Lake George panorama

Lake George from Shelving Rock Mountain

It was a nice weekend afternoon, so my wife and I decided to hike up Shelving Rock Mountain (along with 25 lbs of wiggling one year old on my back).  We have hiked there before, and observed a great view, but missed the even better unobstructed panoramic view of Lake George and the Adirondacks only a short walk away.  Because I was carrying my son on my back, I opted to go light on the camera gear and only had a 50mm lens.  That wasn’t going to stop me from capturing the view! 27 shots (9×3) and 120mp later, and I had the shot you see here.

original stitched photo

I assembled the panorama with Photoshop CS5 and then had to cut it down to 1/4 the original size in order to work with it because my machine was so bogged down.  There were a few edges that didn’t quite get filled in and content aware fill really saved the day here.  In retrospect, while it would have been nice to have had a wide lens up there, I’m glad I took the 50 because it forced me to think a little creatively to come up with the shot I wanted.

If you want to see some stunning panoramic photography of the Adirondack region  I suggest you check out Carl Heilman.  I have one of his works hanging on my living room wall.

Kilroy was Here

Kilroy was HereJohn is 7.5 months old and is now pulling himself up onto his legs in his crib and his play area. How did I take this shot? I dropped the mattress in the crib by 8 inches and John just stood up and started making like Kilroy.

Ok, so I might have grabbed a flash (Canon 430EX) and stuck it on a light stand with a shoot-through umbrella up high and camera right. You can tell by looking at the catch light in his eyes what kind of light modifier was used. In fact, at 100%, you can see the ribs of the umbrella. The strobe was on 1/8″ power and I was shooting my Canon EF50mm f/1.8 at f/5. The camera was on ISO 400. It took exactly 2 shots to lock in the exposure. So far, in my experience, light meters are completely useless.

I edited the photo in Adobe Lightroom and used the same techniques as in my post on “Great Eyes in Lightroom.” I did do a bunch of spot work with the Spot Healing tool in Lightroom, and then I did a little bit of cloning in Photoshop CS4 afterwards. Basically, I edited out a few blemishes and some left over pears from his dinner.

He’s mobile and ready to start walking. It’s going to be a whole new world now.

Great Eyes in Lightroom

Turtle Truck“Where’d Aaron go?”

“Here I am!”

Anyone who has played peekaboo with their kid will probably recognize the above exchange.  It’s been seven months since I last updated the blog (Why do I feel like I’m going into a confession booth or something?) and the picture here should explain why.  That’s my son, John, born May 7th, 2009.   With the new addition to the household has come a big change in my photographic focus.  I barely ever have a lens other than the Canon EF 50mm/1.8 on  anymore.  It’s just the right focal length for  portraits of my little guy and I can take indoor shots at ISO 1600 at f/1.8 with a nice shallow depth of field.  I have also been playing around with off camera lighting a lot recently.  Most of the time I keep one flash on a stand with an umbrella ready to go and one bare.  I’ve gotten pretty decent at guessing the right settings to use to get the effect I want.  This shot of my son with his Turtle Truck (and his tongue hanging out) is an example where I just grabbed two flashes and started playing.  You can see from the catch-lights in his eyes that I have two strobes set up, one small (or far away) and one larger (or closer).  In this case, it was a shoot-through umbrella camera right and a bare strobe camera left for fill.

Just a little droolBut this post isn’t about lighting.  It’s about Lightroom.  With the thousands of pictures I’ve taken of my son, I’ve managed to figure out a few quick and dirty tricks to edit these pictures fairly quickly.  Since the eyes are the window to the soul, it is critical that they “pop.”  Most of my editing involves getting the eyes to look great without looking unnatural.  Of course, the process begins when you are taking the shot – put that focus point right on the eye nearest to you. If you didn’t get the focus right on the eyes in your original exposure, no amount of post-processing will help and  you might as well just try again.  Note, this is easier said than done with a 6 month old who is learning to crawl and thinks that the big box in front of Daddy’s face is oh so interesting.

After adjusting exposure and getting rid of any obvious blemishes with the healing tool, I do a few things:

  • Soften skin by lowering Clarity to approximately  -15.  Clarity adjusts the edge contrast and lowering it has the effect of softening skin.  Raising it brings out the blemishes.
  • Add a sharpen mask – I zoom in on the eyes then hold down the Option key (Mac) and drag the Masking slider around until the skin texture isn’t being affected and only the eyes are showing with white lines in them.  Holding down the option key shows you a gray-scale version of the sharpening mask being used – light areas will be sharpened and dark areas will not.   Masking basically sets the threshold for when sharpening will be applied.   By moving the mask slider (with the option key pressed) until skin texture isn’t being affected, you are essentially applying the sharpening only to the areas where you want it.   I tend to apply the mask in the 80-100 range, which filters out most skin textures.
  • Sharpening

  • Sharpen – This is where things begin to really pop off the screen.  You’ve set up your skin to be nice and soft and masked off the areas you don’t want affected.  Now drag that sharpening slider to the right.  Keep going.  A little more.  Yup, that’s it.  With the masking set to affect such a small area, you can afford to apply a liberal dose of sharpening.  I will often have my sharpening set in the 80-110 range.  You’ll have to use your judgment, though.  If it looks unnatural, back it off a little, or increase the mask a bit more.
  • Make the colors pop – Now play with the Vibrance setting to really make the eye color pop.  You can also use the selective saturation controls and select a color from the eye.  I like using Vibrance because it only adjusts colors that aren’t already saturated resulting in a much more natural look.

One of the failings of Lightroom is that you can’t actually see the results of your work unless you are zoomed in, which is probably not how you will eventually be viewing the image.  So, there is a little of trial and error involved and may result in you exporting your image a few times. I understand that this will be rectified in Adobe Lightroom 3 (now in beta).  In the end, with a well exposed, correctly focused picture, this recipe should get you some pretty decent eyes without having to have 15 different layers set up in Photoshop.

That’s all for now.  Let me know if there is a topic you would like me to write about in the future!

Mirror Lockup or, "Why are my tripod photos blurry?"

Have you run into this situation before? You and your tripod get up at 4am to capture that perfect long exposure ocean sunrise shot, only to find that when you get home the shots are all fuzzy? I have and it usually goes something like this…

Bass Rocks Lit by Full Moon #2You get to the site, set up your tripod, and plug in your remote shutter release. You want to get that creamy effect on the incoming surf, so you choose a long exposure (30 seconds), low ISO (100), and high f-stop (f/11) for maximum depth of field. After framing the shot so you have those nicely textured rocks in the foreground with the ocean and sky taking up the backdrop you fire off some test shots, which of course look brilliant on the 1.5″ x 2″ LCD screen on the back of your camera. You spend an hour taking the exact same perfectly framed shot waiting for the awesome sunrise light to peak and finally capture just the right moment. Ecstatic and reveling in your photographic magnificence, you pack up your gear and head home for a much needed 6am nap.

But, when you get home you can’t sleep because you just have to see awesomeness of the shots you just took. You plug in your card reader and start downloading that full 8GB card…

… 3 hours later …

Your images are all downloaded, and you start going through them. They are all soft – almost out of focus, but not quite. Now that feeling you had a few hours ago while packing up your gear is replaced by despair and frustration. “But, I used a tripod!!!”

What you should have done is used that feature hidden in the “Custom Functions” menu that you briefly read about in your camera manual: Mirror Lockup.

With a SLR camera, the mirror that allows you to use the viewfinder has to pop up to get out of the way of the sensor every time you fire the shutter. That’s why the viewfinder briefly goes black during every shot. The motor driving the mirror has to work at ridiculous speeds so is pretty powerful – at least powerful enough to cause a little bit of vibration in the camera that is sufficient to add some hideous motion blur into your photograph.

When mirror lockup mode is enabled, you will have to press the shutter twice for every shot. The first shutter press flips the mirror up (and thus, blacks out the viewfinder). The second press will take the shot and return the mirror to the down position. This prevents the shutter from shaking the camera while it’s sitting on the tripod. Voila – sharper images. The reality is, you only really need to utilize this feature when you start getting to shutter speeds down below 1/15″, but if your brain is thinking “long exposure,” you should go and navigate that maze of custom functions and enable mirror lockup.

After doing this, I think you’ll find the story changes to something more like this…

You get home and download your pictures and they are almost as awesome as you thought they would be. The next day, you go to take a picture of your kid running around in the yard, switch to your 70-200mm lens, set the camera in shutter priority mode to freeze the action, and fire a shot. “CRAP….what happened, everything went black!”

You forgot to turn OFF mirror lockup. I do this almost every time and I doubt I’ll ever learn.

Unguarded Waterfront – make that Snowfront

Unguarded SnowfrontMy wife and I went out for a little walk at Cochituate State Park last weekend. She’s 7 months pregnant right now, so we’re not hiking any mountains these days, but do like to get out and see some nature still. Cochituate State Park is composed of three ponds separated by the Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90) and surrounded by woods. It’s really a nice place, close to home, where we can walk around in the woods for an hour with pretty scenery. As usual when we go on these walks, I brought my camera along. I don’t often get great shots as we are usually out on beautiful clear days with nice weather where the light is hard and boring. Also, my focus is mostly on family time, not capturing great images, though I do often get some fun family shots that mean a lot to me personally. But, just because a photo has personal meaning, doesn’t mean the rest of the world wants to look at it!

Canon 70-200 f/2.8LI’ve been trying to get the hang of my new Canon 70-200 f/2.8L, so I brought that along. The lake was completely frozen over, with people ice skating at the far end. We took a walk through the woods, and on our way back stopped on the snow covered beach. Here there were 3 lifeguard towers with signs on them indicating that there were no lifeguards and swim at your own risk. I tried to get some shots of the three towers in a line, but just couldn’t capture anything that seemed interesting. Then, I came along the sign that said “Unguarded Waterfront” with a lifeguard tower, frozen lake, and snow-covered beach behind it. It just seemed somewhat ironic and amusing to me.

I was shooting aperture priority mode (Av) at f/3.2 because I wanted the sign in clear focus with the background blurry, but still slightly identifiable. As it turns out, I am kicking myself for not trying something with a smaller aperture, as the sign on the lifeguard tower is completely indecipherable. If I went back, I’d probably choose f/8 so that the background was a little more identifiable. Because I was shooting a primarily snow-covered scene, I dialed in a slight bit of exposure compensation (EV) – +1/3 stop. Camera meters take what they see and assume that the entire scene would average out to be 18% neutral gray. This is normally a decent assumption and is one of the many reasons why 18% gray cards are used frequently by photographers. Snow isn’t even close to 18% gray – it’s like…2% gray, especially in sunlight. If I were to shoot with no exposure compensation, I’d end up with an underexposed scene because the camera would try to make the snow into gray. I usually have to play with the exposure compensation value a bit to get it right, but as a rule of thumb, when taking pictures of bright snow, bump the EV up a bit, and if taking a picture of your black cat, lower it a bit.

When I downloaded the images last night, I was drawn to this photo. I like the humor of it and I like the way it is framed. What I don’t like, as I mentioned above, is that I chose too shallow a depth of field, so you don’t really know what’s behind the sign. If I had picked something more like f/8 or so, I think the humor would have shined through better.

Here you see the original image, straight out of the camera and imported into Adobe Lightroom. It’s pretty boring. Almost no color, with little texture in the snow, and no contrast in the wood grain. So, I went to work on it. In Lightroom, I adjusted the white balance to 7100K by using the white balance eyedropper tool and selecting the white of the sign. I usually shoot in Auto White Balance mode when I’m shooting in RAW simply because I can easily adjust it later. With JPG, you don’t have as much latitude there. I bumped up the exposure by +1/4 stop and increased the clarity and contrast some. I also set the tone curve to “Strong contrast”. I knew I would be bringing this into Photoshop and sharpening it there, so I lowered the sharpening in Lightroom to 0.

Shack at the Cranberry Factory PondThen, I exported it to Photoshop CS4. There, I applied a very strong unsharp mask to the Lightness channel in LAB Mode. This pulled a lot of texture out of the wood without creating halos and odd colors. I also applied a technique used in a few of my other images (as in the one shown here) where I duplicated the background layer, desaturated it, and set the blend mode to Overlay with about a 60% opacity. This has the effect of really kicking up the contrast and making a dull image pop a lot more. The reason for the desaturation is otherwise, you end up altering the colors of the image as well. I also did a slight crop of the image, removing the fence visible in the bottom of the frame, and did some slight adjustment with a levels layer – moving the middle slider to the left to increase contrast. Finally, I added a saturation layer and lowered the saturation of the image by about -50. This had the effect of making it almost black and white, but not quite. Then, I saved it, and exported it to Flickr from Lightroom with medium sharpening.

That was a lot of editing for a mediocre photo, but I’m fairly happy with the way it came out. I’m always trying to stretch myself creatively and in this case I think I had a partial success in doing something slightly out of my normal comfort zone of landscapes.

Leave me a comment and let me know what you think!