for the Obelisks in Rome, or perhaps you will find something else to seek out through your travels and journey with photography.  I hope you too can find something that interests you, is perhaps within your reach if you stretch to find it, and that brings you the challenge and satisfaction of pursuit like my Obelisk quest has done for me.

I have also found the Egyptian Obelisks in Florence, Paris, and New York, as well as four of the nine still standing in Egypt.  If I am to capture them all, my journey must take me to The UK, Poland, Tuscany, Turkey, Israel, and back to Egypt.  I’m looking forward to the adventure!

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Walking the Streets of Rome with the Fuji x100

 

Closing Time, Fuji x100

I always enjoy taking long, aimless walks through the foreign cities I get to visit.  There is no way better to get a real feel for a city, and to immerse oneself in the experience.  In Rome, that sensation is amplified by the idea of that common ground being tread for millennia.  These images were taken during my recent wanderings through Rome.  I ventured outside my normal shooting style and subjects and waded into the loosely defined street photography genre.

Gathering at the Spanish Steps, Fuji x100

I always feel most confortable with a camera in hand and naked without one, but on many occasions I find that lugging my big bag, D300 (now D800) body and lenses, and a tripod for shooting at night, really takes away form the experience.  In those situations (and more the more I use it) my Fuji x100 camera really opens up new opportunities for me!

La Dolce Vita, Fuji x100

There are raging debates across the Internet about the “best” cameras available today.  This is not going to be one of those blogs.  Simply put, there is not a “best,” simply what you may find most effective to convey your own vision, and often a full complement of equipment will entail more than one camera for more than one shooting occasion.  My DSLR cameras have been my primary workhorses, from my original D80 to my D300 and most recently the new D800, and remain so.  But now that I have the Fuji x100 I would be lost without it!

Playing Dire Straits, Piazza Navona, Fuji x100

It has some drawbacks for sure, including slow autofocus, slow shooting, and a fixed focal length; the 35mm equivalent works great for me but may not for you.  However, image quality, portability, and price point are excellent for a camera of this quality.

Outdoor art gallery, Fuji x100

I would not recommend the x100 as a primary camera; rather, it is an excellent complimentary camera for someone who already owns a DSLR but wants a rangefinder experience for a reasonable price point.

Desicration, Fuji x100

I always shoot in raw, but on this trip I utilized an interesting feature of the x100 (and most cameras these days) to “shoot” in black & white.

“Limosine” outside vatican city, Fuji x100

I chose a Black & white film mode for my shots, which did not really shoot in B&W, rather it retained all color info in the raw file.  However, it did allow me to “see” in B&W and get immediate feedback from the camera screen.  For an amateur like me, I found this quite helpful in syncing my brain in B&W mode and helping my compositions.

Youthful Worship, Fuji x100

I also found the x100 to be less imposing, both for me and for passersby, providing me with more photo opportunities.

Prostration (with manicure), Fuji x100

And with more opportunities comes more final images worth keeping…

Solitary Man, Fuji x100

With this, I look forward to my next meander!

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The Unofficial Guide to Exploring Lower Antelope Canyon

Some locations in the American Southwest inspire awe for their natural beauty, others amazement and wonder at the forces behind their creation, and still others dazzle the senses with their almost other-worldliness. From your first encounter from within the depths of slot canyons, they do all three.

 

Among the now famous slot canyons of the Colorado plateau, the Antelope Canyons near Page, Arizona hold the grandest spectacle in most people’s minds and hence are the most populated. Upper Antelope Canyon is most famous for the magical sunbeams shining through to the ground during certain seasons at specific times of the day, and these beams, along with the relatively easy walk through the canyon, has made Upper Antelope the most popular, and over-crowded, among tourists.

Light Beams in Upper Antelope Canyon

However, for this photographer, Lower Antelope Canyon casts a unique spell for those willing to invest the effort to traverse the canyon and search earnestly for its treasures.

Lower Antelope Canyon can be entered with or without a guide, and while I almost always prefer to travel and photograph solo, there is something to be said for going at least once with a knowledgeable guide.  That said, I went solo for my most recent trips through the canyon on successive days this May and found the combination of relative solitude and exploration unmatched.

Lower Antelope Canyon is quite compact texturally; thus, the smallest change in gaze or footing may completely shift the composition, and many of the locations from which professional images you have seen have been made may be passed by without a second glance if you are not prepared to spot some of the landmarks to help guide you to these prime shooting spots.

The following information is intended to provide at least some guidance based on what I have seen and experienced thus far, including places to stop and direct your gaze, either facing forward or turning around, and facilitate you composing the image in your mind’s eye.   The most amazing feature of this canyon is that two photographers standing shoulder to shoulder may still create completely unique images due to the subtleties in position and their unique interpretation of the slot canyon’s color and texture.

Lower Antelope Canyon: getting there and getting in

Lower Antelope Canyon can be found just a few miles outside Page, Arizona, and is easy to spot from Highway 98.  Once there, you will need a photography pass to enter (currently $26, including $20 for the pass plus $6 for the Navajo parks fee).  All posted signs and online information state that you must be accompanied by a guide, but this appears to be a rule in spirit only unless you specifically want that experience.  Your pass officially grants you access for two hours, although I do not know if this in enforced or not (my suspicion is that it is not).  The “office” opens about 8am (Navajo time appears slightly flexible), and I highly recommend being among the first in line to enter so that you have less foot traffic by larger, non-photography tour groups, which seem to begin around 9am. All photo ops are still available even when the canyon is full of people, because the angles you are shooting rarely include ground shots. However, fewer people are always better, and you will find yourself better able to concentrate earlier in the day.

The Basics: Equipment

Photo essentials for the canyon: tripod, your best wide to mid-range lens already on your camera (you don’t want to change lenses inside the canyon due to dust), water, and perhaps a small snack depending on how long you plan to stay.

Beginning Your Journey through Lower Antelope Canyon

One final quick note before entering the canyon: try to determine whether or not you can enter and exit through the canyon “entrance” before you begin.  In my visits in May I have always been able to do this and find it to be the best for photography, but I have read in other posts that during the busier summer months there may be a one-way flow.  If so, you will need to stop to photograph what you see when you see it.  If not, some areas are best captured on your return, or visited both on the way in and out!

Entering the canyon is a bit tricky, as the narrowest area is found at the very beginning. All of your travel on the way “in” is downward climbing of ladders or steps.

Entrance to Lower Antelope Canyon

Immediately upon entering you are greeted with some amazing imagery and may be tempted to stop and begin shooting. I would advise against this – instead, mark the spot in your mind (or your camera or iPhone) and revisit it on the way out if possible.  After scaling another ladder, a beautiful formation comes into view.

Lower Antelope Canyon, first impressions

There are many ways to capture this challenging location, highlighting the texture and multiple colors that your camera will pick up even if you do not see them clearly while shooting. The biggest challenge here, and in many other locations, is to keep direct sunlight completely out of your shots, as even the smallest amount will blow out the highlights in that section of your shot and appear much more dramatic in your final photo than it will while shooting.

After climbing down the next ladder you will head through a narrow walkway that passes through the area that, when looking back, forms the famous “Indian Chief” image.

The Chief

This is a nice cliché photo; however, if you walk back immediately adjacent to the “chief” rock formation and look up with your back on the right side of the canyon, there is a more interesting formation that is open to artistic interpretation [Photo].

Image near the Chief

You will again have to be creative at getting as far back against the canyon wall as possible so you can utilize all of the swirling rock formations in your shots.

Alternate interpretation

Beyond “the chief” there are a series of canyon twists and turns leading to the “Angel’s Heart” area.

Angel’s heart area

This area has a sunbeam that comes around 10:30am in May – the beam is nice but not comparable to those in upper antelope canyon and in my opinion not worth planning your trip around.  However, the area is otherwise rich with potential imagery.  I have not taken anything here that I love yet.  The best photo I’ve seen was taken by Peter Lik and can be seen by visiting his web site: www.lik.com and viewing the “Angel’s Heart” image in the “canyons/arches” section.  There are numerous other renditions of this image online – simply google “Angels’s Heart Lower Antelope Canyon.”

Beyond “Angel’s Heart” there are more ladders on your way to perhaps the most stunning formation in the canyon, which I have heard called “the wave” (not to be confused with “the wave” formation in Colorado Buttes). There are limitless opportunities, angles, and interpretations of this amazing structure.

The Wave

This formation is somewhat tucked away on your left-hand side as you walk forward through the canon and occurs next to at a narrow partial s-shaped curve in the canyon floor – you will reach the narrow floor and have to twist yourself to the right a bit and then back to the left , which makes this area easier to miss, since you may be paying more attention to where ou are stepping thanthat the walls hold for you!  Once through the tight curve (actually right within it) if you search the wall that was on your leftlooking back slightly these waves will come into focus for you.

Most images from here contain the dominant orange “wave” somewhere in the composition.  There are two additional powerful visual elements that will drive your composition, and these change dramatically based on where you position yourself for your shots.  If you look at these photos of the wave, you will notice a strong element in the upper left corner of the image – that is actually the left wall of the canyon jutting into the scene.  The second element is the dominant foreground curve, which usually has a blue hue depending on the light.  As you can see from these images, a slight move in tripod placement will create dramatically different imagery, especially with respect to this anterior wave.

Alternate Interpretation

Alternate Interpretation

Heading further down and passing another set of ladders, another unique location presents itself.

Vortex

The best place to photograph this area appears to me to be accessed by getting yourself as far back as possible on the left-hand side of the canyon (your left as you when moving forward through the canyon) and setting up in a small recess (you can tell where others have set up here before), where you can take in the maximal amount of the dominant flowing formation on the right and top of this composition.

The possibilities are endless for interpreting this great formation, so don’t rush it. I have also found that both vertical and horizontal compositions work well here.  Moving ever so slightly around the corner a completely unique viewpoint awaits you.

Mountain Lion

Mountain Lion

I felt this looked like a mountain lion on the right of the image – what do you think? This are is another that you may want to visit both on the way in and out, and where you will likely need to share time with other photographers.

The final location on my favorites list is just a bit further down the canyon. This spot seems relatively camouflaged to me; in fact, I was only able to find it one day out of the two I spent in the canyon this trip! I call this the “second wave,” and while it may not be as intricate as the first, it does prove another amazing combination of color and texture.

Second Wave

From this spot you can continue down the canyon until you reach the end after a few more sets of stairs and ladders.  From there you have the option of exiting the canyon through a tall ladder and then walking back above ground, or by retracing your steps through the canyon.  I highly recommend traveling back through the canyon if allowed, as everything will look different to you when you take it in through the reverse vantage point.  After passing by all of the places we’ve already visited, near the canyon entrance (now hopefully your exit) you will come upon the area I mentioned at the very beginning.  I have found this area easier to visualize on my return, which I why I mention it here, but again, if your flow is one-way only you will want to stop and look around here right after you enter the canyon.

So, that ends our journey through Lower Antelope Canyon, at least until I get back there again to explore and locate new vantage points!  If you get a chance to visit, do so and enjoy!

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Moorish Architecture in Southern Spain

Just returning from a trip to Andalusia and a marvelous tour through souther Spain (Andalusia).  The Moorish architecture is breathtaking!  So many things to write about, including the travel plan, using HDR to bring out the best in indoor images, and handholding tips for HDR, but for now just want to share the images – enjoy!

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My Ideal Black & White Photography Workflow

  • Black & White: The Medium of Masterpieces

Many of us have a sense of awe when we see a great monotone image, as it accentuates elements of the scene not as readily visible when colors are present, and the stripped down image can convey an even stronger message than its color counterpart.

For me, black & white images are what drew me into photography, specifically the majestic landscape work of Ansel Adams.  I have found his interpretations of nature’s beauty so powerful through the black & white medium.  Each time I see one of his iconic images, I am amazed at how he visualized the final monotone print in the midst of all the colors hitting him from every angle in the wild.

While many individuals feel drawn to black & white imagery, many also find the processing required to create the final print quite challenging if not intimidating.  I know that I have struggled with this since I began shooting a few years ago.  My images just never seemed to express what I envisioned through my camera and my mind’s eye.

Now, with practice, experience, and some advanced photo editing software, that struggle has become easier for me as I move through the photography learning curve and as I have employed new editing software to facilitate my editing.

I have prefaced my entire blog by stating that I am still on the upward swing of my learning curve, falling somewhere between beginner and seasoned veteran, and photo editing is certainly no exception.  As I have had a special interest in black & white imagery from the outset, I have sought out many resources on how to achieve my best final B&W images.  I can tell that I am not alone in this quest, since so many monthly photo mags have the cover “covered” with “how to” articles to make your B&W images explode off the page, and there are numerous books devoted to this subject.  However, while I have found many books and articles useful, I also have found most lacking in a focused, directed approach to photo editing to get where you want to go, especially for my “in-between” level of expertise.

So, what follows is the current strategy I have found most effective when working through an image from its color beginnings out of the camera to the final B&W image.  I imagine (and hope!) that as my skills improve my techniques will also evolve, but for now this strategy appears to get the image I saw in my mind onto the screen fairly consistently.

This brief “how to” cannot substitute for investing some time (and money) with your camera, digital imaging software, and the available books, magazines, and instructors available to help you learn what you are doing, but it can provide a starting point from which to grow.  I have found the following resources particularly helpful for me:

Lightroom for Digital Photographers by Scott Kelby (http://www.scottkelby.com)

Black & White: From Snapshots to Great Shots by John Batdorff (http://johnbatdorff.com/blog)

I also have found shooting in Raw mode essential to give me the flexibility I need to edit my shots.  And, while I would love to tell you that there is an inexpensive and totally effective, all-encompassing image editing option out there, I have found that my best images come when I use a variety of programs, including Adobe Lightroom (currently version 3, now testing Beta version 4!), Nik Silver Efex Pro (now version 2), And Adobe Photoshop CS5 for those necessary final edits such as spot removal and unwanted element removal (posts, unattractive elements, the wandering bird that looks more like a spot, etc.).

I will admit up-front that I am not well versed in Photoshop and use it only when necessary.  I use Lightroom as my beginning and final editing program, and I rely on Silver Efex Pro for the hard work in the middle.  For simplicity, as I reference them throughout this blog, I’ll be calling Lightroom “LR” and Silver Efex Pro 2 “SEP” – hope that does not confuse anyone!

 

So, with that background, let’s launch into a photo workflow and change this image:

Monument Valley, North Window

Into this:

Utah, Arizona, Black & White

Monument Valley, North Window in Monochrome

 

In about 5-10 minutes!

 

Step one: Import photos into Lightroom

There are so many ways to set up your LR catalog, and I won’t go through them here – that is the topic for another day.  But, once you have imported and identified your images of choice in LR, you are ready to begin!

 

Step two: Crop photo

While cropping can technically be done at any time, it seems reasonable to get your final image parameters in front of you before you begin.  This includes overall crop and alignment.

From this point, I used to do quite a bit more in LR before leaving it, but I have found through my own trial and error process that these edits frequently did not have their intended effect in the long run.  My own observations were supported by my recent reading of Black & White: From Snapshots to Great Shots, where John Batdorff also recommends stopping at this point and jumping over to SEP.

Before we move further, you may be asking if you really need an additional software program only able to work on black & white images.  You must ultimately answer that question for yourself, and there are many “how to” discussions about doing the whole process in Lightroom (which I did prior to purchasing SEP) or Photoshop CS5 (or even Elements for that matter).  Scott Kelby does a nice job explaining in his books how to complete the entire process in either LR or Photoshop, and then in his seminars strongly recommends that you also get SEP for black & white!  I have found that my images are so much better using multiple editing programs that I could not envision using only one, but I am an admitted B&W enthusiast trying to perfect my work.  So, following that digression, it is time to move your image to Silver Efex Pro 2.

 

Step 3: Import image into Silver Efex Pro 2

OK, that is not exactly true – first you need to set up your LR output settings, listed under “Preferences.”  Again, referencing John Batdorff’s work, set file format to TIFF, ProPhoto RGB Color space, 16 bit/component, resolution 300, and no compression.

For your specific file, choose “Import with Lightroom adjustments” and then the SEP workspace will open up, with the image in “Neutral.”

There are a variety of presets that I find invaluable in SEP, and I would recommend spending some time opening a variety of images in SEP and looking at which presets get you closest to your vision for a variety of different shots.  These presets are then easy to accumulate in your “favorites” category by simply clicking on the star under the preset (you would not believe how long it took me to figure that out!!!)

I have found the following presets best match my view, depending on the image:

  • Neutral (usually not used, but a great baseline from which to work)
  • High Contrast (harsh) – probably tied for my most used
  • High Structure (harsh) – probably tied for my most used
  • Full Dynamic (harsh)
  • Full Dynamic (smooth)
  • Fine Art process – a bit subtle for my taste, but occasionally correct for me
  • Wet Rocks – infrequently used, but when it works it really works!
  • Full Contrast & Structure – this is frequently “the one” on first glance, but in final edit it is usually too harsh.

Everyone has a bias when they edit – mine is to over-darken, over-sharpen, and over-contrast every image!  I have to combat that by consciously working in a more subtle fashion.  You may be the same, or you may err on the subtle side and find your final images lacking “punch.”  Everyone will have a natural bias, and each can be overcome – you simply have to be honest with yourself and identify it first, then compensate for it in your process.

 

Step 4: Adjust your SEP Preset Image

In this stage of my development, I find that I am frequently happy with what the preset has given me overall.  However, this is the time to tweak brightness, contrast, and structure as needed.  Again, less is frequently more in these edits – don’t push any particular slider too far!

 

Step 5: Secondary Adjustments in SEP

Selective Adjustments

SEP has a wonderful selective (local) adjustment capability, and when needed it is quite effective.  I probably underutilize this feature currently – perhaps in a follow-up I’ll report back on how I use this to better advantage. For now, I look for glaring areas that need work, but otherwise leave this alone.

Vignette

There is no “correct” order for the next adjustments, but I prefer to check Vignette first before checking filters.  I have found that “Lens Falloff 1” is almost always the right choice for my image, adding a bit of darkening and texture to the image.

Color Filters

I infrequently adjust the color filters but have gotten into the habit of checking them routinely just to see what might “pop” out at me with different filters in place.  The default is grey, but I have on occasion used each filter with added effect.

Burn Edges

I began by applying Burn “All Edges 1” to most images, but have found that many times that effect is too strong.  I would prefer a less intense choice available here, and if the effect seems too strong for you, you can defer this step until you return to LR with “Post-Crop Vignetting,” which is what I do for most of my images now.

With those edits in effect, you are ready to return to Lightroom.  If you want a better look around your image before leaving SEP, there is a great zoom function at the top of the image – simply click on the magnifying glass and move around the image.  When you are done, simply click “save” at the bottom of the page.

 

Step 6: Save to Lightroom

That’s it – not much excitement in this step.

However, this is the time to digress into LR presets.  There are a variety of pre-programmed presets, but as you edit you will find effects you prefer to add over and over, and using the buttons on the left (under Presets) is SO much easier than constantly moving the sliders, you will want to invest some time in setting these up.  To make a preset, simply create the effect you want in any photo you have open and then click the “+” sign next to preset.  A menu will then open up asking you what all you want to include in that preset.  While the temptation exists to include numerous things at once, in reality you will maintain better flexibility and ultimately improve your workflow by setting each element separately.  So, uncheck all other boxes other than the one you want to create (for instance “Clarity 50”) and then title the preset so that you can easily find it and use it.  I would do this for each aspect of the controls – a little time spent up front will save you hours as you go!

 

Step 7: Check Brightness

In LR3, this is the time to edit overall brightness, followed by recovery, fill light, and darks as needed.  In the beta version of LR4, these sliders have changed slightly, and now brightness and the other elements are exchanged for Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks, theoretically giving you more refined control of the overall “brightness” of each of these areas of the image.  I must admit that I am still a bit baffled by this extra level of control, but it seems to be a good change overall.

Neutral Density Filter

If you find one of your image areas, especially the foreground or sky, out of balance with the rest of the image, you can effectively use the graduated neutral density filter, applied from the top or bottom to increase or decrease exposure among other tweaks, to balance the image.  Also remember that this filter can be applied ‘sideways” if one side if the image is out of balance with the other.  This is rarely needed but can be extremely effective when it is.

Clarity

Again, my natural bias is always to over-sharpen images, so I have to hold back the reigns when using the Clarity slider.  I’ve found that 25-50 usually gives me the texture I desire.  I can occasionally punch this to 75, but it frequently begins to take on an otherworldly effect at that point.  I do find that most all images benefit from increasing Clarity.

Tone Curve

Most photos benefit from a tone curve adjustment.  A good place to start is with 10 for lights and 10 for darks (which you could make as a preset and call it “10/10”).  I have now created presets for a variety of different values, from 0 to 15 for both light and darks in different combinations.  As with all these adjustments, be careful as too much really is too much!

Sharpening

Sharpening is another element that most all photos need but where a little can go a long way.  I started out using 75 for most images and then reluctantly acknowledged that most images looked unreal at that level for most subjects.  I now usually use 25-50 depending on the subject (people excluded from this –people generally need less rather than more sharpening).  At this point, special attention should be paid not only to the elements you are trying to sharpen, but also to the background elements that may begin to get quite grainy if/as you push Clarity and Sharpness.  Also beware that lots of sharpness frequently looks pretty good on a smaller computer screen but does not look good in print.

Noise Reduction

Noise reduction is controlled by adjusting the “Luminance” slider.  I was reluctant to use this for quite some time for concern about softening my images, but I have found with time that this tool is extremely valuable, especially as you transition your images from the screen to print.  When I adjust Luminance, I try to get an area that I want sharp adjacent to a background area I want smooth in the viewer at 1:1 magnification, and I push the Luminance slider until I strike a good balance between a smooth background and sharp structures.  I have found that 20-50 is the appropriate amount for most images.  Above or below this the effects are too little or too dramatic.  However, this slider, perhaps more than any other, is highly image dependent, and I find that I routinely use multiple final numbers between 20 and 50, rather than simply going to one end or the other.

Vignette

If you did not use “Burn Edges” in SEP then you may want to create a vignette by sliding the amount slider towards the negative when in “Highlight Priority” mode.  I find that -5 to -10 is enough for most images.

 

At this juncture you may be finished.  But, before you make that decision, make sure to critically evaluate your image under high magnification, as dust spots and other unwanted elements that were barely visible in the color image will be accentuated in the sharp, high contrast B&W image you just created.  While LR has a spot removal setting, I find this almost useless, and so when I have any final edits in this realm I switch to Photoshop for my final work.

 

Step 8: Export to Photoshop

Again, you will want to export with Lightroom adjustments, and make sure you are exporting the correct file type by setting this up in Lightroom Preferences ahead of time.

I am admittedly deficient in Photoshop skills – I find the program quite difficult to understand and work through, and so for the most part I avoid it.  I hope to be able to contribute a blog on how to use Photoshop in the future, but I’ve got to learn it first!

(Incidentally, in my “day job” I edit clinical images for my Ophthalmology presentations and find Photoshop invaluable, using it all the time to crop and resize images, convert to CMYK color space, remove identifying information from scans, etc., and I hardly ever work in LR for clinical images.)

For now, most of my Photoshop photography work consists of using the “Clone Stamp Tool” to remove dust spots and anything else that otherwise detracts from the image.  For instance, in some shots there are wisps of clouds or small birds in the far distance that are not artifacts but still detract from the final image.  These can be cloned out as well.  Go under high magnification for this work by using “Command +” buttons on a Mac to get the image larger, then go to work combing through the final image.  After this, save your work back to Lightroom and you are finished!

 

Final Thoughts

While there appears to be a great amount of information contained herein, once you spend some time up-front setting up presets in LR and SEP and acquainting yourself with the software, you will be able to move through an individual image in about 5-10 minutes!

Below are a few more examples from last year’s trip on a rainy, somewhat hazy day in Monument Valley, where I intended to shoot and process in color but found the landscape so conducive to B&W that I chose this for all my final edits.  I think you will find the “before” and “after” quite striking!

I hope this clarifies the B&W process for you, that it motivates you to try your hand in B&W, and that you find it useful as you work your images from camera to canvas!

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Exploring the Mayan Yucatan (Part 1)

El Castillo, Chichen Itza

With 2012 finally here, and all the “end of the world” folks looking to the Mayan calendar for their predictions, there will likely enhanced interest in the Maya Lands on the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.  I have been fortunate enough to have spent a week each of the past 4 years exploring the peninsula, and in that time have happened on some unique sites and photographic opportunities.  The Mayan Yucatan area is large enough to get lost in but fortunately small enough to discover with some depth in a well-planned week.  Below I list some suggestions to make the best use of your time if you travel for 3, 4, or 7 days to this amazing region.

In part one of this blog I will outline the strategies for getting to the best locations and using your time wisely based on my past travels.  In part two I will go unto greater detail about each site I’ve visited, along with what I’ve discovered from an artistic perspective available to photographers.

First, a general word about safety.  While Mexico has a very bad reputation these days in terms of overall safety, especially for tourists, I have had no major difficulties traveling through the Yucatan.  Looking at the map, one will quickly see that this area is physically isolated from Mexico City, the US/Mexico border, and other “hot spots.”  Now, I am not guaranteeing your safety, but I have not felt uncomfortable at any time during my travels, and last year took my teenage daughters with me without any issues.  Hopefully if you make the trip you will have the same experience I have.

Getting to the Yucatan:

The two primary entrance points are through Cancun and Merida.  I have only travelled through Cancun, so I cannot tell you directly about Merida; however, my recommendation is still Cancun based on the geography and ideal travel route regardless of your overall timing and itinerary, unless you only plan to visit Uxmal and the surrounding area.  For all other plans, Cancun provides the best access.

For historical and photographic significance, I would rate the region’s offering in the following order:

  1. Chichen Itza
  2. Uxmal
  3. Tulum
  4. Aktun Chen Caves
  5. Loltun Caves
  6. Puuc Cities near Uxmal
    1. Kabah
    2. Sayil
    3. Labna
  7. Cenote Ditznup
  8. Coba

The following are popular sites that I have not visited and therefore cannot make recommendations about:Ek-Balam

Edzna

Balankanche caves

With that information, here’s what I would recommend for 3, 4, and 7-day excursions into the Yucatan.  Note that for each of these itineraries I am assuming renting a car – you can certainly visit many sites without one, but I would strongly recommend having a car to make the most out of your adventure and being able to get to the best locations at the best times, not being at the mercy of a tour bus!

 

7 Days in the Yucatan

Day 1 & 2:  Arrive to Cancun, rent car, drive to Uxmal, and explore the Puuc Cities

The Nunnery Quadrangle at Uxmal

This itinerary makes for a long, not highly scenic first day, but it gets you into position for the rest of the trip, and for that reason I recommend spending the time up front to facilitate the rest of your visit.  The drive is about 5-6 hours from Cancun to Uxmal.

Depending on your arrival that evening, you may have time for a short drive around the surrounding areas – I would not recommend going to Uxmal at that late hour as you will not make it through the ruins and will need to buy an additional ticket for the next day.

Uxmal can easily be fully experienced in 1/2 day, as can the other surrounding Puuc cities Kabah, Sayil, and Labna.  If you want to see Uxmal in the widest range of lighting conditions, you may choose to pay two admissions and spend one morning and one afternoon there on consecutive days.  Using Uxmal as your base, and there are at least two nice places to stay there, including the Hacienda Uxmal (www.mayaland.com) the Loltun caves are the farthest local attraction. I personally found the hacienda very relaxing and the nearby Lodge at Uxmal (across the street near the ruins) the best place to eat.  I have no interests in either of these locations, other than the hope to be able to stay here again :)

the pool and peaceful common grounds at the Hacienda Uxmal

One nice strategy is to drive to Loltun for the first morning tour and then make your way back through Labna, Sayil, and Kabah in that order on your way back to Uxmal.  So, all of these sites, as well as the interesting local village of Santa Elena, can easily be fully explored with a two night stay in Uxmal.

Overview of the grounds at Uxmal, showing the Ball Court (center/left) and the Magician's temple (Upper right)

The grandeur of the Loltun cave

The "restricted" are that every guide take you to see in Loltun :)

Chaac masks (rain god)

 

Day 3 & 4: Chichen Itza and Surrounding Area.

Chichen Itza

El Castillo, Chichen Itza

The drive from Uxmal to Chichen Itza takes 2-3 hours.  Chichen is by far the most extensive and populated ruin site, so timing is critical to get the most out of your visit here.  As opposed to Uxmal, where I don’t believe two visits are necessary, I would recommend planning for two days in Chichen if possible, one for the morning through early mid-day and the other for mid-day through closing around 5pm.  There is simply so much to see here and it gets very warm if you try to concentrate it into one day.  You must also be aware of the tourist traffic patterns – most individuals visit the site via tours from Cancun and the Riviera Maya, arriving around 10am and departing around 2pm, so the more you can accomplish within the grounds before and after these times, the better!

Iconic columns at the Temple of a Thousand Warriors

Nearby Chichen Itza, you should visit the interesting Ditznup cenote!  Trust the map to get there – at some point you’ll be convinced that you’ve missed it, and you won’t really believe you are there until you actually climb down the walkway into the cenote’s opening.

Cenote Ditznup

Also nearby are the Balanchanche caves, which I have not visited but would recommend considering during your time there, as well as the recently discovered ruins at Ek-Balam.  Caves, cenotes, and swimming or relaxing in your villa are nice afternoon activities, as this area is quite warm all year round.

 

Day 5: The Road to Tulum

Leaving early from Chichen Itza, you travel through the first Spanish Colony in the region, Valladolid, to the ruins in Coba.  This extensive site is quite different from the others in that it is still predominantly forestland, with only small clearings around the major structures.  The very best way to see this area is on bike – rentals are cheap and right at the entrance.  you can ride to within short walking distance of all the major sites, and it really is the only way to really see all of the sites – the grounds are otherwise too spread out for a reasonable walk.  While the sties are of historical interest, photographic opportunities are more challenging here due to the heavy overgrowth, and the ruins are in a greater state of disrepair here than the other locations.  I have found 2 hours about right for visiting Coba.

Ball Court at Coba

 

From Coba it is on to Tulum.  The total travel time from Chichen to Tulum is less than 3 hours of driving, with Coba less than one hour from Tulum.  From Coba you will arrive in teh “city” of Tulum, and the ruins will be to the north a short distance.  Tulum has a completely different feel from the other locations, being on the water and without any jungle surrounding it.  It is also quite compact, and 1/2 afternoon is more than adequate.  Further, due to Tulum’s location, afternoon light appears better than morning light, so if you are not too tired, this same afternoon is the best for your time in Tulum.

El Castillo at Tulum

 

The beach at Tulum

I have not visited the Sian Ka’an Nature reserve, but depending on your interests, this might be a great excursion for day 6.  Otherwise, begin heading up the coast

Day 6: Aktun Chen Caves and the Riviera Maya

Aktun Chen Cave

Aktun Chen caves are relatively recently discovered, and opposed to all other sties I’ve mentioned, they are privately owned and commercially operated.  Therefore, photographic opportunities are harder to come by here, but if you get the right “conditions” they are spectacular!

I recommend getting there first thing in the morning, or possibly as the last customer of the day, when the number of customers will be the smallest, and with any luck you may be able to get your own private tour with a guide and your own small group.  Tours are with guide only in the caves.  A tripod is absolutely essential in the caves but allegedly not allowed “by law” – however, this can usually be overcome if you ask nicely and tip your private guide.  The rock formations here are incredible and the cenote at the end of the cave tour is a photographic gem if the guide turns on the appropriate lights and you have enough time.  I have had good luck here, and found not only guides allowing me to use my tripod but also guides amenable to allowing me to direct the lighting scenarios in the cenote.  I absolutely recommend generously tipping any guide that allows you to use a tripod, not only because your personal photos will be well worth it, but also because it is likely to reinforce the behavior for the guides in the future!

Cenote in Aktun Chen

The cave tour will take less than two hours.  After that, the rest of your trip will consist of a leisurely drive up the Riviera Maya and outside the reaches of the Mayan ruins.  Between you and Cancun lie Playa del Carmen, the island of Cozumel, and aquatic theme parks such as Xcaret and Xel-Ha.  You could easily spend up to ten days in the region of you choose to add these sites to your visit, but these are outside the realm of the Mayan ruins and the scope of this blog. For this photographic adventure, day 6 concludes in Cancun.

Day 7: Depart for Home

 

Four Days in The Yucatan:

Three and Four day itineraries are based on the above-mentioned sites.

For the four-day whirlwind tour, you could conceivably drive from Cancun to Uxmal on day one, see Uxmal on the morning of day 2 and then drive to Chichen Itza for the afternoon.  The morning of Day 3 you could revisit Chichen Itza before the tour busses arrive and then drive to Tulum for the afternoon.  Day four would begin in Aktun Chen Caves and then the less than 2-hour drive to Cancun where you would depart home.  While possible, this would make for a very busy itinerary!

A more reasonable approach would be to exclude Uxmal from your travels, instead arriving in Cancun and traveling to Chichen Itza on day one.  This would allow for an afternoon in the ruins.  Day 2 could then include morning at Chichen and the rest of the day at any of the other local sites.   Day three would include the drive to Tulum, passing through Coba and ending in Tulum for the afternoon light.  Day four begins in the Aktun Chen caves and ends in Cancun for the flight home.

Three Days in the Yucatan:

In three days, Uxmal must be excluded from your itinerary, and all other locations must be more condensed.  Day one would include arrival in Cancun and travel to Chichen Itza, ideally seeing the ruins in the afternoon.  Day two would begin in Chichen Itza, likely taking another look at these ruins (you do not want to miss Chichen in any travel plan to the Yucatan) and then traveling to Coba, seeing what is available to you while being mindful to leave 3 hours for Tulum in the afternoon.  Day three would then begin with Aktun Chen caves and end in Cancun for your travels home.

So, armed with this information, enjoy your travels, plan your time appropriately, and good shooting!

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Shooting during the Golden Hour and the Blue Hour: What you really need to know (and the books don’t tell you) WITH UPDATES!

Anyone becoming excited about photography, especially landscape photography, will soon here about the “Golden hour” and how all of their outdoor shots must be taken during this crucial time due to the lighting advantages it infers.  Soon, in fact, you may begin to feel that any shots attempted outside of this special time aren’t worth taking.  While this is not absolutely correct (and the topic for another discussion) the Golden Hour and Blue Hour do offer unique lighting opportunities not available at other times of the day.

So, armed with this knowledge and your camera, out you run to your favorite, or nearest, location to begin the shooting!  However, if you head out only with the basic adage to shoot during these times without knowing exactly the behavior of light over the time between full light and full dark you will likely be disappointed by the experience.  That is because while most books will inform you about the quality of light at the peak moments, they will not tell you how to actually get yourself to the shot at the right moment, and most all neglect to inform you that between the peak lighting, Golden hour and Blue Hour, lies some less than desirable lighting conditions.

The following discussion is a full description of the light – dark transitions that occur in the morning and evening (luckily the process is the same in reverse!) illustrated with two famous landmarks, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin shot in the early morning hours and the Parliament building in Budapest shot in the afternoon through evening.  In Berlin, these shots happened by “accident” and out of extreme perseverance over the course of about 3 hours, while in Budapest, the final shots were carefully planned specifically to catch Parliament in its best light as well as to use for this specific illustration.

First, there are a few things to find out about your chosen photo shoot location

1. Sunrise and sunset for the day

www.sunrisesunset.com online works well

“Sunrise Sunset” app for iPhone work very well.  This app will provide key time:

Dawn

Sunrise

Sunset

Dusk

2. Direction of sunlight at your chosen time of day

“The Photographer’s Ephemeris” app for iPhone is excellent!

3. Special lighting issues

Does the place/structure you want to photograph light up at night?

Are there impediments (deep canyons, buildings, etc.) that affect the available light?

Next, you need to know the different phases/aspects of light as time passes from “bad” light to “good” light and back again to “bad” light.   There are five distinct lighting times in both morning and evening light: Dark, Blue, Flat, Golden, and Bright.  Dark, Blue and Golden imply the similar light qualities in the morning and evening, while Flat is frequently right around the designated “sunrise” or “sunset” times, respectively, and Bright is either harsh morning or afternoon light.  I’ve included a basic graph of the relative quality of light as time passes through these stages.

 

 

The First important fact most books leave out is that actual sunrise or sunset light is sometimes NOT good!  It may be absolutely breathtaking, or it may be flat and disappointing.  The Golden Hour follows sunrise in the morning (either immediately or after some time) and precedes sunset in the evening (again either immediately or after some time).  The Blue hour is just the opposite, preceding sunrise and following sunset.  The trouble with the adage of sunrise and sunset as the “Golden Lighting” is that the conditions change from location to location, and these conditions affect the optimal timing for photography much more than basic sunrise and sunset.

In this blog, I will go through two locations where sunrise and sunset were NOT the best times to shoot.  In an upcoming blog on Southwestern Landscape Sunrises and Sunsets I will show some examples where the actual times were exact correct, and times where it was not.

The Second important related fact usually left out is that, if you want to shoot during both the Golden and Blue Hour, you will inevitably have to sit through some bad lighting in between the two.  This is a relatively short-lived dull moment, coming between twilight and dawn in the morning and between sunset and dusk in the evening.  You can use it to your advantage to change your camera settings, etc. between good light, but if you are not aware that the bad light is coming you may be surprised.  Again, based on location, this may be longer or shorter in duration.

The Third important fact is that the Golden and Blue “hours” are usually not an hour in length at all, in fact usually much shorter, and change throughout the year in length and quality depending on location.  At a couple of recent locations (covered in the Southwestern Landscape Sunrises and Sunsets blog) there were about 10 minutes or less of “optimal” lighting!

The Final point, then , that stems from these previous facts, is that each location will have its own “rules’ for optimal lighting, and therefore, some measure of research or pure perseverance will be needed to get in the right place at the right time.

 

So, with that background, let’s look two real-life illustrated timelines, one for morning in Berlin, without much of the necessary information I outlined above,  and one for evening in Budapest armed it all.

 

Photo Shoot #1

Brandenberg Gate, Berlin, morning hours of June 7th, 2010

Official times for that day and location:

Dawn: 3:56am

Sunrise: 4:45am

The early morning photo shoot of the Brandenberg Gate was made possible by my complete lack of adjustment to the six hr time change from Atlanta to Berlin, causing me to be wide awake at the unusual hour of 2:30 am.  After coming to the realization that I was not getting back to sleep I decided to make the best of the situation by visiting the Brandenberg gate, where I had been a day before on a cloudy afternoon.  Armed with my camera and tripod I made my way to the location and found a spot to my liking. Over the course of the next three hours I photographed the monument t from a variety of angles, and when it was getting liter I wondered over to the Reichstad to look around.  The gate is illuminated at night , while the Reichstad is not – information that would have been helpful to have ahead of time.

While I shot from multilevel angles, I have used similar locations to illustrate the difference between dark, blue, dawn, and the morning golden hour lighting at the Brandenberg Gate.

 

Brandenburg Gate

3:25 am

 

 

Brandenburg gate

3:52 am

Brandenburg gate, Berlin, shot at sunrise

4:58 am

 

Brandenburg gate

5:40 am

 

In most locations I am not overly fond of the dark shots; however, I do like the contrast between the very dark sky and the white structure with its relatively intense illumination. My favorite is still the blue hour at this location – the hue of the sky gives the whole composition a more dramatic feel to me.  No matter which is your favorite, I think most all will agree that the dawn shot is the worst, with flat lighting providing little to highlight the structure.

In short, while this photo shoot was great fun and quite an adventure for me be out in Berlin in the early morning hours and almost entirely alone, it was not an efficient shoot.  That would have been enhanced greatly by prior research so that I would have known the times for each lighting situation and been able to plan accordingly.

 

Photo Shoot #2

Parliament building, Budapest, evening hours of September

Official times for that day and location:

Sunset: 6:34pm

Dusk: 7:05pm

My calculations from direct observation on-site:

Actual “Golden” hour: 5:30pm-6:10pm

“Waiting” hour: 6:15pm-7:00pm

“Building/Bridge” lights on: 7:00pm

Actual “Blue” hour: 7:00-7:15pm

Black sky after 7:30pm

In Budapest, with better preparation, more information, and close proximity to the Parliament building, it was easy to capture the sequence of images from the afternoon “Golden” light through sunset, the blue time, and a dark shot for comparison.  I had two nights in which to capture the Parliament as well as the Chain bridge, so I had to be judicious in my time use. By arriving at the oak of the golden light I was able to capture a series of shots from multiple angles in varying lighting in just over an hour, returning for the dark shot at a later time.  Tis efficiency allowed me to fully capture my chosen subjects in my preferred lighting by maximizing my time at both locations and using the dull lighting time to travel between spots.

Budapest Parliament

5:52 pm

Parliament  building, Budapest

6:54 pm

Budapest Parliament Building

7:07 pm

Budapest parliament BUilding

8:05 pm

I again prefer the blue hour image at the Parliament, and here the example from the dark time is more representative of most dark time images – inserting but a bit  harsh.  Again, no matter your preferred lit, most will agree that the worst lighting occurs at sunset.

 

So, hopefully this discussion has better prepared you to maximize the light at the beginning and end of the day, and also prepared you for the down time between high quality lighting.  Use the information you have available to you from online resources or apps, as well as some personal scouting of the locations as time allows, to make the most out of your time and get the images you seek!

For more on this subject, please read my upcoming blog Southwestern Landscape Sunrises and Sunsets!

Further references:

Golden Hour:

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_hour_(photography)

http://photography.about.com/od/takingpictures/a/goldenhourphotography.htm

 

Blue Hour:

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_hour

http://photography.about.com/od/takingpictures/a/bluehourphotography.htm

 

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