Moving Forward

On my last post I talked about our trip to Coeur D’Alene and some of the problems I faced due to not thinking ahead (not bring all my lenses) and getting lazy (with my graduated neutral density filter.) So I learned a lesson that you would expect me not to repeat. Ah-ha, you’re thinking I’m going to make the same mistake again. So let’s see what I learned.

Last week I took a trip to Oxbow Bend in the Grand Teton National Park on a very chilly November day. Not only was it chilly (single digits) but also very windy. As I drove along the outside loop of the park I could see the sun sinking in the southwest among good clouds. I was hoping for a spectacular colorful sunset as I drove north trying to predict where I should stop, setup my tripod, and wait for the perfect time and place to get shots as the sun dropped behind the mountain peaks.

Oxbow Bend was as far north as I could go and still have a chance for some good foreground and a good mountain background. I stopped, got out of the car, and began to setup my tripod with the complete neutral density filter gear. I could see that the sky was quite bright but the foreground was much darker and getting darker by the minute – and I didn’t want to make the same mistakes that I made at Coeur D’Alene. The weather was quite different; the sky had great clouds but a blustery wind in single digit temperature is brutal … at least for me. Gut it out Randy, this should be worth it.

The water was mostly frozen with an unusual little “pond.” I thought this would make a nice leading line to the mountains including a reflection of the sun coming through the clouds. But what should the exposure be? The sky was mostly bright with some dark clouds and most of the foreground was dark; time for a neutral density filter. But the small pond of water was fairly bright in the middle of fairly dark snow foreground. Oh boy, this is a challenge. So I bracketed a number of shots hoping to find the right exposure when I got home.

It was really cold and my hand were about to freeze. Rearranging the neutral density filters meant I had to take my gloves off (yikes, really nasty) and I’ve learned my lesson about waiting for the perfect shot. I think the hour wait was worth frozen hands – just mild frostbite? There wasn’t a lot of color in the sky but the shadows in the clouds were interesting. But the biggest payoff was that I learned something that will help me move forward and apply my new experience to future photo shoots. I learned that sometimes the range of light is so extreme (high dynamic range) that even a neutral density filter may not solve the problem.

That night I was in Jackson WY taking a class from Aaron on Lightroom. He showed us how to turn-on the “blinkies,” not just for areas that are too bright (washed-out) but also for areas of photos that are too dark. When I got home and put my images into Lightroom I found that I could not change the exposure to avoid the blown-out blinkies (over-exposure) and the under-exposed blinkies. It was disappointing but there was clearly another lesson to learn.

I didn’t have frostbite, I didn’t have the great photo I was hoping to get, BUT I learned to be more aware of the range of exposure from extremely bright to extremely dark. When the range of light is from very bright to very dark the photo has “high dynamic range” (or HDR) and that HDR is very likely to be too extreme for the camera; there will be parts of the image that are overexposed AND other parts that are underexposed.

For many years there was no solution other than to spend long hours in the darkroom burning-and-dodging, or now to spend long hours at the computer with Photoshop. But fairly recently many post-processing programs have added a sub-program that can combine multiple images that are identical except for the exposure. My Lightroom 6 has the ability to merge a multitude of images that are identical except for the exposure. The program allows Lightroom to combine the images into a photo that minimizes the burn-out and then allows you to use Lightroom on the HDR image to use the Basic sliders to adjust the photo.

What I am trying to suggest is that if you have an understanding of exposure and recognize scenes that have extreme dynamic range you can address the problem post-processing IF you take multiple photos of the scene by bracketing. Let me show you what I did at the chilly sunset at Oxbow. I used my neutral density filters to darken the sky but it was still much too bright in places compared to the foreground.

The first image was shot at ISO 100, 1/80 sec at f/11. Notice the lens flare at the left of the sun. The sky is overexposed in places with sun-burnout.

Chilly Oxbow (1 of 4)

The second image was shot at IS0 100, 1/125 sec at f/11. The lens flare is mostly gone and the sky is slightly overexposed in places and underexposed in other places .

Chilly Oxbow (2 of 4)

The third image was shot at ISO 100, 1/200 sec at f/11. Whoa, the sky in this shot is very underexposed as is the foreground.

Chilly Oxbow (3 of 4)

This was my first experience using the Lightroom software for high dynamic range, so you have to cut me some slack. And I didn’t plan for using the HDR software when I took the images, so I probably didn’t take the right bracketing shots. BUT this experience got me started and taught me the importance of bracketing to get the extreme underexposure and extreme overexposure. Here is the image that the Lightroom HDR created for me AFTER I did more post-processing. It certainly isn’t a great exposure (I am still a moderate amateur) but it was worth the experience and learn that it produced.Chilly Oxbow (4 of 4)

What Did I Learn ?

  1. Suck-It-Up Randy, It’s Winter in the Mountains – Now that it is winter in the mountains there are many opportunities to get great shots. But I have to be ready for them. I had warm clothes but layered gloves are critical. Since it is worth it to stick around to get those really great shots, I have to be ready from head to foot and especially to my hands.
  1. I’m Ready to Move Forward – The Teton Photography Group gives me the opportunity to work and take photo shoots with some really good photographers – many are super-amateurs, I view them as professional photographers. On many occasions I have been pretty intimidated by this situation; they haven’t intended to intimidate me, I’ve just been hesitant to say “Slow don’t I don’t understand.” I suspect some of you may, at times, have felt the same way. My strategy has been to avoid high-tech approaches to photography and stick to learning the photo triangle (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO) and composition. I felt I didn’t need to use fancy-dan approaches since I live in an environment with amazing opportunities. I’m not taking great photos but I am taking much better photos than a year ago – even my wife thinks my photos are better. So I think I am ready to take some baby steps into more advanced approaches. Maybe even take a few more classes.
  1. Be More Reflective – As an educational psychology professor I emphasized personal reflection to my students. Most of the students in my class were there to learn to be teachers. My goal was to give them many many opportunities to reflect on how they were learning and how they could become better learners; To be a good teacher you have to understand how people learn. I believe reflection is important in everything we learn. I have found that I am better at learning to be a photographer if I take time to reflect on what I have learned. In fact, I have found that writing this blog has been a “good teacher” for me because I have to take time to think about how I am learning and share it with you.
  1. Be Aware of the Dynamic Range of the Exposure – On our shoot with Henry he emphasized the histogram over and over. Whenever the histogram goes beyond the left or right extremes you have a High Dynamic Range problem. The way to solve this problem is to take time to think about what exposure will be needed to catch the very bright areas of the image and what exposure will be needed to catch the very dark areas of the exposure. Then bracket the shot to include all the brightness/darkness.

And What Helps You to Learn ?

     When I began writing this blog my goal was to share my photography journey with you to give you an opportunity to learn from my experience. I started by sharing some of the information I received from “the dozen” (a group of twelve amateur photographers who answered twelve questions about photography). Based on some of the feedback I received from the readers I have moved to sharing more of my own experiences and photos of those experiences.

Now after eight posts to the blog I would like some feedback from the readers to help me write the 2016 edition of FirstanAmateur.com. I have been exploring the possibility of adding a critique page to the blog that would give you the opportunity to share your photos and what you are learning – but I need to know if that is something you would value. So here are three approaches I could take in 2016. Please give me some feedback in the comments section about your preferences:

  1. FirstanAmateur should include more information from the dozen.
  2. FirstanAmateur should include more from Randy’s journey.
  3. FirstanAmateur should give readers more opportunities to share their journey including their own photos for critiques.

Please get back in touch with your suggestions. FirstanAmateur is for all of us to learn together and I need to know how you are learning to make this blog more effective.