Hanging Valley Tarn and Perseverance

panoramic photo of Alaska tarn

Click for larger image

This is a photograph that took five years to make (put aside any preconceived ideas that photography is just a point-and-shoot endeavor).  Hanging Valley Tarn is nestled above Hanging Valley, which is a side valley of the South Fork of Eagle River Valley.  I have been intrigued by it from the very first time I visited it in 2008. Having only been in Alaska for a couple years by then, I was unaware that the lake would still be covered in ice and snow in mid-June.  Nevertheless, the peacefulness and seclusion of this place intrigued me enough to return in other seasons with the promise of a more colorful alpine landscape to photograph.  I never would imagine that it would take me five trips to fulfill the promise.

A year later in July 2009 I returned on an overnight camping trip.  My plan was to increase my chances of getting a good photograph by seeing the tarn in evening and morning light.  I also knew that to capture the grandeur of this place a good image would have to be a panoramic photo. Around 9 o’clock that evening the tarn was evenly illuminated, and even though the skies were covered with clouds, I was able to take the sequence of photos required for the panorama. However, I would have to wait until the following day to find out how well the photos would stitch together using Photoshop’s photomerge. Unfortunately, being new to making panoramas, I did not pay attention to what was happening with the water’s surface as I was taking the sequence of photos. Because the wind was gusting periodically, photos at one end of the tarn had a still water surface while at the other end were covered with ripples.  Therefore, there was no continuity in the surface of the water and the resulting stitched panorama looked horrific.  Having failed in the endeavor I now took it as a challenge to return to the tarn until I was satisfied with the photographic image.  In September of that same year I produced some nice panoramas of Hanging Valley but nothing of the tarn itself.  The culprit was light direction and weather.  With  three failed attempts under my belt I was beginning to wonder if I would ever capture a good photograph.

Other distractions put my self-imposed challenge on hold so it wasn’t until this year that I attempted again to photograph the tarn.  This time I used The Photographer’s Ephemeris to determine the time of day when the sun would shine down the length of the tarn.  Now it was just a matter of waiting for the weather.  I wanted relatively clear blue skies so that they would contrast with the greens of the mountains.  A few clouds would be great for contrast but not too many because the lighting would be too contrasty.  So when last Sunday’s bluebird day dawned I knew I had a good chance if I got to the tarn for photographing around 3 p.m.  Much to my disappointment I soon learned that while South Fork Eagle River Valley remained in sun, it appeared that the area south of the tarn near the glaciers were cloud generators and the tarn itself a cloud magnet!   Soon the tarn itself was completely covered in shade from the hanging clouds and I was skunked again.  At that moment my challenge morphed into anger and then revenge.  I felt cursed and was even more determined to succeed.  Just three days later I made another attempt and hiked the 10 miles round-trip and 1500-foot ascent to the tarn.  With the hot summer sun the clouds started to generate early afternoon and threatened to spoil my photography yet again.  I took a few sequences for the panorama as the lighting changed over the landscape to be sure I had a workable panorama. Even though the mountains in Hanging Valley were in shade after seeing the finished panorama I feel that I finally accomplished the goal I set for myself over five years, fifty miles, and 7500 feet ago.

With its brilliant greens that rival the greens of Kodiak Island, emerald and turquoise waters that contrast with the deep blue sky, boulder-strewn cirque, and the multitude of alpine wildflowers, Hanging Valley Tarn is a place you can spend a week photographing.  I am already planning a trip in September when the fall colors have peaked.  In my mind’s eye I already see the red colors of the tundra as they contrast with crisp blue autumn skies.  Am I setting myself up for another prolonged challenge to capture what I have visualized?  Possibly, but I know with perseverance the outcome will be well worth it.

Alaska Summer Impressions

“This is June, the month of grass and leaves…Already the aspens are trembling again, and a new summer is offered me. I feel a little fluttered in my thoughts, as if I might be too late. Each season is but an infinitesimal point. It no sooner comes than it is gone…We are conversant with only one point of contact at a time, from which we receive a prompting and impulse and instantly pass to a new season or point of contact. A year is made up of a certain series and number of sensations and thoughts which have their language in nature. Now I am ice, now I am sorrel. Each experience reduces itself to a mood of the mind.”

Henry David Thoreau
June 6, 1857

Common fireweed photo.Summer is in full tilt in Alaska, and the common fireweed wildflower is the quintessential image that comes to mind when I think of summer. Right now, fireweed is in full bloom to be seen everywhere from road sides to stream banks to lake shores, alpine meadows and forests. With their bright magenta flowers on tall stems with light green leaves they demand attention; large fields of fireweed seem to fluoresce with color. Rather than take a normal photograph of fireweed it seemed more appropriate to abstract them. I used motion blurs at 1/6 of a second to represent my visual impression seen here and in the portfolio Summer Impressions. I especially like this technique because it is done in-camera and there is no Photoshop trickery involved. Each image is unique and can never be reproduced. While creative motion blurs require a lot of trial and error, it is filled with anticipation because you never know what you’re going to get until you see the image on the camera LCD. This in-your-face, artistic, Impressionist rendition shouts out the joy of summer for me in Alaska.

Focus Stacking

Macro lenses let you capture images up close and in fine detail. Wildflowers are great macro photography subjects because of their intricate beauty. True macro lenses achieve a 1:1 reproduction ratio; that is, the size of the subject on the sensor is life-size. Because of their high image magnification, however, macro lenses have a very shallow depth of field. Even at a small aperture like f/16, depth of field can be fractions of a millimeter. This makes focusing critical: not only must you decide where to focus, but you must also decide what parts of the image will be out of focus and blurry. The result is an image where the area in focus directs the viewer’s attention, and the out-of-focus area frames the rest of the subject in a blurry, smooth surrounding. Chocolate Lily photoThe placement of the point of focus and the fall-off of the depth of field can be quite artistic. Yet this is not how we perceive subjects with our eyes. The human brain actually composites several points of focus so that the object appears to be sharp throughout with a large depth of field, much like a painter would paint a still life on canvas. For example, search on-line for Georgia O’Keeffe flowers. Until recently this could not be done photographically. Now with digital photography, and advanced layer masking software, we can using a technique called focus stacking.

Focus stacking begins by taking several photos of your subject varying the point of focus from the front of the subject to the back of the subject. It is essential that the depth of field for each photo overlaps previous and subsequent photos. Using software like Helicon Focus, layer masks are created for each photo, retaining the in-focus portions of each and then compositing the portions together to make one image with a large depth of field. More images are better than less to create a continuous zone of focus. Otherwise, out-of-focus areas may be juxtaposed in between in-focus areas and look unnatural. If you want to create an image with depth of field from the foreground to the background use a small aperture like f/16 and create focus “slices” from the foreground to the background. I prefer to use a shallow depth of field with a large aperture like f/5.6. This creates a very soft and creamy smooth background with only the subject in focus. It is almost like having a studio backdrop behind your subject only in this case it is more natural looking due to the blurring of the various background objects. This creates an effect where your subject “pops” from the background. I liken it to the difference between looking at an analog TV versus an HD TV. The photo of Chocolate Lilies shown here is a composite of nineteen separate photos.

There are two major difficulties in employing this technique. The first one I mentioned previously and that is making sure that the focused slices overlap each other. This can be very difficult to achieve while rotating a focusing ring on a macro lens. For finer, more precise movements of focus a focusing rail such as that provided by Really Right Stuff helps. Having used this technique for some time, I am now leaning towards purchasing an automated focusing rail such as the StackShot from Cognisys Inc. This would allow the sequence of focus slices to be taken with more precision and hands-free, eliminating a problem I’ve had with movement of the camera as I focus. The second difficulty with this technique is the more problematic of the two, which is there must be no movement of the subject from frame to frame. If there is, this will show up as ghosting in the resulting composite and a lack of perfect focus. Anyone who has endured the frustration of waiting for the wind to dissipate to take one macro photo of a wildflower in the field must multiply this by the number of frames you are taking for the composite. Therefore, the process to come up with a perfect composite image can be agonizingly slow, and is sometimes hit or miss. Unfortunately, there is no one solution to this problem. Surrounding your subject with a wind barrier, for example, your camera backpack may prevent movement. Another is to use a shooting tent like the Cubelight from Lastolite. This structure will shield your subject from the wind and also provide soft, diffuse lighting. Whatever techniques you employ to get perfectly still, overlapped focus slices, patience is the key. For me, the results are worth the extra effort.

The Orton Effect

Created in the mid-80s by Vancouver-based photographer Michael Orton, the Orton Effect (a.k.a., Orton Imagery, the Orton Technique) involved sandwiching two overexposed slides together of the same subject, one in sharp focus, the other out of focus and blurry, to create an image of a sharp subject which was rich in color, and surrounded by a glow that had a dreamy, impressionistic quality to it. 20130621-fuschia-34517-blogOriginally applied to landscapes, this creative technique helped transform a photograph from that of documentary realism to a more artistic, painterly rendition. With the introduction of double exposure capability in top-of-the-line film cameras, this technique was easily accomplished on one frame in-camera rather than having to stack two frames together in a slide mount. Each frame had to be underexposed by one stop so that the resulting double exposure would be properly exposed.

In today’s digital photography this technique can easily be accomplished in Photoshop starting with one sharp image. Essentially the sharp image is duplicated and then blurred using a Gaussian filter. The blurred image is then layered on top of the sharp image and the blend mode is changed to multiply. Darwin Wiggett, another Canadian photographer, described this technique in more detail at Nature Photographers Online Magazine. If you prefer the blur created by an out-of-focus lens rather than the blur created by the Gaussian filter, then two separate files can be combined to create the Orton Effect. Here a tripod is essential to make sure that there is no movement between the first and second frames, one sharp, and the other blurry.

Call me old school, but I still like doing things in-camera when possible rather than in post-processing. For a long time, Nikon users have had the capability of doing double exposures on one frame with a digital camera. For Canon users, it wasn’t until the introduction of the 5D Mark III in 2012 that double and multiple exposures could be combined in one file. The image of a fuchsia shown here was taken with a 180 mm Cannon macro lens at f/5.6. I underexposed each photo by one stop wherein they were combined in-camera using the additive multiple-exposure control method. This technique would be akin to doing it with a film camera on one frame that had double exposure capability. It’s easy to see why this technique is so popular with macro photographers whose subjects are flowers or wildflowers, but it has also been done with people and animals provided they remain still.

Panoramas and More

Life is full of hurdles.  Perhaps no more daunting are those that we impose on ourselves.  Whether you pursue photography professionally or as a hobby, maintaining that creative spark is difficult.  Usually we fall back on our tried-and-true approaches to photographing which can stifle our passion and lead to stale images.  What prevents us from exploring the many new techniques that digital photography offers?  Mostly it is fear: fear that we won’t understand something; or fear that we won’t be good at it.  Yet, when we do find the courage to break out of our confining boxes, we look back at the experience thinking that it was not as hard as we originally thought and question why we did not venture out sooner.  Well, cast aside your self-doubts as you find out how easy it is to produce high quality panoramas from your digital camera.  There is nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Advantages

What is a panorama, how is it created, and what are its advantages?  Essentially a panorama is an elongated, unobstructed view of a landscape that can emulate or exceed the field of view of the human eye (about 160 degrees).  This can be a vertical image, although most panoramas are laid out in the horizontal, or landscape, mode.  In technical terms, it is creating an image that has a higher aspect ratio (i.e., width-to-height) than your camera sensor.  Generally, to reproduce the field of view of a human eye requires an aspect ratio of 2:1 or greater.  For a full-framed DSLR, or for those people shooting 35 mm film, this means exceeding a 3:2 aspect ratio.  For example, 4:2, 5:2, 6:2, and so on, all capture a wider field of view than a single frame and would be considered panoramic.  If you are shooting with a point-and-shoot camera that has an aspect ratio of 4:3, then 6:3, 7:3, 8:3, etc., are panoramic relative to the single frame.

In the days of film cameras (isn’t that beginning to sound quaint?), creating panoramas required a special camera and lens to record an image on film, like a Linhoff, Horseman, Noblex, or Fuji.  Lacking that, photographers would cut and paste together several single-frame prints to create a panorama.  Consequently, it was only as good as the skills you learned in kindergarten.  As you would expect, today the process of cutting and pasting several images is done using software and is called photo stitching.  Two techniques are used.  The first is by stitching together a single row (or column) of images, called single-row (or single-column).  The second is by shooting/stitching multiple-row horizontal images (or multiple-column vertical images), called omni-directional.  As you can imagine, the omni-directional technique is more complicated and time consuming, and for this article we will restrict the discussion to single-row horizontals.

Photo stitching can be done on aspect ratios other than panoramic, but regardless of the number of photos used – single- or multi-row layout, or the aspect ratio of the final image – they all share one thing in common.  That is, they significantly increase the amount of information that is captured of the scene.  In other words, they effectively increase the resolution of your camera, something most of us desire without the investment of a new camera.  Let’s look at a simple example.  Assume we are using a full-frame DSLR.  To create a single-row panorama the camera is rotated to the vertical, or portrait, position.  Now the aspect ratio is 2:3.  If three images are stitched together without any loss of pixels, then the final image has an aspect ratio of 2:1 (3 x 2:3 = 6:3 = 2:1) and, in theory, there are three times the pixels.  In practice, however, some pixels are discarded and you end up with something less, depending on the overlap.  For the sake of argument, let’s say we end up with twice the pixel count.  Then, for a DSLR with a 21 MPix sensor, that means capturing an image with about 40 MPix, or the equivalent of a $20,500 Hasselblad H5D-40 (40-MPix) medium format camera!

If you think that this is just an academic exercise, then the “proof is in the pudding,” and for photographers our pudding is the print.  When I saw my first inkjet panoramic print created from the aforementioned 21 MPix DSLR, the same “Wow” factor was there as when I saw my first print from a medium format film camera and compared it to a 35 mm film camera print.  Others agree, that for all intents and purposes, a panoramic print made from a DSLR camera is indistinguishable from a print made with a single-frame, high-resolution medium format digital camera.  Some even claim that it rivals 4×5 film1.  I’ll let you be the judge.  For the first time in years, I have found a technique that captures the grandeur of the Alaskan landscape, and for me, panoramas take my images to the next level and that is why I find this so exciting.

Equipment

Before taking the individual panorama images you need to have the proper equipment.  Starting with the basics, a good, stable tripod is a must.  Some people have successfully made panoramas by hand-holding the camera, but you want the sharpest images possible to make your work stand out.  If you are not using a tripod for most of your images, why not?  Despite the advances in image stabilization or vibration reduction, a properly used tripod will always produce a sharper image than hand-holding.  Also, since you want to shoot at a low ISO to minimize noise and a high f-stop to maximize depth-of-field, a shutter release (cable or wireless) should be used.  If you don’t have a shutter release, then use your camera’s self-timer.  Lastly, an L-bracket is needed on your camera to be able to rotate it to the vertical position.  L-brackets create a more stable camera/tripod setup when shooting verticals by keeping your camera’s center of gravity over the tripod rather than flipping the ballhead’s stem over into the vertical notch.  They can be purchased from equipment suppliers like Really Right Stuff and Kirk Enterprises.

Now for the specialized equipment.  As we will discuss in more detail in the next section, creating panoramas requires having a level tripod so that your horizontal (or vertical) images are straight.  And it requires eliminating parallax error.  This means that as you create images by panning left to right, foreground objects need to stay in the same relative position to background objects.    Otherwise, the finished panorama will show ghost images of foreground objects.  To eliminate parallax error, the camera must rotate about what is called the nodal point2 of the lens.  This necessitates being able to shift the camera body behind the center of rotation of the tripod.  The best equipment I have found for doing this is the Pano Elements Package from Really Right Stuff for $360.  Despite the high cost, I’m partial to RRS because not only is their equipment rugged (bomb-proof is more like it) and functional, but it is also beautifully designed.  The Pano Elements Package provides a precision panning base (with a spirit level) and a nodal slide bracket, also with a spirit level.  I also recommend getting the PCL-DVTL dovetail ($30) so that you can quickly attach the panning base and nodal slider to your existing ballhead clamp, rather than having to remove the clamp and attach it to the ballhead with a screw every time you want to create panoramas.  The Pano Elements Package is only for making single-row or single-column panoramas.  RRS’s Ultimate-Pro Omni-Pivot Package ($795) is needed for making Omni-directional panoramas.

Two other options exist for making panoramas.  In Outdoor Photographer3, George Lepp discusses use of the GigaPan Epic and Epic 100 ($300-450) which are robotic camera holders for small DSLRs and point-and-shoots used to automate the process of taking dozens or hundreds of photos.  The composite image contains billions of pixels hence the name GigaPan.  Since that article was published, Gigapan introduced the Epic Pro ($895) for full size DSLRs.  The other option is tilt-and-shift lenses, particularly the Canon 17 mm T/S and 24 mm T/S.  These lenses allow you to rotate the tilt mechanism 90 degrees so that panning can be achieved in the horizontal direction.  However, the range of movement is rather limited so you would still have to pan the camera body to cover a panorama.

Setup and Taking the Photos

Three steps are required for setup4: a) leveling your equipment, b) finding the nodal point, and c) adjusting camera settings.  First, attach the panning base to the tripod head and mount the nodal slide to the panning base.  Level the nodal slide using the spirit level.  It helps if you start with a reasonably level tripod to begin with, if anything for the security of your equipment.  Once the nodal slide is level, tighten down the ballhead and mount the camera in the vertical (portrait position) with the L-bracket to the clamp on the end of the nodal slide.  Make sure the centering index marks on the L-bracket and nodal slide are aligned.

Second, to determine the nodal point of the lens find two objects, one in the foreground and the other in the background, and line up the objects in your viewfinder.  Position the approximate center of your lens (if you are using a zoom lens then make sure the lens is zoomed to the focal length you want) over the tripod’s axis of rotation by sliding the nodal slide forwards or backwards.  Now pan left.  If the background object shifts left relative to the foreground element you are ahead of the nodal point.  Move the nodal slide forward and repeat panning left.  If the background object shifts right relative to the foreground element you are behind the nodal point.  Move the nodal slide back and repeat panning left.  When the nodal point has been located, the foreground and background objects will not move relative to each other when panning.  Really Right Stuff has also tabulated known nodal points for specific camera/lens combinations5.

Third, choose your camera settings prior to taking the photos.  Shoot raw for maximum flexibility in post-processing.  Use a low ISO, preferably ISO 100, for minimum sensor noise.  Decide the depth of field desired.  Since most panoramas are of landscapes and a maximum depth of field is desirable, a high f-stop is appropriate.  That does not mean automatically set your lens to the maximum f-stop, like f/22.  Remember that the sharpest aperture of any given lens is not necessarily the highest f-stop, but one or more f-stops open from the maximum.  Another way is to use the hyperfocal distance for the f-stop.  Set your camera exposure system to manual.  This will assure that your exposure is consistent across the entire scene.  However, since panoramas can cover a wide range of light values (or EV), set your camera exposure to manual and determine the shutter speed that will keep your histogram as far to the right as possible for the brightest part of the scene.  You may need to use a graduated neutral density filter if the exposure exceeds the dynamic range of your sensor.  Turn off auto white balance and set white balance manually so that, like exposure, white balance will be consistent across all the photos.  If you get the white balance wrong you can adjust it with your raw converter.  Finally, use Live View (how did we ever do without it?) to set your focus on the appropriate part of the scene.  Shut off auto focus and image stabilization (or vibration reduction).  If you have mirror lockup, then activate that function.

You are now ready to shoot.  Using the shutter release, take a sequence of photos which cover the scene by starting at the left side and panning right after each shot.  Overlap each shot by 30-50%.  Anything less than 30% and the stitching software may not be able to find enough commonality to create the composite image.  The hardest part of creating a panorama is done!

Work-up

It does not matter which raw converter you use to work up the raw images, whether it is Adobe’s Camera Raw, Adobe® Photoshop® Lightroom® 4, Apple’s Aperture, or the camera makers’ raw converters.  Use the work flow with which you are most comfortable.  I recommend exporting your images as 16-bit TIFF, or preferably PSD, files.  This is not the time to compress to an 8-bit JPEG.  Even though all photos were shot in manual exposure mode, I have found that light values will range across the sequence.  I have successfully changed the exposure value in the raw converter individually for each shot to match up the histograms better.  Be careful that you don’t spread out the shadow areas too much revealing the underlying noise.

Believe it or not, the easiest part of creating a panorama is the stitching in Adobe® Photoshop® Elements 11 or CS6.  You do not have to understand layers or masking to proceed.  The following instructions are for a Mac computer.  Once you have the converted images saved, from the Photoshop CS6 menu select File > Automate > Photomerge…  (In Photoshop Elements 11 select Enhance, Photomerge®…, Photomerge®Panorama…)  In the dialog box under Source Files, Use: select Files.  Press the Browse button and locate the place/folder where your exported images reside.  Select all of the image files taken for your panorama.  Press Open.  You should see all of your image files in the Source Files window.  On the left side of the dialog box under Layout are seven choices: Auto, Perspective, Cylindrical, Spherical, Collage, Reposition, and Interactive Layout.  Auto works best for most panoramas, although you might need to try Perspective, Cylindrical, or Spherical for problematic panoramas.  Lastly, at the bottom of the dialog box, Blend Images Together is selected by default.  If you have not corrected for vignetting in your raw converter you may want to select Vignette Removal.  The Geometric Distortion Correction option is probably for panoramas of buildings and other architecture.  At this point you are ready to let the computer do all of the work so press OK.  Depending on your computer processor speed and useable memory, it could take several minutes for the composite panorama image to appear.

When processing is done you will have an image with the same number of layers as photos taken.  Each layer will have a layer mask associated with it.  If you have leveled your camera and found the nodal point, the resulting composite image will mostly fill a rectangular box.  Otherwise, the individual layers will either bow out or in at the top of the frames leaving blank space.  This means losing some of the image to crop it to a rectangular shape.  Initially you may be disappointed with the stitching process because there appear to be jagged lines, like pieces to a puzzle, where each layer mask butts up against its neighbors.  Some claim this is a flaw in the software, however, I think Adobe left it in the software to show you where each stitch is so that you can assess the quality of the compositing process.  I’ve created over a dozen panoramas and have not found a matching problem yet.  Once you flatten the layers (Layer > Flatten Image) the lines disappear and you will likely never be able to find the seams again.  After that, crop the image to suit your goal for the panorama and finish with any additional post-processing.

Figures 1-3 provide three example panoramas.  These images don’t do justice to the actual prints, however.  Susitna River is a composite of five photos, Eagle River Valley ten photos, and Chugiak Winter nine photos.  The prints, ranging in size from 40-61” wide x 22” high reveal detail and three-dimensionality that exceeds what can be achieved with one DSLR photo.  You get the sense of being able to walk into the landscape, enhancing the ability to convey to the viewer what inspired you about the subject.  Isn’t that what photography is all about – telling a story, conveying an emotion, or inspiring others to action?

Finally, there are other stitching programs available, most notably GigaPan Stitch (comes with GigaPan hardware) and Autopano.  The camera manufacturers provide their own versions, and there is even a stitching app for the iPhone’s built-in camera.  I can’t vouch for their ease of use or flexibility, but as you have seen with Photoshop, there is no hurdle to overcome in using it.

Tips and Hints

The following is a list of tips and hints that will make it easier for you to create flawless panoramas from the start.  Some of these I’ve learned from the “school of hard knocks.”

  • If your scene encompasses a wide field of view, avoid using a polarizer since its effect will be uneven across the resulting panorama.  For example, if you are shooting with the sun 90 degrees to your right or left and create a panorama spanning 180 degrees, then the polarizer will be most effective in the middle of the panorama and non-existent at the left and right edges.
  • Create your sequence of images fairly quickly, especially when there is movement in the scene like clouds, shadows, wildlife, people, or water.  For example, I created a panorama of a tarn and was not mindful of the effect the wind was having on the surface of the water.  As a result, the water was flat and reflective in some areas and choppy and non-reflective in others.
  • Generally you will find that normal (50 mm) to moderate telephoto (100 mm) focal lengths are easiest to work with.  Most of my panoramas have been shot at 40-70 mm.  These focal lengths capture scenics with the same perspective as the human eye.  Remember, the wider the individual shot the less detail and information you are recording.  Compare, for example, detail in a 20 mm shot with that for a 600 mm shot.  The idea in a panorama is to capture a wide-angle composite view with a narrower angle-of-view lens.
  • Even the best laid out panoramas require cropping which is a subtractive process.  Be mindful of that by leaving enough room at the top and bottom of your sequence of photos to crop out some foreground and background in Photoshop.  Furthermore, since the camera must be level, balancing foreground and background may require moving up or down in elevation.  Sometimes this is possible.  At other times you may find yourself walking away from a panoramic scene or deleting it after seeing it on the computer screen.  This can be solved by using an omni-directional setup which requires an additional equipment expense.
  • Having the sun directly behind you creates fairly even skies.  Watch out for your shadow, however.
  • If you capture an object that is moving, make sure it is in the middle of only one frame where there is no overlap with the other frames.
  • Because the nodal slide is graduated, make note of the position and keep a list of nodal points for each lens/focal length so that you don’t have to repeat this time-consuming step.
  • Panorama images can get quite large, so you may need more RAM in your computer.  RAM is the cheapest way to increase the performance of your computer.
  • Be creative and have fun.  Try combining photo stitching with macros, extreme telephotos, high dynamic range, and even extended depth of field (e.g., focus stacking).
  • Above all, learn how/when to break the conventional wisdom including all of the aforementioned tips and hints.

Resources

  1. “Get 4×5 Quality with a DSLR,” Dennis Frates, Outdoor Photographer, August 2009.
  2. This website provides a technical discussion about nodal points: http://www.vrphotography.com/data/pages/techtutorials/technotes/nodalptalign-tn.html.
  3. “The GigaScape,” George Lepp and Kathryn Lepp, Outdoor Photographer, November 2009.
  4. Really Right Stuff, Panoramas Made Simple, http://reallyrightstuff.com/WebsiteInfo.aspx?fc=108.
  5. Really Right Stuff, tabulated nodal points, http://reallyrightstuff.com/WebsiteInfo.aspx?fc=146.
Denali Highway Panorama

Figure 1

Eagle-River-Valley-Pano9-800

Figure 2

Chugiak-Winter-Pano1b&w-800

Figure 3

Nik Software Plug-Ins

“The negative is similar to a musician’s score, and the print to the performance of that score. The negative comes to life only when ‘performed’ as a print.”   Ansel Adams

In Ansel Adam’s day, dodging and burning in the darkroom was to the film negative as post-camera processing on the computer is to the “digital negative” (i.e., RAW image capture) in digital photography.  Right out of the camera, digital images can be quite flat and lifeless compared to print and slide film.  With today’s image processing software, however, the full creative potential of our digital captures can be realized.

Since 1990, the reigning king for post–processing has been Adobe®Photoshop®.  Using Photoshop, however, comes with a steep price, $699, and an even steeper learning curve to master.  Even for professional photographers who regularly use the program, editing an image using local adjustments with selections and masks can be time consuming.  In our hyper-competitive world of instant communication via social media and ubiquitous smart phone cameras, a slow workflow to generate media can be a disadvantage.  Enter photo editing plug-ins to fill the void.  They are essentially niche software products that are easier and faster to use, and in some cases, go beyond the capabilities of Photoshop.

Silver Efex Pro 2 Presets

Figure 1

There are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of plug-ins for photo processing.  All have been designed to address a specific need.  The most successful companies have several plug-ins and   bundle them as collections or suites, like Topaz Labs, onOne Software, and my favorite, Nik Software.  Nik was founded in 1995 as nik Multimedia by German programmer Nils Kokemohr, and began with software for graphic design.  In 1998 it changed its emphasis to serve photographers.  Nik entered into a strategic alliance with Nikon in 2005 and helped to develop Nikon’s Capture NX RAW converter.  Last year, Nik was acquired by Google and is now a subsidiary of Google.  Nik’s post-processing software collection consists of six plug-ins: Color Efex Pro 4 (color filters), Silver Efex Pro 2 (black and white conversions), Viveza 2 (selective color and tonal adjustments), HDR Efex Pro 2 (high dynamic range), Sharpener Pro 3 (image sharpening), and Dfine 2 (noise reduction).

To demonstrate the versatility of Nik software, Silver Efex Pro 2 will be used to convert a color image to black and white from within Photoshop CS6.  (The software can also be run as a plug-in within Adobe’s Lightroom and Apple’s Aperture.)  Once in Photoshop, the software is launched either by selecting Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 from the Google floating palette or under Photoshop’s Filter menu.  Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, like HDR Efex Pro 2, has preset categories that can be used as starting points for the black and white conversion, Figure 1.

Silver Efex Pro 2 global adjustments

Figure 2

There are thirty-eight presets, some of which borrow from  darkroom processing techniques such as high contrast, push-processed, high key, low key, and sepia. Others are techniques from the digital age.  You can even make custom presets.  All presets are global adjustments since they affect the entire image.  Adjustments are seen real time in single image view, split preview using a slider which can be moved vertically or horizontally, or side-by-side preview, and can also be zoomed from 100-300%.  Once a preset is selected, the parameters for the global adjustments are set and can be fine-tuned, Figure 2.  Dynamic brightness, amplify whites, amplify blacks, and soft contrast provide advanced tonality control.  Black and white film enthusiasts will like the ability to emulate eighteen popular black and white film types, Figure 3. Furthermore, just like shooting black and white film, red, orange, yellow, green, and blue contrast filters can be applied to enhance certain parts of the scene.   Unlike film, however, you don’t have to wait until you process the film to find out how well the filter worked!  Nik builds on this capability by adding a slider for adjusting filter strength and a hue slider for finer color filter control.

Silver Efex Pro 2 film adjustments

Figure 3

If this were all that Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 did it would still qualify as a great post-processing plug-in. However, what distinguishes Nik Software from all the others is something called U Point® Technology, introduced in 2006, that provides precise control of local adjustments.  By eliminating complicated selections, layer masks, and blending modes required in Photoshop for local adjustments, U Point® Technology removes the learning barrier from using this advanced photo editing technique.  For example, if I want to selectively adjust the sky I would place what is called a control point in a portion of the sky, Figure 4.  The size of the area affected is defined by the diameter of the circle.  Figure 5 shows the mask that the control point has made.  In masking, white reveals and black hides so the white areas show where the adjustments will be applied 100% and black 0%.  Grey areas mask adjustments between 0-100% depending on the shade of grey.  Notice that even though the selection is defined by a circle the mask is not circular.  Sliders for brightness (Br), contrast (Co), structure (St, mid-tone contrast), amplify whites (AW), amplify blacks (AB), fine structure (FS), and selective colorization (SC) can be adjusted for the masked area.  Usually the masked adjustments blend well with the unmasked areas.  In a matter of seconds, selective adjustments can be made to images that normally would require minutes, even hours in Photoshop to accomplish.

Although one could argue that the selections made with U Point® Technology control points are not as exact as Photoshop masks, there are techniques that allow the control points to be even more precise.

Silver Efex Pro 2 control point

Figure 4

Reducing the size of the control point will reduce the area affected.  Blocking areas that you don’t want adjusted is as simple as placing a control point with all the sliders set at zero in that area.  For example, when adjusting the sky I don’t want the mountains to be affected so control points are placed in the mountains with the sliders set at zero.  For making adjustments to large portions of an image control points can be duplicated (using the Option key on Macs or Alt key on PCs) and then grouped together to form one large masked area.

With all these choices and controls it is very easy to forget the various adjustments made to find the optimum rendition for your black and white conversion.  Very similar to Lightroom, all Nik software plug-ins have a history browser that allows you to revisit all the changes made to your image from the moment it was opened to the most recent change.  That way you can review and revert back to a previous adjustment.  Using the Compare button, two adjustment states can be viewed in a split preview or side-by-side preview.

Silver Efex Pro 2 mask

Figure 5

There is a levels and curves adjustment similar to what you would find in Photoshop or Lightroom, although I can’t imagine they get much use with all of the selective controls.   However, in deference to Ansel Adams, there is also a Zone System map that overlays colored hashmarks on your image to indicate where the various zones of tonality are.  That way you can balance and expand the range of tonality much like Ansel did in the darkroom with dodging and burning.

After global and local adjustments are completed, numerous finishing tools are available, many of which originated from traditional film printing techniques.  Toning and split (or duo) toning can be applied including sepia, selenium, and cyanotypes as well as custom colors.  There are controls for applying vignetting, that is, darkening of the edges to draw attention to the center of the image.  In addition to the amount of darkening, and size and location of the vignette center, the vignette shape can be adjusted continuously from a circle to a rectangle.  Extensive controls for burning of the image edges and a selection of image borders complete the finishing touches.

No doubt, practitioners of black and white printing in the traditional darkroom will feel at home with Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 software.

Once the user is satisfied with the black and white conversion, there are two options for closing the filter plug-in and returning to Photoshop.  The first option is to press OK to apply the filter.  The black and white conversion is then recorded on a layer labelled Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 which is placed above all the other layers in the original PSD file.  Since no mask is associated with this layer, the only thing that can be done with it is to change the opacity of the layer to let some of the colored image in the layer(s) below to come through.  The other option when closing the plug-in is to press Brush to apply the filter selectively to the image.  Again, the black and white conversion is then recorded on a layer labelled Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, however, this time a black mask is attached to the layer.  Since black hides, the black and white conversion is hidden and the image retains the characteristics of the layer(s) below, in this case color.  By using a white brush and painting on the black mask, the black and white portions of the image can be selectively revealed.  This is one way to make a hybrid color/b&w image.

Neither of these options allow you to go back and re-edit the black and white conversion.  However, there is a way to do this.  Before you first launch the filter plug-in on your PSD file, flatten the layers down to one background layer.  Next, make a duplicate copy of the background layer.  With the duplicate copy of the background layer selected, select Filter, Convert for Smart Filters from the Photoshop menu.  This converts that layer to a smart layer so that when you launch the Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 plug-in it will become a smart filter on that layer once the conversion is completed.  Double clicking on the filter icon in the layer  relaunches the filter for additional adjustments.

With extensive and powerful features, intuitive and easy to use tools, and the U Point® Technology control points for making precise selective adjustments, Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 is widely regarded by photographers as the leading black and white conversion software on the market today.  Users include such well-known photographers as Art Wolfe, Vincent Versace, Jennifer Wu and others.  Since all of Nik’s software plug-ins use the same control point technology for selective adjustments, they are well worth exploring for other aspects of advanced photo editing.  For example, Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 for high dynamic range photography is considered on a par with the leading HDR software, Photomatix Pro.  Color Efex Pro 4 and Viveza 2 are also popular for color enhancements.  Nik’s website (www.niksoftware.com) contains many videos for quickly getting up to speed on how to use their various plug-ins.  In March, several months after being acquired by Google, the price of their complete collection (all six plug-ins) was dropped to $149 from $499.  In addition, customers who bought one or more plug-ins in the last five years are entitled to receive the remainder of the collection for free.  So there isn’t a better time to try the Nik Collection.

Digital Photography Simplified Workshop in February

Digital Photography Simplified workshop slideI will be offering the Digital Photography Simplified workshop on Saturday, February 2, 2013 for $99.  This 7-hour seminar teaches you how to creatively use your digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR) through classroom instruction and hands-on exercises. Designed for the beginning photographer, the course also covers the basic concepts of digital photography.  For more details and to register, visit my workshops page on my website.

Adobe Lightroom 4 Workshop

Lightroom 4 Workshop slideI will be offering a workshop on Adobe® Lightroom® 4 on Saturday, January 5, 2013 for $99.  In this 7-hour workshop, participants will learn how to use Lightroom 4 for post-processing of RAW files to extract the full potential from their photos.  For more details and to register, visit my workshops page on my website.

The Art of Digital Nature Photography seminar

Art of Digital Nature Photography slideA two-hour seminar on “The Art of Digital Nature Photography” will be held, Friday, December 7, from 6-8 p.m. in the Lyla Richards Conference Room, UAA Student Union, 2921 Spirit Drive, Anchorage (map - parking is free on Fridays.  Once inside the Student Union, proceed straight down the stairs to the basement level.  The conference room is on the left just past the glass offices and opposite the elevator).  Admission is $20 at the door (cash and checks only).

This seminar is geared towards outdoor nature photographers interested in learning the elements of design and composition.  Topics are reinforced with over 250 images and include light, color, isolating your subject, framing, rule-of-thirds, perspective progression, symmetry, patterns, power shapes, abstracts, b&w, and creative techniques like dodging and burning, focus stacking, artistic blurs, panoramas and more.  Anyone who wants to improve their landscape, wildlife, and macro photography will benefit from the information provided.  Send me an e-mail (rb@wilderness-visions.com) to reserve a spot or call me at 907-952-2679 for more details.

Digital Photography Simplified Workshops in December

Digital Photography Simplified workshop slide

One-day photography workshops, “Digital Photography Simplified,” are now scheduled for December 1 & 2 (Saturday & Sunday). The regular price is $250, but we are offering a Groupon special price of $99 (60% off). The classes will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at:

UAA
Edward Lee Gorsuch Commons, Rm. 106
3700 Sharon Gagnon Lane
Anchorage

This seven-hour seminar will teach you how to creatively use your DSLR through classroom instruction and hands-on exercises. Designed for the beginning photographer, the course will teach the basic concepts of digital photography. Emphasis will be on getting away from programmed and automatic modes and learning how to control your camera in shutter priority, aperture priority, and manual modes. If you have ever struggled with the endless screens, dials, and buttons on modern cameras and wanted it simplified into the essentials, then this course is for you. If you are interested, please let me know and indicate which class you would like to attend. I can be reached by e-mail (rb@wilderness-visions.com) or call me at 907-952-2679.