This is the scene I was working that one foggy morning, at the end of August. I mentioned it in “Itchy & Rusty” and after giving it a couple of days, the morning’s work came down to this one photograph (well, plus the two flower photos). Maybe there’s a second photo, but “Edit to one” is generally not a bad idea when you work a single scene.
The photo captures the mood of that morning and the colors and appearance of the coastal sage scrub in summer: the evergreen Laurel Sumac and drying Buckwheat, white and rust. The odd yellow-orange-green and fine lines of California Sagebrush, together with the dots of yellow color from Matchweed, and the bare dry spots between the shrubs too, where the flower patches used to be, in spring. :)
Catching the Photons
Needless to say – this is a tough situation to work with. The sun illuminates the fog. It is very bright compared to the foreground. No problem for our human eyes. A big problem for the camera. With the D800 sensor, it’s almost possible to get a good frame out of single exposure – almost. It would still be a compromise: blowing out the highlights a little bit more than I’d like, and having a little bit more noise and color error in the shadows than I’d like.
Knowing this, I bracketed a sequence in 1-stop increments from 1/3000s all the way to 1/20s exposure time – excessive, but I wanted to make sure that I have the entire dynamic range available to me later with good quality. And then I tried a number of different approaches to make that work.
I bracket these sequences in small increments and with many individual frames because Enfuse is often my first choice, and this process benefits from having small bracketing increments. I generally prefer it over HDR because the resulting image is very flat, and a quite natural looking result can be achieved from it easily.
The only problem is that Enfuse doesn’t have any de-ghosting – and the branches and leaves of the Sycamore moved in a light breeze. I could manually blend them in from the frame that would match the brightness in that area from a single exposure in the sequence best, but I found that approach not exactly appealing.
So I tried HDR merging in Lightroom instead, which would take care of the ghosting. I’m less fond of the HDR process because the resulting image has, as the name implies, a high dynamic range. :) Tone mapping it to balance the shadows and highlights needs to be done very carefully to still get natural transitions, ie. to avoid the odd look that HDR is unfortunately known for (it’s really the over the top tone mapping that causes it, of course). It was too much to reasonably work with in Lightroom, in this instance.
In the end, I found it easiest to achieve a natural looking result with manual blending – and all I needed was two exposures! Sometimes, less is more. I didn’t take the extremes of my bracketing sequence either, but chose the third brightest and second darkest exposure. I brought them closer together in Lightroom and blended them in Photoshop.
For this, I tried a luminosity mask at first, but you can see in the photo above that the brighter and darker areas are easily separated. Brushing back and forth with a really low “Flow” setting, I created a mask with a nice, smooth transition in the upper third of the frame (if you notice an “edge” below and left of the sun – that’s actually a ridge, and the sun just came over it). Then I worked on the individual parts to bring out their qualities in Lightroom.
Slowing down the process
And I really liked the result – very much. That’s the point where I now know that I have to slow down, take a breath and a break, and walk away to do something else. Drink coffee, pull some weeds in the backyard, cook dinner – anything to resist the eagerness to publish it right away, put it “out there”. :)
I came back to the photo a few hours later. It still all looked good to me (so maybe I am getting better at this!) – but there’s still one crucial, final step: printing the photo, and then letting it rest again, take more time, and look at it in different light conditions. All this takes some of the “haste” out of digital photography.
Printing, or rather, my desire to (not) print a photo has become a good way for me to evaluate my photos. There are photos that I like for one or the other reason, but if I don’t feel inclined of putting the extra time and effort of printing into them, then I can safely lower their rating in Lightroom. ;)
This “evaluation by printing” continues when I have the first print. When I see something in it that really needs adjusting, and I feel like printing it again to see if I got it right, it’s a pretty good indicator for me that I have captured “something” with that photo which is meaningful to me – enough to go all the way, and spend the extra time (and money for ink and paper) on it.
And similarly, when the work print is not to my liking and I’m not compelled to make adjustments to the image, I know I can stop thinking about that photo – at least for the moment… and maybe come back to it later.
I hope you enjoyed this little insight into the process and my thinking.