To create an image, everyone goes through several steps and/or procedures beforehand to make each individual photo as good as it can be. After all, no one sets out to produce a mediocre image. There may be research for locations or subjects, the actual shoot, some post processing of the images, and finally if necessary, printing. But the question arises, where does that creative process begin?
Many times it can begin with an idea, or a pre-visualization of a particular subject or definitive set of circumstances. Conversely, especially in street photography, it’s more a method of “shooting from the hip”, instantly reacting to the subjects that are encountered. Landscape photography can take on some semblance of a street shoot in that photographers are always reacting to the continual changes in light, color, cloud cover, camera placement, and a whole host of other variables. And so it was on a recent Sunday morning…
For the previous two days, weather reports indicated fog early in the morning, but there was none. On the third day, it was also predicted and again, none showed up around my house, but the temperature indicated the dew point had been reached, meaning there should be some fog somewhere. So I headed out lacking much anticipation or hope. With quite a bit of rain during the previous few days, the expectation was for high water levels at nearby Jordan Lake, and trees seemingly growing out of the water. As I drove closer to the lake, I passed through areas of dense fog, only to come out again pretty quickly; so still, not much hope. When I finally arrived at the lake and hoofed it almost 1/2-mile along the road from the parking area, the fog was pretty dense, no wind and good reflections; but only uninspiring, drab light. It was getting near the time for sunrise (6:02am) and still no hint of a sunrise sky at all. So I walked further along the road to where the bridge went over the lake, away from the trees for a longer view, in hopes of seeing some encouraging signs. It wouldn’t be until 15-minutes past sunrise for any hints of color to sweep into the sky. For the most part, color at sunrise generally happens before the sun breaks the horizon. So this morning was already different.
The first frame of the series was exposed (6:20am) to zero in on the proper exposure and be ready for the possibility of better light. The reason to get a good read on the exposure is that the camera’s light meter wants to record fog, as with snow, as middle gray. To get the proper exposure and record the fog or snow correctly, an increase to the meter’s suggested exposure is needed, accomplished by adjusting your camera’s exposure compensation, or when in manual mode, changing the ISO, aperture, or shutter speed to increase the amount of light that reaches the sensor.
It was then that there was the first indication the fog was on the move and heading south. Since it was past sunrise, at some point, the sun had to poke out from behind the fog and hopefully, it would happen before the fog cleared out completely. When the sun did pop out a little (6:22am), while leaving the tripod in place, I began taking frame after frame at differing exposures in order to blend the brighter and darker frames, exposed for either the sky/fog or water, and/or the best fog shape, together in Photoshop later.
At that point I noticed a line of Canada Geese flying north toward the area, and quickly switched to ISO 400 from the usual ISO 100, and a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second to freeze their motion if they flew through the frame. As luck would have it, they did and I rattled off three frames (6:26am). In order to properly expose the fog and water below, and get a cleaner file without any possible noise creeping in from the ISO 400 frame, I reshot the same scene after the birds were gone at ISO 100 and 1/20 of a second, providing better lighting on the bottom of the scene (6:27am).
A moment later, a fishing boat quietly drifted under the bridge, and thought it would drift into the frame and either kill the shot or make it better, but instead, it stopped just under the bridge. In any case, the sun by now had climbed above the fog in blinding brilliance, and was way too bright for a decent photo, with lens flare a strong possibility. Oddly, since the boat turned sideways as it stopped, it sent out some supple ripples onto the otherwise still water that slowly made their way into the frame. Another frame of them was taken (6:32am), ignoring that the sun and sky were totally overexposed, just in case I wanted to blend the ripples into the previous ISO 100 frame to break up the perfectly smooth surface a bit. Much earlier, I had also taken a long distance shot of a fisherman sitting in a kayak before the fog began to clear just in case he was needed in a photo as well. It turned out the fisherman was not used, but remains on retainer (spare no expense) for possible use in the future.
So all the elements were recorded that might, or might not be (it’s good to have options) included into a single frame to properly portray the morning’s events. Except for the kayaker (6:16am), the three frames for the final image above were taken between 6:26am and 6:32am, but the entire sequence stretched 10 minutes from 6:22am. I did use a smooth 2-stop ND grad filter over the 50mm lens to hold back the brightness of the sky, hand held since there really wasn’t any time to get out all the step-up rings and holder to do it properly. But I am happy with the result even though processing was a bit of a nightmare because of computer and software issues. How long do you stare at a spinning ball on your computer screen before deciding the software needs to be Force Quit?
Briefly, the post processing was rather simple. The frame with the birds and sky (ISO 400) was blended into the properly exposed frame of the water and fog (ISO 100). With the sun being partially hidden by fog, it was not too bright to require major differences in exposure, so they blended easily. Then the ripples were added in a separate layer with a black layer mask (Command-I), and were blended in using a soft, white brush set at very low opacity for better control. If the ripples became too prominent, they could be softened again by switching the brush to black. If things get totally out of hand, start over. Just grab the mask, place it in the trash, add a new black layer mask, and begin the blending process again. Some minor processing followed in Lightroom, and it was done.
I just wish the actual processing went as quickly and easily as described here. It actually took several hours with a frustratingly slow computer and/or software that afternoon, accomplishing almost nothing, followed by a few more hours the next morning after things straightened out.
And I always thought computers were supposed to make our lives easier. Hmmmmm…
Post Script —
I just couldn’t seem to resist the temptation to add the kayaker, and it made sense to make an attempt to include every ingredient from that morning into a single frame. So several days after the photo at the top was done, I sent the kayaker from Lightroom into Photoshop as a “smart object” in order to be able to resize it without losing any sharpness. The need to be resized was dependent on the distance that was decided for its placement; the farther away, the smaller it needed to be. The original was taken at 92mm on the 70-300mm, while the rest of the image was taken with the 50mm prime lens; so they needed to match up. This second image was begun from scratch using a different, but similar background from the first, with the ripples placed a bit differently, and processed slightly different again, just to try another approach. Of course, no matter how it would turn out, you know I would prefer the original processing without the kayaker, but if the kayaker were added, rather than the new version with the kayaker. But I’m not going there again to redo it all, at least not now, since getting the kayaker into the other frame was no easy task for my skills. Someone else could probably extract the kayaker in a flash and plop it into a frame of a desert, but for me, it was a chore mainly because of the two fishing rods. The kayaker needed to be darkened quite a bit as well to appear to be backlit, without any sunlight on him. When combining multiple frames together, the lighting needs to correspond among all the component parts, or else it will not appear very natural.
In the final analysis, the kayaker seems to provide a more definitive focal point than the original interpretation, and it may be fine without the line of geese flying through, but they do add an additional storyline to the image; even though a story in any photo is not always a necessity. And I’m sure at some point, I will finally succumb to trying to make the image the best it can be, and combine the kayaker with the original processing!!