Making the Most of It
Making quality photographs when traveling abroad or in your backyard is dependent upon weather, light, and the right timing. In some instances there is no going back to a spot when the light is better, so we have to learn to make the most of it by maximizing the capture and post production of the images we take.
The image above was taken recently in what I consider my backyard, since I live so close to Lake Michigan. I was hesitant to even set my camera up, but to be honest, I really wanted to try out my new set of Lee neutral density filters. The light was quite flat, uninviting, and completely uninspiring. However, knowing that good photography is often made in less than ideal circumstances, I set up my camera and composed the shot. The exposure was 15 seconds at F22 with a 6-stop ND filter attached. In Fig 1 you will see the original RAW file as it appeared in Lightroom upon import.
All the tonal distribution is rather bland, but as with most RAW files there is great potential in the untapped higher values of the sky, as you will see. After some global and local tone and contrast adjustment in Lightroom, the result is what you see in Fig 2.
There are areas where Lightroom does not provide specific enough tools for editing non-linear yet largely similar areas of tone. The brush often does not create smooth enough transitions, and the auto-masking feature works in some situations better than others. This image provides such a challenge in the arcing metal structure adjacent to the very smooth water. I could not satisfactorily create the right tonal separation between those areas without a specific mask in Photoshop. So in just a matter of 10 minutes I was able to create the mask and do multiple tone and color adjustments to the graffiti on the rock, as you will see in Fig 3 and Fig 4.
Even though Lightroom could have done the graffiti removal through the use of selective saturation manipulation, I find that when specificity is needed, Photoshop often is the very best tool for the job.
The lesson here is that good images can be made of ordinary circumstances, providing you take the time to master the tools of the trade, and to learn to look beyond the surface appearance of your images. The old idea of pre-visualization is still relevant today, but in this new digital world, I suggest that post-visualization of your RAW files is even more important. When you sit down to edit the images you have made, don’t be afraid to see how far you can push and pull the data, much like we did in the old days with special mixes of chemistry, time, temperature, and agitation during development.
If you think about the way we used to shoot film, much of the power was ‘upfront’ so to speak-in the exposure and subsequent development of the negative. Once the film was developed there was only so much you could do in the darkroom. Masters such as Jerry Uelsmann and Ansel Adams, as well as John Sexton have taken the darkroom process to such dizzying heights of mastery that we bow down to their level of craft, and yet very few working photographers today are willing to dedicate the time to join the masters of the darkroom through years of trial, error, and expense. Most of us are using digital tools because they are much more convenient, provide flexibility, and very solid quality if best practices are applied. The challenge is in learning to make the most of the situation, and the potential in RAW files through judicious use of the powerful tools we have available to us.
Take a few moments to think about the very flexible nature of our digital negatives, especially compared to the BW negatives many of us created for decades, and you will see the benefit is in the ability to post visualize the scene in a myriad of ways. You can create multiple versions ranging from smooth to punchy, vibrant to monochrome, tinted, toned, aged, or cross processed. This ability to explore quickly and to play with the potential in the digital negative is the single greatest benefit of shooting digitally today. The challenge here is to take advantage of this by learning the software and becoming efficient in its use so that we spend more time shooting and less time editing our images.
In closing, my challenge to each of you is to embrace the potential in your images, and to work on learning the best methods for post visualizing your photographs so that they can express the visual characteristics that are in alignment with your artistic voice. Now get out there and make some great images!