Last year I had the privilege of speaking at Baypath College about authenticity of photographic images, particularly in relation to nature / conservation photography. Part of the talk was devoted to showing how any photograph is an interpretation of the photographer — the image has an intent: informational, documentary, pictorial, and equivalent (the latter coined by Minor White). The challenge for the photographer is to use composition and tonalities to express one of those intents. The primary technical hurdle of the photographer is dealing with different dynamic ranges of the steps along the way to the viewer’s eye: nature, camera sensor/film, editing, and finally the print (or screen). One of the more interesting tools that digital photography has made simpler to use is “high dynamic range” (HDR) photography, where one extends the dynamic range of the camera’s sensor by capturing multiple images at different exposures and then combining them into a single image. Whether or not you do this at the capture side, there remains the problem of showing this image to the viewer – typically on media that has a much smaller dynamic range — so the photographer must “compress” this wider image into a smaller space. This process is generally known as “tone mapping” – you old-schoolers can think of it as “dodging and burning on steroids”.
While visiting the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge (outside of Savannah Georgia) last year I came upon a scene that I knew would work well with HDR photography, so I did some exposures with that intent. I also took a few standard exposures looking to maximize the dynamic range of my camera. The multiple-exposure nature of HDR photography today has an inherent weakness whenever there is motion in the image you wish to not record. In this case there was a slight breeze and the leaves on the trees were moving between frames enough to really destroy the feeling I was looking for. This left me with a carefully exposed single RAW image to work with:
I processed it with Lightroom in my typical fashion: lowered the exposure slightly to bring in the highlights, raised the black point to 27 to get the contrast, bumped up clarity and vibrance for midtone punch and this was the result:
OK, but not great. The “feel” of the road and the foliage isn’t there. Oh well…
One of the blogs I follow (and highly recommend) is the Digital Photography School, particularly the “Tips and Tutorials” RSS feed. There is a constant flow of ideas there and a few weeks ago there was an article on creating a particular very stylized look to portraits using Lightroom. The results, for me, enters that slippery space between photographic and painting and way outside the comfort zone of what I consider my style of photography. But I understood what Lightroom was being coerced into doing for the artist.
The great thing about this technique is that it simply uses standard Lightroom development settings, but in an extreme way — creating portraits like the one to the right of my grandson. (Sorry Damien, I needed an example.)
Using Lightroom to push images to the edge like this has its pitfalls. The nature of the changes means that you can create some nasty artifacts and color shifts that detract from the final image (you might note some pretty ugly halos along the right side of Damien’s head and sweatshirt). But it certainly is easy enough to try once in a while on images that you think might work.
Here’s the essence of the technique: push recovery, fill, clarity, and vibrance very high, bring black point up to restore contrast, adjust exposure as needed, and then lower saturation to bring things closer to reality. The settings are highly dependent on the starting image so there’s really no way to make a good develop preset for this. On the other hand it only takes 10 seconds to get the sliders into the approximate positions to assess the image.
The settings on the right are the ones I used to transform the RAW Savannah NWR file (the second image in this posting) to the (near) final form you see at the top of the post. (That final image includes a Lightroom local adjustment to the road to increase lower brightness and increase contrast just a bit.)
What I realized is that this technique ramps up Lightroom’s normally subtle tone-mapping skills so that it can be used to create images that have that “HDR” feel to them by deeply compressing the dark and light tones closer to the midtones. When you start with a well-exposed RAW image, and the content of that image cooperates, the results can be quite interesting.
I’ve been using a more subtle version of this technique in a number of the “power of water” images I’ve posted here recently. The ability to tease out the subtle glows that I see when I’m actually there taking the image has been quite gratifying.
Yesterday I started wandering through my Lightroom catalog looking for other candidate images where this technique might work well. (I admit it: once you have new hammer, you start looking around for nails.) The Savannah NWR image was one of my first “victims”. That I was able to produce a final image from a single RAW file that rivaled the multiple-exposure HDR image I created was inspiring. This portrait of True West and a Maynard Christmas Parade photos show the technique’s results pretty well. If you place your mouse cursor over the image it should show you the “traditional” interpretation of the images:
Lightroom develop settings for the True West photo: recovery 85, fill 67, black 36, clarity +85, vibrance +69, saturation -46. For the fire truck: recovery 81, fill 80, black 48, clarity +20, vibrance +60, saturation -35.
Another set of images called out for this technique – my LRRS motorcycle racing images taken last spring and summer. Once again this experience of shooting these racing machines has opened up another set of skills for me as a photographer. To be able to take these straight documentary photographs and, with the right combination of exposure and tone-mapping, transform them into something that has a different emotional feel to it is great and I’m looking forward to sharing them with my racing friends. Here’s an example of applying this technique to some race images (again, the mouseover trick works with this image too):
Lightroom settings: exposure -1/4 stop, recovery 64, fill 92, black 68, clarity +85, vibrance +50, saturation -17.
I liked it so much that I created a small gallery of LRRS images using this technique: [url]http://events.dmg-photography.com/2009-lrrs-reloaded[/url]
Only a fraction of the images will respond positively to this technique. I’m sure if you purchase Photomatix or play with Photoshop all day, it is possible to produce similar and, likely, better images. But the immediacy of doing this in Lightroom inside of 30 seconds and knowing if there’s likely to be a new great image buried inside that existing photograph is just too cool for words. All done without changing the essential content of the images. Art meets authenticity. I love it.