Monthly Archives: March 2010

Lightroom Kung-Fu for Tone-mapped RAW Images

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][/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.

Why we’re buying an iPad – Part 2

Our iPad 3G is on order.  Yes, I was one of those 40-60,000 people who ordered one within the first few hours it was made available for pre-sale.   We opted for the 3G version for reasons explained in an earlier posting.

Here is the other reason we’re getting an iPad.  Despite electing to receive as many bills and other financial transactions electronically, despite signing up for electronic newsletters, despite signing up with, despite cutting back on a number of subscriptions, we are still awash in paper.

I’m sorry, with the imminent arrival of a moderately ubiquitous digital media device (the iPad), paper is now on my s&^%$-list (except when in the service of art or crafts).  Watercolors on paper. Great.  Origami.  Fantastic.  Photographic prints.  Of course!  But magazines, books, catalogs, etc. and various printed items of general impermanence — no more.

If you want to sell me a magazine subscription, it had better be electronic, because there’s not a chance I’ll be handing you money otherwise.  I’m happy to pay the same amount of money, but as long as I’m getting the same content, I’m in.

If you (the publishers) want to cling to the notion that paper is superior to screens, that the tactile feel, the serendipity and convenience of paper is too important to pass up — have a good time appealing to your market but I’m no longer in it.   (I don’t disagree with any of those points, but whatever weight they had in my decision to subscribe or purchase your product in the past, they now count AGAINST YOU.)

The history-loving part of me mourns the loss of these marvelous artifacts of our cultural heritage, but I’ll bet if you were to check on the blogs 500 years ago the loss of illustrated manuscripts to the printing press had similar mournings.   I just can’t stand the side-effect of this technological advancement: a weekly foot-high stack of paper I don’t want, didn’t ask for, or don’t need any more.  Enough.

In this particular part of my life, bits beat atoms.

Where Water Turns To Air

The inspiration for this image was the following scene:

[qt:/video/ 800 450]

I’m not sure the video does the scene justice.  I wanted to try to capture the feeling of the explosion of water and air that was continually forming at the base of the waterfall.   I exposed the scene at a number of shutter speeds, but this one seemed, to me, to capture the dynamic nature of this event the best (so far) — where we see water transformed into something completely different.

Technical mumbo-jumbo:

Image capture was with a Canon 5D Mark II, 70-200mm f/2.8L at 135mm, 1/1000, f/9.0, ISO 1600, polarizer on Gitzo tripod and Manfrotto 701HDV fluid head.   Video capture used the same camera, lens, tripod, with unrecorded settings, 24p.

Lightroom post-processing: No exposure change, recovery 78 (to pull lots of detail from the foam), fill 39, black point 36 (to enhance the glow in the water), clarity +78, vibrance +19, relatively strong sharpening with masking set to keep the smooth areas artifact-free.

Video clip is just transcoded for web distribution – no editing.

Working the high water

The past few days have been pretty interesting here in eastern and central Massachusetts.  We picked up close to 7 inches of rain in our backyard, and this on top of a similar storm that passed through just a few weeks ago.  Consequently the rivers and streams in the area have been jumping their banks.

I’ve been trying to take advantage of this situation, although other commitments plus the occasional emergency has made this difficult.  Fortunately, for me, even though the damaging flood waters have mostly receded around here, it’ll be several days before things return to anything resembling normal stream flow.

The photo above was taken at the Powder Mill Dam in Acton where there is a small run-of-the-river hydropower plant in operation.  That’s the dam’s powerhouse reflected in water.  I suspect they are at peak production right now — Concord (who purchases the power) is a bit greener because of this.

This evening I’m off to Nashoba Brook in Acton to do some filming and I’m desperately hoping for some nice evening light.   My Canon 5D Mark 2 recently received its firmware upgrade allowing me to film at 24 frames/second which is what traditional film cameras do.  The difference is subtle but having spent our lives watching moving pictures at different rates there seems to be an almost subliminal change in how people perceive the two and for the little film I have in mind I want the smoother look of 24 fps.

Technical stuff: Photo taken with a Canon 5D Mark 2, 70-200mm f/2.8 @ f/20, 1/8 second, ISO 100, polarizer and 3-stop ND filter, cable release, sitting on a Gitzo tripod and Manfrotto 701HD fluid head (I was shooting video too).  Lightroom: played with fill and black point, removed one big dust spot but not a bunch of smaller ones (yet).  Bit of vibrance and clarity. Slight crop on the right to remove — I was shooting through a fence and it intruded on the right hand side creating a vignette-like appearance.

If you are interested in the river flooding saga here I shot a short YouTube video showing what it was happening here in Maynard near the peak flow:

Here we go again – another roaring river week

Another week, another 50-year rain storm…

I’m partly joking, I don’t know the recurrence level of this current storm but it’s nothing to sneeze at.

Here’s the flow gauge of the river for the past 30 days.  We’re in for another fun few days with the current forecast having the river rise potentially 2 feet above where it is right now, but they said the last storm would reach 7 feet as well, and it didn’t quite hit that mark.

On the other hand we’re starting from a significantly higher point.

All this water means that I’ll have a chance to visit a few more of the local streams and capture some, um, “rigorous” flow conditions.

These two events back to back have me hankering to build a time-lapse movie of the river’s rise.   Today it rose rather dramatically and did so during the daylight hours.  The only problem is that it was pouring rain and we had non-trivial winds as well.  I think I’m going to poke around and see if I can build a watertight box with a plexiglas viewport, perhaps lockable so I can chain it to a tree or something if needed.  This would let me set it up for a 12 hour run and try to bring this dynamic event to life.

As evening drew near I decided the 5D needed a bath, so I headed out into the backyard to take a few images.  I nearly froze my hands off in 15 minutes — the rain must be at 33 degrees (F). Here’s a bit of video from this evening:

[qt:/video/assabet-river-14mar2010.m4v 640 360]


Images and video captured with a well-soaked Canon 5D Mark II, 16-35mm f/2.8L.  Image was at ISO 400, 1.6 seconds, f/5.6.  Video was at ISO 3200, 1/60, f/2.8.  Both were taken from Gitzo sticks and a Manfrotto fluid head.

Image processed with Lightroom, bit of fill and black point, moderate clarity.   Video was transcoded to ProRes LT by MPEG Streamclip, which was an unnecessary step because I then imported it into iMovie to trim, add the titles, and adjusted exposure +35%. Exported directly from iMovie to Quicktime H.264.