Light from Its Own Perspective
We are all used to thinking about seeing light from the perspective of another person. For example, if I am a batter at home plate, I can plainly see the second baseman. I know the catcher is right behind me. I know he can also see the second baseman, but his perspective is a little different. His perspective is a bit lower and a bit more to the right. I can “picture” what the catcher sees. This idea of seeing a view from another’s perspective is quite well understood. But now consider this: Instead of seeing from the perspective of another viewer, think about seeing from the perspective of light. To anthropomorphize light is difficult, but the struggle to do so could give you some nice cerebral ammunition.
As the batter, you are looking at the second baseman, and the light is coming directly toward you uninterrupted. Now, think about the first baseman who is looking across the way at the third baseman; his line of sight is crystal clear. The light from the third baseman to the first baseman is crossing the light you are seeing from the second baseman, but it doesn’t affect the light you see at all. (Don’t even try to think about the 10,000 paths of light that come from the third baseman and go to the 10,000 fans, cutting right through your view of the second baseman.)
Everyone knows that light acts in waves, and we can somewhat picture thousands of tiny waves in a lake, each one started by a duck, a boat, or the wind. But it gets a bit harder to see the waves that any particular duck has made in the mess of waves. However, when looking at the “light” waves, we can see that particular duck, so the “waves in a lake” visualization is of limited fecundity.
Every spot in the air between you and this page is experiencing billions of light waves crisscrossing in every direction. If you think about it too much, you’ll go a little crazy!
Just as your eye and brain work together in a perfect symphony to make sense of all this data, your mission as a photographer is to do your best to emulate this “real life” experience. You have become so adept at swimming in a sea of light waves that perhaps you have come to take it for granted. Just as the brain uses “software” to make sense of the light, photographers should use software on the computer to help interpret the light for the final photo.
Like many other art forms, it’s all a matter of perspective. The more you have, the better it will shine through your art.
The Morning Steam Through the Forest in Yellowstone
There is no better way to understand light than to be in a forest with heavy, wet air conditions at sunrise.
We are so unaccustomed to seeing light while it is en route that we usually get a kick out of seeing its individual rays. There is a similar fascination with lasers. Seeing a little red dot is not nearly as satisfying as seeing a red shaft of light beaming through the atmosphere.
If you ever get the chance to be in a forest in the aforementioned conditions, consider yourself lucky! These circumstances are best for getting an alternative view of light because all the little branches and leaves break up the shafts into thousands of rays. If you take just one step to the right, you’ll be amazed at how different the scene looks. It’s different than simply taking a step to the right in full daylight, where you might see a slight shift in the perspective of the trees. In this case, each of the thousands of shafts of light moves with your eyes, giving you the feeling that you are swimming in light (which, of course, you’ve been doing your whole life).
It’s similar to snorkeling or diving in shallow reefs. The way the light comes through the particulates in the water is quite delicate and unexpected. These wet, foggy mornings can remind you of that underwater experience. This is especially true once you make the connection that we are also living in a shallow reef: It’s just that the water molecules happen to be far enough apart to allow some oxygen molecules between, so we don’t require gills to filter out the oxygen.
It goes without saying (especially by now, my gentle reader and confidant) that these situations have more light levels than a camera can grab with a single exposure. Setting up with a tripod to capture a multiple-exposure HDR image is important if you want to trap all the light in the scene. I also advise that you set up your tripod, take some shots, move a few feet, shoot again, and then rinse and repeat. Also, be very aware of the location of your eyes versus your lens. When you move your eyes just a few centimeters, you’ll see every shaft of light move; consider that if you have to bend over to use your camera. If you want to be really compulsive about it, think about how the light is hitting your lens a few centimeters in front of your eye, and how that perspective will be a bit different. This slight adjustment does not matter in most landscape situations, but when you are composing each shaft of light, it’s okay to be obsessive on occasion.
Alone in Winter, Against the World
This is one desolate place. I was on the coast of Iceland where the sea and the wind were absolutely ripping their way past this lighthouse. I sometimes imagine what it might be like to live inside one of these lighthouses through the winter. I can’t even envision it, and after only a short time there in the icy wind, I was happy to leave.
Blues are consistently a favorite color for just about everyone, which leads me to a wonderful conversation I had with the great painter Clyde Aspevig, who I had the pleasure of spending a few days with in Montana. I am often humbled and intimidated by painters because I feel that they are true artists, and I’m just a hack with tricky digital tools.
Clyde and I started talking about the various colors of blue and people’s reactions to them. His eyes grew big when I made the flippant comment, “I can’t believe how much people like blues! No matter what color blue is in my photo, people always seem to say that is their favorite color of blue!” He agreed enthusiastically and stated he receives the same reaction when people view his paintings.
If you look at some of Clyde’s beautiful paintings, you can see a number of elements that just make sense without trying to make sense of them. He uses unconventional techniques of music, anthropology, and motion, and brings them all onto the canvas. His landscapes are reminiscent of the savannahs of Africa, which strike us all at a deep ancestral level. His contrasted objects follow the delicate timbre of music. His skies are textured with a surreal blue motion.
Shots of lighthouses and towers demand a wide angle lens. To me, the HDR process is secondary to lens selection in cases like these. The lighthouse already had a camber to it and this strangely shaped doorway. The wide-angle lens accentuated these structural components even more.
Hiking Through the Japanese Garden
The hike was bringing me closer to my goal. The destination inside the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares was the isolated peaks of Fitz Roy.
Every few kilometers the terrain can change drastically. Because all the land had been recently glaciated, the soil was very fresh and full of life. The rough and ice-hewn mountains made for unpredictable weather patterns and cloud formations across the landscapes. Even better, we were there in the middle of autumn, so many of the leaves were changing color.
It was a welcome relief to take off my pack, set it down, and then wander about for some photos. This area was like a perfect Japanese bonsai garden. I wondered what Japanese people think of this place. It was completely natural but looked as precisely designed as any master-planned garden I’ve ever seen.
We have all become too accepting of the color limitations of the camera. So much light and color is lost in the camera’s default operation. It indeed “guesses” the color and light levels. To most (including me), the camera is still a largely mysterious amalgamation of circuits and glass; it makes important decisions on its own, vaguely guided by your settings. We assume the result will be the “right” photo with the “right” color.
The existing colors just wait for you to grab them and make them real in the photo. Van Gogh once said, “Color expresses something by itself. One cannot do without this; one must use it; that which is beautiful, really beautiful, must also be correct.”
Setting up for landscape shots is eternally fun in light of the color challenges. Get ready to bend that camera to your will. The composition is the first half of the battle; the HDR process is the second. While taking the multiple exposures, I try to take extra care to notice the colors and textures of the big shapes and the small shapes—the leaves on the trees, the textures of the ground, the shapes in the sky, and everything in between.
In these partly cloudy situations, it’s best to remain patient. Watch the dappled shadows from the clouds move across the landscape and be ready to shoot when the most boring parts are shaded and the most interesting parts are well lit by the sun. Direct sunlight is ghastly for people shots but perfect for highlighting appealing bits of the landscape. Remember that even though it may be a beautiful landscape, there are still parts that are “relatively” boring. In this case, I waited for the rain to stop and the sun to hit these brilliant orange trees the right way while everything else was subdued by a passing cloud that had the right template.
Ready to Strike
Outside some of the caves in Kuala Lumpur this guy seemed to be relaxing and taking in the sights. I’ve often thought about having one for a pet because it is eccentric, and people might mistake me for a Bond villain. I understand iguanas can even be house-trained. But the other similar-looking reptile, the Gila monster, is quite dangerous and the bacteria in its saliva can kill you. So, since I usually get the two confused, I decided it was best not to get one because I would hate to bring home the wrong pet. Also, it’s hard for me to imagine one of these lizards playfully pawing my chest every morning.
Reptiles are fascinating to me because of the way they use their Jacobson’s Organ (the vomeronasal organ) in a more direct way than we do. This is a very interesting vestigial organ that we all still use on a regular basis, but it’s so wired to our reptilian brain that we don’t even consciously realize it. In the same way reptiles use Jacobson’s Organ to react without thinking, so do we.
Just as we have learned to operate in a world of light, there are other things in our environment that shape our mind. A good example is how we use Jacobson’s Organ to navigate the interstices of life.
It’s one of the least understood but most socially important organs in our bodies. Located on either side of the nasal septum, these organs are primarily used to sense large molecules like pheromones. We send out genetic and neuroendocrine information from other parts of our bodies, but Jacobson’s Organ has nothing to do with smell. It’s a deep direct response to other people’s pheromones that hits you on a level that people can’t understand directly. However, we can understand it indirectly. Have you ever met someone and instantly knew that person was a good person? Have you ever hugged a person and felt more at ease than you should so early in the relationship?
An important point is that we barely understand how the brain reacts to the world. As humans, we depend a lot on light and color to navigate the world around us. Other creatures, like this iguana, do not depend on it and perhaps that is why they need to supersaturate their body colors because their typical viewers’ eyes are less sensitive. As we consider how they navigate their world, it helps us understand what is different about ours.
This shot was a single-shot HDR. It really helped to bring out all the texture and color in the iguana’s scales. The photo was shot at a low f stop to keep the focus on the creature rather than its surroundings.
The HDR technique is fantastic for night shots of cities. You would think you could just open the shutter for a long time and let the light stream in. Well, you can do that, but that usually results in parts that are overexposed and other parts that are not quite bright enough. Each of the lights in the busy city streets of Seoul, South Korea, has a different intensity. The lights from the offices are quite dim compared to the signs on the buildings and even the taillights on cars. The HDR process allows each of the lights to come through at an acceptable level.
For all HDR photos, it’s best to have some near-black in the photo. As you’ll notice in this photo, the darkness anchors the eye and gives everything else a color context. If you’re not careful, a haphazard HDR process can wash out all the blacks and keep the light levels in the center of the spectrum. Even in your daytime shots, make sure some darkness is visible if possible.
When I give presentations to a technical crowd, I reuse a trick I learned from Dr. David Eagleman, a brain researcher from the University of Houston who runs an experimental lab. He spoke at a conference I attended at a private ranch in Yellowstone. Eagleman displayed a picture of a black background on a projector and on it were a gray box and a white box. He asked us which one was white. We all chose the white one, of course. Then he put up another box that was white. Clearly, we could see that the two previous boxes were gray. We all felt a bit silly. And then he put up another white box, whiter than the others. And then another. The point was that our brain reaches for the white and the black in any scene and uses that to anchor the other colors and contrast levels around us.
I often recommend taking one final step in Photoshop. After experimenting with exposures, HDR, tone mapping, and the like, sometimes the blacks can disappear. If you want to anchor the viewer’s eye, adjust the darkness with the Curves tool or mask in some of the dark bits from one of the original exposures.
The Arenal Volcanic Plume
Near the border of Nicaragua lies Volcán Arenal. This Costa Rican active hot spot is a perfect example of an exercise in volcano frustration.
As photographers, we’ve all seen amazing footage of volcanoes on documentaries and said, “Wow, I gotta take a photo of a volcano one day!” Well, now I can tell you with ontological certainty that it is nearly impossible to achieve the shot you are holding in your mind’s eye.
Essentially, you just have to be lucky to get the red-hot lava flowing down the side. And, as you know, it’s hard to plan on being lucky, especially when it entails taking a long plane ride and then driving to a remote location. It reminds me of those poor souls (I will be one some day) who travel to a remote spot in India just so they can see a perfect eclipse, only to wind up with a cloudy day.
To get a good shot, I even took a nighttime hike up the volcano, which was ill-advised for a whole host of reasons. It was a bit like invading Iwo Jima with a blindfold. The jagged, glass-cutting rocks were always dangerously close to within a few shreds of cotton from vital arteries, and the terror of hearing the volcano rumble was enough to make you wonder what in creation you were doing. I did get a few shots of lava and red-hot rocks tumbling down the hill, but they were so lame that I deleted them. The next day I went to a more distant vantage point to try to grab the overall gestalt of the volcano as it growled.
I took this shot from about 10 km from the west side of the dam that forms Lake Arenal at the base of the volcano. I had the tripod set up for several hours waiting for the clouds to form in the right way. The good thing was that it was so windy the whole scene changed every five minutes. Sometimes you have to look away for a few minutes to even realize that your landscape has changed.
Chicago Thaws Into Spring
To fly over Chicago at sunset in a helicopter was a thrilling experience for me. One of my Chicago fans was very kind to arrange this adventure, and I’ll never forget it! The pilot took the door off the helicopter for me, which sounds like a good idea until you start experiencing 100 mph chopper backwash while hanging out trying to get this kind of shot!
We flew for a few hours and circled the city several times. I was sending out tweets while on the flight, and my poor mom was beside herself when she heard about the whole door-off-the-helicopter thing. But I’m a good son, so I notified her when I landed safely. In the center of the shot at the bottom is the famous Navy Pier. We timed this shot to get at the right height the second the sun dipped below the horizon, casting a rainbow of hues into the sky.
You can think about the water as another box of light. It captures the light, redirects it, refracts it, and reflects it. Every angle in every lighting condition gives you a different gradation of color.
This was a single RAW shot. Obviously, from a helicopter, there was no time or stability to take multiple shots from a static position. Fortunately, the HDR process can also work from a single RAW photo. As for the specifics of this shot in these conditions, here are the technical settings for those of you who like this sort of thing. Because of the movement and conditions, this shot called for my Nikon D3X, exposure 0.001 sec, aperture f/2.8, focal length: 15mm (using a Nikon 14–24mm lens), ISO 800, no exposure bias. By the way, if you want to know the specifics on any of my photos, go to StuckInCustoms.com. Find the photo in question, and then link to the Flickr EXIF data. You can get all the information you need in most cases.
You do not need, I repeat, you do not need an $8,000 camera to get this shot. Most of my best shots are taken with lesser cameras. So what do you get with an $8,000 camera that you can’t get with an $800 one? Among other features, you get better low-light sensitivity, which means you can capture a lot of light without getting a lot of noise.
Storm Hitting Vancouver
I’ve been to Vancouver twice, and each time I was there, it seemed to coincide with a major storm cell. This was not a problem, of course, since it tends to make photography more appealing. The part that isn’t good is always getting wet. But because this has happened to me so many times in different locales, I’ve adopted a dog-like mentality: I just don’t mind getting wet anymore.
Vancouver is one of those cool cities where the harbor is right next to the downtown area. Even better, there’s a place to get a shot of the boats with the downtown skyline in the background. This is usually tough to do, since most harbors point toward the sea, and to get a shot across the boats with the city behind them, you actually have to be in a boat.
Whenever I visit a city and am not quite used to it, I usually just spend time driving around (or hiking if roads don’t exist) to figure out all the best angles and viewpoints. Like a Navy SEAL team preparing a strike, I do my best to lay out a plan of attack, knowing full well my scheme won’t go exactly as planned. But I’ve found it’s better to have a rough itinerary than to have none.
This might sound strange, but it’s hard for me to think of a situation where a reflection does not work. I never look at a photo containing a reflection and think, wow that would look so much better without that stupid lake there. Why is that? Well, I’m really not sure. I think we all just like seeing light reflected from unexpected places. At a deeper level, maybe our primate brain just feels content knowing there is a water source nearby. Most likely it’s a combination of these feelings. We’ve built a rich world around the way we deal with light, and the more of that world we can squeeze into a photo the better.
The ROT Biker Rally
Austin is home to one of the bigger biker rallies every summer. The hogs come from far and wide to settle here on Austin’s famous 6th Street between Congress and I-35. Hundreds of beautiful motorcycles park up and down the street, and when the sun goes down, many of the bikes begin to glow in one outrageous color or another.
Growing up, I recall the Hells Angels blazing around town. Members of the club were presented to me as some of the scariest people on earth. I somehow thought they had all made deals with the devil and just roamed around the streets looking for more recruits.
But now that I am older and wiser, I enjoy talking to these bikers and have found they are some of the nicest people in the world. They love their bikes, and they love having photos taken. I’m sure I could make an entire career out of just taking photos of these bikes! In fact, I receive so many requests that I’ve been able to crank my bike photo prices through the roof. A Harley in HDR is a fearsome thing to behold.
Like taking photos at a child’s birthday party, the trick in these shots is to get low. All the intricate details are close to the ground, and taking photos by shooting upward always makes them seem larger than life, which of course they are. The other trick is not being afraid to talk to these leather-clad toughies. If you’re sheepish, they’ll eat you alive.
A Snowy Night at the Kiev Opera House
The Eastern Bloc countries always held a certain mystique for me. Because I grew up during the Cold War, I thought that going anywhere near the USSR would be like a Star Trek red shirt visiting the Klingon capital. Kiev, of course, is now a much friendlier place to visit than it was. It still contains a lot of the old imposing Soviet architecture that makes you feel like you are continuously being watched by a government official. While setting up to take photos, I’d notice many a suspicious eye looking in my direction, as if, perhaps, I was a government informant posing as a photographer.
It was quite icy and snowy in Kiev the night I took this shot. I walked near the opera house and discovered this scene. The blue lights inside the building along with the old Soviet car out front created a very cool feeling.
This photo uses the special double-tone-mapping method I describe in the tutorial in Chapter 5. The double-tone-mapping technique, as you might have realized by now, takes all the light in the photo and produces a bit of a “drawing” look. This seems to resonate with people because it has a storybook feel, and many of us remember certain events in this fantastic way. We all live in this often horrible realm called reality, but we don’t have to remember it like that.
Dante’s Gates of Hell
This is Rodin’s huge and famous La Porte de l’Enfer, also known as the Gates of Hell. I found it off to the side of the Musée Rodin in Paris while I was in a tempestuous mood. The sculpture depicts a scene from Dante’s Inferno. It contains over 180 of his finest sculptures. If you look closely toward the top center, you can see The Thinker—one of his most famous.
It’s very difficult to take photos of other people’s art. I usually eschew the practice because I feel as though I can never encapsulate and portray the original piece well enough. Capturing a three-dimensional object like a sculpture with a 2D planar device seems to me to be a horrible injustice.
However, I often think back to great photographs of art from the past. One of my favorites is Edward Steichen’s 1908 Balzac Toward the Light, Midnight, which is a photo of another of Auguste Rodin’s famous sculptures. He depicted the statue in a way that I think anyone would appreciate.
If I could be skilled at another art form, I’d love to be a sculptor. The 3D nature of it intrigues me. It’s a remarkable experience to be able to walk around a piece of art, a quality that is woefully lost in photography. As you know by now, I like thinking about light in 3D; it is my goal to sculpt in light.
The light and the dark of this photo were most important to me. A deep red with heavy contrast felt right. A distressed and aged texture provided another appropriate element. Did I do it justice? I don’t know. Maybe one day I’ll meet Rodin outside of these gates and he can tell me.
The Secret Emerald Lake
I saw the most unbelievable sights in Patagonia. It was like nature rewrote its own rules to build this place. I could make an extended reference to the ill-fated Project Genesis in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, but I won’t.
While on the trek, I came across this shockingly clear and mysterious green lake. It was autumn, and after a small rainstorm, all the trees were moist with a glistening glow. The dark blacks, electric greens, and soft reds and yellows danced around the landscape. Because I shoot so many HDR images, I’m convinced that I have little bells in my head that ring whenever I experience disparate light levels.
The water magnified the pure green algae that covered strange underwater formations. Fish were swimming in the water as well, but I kept the ISO so low on these shots that the fish were blurred out. I would have liked to capture the fish in this shot, but unfortunately that was the one thing I couldn’t accomplish. The little blue trout would have given the photo just a touch more depth.
Some photographers would have added some blue fish using Photoshop, but I don’t do that sort of thing. I’ve taken a stance not to alter the scenes I shoot so people can trust that all the elements they see in my photos were actually there. On occasion I’ll use the Clone Stamp to eliminate a distracting wire, a tourist, or a telephone pole. But to me that’s different than adding a blue fish from another photo. Anyway, I’m sure you get the point!
Swallowing the Ruins
I made it to the heart of Ta Prohm, an undisturbed Bayon ruin in the outskirts of Angkor Wat. It was late in the day, and there was a break in the afternoon summer showers.
The best thing about many of these foreign temples and ruins is that you can move freely around them and go to the top and the bottom, whether they are safe or not. You can investigate hundreds of tiny nooks, old broken stone doors, and lost hallways, and analyze mysterious carvings peeking out of the overgrowth. Unlike in the United States, there are no tort-related legal signs barring you from any area—so explorers beware. Even if you did get injured, the jungle and insects would eat you alive before the night was over. It’s either that or be slowly digested by a parasitic legal system.
As soon as I walked into Ta Prohm, thunder started rumbling and dappled clouds rolled in. The thunder was extremely eerie and triggered some chest palpitations while I was wandering inside all the moss- and vegetation-covered old tombs. The rain started and stopped several times, so I would take refuge in crumbling crypts and hallways until the rain let up. I took some wrong turns, but I eventually ended up here as the storm began to break.
The temple was built in 1181 AD and was home to 18 high priests, 615 dancers, and 12,500 people. I don’t know why the dancer stats are so important, but there you go.
Obviously, I processed this shot with just one color of light. People who shoot black and white photography are quite familiar with this technique. At times color can just confuse viewers’ brains, pulling them in the wrong direction. Normally, I have no problem with vivid colors, because it can be fun to let viewers surf all over the photo finding different bits of interest. But when you are processing a timeless and important shape, it’s best to keep the light simple.
Did you know that you can produce HDR black and white photography? Of course you can! This is a pretty good example of what you can achieve. In fact, if your black and white photography is part of your bread and butter, you can spice it up with HDR. Keep in mind that HDR doesn’t have as much to do with color as it does light. I provide a mini-review of some excellent black and white conversion software in Chapter 6.
Big Brother Approves of Your Park Activity
You can only get a scene like this with HDR. There’s no other way.
Earlier in the chapter I mentioned how important it is to have very dark tones in your final HDR product. Well, this is a good example. My long exposure did provide a bit of light for the man and his son, but I chose not to use that bit for a variety of reasons: But one reason I feel strongly about is that in many cases it is important to use darkness to help anchor the eye’s lower range.
Chicago’s Millennium Park is a great place for photography. Several cool sights are there, one of which is this giant video wall. It has this strange, glass, brick-like covering and displays unusual images of people softly smiling at you. It reminds me a bit of Big Brother and that there might be a tiny camera behind the wall that the government is using to ensure that your park activity is appropriate.
All of these glass bricks prompt me to think about the idea of the cube of light I discussed at the beginning of this chapter. It’s unfortunate that we only get to see the occasional 2D plane of the cube. Imagine if we could take off the front layer of glass bricks. Would we see inside this guy’s head, or would he just zoom in even more? It’s fun to think about.
I waited patiently for some people to stand in front of the wall so I could capture its scale. By chance, a man and his young son walked up to it, which created the perfect scene. This part of the video loop—one of my favorites—appeared on the screen and most likely mimicked the reaction of the man standing there watching it. Such ideal circumstances don’t present themselves too often.
The Lonely Road to the Dinosaur Dig
I’ve been mesmerized by dinosaurs my entire life, so you can imagine my surprise and excitement when I was lucky enough to be invited on a dinosaur dig with Jack Horner. Jack was the inspiration for the main character, Alan Grant, in Jurassic Park. Jack is also the person you see being interviewed on The Discovery Channel and the like because of his expertise in paleontology.
For a few days in Montana, Jack took a small group of us to a glacial valley and had us stand on a terminal moraine. No one had any formal training in geology (except for my stint in college, by chance), but he made us stand there until we could figure out what we were standing on. He wouldn’t tell us the answer, because he knew we all had the answer inside of us already. Jack is an impressive teacher and his technique can be likened to the Socratic method on steroids.
A terminal moraine is the pile of rock debris that has been pushed forward by a glacier before its retreat. The process of using the Socratic method to learn this on our own by using deep thought and questioning—in this case, for over an hour—versus reading an answer from a book in a matter of seconds challenged us to think through our concepts. This experience, combined with a later nature walk with Dr. David Sands, reinforced my suspicions that the current way we teach is broken. We all have the answers inside us if we are rigorous in our instincts of reductionism.
A good sunset requires clouds, and that is beyond your control. But since it is said that luck is the confluence of preparedness and opportunity, keep your camera and tripod no more than ten minutes away in case the world stops conspiring against you.
A Morning at the Secret Lake
What is the altitude of this lake? I don’t really know for sure, but it’s pretty high, and I was sure happy to find it after the hike.
Getting to this spot in the mountain range between Chile and Argentina early in the morning was exhausting. I decided not to carry any water with me because I knew from Google Earth that there was a small lake here. I usually don’t like to carry water with me because it’s heavy, so I try to find places to drink along the way.
As I was walking up the trail, I had a sneaking suspicion that this lake might be frozen. This does not settle well in the stomach while on a self-induced death march up an icy mountain. Sometimes when you are in the middle of an arduous trail, the only thing you can obsess on is what might go horribly wrong at the end.
Another strange light-related event had happened earlier that morning. I hiked up the mountain with two Russian friends. Both men were pretty extreme and one was in the former Soviet military, having led expeditions into Siberia 20 years earlier to track a rare tiger. We started the hike so early that it was pitch black for the first hour. I had no flashlight, but each of my companions had a light attached to his head, which waved back and forth while walking. I was between them.
The gentleman in front cast a good bit of light, but it was occluded by his body. The one behind me also cast a beam of light, but as it swept back and forth, it crisscrossed my body, leaving an ever-changing black shadow everywhere I stepped. At one point we had to cross a little “bridge,” which was really nothing more than a log that had been laid across a stream. The log was covered with ice, and I don’t think I ever even saw the darn thing as I crossed it. I had to intuit where it was based on shadows and feel. This caused a sickening feeling I’ll never forget.
And speaking of a sickening feeling, I also won’t ever forget having two Russian women making campfire borscht for 27 meals in a row, but that’s another story.
As you can see, this is a square shot! Whenever I’ve finished cropping, I twist my head right and left and think about whether or not the crop is right. On the rare occasion when I do a square crop, I’m usually quite happy with it and wonder why I don’t do that crop more often!
I try to do most of the composing on the scene, and even though I’d like to think I have a free-thinking mind, I’m obviously influenced by the default rectangle in the viewfinder. How did that rectangle shape come about? It probably evolved from the flattened milling/cutting process of paper, which then led to the printing press, which then led to photo printing and the desire to use every corner of the cut. But with digital images, cutting off the corners is so far removed from that process that maybe our current cropping decisions are based on obsolete premises. However, looking at other arbitrary shape cuts like a circle or a triangle never looks as good as a rectangle or square. Why is this? I’m not sure, but it’s worth more thought and exploration.
Ice Skating at Rockefeller Center
After exploring the top of Rockefeller Center, I headed to the bottom where the famous ice-skating rink resides. The huge lights on both sides of the tower created a cool purple streaming light that exploded from the building, producing a dazzling effect.
The only way to shoot this type of scene is with a wide-angle lens. In this case, it was a 10mm. I often see tourists with their little Japanese cameras trying to take a photo of the building, but there is no way they can even get in half of the building. I feel sorry for them because they have no idea what they are missing.
Sometimes, I’ll offer to let a few of these folks look through my camera so they can see what a wide-angle lens captures. They always gasp in shock when they look through it. Truthfully, though, I did the same thing the first time I looked through one!
This was the anchor shot of a 5-exposure HDR. The aperture was f/4, exposure at 0.2 sec, and the ISO at 100. To get that starburst light, the HDR process will help to combine the light received in the five different shots to help provide a “streaming effect.” Also, a wide-angle lens seems to help the light stream in an exploding pattern. Be sure to keep the ISO as low as possible so you don’t have to deal with any noise problems. Noise will still happen, so I provide some suggestions for how to clean it up in Chapter 5.
Christmas on the Champs-Élysées
This is one of the most famous streets in the world, so I wanted to do my best to capture it in a romantic way. The time of day usually does much to affect the mood, so it’s often best to shoot these classical places (especially in Paris) in the evening. The dusk light is totally different than the morning light. And, frankly, it’s easier to stay up past sunset than it is to wake up before the sun rises.
In a similar manner, HDR is currently modifying photography the way the famous French painter Georges Seurat altered Impressionism by introducing pointillism. His paintings feature tiny spots of paint that only make sense when viewed from a distance. (For a prime example, see his Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte at the Art Institute of Chicago.) Pigments of paint mix differently than beams of light. Red and green paint combine to make brown, but red and green light merge to produce yellow.
When you view one of Seurat’s paintings, your eyes and mind receive different wavelengths of light simultaneously as you attempt to blend the color spots and produce the image depicted. Depending on the combination of light waves, your eyes turn those waves into various colors. Our minds have invented a rich vocabulary and meaning that represent color and light. We’ve moved from pigments to pixels in the digital realm, but the principles of pointillism persist. By the time the light mixes and gets to the eyes of the viewer, the evocation changes into something else entirely. HDR, its network of tools, and its related processes are enabling us to visualize the world in a completely new way.
A question I receive time and again is, “How do you make your pictures glow?” My technique has come from an intense study of the Impressionists and their uses of colors and light. At this point, I have formed only a poor facsimile of what the greats have mastered, but I am trying to improve with every photo. Consider Seurat’s yellows. He did not achieve them by mixing paint; instead, the intensity was achieved via other colors mixing in the air between the painting and the eye. The complementary colors in Monet’s landscapes mixed to create an image more potent than its constituent parts. The best way to understand how to make a photo glow is to study, practice, make mistakes, and consider the gestalt of the final product rather than the rote assembly of its parts.
The Norris Mud Pots
In the western part of Yellowstone is a hot zone of geothermal activity called the Norris Geyser Basin. I was in another area of Yellowstone to get a sunset shot but then decided to stop here to get some post-sunset photos.
When I arrived, the one other person at the site was just leaving. He was a fellow photographer and was just getting into his car. As he did, he yelled to me in a haughty way, “Sorry dude, the sun has already set. It’s too late.” Needless to say, his comment angered me. I don’t know why I let it get to me, but I did. How did he know if there was not enough light? I didn’t know that. Maybe he was right and maybe he wasn’t. Anyway, I’m not known for listening to others when it comes to my photography, and I wasn’t about to start then—a frame of mind you might consider as well.
Even after the sun goes down, a substantial amount of light is usually available. It refracts and reflects through the atmosphere, and gives you colors that are otherwise washed out by an intense sun. Light and the colors you need are present all the time. Only in the absence of direct sunlight can you actually see how accessible they are to you. It’s an important aspect of light to think about.
The blue hues really develop into a new world of color after sunset. Paul Cézanne once said, “Blue gives other colors their vibration.” It’s true. Meaningful blues can anchor your photo in a very real manner.
Stück in Germany
In the past 60 years, the city of Dresden has been meticulously rebuilt to its former glory. To explore this newly constructed city, I took the 6 AM train from Leipzig to Dresden.
The city impressed me, especially after a childhood of growing up with dreadful images of East Germany and the robo-women their war machine churned out for the Olympics. It was rather dire back then, but everything has changed nowadays.
A few friends recommended that I visit the city, and after spending the day there, I have to say that it compares closely to some of my best photography days in other parts of Europe. The Baroque architecture is stunning and is completely unique and charming.
The fundamental features of HDR allow you to see the true color in the atmosphere. For the old masters of painting and the way they mixed their pigments for their colors, getting pure colors was very challenging, even with their most advanced tools of the day. When they mixed colors, the net result could be quite dull, absorbing more wavelengths than desired. The Impressionist painters had better access to more vibrant colors but still tried to leave them unmixed to keep the reflective colors clean and pure. With today’s photo sensors and the tools we use, we are able to reproduce colors like never before.
If possible, try to orient your entire day around setting up for the sunset shot. Think about the location of the sun and how to compose that final shot. If you’ve had a good day of exploration, you should have a few valid candidates awaiting you at zero hour. If you are spending some of the day shooting HDR, you will already have your settings primed and ready to go for the big show.
I spent the night in the far northern part of Iceland off one of the fjords when I went to visit my friend Helga Kvam. She knows she’s lucky enough to live in this beautiful country and doesn’t take it for granted. Helga has an incredible portfolio, and it’s not just because she lives in a scenic spot. It was enjoyable to sit down with her and exchange techniques. I find that Icelanders think a bit differently about the world—perhaps because of their geographic isolation.
Her HDR method is a little different than mine. She saves a PSD of the photo with all the various adjustment levels, tweaks, and modifications in case she wants to make changes at another time. I do just the opposite. I flatten the image, save it as a TIFF, and I’m done with it forever! I’ve read some studies that show if you have limited choices combined with decisions you can’t undo, you can increase your happiness. Now, I don’t know if this is true, or whether I’m just compensating because I don’t have the happiness coefficient of living in Iceland!
After leaving her little farmhouse on the fjord, I drove through the wilds of Iceland. Within no time, a sudden storm started ripping across the plains toward the mountains. A low rumble resonated as I stood in the middle of this tundra. I could not have been more alone. I didn’t see another soul for at least a few hours. All the Icelanders were holed up in their little Hobbit homes for the evening.
As much as I relished the idea of being all cozy in a tiny earthen home in the middle of a storm, I actually enjoyed being in the middle of it all. I don’t quite reach the level of those I consider lunatics on the Discovery Channel who chase tornadoes. Now that I have three kids, I find that I am slightly less adventurous than before.
I don’t normally crop many of my photos like this, but I believe it helped to show the drama of the storm across a wide swath of mountain wilderness. There were so many levels of light in the sky: I felt like having a cinematic view was illustrative of the transitions from light to dark in a storytelling manner.
For two consecutive mornings, I woke up at 4 AM so I could hike to the temple of Borobudur to catch the sunrise. By the time I arrived, it was still pitch black. I had a flashlight with me, so I found the stairs and wound my way to the top. Why did I do this two mornings in a row? The first morning at the temple proved to be one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen, so I couldn’t sleep through another chance of seeing it again!
I was there about an hour before sunrise. So, the first 30 minutes, before there was any ambient light, I experimented with a few positions and settings. I used the flashlight to help me figure out where I was, composed the photo, and then opened up the shutter on manual. Then I used the flashlight to “paint” light on all the stone bell cages you see in the photo (each bell cage holds a Buddha that faces outward). The experiment produced some mixed results, but it was still worth it. I’ve seen some amazing works that use this light-painting technique. My efforts paled in comparison.
Not long thereafter, the sunlight started to appear over two distant volcanoes. Seeing these perfect volcanoes appear out of a layer of morning fog was like watching the cover of a fantasy novel come alive.
When you are in these types of situations, consider the shadows and their treatment in HDR. Our usual use of photography, because of its inherent lack of dynamic range, produces heavy or black shadows. We’ve become used to this and expect it in our photography, which is a shame. But when you are surveying a scene like this, you’ll notice this is not true; shadows have color. To prove my point, I refer to Claude Monet, who would often infuse his shadows with color. According to Monet, “Shadows are not black. No shadow is black.”
This might be one of my most colorful shots! The conditions were striking as the strange morning light illuminated the fog. And because the landscape changed continuously, I took a new series of photos every minute or so, not knowing which sequence looked best! Afterwards, while processing the images on my computer, I was able to evaluate multiple sets of five exposures to determine which had the most alluring color combinations.
I chose a wide-angle lens for this shot, which has its plusses and minuses in this situation. The biggest minus is that the lens made the volcanoes look awfully small. Items toward the middle of the frame are rendered the smallest because of the way the light bends inside the lens. This reality is unfortunate! But it’s the price I was willing to pay to compose the rest of the shot. I felt that the unique shape of these cages was more compelling than the volcanoes, but not by much!
The Barn of Your Dreams
When you imagine a picture of a barn in your mind, there are conflicting truths that are equally true. For example, the details matter, but they don’t matter. The colors matter, but they don’t matter. The way the sky is textured matters, but it doesn’t matter. How can all of these notions be true? I don’t have the answer, but it is challenging to think about. Consider trying to work these mysteries into your final work.
In a photo like this, I like to keep the eye moving from spot to spot. The barn is important, but I wanted its peak to be part of the mountains. The field with the meandering stream should vaguely point to the horizon, but the horizon should draw the eyes out in any direction, and have them be happy to be there. The texture that was applied brings a new level of unreality to a sight that is clearly quite real. All these decisions are made when setting up and while post-processing. Think of every photo as a journey with multiple chapters as you create your own story.
To close this chapter, I’ll finish with a photo of a barn on a farm outside of Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
We all experience light a bit differently. We each notice little bits here or there that paint the image in our minds. I am convinced that a certain breed of photographer sees the world in a storybook way and strives to make each photo tell the fairy tale the way the photographer sees it.
An insightful quote from Renoir says it all: “To my mind a picture should be something pleasant, cheerful and pretty. Yes, pretty! There are too many unpleasant things in life as it is without creating still more of them.”