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Green River Overlook, Canyonlands National Park

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 7 December 2010 in Landscape & Rural and Portfolio.


Winter Big Sur Photo Workshop - Magic Light and The Pfeiffer Beach Arch - January 11-14, 2011 (Workshop Sold Out)
Northern Arizona Photo Workshop - Grand Canyon, Upper Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend and Sedona - March 16-20, 2011
(Workshop Sold Out)
Spring Big Sur Workshop - 4th Annual Wildflowers and Color - April 17-20, 2011 (space available)
Springtime in Lake Tahoe and the Mokelumne Wilderness Photo Workshop - May 14-17, 2011 (space available)
Northern California - 3rd Annual Redwoods and Mendocino Photo Workshop - May 23-26, 2011 (space available)
Second Annual Garden Isle and Tropical Paradise - Kauai Photo Workshop - July 8-12, 2011 (only 5 spots remaining)
Summer Big Sur - 3rd Annual Mystical Fog and Colorful Headlands Photo Workshop - August 23-26, 2011 (space available)
Full Moon Over Red Rock, Arches, and Canyons - 3rd Annual Arches/Canyonlands Photo Workshop - October 9-13, 2011 (only 4 spots remaining).
New Articles on my Website: Combining Beauty With Beauty - Photographing An Athlete In Big Sur With The Help Of Smart Flashes And Pocket Wizard Flex TT5 Remotes and Behind the Scenes at NHL and NBA Media Days

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My preferred filters: Singh-Ray Filters

Books Available for Purchase on my Website:
Refined Vision: 50 Lessons Designed to Improve Your Digital Landscape Photography (e-book and printed versions - 160 pages)
The Photographer's Guide to the Big Sur Coast (e-book version - 102 pages)
On the Edge (printed version - softcover and hardcover - 120 pages)

WEBSITE UPDATE: I posted on my last blog that my website hosting company had a major hardware failure last week and my site was knocked out for three days. I am pleased to announce that it is up and running with a few images missing and hopefully they will all be back up by the end of the week. All of my Workshop pages, books ,and image downloads are functional and all the links work. Thanks for your patience.

Contrast control is a key subject that landscape photographers face on a regular basis. To understand contrast control, one must first understand that the camera's sensor has a limited dynamic range (6-7 stops) whereas our human visionary system is exceeds 20 stops (though not all at once due to adaptation). Thus, the image you capture in a high contrast scene will never look the way it did to your eye unless you somehow control the contrast. Let's take a look at three ways of doing this.

The first way is to control the contrast in the field at the time of capture by using graduated neutral density filters. I use Singh-Ray Filters in the 4" x 6" size and simply handhold them using Live View to help with alignment (though filter holders are available). I struggled getting the filters (I stacked a 3 stop soft edge with a 3-stop Reverse) to align, so I ditched that idea and started to bracket.

This leads to the next two ways of accomplishing HDR (or controlling dynamic range). At the time of capture, one must first meter the shadows (in this image the side of the bush you are looking at) and the highlights; I pointed my camera in spot meter mode just to the side of the sun (the brightest part of the scene) and noted that there was a difference in light of 10 stops! Do I need to realistically capture all 10 stops? No, but I did bracket for them nonetheless. Remember, the shadows/highlights won't look natural if exposed exactly to the meter and I find that one to two stops under/over is about right, but I don't make that decision in the field; hence, just bracket away (using one-stop via the shutter) and capture the full range of tones.

It should be noted that this was an extremely contrasty scene as our workshop group was shooting directly towards the western horizon. In a perfect world, a cloudy sky would have been awesome but the reality of landscape photography is that Mother Nature rarely cooperates!

Back at my computer, I now have two options. I can either allow an HDR software to combine the images for me (my first choice if there was nothing moving at the time of capture) or I can combine the bracketed frames in Photoshop with the help of Layers and Masks. There is a tutorial on my website under the Writings and Articles tab on my homepage titled HDR the Old-Fashioned Way if you are interested in reading more about this technique.

Because nothing was moving in this image, I opted to try combining 7 of my of my 10 bracketed frames in Nik Software's new HDR Efex Pro. I have been using this software on a regular basis for the past couple months and have really settled in on their Realistic preset as a starting point for most of my images - including this one.

The problem was I did not like how the software rendered the sky (too light) so I simply went back to one of my bracketed frames of the sky that I liked and masked it in. From there I did a Curves Adjustment in Photoshop CS5 and was pretty much finished with the image.

Where I find most HDR programs fall short is in trying to match movement. Sometimes water looks good but it is really asking a lot out of any HDR program to match moving foliage and/or clouds.

So there are your three options. My order of preference is always to start with capturing the image using GND filters (less work at the computer), or next, (bracket images) and combine using an HDR program (I am affiliated with both Nik Software and Photomatix - see my discount codes below) or lastly (especially if there is movement in the scene) combine the bracketed images using Layers and Masks in Photoshop.

Find what works best for you and practice. I heard a great maxim the other day that I believe applies to all of us: Practice does not make perfect; rather, practice makes permanent! So grab your camera and get out there. Armed with knowledge you should be able to control the contrast range of any scene!

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III 1/8 second F/16.0 ISO 100 27 mm

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This image has been featured in 1 Remix collection.

Atmospheric Perspective by David