A short time ago I was shooting images for my fine art portfolio in the Eastern Sierra Mountains of California. This article describes the main steps of the process from start to finish, from making a successful capture to an outline of fundamentals of raw processing and image editing.
Note the flat lighting. The sun was setting to camera left. Clouds were passing overhead, creating changes in brightness, and at times letting some directional light through. The photographer on the left (me) is using a Hasselblad H-series camera with a Phase One back; the photographer on the right (Rick Russell) is using an Ebony 4×5.
Plan the Shot
Look at all the angles. Take note of lighting direction, and how it creates shape and depth in the scene. Side light is your friend—front lighting usually is not. If you haven’t done so in advance, start visualizing what the final, edited shot will look like. Don’t mount your camera on the tripod right away. Instead, handhold the camera and use the viewfinder as a tool to help you visualize. Walk around and look at the scene through the viewfinder. Remember to look into all the details— including the corners. Try to find shapes and angles of objects in the scene that will enhance the viewer’s experience. Leading lines are a good example—in the final shot, the downed branches in the foreground create a triangle of sorts with the fallen tree in the far background. Once you’ve found the “sweet spot,” set up the tripod and mount the camera.
Ensure that everything is secure and stable. In situations like this, you’ll probably be making an extended exposure to show water flow (in this case, f/18-f/22, 0.5—1.0 sec, ISO 50, aperture priority). Tripod movement or camera shake will ruin the shot.
Correct exposure is critical. In this scene, dynamic range was very close to the limits of the camera—deep shadow, dark textured areas, moving water and bright highlights all made for a very difficult shot. I used the in-camera meter, a handheld meter, and a Spyder- Cube to manage exposure.
The light was changing minute by minute. I used a combination of these tools, and careful evaluation of the histogram to guide my exposure decisions. Watch for “clipping” of highlights and shadows, and manage them for image quality.
Bracketing (varying exposures up and down from metered reading) is also helpful in challenging situations. Keep in mind that the LCD is not a very reliable tool for judging exposure—use it for judging framing of the shot, and little else. Many photographers use the Zone System to evaluate exposure; I recommend at least working familiarity with this tool.
Shutter speed is slow enough in this case to cause camera shake. I used a program setting that locks the mirror up, delays the shot for a few seconds and then trips the shutter. This helps keep the image as sharp as possible. Use of a remote release is also helpful.
We all know that smaller aperture/increased aperture number produces greater depth of field—but it does not always produce higher image quality. At some point, a very small aperture will create errors in the image —diffraction error can cause loss of sharpness, and distortions in color and contrast. In 35mm or equivalent, the aperture limit falls approximately between f/8-f/11 and f/16, depending on lens construction and overall quality. In my medium format camera, I start to see diffraction error at f/18, and unacceptable levels over f/22.
I use Adobe Camera RAW, Lightroom and Phase One Capture One software to process raw images. For this photograph, I used Phase One software. Photoshop was used for final image edits.
Generally, I try to leverage the in-camera exposure to create the image I need. I have found that over-processing in the early stages often creates unacceptable digital artifacts—an example of this is increasing noise in the shadows by correcting an under-exposed image. Put another way, I want to be working on an image that requires a minimum of tweaking during RAW processing. In this case, my post-production workflow included setting black and white points, color correction/white balance, levels and curves adjustments for contrast and texture enhancement, a bit of dodging and burning and a small bump in saturation to bring up the color in the leaves at the top of the frame. It’s my personal preference to crop at the end of this process. Overall image-editing time was less than an hour.
A well-managed shot makes for a better image, and certainly much less work in post-production. Get it right in the camera, and you’ll spend less time in front of your computer and more time shooting!