Sun Seems Determined to Shine

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Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all. – Dale Carnegie

The image above was taken one year ago near San Diego, California. It causes me to think of persistence, hope and determination; of hanging on and striving to achieve a goal in spite of forces that would block one’s advancement.

The remainder of this post discusses photo processing. Primarily I wish to demonstrate, to photographers who do not yet process their images, that such processing can produce dramatic improvements. In fact, for RAW format digital images, processing is a requirement to achieve a quality final image. I am specifically addressing RAW format images here. Jpg images, which are processed within the camera, usually look much better than RAW images when initially downloaded. However, jpgs record much less image information than RAW files. Because of this, jpg file/format images have little tolerance for post-processing, if a person wants to make changes later. You can think of RAW file images as the negatives used in film photography and manipulated in the darkroom. They allow many different interpretations and adaptations, depending on the mood/goal of the photographer. This is why almost all professional photographers shoot using the RAW file format.

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This is the original, unprocessed middle image of  the set of three images used to make this panorama. I include it to demonstrate how much difference was made by the processing.

Using Color Efex Pro 4, the “dark contrast” filter was applied twice globally. Then the “brilliance and warmth” filter was applied centrally to the sun rays and a mild vignette effect was added only at the sides. (All of these changes can be done with Photoshop Elements alone. Color Efex Pro 4 just makes it much quicker and more convenient.) The most difficult and time consuming part of the processing was getting the waves aligned in the three different parts of the panorama  (In the time that it takes to swivel the tripod head for the next frame of the panorama, the waves move closer to the beach). Using Photoshop Elements, the waves were properly aligned with a combination of copying and pasting and by cloning waves in the following modes: hue, lighten, darken, and normal. (The clone stamp tool has options for many different modes besides “normal”; such as hue, saturation, color burn and doge, overlay, soft light, lighten, and darken, multiple and others.) Nik Sharper Pro 3 for display output was used except for the water which became distracting.

Now the image (shown at the top of this post) looks like a remember it. There is so much improvement between the original, unprocessed RAW images and the final image (at the beginning of this post), that it is fair to say that the processing rescued it from being deleted from the catalog.

I welcome comments and criticisms.

I am available to help people to transform their nature images from boring to impressive. My personal web site is NaturePhotoRehab.com, although it is easiest to reach me via this blog.

J. Michael Harroun©2013

Sunset of Golden Rays over the Pacific Ocean

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Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.  – Anais Nin

This sunset image was taken several months ago near San Diego.It is the result of quite a bit of processing, as the original appeared dull and flat. It was an example of digital images (RAW files) being inherently low contrast, appearing soft (unsharp) and flat with a limited perceived depth. (In spite of this, RAW files are generally the most desirable format because they contain so much image information that a plethora of post-processing functions can be performed on them with excellent results.)

(Jpg images are different. They are processed and sharpened within the camera at the time the photo is taken. The degree of sharpening depends on the setting that you have chosen for sharpness in the shooting menu. This is an advantage if a person sure that they will never want to enhance or further process their (jpg) images. Otherwise, RAW file capacity is an advantage. (As EvaUhu of lightshadowcolor.wordpress.com commented below, the best file format to shoot depends on the intended use for the image.)

Sharpening is a form of increasing contrast. Specifically, it is a very localized increase of contrast between adjacent dark light pixels (such as at edges). Some other modes to increase contrast, besides the actual “contrast” sliders, are: pre-sharpening, levels, curves, dodging, burning, white point, black point, gamma setting, tonal contrast, detail enhancer, detail extractor, structure and output sharpening. This is only a partial list. The fact that there are so many different ways to adjust the contrast of digital images reflects the degree that raw files suffer from poor contrast.

When I took this photo, the in-camera histogram indicated correct exposure for both highlights and shadows. However, when the RAW file was downloaded, the appearance was flat, dull and somewhat underexposed. Here is that original image, cropped but otherwise totally unprocessed.

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(My thanks to Kyle Kuns of of hikingangelesforest.wordpress.com and to Heather of rapidcityrecess.wordpress.com for recommending that I include this original image)

To create the image at the very beginning of this post, contrast was added in six different ways. These were: first in Adobe Camera Raw for brightness and (1) pre-sharpening; then with Color Efex Pro4 adjustments for (2) curves, (3) tonal contrast and (4) darkening the side edges and finally with Nik Sharpener Pro 3 (5) adaptive sharpening for display output. Each of the first 4 steps (except for the pre-sharpening which was purposely kept very weak to avoid halo artifacts) improved the appearance, but not enough. The final image, however, looks pretty good to me.

My point is to explain that digital images, shot as RAW files, require processing in order to look their best. Even the best shooting technique does not overcome this limitation.

I welcome comments and suggestions (criticisms).

J. Michael Harroun©2013

Winter Ocean Sunset Panorama

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Success means doing the best we can with what we have. Success is the doing, not the getting; is the trying, not the triumph. Success is a personal standard, reaching for the highest that is in us, becoming all that we can be.  – Zig Ziglar

This photo was taken several months ago in Del Mar, California. There had been a rain storm earlier that day. I expected that residual cloud cover would obscure the sunset. However, because some of the most dramatic sunsets occur when the weather is changing, I drove 15 miles from my home to this beach. I usually do this only when my energy and mood will allow me to enjoy walking on the beach and absorbing the feelings from the ocean, even if no sunset is visible. That way, regardless of whether the sunset is visible, I do not feel that my time has been wasted.

Technique: I set up, as is my usual technique, with tripod and shutter release cable, preparing for shooting a panorama if I was presented with a sunset  involving a large area of sky . I was rewarded with just such an opportunity.  This photo was taken about 20 minutes after the actual setting of the sun, when the cloud formations will often change quickly,  and when pink color often developes.  This is a three frame panorama with the camera in a vertical position.

Processing: Although I had exposed correctly using the histogram, the original images were flat and dull, showing very little contrast (as is common with unprocessed digital images). To remedy this, Adobe Camera Raw was used to increase brightness, contrast and (slightly) sharpness; and to decrease noise. Still the image looked lackluster. So Nik Color Efx Pro 4 (I strongly recommend this program to bring life and depth to images) was used for tonal contrast adjustment, which created the depth and drama that I had remembered. I did not  just color or saturation. Photoshop Elements clone tool was used to ease the abrupt transitions of the waves from frame to frame. (These artifacts are inevitable when wave movement is present, as the waves change position sightly while the tripod head is being rotated in preparation for the next frame of the panorama.) Then sharpening for display was done with Nik Sharpener Pro (another program that I strongly recommend). The final image accurately reflects what I was seeing and feeling at the time of the actual sunset.

I welcome comments and, even better, criticisms (as they will improve my skills).

J. Michael Harroun©2013 All rights reserved.

Winter Mountain Sunset Panorama

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Grace means more than gifts. In grace something is transcended, once and for all overcome. Grace happens in spite of something; it happens in spite of separateness and alienation. Grace means that life is once again united with life, self is reconciled with self. Grace means accepting the abandoned one. Grace transforms fate into a meaningful vocation. It transforms guilt to trust and courage. The word grace has something triumphant in it.  -Yrjo Kallinin

The sunset above appears to be happening in spite of the storm. Although, in reality, the storm and the sunset are one and the same.  The foreboding dark clouds were back lit by strong reds and pinks. It reminds me of the feeling of beginning to rise out of the abyss of a major illness or depression. It carries for me a sense of hope, of resilience and of Grace.

(This is a panorama of five vertical frames. The enormity of the sky and of the power that it represented were overwhelming. To provide you with a sense of scale, the dark objects at the lower right are mountains, not just hills.)

It seems like that is enough said. I do not wish to detract from the message of the photo and the quote.

I welcome your comments.

J. Michael Harroun©2013

Wave of Stone HDR

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When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.  – Audre Lorde

I find this quote profound and inspirational. My own experience has taught me the truth of this, but I tend to forget it anyway.

The remainder of this post does not relate directly to this quote. Instead, this post is about the photo processing technique called High Dynamic Range (HDR) processing. In many scenes, there is too much difference between the brightest and darkest portions of a photo for both to be exposed properly within a single image. To overcome this, more than one image is taken of a scene/subject, identical to each other except for the exposures (usually three to five images are taken each one to two stops of exposure different from each other). One image is well exposed for the highlights and one is well exposed for the dark shadows. Other frames are exposed between these. Then, through computer processing, the correctly exposed portions of each photo can be combined into a single image that has everything well exposed. (Although there are several good HDR processing programs, I use Photomatix Pro)

The photo at the top of this post is of a portion of sedimentary rock that I happened to notice while waiting at the beach for the sun to set. I came back to photograph it 25 minutes after the sunset. The rock was in deep shadow; but the sky was too bright to have good exposure in a single frame. That was a perfect situation for HDR  (high dynamic range) processing.

Image capture: I took a bracket of 3 frames with an exposure increment of 1 stop.

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This is the middle exposure of the three taken, before any processing. I include it so that you have something to compare to the final processed image at the top of this post.

Raw image processing: The three exposure bracketed images were processed first in Adobe Camera Raw converter to add contrast, “clarity”, noise reduction and a little (preprocessing) sharpness. They were thensaved as tiff files. (Ferrel McCollough, HDR guru, recommends this convertion of RAW to tiff format prior to loading into Photomatix)

Using Photomatix Pro 4.2.6 HDR software, it was processed via tone mapping, Exposure Fusion/Natural mode. This gives a more realistic appearance than the more powerful Detail Enhancer mode.

Then in Photoshop Elements, various areas were lightened (dodged) and darkened (burned) to draw the eye to specific areas. Nik Color Efex Pro4 “Detail Extractor” was used to enhance the small details; but, via masking, this effect was not added to the sand or sky.

Finally, Nik Sharpener Pro was used to create the final image, which is at the top of this post.

I welcome suggestions and comments.

J. Michael Harroun©2013

HDR and Panorama Combination with Moving Waves

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Today is a new day. You will get out of it just what you put into it. If you have made mistakes, there is always another chance for you. And supposing you have tried and failed again and again, you may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down. -Mary Pickford

Today’s recommended site is of time lapse flower photography set to music. http://player.vimeo.com/video/27920977?title=0&%3bbyline=0&%3bportrait=0href=

For a long time I have wondered whether it was practical to do an HDR (high dynamic range) composite of an ocean/beach panorama which has (moving) waves. The primary challenge would be whether the software could deal effectively with the movement of the waves as they would not align automatically from one frame to the next (producing “ghosting”). This week I actually got around to trying it. I used images of the above sunset with a couple sitting on the beach. Exposing properly for the sky caused the sand and couple in chairs to be way underexposed. Alternatively, exposing for the couple overexposed the sky. This is a perfect situation for HDR; subtle HDR, not the exaggerated, cartoonish variety. I used Photomatix Pro 4.2.6 for the HDR processing. This is the version referred to when “Photomatix” is mentioned below.

Capture technique:

  • Shot in manual mode, auto bracketing 3 exposures each with a one stop increment and using continuous shooting drive mode. (Typically two stop increments are used, but the lighting here was not extreme.)
  • I shot just as I do any panorama (tripod and shutter release cable) except each frame of the panorama got the rapid auto bracketing.

Processing workflow:

  • Files were first processed in Adobe Camera Raw to uniformly remove noise (both luminance and color), add “clarity” and slightly (preprocessing) sharpen. Because Photomatix Pro 4.2.6 does not recognize edits made to raw files, these changes were saved in tiff file format. This conversion to tiff format is necessary because Photomatix Pro 4 does not recognize any edits/enhancements that are kept in the raw format. (A better method is to utilize Photomatix Pro 4’s ability to accept unedited raw format images as noted below under “What I will do differently next time”.)
  • In Photoshop Elements, a separate panorama was created for each of the three exposures (still in tiff file format).
  • In Photomatix, “Exposure Fusion/Natural” mode was used for the HDR processing (This results in a more natural/realistic image than given by the “tone mapping Details Enhancer” mode.) As expected, the waves went soft due to “ghosting” caused by the wave movement. But I found these results to be acceptable in this case, since the waves are incidental to the image. (If sharp waves are needed, Photomatix allows the waves from any single image to replace the HDR processed waves in order to prevent ghosting).
  • In Photoshop Elements, contrast was increased with “Color Curves”. This effect was masked out from the sand, particularly the bright middle portion of the beach as it became distracting. (Alternatively, I could have used Photomatix “finishing touches” function to increase the contrast and color.)
  • The expected wave misalignment between the side-by-side panorama frames (as previously stitched by Photoshop Elements) was easily remedied by horizontal strokes of the (Photoshop Elements) smudge tool.
  • Using Nik Sharpener Pro 4.2.6, moderate sharpening was done for “display” output (this sharpening was masked out over the sand as it looked rough and distracting).

What I will do differently next time:

  • Skip the initial processing with Adobe Raw Converter and put the raw files directly into Photomatix.
  • Since I used Photomatix “exposure fusion/natural mode, no initial noise removal was needed. This mode inherently reduces noise.
  • (However, when planning to use Photomatix “tone mapping detail enhancer” mode for HDR processing, initial noise reduction is necessary as this mode otherwise creates noise.) Conveniently, Photomatix has an automated noise detection/removal function that does a better job than my eye ball method with Adobe raw converter. To utilize this automated noise reduction, raw files are entered directly into Photomatix without any prior raw converter or Photoshop edits. This is a better workflow because it prevents the need to change the files to tiff format prior to using Photomatix. (When using this method, each side-to-side panorama frame is processed into an HDR tiff image. Then these are stitched into a panorama in Photoshop Elements.
  • I’ll use Photomatix’ selection replacement tool to replace the bright middle portion of the beach with the darker portion of the beach that was in my “middle exposure” image.

Suggestions for sharp waves:

  • Shoot with a tripod and either shutter release cable or remote shutter release
  • Use a shutter speed 1/15 sec or faster (the faster the better). If necessary to achieve adequet shutter speed, increase ISO 1-2 notches above the lowest that your camera offers (particularly if you have processing software with noise removal capability).
  • Use auto exposure bracketing with continuous shooting drive mode
  • In your HDR processing program use the de-ghosting tool to replace the entire water/wave area with that same section of one of the original images. (The waves will not show the effects of HDR processing, but will be sharper than if HDR processed.)

I welcome comments and suggestions.

My personal website is NaturePhotoRehab.com. Here, I help people to transform their average nature images into photographic art that they are proud to give as gifts or to hang on their own wall for inspiration.

J. Michael Harroun©2013

Twilight Panorama at the Beach

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We can travel a long way and do many things, but our deepest happiness is not born from accumulating new experiences. It is born from letting go of what is unnecessary, and knowing ourselves to be always at home.  -Sharon Salzberg

The photos for this panorama were taken as the sunset was fading over a clam, quiet sea near San Diego, California. It gives me a calm feeling, which is why I had put it on my screen to keep me company. Then I thought I would share it via blog. This post is short, because I am feeling calm and simple (uncluttered).

The panorama itself was made from three horizontal frames in Photoshop Elements with the technique that I described in my last post. There was very little light on the foreground causing loss of detail in the shadows.

I tweaked it a little in Photoshop Elements’ raw converter (adding a little contrast, “clarity” and “vibrance”). Then, to bring out some detail in the rocks on the left, in Photoshop Elements “Full Editor”, on a Levels layer, the mid-tone (gamma) slider was moved to the left giving a slight “fill flash” effect. Using a mask, this effect was applied only to the rock outcropping on the left. Then the image was sharpened for display with Nik Sharpener Pro (which I highly recommend). Using “control points” sharpening was not applied to the sand because each grain was being sharpened, giving a rough appearance.

I welcome comments and suggestions.

J. Michael Harroun©2013