The Hills Are Alive

Newly-plowed field in the hills near where I live

I have been remiss. I’m shooting, but haven’t felt much like blogging lately. So maybe I’ve got a few stacked up inside me here.

Anyway, last night I went out driving around starting about 6 p.m. I didn’t have any idea what I was going to shoot, but I knew that I wanted — among other things — to try out a new “rail” I bought for being able to keep my camera on a line for stitching multiple exposures. For reasons that aren’t 100% clear to me, although I’ve got some pretty good ideas that it has to do with the distance between subject and camera, combined with focal length, the thing doesn’t do quite what I wanted.

Nevertheless, I managed to get some interesting shots, traversed another 20-30 miles of agricultural land outside my normal purview, and started to get a handle on what crops are being grown where.

Why does this matter? Because I’m wanting to try to apply lessons I’ve learned from landscape photography to shooting agriculturally-oriented shots. I live in the midst of one of the biggest farm regions of the United States; at least one New York Times article says our valley “is the world’s largest patch of Class 1 soil, the best there is.” Though I haven’t found a tomato farm yet — or maybe I passed one and didn’t recognize it?! — we are supposedly the largest supplier of canned tomatoes in the world.

Yet, until recently, I’ve never paid much attention to this. 

Maybe I haven’t chosen the best “featured image” (the newly-plowed field at the top of this post) to show it, but the hills around where I live are alive. Much of it appears to be citrus, but there are a number of vineyards, as well. In the flat land away from the hills, there is more of the same, but also peaches, corn, sweet peas, onions, and various kinds of nuts and olives.

The reason I chose this image to feature in the post is because it was one of the first ones I took, and processed, from last night. The image was shot with the idea of creating an HDR, or high-dynamic range, image in final output. Here’s one of the originals, which comes closest to being “a proper exposure.”

The Hills Are Alive (Pre-Processing)

The Hills Are Alive (Pre-Processing): one of four digital shots which comprise the final image.

Bit of a difference, don’t you think?

The difference is not due simply to the fact that this was pre-processed, using Photomatix 5, as an HDR image, before being brought into Photoshop CS6 for more specific manipulations. As I said, I’ve applied some of the things I’ve been learning about creating “fine art landscapes” to the processing of this image.

The “original” straight-out-of-the-camera image does not even remotely evoke what I remember – and particularly the feelings I had — of what I viewed while actually looking at the view before me yesterday. I mean, for one thing, the sun was just about to set as I shot this; as my final interpretation of the scene demonstrates, I experienced the scene as being much warmer than the photo my camera captured. And, in fact, one reason I shot this for HDR is because my impression of the variance between highlights and shadows was that it was at the limits of the tonal range of my camera. (The areas I metered — I should have taken notes — showed about a five-stop variance, which is within the tonal range of my Canon 5D Mark III.)

This might be a good point for me to discuss something that makes me just want to roll my eyes, and walk away from a lot of other “photographers” I know. I once had a friend who appeared to be very resistant to learning to use Photoshop. “I’d rather get it right in the camera,” he’d say. As if Photoshop was for weenies, like me, who couldn’t.

But aside from the fact that some of the more interesting scenes can contain a tonal range that cameras cannot capture, virtually all the best photographers I’ve ever heard of manipulated what was captured by the camera on the way to creating — yes, creating — a print.

For starters, according to Charles Cramer, who does quite a bit of manipulation himself,

Ansel Adams routinely selenium-toned his B&W prints to increase the “Dmax” (the blackest black).1

And that was just for starters.

In the days of film photography a print of an image as it came out of the camera was known as a “straight print.” The image above is a straight print made by Ansel Adams of his iconic Moonrise. To paraphrase David Byrne, “This is not my beautiful photograph!” If this is a print of the image straight from the camera, how did Ansel Adams achieve the dramatic effect of the finished print of Moonrise? You might even say, “But I thought he was a great photographer.” He was. The ability to look at a scene and know that it will make a great photograph is the essence of the talent of a great photographer, whether it be Ansel Adams, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Richard Avedon, Julia Margaret Cameron, Francesca Woodman, Man Ray, or Jerry Uelsmann, just to name a few.2

I encourage you to go look at the Before and After images of Adams’s “Moonrise” which I have not posted here because I assume it is copyrighted, and I’m not authorized.

As Dziamba’s article makes clear, Adams was the Great Manipulator. It’s his masterful manipulation for which he is rightly celebrated as a great photographic artist! Adams himself made that clear in his book, The Print, as Dziamba (and now I) excerpted:

The sky was of such low saturation blue that no filter would have had much effect… Considerable burning [darkening] and dodging [lightening] are required. I hold back the shadowed lake and foreground for about three-fourths of the exposure time, using a constantly moving card held relatively close to the lens…The lake surface is burned in later to balance the amount of dodging of the surrounding hills and foreground.3

Get it right in the camera? Go for it. But if you really want your photos to come alive, you’ll need to develop post-processing skills. As Ansel Adams’s own son said,

A lot of people don’t realize how much of what his final result was was dependent upon what he did in the darkroom. And that was, in many ways, the genius. A lot of us could take the picture, and come up with the negative. But he could do some magic things within the darkroom, and he always told people that this is not reality. ‘What I’m giving you in this print is not what you are seeing in the environment. You’re seeing my interpretation of it, and you’re seeing something that’s very dramatic in many ways.’ But because of what he could do in the darkroom, that was usually the result.4

But I digress (and rant).

The featured image for this post was comprised of four photos, all shot with a tripod-mounted Canon EF100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens, at ISO 400, f/22, with the following shutter speeds: 1/10th, 1/40th, 1/160th, and 0.4 seconds. I first combined them in Photomatix 5, applying my own secret recipe, and saving the resulting TIFF file out to Photoshop CS6. Of the thirteen or fourteen layers in Photoshop, most are non-destructive adjustment layers (two separate Curves layers, a Vibrance layer, a Color Balance layer in which I tweaked several colors for saturation and de-saturation,5 a Color layer used to add a small amount of blue back to the sky, two separate Soft Light Mode 50% neutral gray layers used for burning areas of the foreground, another separate Soft Light Mode 50% neutral gray layer for selective dodging and burning throughout), followed by a “stamped” layer of all the foregoing layers, and lastly a layer for Sharpener Pro 3 from Google Nik Tools. There was also a layer just above the base layer where I removed the telephone pole from in front of the red barn, and the wires running from it across the scene.

I said earlier that this image might not have been the right one for a post titled “The Hills Are Alive.” But perhaps I was wrong. Part of bringing the hills to life is having the proper tools, and knowledge, to adequately prepare the ground. If you don’t have the right tools, and you don’t know how to use them, all you’ve got is dirt.

Photography is the same. As Ansel Adams used to say, “you don’t take a photograph; you make it.” Just as the farmer buys his land, having pre-visualized how he’s going to transform the dirt into a vineyard, orchard, or some other crop, so the photographer starts the process by pre-visualization before snapping the shutter. But without an understanding of how to develop the land — without the tools, and the knowledge of how to apply them — neither the farmer’s hills, nor the photographer’s images, are alive.

References:
  1. Charles Cramer, Photoshop Techniques: Effective and Efficient Techniques to Optimize Images, p. 25 (November 2013). Charles Cramer is no slouch himself, by the way. []
  2. Jack Dziamba, “Ansel Adams, and Photography Before Photoshop” at Whither the Book (February 27, 20132). []
  3. Ansel Adams, The Print, p. 166 (1983). []
  4. Rosh Sillars, “Would Ansel Adams be a great digital photographer?” (January 8, 2009). The quote is a transcription from the video interview of Adams’s son, which is well worth the watching. []
  5. Ideally, I would have used a separate Color Balance layer for each color I was going to tweak, but I wasn’t thinking carefully enough when I did that. []

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