Photograph of the Week: Graduated Filtering…

My wife and I recently visited California to see some friends and family.  We spent Saturday afternoon driving down the coast from Monterey through Big Sur on the scenic Highway 1.  We stopped several times along the way to hike, take pictures and get riddled with Poison Oak (not so much fun).  As the afternoon wore on the fog got thick and it looked like the sunset would be a bust.  I had been hoping to get a nice coastal sunset in this scenic area but nothing is guaranteed in nature.

A little over an hour before true sunset, the sun started to break through the clouds and offer a little pre-sunset drama.  We quickly pulled off the highway at a scenic overlook and I hopped out with the tripod to grab a few shots of the light display.  This was going to be a narrow window and a slightly challenging shot.

I knew I would be looking to shoot a sunset along the coast and had been trying to get myself a nice Neutral Density Graduated Filter for the job.  This would allow me to shoot a little slower to expose the darker ocean and maybe even get some motion blur without over exposing the sky.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get the filter I wanted before the trip.  So I would have to get the shot and figure it out later.

Photograph of the Week: The RAW shot…

Photograph of the Week - Big Sur cliffs RAW

The challenge is balancing the exposure.  You don’t want to overexpose the sky so that the clouds and light still holds detail.  But at the same time you don’t want to underexpose the landscape (ocean) and risk losing detail there either.  Since the clouds only broke in a small part of the sky the entire shot would be very dark except for the light shining through the clouds.  I managed to get a couple of images that struck the balance between exposures allowing me to process them as if I were working with a real filter.

Photograph of the Week: Processing in Lightroom…

Photograph of the Week - Big Sur Lightroom

The first thing I did was adjust the exposure so the darker areas were exposed properly.  This blew out the light in the sky and the glow of the clouds but I’d fix that later.  Once the exposure was corrected I did my usual work of pulling shadows and creating deeper blacks to add depth.  I then pushed on the Clarity and Vibrance to create sharper contrast and pull more vivid color.  Color would be important but I didn’t want to oversaturate the image, so I only made a slight adjustment to the Saturation.

This got me away from a very gray and underexposed image, but the sky was now over exposed.  I applied a Gradient Filter to the top of the image allowing me to adjust the sky without effecting the ocean and landscape.  With the filter in place I was able to bring the exposure of the sky back down a couple of steps where it was more natural and the detail returned.  I still had a very gray sky so I pushed the Temp setting slightly toward the cooler side.  The result gave me a better setting for the warm light that was pouring through the clouds.

I finished my adjustments by pushing the Sharpness as far as I dared, then smoothing the noise by increasing the Luminance.  This is something I’ve been doing on almost every image because it allows me to get crisp detail and sharp edges with almost no noise at all.

Photograph of the Week: Magic from Color Efex Pro…

Photograph of the Week - Big Sur Sunset Final

I tried to keep it simple in Color Efex Pro.  I just wanted a little warmth to the light and maybe a little sharper detail.  I started by applying the basic Brilliance/Warmth filter which gives a nice warm glow to the light in the image, but won’t overly warm the cooler colors.  Then I wanted to punch the light in the sky up a little, so I applied the Skylight filter and the Sunlight filter.  Both of those seem only to enhance existing light in an image without doing too much to mid tones and shadows.  These filters also seemed to bring some luminosity and warms to the reflected light on the ocean surface.

I finished off my adjustments by adding another Graduated Neutral Density Filter to the image creating more contrast in the cloudy sky.  Graduated filters in both Lightroom and Color Efex Pro allowed me to balance out the exposure on a very unbalanced scene.  I can’t wait to get a real physical Neutral Density Filter so I can try some other tricks.

Once the adjusted TIFF file was back in Lightroom I increased the Sharpness and Luminosity again, kinda just to see what would happen. It gave the image a very painterly quality, but on such a small scale it’s hard to see without blowing it up.  But enlarged, the image has no noise and very clean edges, the textures also came in super clean.  I might start doing this final step regularly.

Specifications:

  • This image was shot on a Nikon D300 with a Nikon Nikkor 10-24mm lens.
  • Exp: 1/20 sec, F/22, ISO-200, 10mm.
  • Originally shot in RAW format and processed in Adobe Lightroom and finished in NIK Color Efex Pro 4.

This image and images from this set are available at my Virtual Gallery for download or to order prints.  Please visit.

Photograph of the Week: Subtle Coloring…

My camera was in the shop.  My D300 and wide angle lens had to go in for deep cleaning after my recent trip to Zion.  It needed it.  It just so happened that while my Nikon was having a spa weekend, there were wondrous things taking place at my neighbor’s house.

I have been working on a collection of photographs of Cacti in Bloom, taking advantage of what is expected to be a unusually showy season for cactus around Southern Arizona.  Some of the shots I can get from the trail, but there are many varieties concentrated in private yards around town.  I have a couple of neighbors who have nice collections and I’ve been watching them for blooms.  One particular neighbor has a couple of nice Easter Lily Cactus specimens in his yard which produce a gorgeous bloom.  I watched and waited, studied the light and took note of the best times to shoot so I’d be ready when the flowers came in.

Then they arrived.  Tall trumpet shaped flutes stood tall and opened wide revealing beautiful, delicate pinkish-purple petals.  The blooms came during the night, and were boldly welcoming the sunrise the next day.  As the sun climbed, it cast it’s rays toward the flowers and they seemed to glow with the morning light.  I walked over several times that morning to watch, to study…but my camera was in the shop.  Damn it!

Thinking I would get my camera back soon, I watched the flowers all day.  It could make for a dramatic sunset shot if the light was right.  This was an exciting prospect.  As the day wore on I anxiously waited for my camera, I even considered taking shots with the D70 but felt that wasn’t going to cut it.  Late in the afternoon I still hadn’t heard from the camera shop and disaster struck.  The beautiful blooms were wilting.  The flowers closed and drooped in a tired, spent surrender to the midday heat.  There would be no sunset shots, maybe no shots at all if this cactus didn’t have the resources to bloom again this season.

My camera returned from it’s luxurious spa treatment the next day, but there was nothing to shoot.  But I kept my eyes on the cactus and eventually it bloomed again.  This time even bigger and better.  I caught them in the morning again and quickly scrambled to collect my gear and run to the neighbor’s house to catch it early while the light was still nice.  I took a series of shots, most with the tripod…but a few required me to contort myself into odd positions with my head and hands precariously close to other cacti in the yard.  I was really happy with the results.

Photograph of the Week: Adjustments in Lightroom

I’ve asked around and it seems that people really do like the “process” side of the Photograph of the Week just as much as the story side, so I’ll walk through the process a little more on this one to show how I treated the image.  I shoot in RAW on my Nikon so I can work the fine details in Lightroom.  Shooting RAW generally delivers a very dull image as it essentially ignores basic camera settings that would normally apply to tiff or jpg images (no in-camera processing for white balance, hue, tone and sharpening are applied to the NEF file).  It’s a digital negative, and requires processing (developing) just like film would.

Photograph of the Week - Easter Lily - RAW Image

You can see the RAW image for this shot is dark, flat and doesn’t have any vibrance of color to it.  One of the first things I do in my developing process is to create contrast and depth by reducing the Shadows and increasing the Blacks.  I will then adjust the Clarity setting for the image and see if I need to fine tune Shadows, Highlights, Blacks or Whites to balance the image.  Once I’ve got those basics dialed in I play with the Vibrance and Saturation settings if needed.  Sometimes, these don’t need to be adjusted but I will often boost at least the Vibrance setting which works well to bring out the glow of morning or evening light.

On most images, there isn’t much else I have to do.  In the case of this photo, I didn’t touch anything else except the Sharpness (I always push for heightened sharpness in landscape images).  With all of that dialed in I had a really nice, sharp, clean, colorful image.

Photograph of the Week - Easter Lily - Lightroom Image

Photograph of the Week: Finishing in Color Efex Pro

I recently started playing with the Nik Software plugins for Lightroom.  These were recommended to me by Moab based photographer Bret Edge who has talked about his workflow using Nik Plugins on his blog.

In order to edit the file in any of the plugins it must export to a TIFF file.  Then it opens in the selected plugin allowing you to make your fine adjustments.  I opened this file in Color Efex Pro to drop a couple of filters on it and create some subtle enhancements.  I played with a few things, but I created a nice recipe that worked for this set of images.

I wanted a couple of subtle adjustments, nothing too dramatic since I was really happy with everything I did in Lightroom.  Anything too heavy would overpower and ruin the image.  But I wanted to help boost the “sunrise glow” the morning had and I felt like I wanted to slightly adjust the color to bring out the flower’s natural hue.

I started with the Reflector Efex filter giving the highlights a soft golden glow, fine tuning the settings to keep it subtle.  Then I dropped a purple graduated Bi-Color Filter over the whole image setting the opacity very low.  This solidified the pinks but also further softened the glow from the Reflector Efex by giving the golden highlights an extra dose of purple color.  I toyed with tonal contrast, but dropped it as it seemed to create too harsh of an effect.  Then looked at what the Detail Extractor would do and ultimately left it out as well.

In the end, I feel like I managed to develop an image that highlights the delicate beauty of the bloom and really creates the feeling of a warm sunrise.

Photograph of the Week - Easter Lily - Final Image

 

Specifications:

  • This image was shot on a Nikon D300 with a Nikon Nikkor 24-120mm lens.
  • Exp: 1/160, F/6.3, ISO-200, 45mm.
  • Originally shot in RAW format and processed in Adobe Lightroom and finished in NIK Color Efex Pro 4.

Here’s the full Cacti in Bloom Gallery 

Cacti in Bloom – Images by David Creech

Photograph of the Week: Plan B in Boulder Creek…

The plan was to hike a 12-13 mile loop down Second Water to Boulder Creek then up the trail along the creek to return via Lost Dutchman Trail.  I was looking forward to hiking the creek and shooting some fun angles in Boulder Creek Canyon.

Normally, Boulder Creek is a thin stream that casually babbles it’s way down the canyon.  Crossing is not terribly difficult and the multiple creek crossings are part of the fun.  What I hadn’t really planned for the was the late Winter storm that rolled through Arizona (and much of the southwest) dumping tons of rain and dusting the local peaks with snow.  I stuck to my plan and headed out to Lost Dutchman State Park figuring I’d hike my designated route, in the rain if need be, and explore this part of the Superstition Mountain Wilderness.

When I hike, the “plan” isn’t much more than a loose sketch…an idea of where I’d like to end up depending entirely on what I might find along the way.  I try to allow a lot of wiggle-room in my agenda and very rarely think of my proposed route as “set in stone”.  Adaptability and flexibility are the name of the game.  My dad used to say something to the effect of, “Plan B makes for better stories”.  He was usually right.

I had to slog through muddy, mucky trails and cross many drainage washes running with water.  There had been so much rain, the ground was soft enough for me to sink a couple of inches with each step in places.  For a good section of the downhill side heading into Boulder Creek Canyon the drainage ran down the trail itself (very happy I had my waterproof boots with me on this one).  Once I reached Boulder Creek I realized I might need to rethink my plans.  The creek was swollen and brown with runoff and moving fast.  I had already passed one group that had turned back at the creek, but I wanted to see it for myself.

I tried desperately to follow my side of the creek looking for any sign of a trail, or a safe place to cross.  I followed a sole set of footprints up the boulder strewn creek fighting through vegetation until I was finally choked out.  I sat on a large boulder in the middle of the creek for a long time thinking about what I wanted to do.  As I munched on a snack bar, I considered the option of crossing the creek to look for the trail.  I considered heading up the canyon wall on my side to see if there was a trail higher up.  All of these considerations were sketchy at best and if the storm decided to let loose with another downpour I could find myself trapped on the wrong side of the creek or, worse, caught in a flash flood.

Eventually, I succumbed to reason and figured the smart thing for me (or anyone) hiking solo out in these conditions was to head back.  I reluctantly headed back the way I came, fighting through the same brush and still looking for a missed opportunity to cross the creek.  When I came back to where the original trail met the creek I tried my luck at crossing again but found nothing I deemed safe.  So I decided to make the best of it and get the camera equipment out to play with.

The storm hadn’t given me much of a sky to shoot.  It was very gray and overcast, very little definition and the light was diffused and too soft to create dramatic shadows.  My immediate thought was that it might be a good opportunity to play with slow exposure shots.  A slow exposure might give me a little boost of light in the scenery.  It would also allow me to play with the moving water effects that I always thought looked so cool.  I shot a few canyon shots then started playing with exposure times.  I took a few shots right down by the creek repeating the same shot with different exposure times to see what I would get.  The new shutter remote I got worked perfectly for being able to stabilize the camera on the tripod and get the shot without the risk of shaking the camera.

Photograph of the Week - Boulder Creek-Superstition Wilderness

Specifications:

  • This image was shot on a Nikon D300 with a Nikon Nikkor 10-28mm WA lens.
  • Exp: 1/5sec, F/29, ISO-200, 18mm.
  • Originally shot in RAW format and processed in Adobe Lightroom.

I eventually climbed up a small boulder cliff adjacent to the creek to get a better view of the canyon downstream.  I snapped a couple of shots then turned the camera around and shot almost directly below me catching a scene where the creek was choked with smaller, colored rocks and desert riparian shrubs.  The chocolate milk color of the storm-swollen creek softened the scene and when I slowed the exposure the movement of the water created a nice silky effect.  The result was magical.

This really turned out to be my personal favorite of this entire set.  I love the colors, I love the contrasts, I love the composition.  The lichen on the granite rock below me provided some really nice interest and texture to balance out the detail in the rocky side of the creek.  The movement of the water flows nicely in a diagonal across the composition dividing the two opposing scenes.  It just feels really nice to me.  I intend to have this one blown up on a tall canvas wrap for my office.

If I had not been forced to abandon Plan A and turn back, this shot would never have happened.  I’m happy to see where Plan B took me.

More Images from Boulder Creek…

You can now purchase Photograph of the Week images from my Virtual Gallery.  The Gallery is set up to allow you to purchase prints or digital copies for personal use.

Testing out a new chest rig…

A couple weeks ago I went on a short hike in the Superstitions with my camera gear.  For the first time in a long time, I carried my ridiculously heavy tripod out into the field.  Carrying the D300 along with a couple of lenses AND the tripod adds a lot of weight to the pack and can make it awkward to carry.  I also hate carrying the camera in the backpack just because of access issues.  This normally results in me carrying the camera through the entire hike.  I like to have my hands free when hiking, it’s part of the reason I can’t seem to make myself use trekking poles.  So, last week I decided to fix this situation and try some ideas I had.

A quick stop at the REI got me what I needed (some of the stuff I already had) and I was set up to test a new camera rig.

testing the new chest rig

 

I picked up a LowePro Top Loading Camera Case from REI.  I had to find something that would have quick access D-rings at the top corners of the case or it wouldn’t work (I also made sure the case had a rain cover).  I then added a couple of ultra-light carabiners to my GeigerRig RIG1600 at the shoulder straps.  Then, to connect the camera case to the carabiners I used lighweight S-biners.  These gave me a little wiggle room with the location of the case and set the top-load flap at a good height for access.  The S-biners come in a large variety of sizes so you can customize the hang of the chest rig to fit your sizing.

This setup worked great all weekend.  The only problem I had with it is the incessant chirping of the metal on metal as I hiked.  But that was easily resolved with a little duct-tape where the two biners rub together.  After that, it was perfect.  I found the LowePro case on sale and I already had the biners so the whole rig only cost me about $20 to set up.  You can buy camera chest rigs from manufacturers but most run $80 and up.

This worked great for me, fit my camera well, allowed me a hands-free hike with quick access to my camera on the trail.  It is also really fast and easy to take on and off when you need to remove the pack.  Now I just need to figure out an easier way to strap my tripod for quicker access.  The only problem I ran in to with this was not being able to see my feet on technical terrain.  That is easily resolved by merely unclipping one side of the camera case.

Photograph of the Week: Diamond in the Rough…

I think all photographers understand that not every trip in to the field is going to be stellar.  Sometimes, mother nature bucks against your expectations and you walk away underwhelmed with your collection of photographs.  It’s hard, and sometimes counterproductive to go out on a shoot with zero expectations and try to find your inspiration.  I’ve tried this approach and often come back with nothing.

A couple of weekends ago I was invited out to visit with fellow Photographers/Bloggers Bret (@BretEdgePhoto) and Melissa (@AdventureTykes) at Lost Dutchman State Park in the Superstitions.  We had talked about meeting up for a hike, but plans changed and I ended up driving out very last minute to visit them at their campsite.  We visited for a while and as the sun approached the horizon Bret asked if I’d like to run out for a quick hike to see what we could get.  I of course said yes, grabbed my gear and we were off to find a view of Weaver’s Needle.

Bret had seen a trail with a potential view he wanted to explore so we parked his rig and set off down a wash.  We hiked the wash, quickly so as not to lose the light, and climbed a few hills looking for the right vantage point.  We eventually followed an old Jeep trail to the top of a small hill where we could see Weaver’s Needle in one direction and Four Peaks in the other.  Then we waited.

The sunset was slow to perform, so I got my camera out and started looking to set up a few shots.  I had brought out my tripod, something I haven’t done in almost 12 years, hoping to be able to get some crisp images.  As I am pursuing photography again I am remembering and relearning the little things that elevate simple “photos” to “Photography”.  I had religiously traveled with my tripod in the past, knowing what I could do on film with a little exposure play.  With the DSLR I had become accustomed to using it like an oversized point-and-click digital camera.  That is changing.

Bret and I sat on the hilltop for a short while.  We were hoping for a decent shot of Weaver’s Needle but the light wasn’t cooperating and I became more fascinated with the view of Four Peaks.  There wasn’t much there, but as the light was getting lower I could sense a subtle glow to the rock, and the saguaros were lighting up like little candles on the hillside and Four Peaks and the mountains in the distance were taking on a nice soft purple hue through the haze.  I set up the tripod and took a few shots, really expecting nothing spectacular but wanting to see if I could tell the difference in detail shooting off the tripod.  The sky was dull and the sunset fizzled out without any real show.

Bret and I packed up and headed back to camp where we continued our visit.  Bret and Melissa are really great folks and I was glad I could take them up on their invitation to visit.  I went home shortly after dark and put my gear away.

The next day I decided to take a look at the images, entirely unimpressed with the originals.  I began processing them just to see if the low light had given me enough color and contrast to draw out some detail.  Working with the first couple of images was encouraging but they were not the shots off the tripod.  When I got to the last few, taken from the stability of the tripod, I was impressed with the difference.  I was able to take a slower shot, allowing a wider aperture and the resulting photograph was clean and crisp.

Photograph of the Week - Lost Dutchman

Specifications:

  • This image was shot on a Nikon D300 with a Nikon Nikkor 10-28mm WA lens.
  • Exp: 1/13 sec, F/14, ISO-200, 24mm.
  • Originally shot in RAW format and processed in Adobe Lightroom.

 

With the slower exposure, there was more color to play with and as I processed the image a rainbow of colors emerged.  The vertical shot really emphasizes the layers of color.  To me, this image feels like a rainbow with it’s layered colors blending to each other.  There was enough shadow in the landscape in the foreground that it wasn’t toned in yellows and oranges like the rest of the desert.  The previously dull sky now made sense in the composition and I was able to overlay a gradient exposure correction to get the sky to fade to a darker blue.

Photograph of the Week - Lost Dutchman and Four Peaks

Specifications:

  • This image was shot on a Nikon D300 with a Nikon Nikkor 10-28mm WA lens.
  • Exp: 1/2 sec, F/29, ISO-200, 24mm.
  • Originally shot in RAW format and processed in Adobe Lightroom.

The horizontal shot was able to take advantage of the purple hue of Four Peaks and had the added interest of part of the old Jeep trail in the foreground.  This image came out super crisp and clean and, though more subtle, had the same layers of rainbow colors I captured in the vertical image.

I had dismissed both of these shots because I had wanted the super dramatic sunset, or the perfectly framed shot of Weaver’s Needle with the light illuminating the peak just right.  Instead I got a really interesting, playful, colorful couple of images that highlight the beauty of the landscape and the intricate detail of the rock and cacti.

In the end, even without the nice images, I was glad to have met a couple of new friends and share a hike with a fellow photographer (though I struggle to even refer to myself as a photographer in the company of a true professional).  One of these days, I hope to get up to Moab to visit Bret’s gallery and join them for some fun outdoors adventures in Utah.

You can now purchase Photograph of the Week images from the Wilderness Dave Photography Virtual Gallery.  The Gallery is set up to allow you to purchase prints or digital copies for personal use.