A long time ago, when 1/8th inch tape cassettes were the cat’s pajamas (oops, I mean the hot new thing, 78′s were the cat’s pajamas), there was a commercial for Memorex brand tape where listeners were challenged to determine which was the live performance and which was playback from a recording on the tape.
This picture is definitely Memorex, in that it’s a playback of what I really saw live. This was taken just after the sun set; the sky was showing the dramatic effect of the last warmish rays contrasted against the blue-gray of the dissapating storm clouds, the horizon was glowing goldish-gray behind the container port lights, the gray water was reflecting those lights and the gray gate was brightly set against the grayish red of the wooden dock. Are you sensing a gray theme here yet?
We know by now that there is no single exposure that will capture the entire range of tone that we saw. Our digital cameras, although the greatest thing since sliced bread (again with the ancient references!), have not yet reached the level of technology required to get this all in one shot. But film couldn’t do this either and with digital, we have the ability to overcome this limitation using that other piece of digital photograpy equipment: Photoshop.
By taking multiple exposures; one for the sky, a second for the water and dock and a third for the detail in the gate, we can then combine the three into one image that faithfully represents the scene as we saw it.
There are many techniques for ‘compressing’ the wide tonal range in scenes like this, all loosely gathered under the heading ‘HDR’. Most often, it is used in scenes where the correction needs to be done throughout the picture requiring local adjustments and there are powerful software packages that do this. When used in the right hands, this produces incredibly evocative images that stand out for their ability to look more deeply into a scene and bring out details that would be otherwise missed. In the wrong hands…well the words ‘over the top’ seem to be used a lot to describe the look.
In landscape-like scenes like this one, the challenge is a bit easier because the different tone ranges are fairly well separated into physical zones: the sky, the middle ground, and in this case, the shape of the gate. Moose Peterson showed us how to use a split grad neutral density filter to tame the bright exposures of the sky, but we didn’t have it with us ( another whole topic: what to schlep with you when going out to take pictures!).
Rather than use the HDR software, we chose to blend the exposures in Photoshop using layers and masks. Masks are usually labor intensive, but by using the luminosity information and the shape information in the case of the gate’s mask, Photoshop takes a great deal of the manual work out of the process. Not all of it, but enough to make the technique feasible for the types of shots that we take. We are still working on this, trying to simplify the process and understand more about luminosity masks and other techniques to allow the image data to determine the steps needed for the final result.
The three exposures that were used for this are shown below.
For the sky
For the dock
For the gate