It’s summer, time for travelling and also peak season for nature and travel photography. Digital cameras are still getting better and better and easier to use. However, sometimes it is quite disappointing that a picture such as a historic city alley either is partly underexposed with huge dark shadow areas, or the roofs and the sky are extremely overexposed. Although it is possible to review the image immediately in the display on the camera, the problem can often only be addressed at home in the post-processing workflow, and then it might be too late to fix the image in order to get a beautiful photograph.
Experienced photographers can handle dynamic ranges of 10 to 11 EV
Many travel and landscape photography pictures have very high contrast. “Dynamic range” is the term for the range of light intensity from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights and it is measured in “exposure values” (EV), also commonly called “stops”. Our eyes are able to adapt to see high contrast scenes but the dynamic range of the sensor of a digital camera is limited. Unfortunately the dynamic range of monitors, photographic paper or print is even more limited. A dynamic range of an image of about 8 to 9 EV is usually no problem. Experienced photographers can handle dynamic ranges of 10 to 11 EV quite well with exact exposure settings and with the help of calibrated monitors. But what about high contrast scenes with a dynamic range of 14 EV and higher? In particular landscape photography offers a wide range of high contrast scenes: idyllic sunsets by the seaside, backlit photography or scenes in high mountain regions.
An important rule in photography is to avoid high contrast in the first place. Many professional landscape photographers shoot only early in the morning or between late afternoon and evening because the light is much softer. Long shadows can be avoided when the sun is at the back of the photographer. Foreground subjects in backlit photography should be placed in front of a dark background because the high contrast can only be recognized as a small light fringe around the foreground subject. Long shadows might be wonderful for creative photography, but the final picture should offer enough details in dark shadow areas as well. The dynamic range of a scene can be simply reviewed with the help of the brightness histogram on the rear screen of the camera or manually calculated with contrast measurement. If the dynamic range of a scene or subject exceeds 10 or 11 EV the photographer should probably try out one of the following approaches.
A classical tool to handle high contrast scenes like alpine mountain ranges is the graduated filter. With the help of the graduated filter the sky can be exposed correctly, but at the same time the foreground gets enough light to avoid underexposure. There are ND gray filters, but also coloured versions of graduated filters with mostly orange or red shades of colors. Graduated filters were very important for analog film photography. Nowadays digital photography offers better technologies like bracketing, HDR or RAW-push and graduated filters are gradually become less important.
Bracketing and HDR are technologies to control high contrast scenes based on successive shots with different exposure settings. HDR images are automatically combined by the camera into one high dynamic range picture. Bracketing (or more precisely: “autobracketing”) is a feature where the camera stores several shots separately in order to combine the shots later in the post-processing workflow. HDR often creates pictures with an artificial look and feel, sometimes even with a relief-like result. The autobracketing method is much more time consuming, but on the other hand it delivers excellent results. Advanced cameras offer sophisticated autobracketing features. It is possible to adjust the exposure setting with an accuracy of 1/3 EV and the number of successive shots. A basic setting could be for example three shots with a difference of 1 EV. For the bracketing method a tripod is not necessarily required. The camera should be set to continuous shooting mode (or “burst mode”) and the camera automatically handles the settings of the autobracketing (in this example 3 shots with -1/0/+1 EV). In the post-processing workflow the different exposures can be automatically imported and accurately positioned for example in Photoshop as separate layers. The last step is to manually blend the different exposures with the help of appropriate selection tools of the image editing software. The advantage: the photographer has complete control over the high contrast scene and it delivers excellent results. Sometimes if needed even up to 7 different shots with an exposure difference of 1/3 EV. The disadvantages: the method can be very time consuming, and it is not suitable for moving subjects like for example sea surf, trees and strong wind or people and animals in the scene.
Example photo, fishing boats at sunset, Lake Malawi: Autobracketing, 3 exposures -1/0/+1 EV, manually combined in Photoshop
RAW Dynamic Range Push processing
Advanced photo sensors of digital cameras offer an extremely wide dynamic range up to almost 15 EV. This incredible dynamic range is possible because these sensors provide a very low noise level and the shadow areas of a picture can be strongly pushed without losing too much image quality. However, this applies only to RAW files, photographers who are using JPEGs cannot benefit from the wide RAW dynamic range of an advanced sensor. The approach is quite simple: the exposure is adjusted to the highlights of the high contrast scene. As a result the shadows of the scenes are underexposed, sometimes even severely underexposed (nearly black). With the help of the RAW converter only the shadows are pushed by up to 4 or 5 EV. The result is a correctly exposed image with detail in the highlight and the shadow areas (comparable with bracketing …). The advantages: it is a very simple method, no tripod necessary, no bracketing necessary and also moving subjects can be shot based on this approach (which is important especially for wildlife photographers). But there are also disadvantages: the wide dynamic range of almost 15 EV is only available at ISO 100, higher ISO values gradually reduce the available dynamic range. Also the picture on your camera’s viewfinder screen is often very dark, which sometimes means you need to take a control shot with a normal exposure for color corrections later in post-processing. It is also important to know that the shadow areas of the image have a higher noise level than the highlight areas because of the push process (only visible in 100% view). Usually this shouldn’t be a huge problem, but in extreme cases it is possible that stock photo agencies (etc) will turn down pictures because the noise level of the images might be too high although the picture seems to be ok in normal view.
The technologies above are common approaches of every professional landscape photographer, but with some practice the tips and tricks are also easily suitable for amateur photographers. It is very important to develop a feeling for the dynamic range of a scene. Advanced cameras offer tools like histogram or warning instruments for under- and overexposure. As a result incorrect exposures on high contrast images should eventually come to an end and landscape photographers will hopefully be able to enjoy their travel time without any further disappointments.
Accomplished media designer and photographer Dietmar Temps lives in Cologne, Germany and has amassed almost 20 years in the media business. His first professional position as a photographic assistant took him through whole Europe and across the pond to America. After that he studied photo and media technology at the Cologne University of Applied Science. Currently he mainly realizes photo and internet projects with the focus on travel photography, social networking and video streaming.
On his travel blog he writes about beautiful spots around the world which he visited in recent years. He realized many photo trips to Africa, but also to South America and Asia. On his website a series of photo galleries are available where he presents his photographic work, which also is published in many books, magazines and travel blogs.
By Amruta Mohod
It takes a certain type of intuitive perception and skills to reach the level Joe McNally has. From his works for the National Geographic Society to his famous Faces of Ground Zero portraits, there’s a distinctive idiosyncrasy in all his work.
And if you wish to follow in his footsteps, if you like the look and feel of his work, you’d have to study his techniques and understand his perspective.
Joe McNally has produced some brilliant ‘clicks’ to date, but not all of these were fresh out of a camera. Although, his perspicacity shows with every capture, there is a layered post-processing stage involved too. And for which he has a full-time team of 4 at his studio.
He states, “I understand my shortcoming. I’m good at clicking pictures, I’d be put in a box with a camera but I leave what I’m not good at (post-processing) to my team.”
Post-processing is an integral part of the procedure, and one that photographers need to pay due attention to.
From minor edits to revamping the color range of the photo, the digital darkroom is your playground even if you end up with a click you fall in love with.
We rounded up some common-but-imperative post-processing techniques you must pay attention to:
1. Color balance
Probably the main reason why post-processing might have come into the picture at all. Adjusting color balance is important because cameras aren’t equipped to capture the diverse range of colors that nature so beautifully portrays.
Plus the natural lighting and weather plays spoilsport too. This necessitates including color balance as a compulsory step in post-processing.
You can manually adjust the color scheme to replicate what your eyes see, or you can go the smart way and choose a tool like the Datacolor Spyder5ELITE that will provide the highest level of control to ensure the most accurate and true monitor color you can achieve.
One thing to understand is that while you can nail focus in the processing stage, the path to crisp clear pictures starts with your camera. Depending upon the camera you use, you need to accordingly adjust shutter speed and aperture to get superior quality images.
And use a tripod to reduce shakiness and prevent blurred images as this is the first step for tack sharp images.
Most amateur photographers shoot in single point, but if you need to be different than the herd, you’d have to up your game.
And this is done during the post-processing stage. Tack sharpness isn’t easy because it involves a series of detailed steps. But get all the basic and advanced info in this James Brandon guide that besides comprising a sizeable amount of relevant knowledge also provides practical examples using Brandon’s own images.
3. Learn branch-specific techniques
Every branch of photography differs from its counterpart. The techniques you employ to process street photography would differ from the ones you use for portraiture.
While the essence of street photography isn’t fixed, so you have the leeway to bend the rules to get the most out of your click, for portraiture the expressions take center stage. You have to enhance contrast, erase flaws and overall improve the quality.
Or take landscape photography for instance, these are the hardest to work with simply because of the raw uncut procedure involved. You can’t have lighting and props for landscape shots, you see a landscape, you like it, perceive it, and click it. But far too often what you see and what you click isn’t the same thing.
Therefore, when it comes to landscape photography, you need to go a little deeper and gain holistic knowledge of post-processing.
4. Don’t overdo retouching
Image retouching is a common post-processing technique, so much so that even the non-photographer populace often retouch their pictures for social media. But the difference between them and you is the quality of it, and how natural your pictures come out.
You obviously don’t want to give images – especially portraits – a ghastly porcelain doll look, which unfortunately most people do. The idea is to even out flaws and enhance an image to the extent it can be enhanced.
For example, you can achieve perfect skin structure by correctly manipulating Low and High pass filtering or through noise reduction.
Check out this detailed tutorial from photoshopessentials.com on how to retouch a face concentrating on smoothening and softening primarily.
5. Be organized
Editing isn’t mainly a gut thing, you need to know where you want to go and the way to it. Most photographers make the mistake of going with the flow, which, if it works, good for them, but mostly it won’t.
Just like you follow a routine set of steps while clicking a picture – setting up the gear, adjusting, setting the tripod – you need to know what steps to take to go through the entire editing process.
A workflow, as it is called, will save you both time and effort, and give you a realistic picture of the journey. It’s akin to boarding a train, you know the stations in between show how far you have left to go and what to expect.
If you’re tuned to post-processing and have your routine basic steps that you follow, you can stick to it. But that won’t work for all images, in fact you’d have to keep adding other steps to it subject to the type of image you have and the vision of the final version.
Read up on how your mentors and idols go about it, how did someone like Ansel Adams do post-processing or what workflow does Steve McCurry adopt for editing his images.
We found this wildflower photography guide really helpful to get you organized when it comes to post-processing. The workflow mentioned is detailed and practical. If you don’t want to do the work and read up on what other photographers do, just reading up on this would be equally helpful if not more.
Post-processing isn’t easy territory. If the likes of Joe McNally can hire professionals to do his editing, you could consider too. But if you’re low on moolah but still want your pictures to be in the big leagues (we hear you!) don’t forget to check out the resources we mentioned in this post.
Color Temperature and Color Casts
The light that illuminates our photographs comes in a range of different color temperatures. This term refers to the color quality of the light as we see it. We often refer to light sources, or the quality of light they produce, as being either warm or cool. The color temperature of the light can sometimes produce an obvious color cast in the image. In this article, we’ll take a look at ways to combine overall white balance corrections with techniques to apply white balance adjustments to specific areas of an image.
A noticeable color cast is not always a bad thing, and sometimes it can be a significant element in creating the visual style for a particular image, or establishing a mood. Warmer color casts suggest a warmer and more comfortable environment, such as a cozy room during the holidays.
Cooler color balances can convey not only physical cold, such as for winter or night images, but also an atmosphere that is more stark and moody, such as can be seen in the image of the baby carriage in the attic.
Overall White Balance Correction
With the White Balance Tool in Lightroom’s Develop module, you can click on a tone that should be neutral, such as a white or black with tonal detail (i.e., not completely white or black), or a gray value. I like to think of these areas as neutral guides. In the case of this still life arrangement of old cameras, I’ve placed a SpyderCUBE in the shot to serve this purpose.
This image was shot with a tungsten white balance setting, but there is still a strong yellow color cast, which is not uncommon when shooting in this type of lighting, even if you are using a tungsten white balance. A single click of the White Balance Tool on the gray side of the SpyderCUBE quickly fixes the overall white balance. Sometimes, a strictly neutral correction, might appear a bit too cool, so it’s fine to make a slight adjustment to the Temperature slider to bring back a touch of warmth.
Localized White Balance Correction
Although the overall white balance looks good, it has introduced some changes that need to be fixed. Since the image was shot with mixed light sources (the lamp and daylight from the window) the exterior view through the window is now much too blue. Secondly, the lampshade has lost the nice warmth commonly associated with a small lamp and looks a bit too cool. Fortunately these can be easily fixed using one of the local adjustment tools.
The Adjustment Brush was used to paint over the view out the window (seen below left in Overlay mode, showing the painted area with a red overlay). Then new values for the Temperature and the Tint were applied to modify the color balance of just that area so that the leaves on the trees looked green and not blue (below right).
Next, a similar adjustment was applied to the lampshade to bring back some of the warmer yellow color in that area.
The final version displays the benefits of both the overall correction that was applied by clicking on the neutral gray target with Lightroom’s White Balance Tool, as well as the custom white balance adjustments applied locally to the lampshade and the window using the Adjustment Brush. When working with images where the scene was illuminated by mixed lighting and different color temperatures, using Lightroom’s local adjustment tools can be an effective way to create a more pleasing color balance for different areas of the image. In addition to the Adjustment Brush, depending on the needs of the image and the types of areas that need to be fixed, the Graduated Filter and the Radial Filter can also be used for this.
For more examples of Seán’s work visit: http://www.seanduggan.com/