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Featured Photo - Oak Creek West Fork

Featured Photo - Oak Creek West Fork 05

Photographs vs. Snapshots

My wife Liz and I recently returned from a two week vacation in the USA, and most of that time was spent in Arizona. One of the main motivations for choosing Arizona was my ongoing appreciation for the work of Alain Briot and other photographic artists who work in that part of the world, and I wanted to return with a hard drive full of photos that realised my vision based on what I had seen of their work on the internet, but with my own interpretations and personal style permeating the final images.

On our return to the UK I downloaded all of my pictures, only to find that I had 2,738 RAW files to catalogue, caption, keyword, backup and so on! Of that total, I reckon about 40 will be of a high enough standard to post on this website. What happened? Well, of the original 2,738 photos I could immediately delete about 200 as being outright failures - incorrect exposure, out of focus, boring, repeated and so on. But what of those images that aren't rubbish, but aren't what I would consider 'proper' photos either?

Basically, these are snapshots, worth keeping for memory's sake, but not worth making any special effort over either.

So what makes the difference between a snapshot and a photograph? Well after photographing seriously for a number of years now I've identified certain factors and practices that, for me anyway, make the difference between a photograph and a snapshot. These are generalities and don't always apply, but they apply often enough to take them seriously.

1. Use a tripod. For my landscape photography, using a tripod is a fundamental requirement in that it enables me to avoid compromising camera settings such as ISO and aperture that have a direct bearing on the quality of the final image. Also, using a tripod forces me to slow down and consider composition more than when I'm working handheld.

2. Wait for the light. Regardless of how wonderful a scene is, a good photograph requires good lighting. This may relate to the time of day, the time of year, the amount of cloud cover, rain, dust, rainbows and so on. Sometimes I have to return to a particular scene many times before I'm finally happy with the lighting in an image.

3. Use optimum camera settings. For a 'proper' photograph I won't bump up the ISO setting to give me a faster shutter speed. I don't need to if I'm on a tripod! Also I will set the aperture to give me the required depth of field while aiming to avoid diffraction problems at small settings. I will always shoot RAW files, to avoid any data loss and dodgy in camera conversions to JPEG. I will use mirror lock-up with either a remote release or self-timer to avoid vibrations. I won't use image stabilsation when using a tripod, I won't use autofocus, but will focus manually, usually at the hyperfocal distance rather than infinity to maximise depth of field. I will try and use zoom lenses at around the mid range of their focal lengths to avoid distortions and maximise sharpness.

4. Optimise exposure. Whenever I get the chance I will increase the exposure of an image until just before the highlights blow out in order to minimse noise in the darker areas of the composition.

5. Control the contrast. My digital camera has a 5 stop exposure range (I acually prefer to use the top 4 stops only) and any scene with more contrast that that will require extra work to capture all the tones. This can be by using filters (polarising and/or ND grads) or by taking multiple exposures at different shutter speeds for later blending or HDR conversions.

What about this photo?

This view of the end of the trail along the West Fork of Oak Creek near Sedona in Arizona was definitely worth making an effort for! To be sucessful, a photograph has to engage with a viewer on an emotional level, even if the viewer has never been to that particular location and has no ingrained memories that are triggered when the image is viewed.

What makes this emotional connection happen is composition.

Composition isn't just the arrangement of various elements within a frame, composition also includes how areas of light and dark interrelate, how colours play against each other and how shapes and lines in the image focus the attention on various areas in the frame.

In this image I wanted attention focused on the green trees on the canyon walls, while making the rest of the picture pleasing and interesting to look at while the eye is being drawn to the focal point.

Camera set up

To take this image I used my Canon 5D digital full frame camera, firmly fixed to my Manfrotto tripod and fitted with a 17-40mm f4 'L' series Canon zoom lens used at 28mm focal length.
Aperture was f16, ISO rating was 100 and exposure was varied over 5 frames in order to capture the full contrast range of the scene as shown below.

-2 stop exposure adjustment -1 stop exposure adjustment Standard exposure +1 stop exposure adjustment +2 stop exposure adjustment File format was RAW, to allow for maximum post processing latitude and a polarising filter was fitted to minimise glare off the water and foliage.

Image processing

Having taken enough varying exposures to cover the full tonal range of the scene, the five RAW files were loaded into Photomatix Pro HDR (High Dynamic Range) software and processed into a single 32bit radiance file which contained all the tonal information contained in the five original files.

This radiance file was then tonemapped in Photomatix to give a 16 bit TIFF file suitable for further work in Photoshop.

Tone mapping can result in some pretty wacky images, but that wasn't my intention. When I'm using this technique what I am after is an image with a smooth tonal range, indicated by a centered histogram that isn't clipped in either the highlights or the shadows. This then gives the best material to work with in Photoshop, where the image will be brought into its final state through the use of layers and masks.

The TIFF file that was generated from Photomatix tonemapping is shown here. Tonemapped TIFF file

As you can see, it's pretty bland as this stage, with low contrast and saturation, but that's good as such an image has plenty of scope for enhancement without blowing out colours or contrast.

Once this TIFF file had been imported into Photoshop I started creation of the .PSD master file. I always create master files for all the images I work on so I have a complete, undoable history for any image.

For a more in-depth explanation of my general workflow click here.

Composition issues

The first step in processing this image was deciding on a crop. To my eye, the 6x4 composition out of the camera didn't really emphasise the trees that I wanted as the focal point of the image, and the foreground took up too much space for the level of detail it contained (which wasn't much). Also, I had a nice diagonal line running up from the lower right of the image, but it didn't start at the exact corner of the frame, which is usually a better place for such a feature to start from.


Composition after cropping

These problems were solved with a simple crop of the image to 5x4 format, with the eye now being drawn much more readily to the trees, and the diagonal riverbank line now starting in the corner of the frame.

Having cropped the image, the next steps in the image processing involve correcting various errors introduced during the actual taking of the original photographs and the subsequent HDR processing.

First processing stages

Here is a screen shot showing the master file with all the layeys shown, but only the first 'correction' layers turned on.

In this stage, working from the bottom up, I've cloned out dust spots, enhanced the local contrast, sharpened the image a little to compensate for the effect of the anti-aliasing filter over the camera's sensor and boosted contrast and saturation using by using the 'multiply' layer blend mode at 50% opacity.

Second processing stages

In the second stage of the image optimisation I made global adjustments to contrast using the shadow-highlight control, brightening the shadows and turning down the highlights. I also crisped up the details a little using the high pass filter set to 'overlay' blend mode. Following that I used a levels adjustment layer to set a suitable black and white point for the image and finally in this stage I used a curves adjustment layer to set the grey point.

As you can see, the tonal range, contrast and colour of the image is now starting to emerge.

Final processing stages

In these final processing stages I fine tuned the colours of the image using selective colour adjustment layers and saturation layers, enhancing the red of the sandstone and the green of the trees, while increasing the colour saturation in the shadow areas. Carefully applied layer masked were used to limit these effects to the areas of the composition that required them.

Finally, for this round of enhancements, I added my usual copyright watermark so everyone knows who made this image!

But that won't be the end of the story, as these enhancements and optimisations only serve to make the image look good on screen. When I come to print this picture I will need another set of layers in the master file, on top of those shown here, in order to make the print match the 'on-screen' version of the image as closely as possible.

What a game! But it's worth making an effort for a picture one has flown halfway around the world to take!