Category Archives: Landscapes

Depth of Field – In Depth

Depth of Field – In Depth

Everything you wanted to know about Depth of Field and some things you didn’t but you will be glad you did

So you may think you understand Depth of Field (DOF) but do you? Let’s try to confirm what you do know and maybe show you a couple things you didn’t.

What is Depth of Field?

Let’s start with a definition: Depth of field is the total distance that is in “acceptable focus” from our actual point of focus. Let’s clarify that definition further because we artistic minded hate reading definitions.

When you focus on an object, you have a “point of focus” that is the only part that is 100% sharp and in focus, then you have a “field of acceptable focus” in front of and behind that point. That area is the total Depth of Field Continue reading »

Shooting the Telephoto Landscape

In my complete portfolio I have just over 3,000 images. Of them, 1,800 were shot with a wide-angle lens between 16 – 24mm. Like most Landscape photographers, a wide-angle lens is my weapon of choice. I love the look of it, I love shooting big sky.

But, the other side is, just over 500 images were shot with a 70-200mm Telephoto zoom. There is a place for a telephoto lens in the landscape photographer’s bag.

So why do we choose different lenses and what are some of the reason and difficulties using a telephoto lens for Landscapes.

We choose lenses of different focal lengths for two primary reasons: Magnification – We want to frame our subject in a certain way in the image and we use different focal length to put that subject at the size in the frame we desire. Secondly, Perspective: What else do we want to present in that image around our subject, what is the field of view we want. Continue reading »

LOOK FOR added interest in your Landscape Photograph

or any photograph really.

Here we have a scene that is in itself beautiful. The magnificent sandstone cliffs above the beach and ocean at Torrey Pines State Beach – La Jolla California

Just on it’s own it’s a beautiful scene to photograph and makes for a nice shot

But simply by stepping 30 feet to my right ( and getting my sneakers VERY wet, I was able to add a ton of interest to the scene by adding the reflection off of the wet beach sand and also some of the movement of the water itself

So don’t get caught up in a scene before you and just fire away, move around look for different perspectives, things of interest, foreground subject all the little things that add up to a more complete and pleasing image for the viewer.

Sometimes we get so excited by the beauty we see we forget to look for more…LOOK


Finding the Light. Hurry up and wait

 With  natural light photography here is the typical scenario…

Wait for it…

Wait for it…

Wait for it…

Wait for it…

Wait for it…

Go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go…

Go home

Continue reading »

Quick Tip of the day – Landscape Photography

If you have a boring sky without clouds for drama or much interest, minimize it in your composition to 1/3 to 1/4 of the total space. This is not the time to go all Big Sky in your image.

Here we have a clearly defined forground subject, adding  BIG Sky would have done nothing for the image. Continue reading »

I’ve got the Hippy Hippy Shake – Cure Tripod Woes

I’ve got the Hippy Hippy Shake 

No one remembers that song huh? It was by this little group called the Beatles. OK, enough music nostalgia. 

Reader Duane W had a question on camera shake while ON A TRIPOD. 

Duane wrote: I was shooting at the beach back in May and tried to pull off a shot.  What I did not expect or plan for was the amount of wind in the evening.  A storm was working up and the wind was gusting off the water about 20-30 mile an hour. 

I love shooting water and getting that nice shutter speed about 1/4 – 1/6th of a second.  That made the water perfect, but because the wind was strong made the rocks not sharp due to my camera and tripod shaking. Continue reading »

Anatomy of a Shoot – Long Exposures

Anatomy of a Shoot – Long Exposures 

Long exposure shots are all the rage right now. You’ve all seen them; Pier, Cotton Candy Water, B & W. We are not just talking silkening the water with 10 second exposures on waterfalls. We are talking cotton candy, fog or mist look to water (or Clouds) of exposure for 5 minutes or even an hour. It’s the newest thing to catch on in landscapes so if you want to know how, follow me through a recent shoot. Continue reading »

Not a Cloud in the Sky

How many times have you heard, “Oh what a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky”? Those are the days my camera and I stay home and watch TV. (My camera likes to watch; Travels to the Edge with Art Wolfe, he gets to see his cousins) Being a landscape photographer I can’t think of anything more boring than a cloudless sky. Clouds add so much interest to almost any scene it really isn’t worth venturing out when they aren’t there. 

Continue reading »

Shooting Snow in HDR – Snow is HARD!

Shooting Snow in HDR – Snow is HARD! 

I have a line of Christmas Cards called The Lone Ornament. So when it snows inSouthern California…yes, it snows here…provided you go above 7,000 feet – I head up to the mountains to shoot for the next year’s card. So after it rain here on Thursday I knew there would be snow up there on Saturday. 

So I headed up to the mountain hamlet of Idyllwild. It started to snow as I arrived and when I got to Humber State park it was a “Picture” perfect scene.  About 6 inches of white puffy freshly fallen snow and it was snowing lightly as the sun played in and out of the clouds. I could not have asked for a better day…and I LOVE snow. 

I got the shots I needed for my cards and they came out fantastic (no you can’t see them, they are a secret till December of 2012). When I was done I thought I would hike up the trail and try having some fun shooting in the woods and do some HDR after all, surely snow have a high dynamic range…or… we would think. 

Measuring the DynamicRange 

I hiked up the trail (Huffing and puffing, 7,000 feet is rough) and set up my tripod amongst some beautiful scenes and I set about to measure the dynamic range. I set my meter to spot metering. In snow spot metering is essential for measuring the dynamic range, using other modes the snow played too big a part in the metering and threw off any real measurement. Using Evaluative/matrix metering actually showed NO dynamic range as it metered everything the same. 

 At the time the sun was out and at f/16 and ISO 160, for the brightest spot on the snow I got a shutter speed of 1/500, for the deepest shadow area of tree bark I got a shutter speed of 1/20. OK that sounds good, so roughly 5 stops of range to cover. 

But wait a minute. We have to remember one of the most important facts about in camera metering. In camera meters are reflective meters; they measure the reflected light off our subjects. And they are calibrated for middle gray. They will get the exposure correct if the object you are metering is middle gray (18%) or a midtone. If we measure white or black, the meter tries to make them gray. It will do that by underexposing white and overexposing black, both by about 2 stops. 

So knowing that, that 1/500th shutter speed would underexposure our snow by about two stops. So really the exposure for the snow would be 1/125th. So now 1/125th to 1/25 is really closer to 3 stops difference in range, which tells us we really don’t need HDR! 

But I pressed on and did some anyway. 


What I found worked best was 3 exposures. And if  I was using auto Exposure Bracketing it was best to also add in +1 Exposure Compensation to make up for the meter misreading the snow. Even though we know that snow will make the meter under expose by 2 stops, using +2 Exposure compensation was too much and our final bracket image was just too blown out. If I shot manual, I took the same compensation in mind and started my bracketing at 1/125 or 1/200 

The other thing I found was spacing, if the sun was shining bright on the snow, + – 2 stops worked fine. If the sun was not shining brightly on the snow + – 1EV actually worked better. Yes that is NOT a broad range but again, this is not as dynamic a situation as we may think it is. 

Here are three images I shot













Processing for snow

Shooting snow in HDR is just half the battle, processing it correctly is the send part. The problem most HDR processing programs have is handling white and especially large amounts of white. This has been my one pet peeve will all the developers. But it’s actually to be expected. Just like our meters want to make everything gray, that is also the function of the tone mapping of HDR programs. They will try to make everything a mid tone. This results in graying of all things white. So we need to take some steps to assure that doesn’t happen. 

Regardless if you are using Photomatix Pro or Nik HDR Efex Pro or any HDR program what we have to watch is how much compression we apply. In Photomatix this is Strength and Lighting adjustments. In HDR Efex Pro it is Tone Compression. 

If we were processing in Photomatix we would want our Lighting adjustments to be Natural + and a strength of under 50. In Nik HDR Efex Pro, which I used here, I used  Tone Compression. set to 0.

That still leaves us with some pretty dingy whites so we need to make an adjustment to our white levels and quite a bit of it to, I used between 20 and 40% more white levels to get the images right, you want the brightest parts of the snow just below blowing out. I also added about 12% blacks to bring back a little shadow detail and then about 20% to the structure. My fine adjustment just to bring out a bit more detail I upped the method strength to 20% with the Neutral method. 

This gave me the most pleasing look to the image, the cool part was I needed no further post processing for any  of the images in Photoshop or Lightroom. 


























Now comparing it to a single image shot with the correct exposure, you really won’t see a huge difference. In fact I think you could work with a single image and get similar results. We don’t really see a big difference in range because quite frankly, there isn’t much anyway. But there is an improvement in detail that I feel may be worth it. Would I shoot snow in HDR again? Maybe, but I am not sure it was worth the effort completely. 

Perhaps since it was such a beautiful day in the wood and snow, I should have forsaken the tripod and all the set-up and time it took and just enjoyed the hike more and shot conventionally…but then again…I DO run The HDR Image…soooo 

Hope that helps, 

Final note to self, make sure you waterproof hiking boots, subset note to self, be thankful that wool socks keep you warm even when wet.  


Metering Exposures for HDR

Metering Exposures

I talk a lot about metering my exposure for an HDR but I haven’t talked much about how I actually do that, so I thought I would give a quick run through. 

Now of course a lot of times I just do a 3 exposure auto bracket and in that case I only have to make sure that my middle exposure is correct (by Metering and locking exposure on a Mid Tone as I explained here) But what if I need more exposures to cover a larger range? Here’s how I do it. 

First thing I do is set my camera for spot metering, if you don’t have spot metering use center weighted. If you use Evaluative (Canon) or Matrix (Nikon) that samples the whole scene which is great in the case of a single exposure but not what we really want here since we want to only know a specific area. 

I place my center focus point over the area I want to sample and I really just want to know two areas; the brightest part of the scene, and the darkest. Sampling any more than that is a waste of time since we know we will be covering them anyway in our various exposures. We just need to get from one end to the other.

So here is my scene

With my camera in manual exposure mode, I first metered the brightest part of the sky and got a centered meter reading of 1/60 shutter speed (aperture and ISO were constant at f/16 and ISO 100). Just be aware of something when water is involved. In cases with water, the sky may not always be the brightest part of the scene. If you have Specular highlights – reflection of the sun in the water- even though the sun is not actually in your scene. THOSE may be your brightest area of your shot. 

Next I metered the darkest area, a hole in the rocks to my left and got a reading of 6 seconds. So I have a full 10 stops of range to cover to get this shot right. 

So now my next choice was how to I get from one end to the other, in other words how many stop intervals. In this case I chose 1 stop intervals because I didn’t want to shoot the scene twice. But I did have another thing in mind because I knew I was shooting for this article. To answer the question: Are 1 stop or 2 stop intervals best? 

So I started shooting my sequence and I started at 6 Seconds. Now I could have done the math and  to get the next exposure just divide the time in half to get 1 whole stop, or in half and then in half again for two full stops. But I hate doing even simple math, so it much easier to do a simple counting the clicks. 

 My camera and most camera are set up from the factory to change exposure in 1/3 stop increments, you can change that to ½ stop increments in your camera’s menu. Mine is set for 1/3 stops. So if I want to change my exposure 1 full stop, I simply count 3 clicks of the dial, shoot, count 3 clicks and so on (If I am doing 2 full stops I count 6 clicks) and then I simply watch my shutter speed until I get to my end reading that I wanted of 1/60. 

But you do it the way that suits you best. 

So here is my 10 exposure shot processed in Photomatix Pro 4.1(No other processing was done)


 BUT, here is my 5 Exposure shot of the same scene


 I really don’t see much difference; in fact there was a little more confusion in the water area of the 10 exposure shot because of the moving water. 

I’m still not convinced that 1 stop increments are at all necessary (although I did use it for my Shooting Interiors post) because of course, each single image covers a range and in the end may make some other things worse (alignment etc.) But I of course leave that decision to you. 

If you would like to see what the 5 exposures look like along with each images Histogram, here they are.


This shot and histogram really shows you how wide the dynamics were for this scene and how they were really biased at each end

Hope that helps,



What to focus on – Hyperfocal Distance and more

 Reader and fellow photographer Duane W. Asked “Can you explain Hyper focal distance and where and how should I actually focus?

Now this really isn’t a HDR question per say but it is a very relevant one since a good portion of HDRs are landscapes or objects that we may need a very deep depth of field for. In fact shallow DOF images are not really that great but of course there are exceptions.

Depth of Field

So let’s examine how to get the maximum Depth of field and also how and what should be our subject of focus.

First lets go over what makes up Depth of Field (DOF from here out) DOF is determined by: Aperture, Focal Length and Distance to subject. The smaller the aperture, (higher the f/number) the deeper the DOF. The wider the focal length, the deeper the DOF, The farther away you are from the subject, the deeper the DOF (Of course in all cases the opposite is true.)

So for the most part, a good amount of all landscapes and HDR of architecture or objects are shot with wide angle lenses. So we’ll take that part as a given. The distance to subject can vary greatly. So that leaves Aperture and you may think, well for the deepest DOF, I’ll just crank it down to the smallest aperture I have.

Well, that would be wrong. The problem being; Diffraction. Diffraction causes loss of sharpness in our image and it comes from using too small an aperture. Some is good, more isn’t better. Now there is a long and involved story behind it but I will let you Google that part. But I’ll just say that it is dependant on your sensor size on how far you can go. For a Full Frame DSLR, you should Max out at about f/16, for a crop sensor DSLR, about f/11 and for point and shoot camera, about f/8. Can you go more? Yeah you can get away with it sometimes and sometimes you need to when you are trying for long shutter speeds for the image. But the above guidelines are pretty good.

So now that we know how to get a deep depth of field, let’s look at focusing techniques that best take advantage of that.


All too often when people take Landscape images they just focus on the distant horizon or “Infinity” on our camera’s focusing scale. And that may be fine. But sometimes that is the last place we want to focus. It really depends on the composition of our image and the element within that image.

Let me give you one piece of advice, This way you can sleep at night, not toss and turn and worry about one more thing. If your subject of the image is the mountain range or the lake or the sunset over the ocean and there is no subject in the foreground. Focus at infinity…done.

But, if you take the advice that I offer in my …See class, “Always have a subject in the foreground and leading lines to your background”, well, now you have something to think about.

Hyperfocal Distance

Hyperfocal Distance is a distance to focus on, based on Focal Length and Aperture that will have the maximum DOF possible with that lens at those setting. When focused at the Hyperfocal Distance, your DOF will extend from ½ the Hyperfocal Distance all the way to infinity.

“But I stink at math how can I figure out Hyperfocal Distance?” Well luckily there are many charts and programs and website to do that math for you. On the web you can go to and right there you can plug in your camera, focal length and aperture and not only will it give you the Hyperfocal distance. You can also use it to figure out DOF for other shooting situations.

But of course you don’t always have your computer around when you are out shooting. Well then do what I do, get a DOF ap for your smart phone. Check the ap store for your particular phone for DOF calculators and I’m sure you will find one no problem. The good thing about an ap on your phone rather then just using a website on your phone is even if you are in remote locations away from any signal, your ap will work.

Focus in Practice

Let’s take look at how this all works in practice.

Equipment used for this test was a Full Frame Canon 5D Camera along with a Canon 17-40 4.0 L Lens set to 17mm. All shots were taken at f/16  1/100 ISO 100

In the first example the Pencil cup was placed at the Hyperfocal distance of our lens and aperture setting. The Hyperfocal distance in this case was 2 feet. 

With the lens focused at 2 feet, our image is in the field of acceptable focus from 1 foot (half the Hyperfocal distance) all the way to infinity. The pencil can is sharp and if we look at the zoom you can see that the 12 Inch mark is clear. If we look at the background we can see that it falls well within the field of acceptable focus (remember that the point of focus is the only part that is perfectly sharp) 

















Now lets move the cup closer to the camera, in fact let’s make it extreme and place it at the minimum focus distance of the  Canon 17-40L lens: .75’

Placing the focus on the Pencil Can, We can see the can is perfectly sharp. The distant background is now slightly out of focus.














Setting the focus at the Hyperfocal distance, the background now comes into the field of focus and the pencil can looses some of its focus.


Placing the focus at infinity is the worst scenario and with the background in focus but no sharpness or focus whatsoever on the pencil can, our subject.






So here is where you need to make a decision. For me, I would place focus on the subject itself.  Because of the size and scale of the subject in the overall image, I want that totally sharp and would give up a little of the background focus

Making the decision

Here are some Guidelines to help you make that decision.

  • If your subject is in the background and no items of interest in the foreground: Focus at infinity done, sleep at night.
  • If you have a foreground subject but not one clearly defined subject, focus at the Hyperfocal distance
  • If you have a clearly defined foreground subject that is at or closer to the camera than the Hyperfocal distance, focus ON the subject.
  • If the composition and scale allows, place your subject at the hyperfocal distance. Best of all worlds

Here are some examples of when you would use what.

In this case with a clear and difined subject that was closer than my hyperfocal distance, I chose to focus on the subject, the tennis ball












In this image I have a foreground subject but it isn’t a single subject or point and I need the maximum depth of field. So I focused at the hyperfocal distance. Which in this case was on a 1.6X crop camera, 10mm Lens, f/20 and the hyperfocal distance was 11 inches

















Focus Stacking

Ok, so we are done right? Almost, what if I have tried everything and becauee of the combinations of focal length and distance to subject and aperture I just can’t get that deep deep DOF I need! Am I out of luck? Nope, your last ditch effort is: Focus Stacking.

Focus stacking is something that is done often with Macro photography. Because of the close distnace to subject and focal length used the total DOF is often in mm. So people will use sophisticated programs to stack images shot at different focus distance to blend into a single image with greater DOF. Well we don’t need to get that compliacted and we can take just two images, One focused on our subject and one focus at our background and blend those tow together using layer masks just like I showed you for adding adjustment layer masks.

This image was done just that way because I wanted to clouds and the mountain behind the poppy field to be in better total focus.











Hope that helps,


Blends vs. HDR

Over at our sister blog, our friend Irving (Yechiel) asked; “What is the difference between a blend and an HDR???” So I thought I would take that opportunity to talk about what blends are and how you can use them and how they relate to HDRs.

First off I would like to dedicate this post to our friend and Photographer Hikin Mike. Mike is a guy that has had some adversity in his life but hasn’t let that stand in his way of doing what he loves. And that is taking photographs in his beautiful area of Northern California including and encompassing the area around Yosemite National Park ( insert jelousy smiley here). Now it isn’t a secret that Mike isn’t a fan of HDR, he instead prefers to do Blends and quite well I may add. But in the end they both are a way to extend dynamic range and really that’s what we want to do and sometimes they do have some benefits over traditional HDRs. Mike is the blending champ so this post is for him.

As I just talked about, our real purpose in all of this is to extend the Dynamic Range that is usable in our Images. Traditionally we may have used a Split or Graduated Neutral Density Filter. These filters allow for a 1-3 stop difference in exposure between the top and the bottom of the filter, allowing you to have a say a darker exposure for the sky than the land beneath. Unfortunately the problem with them is that the transition is a straight line. Great when say you are shooting the ocean with its flat and level horizon. But what if you had a more complicated scene such as a mountain range or shooting through a window to the outdoors… Enter the Blend.

What is a Blend?

A blend is taking 2 or more images and placing them on top of each other and then, through the use of layer masks, revealing parts of each image that have an exposure that is correct for that part of the scene. In essence what you have is a Hand Made HDR. Instead of a software program doing the tone mapping and deciding the tone values for different parts of the scene, you are doing this by hand.

 The downside of this is it can be, but most certainly isn’t always, a very time consuming method. But it really depends what you want to do, if it is just blending two values Sky/Earth it can go quite quickly. But if you want to bring out the subtle tonal variation that an HDR has it may take you quite some time.

There are some advantages also, it can be more of a traditional photographic look than HDR can be sometimes…well unless you follow my methods ;), and it can be very good at doing one thing that it seems most HDR p5rograms have a difficult time with and that is handling large areas of white. Scenes that have large areas of white often get turned gray by HDR programs and this is one area that you can get better with a blend than an HDR.

And the fact is, There have been times that I have made and HDR and then used a blend afterwards to bring back detail or the above white areas into an HDR. One of the very cool things about Photomatix 4.1, the latest version, is that in the tone mapping panel you can select areas and replace them with a single exposure. In essence you are both tone mapping and blending at the same time. This is really a great feature. But as I said in the review of that product, there are times I like to have more control over it and do it in post in another application like Photoshop.

So enough talk, let’s actually go through the steps of blending images

Blends in Photoshop

The first thing you need to do is shoot FOR a blend. You may shoot just like you normally do for HDR and use those images. But most people that do blends do so with two images, one exposed for the sky (Highlights), one exposed for the ground (Midtones). The midtone exposure usually has enough latitude to have detail in the shadow area and we are most concerned about not having blowout in the Highlight exposure.

One you have your exposures, open the files you want into Photoshop, You can use, RAW, Tiff, PSD or JPEG images and you can also make adjustments to each of the images if you desire before the blend but you must keep in mind the final product you are going for after the blend that you don’t mess up things for the final product.

In this instance I am going to take two images (exposures) that I shot this past Sunday and use those for this example. Plus I also shot an HDR right afterwards so we can compare. I like using RAW files so I opened the two images in Adobe Camera RAW without making any adjustments to them because they were shot pretty well in Camera. Clicking select all and Open, I opened both images in Photoshop.

Here are the two file we will be working with






























I shot two images; both at f/22, ISO 100 with a 3 stop ND filter on to silken the water. The images were shot 45 minutes after sunset so that the dynamic range was wide but not wide enough not to be able to capture in two shots. The exposure times were 1 and 4 seconds respectively

I think it is worth mentioning that an advantage of a blend here over an HDR will be in detail in the clouds. In the subsequent HDR, we have three long exposures of 1, 4 and 15 Seconds. Over that entire time periods the clouds move quite a bit and lead to blurring in the final image. We don’t have that problem with a blend since we only are going to use the 1 second exposure for the sky.

Once we have our two images open we select our Move tool from the toolbar. Holding down the shift key (which allows for perfect alignment of the two images) we drag one image on top of the other. The order really doesn’t matter but we may want the one image that we will use the largest area of on top.

Now that we have the two layers together, we click on the top layer in the layers panel and then go to the bottom of the panel and click add layer mask.

With the layer mask in place on the top layer, I will select a large soft Brush and the color black to reveal the layer below for the sky (Black to reveal, white to conceal, X to switch between them) And begin painting over the sky area to reveal the darker and better exposure of the image below. I use a soft edge brush so that there isn’t a hard transition between the two images but there are times when you may need to use a harder edge brush in smaller detailed areas.


 I  turned on the quick mask to show you the area I painted over. The result is this:

This is a good first start, but I want to further refine the transition between the two exposures so I will switch my brush color to dark neutral gray. You can do the same thing by keeping the brush black but change the opacity and fill of the brush, but I prefer using different shades of gray between white and black and not change the brush itself.
Using a medium gray brush I work on the transition area of the water in the distance and the trees on the left. I went back and forth until I got the overall image with the balance I wanted.















At this point I added a levels adjustment layer and adjusted the image as a whole, and even on that adjustment layer, used the mask to take away a little brightness in the body of water behind the rocks.

And then as my final steps I will go in to the different layers and dodge and burn certain areas to just get the balance I want as I showed in this Local Adjustment tutorial, and then finally I added a high pass sharpening layer over the whole image.

This is the final finished image.















In comparison here is an HDR shot just minutes later. They are different, both are nice.











The HDR has a little better detail and range of tones in some of the smaller areas, The Blend actually gets the sky better and the water swirl better because they are just one image and not subject to some of the blurring that takes place when three images are combined in the merge tone mapping of HDR.

And like I said, there are times I will do an HDR and then blend in a part of the image I want to get even better

Hope that helps,

Local Adjustments – Dodging, Burning, Layer Masks

Local Adjustments

When we make adjustments to an image we can apply them globally or over the entire image at once, or we can apply them locally or to a small or separate section of the image only. (Please note this is not the tell or end all of how to edit an image nor about using adjustment layers and masks. It’s to get you acquainted with some of the tools you may not have used yet and then can explore further through some of the excellent tutorials online. Let Google be your friend)

As I noted in the review of Nik HDR Efex Pro, it has the ability to add control points within an image and work on that area “Locally” from the rest of the image, which is a very cool thing. Photomatix 4.1 ( 15% Coupon code: theHDRimage ) also has the ability to select parts of the image and choose a different exposure out of the blended images for certain parts of the scene. This again is another but different way to apply local change. I applaud both companies for having these methods but sometimes they still aren’t enough or more to the point, they don’t work as precisely in as small an area as we may need.

This is when it is time to take the image out of the HDR software and into another photo editing program, be that Adobe Photoshop ,  Adobe Photoshop Elements  , Paint Shop Pro or whatever may be your weapon of choice. Let me just make one thing clear; just as we want to get as much right “in Camera” so we have an easier time later in processing, we also want to get as much right “in Tone- Mapping” so that we again have to spend less time fixing things down the road. So this is not a fix for sloppy work in your tone-mapping of the image to begin with.

Let’s just recount what Tone- Mapping is. We are trying to take a very high dynamic range image (Our 32 bit merge file) and fit or compress that information into a medium such as a print or display on our monitors that has a much lower dynamic range. So we need to tone-map or place the different tones within our final image that gives us the perception, of that wide dynamic range. Now we can do that in a realistic, as the eye sees method as I usually choose or we can do it in other methods that have no basis in reality but may be what the artist desires.

So we do our tone-mapping and we get the balance as good as we can get but we still know there are areas we can get better that is beyond what may be capable in the HDR Program. This is where we turn to our other local methods of dodging and burning and also the use of Layer Masks or adjustment brushes along with the use of what may be global adjustment methods such as Levels, Curves and Saturation

The examples I am going to give will be using Photoshop which I still think is the best for finish editing; the methods shown can also be done in most pixel editing programs including Paint shop Pro and Photoshop Elements. One note Elements 9/10 has added true layer masks to the software so what once took a little bit of workaround to archive can now be done straight away.

For those of you that may not be Old School and have worked in a dark room with film negatives and print making. Dodging and Burning were methods used in a dark room to make local adjustments to a print. Dodging was a way to make an area lighter, Burning was the opposite and made the burned areas darker. These methods and names continue with us today but they just are done digitally and also we have a lot more control of the range that these tools cover. We now can be even more precise than the darkroom counterparts.

Before we get into dodging and burning I want to talk about making larger area adjustments and then we will get into the really fine detail. We can also make local adjustments using global adjust tools such as Levels and Curves. These adjustments usually work globally but through the use of layer masks or selection we can apply them only to a smaller area. You always want to make these adjustments on a separate layer because one they give you more control and also don’t harm an pixels of the original image in the process (Note Photoshop CS 5, now puts all adjustments layers in panel because they are that important)

Levels, Curves & Layers Masks

OK, so here is our starting image. It’s a very tough shot, very high dynamic range because even though it is a setting sun it still is quite bright in this spring sky. Now I could have brightened the entire image in tone mapping but doing so I loose the detail I want in the sun. The other problems are: Haloing around the Lifeguard Tower, the sky is too dark overall and we could use a little more detail in the beach area. So with a curves adjustment layer and mask let’s work on the sky first.

In Photoshop go to Layers> Adjustment Layer> Curves. When the curves dialog came up since I knew that blue sky is an almost perfect mid-tone I boosted the curves line up centered at mid-tone. If you don’t know where the tone you want to affect lays on the line, when the curves box opens open click the curves eye dropper on the area you want to adjust and it will show up as a dot on the linear line.

This adjustment  lightened the whole image quite a bit but blew out the sun which I didn’t want to happen so now let’s use a layer mask to apply that curves layer to only the area we want.

The nice part about Adjustment layers is that they already come with a Layer Mask so there is no need to add one. In the default layer mask the mask is filled with white, which means that it fully conceals the layer below. To reveal the layer below we would paint with Black. White to conceal, black to reveal ( Press X to switch between Black & White
















In this case I want to reveal part of the original image around the sun but I don’t want to reveal all of the original darkness, I only want to bring back some of that around the sun, so I choose for my paint a Medium Gray and I painted over the areas of the sun That I wanted to return to the original values or close to that.
As you can see on the mask I painted around the sun and the horizon but I also painted around the tower to take out some of the haloing around it. We’ll clean that up in the next step. So that is how we apply an adjustment to a large area but not the entire image.

Dodge & Burn

Now lets work on making adjustments to even smaller areas with our dodge and burn tool

Let click on our background layer and say “Duplicate Layer” You can rename it Dodge and Burn if that helps you keep things in order.

Selecting our Burn tool from the toolbar, I’ve selected a soft Brush and then in the tool setting panel, I select Highlights and 10%. The nice part about the dodge and burn tools is that we can select the tones of the image we want to work on; Shadows, Mid-Tones and Highlights. Sometimes figuring out which one we want to use is confusing. In fact it’s kind of backwards thinking. Like in this instance you may think since I want to make the bright areas around the tower darker, I would choose shadows, but I really want highlights since that is the pixel value I want to work on and burn or make darker.

Now switching to the Dodge tool, I switch back and forth between Mid-tone and Highlights and brighten areas of the tower, the tower stanchion, and the clouds in the upper part of the image. The nice part about adding these on a separate layer is again, we can vary the whole amount by using the opacity slider on that level or we can again add a mask if necessary

I’m not trying to make any area overly bright, just trying to make it look as I saw it that night and more to the way the eyes see than my camera.

When you are done, My suggestion is that you save the file as a .PSD or a TIFF file (16 bit)  with the layers intact, so if you need to you can always return to the image and readjust things. Only make flattened JPEG’s when you need post to the web or to send to print labs that require JPEG’s

And there you have a finished image, well, almost. From the original image through all the post work, There is some Noise present I would really not like there. So, in the next segment, well look at reducing the noise. Both through workflow and with some of the Noise Reduction software that is available.

If you are a fan of doing your post work in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom or Apple Aperture two non-pixel editing programs, You will want to look to using Adjusment brushes to do eccentually what we have here. It’s just not my favorite way to do it and I feel more comfortable using Photoshop having used it for many years. It’s still my number one choice for post work

Hope that helps,


When to up your ISO in HDRs

As photographers we know we want to use the lowest ISO possible to capture our imagesand keep the noise level to a minimum. This is even more so when we are shooting HDR’s because the noise can get compounded when during tone mapping some tones are boosted and with that the noise

In most instances we want to keep the ISO at our camera’s minimum, 100 or 200 as the case may be. Just one note, don’t use any of the ‘Extended” ISO such as ISO 50 available on some Canon Cameras or ISO 100 on some Nikons. Because of the way these “Interpolated” ISO work, the images while lower in sensitivity, really don’t give lower noise and in fact give lower Dynamic Range per image.

So since we use tripods for good HDR’s or at least we should. Normally we don’t have a problem using low ISO and longer shutter speeds because we, as a practice, don’t have moving objects in our HDRs, although, I did show you how to do that in this blog post. But sometimes we may not have obvious moving objects because to our eyes they aren’t.

Some of those moving objects  may be Clouds (especially low clouds on windy days or close to sunset). The Moon ( It moves about 15 degrees per hour). Boats at harbor ( even with soft swells they move) And I’m sure we could come up with a few more.

So in cases like this we may want to boost our ISO for two reasons, WE want our longest exposure of our series to have a fast enough shutter speed to stop the motion of anything so you don’t get blurring of a single frame. And we also want to be able to shoot the entire series of shots without any object moving in the total time it takes to shoot ( where you most likely would see movement of clouds or the moon. )

Continue reading »

Anatomy of a shot – Harbor Lights

So I recently did a shoot at San Diego Harbor, A was looking for a city lights shot with some boats in the scene.

Trying to do this with normal photography provides enough challenges iteself: Capturing the dynamic range between the water and the building lights, Using a fast enough shutter speed to stop any motion in the boats on a water necessitating a higher ISO which can translate into higher noise in the image. Even if you didn’t have to worry about the boat movement, capturing city lights can be difficult because it may take long exposures and digital sensors suffer from some noise problems from the long exposures.

But on top of this I wanted to do HDR’s which added more problems because now not only did I have to worry about the movement of the boats in one image but across 3 images of very different shutter speeds, so even if one of the exposures had a shutter speed fast enough to stop motion , surely I couldn’t get three that did AND then capture that motion all at the same spot.

For this shot and for most city light shot, normally I wouldn’t want to shoot when it is dark. I will try to shoot during the dusk period or sunset to a 1/2 hour later ( Dusk is longer the farther away from  the equator you are). But I had already used up that period trying to get the other shots I wanted for this evening. I did not see this shot till later on the way back to my truck.

It was a difficult shoot and also a lot of work in post but I think I accomplished what I wanted. To show it as it was in person. So let’s break it down and see just what it took.

Of course as always my Canon 5D was mounted on a sturdy tripod. And using the timer mode, AV mode  I fired off three shots.

Because of the darkness and the need to stop the boats in motion on at least one of my frames (hopefully the 0EV one) I set my ISO to ISO 500 and using a Depth of field calculator ( There are some great phone apps for this) I determined that with my 24mm Lens and distance to subject I could shoot as open as f/5 and still maintain a DOF from 6 feet to infinity ( The hyperfocal distance for those that follow this stuff was 12’7″ and everything in my frame was past that distance) being able to shoot that wide open help immensely since I could shoot at a much lower ISO.

So here are the three images I shot, at shutter speeds of 1/6, .6 and 2.5 seconds respectively











My next step was to take the three image into Photomatix Pro 4.0 and use it’s powerful De-ghosting tool in the first menu ( See my tutorial on how to do that HERE)

I selected the dinghies only and used the 0EV shot as the de-ghosted one. Even though that image was .6 second, the baywaters were still enough that I didn’t get any motion blur in the dinghies. With that area de-ghsoted I moved onto to tone mapping the image.

Using my usual tone mapping preset recipe of 70 Strength, 70 saturation, high smoothing and -1.20 Gamma. I finished out in Photomatix with this image












OK, that looks pretty nice, some good detail fairly nice range, lots of color. But the truth was that wasn’t how I saw it. The colors were way too poppy and I didn’t have the detail in the buildings I really wanted. So I need a solution to fix both those problems. I try desautrating the color, different level and curves adjusments but they really didn’t fix what I wanted or if they did they caused others

So to fix my “Color” problem i turned to our old friend… Black & White. Black & white is great for detail and contrast so I am going to turn to that for some help.

In Photoshop, I opened the image and then made a duplicate layer,  That layer I converted to Black & white using a Gradient Map process (* Google it). The result was this:












Perfect just what I wanted. Now here is where the magic comes in. I am going to duplicate the bottom color layer again and move that above the black  & white layer. Magic time. Now I moved to the Blend mode  and changed it to “Darken” on that top color layer.

Wow, now that was exactly what I was looking for, the colors while much more muted and were faithful to what was actually there. The sky became more of the black it was at that time of night and the detail and intensity of the skyline buildings came back to where it should be and as it was to the eye.

Then after taking the image into Neat Image to clean up a little bit of noise on the boats and then some sharpening of the image with a Low Pass Filter Sharpening ( I will have a quick turtorail on how to do thsi soon) My Image was done, Just what I saw that night