Sunset Like a Window Upon Fire


What a person actually needs is not a tensionless state, but rather the striving and struggling for some worthy goal. What he needs is not the discharge of all tension, but the call of a potential life-meaning waiting to be fulfilled.  Paraphrased from Victor Frankl

I find these words of Victor Frankl to be profound and inspiring. It reminds me that a complete lack of stress or tension does not help a person to grow or to develop their potential.  The goal, he explained, was for each individual to find their ideal level of stress or tension, the amount that stimulates growth of their abilities and provides meaning and purpose to their lives without being overwhelming.

Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who was a survivor of German concentration camps during World War II. While in a concentration camp, he made many observations regarding human resilience and determination of spirit.  In his subsequent book, Man’s Search for Meaning, one of his conclusions is that people thrive on a certain level of stress, which varies from person to person. Less stress than this causes them to feel bored, lethargic or hopeless; while excessive stress causes people to be incapacitated mentally, emotionally and physically.

The remainder of this post focuses on the sunset photo at the stop of this post, which occurred several months ago near San Diego, California. Yes, it really did look like that. I have never before seen a sunset like this, with so much color concentrated in such a localized area. This photo received very little processing. (Specifically, Adobe Camera Raw was used to reduce noise, mildly increase “clarity” and slightly pre-sharpen). Almost all of the processing was to synchronize the position of the waves, as this is a two frame panorama. (During the time that the camera is swiveled to take the second frame, the waves move closer to the shore.) For this wave adjustment, Photoshop Elements was used to clone stamp, copy & paste waves. Finally Nik Sharpener Pro 3 was used to apply a little sharpening for display/web output.

I welcome comments and suggestions/criticisms.

I am available to assist photographers just beginning their experience with photo processing.

J. Michael Harroun©2013

Sunset of Golden Rays over the Pacific Ocean


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 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.

6898 origlDSz2

(My thanks to Kyle Kuns of of and to Heather of 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

Christmas Sunset Surprise


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 Kallinen

(This is my first post using my new writing style. I call it “grammar and punctuation don’t matter”. It is part of my plan to post more frequently by spending less time on each individual post. As I write this, it does not sound like a good idea to sacrifice quality for volume. However, not to be inconvenienced by logic, I am going to try it.)

On Christmas day, the sky was heavily overcast. There had been rain the night before.  I expected that there would be no visible sunset. However I also knew that some of the most spectacular sunsets occur as the sky is clearing after bad weather. An hour before sunset, the sky was clearing a little on the other side of the mountain range, about 10 miles away toward the west. Not expecting to find anything worth photographing, I went to a spot with a panoramic view of the sky and mountain range. The sun then set uneventfully (no color), hidden behind clouds.  However, five minutes after the actual setting of the sun, the overcast condition quickly broke up, and the sky became bright gold in front of me plus overhead, to the sides and behind me. Then the sky turned pink briefly and faded away. Wow! I could not capture the entire amount of sky involved. To include as much sky as possible, I took several series of images for panoramic composites.

My willingness to take the camera to what I expected to be a “no show” sunset, led to experiencing one of the top ten sunsets of my life. This caused me to think about other aspects of successful sunset photography.

  • Go often: The majority of sunsets will not be impressive.  However, if you are not there, you cannot get images of the great sunsets when they do occur. (I am still unable to predict whether a sunset will be exceptional).
  • Arrive early: Sun rays coming through clouds (traditionally called “God rays” by photographers) can be most prominent up to an hour before the sun actually sets. Plus, arriving early will allow you to scout out good locations and foreground subjects.
  • Stay late: The best color (pink and red) often occur 20 to 25 minutes after the sun sets.
  • Bring a tripod: Exposures of the last pink or red can be several seconds in duration.
  • The most dramatic sunsets occur when the weather is changing, particularly when bad weather is moving out.
  • Unless a sunset is spectacular, include a foreground object. The easiest way to do this is with the foreground object is as a silhouette. If a silhouette is not used, correct exposure for both this object and the sky simultaneously requires either a neutral density filter or bracketed exposures used for high dynamic range (HDR) processing. (HDR processing is the technique that I personally like. It is surprisingly easy. First bracket your exposure for 3 frames in increments of 1 to 2 stops. Then process them with software such as Photomatix from which offers a free trial of their software. This is a good starting point for shooting HDR, although this technique, to be mastered, is very complex.)

Image processing:

  • I processed the original RAW  format images in Photoshop Elements raw converter.
  • Brightness, vibrance and clarity were added.
  • Noise, both luminance and color, were reduced.
  • A tiny bit of sharpening was added.

Here is the result on a single frame.


Although improved via raw converter processing, the images (like the single frame above), the color is a little dull and the lighting a little flat. Therefore, after generating a panorama using Photoshop Elements panorama tool, I used Nik ColorEfx Pro4 (once again, to the rescue). I used a little Pro Constrast and a little Color Range Contrast with good results.

Finally, I sharpened via Nik Sharpener Pro 3.0 (which I love). The final composite is the image at the top of this post. It is made from 7 images taken from side to side with the camera in a vertical orientation and a one third overlap between frames.

I welcome comments, criticism and suggestions for future blog topics.


I am available at my photo enhancement website ( to assist clients with transforming their common nature photos into uncommon works of art that they are proud to give as gifts or to hang on their own wall for inspiration.

J. Michael Harroun ©2013

Digital Photography: the ISO setting

“The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”  -M. Scott Peck


The level of difficulty for this discussion of ISO settings: beginners

Understanding ISO is surprisingly easy.

  • Sensor sensitivity to light: ISO is a carryover from the days of film photography. It referred to the amount of sensitivity to light of a particular type of film. Similarly in digital photography, ISO indicates the degree of sensitivity to light of the camera’s light sensor. This sensitivity is adjustable. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive is the sensor to light. This greater sensitivity of the sensor allows the use of a faster the shutter speed and/or smaller aperture diameter than would be needed if the ISO (and sensitivity to light) were lower. A faster shutter speed is usually an advantage because it increases the probability that the image will be sharp.
  • Electronic noise: The disadvantage of high ISO however, is that more sensitive pixels are more likely to be activated by electron movement within the sensor itself, rather than by the light. This accidental firing of pixels produces red and green pixel-sized dots (color noise) and mottling in areas of uniform lighting such as blue sky (luminance noise). In addition to ISO, the amount of noise within an image depends upon the sensor type and quality.Color noise (also called chrominance noise and chromatic aberration) shows up most readily in the darker areas of your photo when viewed at a magnification of 150% or higher (200% makes this easier for me). Luminance noise (also called contrast noise) areas of uniform color and lighting, such as blue sky, when viewed at a magnification of 150% or higher (again, 200% is easiest for me).
  • Which ISO is best? To minimize the amount of electronic noise in your images, use the lowest ISO setting that allows you a shutter speed fast enough to achieve the effect that you want for that image. Usually, the preferable effect is sharpness. For instance, to “freeze” the motion of a person walking, a shutter speed of at least 1/125 sec is needed. To stop the motion of a person running, a minimum shutter speed of 1/250 sec is needed. In order to have sharp images of sporting activities often requires a shutter speed of at least 1/500 sec. If the light on the scene is low, shutter speeds this fast will not be possible with a low ISO setting, even when using a large diameter aperture.  When in this situation, increase the ISO only as much as is needed to achieve your desired shutter speed.   This increased noise level just needs to be tolerated or, better yet, removed with editing software. A high ISO is also necessary in very low light situations such as night photography, especially night sky photography of the stars.
  • When slow shutter speed is needed, a low ISO is helpful: Sometimes a blur is the photographer’s desired effect. The most common example is flowing water or waves that one wants to appear smooth or hazy. In this case a long shutter speed is needed, typically 2 to 15 seconds. Using the lowest ISO setting (and a small diameter aperture like f/16 or f/22) will help to get shutter speeds that last this long without overexposing your image. Another example of a specific need for a low ISO setting is when the desired effect is a blurring of a person walking or of moving automobiles, in order to convey the feeling of speed.
  • For those people who do not want to mess with ISO settings, use your camera’s program option for landscape, portrait, close up, action/sports and night photography. Your camera will then automatically provide you with the ISO setting which is usually the best.

Condensed version for those in a hurry:

  • The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the camera’s sensor is to light.
  • The higher the sensor’s sensitivity to light, the more electronic “noise” the image contains.
  • To minimize the amount of noise, use the lowest ISO number that allows a fast enough shutter speed to achieve the effect that you want (usually sharpness).
  • Cameras with program options such as landscape, portrait, close up, action/sports and night photography, will automatically provide you with the ISO setting which is usually the best for that purpose.
  • Electronic noise can be removed with editing software. However bold noise removal creates loss of sharpness or decreased saturation of color.

When noise in an image usually does not matter: When your photo is going to be displayed on the web or you will make prints no larger than 4 inches by 6 inches, noise will usually not be apparent unless the noise level is very high. (But you never know when you will shoot a remarkable image that you wish to enlarge and print. A high noise level will require special processing for removal).

Noise removal

  • Every digital image contains noise regardless of the ISO or quality of the camera.
  • Noise removal is the first step of image processing by professionals.
  • High ISO creates much more noise than usual, making its reduction even more important. Noise removal is accomplished with editing software (luminance noise reduction and color noise reduction) such as the software that came with your camera, Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom and many other editing programs. (The best, and easiest to use noise reduction software that I know of is Nik software’s Dfine program). However large amounts of noise reduction produce slightly blurred images from luminance noise reduction and/or unsaturated (faded) color from color noise reduction. A slightly blurry image can sometimes be saved by applying extra sharpening with your editing software. Desaturated color can be easily fixed by adding a little saturation with editing software.

I welcome comments, criticisms and questions about specific photography issues that you may be experiencing.

I am available at where I help people have their images transformed into impressive works of art that they are proud to either hang on their own wall or give as a gift.

J. Michael Harroun©2012

Photography: Auto Exposure

“It doesn’t matter how long we may have been stuck in a sense of our limitations. If we go into a darkened room and turn on the light, it doesn’t matter if the room has been dark for a day, a week, or ten thousand years — we turn on the light and it is illuminated. Once we control our capacity for love and happiness, the light has been turned on.”  – Sharon Salzberg

Recommended blog site: Accepting the risk that no one will come back to read the remainder of this post, I highly recommend Basil is on safari and has dramatic photos and captivating narratives (zebras, giraffes, and migrating wildebeests).

My last post concerned two exposure adjustments (increasing illumination detail in the shadows and color detail in the highlights) which require processing in editing software. This post is for the many photographers who do not process their images with a computer.

Modern auto exposure (AE) systems are amazingly accurate throughout a wide range of lighting conditions. However, there are situations that are beyond their ability. Here, I will describe how to adjust for lighting conditions with which auto exposure systems have problems.

Correct exposure is crucially important because most digital sensors are capable of capturing only 5-6 stops of illumination in any one frame. The majority of cameras have only the 5 stop range which is a difference of 32 times as much light in the shadows as in the highlights. Therefore, if the highlights are more than 32 times brighter than the darkest shadows, then either the highlights will be blown out (completely white) or the shadows will be completely black. For comparison, with both midday sunlight and dark shadows within a scene, the highlights are thousands of times brighter than the darkest shadows.

Auto exposure limitations: Most photographs are made up of predominantly middle tones with some highlights and some shadows. To accommodate this, auto exposure (AE) systems attempt to get as much of the scene as possible to be mid-tone (specifically 18% gray).  Usually this works out fine. However, predominantly bright or predominantly dark scenes are not properly exposed. If your scene is mostly bright, auto exposure will exposure your scene to be middle gray. Thus a landscape of direct sun on fresh snow will have gray snow. If the scene is overall dark, auto exposure will produce an image lightened to middle gray. A black bear in a thick forest at dusk will be gray. (These examples assume that the camera’s auto exposure is set to assess all of its different auto exposure areas within the frame, called evaluative auto exposure).

Assisting the auto exposure system: To get correct exposure of these predominantly bright or dark scenes, you can tell your camera (before taking the shot) that you want the image of the snowy scene to be brighter than usual. This is done by adjusting the exposure compensation. (Most cameras have a button on the back or top that allows easy access to the exposure compensation function, usually marked “+/-“).

To get proper exposure of a bright scene, set exposure compensation to a positive (+) number. For a somewhat bright scene, such as direct sunlight on a light color dog in front of beige fence, start with exposure compensation +1/3 to +2/3 and adjust from there if needed.  For direct sunlight on sand, start with exposure compensation set at +1, and then adjusts if needed. For direct sun on fresh snow, set exposure compensation to +1  and 1/2 to +2.

Conversely, for dark scenes, indicate to your camera that you want a darker than average image, by setting exposure compensation to a negative (-) number. For a black dog in front of a dark green fence in shadow, start with exposure compensation of -1/3 to -2/3. For the deep red of the sky 15 minutes after sunset, try exposure compensation of -1.  For a black bear in shadow in a thick forest start with exposure compensation of -1 and 1/2.

Trouble shooting auto exposure – Basics. If you are following the above procedure and still get incorrect exposure, first check the basics.

  • Is auto exposure turned on?
  • Is it set to assess the area of the frame that you are interested in? (It may not have been reset after a recent adjustment)
  • Is exposure compensation telling your camera to vary from its usual exposure calculation? (Again, it may not have been reset after you last adjusted it.
  • Is auto exposure lock enabled, blocking the camera from assessing exposure independently for each frame?
  • Is some option turned on that overrides exposure compensation, flash compensation or manual exposure settings? For example, the Canon Rebel T2i has a feature that automatically corrects brightness and contrast for jpg images (Auto Lighting Optimizer). Its default setting is “On” (“Standard”). This option may partially override your exposure compensation and manual exposure settings when they are set to produce a darker image. This could produce a brighter image than you are expecting. (It affects only jpg, not raw, images.) This is a helpful feature for people who never adjust exposure downward themselves. However, I recommend disabling this feature if you do. However, for people who adjust exposure compensation themselves, I recommend disabling this feature for standard shooting. Enable it just when appropriate.  5) Do you have viewfinder light leak? This applies only to DSLR’s.  This type of camera has a mirror which, in its normal position, prevents light that comes into the camera through the viewfinder from reaching the sensor. However, just before the shutter opens, the mirror pops up and away from the sensor. With the mirror up, any light entering your viewfinder will provide the sensor with more light than was predicted based on “through the lens” illumination. . This can be a problem whenever bright light falls upon the viewfinder, but particularly when direct sunlight is on the viewfinder.  The greatest change/error is exposure occurs when initial exposure was determined while the eye was blocking much of the light from reaching the sensor, but when the photographer moves back just prior to the shot, allowing direct sunlight to fall upon the viewfinder. Before dismissing this as arcane and insignificant, consider that Canon DSLR’s come with a viewfinder cover attached to the shoulder strap (It’s easy to overlook this small black rectangular cover).

When only the main subject needs to be properly exposed: The examples discussed above assume that you have the auto exposure system set to assess all of its possible auto exposure areas within the frame (full evaluative metering).  However, there are occasions when the lighting varies so much that not all of the frame can be properly exposed. Thus we choose our main area/subject of interest to be well exposed and let the remainder of the frame go over/under exposed (such as when you take a photo of a groom in a blue tux that is standing in front of a bright white canopy).

When only a portion of the frame can be properly exposed, there are three common options offered by most cameras: partial, center-weighted and spot metering. Partial metering determines exposure based solely only the central area of the frame. Use this when you want correct exposure for  a fairly large subject (without caring whether the background turns out very bright or  dark (For example,  you may want your light brown dog to be properly exposed, regardless of whether the background is very bright or dark) . If your subject is not in the center of the frame, point the center of the frame at your subject and press the shutter button half way down. This establishes exposure appropriate for your subject. While still holding the button half way down, recompose the image, then shoot. Many cameras have, in addition, a button that will keep the auto exposure unchanged while you recompose. This (auto exposure {AE} lock button) is usually located on the camera back (may be marked with an asterisk).  When this is pressed, the current exposure settings are locked in until the shutter button is pressed. Thus, the shutter release button does not need to continuously held half way down to keep the exposure compensation from changing settings.  This is particularly useful for tripod work. In some cameras, AE lock applies only to this one frame. In other cameras, its effect carries over to subsequent frames until it is turned off (With this “carryover type”, don’t forget to turn it off when finished).

Center weighted auto exposure metering: A second way to limit the amount of the frame that auto exposure assesses, is called center weighted metering. In this case, exposure is calculated by giving the central area of the frame priority. However, instead of ignoring the remainder of the frame as with partial metering, the remainder of the frame is changed by a smaller amount than is the center. This would be useful when you are primarily interested in properly exposing a central subject, but do not want the background to be way too bright or dark. An example would be a flower photo with a main subject and additional flowers within a bright background. You do not want the background flowers to be blown out (grossly overexposed). Center weighted exposure is a good choice here.

Spot metering: This determines exposure based exclusively on a smaller central portion of the frame than is utilized by either partial or center weighted metering. This is great for a main subject that occupies only a small portion of the frame. For example, let’s say you are at the zoo, ready to photograph a leopard that is 20 feet away from you. If you spot meter with the very center of the frame on the leopard, it will be properly exposed regardless of whether the background is bright or dark.

I hope this will be helpful to someone. I welcome comments, criticism and suggestions for future blog topics.

I am available at to assist clients in transforming their nature photos into impressive works of art that they are proud to give as gifts or to hang on their own wall for inspiration.

©2012 J. Michael Harroun