45 Seconds on North Dome

For 45 seconds I watched the sun’s light move across Half Dome like a flashlight sweeping across the north face. I wasn’t remotely prepared for this. I was all setup with a telephoto when what I really wanted was my wide angle. I made do with what I had ready to go. Then I saw that storm coming with 4+ miles to hike back in the dark. This was one long, incredible day that I will never forget.

This is a photograph reimagined from a hike out to North Dome with my bud Gary Crabbe in Oct 2016. I had my Canon 70-200 f/4 ready to go with the plan of getting a nice shot of Gary against Half Dome. Then the sun poked between the clouds, lighting up the granite face in a way that I can only hope comes across in this series of photographs. I knew I didn’t have the camera/lens combination that I really wanted for this moment since it was unexpected. So, I filled the frame and ran with it.

I want to do more of this kind of thing. Much, much more.

I spent a fair amount of time with Lightroom and Photoshop to bring the colors about the way that I want to get across. There are competing color temperatures in this so it needed a lot of tweaking. Admittedly there’s still a touch of green that I’m not crazy about in the sky. The funny thing is that there are a lot of reflective surfaces here: the granite, snow, clouds etc. All of these reflect more blues from the sky than you’d really imagine. Bringing that back down to something believable takes some effort (and masking in Photoshop). The foreground is this blazing warm tone: oranges, purples, reds as the sun shone across it. Meanwhile the snow in the background is under cloud cover and is reflecting a lot of blue.

This was shot in a couple of years ago now, and my memory of how it looked isn’t nearly as accurate as how it felt. So here I am trying to bring across how it felt.

A few minutes ago a friend of mine asked about the hike back. That was a great question, so I’ll post my response to Anita here:

We got about a mile before it got genuinely dark. That was a good thing because honestly that first mile it’s kind of hard to pick the trail back up since we were on exposed granite. We made a lot of noise (talking etc) to keep the critters uninterested. By the time we got to the cars it was pretty obvious that we were in for a really good storm. We made it to a little camp site in El Portal where we rode out one hell of a lightning storm. I don’t think I ever slept so soundly. That’s the truth.

Seeing, Acting, Doing: workflow walkthrough

I thought it would be worth writing about the creative process and workflow behind this photograph. For a few miles I walked along the trail looking for compositions that I liked. Up high, down low, close to the water, high above. Many things spoke to me here. The whole area was still damp from recent rains and the colors were saturated. There were yellows, oranges, and of course lots of green. 

The finished photograph
A starting point

Observing

At a turn in the trail I seriously thought about a small cascade. There wasn’t anything especially unique about that cascade and I decided to keep looking. It just didn’t do anything for me at that time. About half a mile later there was a concrete diversion dam. This was a beautiful spot which I wrote about in an earlier post. 

Side note: A funny thing about the paragraph above; as I’m developing my blogging style I try to keep in mind how I want this to be read. I want to write it as if I’m talking with a friend over a beer. I started this with “But there were visual elements that compelled me to…” . That may be what I was thinking, but that’s definitely now how I’d say it. So, hang with me please while I get the hang of this. 

A lower, rudimentary dam – just concrete and rebar really created a nice vantage point. Some visual elements that had me think about it for a while. I wanted to create a photograph that leads the eye around the frame. As I looked at the scene in the first “A starting point” picture above, I saw the curve of the San Lorenzo River taking up the lower 2/3 of the frame. The river curves, leading the eye to the colorful trees. The reeds half way up the photo do a nice job of framing the river. The rock at the bottom left 1/3 does a nice job of anchoring the scene. The river itself was moving and I thought it would be good to slow down my shutter speed. 

Seeing the problems

As I looked at the scene I realized there there were problems. Potentially this would also be a really good topic for a workshop and a blog topic. I’ll try to break this down into bullet points to keep it brief. (note: yeah I kind of failed at the “brief” idea)

  • The scene was really busy
  • The plants (I really want to use a word more interesting than “plants” but does “vegetation” seem like something you’d really hear me say? Probably not) in the center were colorful but they were also total chaos. 
  • The river was nice but it had a lot of distracting reflections
  • The amount of green was overwhelming. Green on green, with pops of yellow.
  • I knew that the river would turn this weird unnatural blue in post processing
  • A gap is in the upper right where the tree line ends and the sky begins. The sky was definitely going to be an uninteresting blown out blob so I composed the shot to omit as much of it as possible.  

But here’s the thing — I recognized all of this in the field. I also started thinking about how to approach this in post processing while I was there. 

Acting

Setting up the shot

I got up on the lower concrete & rebar eyesore dam (it’s really ugly, I’m not mincing words here) and setup my tripod. I stood up and squatted down a few times to decide what height I want to shoot from. I chose a height that was nearly fully extended. I wanted the colorful trees in the background to be in the upper 1/3 of the frame so I setup the lens at 40mm. The composition of photo is very “rule of thirds.” You can see how I placed certain elements in the frame so that the object would be where grid lines would intersect. That’s not an accident.

A lot of reflected light was in the water so I put a circular polarizer on the lens to cut that back some. I wanted a longer exposure and thought that about one second would be nice for the water. This created a problem though; (ooh a semicolon! Fancy schmancy!) stacking  circular filters on the lens creates unwanted vignetting. Ditching the circular polarizer wasn’t an option so I decided to use f/16 to reduce the amount of light. I sure didn’t need f/16 for the depth of field. I’m pretty sure this would have been good around f/8. For longer exposures (really anything under 1/40th sec) I like to use a simple remote trigger.

Knowing that I had a lot of depth of field to work with I set my focus manually about 1/3 of the way into the field. That was a pretty good estimate to gauge hyperfocal distance.  The result is the elements close to the camera are in sharp focus while my main subject (the colorful trees in the distance) are also in reasonably sharp focus. I use my Canon 5d Mk III’s live view to select where I want to focus, then I zoom in using the zoom buttons on the camera body to tighten it more. 

I’m paying attention to the histogram displayed in the live view while I’m working. I set mine up to display values in red, green, and blue rather than the default luminosity. This way I can be sure no individual value is overexposing

From an outing in Capitola that shows the RBB histogram idea

Post Processing – Adobe Lightroom

Work in Lightroom was kept very basic with a little exploration into color grading. Most of the work was going to be done in Photoshop. Lightroom was used to bring up the shadows, bring down the highlights. Color temperature was changed to something warmer. The scene was shot in an “open shade” kind of situation which the camera would usually decide is around 6000k.  

After the Lightroom edits. Still more work to be done.
Basic Panel. Bring the shadows up, highlights down, add some contrast, and changed the white balance to 7500k
It’s not often that change much in the HSL panel, but I wanted to get out of my comfort zone a bit with this photograph.
I added just a little split toning. This is very unusual for me, but I liked the overall effect and will probably do this more often now.

Doing

Finish the job in Photoshop

Basic RAW edits from Lightroom are exported to Photoshop for more work. I usually break this down into a few groups of edits. I use adjustment layers (I keep looking for a phrase that’s more interesting than “a lot…” but hell…) a lot. The great thing about adjustment layers is that it’s as close to “non destructive editing” as you’re going to get in a raster editor like Photoshop.

So many adjustment layers…

Yeah there’s a lot going on here but it’s nowhere near as complicated as I’ve seen. More isn’t better here. 

Color Correction

Left slider moves up all the way to the cliff on the histogram

A Levels adjustment layer is added where I am working with red, green, and blue channels. I bring the darkest values of each channel to the edge of the meaningful data in the histogram. 

Green channel
I moved the blue channel a little more than I usually do. 

Bring some things up, some things down

My goal is to lead the viewer’s eye around the frame. I added an adjustment layer that darkens most of the image. I painted black into the layer mask with a large brush to bring some brightness back up selectively

Color Grading In the Mid Tones

Raya Pro was used to get the mid tones luminosity mask. If right about now you’re cross eyed and saying “wha???” that’s cool. I wanted to be very selective about how I got creative with color. Admittedly I didn’t go wild but this did have a nice effect. No, this isn’t how I actually saw the scene in front of me, but it is how I wanted to present it. That’s the difference between a photograph and a snapshot. I’ll keep this brief, mostly because this post has gotten to be very long and I’m into beer number two while writing it. The YOST SEO plugin is telling me I’m wording poorly. 

Thanks YOST. 

Below you can see that I was editing the curves for each color channel. The neat thing is that I’m doing this only in the midtones to keep it selective. No, the screenshot below isn’t really an accurate depiction of the whole thing but it gives you the general idea. 

Selective color correction

There was probably a better way to do this. I wanted to add a little more contrast. I also thought at the image was too blue. The levels adjustment layer at bottom brings the middle slider for the blues up, reducing the blues in the midtones. The curves layer darkens the darks values a bit, and really just a little bit. The levels adjustment later up top is where I make a custom mask to keep the edits to a portion of the image. 

There was probably a better way to do this…

Essentially the river is reflecting a lot of blue from the sky and I found it distracting. That last levels adjustment layer is to bring those blue tones down to something I liked better. 

The middle slider was moved to the right a bit to get those blue tones under control.

Finishing touches

Selective sharpening and a vignette are added last. Sharpening will be different depending the camera used and the final output. My Canon 5d Mk III needs a little more sharpening in post processing than newer Sony mirrorless cameras. I’ve found that the sharpening can also cause problems when the job goes to print. My favorite high end shop, LightSource SF, adds some custom sharpening. I compensate for this by doing my sharpening in an adjustment layer that can be disabled for printing if needed.

Take a closer look at my sharpening layer. It’s a high-pass filter with a layer mask painted black. I paint white with a big, soft brush on that layer mask so the sharpening is applied only to the parts of the image that I really want. The high-pass filter layer is set to an “overlay” or “soft light” mode. Honestly I can’t tell the difference between the modes by looking at them. No, really. 

A vignette is used to further draw the eye around. How do you something brighter? One way is to make everything else darker. I make an organic shape using a Wacom Intuos drawing tablet. That vignette is applied to a curve layer and the white parts of the layer mask make darker areas in the final image.

Selective sharpening and vignette