Digital Neutral Density

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On the morning after Christmas my son, Anton, and I went out to shoot at Cooper Lake. One advantage to having a great place like this nearby is that you become familiar with the optimum times to be there and the optimum angles from which to shoot, depending on when you know the good light will be hitting a specific place. Since the path bordering Cooper Lake curves around, you can start at one spot for first light and then make your way to the next spot when the sun is slightly higher. (A lake surrounded by mountains has its own challenges when it comes to allowing for differences from the official sunrise and sunset times.) And while you’re waiting for the light to be in the right position, there’s always the beaver pond, or close-ups on the opposite side of the path.

On this particular morning one of my “while you’re waiting” shots was a capture of Anton in action. Instead of shooting from the edge of the path, he had got right down to the edge of the shore. I decided to go for an environmental shot, i.e., one that shows him in the broader landscape instead of a tight shot. (This is beautiful Cooper Lake, after all.)

The problem with the resulting image was that the lower half was too dark while the upper half verged on the too light side — perfect conditions for a graduated neutral density filter. But I don’t have one in my collection, or at least it wasn’t with me that day.  I remembered that Nik Color Efex Pro 4 has a grad NDF preset, so I pulled the image into Photoshop and then into Color Efex Pro. Easy! You can manipulate sliders to change the lightness/darkness of the two halves of the photo and to regulate the degree of blend. If your exposure problem affects the right and left halves of the image rather than the upper and lower halves, there’s a rotating slider as well.

Lightroom has an adjustment brush tool for this situation, but personally I found the Nik preset much easier (and faster) to use. Just a personal preference.

The processed image is at the top of this post.

While you’re at it, you might want to take a look at Anton’s website.

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Ashokan Deep Winter: Win a free print!

Photo 1

Photo 1

I love shooting at the Ashokan Reservoir, that once-controversial body of water in New York State’s Catskill Region whose creation necessitated the obliteration of several villages in the Esopus Valley in order to supply water to New York City. The above image, made yesterday in bone-chilling temperatures, is arguably the finest in my Ashokan Reservoir collection. This version of the picture is the original postprocessed version, done first in Raw and then in Photoshop CS5 using a few adjustment layers.

Photo 2

Photo 2

Then, just out of curiosity, I brought the photo into Nik Color Efex Pro 4 and used the Tonal Contrast preset, which gives values of  25% (Highlights), 50% (Midtones), 25% (Shadows), and 20% (Saturation).  To my eye the result–here it is above–seemed a bit of overkill, but I saved it along with the original.  Then–and here is always the insidious trap with these plug-ins–the more I looked at the two versions, the more “normal” the Nik version looked, and the more “boring” the original. Not a good thing–to me it issues a powerful warning about the potential for plug-ins and filters (or at least, I should clarify, their overuse, especially in nature images) to influence what the eye will accept.

Photo 3

Photo 3

I decided to experiment with creating a third version. This is, let me emphasize, not so much a compromise as an alternative interpretation. Again it uses Tonal Contrast in Nik Color Efex Pro 4, but here I’ve changed the values to 20%, 25%, 20%, and 20%. Here it is above.

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Then came the inevitable step: a black-and-white conversion. Again, an alternative interpretation, not something to replace the color versions. I first tried it with a B&W Adjustment Layer in Photoshop but didn’t particularly care for any of the results I was getting, so I went with–guess what–the B&W preset in Nik Color Efex Pro 4. Why? Because it’s a nature/landscape image, and I’m perhaps a bit wary of falling into an overly “artsy” interpretation were I to use Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, which I especially like for my old and historic buildings. Here I used 60% (Filter Color) 34 (Strength), 8 (Brightness), and 44 (Contrast), as well as 31 and 20 for the Shadows and Highlights sliders respectively. Here you see the results.

Now comes your opportunity to win a free matted print of one of these images. Just reply in a comment to this post and tell me (1) which of the three color images you prefer; and (2) whether you prefer the color or the black-and-white.  There are no “right” or “wrong” answers–just call it a marketing survey. Please identify your preference by the number given in the caption — Photo 1, Photo 2, Photo 3 — to avoid any misunderstandings. From the replies received by February 17, 2013 to both questions I will randomly choose two persons to receive a 5 x 7 print, matted to 8 x 10 and signed by me. Each winner will receive the version he or she preferred.

All images are printed on high-quality professional Lustre paper, carefully matted and inserted into a protective sleeve before being carefully packed and shipped. I will notify the winners by email to request their mailing address.

Thank you for participating in my marketing survey! — Oh! At the top of the blog I described the Ashokan Reservoir as “once controversial.” You can well imagine that the destruction and flooding of such a large portion of the Esopus Valley evoked strong feelings, heartache, not to mention the loss of many homes and livelihoods. Then I recently watched an excellent DVD by renowned historian/film maker Tobe Carey on the construction of the Ashokan Reservoir, which eloquently depicted the effects this project had on the lives of those who were displaced by it. Near the end of the film, a man was interviewed who observed that if the reservoir had not been built here, this area would undoubtedly have been subjected to massive development. “What would you rather be looking at,” he asked, “this beautiful reservoir or a shopping mall?”

To this observer, anyway, that’s a no-brainer.

The Adirondacks: Visiting an Old Friend

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The Lake Placid region of the Adirondacks has always been one of my favorite places to photograph. In a sense it was the place where I cut my teeth photographically, as many of my earliest serious endeavors took place there, back in the days of Fuji Velvia film and my dear old Nikon 6006 camera. My last visit there, however, had been a foliage trip in October 2010, and so it was more than time for a return. Thanksgiving weekend I took to the roads, fully expecting to get some gorgeous shots of the High Peaks in the sweet early morning sunlight–so lovely at this time of year when one doesn’t have to get up and out at an ungodly hour to make such images!

The weather had other ideas. The flurries I encountered on the Northway north of Schroon Lake–it’s always fun to drive through flurries, and they weren’t supposed to amount to anything–turned into some serious stuff by the time I was halfway between Exit 30 and Lake Placid on Route 73, and it became obvious that this wasn’t going to go away. Scratch the sweet sunlight shots; this was going to be snow close-ups in the Wilmington Wild Forest. Which I did. But after a lunchtime break at High Falls Gorge (more on that another time), as I was driving back toward Lake Placid along Route 86 (one of my favorite roads in the universe), the sun did make an appearance, just as i decided to pull into the parking area at Monument Falls.

Monument Falls is one of those iconic spots with a great view of Whiteface Mountain. I had photographed it countless times before, but years pass, you learn more about your craft, and you have a better camera and considerably expanded knowledge of post-processing, so I wanted to give it a try. In place of the late autumn foliage I had originally expected, there was, of course, snow, and the late afternoon sun was lending a nice glow to Whiteface. Out came the Nikon D90 and tripod, and I made several images, vertical as well as horizontal. I was more aware of the extra interest added by the mountain’s reflection in the water (the Ausable River, a branch of which runs through here).

Then came the post-processing. I worked on a horizontal that I thought was OK but decided to try a vertical as well in order to minimize the dark clump of trees that otherwise can threaten to be a distraction. When post-processing my historic or dilapidated buildings or my street scenes I like to give my creativity fairly free range, but my nature images I prefer minimal post-processing, on the theory that nature itself does it best. Still, I brought the image into Nik Color Efex Pro 4 (yes! I just upgraded to Pro 4). For some reason I decided to experiment with the Tonal Contrast preset, which I normally avoid in my nature shots out of concern that the result will look too artificial. Lo and behold, it worked. I moved the sliders to 44 (highlights), 50 (midtones), 20 (shadows), and 20 (saturation), and it was just enough to produce a “pop” without resulting in an inappropriate, contrived look. The result is what you see above.

Ed IMG_0350 sThis was also my first visit to Lake Placid since I got seriously into my street scenes and window reflections photography. Here I used my brand new Canon Powershot G15. Below is one of the results. Click on the image and it will take you to other images from this trip, just uploaded onto my website.

Sunflower Photographs: 2 + 2 = 2

Sunflower season is upon us, that time when fields are filled with endless rows of these dear, stately flowers. After trees, I think that sunflowers are the most anthropomorphic member of the plant kingdom: their bright yellow smiles and their spread-out leaves seem to offer a hearty “Welcome! Look at me!” to all who pass by.

Thanks to a tip-off from fellow photographer G. Steve Jordan of New Paltz (more about Steve in a future blog), I found a huge field of sunflowers on Route 299 leading out of town; they were flanking a big tree that belongs in a painting by 19th-century landscape painter Asher B. Durand. Nice! An “anchor” for my photos. And the eight-feet-tall sunflowers’ welcoming qualities came into play when I hid under them during a sudden rain shower and they protected me from getting soaked!

The sunflowers in the photo I’m going to show you here aren’t from the Hudson Valley, however, but from Connecticut: Buttonwood Farm in Griswold. I’ve been there several times during their annual “Sunflowers for Wishes” week in July, and I believe this photo was from my second visit. The barn wall is from a recent trip to the Delaware Water Gap with fellow members of the Ridgewood Camera Club, and so you’re looking at some artwork combining photos from Connecticut and Pennsylvania and made by a photographer in New York. Who belongs to a New Jersey camera club.

Starting by ensuring that the two photos were the same size and then cloning out the rusty nails in the barn wall photo, I combined the two photos in Photoshop. For the first one I dragged the sunflower photo over the barn wall photo. I wanted that wall to provide texture for the photo. I used the “Darken” blend mode with 100% opacity, then selected the flowers and increased the brightness. There are many different blend modes available, of course, but I preferred “Darken” because it made the end result look as if someone had long ago painted sunflowers on the wall and it was all now peeling. Finally, I applied the Color Contrast preset from Nik Color Efex Pro to make the entire picture a lot brighter.

The second version gives an entirely different result. This time I began by changing the blue sky in the sunflower photo to the rich brown you see here, then I pulled the barn on top of the sunflowers. Here the blending mode was “Color burn” at 56% opacity. It gives a rather dramatic result, I think; at least two friends have commented on the “3D” effect. Regular readers of this blog will know that I love to photograph old buildings, especially old buildings that are sort of hurtling toward a state of ruin. I keep fantasizing that maybe someone will come along and liven up one of those old buildings in Spruceton Valley in the Catsksills by painting sunflowers like this on it. Anyhow, please tell me: Which of these two versions do you prefer, and why? I’d love to hear from you.