Photo Tip of the Month: Exposing For Sky And Sea (Dynamic Range Without HDR Software)

You’re at the coast taking photos.  If you expose for the sky, the water, the cliffs, the rocks, the foreground becomes too dark.  If you expose for the foreground, the sky becomes blown out and appears like a white or gray blob.

What to do?  Ask a photographer from the 1850s!

Please click on the photo to see it.  The algorithms for making the photo smaller seem to also make it appear blurry.  Thanks!

Title: The Secret Coast
Info: Nikon D7000, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 with B+W 1.8 ND filter. ISO 400, 8 second exposure, f/14.
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: Los Angeles County, California, USA

You could use a graduated neutral density filter to make the sky darker.  This works very well if the horizon is flat and doesn’t have rocks or mountains.

You could use Photomatix or another kind of HDR software.  A lot of people do.

But if you don’t have HDR software or flat horizons or graduated neutral density filters, all is not lost.  There’s a technique for doing it “by hand” that I believe creates a very natural look and can be done in many photo editors that can create layers, using a technique that was developed well over a hundred and fifty years ago!  Read on, my friend, read on!

Combining two exposures together
One way of dealing with dynamic range is to create two versions of the same photograph. That’s what was done with the photo above, a long exposure photo of eight seconds in which I exposed for the foreground.

Here’s how I created it:

1.  I created two versions of the same photo.  Using View NX 2, which I use for my RAW photos, I created a second version of the photo in which I lowered the exposure slightly, revealing the true colors of the sky.  I don’t make the sky too dark because otherwise the final result can look abnormal.  Maybe -1.0 exposure.  Play around with this and do it by feel.

I could have also used another photo of the same scene altogether that was exposed for the sky, which I’ve done for other photos.  Either way works. Create one exposed for the sky first, name it “sky”, and convert to TIFF. Then change your settings so that it’s exposed for the sea, rename it “sea”, and convert to TIFF.  We’re naming something meaningful simply so it’s easier to spot later.

2.  I combined the two TIFFs together as layers.  In Photoshop CS4, I opened the two TIFF files I had just created.  While viewing my “sea” TIFF – in other words, the photo in which I exposed the photo for the water, rocks, and foreground – I selected “all” (on a Mac, “Apple” + “A”; on a PC, “Control” + “A”), then copied it (Mac “Apple” + “C”; PC “Control” + “C”).

I then clicked on the other TIFF labeled “sky” – in other words, the photo in which I exposed for the sky – and pasted the “sea” photo in (Mac “Apple” + “V”; PC “Control” + “V”).  I could now only see the “sea” photo that was exposed for the foreground only.  The Layers Menu now showed two layers, the background being the “sky” photo. Cool. On all my versions of Photoshop, the Layers Menu has always defaulted to the lower right corner of the monitor in the event that you have difficulty locating it.

3.  I erased part the top layer to reveal the sky. It’s really that simple.  In Photoshop CS4, I selected the Eraser Tool, which should be found on the upper left side in a vertical bank of tools.  I like to use the Brush Tool, altering the size of the Brush depending on what I am doing, and starting off with 100% opacity and 100% flow.  You can change these as you see fit on the upper left corner in the horizontally-oriented taskbar of Photoshop.

So what I did was first select a very large brush, and at 100% opacity, kept erasing to reveal the ideally-exposed sky in the background layer underneath. As I got closer to the horizon or the rock, I made the brush size considerably smaller and changed the opacity to 50% to blend the borders better.

This part is hard to describe and takes some experimentation and patience, as you’ll probably need to zoom in on your photo near the horizon or edges to really see what you are doing.  This is art, after all, and how you do this depends on your taste and aesthetic.  Make sure you keep saving the image as you go in case Photoshop crashes and you lose all your work.  I personally like to blend the area where the water meets the sky a little bit rather than attempting a hard, discrete “line” of erasure.  Again, this is about aesthetics.  It’s art, so do it as you feel it looks and feels best.

When you’re finished, you should have a nicely blended image in which the sky looks like what you remembered, and not a white blown-out blob, and the foreground is nicely exposed as you originally did it.  Blending them artfully with the eraser is key.  Once you do this once or twice, you’ll get the hang ouf it and be able to do it quite nicely.

This technique is seriously old school!
Think dealing with dynamic range like this is relatively new?  Would you be surprised if I told you that Gustave Le Gray were doing this in the 1850s?  That’s right, the idea of combining more than one exposure was pioneered way back when your great-great-great grandfather was just a gleam in his pappy’s eye.  Le Gray combined two negatives for the very same reason I have here, using one negative for the sky and another for the sea, and then combining them into one photo (positive).

Some people have this attitude that this is fake and you shouldn’t Photoshop.  But if so, people have been faking it for quite some time.  No, we’re just exposing for the sky and for the sea.  And I would submit to you that a photo of a sky looking like a white blog instead of the deep blues and yellows that I saw would be unrealistic.

Thank you for reading, and thank you if you comment below!!!

Equipment:  Nikon D7000, Tokina AT-X 116

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Bowling Ball Beach – Long Exposure Photo of the California Coast

Bowling Ball Beach, Mendocino County, near Point Arena.

Please click on the photo to view it.  The algorithms for making it smaller seem to make it look blurry.  Thanks.

I mentioned to you that this trip, in contrast to the previous Alabama Hills/395 trip, was full of difficulty, didn’t I? The bulk of it began today.

I covered the camera with a plastic bag from Ralph’s, set up the tripod and got down low to photograph these incredible rocks, which were often in rows, very unusual. But such unusual formations produce unusual splashes. Five minutes in, I suddenly got nailed with water suddenly splashing very high up, surprising me. The water had gotten past the plastic bag I had wrapped around the camera. It didn’t look that bad, so I went back, wiped it off with a towel, and continued shooting.

That was to be Mistake #1: If your camera gets wet, do not turn it on again. You cannot fry a circuit if it doesn’t have any juice.

Title: Bowling Ball Beach 1
Info: Nikon D90, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens, Feisol tripod, f/14, ISO 200, 10-second exposure
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: Bowling Ball Beach, Mendocino County, California, USA

The ebb and flow of the tide, when photographed for ten seconds, creates a misty otherworldly look. It’s a very calming, peaceful sort of look, ironic to me since I find long exposure photography at the coast to be anything but peaceful, contending with splashing water, high winds, salt water and sand pelting my camera, lens fogging up, the tide shifting the sand underneath the tripod, difficulty setting up shots, and other things.  It’s not the actual photography itself, but more the peripheral aspects that seem challenging to me. But that’s part of the reason I went on this trip: gaining experience in this kind of photography.

The Secret Coast: Where Is This???

Where is this?  Any guesses?

This is in the same location as the previous post. You can see more photos on my Eleven Shadows Virtual Photo Album page.

(Please click on the photo to see it properly – it always seems to look blurry when viewed here on the blog)

Title: The Secret Coast
Info: Nikon D7000Tokina AT-X 116 11-16mm f/2.8 with B+W 77mm ND 1.8 filter, ISO 400, 6 second exposure, f/14.
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: ???

The challenge, as with the previous Mystery of the Secret Cave photo, is to try and keep the tripod still when the ocean water is ebbing and flowing, pulling on the tripod, pulling the soft wet sand away from the tripod and wrapping seaweed around the tripod legs!  I always jam the tripod in as hard as possible, and this certainly helps, although of course not always!

See if you can guess where this photo and the previous one were taken.  I think it may surprise some of you!  Thanks!

Equipment:  Nikon D7000, Tokina AT-X 116, Feisol Travel CT-3441S Rapid 4-Section Carbon Traveler Tripod

Where is this cool-looking sea cave?

Where do you suppose this is?

(please click on the photo to see it properly, thanks)

Over the summer, I drove to the Mendocino and the Santa Cruz coast to photograph the coastline, mostly using long exposure photography to get a beautiful silky look from the movement of the water.  I had a great trip, and got some beautiful photos of Bowling Ball Beach and around Santa Cruz, including Davenport, Four Mile, and Natural Bridges.

But this amazing sea cave isn’t in Mendocino.  Or anywhere near Santa Cruz.

See if you can guess where this is!  I’ll post another photo of the same beach in a few days.  Or if you can’t wait, you can see the other photos of this surprising locale on my Eleven Shadows Virtual Photo Album page right now!

Thanks for reading!!!

Title: The Mystery of the Secret Cave
Info: Nikon D7000Tokina AT-X 116 11-16mm f/2.8 with B+W 77mm ND 1.8. ISO 400, 10 second exposure, f/10.
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: Somewhere in California

Mono Lake Reflections – Long Exposure Light Painting

After visiting Bodie ghost town, located north of Mono Lake, I got fish tacos at the Mobil Station in Lee Vining by Vista Drive. I had no idea that this was such a popular hang-out for people coming or going to Yosemite, but it was filled with people hanging out, drinking beer, and talking about their climbs. The fish tacos were good, and I had the ranger at Schulman Grove to thank for this other tip. She had said, “We have a joke here…all the best restaurants in the Owens Valley are in gas stations.” And so it had been again, with the pleasant surprise of having mango salsa on one of the fish tacos.

I continued south after the meal, this time heading to the popular South Tufas instead of the Castle Tufas I had photographed earlier. As expected, there were many photographers there, although most of them left right after sunset. I continued shooting, getting this beautiful dusk shot.

Below:  please click on the photo to view it.  The miniaturization that WordPress is using makes this look awful.  Thanks.

Title: Mono Lake Reflections
Info: Nikon D90, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens, f/11, ISO 200, 30 second exposure. Light painted with a strong flash light.
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: Mono Lake, California, USA.

This long exposure photograph brought out the beautiful colors of dusk even though it looked really dark. There’s this very small window of time in which long exposures seem to bring out the warm colors of dusk even though our eyes cannot really see it any more.

And honestly, let’s face it:  tufas are ugly.  They look like enormous piles of bird crap stacked high.  They’re cool looking because of how the light plays on them, because of the beautiful setting of the lake, and because they’re unusual.  But in the harsh light of day, they’re not exactly the sort of beautiful sculpture of nature that you’d want in your front yard.

Storybook Bristlecone Pine: Night Sky Photography and Light Painting

The bristlecone pines are the oldest living things on the planet, living for longer than 4700 years. It’s fantastic to think that when Buddha or Jesus walked the earth, these trees were already ancient.

Furthermore, after the bristlecone pine finally goes on to that great forest in the sky, the tree can still remain standing for another 5000 years. It is conceivable that trees such as this could have been here for as long as 10000 years.

(please click on image to see it properly, thanks!)

One of the best things about being a night photographer is that you can double your shooting time. When the sun goes down, you can keep right on shooting.

There’s this odd, eerie storybook feel about this photo that really appeals to me, looking perhaps like something on a old children’s novel about witches.

Title: Storybook Bristlecone Pine
Info: Nikon D90, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens. 30 second exposure at ISO 1250, f/11
11000 ft/3350 meters in elevation. Light painted with my handy head lamp.

Photography: Ken Lee

Location: Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest near Big Pine, California, USA.

The Timeless Sea: Tilt-Shift Miniaturization Effect on a Long Exposure Photo of My Friends on the Sonoma Coast

Who says I don’t listen to you?  Someone asked me to post the other photo I took of my friend and his two charming kids at the Sonoma Coast because this one utilizes a tilt-shift look.  This can create a sort of miniaturization effect, and quite frankly, this is usually more effective when done to cabins on a hillside or cars on the street rather than people, giving this miniature model toy effect, although that said, one of the best photos I’ve seen utilizing this effect was of masses of swimmers jumping into the ocean.

Sonoma, The Timeless Sea II (long exposure photo of the Pacific Ocean)

Title: Sonoma, The Timeless Sea II
Info: Nikon D90, 18-200mm Nikkor VR at 27mm, F/25 ISO 200 for 6 seconds, two Tiffen 0.9 neutral density filters, flat rock (forgot my tripod!).
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: Salt Point, Sonoma County, California, USA

I don’t have a tilt-shift lens, so I created this in Photoshop utilizing the Quick Mask function in Photoshop.

I began by using Gradient Tool (Cylindrical Gradient) to apply a gradually increasing blur from where I wanted the focus point to be (in this case, the my friends standing on the rocks), increasing the amount of blur further from that point.  You can use your mouse, holding the Shift Key, to draw the gradient from the focal point on up.  You’ll need to experiment with this a few times.  I then switched out of Quick Mask to Standard Mode again.

I then applied the Lens Blur Filter in Hexagon Mode, tweaking the Radius to adjust the amount of blur.  I began around 15 and started adjusting to see what looked good 15-20 is usually fine.  You can also mess with Specular Highlights and Brightness as you see fit.

Especially with toys or cabins on a hillside, you’ll want to jack up Saturation Mode to bring out this miniaturization effect.  You can lighten and add a little contrast if you want as well.  That’s what I did here.

The miniaturization effect with this tilt-shift technique is more a function of your photo and what you choose to photograph.

LONG EXPOSURE PHOTO:  This is also a long exposure photo in which my friends once again sat still for six seconds.  I used two neutral density filters stacked together to reduce the incoming light, resting the camera on a rock.

Our trip, including more photos:
http://www.elevenshadows.com/travels/sonoma2012-guerneville/

Equipment:  Nikon D90, 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens