Post Processing & The Creative Process

January Morning at Marshall Point
January Morning at Marshall Point This version is my final edit, and available on my website.

At the top of this post is an image I took last Saturday at Marshall Point. While it was bitterly cold, the rising sun painted the scene with warm tones as sea smoke rose from the waters of Muscongus Bay and clouds moved across an azure sky. The sun caused soft warm tones in the sky, with hints of orange and pink in the clouds.  Tall grasses poked out of the snow with light brown tones that contrasted nicely with the blue sky and white of the snow and ice. The image above is my final edit. I adjusted the color and contrast of the image in Photoshop to get the image to most closely resemble not only what I saw with my eyes and what I felt when I came upon the scene.

Histogram
This is the histogram from the RAW image of January Morning at Marshall Point. Notice the room on the right hand side of the histogram. The far right represents whites in the scene, and mid-right, where the graph ends, represents highlights. This means I have not lost detail in the snow or the sky, the brightest areas of the image. And while the shadow side of the graph extends to the end on the far left, the very end represents a very small portion of the image where I would not expect to find much detail anyway. This small section represents the islands and darker rocks in the distance. Using this histogram I was able to tell exactly what I could bring out when processing the RAW file.

Below, are five versions of the same file, processed as the camera would have had I used the noted picture style. Notice how flat they are, how lacking in color. Notice how the sky lacks pop and even loses detail. Picture styles are good for general use, but I find they kill more images than they help. Personally, I am not content to settle for images that do not convey my vision. The total time spent post-processing this image for me was less than five minutes.  I did not manufacture elements of the scene. I simply brought out the most in the information I captured.

Landscape Preset
This is the file as would have been rendered in-camera using the Landscape preset. Notice the detail lost in the rocks in the middle ground, and the detail lost in the sky with the whispier clouds having disappeared.

As seems to crop up every now and again, lately, one social media group I am a member of has been debating the merits of the post processing of images versus taking what the camera gives you. I am very firmly planted in the post processing camp.  I firmly believe that post processing of images, whether in a darkroom or in digital form, is an integral part of the photographic process. It is the difference between being someone who shot their own film and used their own darkroom to process and print it, and being someone who shot a roll of film and took it to the local one-hour photo lab and settled for the prints they were given.

Standard Picture Style
This is the image if I had used the “Standard” preset in-camera. I’ve still lost a ton of detail, and the color is still flatter than what I saw as I was on site.

If you went to the lab, you might get some nice prints, but you’ve given up a huge amount of control over the final look of your image.  You might not even realize the amount of creative choices available to you when making prints- things like dodging a shadow to bring out detail here, burning down a highlight area to get better detail in clouds, or even using a detail enhancer on the negative to bring out finer details. It’s the difference between a snapshot and a photograph.

Vivid Picture Style
This is the image using Nikon’s in-camera “Vivid” picture control. The colors pop a little more, but the contrast is still way too high and I’m again losing detail in the middle ground.

I have seen people call the use of images straight out of the camera (SOOC) as “pure” and “true”, as if those of us who do process our images from RAW files are somehow lying. Now, I have seen my share of photo composites that couldn’t possibly be real, but most times the artist has stated that the image is a composite. I have also seen plenty of overprocessed and overdone images (in my opinion). Perhaps some even feel mine are overprocessed and overdone. That said, I don’t feel the need to stand up and proseletyze in a public setting and state that only one way is correct. If I see an image I don’t like, be it due to composition or exposure or processing, I move on without a word. Photography is a subjective and creative process and others are more than welcome to do as they please with their own images, but to call images “pure” or “truthful” because they were taken straight from a digital camera is simply misguided.

Neutral Picture Style
This is the image using the “Neutral” picture style. Neutral makes very little attempt to color correct, leaving less color than was visible through my own eyes.

Without getting too technical, today’s digital cameras do just as much processing to an image as I do. The difference is that they don’t know what it is they were looking at when taking the photo. Digital cameras have various presets- called “Picture Styles” on Canon cameras, and “Picture Controls” on Nikons. These picture styles determine how color is reproduced, how shadows and highlights are rendered, and how fine detail is handled. So, who told the cameras how to do this?  Most likely, a Japanese software engineer. This guy is today’s version of the photo tech who printed your images at the one-hour photo lab. He determines how your photos will look. Yes, you can choose your picture styles in camera yourself, and you can even customize them. But that picture style still starts where our aforementioned engineer says they do.

When you shoot RAW files, the image you see on the screen is still subject to those picture styles. The camera has to start somewhere, so when I photograph with my Nikon D810, I use the “Camera Flat” picture control. This setting is the least contrasty, meaning I can capture the most amount of highlight and shadow detail without losing any. To judge this, I use my histogram to make sure I’ve properly exposed my image. If you’re unaware of what a histogram is, it’s a graph that shows the distribution of highlights, midtones, and shadows within an image. On the left is shadows, the right is highlights, and midtones are in the middle.  The peaks in a histogram simply show how many pixels are at a given tonal level.  Using a histogram is akin to using Ansel Adams’ zone system. You should be able to look at the scene and know where in the histogram a particular part of the scene will land, and even plan for that part of the scene to be in a specific section of your histogram.

Camera Flat Picture Control
This is the Camera Flat picture control I use on my Nikon D810. It produces a lower contrast file with less color saturation than any of the other picture styles and is ideal for post processing.

Adams also used a technique called visualization, meaning he would look at the scene, plot certain sections to fall at certain zones within the zone system, and then know what could be done in the darkroom to get the best final print. I use the histogram in a similar way. By knowing where certain critical areas of my scene fall on the histogram, I know what I can do with those tones in processing, so even if the image on the screen doesn’t look the way I want it to based on the scene I see with my own eyes, I know I can get it. Quite often I’ve heard people complain that they can’t get the image to look in camera the way they saw it with their eyes. This is how you do that.  In-camera picture styles are generalizations.  They will work well for average scenes but as soon as you challenge them just a bit, you will find they fall short.

One last thought: If you truly want an image straight out of the camera, shoot slide film. Different emulsions have their own characteristics, so you choose the type of film you shoot based on the look you want.  Fuji Velvia is contrasty and has saturated colors, and was always a personal favorite of mine. Kodak Ektachrome had more neutral color balance and less contrast. Depending on the emulsion some photographers felt it skewed to the cool side of the color palette. But the bottom line is, when shooting slide film, what you see is what you get.

I’m not here to argue one way is better than another. Photography IS very much an art form, and it’s up to each individual to choose how they fulfill their creative needs. What I will argue is when someone states that one approach is “pure” or “true”. I will again state my opinion that those who argue that side don’t really understand the complete photographic process.

Feel free to comment, but please keep it civil.

Advertisements

New Year’s Chill

Winter Morning at Portland Head Lighthouse
Winter Morning at Portland Head Lighthouse

One of the things I love about Maine is the climate.  Some may say I’m crazy, but harsh though it may be, Maine winters offer every bit as much beauty as the other three seasons. Yes, it’s a bit more difficult to photograph in the elements, but it’s no less rewarding.

For the past week or so, Maine has been under a deep freeze, with temperatures below 20° for the better part of 10 days or so. Lows have been in the negatives during that time. While those conditions are daunting, they create some spectacular visuals. In our case along the coast, one of the most beautiful phenomenon the frigid temperatures bring is known as sea smoke. Sea smoke (also known as frost smoke or steam fog) is formed when very cold air moves over warmer water. It is common in the Arctic, and happens in Maine and New England during a particularly cold spell.

New Years Morning at Portland Head Lighthouse
New Years Morning at Portland Head Lighthouse

On New Year’s Eve, looking at the weather conditions for the next day, I decided I would get up at sunrise to capture the sea smoke as the rising sun filtered through it, creating this warm and spectacular light.  So the night before, I planned my excursion, setting out 2 pairs of pants, 4 shirts, wool socks, boots, heavy jacket, fleece hat and facemask, and gloves. Then I dug out hand warmers (thanks Mom!) and toe warmers (Mom again) to put inside my gloves and boots.

I awoke at 5:30am on New Year’s Day to a temperature of -14°F. While the urge to stay under my warm blankets was strong, I forced myself to get up and head out. My first stop was Portland Head Lighthouse.  I’d always wanted to photograph it in winter, with snow on the rocks, and the warm glow of the morning sun. Upon arriving at the lighthouse, I met a few other photographers of similarly questionable sanity, noting that the temperature was still -14°F.

Ice in Portland Harbor
Ice in Portland Harbor

I made my way out onto the rocks, careful to watch my step as there was snow and ice everywhere. I wanted an angle a bit different from the usual shot most people get from the fence at the top of the bluff. I hopped the fence and tried a few different locations on the rocks, first with my Nikon 24-120mm lens, but I wasn’t really thrilled with the composition I was getting, so I switched to my Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art lens and suddenly the scene came alive for me. I love the look of ultrawide angle lenses, and the Sigma 14mm is superb. Wide angles force me to consider foreground interest in the composition, making for more interesting compositions.

After I felt I’d gotten what I wanted out of Portland Head Light for the day, I decided to head over to Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland. I had seen other photographers’ images from the previous few days, and was incredibly jealous that I couldn’t get out due to my work schedule, so this was my chance to create a few of my own.

Icy Morning at Spring Point Ledge Light
Icy Morning at Spring Point Ledge Light

While I did get one image with the 14mm lens that I liked, here the 24-120mm lens was more appropriate. So I once again switched lenses and went back to work. With the tide coming in at Portland Harbor, the huge chunks of ice began to float out a bit, creating an interesting foreground as the lighthouse emerged from the fog into the bright morning sun. It was a breathtaking sight to behold.

All told I spent about two and a half hours outside in sub-zero temperatures photographing the sea smoke around two lighthouses.  After we got back into the car- I had my girlfriend braving the cold with me- we headed to Becky’s Diner for an amazing New Year’s Day breakfast. And to thaw out a bit.

Winter Morning at Spring Point Ledge Lighthoue
Winter Morning at Spring Point Ledge Lighthoue

My Best of 2017

Winter Morning at Cape Neddick
“Winter Morning at Cape Neddick”
Cape Neddick, ME
January 8, 2017
Dawn On Wells Beach
“Dawn On Wells Beach”
Wells Beach, ME
March 2, 2017
Sunrise At Wolfe's Neck Woods
“Sunrise At Wolfe’s Neck Woods”
Freeport, ME
April 18, 2017
Sunrise at Bald Head Cliff
“Sunrise at Bald Head Cliff”
York, ME
May 8, 2017
Spring Morning In Acadia National Park
“Spring Morning In Acadia National Park”
Bar Harbor, ME
May 19, 2017
Sunset At Marshall Point
“Sunset At Marshall Point”
Port Clyde, ME
June 16, 2017
Bailey Island Coastline
“Bailey Island Coastline”
Harpswell, ME
July 2, 2017
Lower Falls On Kancamagus Highway
“Lower Falls On Kancamagus Highway”
North Conway, NH
July 3, 2017
Sunrise Under The Pier
“Sunrise Under The Pier”
Old Orchard Beach, Maine
August 2, 2017
Dusk On Littlejohn Island
“Dusk On Littlejohn Island”
Yarmouth, ME
August 14, 2017
Tumbledown Pond
“Tumbledown Pond”
Franklin County, ME
September 17, 2017
October Sky At West Quoddy Head Light
“October Sky At West Quoddy Head Light”
Lubec, ME
October 6, 2017
Shining Through At Portland Head Light
“Shining Through At Portland Head Light”
Cape Elizabeth, ME
November 27, 2017
December Sunrise In Ogunquit
“December Sunrise In Ogunquit”
Ogunquit, ME
December 3, 2017

 

Sunrise at Portland Head Lighthouse

Shining Through At Portland Head Light
Shining Through At Portland Head Light

Last week, I had planned to go out and photograph at sunrise. Originally, I had planned to photograph at Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland. When I arrived, I noticed the sky was setting up to be one of “those” sunrises, where the clouds filled the sky just enough that they would pick up some color and add interest. I then also realized that if I wanted to make the most of it, Spring Point Ledge was the wrong place to be. It faced the wrong direction to really see all the color and get the sun in the shot. I quickly made the decision to head to Portland Head Lighthouse instead.

Dawn on Casco Bay
“Dawn on Casco Bay” Before the sun came up, the sky was more gray than anything, with just a hint of color on the horizon.

I’m not unique in the fact that Portland Head Lighthouse is one of my favorite places to photograph in Maine. But I’ve found that it’s like every other oft-photographed icon: no matter how many photos there are of it, every individual can put their own stamp on it and make a photo they can call their own. On this day, I got to Portland Head just in time to find a spot and get set up before the show began.  And I noticed there wasn’t another photographer in sight.

Autumn Sunrise In Cape Elizabeth
“Autumn Sunrise In Cape Elizabeth” As the sun came up, the sky suddenly exploded in color.

After a few false starts, I found a spot I was happy with and started making images. At first, a huge dark cloud had moved in and I wondered if the sunrise would be a bust. But as the sun continued to rise, the clouds continued to move and soon they began to turn a bright pink and then finally, the sky exploded into oranges and red, contrasted with purple in the darker clouds.  It was one of the most amazing sunrises I’ve seen.

As the waters of Casco Bay pounded the rocks just below me, I continued making exposures as the light continued to change.  I was splashed by the occasional wave and watched the sun break the horizon, the clouds changing colors. The whole show lasted maybe five minutes.

After the sun came up, I moved over to the other side of the lighthouse and used the soft morning light a little more. I finished up and headed out to find breakfast.

November Morning At Portland Head Lighthouse
November Morning At Portland Head Lighthouse

Above Denali

Mount Brooks From Above
Mount Brooks From Above

One of the highlights of my life as a landscape photographer was a gift given to me by my now ex-wife- a flight over the mountains in Denali National Park.  I had been planning the trip for several months when she surprised me with this wrinkle for my birthday. It gave me an opportunity to see Denali in a way I had not seen before, and a way I had not planned.

Hidden In Denali
Hidden In Denali

The thing I most remember about the flight was how small it made me feel. We were 11,000 feet up (the ceiling for the bush plane we were in), and we STILL had to look up from the plane to see the tops of some of the peaks of the Alaska Range, including Denali itself, which was almost double our altitude in height.

McKinley River From The Air
McKinley River From The Air

As cloud cover moved in and around the mountains, I tried to capture as much of the view as I could- kettle ponds on the tundra, the mountains enveloped in puffy white clouds, glacial lakes, hidden in valleys where people rarely set foot. It was all breathtaking, and remains one of my favorite experiences that I’ve captured with my camera.

A Peak In The Clouds
A Peak In The Clouds

Autumn In New England

Blog-20171014-VaughanWoods-0004
Autumn in Hallowell

Autumn has always been one of my favorite times of year. The crisp, cool air, coupled with the smells of leaves burning, fireplaces burning logs, and the smells of seasonal baked goods (pumpkin spice, anyone?), as well as the vibrant colors, just make fall a cornucopia of sensory stimuli. Since adopting Maine as my home last year, I’ve made sure to enjoy all that autumn in New Englad has to offer visually, by getting out and exploring just a bit.

Last year, I’d discovered Vaughan Woods, in Hallowell, Maine, after a friend suggested I check it out. I wasn’t disappointed, so of course, I had to go back this year.  The stone bridges and Vaughan Brook with its waterfalls, are quintessential New England. When the color is exploding in the trees, there is no place in New England that is more picturesque.  This year, my return was in the form of a photo walk with several other photographers. The brook was flowing nicely, with small whirlpools forming in certain spots, and good color in the trees.

Vaughan Brook And Arch Bridge
Vaughan Brook And Arch Bridge

There are two stone bridges in Vaughan Woods. When you start down the trail, the first bridge you come to is a smaller one, with a small three foot waterfall flowing just in front of it. A pool had formed with colored leaves in the bottom of the pool. I used a Benro Master Filters circular polarizer to minimize the reflection on the surface of the pool and allow me (and my camera) to see into the water and let those leaves on the bottom come through.

The second bridge, known as Arch Bridge, is much taller, and spans a taller waterfall on Vaughan Brook. I scrambled down the rocks along the brook and found an angle I liked that allowed me to show the rocks, the bridge, the foliage, and the brook.  I again used the polarizer to help deepen the blue of the sky, along with a Benro Filters 4-stop ND filter to slow down my shutter speed and allow the water to blur a bit and get that creamy look.

Autumn Glow In The Woods
Autumn Glow In The Woods

A couple of weeks later, on another photo walk, I ventured down to Newburyport, Massachusetts, to Maudslay State Park. There was still good color on the trees, and while I captured several shots I liked, the two I’m sharing here are my favorites. As we walked along the trail through the park, this scene caught my eye.  There was soft warm sunlight hitting this orange tree, causing it to appear to glow. It was a beautiful scene and I spent several minutes capturing it before the light changed and the tree stopped glowing.

Autumn Sunset Through The Trees
Autumn Sunset Through The Trees

Further along the trail, as the sun was getting lower in the sky, I came upon another tree. This one also showed orange leaves, and with the sun shining through them, they also appeared to glow. The sun slowly moved down and I was able to capture a sun star as the sun shone between two branches. It was the perfect way to end the day.

Another day also ended perfectly, just a few days before. I’d been driving around looking for somewhere to photograph at sunset. I instantly thought of Bowdoin Mill in Topsham, Maine. This mill had intrigued me since the first time I’d seen it so I decided to go and try to find an angle to photograph it from. I found a spot, but the skies were heavily clouded. Soon, the clouds moved and for ten minutes I was blessed with this incredibly soft warm light. The mill glowed as it was reflected in the Androscoggin River, and the clouds picked up a warm tone from the late afternoon sun.

Bowdoin Mill
Bowdoin Mill

It’s scenes like this that make me look forward to autumn every year.

autumn art for sale

Lubec, Maine

October Sky at West Quoddy Head Lighthouse
October Sky at West Quoddy Head Lighthouse

In the 18 years I’d been visiting Maine, prior to moving here last year, I’d never been anywhere past Schoodic Point, just past Bar Harbor, in a slightly less trafficked area of Acadia National Park. After moving here, I had made a sort of mental list of places I wanted to explore- places like Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin, Rangeley,  and Lubec, the easternmost point in the continental United States. In the past year, I managed to do quite a bit of exploring, but Lubec eluded me, as it was just about the furthest away from my home and I’d decided I need at least two nights there to really even begin to see it.

At the beginning of October, I finally made that happen. I had the unfortunate occurrence of the cancellation private photo tour I was leading, so I took the two days I would have spent on the tour, and headed to Lubec to see just what there was so far downeast.  The first thing I found? AT&T’s cell service is AWFUL. Not of major importance, but when I DID have a signal, half the time it was from Bell Canada, which  meant I had no data. No text messages, no Facebook, no email. So I found myself disconnected from civilization. Not a terrible thing, but I’d prefer to plan when I will be disconnected.

The Compass
The Compass, photographed on the Coastal Trail in Quoddy Head State Park

Connectivity aside, Lubec was much like the rest of Maine that I’d explored so far – rugged, beautiful, simple, and just plain stunning.  My first stop was Quoddy Head State Park and West Quoddy Head Lighthouse. I had arrived late the night before so, on just about four hours sleep, I dragged my butt out of bed, dragged my friend Beth from her bed, and we headed to Quoddy Head State Park.

As we arrived, the horizon was glowing a deep red. Sunrise was going to be incredible. A local photographer had guided me to a couple of different spots, but we opted for the classic view of the lighthouse on the cliff, since it looked like there would be a great sky, and I had never been there before.  I set up and immediately started photographing.

As the clouds moved across the sky behind the lighthouse, the sun came up to my left, and lit the eastern sky on fire. While there wasn’t much of a foreground to work with facing the sunrise, the soft, warm glow of the rising sun on the lighthouse and the cliff and grasses in the foreground was perfect.

Sunrise on Passamaquoddy Bay
Sunrise on Passamaquoddy Bay

After finding breakfast and going back to the motel to clean up and grab our stuff, we headed back to Quoddy Head State Park to explore more. The coastal trail offered several great opportunities for photos. I could find a different spot for sunrise there every day for a month.  As I only had two days, I had the make the best of what I had. On my first day there, I came across a lobster pot buoy that had washed up against the rocks. The day had turned gray, but I decided at that point that this spot was my next day’s sunrise location. I wanted the buoy as my foreground with the sun rising behind it. Unfortunately, the sky was a lot less interesting on this morning, but I was able to find a composition that worked and I was still able to use the soft warm light of sunrise, just as I had visualized the day before.

Misty Morning on Johnson Bay
Misty Morning on Johnson Bay

After my second sunrise, we were heading back into Lubec when I noticed the mist was still hanging around. We made a beeline for the harbor, which was shrouded in fog as the sun fought to burn it off. It created an ethereal glow that seemed to envelop the lobster boats sitting in the harbor. Everywhere I turned was another photo opportunity, from the fogbow I captured as it arced over some lobster boats, to Mullholland Point Lighthouse on Campobello Island, shrouded in mist. It was an amazing morning.

We explored a bit more that day but soon had to head back home. The more I explore, the more I continue to be enchanted by coastal Maine, especially downeast Maine.