Don’t give up – improvise

Have you ever gone out with a particular type of photography in mind (birds, landscapes, macro, etc), only to find a perfect opportunity for something complete different? The problem is that usually when this occurs, you have the wrong equipment. However, it is better to improvise with what you have with you than to miss that opportunity altogether. Below are two examples of when I ran into this exact situation.

Although I did not have my telephoto lens, using stalking techniques, I was able to get close enough with my wide angle to capture this egret and some habitat
Although I did not have my telephoto lens, using stalking techniques, I was able to get close enough with my wide angle to capture this egret and some habitat

The photo above was taken along 17-mile drive near Carmel, California. My wife and I were out for the day with nothing in mind – just being touristy. I had my SLR and a wide/mid range zoom with me – a decent walking around lens that could work for landscapes if needed. As we were driving along the coast, we saw this great egret very close to the road in beautiful light. Immediately I cursed myself for not bringing a longer lens, but I figured I’d try to see what I could do with what I had with me. We drove past the bird and I got out and slowly stalked back along the road toward it, trying to get as close as possible. Luckily the traffic was light this early in the morning. Obviously, I wouldn’t come away with a head portrait, but maybe I could get a decent habitat shot.

I slowly crept forward, hoping to intercept the bird if it kept moving in the same direction. Every few steps I’d stop and stand still, hoping the egret would not get spooked and fly off. Ultimately it payed off – the egret ended up walking very close to my position. I fired off a few shots of the bird with the ocean in the background. Through careful stalking technique, and by not giving up because I didn’t have the “perfect” equipment with me, I was able to capture one of my favorite shots of the trip.

This panorama of Mt. Lassen was composed of 26 separate shots using a long telephoto lens
This panorama of Mt. Lassen was composed of 26 separate shots using a long telephoto lens

Recently I was up at Lassen Volcanic National Park and I decided to take a walk around Summit Lake, hoping to get some shots of some forest birds. As a result, I had only my long telephoto with me (not a great walking around lens, as the lens alone weighs 3 pounds!) As I came around to the side of the lake furthest from Mt. Lassen, I found myself in almost the exact opposite situation as with the great egret shot above. I had a long telephoto, but I really needed a wide angle lens to capture the mountain, trees and lake.

At first I tried several compositions with my lens, but it was no good – only a small portion of the mountain was in frame at one time. Then an idea hit me – by combining many zoomed-in photos of the mountain and the surrounding scenery, I could combine them into a single panorama, mimicking the angle of view of a wide angle lens. I had shot panos before, but I was still too close in for my regular panning left to right method. However, if I created several rows of images, and I used a steady hand, it might work. I metered off the sky, set manual exposure and focus, and then spot metered several different areas of my scene to make sure I would stay within the dynamic range possible with the camera.

Starting at the upper left area of the scene I wanted to capture, I started taking photos (hand held), overlapping each by about 30%. Once I got to about the same distance from the mountain on the right that I started with on the left, I moved the composition back to the left, but slightly lower than my previous row of photos. The result was two rows of 13 photos each, creating a single panorama of 26 photos, and a 140 megapixel image. Thanks to Photoshop’s fantastic Photomerge technology, creating the final image was a snap (though my machine took a little time to crunch through the processing).

If I had planned for a panorama of the mountain from the offset, I would have used a much wider angle (and a tripod). However, I was quite happy with what could be done in a pinch with a little improvising.

Cades Cove Smoke (Photo of the week)

Giving the Great Smoky Mountains their name, fog rises out of Cades Cove
Giving the Great Smoky Mountains their name, fog rises out of Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Although it is a busy tourist attraction, Cades Coves certainly epitomizes the moodiness and mystique that surround the Great Smoky Mountains. This week’s photo is all about layers and shading. I contemplated doing this as a black and white, but settled on a slightly desaturated coloring to accentuate the mood. The light straw color of the fields help to separate the lines of trees from each other and the forested mountains beyond.

To HDR or not to HDR

Sometimes capturing a scene that has very bright and very dark areas with a camera can be impossible, because both film and the digital sensor can resolve fewer stops of light than the human eye. Traditionally, this limitation was overcome by using a graduated neutral density filter, which darkened the bright portions of the scene to allow the film to expose the entire scene correctly. With the advent of digital technology, there has been a trend to move instead to post processing and digital manipulation to achieve similar results.

HDR (or High Dynamic Range for the uninitiated) has been sweeping the digital photography world for the past couple of years, mostly thanks to some new software that makes creating these images easy. The goal is simple: use several shots of the same scene at varying exposures to create a single image with a greater dynamic range (the range between pure white and pure black) than your camera can capture. Unfortunately, this goal is usually not achieved with results that look correct to the human eye. The final images appear flat and with low contrast, and the colors tend look almost cartoonish. This can be overcome to some degree by increasing the black level and overall contrast – however correcting the color issue is difficult.

The solution is to go back to digital basics. Instead of letting software automatically combine 3 or more shots at different exposures, combine 2 or more images yourself in an application such as Adobe Photoshop using stacked layers and various blending techniques. Photographer Glenn Randall covers some of these techniques and the principals behind them in his recent article for Outdoor Photographer magazine. The images below demonstrate using image blending verses an HDR software approach.

High Dynamic Range photo of Zion National Park
High Dynamic Range photo of Zion National Park, combining three images shot at different exposures

The above image was created by blending three photographs of different exposures together using software. Once this was done, the contrast was increased significantly. However, as you can see, the colors still look unnatural, with too much yellow in the rock. In addition the two rock faces in the background are washed out.

The image below combines two the the images used to create the previous image. The foreground and mountain were exposed with no evaluative metering compensation. The sky was exposed in a second shot at -1 stop, and blended into the foreground using a graduated mask. The result is more natural looking.

Dramatic cliffs rise above a snowy riverbed with foreground trees, Zion National Park
Two images of Zion National Park blended together using a gradient mask

Some people like the aesthetic of HDR images, and that is great. It brings a new artistic flair to the world of digital photography. But since I am usually trying to create a final photograph that accurately portrays what I see in nature, using the blended approach often works better for me.