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

The Garden Of Eden

Fall Colors at the Garden Of Eden

There’s a fairly well known spot in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park referred to as the Garden Of Eden. Rather than my usual workout at the gym I went for a weighted trail run. Granted the “weight” was my camera pack and tripod.

Colorful Diversion Dam

A dam is in place to keep the river diverted in a more controllable manner. Folks have been using this as a canvas for years and the current “selection” is pretty colorful. My goal here was more than going for a run; I was also scouting the area for an upcoming private photography lesson.

Garden Of Eden, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Fall colors, graffiti, and reflections along the San Lorenzo River

Why yes, I do the occasional private workshop.

Contact me about a workshop some time! The workshops are fun, inexpensive, and run 2-3 hours. We get out and explore locations like the Garden Of Eden not only because are they beautiful, they are also very good object lessons. Shutter speed, depth of field, wide angles, and on top of that you had to hike a little so you had to earn it.

A hiker along the trail by the Garden Of Eden helps demonstrate shutter speed. OK that’s actually me.

Sometimes my favorite photos are just out my door

full moon
The moon sets over the San Lorenzo Valley
Available at my sales site

Often I don’t need to go very far to capture a beautiful scene. There are plenty of times when I simply need to go out my front door. Feb 1st, 2018 was one of those times. The full moon was setting behind some wispy clouds. I literally walked outside with my tripod and a good Canon 200mm to capture it.

Making photographs of what moves me, not what’s popular

I like to make photographs of many topics but I’m going to be totally open with you. There are subjects I’m utterly not interested in. If I wanted something to go totally bananas on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus (hey, I actually used Google Plus a lot. No really! I’ll talk about that some other time)  then I’d post pictures of fluffy kittens or overly processed portraits of people who were already beautiful to start with. That’s not my thing.

I’m moved most by landscapes. Why landscapes? To quote Dan Mitchell

I’m fortunate to live in a (photographically speaking) “target rich environment.”

I live in the Santa Cruz Mountains; a “target rich environment” among target rich environments. I’ve lived in California for most of my life (there were a couple of years in Las Vegas. Ask me about that over a beer or two some time).

Black and white redwood grove

A grove of redwood trees in black and white. Santa Cruz Mountains, California. September 2018.
This photograph is available on my sales site
https://www.coastalimagesbysean.com/Black-and-White/i-zmZBm9V/A

I look around me and I see art everywhere. The rich patterns and textures in redwood groves. The sheer height of even second-growth redwoods. The fascinating, curling bark of the manzanita tree. The deer wandering through my back yard. The darned turkeys that stubbornly walk down my little street when I’m late for work. The occasional mountain lion (I’ll write about that story again soon. It was one of those blog posts that I let bluehost delete when I gave them the proverbial finger). Often I photograph those scenes in color, but there’s something about redwoods that seem appropriate for black and white.

I often walk through this area looking for inspiration. Today I stopped to study this one grove. I was attracted to the repetition of forms, how the trees framed the one in the middle, and the small amount of depth in the scene. Something clearly in front, back, and in the middle. This particular morning was overcast; absolutely ideal for shooting in this forest. The light catches the bark and seems to bend around the tree enhancing the sense of volume. I must have walked past this grove a hundred times without ever thinking about it. This time I stopped and really looked into the forest. That may seem overly deep considering I just wrote about how I misspelled “photography” on my own header image — and then left it in because it’s funny. But that’s how I feel when I’m in this space.

While studying the way the light played on the bark I decided that black and white was the most meaningful approach for me. Bring this up. Bring this down. Enhance the bright parts of the bark just a little. Bring down some of the shadows, but don’t let them get totally buried. Add a nice organic vignette to emphasize the subject in the middle of the frame. Add a twist of lemon. Just right.

I always appreciate comments and re-shares of my posts. Contact me for prints or licensing. Join me for a hike in the SCM (Santa Cruz Mountains). Or even better buy a print or two from my sales site. Right here again, you know, just in case it got lost up there.

Space X Falcon 9 launch

A group of friends planned on viewing and photographing the launch of the Space X Falcon 9. The launch was going to happen out of Vandenberg Air Force Base shortly after sunset. The idea was that we would gather up at an agreed upon spot in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

I had just gotten off work and it was a race with the devil to get up there on time. That meant bombing up a little mountain road that’s been beat up by logging trucks. Fortunate for me I’m familiar with the twists, turns, and gaping voids in the road that we’ll call “potholes” for the sake of argument.

Space X Falcon 9 as seen from the Santa Cruz Mountains. October 7, 2018

Once I pulled up I saw the rocket launch from over 200 miles away. I barely had time to setup let alone truly dial in the exposure that I wanted. My first two attempts overexposed; I had never photographed a rocket launch before. I had setup the same way that I would shoot stars at night: ISO 3200 and about 25 seconds with my Canon 5d Mk III. Oh no, definitely not the way to go. I dropped the exposure time way down and got this shot just in time (ISO 3200, f/4, 2 seconds at 40mm using my 17-40 L-series). You can see the main booster coming back to earth in the bottom left corner of the frame. The other colors are mostly from the sun setting. This was a stunning display.

Space X Falcon 9 launch as seen from the Santa Cruz Mountains.
This was my first shot upon arriving, and just trying to get anything at all.

Time for some Milky Way fun

After the launch there was still time to shoot the Milky Way. There was no moonlight, it was pretty dark, and the clouds were cooperating. Why not? I setup a composition that I liked with my car and the Milky Way. I opened the door so the dome light would turn on for a few seconds, introducing a glow inside.

Car and Milky Way
Thanks for another fun day AdventureMobile!