Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Dancing With Flour - Part 3

Well, so much for getting another post up quickly! One of those things that get's pushed to the side sadly. I've been working with large format, both color and black/white, lately and that's eaten up a lot of time. I'll get posts up about that stuff at some point, but first let's finish up this flour stuffs.

Last time I left off with a few issues still hanging out there, and some new ones that cropped up in this final shoot.

1. light fall of to the back wall
2. Color?
3. Posing-finding new ones that aren't repetitive
4. group tarps - aesthetics and function
5. throwing flour

We'll tackle these one by one.

1. Light fall off

I talked about this in the last two posts. The first shoot was actually the most successful with this. I just didn't have anything in the background to catch any light, so I got a nice clean, very black, background. In the second shoot, we went inside, and thus had a wall. Luckily it was dark wood and didn't catch much light. In b/w it removed the color cast form the warm wood, and wasn't noticeable when I crushed it down to black.

However, in this third shoot we had a real problem. I chose to try a different spot in the gym to put down the tarps, right in the middle. I hoped that this would utilize the inverse square law to my advantage and put the wall into black. Basically, the law states that when you double this distance, you quarter the power of light. Think of it as painting a wall. You can cover x feet with y amount of paint. When you have 4x feet of wall, you then can cover y/4 with the same amount of paint, or use y/4 amount of paint for x feet to make up for the quadrupled area. Or think of it like car head lights. The things closer to the car are brighter, right? The farther things are from a light source, the less light they receive per area. This is a measurable amount, in fact it's the basis for most equations and calculations for photography. Beside the point though. For this third shoot, I was hoping that by putting more distance between the lights and the wall, the darker the wall would be.

I was right, but not as much as I wanted to be. What I didn't take into consideration was that even though the wall was farther away than last time, it was white paint, not a dark wood.  White is many, many times more reflective than dark wood colors, and to make it worse paint is more reflective than matte wood texture. So there was less light reaching the wall, but it didn't matter because the wall reflected a lot of it right back.

Once I realized it was a lost cause, we just concentrated on the other aspects of the shoot and hoped it could be fixed in post. As it turned out, I was able to really crush it down with just Lr adjustment brushes. Using the same technique I described in the last post, I darkened the background without loosing too much of the detail in the flour and particulate around Kaitlyn.

In summary, if you want a black background, either shoot outside at night, or just use a black background (duh). Lessons for the future....

2. Color?

Black and white was getting a little repetitive, so this time around we decided to incorporate color into the photos! Originally, we'd planned on using a ton of different colors, but ended up only using one set up for the duration of the shoot. In hind sight, we could have switched gels after finishing each pose, but maybe next time. Each gel has a different transmission rate, so we would have had to relight everything each time we switched. Not a huge deal, but since I was shooting at close to full power with lightly colored gels, I didn't want to run the risk of really screwing up lighting trying to make a heavy dense work. Sometimes getting every shot you want is just not realistic, leave something for the future. It keeps your brain constantly thinking about new ideas and things you can do, which is always something you want with photography, or just art for that matter!

The other thing I should mention about color lighting is that brightness is perceived by the color hues and saturation, and not necessarily by luminosity. A warm, saturated color may appear bright when it's really only in Zone 5 or 6, and a dark color with a ton of brightness may still appear dark even when it's illuminating more than the warm color. In this way, it's difficult to correctly expose a color photography sometimes, especially when there are no neutral colors to gauge off of. The best you can do is to go by your histogram, trying to push it all the way to the right without going over. We talked about that in the first post.

For color choice, just go crazy! Be familiar with the color wheel and how colors interact with each other. I like to contrast warm and cool colors, it gives the appearance of a key and fill light, which actually providing fairly even illumination. This gives you detail in most places, but with it feeling flat.

Be sure to take the clothing into consideration. Lighting blue clothing with red light is just going to make it a dark purple or even brown color, which is probably not what you want. Again, take a little time to get familiar with color theory, it'll help. Which clothing will take on the color of the light, as will most light colored clothing. Dark clothing will remain close to it's original color if lit with similar hues, but it will get darker if lit by contrasting colors. It's a similar effect to how color filters work with light.

There's so much to talk about color, but I'll leave you with those points. Most of all though, just experiment and go crazy! There's nothing more interesting in the random spontaneity of the human mind!

3. Posing

The last couple shoots have done a lot with jumping poses. And even though there's lots to do with that, it gets repetitive real quick. We started to run into that a little bit with this shoot. To change things up, we did a lot of poses from the ground. You'll see in the photographs, but staying on the ground opens up new doors for posing.

The challenge we ran into, however, was the drop cloths. I very much dislike them. Maybe it's just because I know what they are, but I'd much rather have a clean, or at least flat, black surface. The wrinkled plastic just looks messy and careless to me. Some of the ground photos are still successful, but they could be so much better with a cleaner surface!

4. Ground tarps

I already talked about the aesthetics of them. They are for function more than form, so if you're including them in the frame try to get something clean (aesthetically, not literally) to cover them.

On a different note, we used 4 tarps for this shoot, providing 800 sq/ft of tarp. Quite a lot. I arranged three of them like a stage for Kaitlyn, long edge to long edge, then used the fourth as a runway out to the camera. This allowed me to to get around the whole space and never have to leave the tarp. No flour for you, floor!

But still...bring a broom and mop because flour will find a way to get loose. It always does.

5. Throwing Flour

First off, it why flour get's off the tarp. But it's essential for the photos.

There's a lot of talk about this, but I'll mostly concentrate on where we put the flour on Kaitlyn and how I threw it.

Any limb that will be moving we tried to cover with flour. In most of her poses, Kaitlyn could start with her head down, so her shoulders, neck and arms could be covered with flour. We did a lot with flour in her hands and at the base of her neck. When she jumped, it would just go every where in a huge cloud. A cool trick we found for ones that involved her legs was to put flour behind her knee and on top of her foot. When her leg made arcs, the flour trailed behind nicely.

I also threw a lot of flour that night. Most of the jumping shots are only floured (yes, I made that a verb) with Kaitlyn, but many of the ground shots are a combination of flour on her and me throwing flour. All of the ones where she is doing some form of hand stand were floured by me from camera right, and a little from flour on Kaitlyn's legs and back. It's fairly obvious when you look at the photos where the flour comes from, so I'll leave that up to you. Experiment with different flour amounts and the force you use to throw it. Less flour and more force equals more of a cloud. Less force and more flour makes bigger particles and more of a jet stream/explosion effect.

One thing I should note, we used her body to block the lights so that one side of her got only orange light, and the other green.

Well, that's all for now. I might be experimenting more this summer, so maybe there will be future posts to be written. We will see...but for now that's all.

Here's my favorite photos from this last shoot. Enjoy. Full collection here.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Dancing With Flour - Part 2

Annddddd another month goes by before I get around to writing the next part of the flour series. I'll attempt to remember where I left off and start to fill in some gaps that might have been left by the last post.

If you missed that one, you can read it here.

I mostly covered the basics of all the shoots, so these next two posts will be specifics about each shoot that I changed or modified to fit my needs. Each shoot presented it's own challenges, and I'll try to talk about everything. Sometimes might be insignificant enough to glance over, but I'll at lest mention all that I can.

First things first, let's talk about location. The first shoot we did outside, in the cold....and that kinda sucked. Michelle was really cold, and I think we ran the risk of a pulled muscle or injury from trying the jumps and whatnot we wanted. The cold was actually better for the gear as electronics function better at a lower temperature (to a point of course), but that's a minimal advantage compared to the human element. Human ice cubes are not the goal...

Background check to give some context.

About a month and a half ago, I met another photo student, Kaitlyn, who also happens to be a gymnast/dancer. I was matting one of the photos from the first flour shoot, and Kaitlyn happened to be printing self portraits of herself dancing. We started talking, found the common interest, and about 30 seconds later decided a flour shoot needed to happen soon.

A week later, it was 7pm and we decided that night was the night. Being back in Bozeman for the next shoot, I decided that doing flour pictures outside was just a no go. There's not a lot of spaces in Bozeman that are large enough, and public, for a project like this. Luckily, one of those spaces is on MSU campus; Romney Gym. (Little did we know you have to reserve it :D, story for the next post)

For clothing, Kaitlyn and I were torn between black and white. I knew the pictures were going to be b/w eventually, so we didn't have to worry about colors if we wanted lighter tones for clothing. After some debate, we decided on going lighter colors. Kaitlyn had some bright green spandex shorts and a sports bra that, in grey scale, were very close to her skin tone. I also knew since the green would stand out so much to the camera (will discuss this later), I could tweak the exact shade later so we went with the green attire.

Earlier in the week, I'd gotten tarps and flour in preparation, so we headed over to the gym and started  to set up.

When we got into the space, there were two things I needed to decided immediately. First, were the ambient lights a problem, and what's my background going to look like?

I thought the lights were bright enough that they would start to creep into the photos, so from there we were limited to one side of the gym that had an overhang and was darker. With these photos, I wanted there to be no information besides Kaitlyn and the flour, so background info from ambient light is a no no. I'll talk about this more when I discuss camera settings.

Luckily, that side of the gym with the overhang also had a dark wood wall, and I thought that would work as a background. With the lights pointed and modified in the right way, the wall should fall to black. That was more of less true, but I'll talk about that a little later.

Tarps, lovely tarps. The one problem with being inside, besides the lighting and background, is that clean up has be pretty complete. We can't exactly borrow a space and then leave it a mess, now can we? This time around, I'd gotten TWO tarps to total of 400 sq/ft of tarp!  That should be enough, right? NOPE, not even close.... But we didn't know that until it was far too late. None the less, we taped down everything really well and hoped for the best. The thing that really did us in wasn't the throwing of flour, it was me running back and forth to the camera! My feet got caked with flour, and made a nice white path... when we eventually got kicked out by the janitor (not for the flour, but for time issues on an unreserved space), I did feel bad that he had to clean it up...

Two lessons learned from the tarps and janitor: Get more tarps, reserve the gym! When I did the first flour shoot, Victor was there to help assist with the throwing of flour. This time around, it was just me, so I used a remote trigger and threw the flour myself. This worked well, except for the tracking of flour back and forth to the camera.

On to shooting. The first thing I always do with a shoot like this is figure out my shutter speed to balance with the ambient light. Similar to Ansel Adams pre-visualization method, I think about what I want the final image to be, then build the picture to accomplish this. I knew that I wanted everything apart from Kaitlyn and the flour to be as close to black as possible, so I jumped to my highest sync speed right off the bat. This let the lest amount of light in as possible, and gave me the darkest background. My ISO was set to 100 as my standard to start, and aperture to f/8. These two settings give me the best image quality, and I try to use them as often as I can.

However, due to the low power output of my strobes, I needed to gain about two stops of light to get a proper exposure. Technically, I could use max (1/1) power and get enough light, but the t.1 time of my lights is too slow to really stop the motion. At full power, the strobes are an effective 1/400 or so shutter speed, and I need about 1/1000 at the very very least. As far as I know, when you half the power on a strobe, it also cuts the time in half, so I could probably get away with 1/2 power and still have enough stopping power. The very fine details would probably be a little blurred, but I can live with that.

If you don't remember, when you're using only strobes to light an image, your shutter speed is irrelevant, as long as it's longer than the sync speed. There's a lot of info out there, so if you're still interested I encourage you to do a google search of sync speeds. For a couple posts about strobes, go here or here.

In review, I have my settings at 1/200, f/8, ISO100, and strobes at 1/1. I want more stopping power though, so I turned the strobes down to 1/2. Since I have two strobes, this actually cuts two stops of light, instead of just one. 1/2*1/2=1/4 which is 2 stopes. So I raised my ISO to 200 and opened the aperture to f/6.3. This is only 1.6 stopes, but I really didn't want to go all the way to f/5.6 for sharpness and depth of field issues, and I can make up that 1/3 stop in post very very easily.

My lighting set up was identical to the first set up (check the link at the top of the post to see that), but once I got the settings dialed in I ran into some background colors. We had set up too close to the wall, and light was falling on it and illuminating it :/ no good.

We could have done multiple things to fix this, but the one we settled on was gobos. I'll talk about another way we fixed this problem in the next shoot. But gobos for now. Gobo is short for go between, its basically put in between the light and whatever you don't want to light. We didn't want light to fall on the wall, so two gloves got taped to the side of the strobes prevented light from going in that direction. This helped quite a bit, as only light reflected off the gym made it back to the wall. We also turned the lights so they pointed more toward the camera, so even less light was directed towards the wall.

Now that the settings were set, on to actual picture taking!

Not too much to say about this process, as it was very similar to the the previous shoot. There were a couple little changed I made though. The biggest one was that I threw flour into the frame and remotely triggered the camera. This allowed more flour in the frame, adding to the drama and element of motion. My old remote trigger actually died that night, but I luckily have two flash transceivers (Yongnuo RF 603 II) that can pair to function as a remote. Worked perfectly, with no misfires and sync issues.

For the pictures with a lot of flour, many of them are composites of a couple different shots. Even if we didn't get the pose we wanted for particular image, I rarely threw the flour in the same place twice. This way, I would have a lot of frames with flour everywhere, and I could add that flour into the final frame with the good pose. The background is pretty much black, so all that was required were layer masks to blend.

That's about all I have to say about shooting that I didn't say last time. With digital you have especially unlimited storage, so just fire away until you get the shot you want! Be sure to very carefully check each shot you think is good to make sure it's actually what you want. I can't tell you how many times I've called it good and only later discovered the image was soft, or flat, or framed wrong, or some little detail that completely ruins it. It's easy to do, and really ruins all your work in a hurry. If you put in the effect to set everything up, take the extra couple minutes to make sure it's not all going to waste because you were lazy.

Last thing I'm going to talk about is editing. I'll skip the basics, as I covered it in the last post. Two new issues presented themselves for this shoot, and that's what I'll discuss.

First, the background. That pesky was brown, ugly, and very meh. Surprisingly, it was actually a fairly easy fix. Since all the images were going to b/w, that took care of the color cast. The was still a bit off, but with the global adjustments done to the image for contrast, the blacks pretty much got to where I wanted them. To touch up a few spots I used the adjustment brush to raise clarity. This darkened the shadows (to crush the blacks) but also raised the highlights so that I wouldn't be loosing the flour in those areas.

The second topic is color to b/w conversion. Kaitlyn was wearing the bright green spandex, which appeared no where else in the frame. When you convert to b/w from a color image, you can adjust each colors luminosity to get the look you desire. I brightened the greens, which brightened the spandex and made it appear as if she had on bright white clothing. I felt this worked a lot better with the photo, serving to brighten up the darkish feel and really add some contrast as well.

That's all for this post! I'll try to get the next one written up soon so it's not another month before you see it!

Here's a couple of my favorite photos from the shoot, the rest can be found here.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Dancing with Flour - Part 1

This is long over due....

The last couple months I've done a few shoots with flour and dancing as you might have seen on my Fb page. Theoretically, there would have been a blog post to go along with each of the shoots....but I've been too busy working on other projects I keep forgetting!

But I'm finally going to sit down tonight a write about the first shoot at least, it'll get the basics down, then for the next two shoots I'll focus more on how the techniques changed and evolved to fit the situation.

Over break, Victor and I got together with Michelle to do the first ever shoot with flour. It was  freezing out on a rainy night, and everything was thrown together about 4 hours before hand. So basically, it was how we usually do things :) Michelle was only going to be on the island until the next morning, so it was then or wait until the summer. We went to the school where there is a covered area we could set up under. And there we stayed for the next four hours....somehow Michelle didn't become a human ice cube. What she was wearing in the pictures was pretty much what she was wearing the whole time, so not at all what someone should be wearing when it was that cold outside. Thank you Michelle for toughing it out for so long!

Originally, the plan was to try some things with water as well as flour, but given the temperature we decided (probably wisely) against doing anything with water outside....that left flour.

Taking a step back, you may ask, "so what do you have to have to do a shoot with flour??"
Well, you need flour first of all! I buy the cheapest, largest bag of flour I can find. One shoot usually uses 5 lbs of flour, but if planned right most of it can be put back into the bag and used next time. Which brings us to the next point, tarps. I used one 10x20 tarp for this first shoot, and that was not nearly, on any level, big enough. Most of the flour just went on the ground, so it was good that we did it outside! Sweeping up flour does not work, you need to mop the ground very well to get it all gone. I'll go over what we did to keep the mess contained the next two shoots since we did them inside.

As for clothing for Michelle, we chose to go with black clothing. I thought it might make the flour stand out more, and it kinda did. Once we got things dialed in though, her clothes were covered with flour and mostly white! So it helped a bit but mostly it was ineffective. Next time I shoot with Michelle, I'll have her wear white. The one big advantage of the black was that it defined her form really well with the back/cross lighting we used.

Speaking of lighting, how do you light flour anyway? You backlight it at a very high power. This was actually one of the trickier parts of the shoot. We shot outside at night, so we had no ambient light to worry about. I wanted a black background to make the flour stand out, so we gave ourself lots of space in the back for the light to fall off. This is SUPER important unless you are using a black backdrop. Anything, ANYTHING, within 60ft will be illuminated, so beware. If you want a clean backdrop you'd better set one up or move outside. However, I didn't do this for the next two shoots, and in the next two parts I'll explain how I got around this annoying little hiccup.

Backlighting...but then Michelle would be in shadow and not show up, right? Well, yes and no. Backlighting is anything from perpendicular to directly behind the subject. The idea of backlighting powders is to give them a ton of contrast. The closer the light is to the camera axis, the flatter a subject will be. It's why skiing on cloudy days is hilarious  unsafe, and on sunny days you can see just fine. The play of highlights and shadows on a surface reveals it's textures, which is what you want with powders and particulates.

Directly backlighting flour would put the strobe right in the lens, which is no bueno. Lens flare, aberrations, just much nope nope. Especially at such high powers, the strobes need to be off frame. In fact, they need to be about 20 degrees of from the edges of the frame to avoid major flares and light leaks.

What we ended up with was putting the strobes (on either side) about 30 degrees from the perpendicular line (read: 30 degrees back from the dancer) and about 20ft away from her. This gave a good enough back/cross light to get the flour as well as throw a little light to model the front of her. Farther back would provide more definition on the flour, but would throw Michelle into shadow more. It also would spread out the flour more, making it into a particulate cloud more than particulate So more dense v less dense kind of thing. That also depends on the amount of flour used.  The lights  are about at head level too. That doesn't matter as much, just makes the shadows level or not. Under lighting is not generally flattering, but it can be fun! Here's a diagram of the lighting set up.

I've included the camera settings on there, as well as the flash settings. 1/4 power was actually a little bit too dim, but not enough to really effect the overall photo. Plus, it gave me a higher effective shutter speed, so that there was less motion blur. I could also get away with shooting at ISO200 since it was cold out, and so the camera operated much, much better. In the cold, you can shoot at a higher ISO and for longer exposures with out as much risk of hot pixels because it takes more energy to physically heat the pixels to induce noise. I say f/8 when it was actually f/7.1, that's only a third of a stop so it makes minimal impact. For simplicity sake, start at f/8 and then open or stop down once things start to get dialed in.

I chose to shoot at 50mm (really 85mm since the 7D is a crop APS-C sensor) because it is a good all around length. It's not too wide, and doesn't compress space too much. At a longer focal length, I think the space would be compressed too much, and the image would lose it's depth. At a shorter on, there would be more lens flares and just bleh. A narrow field of view is definitely needed for this. Think of it as cropping v. framing. In cropping it's 2D, in framing it's 3D. Re-framing changes the angle and can induce perspective shift etc, but cropping just changes what's shown on an x y plain. Does that make sense?

In addition, when I talk about compressing perspective, it's not the lens that does that. Physically moving the camera does that. A lens is just cropping, seriously, that's all it does. Almost exactly the same as digital cropping, but with optical distortion. Moving your body is what changes perspective and how object sizes relate to one another. Same principle as covering something far away with your thumb. You can cover anything if you put your thumb right up against your face, but move it out to arms length and you can maybe only cover something the size of a penny. The relative size of it changes based on how far it is away from the camera.

Okay, enough tech talk, how does one actually take these pictures?? First, we covered Michelle with flour. Movement is key for these, you need to flour to fly every wear and be thrown off her body. For example, if she was doing a jumping shot, she started crouched and we put flower on her back, shoulders, arms, knees, etc. Anywhere we could. That way when she jumped it all fell off and went crazy. For some, she also held flour and threw it when she did the "action." Any gross motor movement works as long as the flour ends up in a different place than where it started.

Pretty much any way you can make flour explode somewhere, do it. These photos are all about dramatic movement. Since neither Victor nor I know much about dance, Michelle would show us a jump or move, then we'd go from there with placing the flower. It's a bit of an experiment each time, but that's the fun!

After you figure out the best way to make the flour turn into a cloud, it's just up to getting good timing! Both the flour and jump need to be timed correctly, so it took a few ties for each jump to get the shot.  I had Victor to put the flour on Michelle and throw it in the frame too if needed, so I used my shutter release cable to trigger the camera. I had a lot of flour on my hands, so attempting to keep the camera clean in good....

That's another thing, if you can keep one hand clean to operate the camera. Flour is a fine particulate and can easily get into your camera/lens. KEEP THINGS CLEAN.

Moving on to post processing. There are two main objectives to the photos, contrast/tonal range and then the flour/posing. Contrast and tonal range can be adjusted on any of the photos, so the first thing I always do is to simply sort the images. Obvious, I know, but I feel it's worth mentioning. The sorting process is maybe a little different than simply looking at the photos and picking good ones. Some may have good parts to them, but also some bad ones. I have say, two photos that are the same jump. One has a fantastic jump, but the flour was horrible. The other has amazing, dramatic flour but the jump was meh. In this case, both photos would be saved and grouped together.

As I continue the editing process and reach those photos, I would combine them in Ps to keep the best of both. Before I move to Ps, lens corrections are applied. I like to get that step out of way first before I do any major edits as the corrections can change how an image looks a lot. In Ps, I just use layer masks to paint in what I want. Flour is incredibly easy to add back in because it has no hard edges. Especially if you use the lighten blend mode, you really can't tell the difference! To make the layer mask, I roughly align the images, then create a black mask over the layer I don't want the whole of. Using a white brush I can paint back in exactly where I want. Mostly it's just the extra flour I want, so  a big soft brush does a very nice job.

Moving back into Lr, the contrast/tone adjustments start. For this shoot, I did all b/w to keep things clean and about light rather than color. Cameras flatten the contrast range of photos, so improving that is my first priority. Using the rule of thumb of exposing to the right, I have the maximum amount of image data and therefor the most latitude to push an edit.

Exposing to the right means exposing it as much as possible with out clipping any highlights. Unlike in film, where there are two processes to create your negative (one adding information to the shadows, the next to the highlights) digital only really has one that you can control. The dynamic range of modern DSLRs is crazy, so chances are that your "blacks" actually have a lot of image data you can pull from. However, clipping highlights is not recoverable. Once it's blown out, there's nothing there. So expose as much as you can without blowing things out.

I'll be honest, my workflow is very jumbled and disorganized once it gets to this point. I do a basic edit where I do initial adjustments to contrast and what not. I've made a short video explaining how I do this, it's probably easier to understand when you're seeing what I'm talking about!

Next, I let the image sit for while. I'll go and work on another one or even wait a day. After editing the same thing for a while, your vision can get skewed. Returning with fresh eyes will really allow you to keeping tweaking the image to exactly the way you want it. Editing multiple images has the same effect. Keep switching between them helps to keep all the edits similar, as well as viewing each image with semi fresh eyes. A big thing I've been working on with series like this is consistency in my edits. All the images need to fit together and have the same aesthetic qualities. Having one with way more contrast just makes it look crappy compared to the others! Even if as a stand alone it looks great, having a lot of variation will lead a viewer to determine a "correct" aesthetic for the series and then judge the outliers.

After I give the image time to smolder, I'll keep doing little tweaks then let it sit, then tweak, then sit, etc. I continue this until all the images fit together and I'm satisfied with how they all look. It can take a week or more sometimes with a new kind of edit I'm trying or with a large batch, but that's okay!

One other thing I should say is the order I do the edits in. After sorting and rating the photos, I start editing at the beginning and just work my way down the line. I never edit for than an hour or two straight, so whenever I start back up after a break I return to the beginning and start doing tweaks on what I've already edited. This keeps me in check with how I started, where I am going, and where the edits are at the moment. It's really easy to go through a series only once and end up with edits starting in one country and editing in another as far as aesthetic choices go. I really can't emphasize how important editing each image multiple (read 5 or 6) times is. You see something new each time.

Finally, I'll do my cropping, noise reduction and sharpening. Noise reduction and sharpening usually aren't a big deal unless I'm printing, which is another blog post for another time.... Cropping though, I've been sticking with traditional aspect ratios for simplicity. It makes output and print a lot easier, plus I think it just makes a cleaner looking image a lot of the time. 4x5 is one of my favorite ratios, I use it with about 75% of the photos. If I want skinnier I'll go with the original 2x3, and if fatter then a 1x1 square works. If I really, really need to I'll make a custom crop, but 99% of the time a traditional ratio works just fine. Just remember, the tighter the better with most photos. Especially with these, you can get dead space taking over the photo real fast. Include only what you need, get rid of the rest.

Which is why I wanted  black background. White would make the flower disappear, and pretty much anything else would become an important element and possibly busy the photo. I wanted everything to be about the flour and dancer (read: motion and dynamics), so it was essential to have an empty space that could be filled.

I think that's it...anything I forgot will be included one of the next two posts. See you soon! Here's a couple of my favorite images from the series. You can see the rest HERE.

Yeah, these lens flares were part of the image. Using a wider lens will do that is you don't move the lights farther out! I like it though....

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

As Promised...Kinda

A while ago, I did a post on an image I made while on vacation near Port Renfrew, BC. I promised that I'd do a video explaining more of the editing process, but never really got around to it.

I thought about doing one tonight, but instead I did a video on the editing process of another, very similar photo. This one was actually more challenging to edit, so I think it does a better job of explaining the process than the other photo would have.

Starting from the beginning, my family and I were hiking in the Avatar Grove near Port Renfrew. Apparently, it's home to the gnarliest tree in Canada, along with some of the oldest and largest. Everyone was excited to go out and hike in such amazing scenery, even though it was foggy and raining out.

The trail was one of the coolest I've been on. It was just a collection of deep, gnarled, beautiful roots climbing up a the steep slope. The giant trees and ferns were all round in the typical north west fashion, it is pretty much a rain forest. The vegetation up there is just amazing, so dense and green all around, with rich browns and black dirts.

Sadly, with the conditions as they were, I doubted that I'd be able to get any good photos. The light was really flat, and all the moisture just made it impossible to see much detail at a distance. Being me, however, I brought my gear along in hopes that something would turn up and be worth shooting.

I'm glad I had faith, because about half way through the walk the sun broke out! Just as we reached a small stream in a gully, sun beams streamed through the canopy down to the forest floor. Within seconds my camera was out and I was looking for good compositions along the stream.

My first shot was a broad shot of the stream. I was not looking directly into the sun, I mostly focused on the vegetation and the stream. I really liked this shot as it captured the whole of the forest, getting all the elements in. The tall trees were there, the moss, the stream, and the rich soil. However, I was very interested in the way the stream wove it's way through the dense undergrowth, so I moved in for the kill.

It was a bit tricky to get a vantage point at first. The bank I wanted to stand on was of course covered with bushes, so it took a second to work my tripod in a spot that left my lens unobstructed. There was still one bush on the left side, but I didn't want to rip it out. My composition had the stream running from the bottom right to the middle, then snaking it's way out about the middle of the frame. In hind sight, it would have been nice to frame slightly more right to have the stream farther left, but I was doing a panorama, and didn't realize what the end result was really going to be like :( Something to keep in mind for the future though. I like the current composition, but I could have been better.

I bracketed three shots in a vertical panorama. The settings where f/11, ISO100, .25-.6-1.6s. This is about 1.2 stops of difference I think between exposures. Any more than that and it becomes very difficult to composite later. The mid highlights in the dark image become actually darker than the midtones of the light image, which is a big problem. You get weird ghosting and muddy highlights when you add back the shadows on the dark exposure, which sometimes can't be recovered very well. In the video I go through how I solved that problem, and also explain it with visuals so hopefully it'll make more sense that way.

Keep in mind, the idea behind bracketing is to capture the full range of tones in an image. One exposure usually can not hold all the information, and even if it does somehow, extracting it with Lr or another RAW processor induces a lot of noise and degrades image quality. I talk more about this idea in this post.

To begin the editing process, I first had to make the three panoramas that would then be merged into the HDR image. The three panoramas need to be exactly the same, so that they basically become three bracketed images themselves. Normally, I would do the opposite, making three HDR images out of the bracketed sequences, then composite those into a panorama. However, with manual blending, you need to make the panoramas first, and the HDR second. The reason for this is that manual HDR blending doesn't follow any recipe that can be repeated. For each part of the image, a different technique is used, and it would be impossible to edit each bracketed sequence the same way and have them merge together cohesively. With HDR programs like Photomatix, the same adjustments can be applied to each image. However, that in it's self is a problem because I just said that different part of the image require different editing! An HDR program can't really define what areas need what like a human can, so most of the time the results are less than satisfactory. Yes, the results can be cool sometimes, but right now I'm not into that style.

To make the three panoramas that are exactly the same pixel for pixel, I use PTGui. This is an amazing program, it has a pro feature of HDR panoramas but you can export the three blend planes instead of the blended image! Essentially, this is exporting the three bracketed panoramas that I need to create my manual HDR in Photoshop. I go through this step in more detail in the video.

In Photoshop, I first make my luminance selections based on the EV0 exposure. This exposure has the greatest range of tones, and thus more information to make the selections off of. Again, explained more in the video.

For blending, I only use the darkest and lightest exposures. All the tones in the middle image are somewhere in the the other two exposures, and since I blending them at definite opacities, I'll get the tones between the two. First, I paint in my shadows and midtowns that are lost in the darker exposure. This is a pretty simple process. However, doing this creates the problem with the highlights that I explained earlier. It looks like this.

Look at the moss in the middle and on the bottom right. The highlights, are muddy and very flat, theres is just no contrast there at all!

To fix this, I selected the highlights, and then started to gently paint them in from the bright layer. Emphasis on gently, the highlights from the bright layer are very overexposed, so all I want to do is add some of that to the image, but not all. To add all would be to overexpose, I just want to bright them up. I go over this in more detail in the video.

One thing I didn't get to show in the video was recovering highlights and shadows in the trees. There was one spot that was very flat because the light layer had been blown out with a light leaking thing.To correct this, I painted out the light layer complete from that area, then just painted in the highlights again. However, this was still too flat, so I selected the midtones, and painted those out of the trees about 50%. This left some bright areas in, some of the midtones, and the dark shadows of the dark layer.

Next, I set my black point in a curve layer, which helped correct color balance. The image was a bit warm in the shadows for my taste, and setting the black point helped to neutralize that. However, I did want some warmth in the highlights, so I grabbed a selection of the highlights and added a warming filter to them.

I think that's about it! A little cropping, and a bit of sharpening in Lr was all that was left. Enjoy the video and finally the picture!

See you soon!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Hello, World

It's been a while, well, only a few weeks, but it feels like it was a long time ago that I finished up my digital annum. Never fear though, I have still been shooting, and there's lots of new photos to write about! I'm going to be doing posts less frequently than before, but I'll still post from time to time. There's four or five photos I'd like to go through on the blog over the next week or so, so expect some post coming up!

Tonight, let's talk about sunset shots. They can be very hard to get when you're shooting directly into the sun, as the shadows get very underexposed. In order to expose the sun correctly, you have to underexpose everything else. Sometimes, the silhouettes that are made are actually pretty wonderful, but a lot of the time you just get a super contrasty, rather saddening image.

On the other hand, you can over expose the sun and sky to get detail into the ground and shadows. However, the obvious problem with that is over exposing the sky and sun....

For the last couple years, the solution for that has been HDR programs like Photomatix Pro and even Photoshop. These work really well to do fast HDR images (although Ps makes 32bit HDR images that are great for editing later), but the results can be less than satisfactory. Ghosting and bad blending almost always occurs, and most of the time the images are way, way over done. This has given HDR a bad name, which is quite sad.

I used to be a big fan of slightly over processed HDRs, I'll admit. Half of the fun is just getting super crazy results! With a couple clicks, all this magic happens and your bracketed images suddenly merge into one super awesome....thing. It was fun for a while, but over time I found myself going away from that over processed look towards something more real.

I first discovered luminosity mask blending from the Patel's last spring. They marketed the process as iHDR, a process they created. Yes, they had their own work flow. But no, they didn't create luminosity masks and they weren't the only ones using it. There wasn't much information out there yet, and I wasn't at a point where I was ready to experiment with it. With the blog in full swing, I didn't have time to really figure out luminosity masks, so I kept putting it off for a few months.

The most common method of blending I was using before luminosity masks, was just layer masks. It's quick and easy to do, just paint where you want the image to show. With a little skilled a precise brush work, images can be blended quite well actually. It's not a bad method sometimes, but with areas like horizons and skies, it really doesn't work well. The transition zones become this weird gradient, and it's obvious that layers were blended.

With the down falls of only using layer masks, I shied away from shooting contrasty scenes. Forests in mid day light, or sunsets on beaches were mostly edited in Lightroom. It wasn't the worst way to edit, but it does induce noise and artifact by manipulating only one raw file.

Finally, with my final project last fall, I started using luminosity masks and install fell in love. The advantages are HUGE. In Lr, when you raise the shadows, you raise the shadows everywhere. Even in you use a local adjustment, you can't be very precise. But with luminosity masks, you can very, very precisely paint in layer masks. You can select only the shadows of one image, then paint in that selection from another image. In other words, you can select the totally crushed blacks from the underexposed sunset shot, and then paint in that area from your over exposed sky shot. By doing this, you're taking the best of both your images and combining them into one. There's no weird blending marks or gradients, it looks like it came from one image. Even better, you're not manipulating the original raw file, so image quality is not lost. The only down fall is that you have to have perfectly aligned images.

So back to the sunset shot I'm writing this post about....

I went out to South Beach when I was home over break, specifically to shoot sunsets and test out luminosity masks. I didn't have a very wide lens on me, so I was limited in what I could shoot. The shot I really wanted to make required a wider field of view than I had, so I had to look around a little more to find something I could shooting with the lens I had.

Note: Later I figure out how to make a panoramic HDR with luminosity mask to simulate a wider lens. That's coming up in a later post.

Eventually, I found this really awesome log that was getting hit my surf. When a big wave came, it crashes around the long, which I thought would look awesome with a long exposure to blur the water. Another reason I chose to shoot that log was the composition of it. By putting the camera lower down and shooting into the sun, the log made a line leading to some rocks, which then led to the sun, which then led to the clouds, then the water, then the log, etc. It just made a nice zig zag over the image. Wonderful. It was also a great way to test out luminosity masks.

I stopped down all the way to get a slow shutter speed to blur the water. Preferably, I would use an ND filter and shoot at f/11 or so, but I don't have an ND filter so f/22 would have to do. With that aperture and ISO100, my shutter speed for EV-0 was 1/4s. This overall gave good exposure, and would have been the exposure I could use just with Lr sliders to create an HDR image. But I wasn't doing that. I did a bracketed sequence of +/-1EV, so 1/8s and 1/2s. This got the sky exposed properly as well as the ground.

I made sure my setting were okay by looking at the histogram. With the -1EV, I wanted the information to be all the way right, but not clipped at the whites. This would give me the most information in the highlights. With the +1EV, I wanted the information as far left as possible, but not clipped on the blacks. This would give me the most information in the shadows. Granted, I could have done a greater range than +/-1EV and gotten more information in the highlights and shadows, but I've found 1 stop actually does a pretty darn good job at capture the full range of tones in a sunset.  It's not as contrasty as full sunlight, so one stop works really well. And yes, Lr could easily pull out the information from one RAW file, but as the cost of image quality. With a full frame camera like the 5D mrkIII or the D810, maybe one file would do it, but maybe not with the 7D. Plus, I was experimenting with a new technique!

And, I actually just remembered this, with three exposure right after each other, I have three stages of waves to blend into the final image. You'll see in the final image how I blend all the waves together.

Another thing I forgot I did...Before I edited in Ps, I tried to compress the tonal range of the RAW files in Lr by lowering the highlights and raising the shadows of each. Yes, this goes against what I just said about not editing in Lr because it degrades the image....but, little adjustments don't have too much of an effect. It's more when you do major changes that things go bad. With doing the adjustments, blending goes much more smoothly.

Here are the three shots, originals then edited:

Starting in Photoshop, I make my luminosity channels off the dark layer. I use Jimmy McIntyre's action for creating the channels for the selections, which become the masks. He has an awesome action provided for free, so why not take advantage of it? He's also a great resource for learning advanced blending, I think one of the better pro's out there. 

Anyway, once I had my mask, I selected the dark areas of the image, and then used that selection to paint in the light areas. It takes a bit of tweaking and I used a couple different selections for different areas, but it's a fairly straight forward process. I explain it more in the video below. 

Then, after my images were blended, I working on my tones. With a couple of curves adjustments that altered different parts of the image, I got a much more dramatic image. Again, I got through that in more detail in the video. 

Finally, I worked on colors, added vibrance in to different parts of the image at different levels. Just simple layer masks used there. 

This video has a more detailed description of how I edited. Seeing is probably a little easier to grasp than me writing a bunch of tech jargon! 

And finally, the image! As I said in the video, this image was shot and edited not based on a recipe, but on problem solving. HDR sticking software makes all the decisions for you, and the image suffers from that lack of creative input. It takes longer to do it yourself, but the results are so much better! Here's a comparison with one made in Photomatix and one with Lr. 




See you...sometime in the near future!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Fire and Ice

So....last post. It's been a year tomorrow since I started the blog. This is the last one.

That aside, Victor and I wanted to do something epic for the last photo. Something we'd remember and we hadn't done before. Something that tied together a lot of what we'd learned over the last year.

Fire has been a common theme that we've been very interested in all year, so we packed up a couple of new trick and set out for the quarries. It's still freezing out, and the water was somewhat frozen. Wasn't exactly the most pleasant experience being outside for hours.

At first, we tried the creamer cannon. We mostly succeed in lighting Victor and the ground on fire, so that was abandoned pretty quickly.

Next, we moved on to the steel wool. That stuff just never, ever gets old. At the north end of the quarries, there's a big rock cliff that overlooks the water. We both thought it'd be a great spot to do some raining fire.

Last night, we also did some fire pictures. After doing some tests, and based on prior shots, we came up with the ideal exposure for fire of f/11 and ISO100 and around 30s. The time doesn't matter as much, because at night there's so little light that the background doesn't really show up. The settings only capture the fire, which is really perfect for applications.

However, tonight I wanted to get the background exposed too. With all the fire we're doing, there needed to be some context.

But I couldn't get the background in on the same exposure with the fire, as it would take maybe 16 minutes to get a decent shot. That's not practical.

To fix this problem, I did a base exposure of the background at f/3.5, 30s, and ISO1600. These are also idea exposure settings for my camera and lens set up that I discovered the other day while shooting the light house. With the moon out, there was a lot of detail in the landscape, as well as good stars. It was perfect shooting conditions.

We shot a big panoramic, with 4 framings. By framings I mean 4 shots to complete the panoramic. Each framing was framed in a way so that the most fire would be captured. We mostly did the cable and whisk method of making fire, but we also attached a shorter cable to a screw gun to get the same effect. It's pretty obvious from the photo were the locations we picked for fire, but mostly they were spots where there would be lots of area for the fire to spread. We also tried one new thing, a ball of wire with the wool inside. It got thrown off the top of cliff :)

Basically, the procedure went like this. I'd take the base exposure, then we'd do as much fire in that location as we could. Then repeat! Ice makes a great surface to bounce off of btw...

Editing took a little thought, but was pretty easy. I first corrected the lens distortion in Lr, then moved over to Ps. I made four groups, each with the photos from the framing in them. This way, I could align the images based on the base exposures, but the fire pictures would be aligned too since I'm moving the whole group. I only had the base exposures turned on in each group. I started with the bottom, and worked up. The alignment only had to be rough, since the final image would have a very dark background only for context.

Once everything was aligned, I turned on all the fire pictures, and set them to lighten. However, the base layers were too bright, so I took them and put them in their own group. This way, I could put them on the bottom, and then added a levels adjustment layer above them. I darkened it quite a bit, so that mostly only the highlights were visible.

I moved over to Lr next, were all I did was some selective clarity adjustment on the fire and stars.

And that's it. All done. The last photo.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Baking the Mountains

I went over to Reuben's dad's house tonight to catch the sunset on the mountains. Reuben had texted me a picture of the mountains in the morning, which was really sweet, so I thought I definitely needed to get out there for the evening. Good choice to do so.

When we first got out there, it was very beautiful. The sun was just going down, and the mountains were beginning the light show. Took a few pictures, but then waited a few more minutes for the colors to really start. It was pretty good at the time, but it's always brightest before the dark as they say.

Waiting definitely paid off. The colors at around 4:15 were just freaking amazing. Mt. Baker was just lit up orange and the sky was a beautiful shades of purple and orange. I tried a couple different framings, but I settled on doing a long and skinny panoramic. Not too skinny, but three shots long that would really capture the mountains. There was a little bit of the islands in the foreground, lit up a deep deep shade or orange.

I shot with my 70-300 lens at 300mm. That lens isn't very sharp wide open, so I had to shoot at f/8. To get a good shutter speed for handheld (we were on a very steep roof), I needed 1/250. The stabilization is really good on that lens, but I don't dare go any slower than that. With those settings, I needed to use and ISO of 400.

The first thing I did in post was to make the panorama in Ps. After I had cropped it down, I proceed to adjust the tonal ranges with a curves adjustment. I pulled the whites up quite a bit, as well as the shadows just a tad. This gave the contrast a lot more punch, especially in the highlights. I didn't pull much out of the shadows, they were about perfect as is. I wish there was less haze, but with it being so cold and with no clouds, I really doubt there would ever be any better conditions.

Next, I used the stamp tool to remove a tree in the left edge of the photo. It was actually incredibly easy, all I had to do was pick spots with constant tones and paint away. Took about 5 minutes, max. Photo shot really is an all powerful tool. The one spot that gave me a bit of pause was the mountains. I had to pick spots to clone that would blend with the spot I was healing. This really just meant matching angles and shadows, which is much easier than it sounds.

I didn't do any editing in Lr, all in Ps. Enjoy!

See you tomorrow!