Sunday, August 8, 2010

super long exposures :: landscapes at night

Hello fellow photographers! Today we will discuss a cool technique for shooting in the dark. Long exposures. Long exposures are performed by slowing down your shutter speeds. This can be done for various reasons. Some being to capture motion, creating light trails, or just to get the proper exposure, just to name a few. Today we will focus on the photo shown to the left (obviously).

Let's start off by what will be needed for this shoot. Most importantly you will need a dependable tripod. I prefer the Gitzo GK2580TQR. Notice I said prefer. At a whopping $900, it is currently out of my price range, so my wife says! Instead I chose the Manfrotto 055X PR with 498 MAXI BALL HEAD, about 3x less expensive than the Gitzo. The tripod is needed since doing this long exposure requires that the camera stays completely still.

To avoid any camera shake at all I also use a wired Canon trigger. Using this lets you the shooter avoid the slight movement caused by pressing down the shutter. I prefer this remote since it works just like the on camera shutter. You can auto focus with this the same way, press half way down to get focus. It also allows you to shoot exposures as long as you like with a shutter locking mechanism. 60 minute exposure? No problem. Now you can also buy a wireless trigger which I tend to use much less than a wired one due to the fact that it lacks the features of the wired one. If you do not have either of these, do not fear, you can use the camera's self timer. Any of these techniques will reduce camera shake.

The last in my bag of tricks to reduce camera shake is one that I do not use anymore. That is mirror lock up. The way this works is that you hit the shutter before starting your exposure. The mirror locks up, which causes a bit of vibration, and after that you hit the shutter again to begin exposing the shot. Why don't I do this anymore? Well I've experimented by doing comparison shots. I'm very particular about producing a sharp image and if there is a way to improve on it, I will try. I'm what they call a "pixel peeper," obsessively analyzing my shots in post to make sure they are perfect. After comparing shots with mirror lock up on and off, I saw absolutely no difference between the two. So now, no lock up. Don't get me wrong, I think if I added a third shot to the comparison, shooting without the wired trigger with lock up on, I may have seen a difference. Maybe for a future post.

Next need for this shot, darkness. Let me start of by saying I was totally impatient for this shot. It was day two at the Jersey Shore and the moment I awoke, I scouted out my shot for that day. I was staying right on the bayside of Ocean City. A room with a beautiful view. I had a clear view across the bay to Somer's Point, the closest place to buy beer in Ocean City since it is a dry town. Since I was here on vacation and not on an assignment, I was not alone. Family was there also. Wife wasn't too angry with me, as she and everyone else were up bright and early to head to the beach, I decided to stay on the bayside area. Again, like a Marine sniper, I had to do some recon on the area. Where was I going to shoot from? There were rows and rows of boat slips, filled with everything from 50 foot yachts down to a smaller yet amazing Grady White, an awesome fishing boat (very expensive). By early afternoon I found my mark. Not far from where I was staying were a few empty rows of slips. Due to the fallen economy I suppose. I knew these would work for what I was trying to achieve in this shot.

When you take a look at the photograph you can see that the water looks almost as if it is frozen with a slight haze floating on it. This was all done on purpose. I wanted to portray a feeling of eeriness, giving a sense of fear to the viewer. During the day I popped off a few test shots to see how I would compose the final one. I then dialed it down the bulkheads seen in the final shot. Once I knew what I was going to shoot, I could do nothing now but wait. Wait for one of photography's great friends, Darkness, good old brother to light, our other buddy. Without the two, we could not create beautiful photos, probably because there would be nothing, and that would mean that we wouldn't be here either. Anyway, I digress, again.

In the meantime I would then kill some time by doing some fishing. Caught some nice sized fluke (flounder) in the matter of minutes. Soon after, some big storm clouds came rolling in. Lightning started crashing down in the bay, thunder echoing across the water. Time to wrap it up. Felt it was a bit unsafe with a 12 foot fishing rod. I hurried back, to save my life and tried to get my gear ready to get some lightning photos. No such luck, by the time I had broken down and cleaned up from the fishing, the lighting bolts had move on past. Then out of nowhere, in seconds, a funnel cloud formed and seemed as if it touched down on the other side of the island. Not if it touched down, but it sure was scary looking. Side note: When I arrived back to the condo, my brother, also photographer, was ahead of the game, set up and already caught the electricity touching down on the bay. I was totally jealous. Stupid fluke!

Back to business. The excitement of the storm had past. But it was not over. The clouds were thick and dark, covering the sky as far as the eye could see. Rain was still coming down from time to time. I could hear thunder a little further in the distance now. I couldn't tell if it was coming or going. The clouds did help my final photo. Now it would get dark faster. The storm gods were feeling my patience wearing thin. I wanted my shot and wanted it now! To achieve a photo such as this you want to expose anywhere from 5-30 seconds, even longer depending on the ambient environment. It was now just getting dark, and with clouds still cast overhead, I would wait no more.

I set up my gear from the second floor of the building, overlooking the bay, perfect angle. Put on old trusty, the Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM. Raised the tripod up, locked my camera on, plugged in my trigger, and now ready to aim and fire. NO!!! Still to bright out. I set the camera to let as little light through as possible. My ISO is dialed in at a low 100, aperture closed down to f/22. Now that's the best I can dial down to with this particular lens and body. I try one at a 5 second shutter speed, blown out. This was overexposed by about 2 stops. Next I aim to speed it up to 3 seconds. Nice exposure, bad effect. The water was freezing at this speed, but not to the extent I wanted. 5 seconds would have to be my minimum. Now I had to wait for more darkness. I was a little frustrated, being the man that I am, I need instant gratification but in photography you need to have patience.

"Serenity Now," a line from Seinfeld that I use at this moment. I calm myself and wait, and wait. The time has come and though I probably should have stayed even longer, I get the shot. It actually ended up at 4 seconds. I would have liked a few seconds longer, but this worked out nicely.

A couple of days later I get home and quickly upload my RAW files from the weekend. This shot was one of my favorites due to its feel and simplicity. I edit immediately. As always, first edits begin in Camera RAW. In there the white balance, exposure, clarity and sharpness are all tweaked just a bit. Next, the image is opened in Photoshop. As always, and as learned from one of the greats, Scott Kelby, I do curves adjustments. By doing so, you remove any color cast that the original will ALWAYS have. It doesn't matter which camera or how expensive your gear is, the photo will always have this color cast. First you will get the black eydropper and find your true blacks. After that you get the white dropper and find true white. Next get the midtone dropper and find midtone gray. That one is tricky. We will discuss that in future posts. If you are having difficulties doing this technique, you can use auto curve adjustment. This will work fine for many shots. Once your curves are adjusted you will then tweak the graph a bit. First raise the top anchor up about 7 clicks and the opposite for the bottom anchor, down about 7 clicks. The result will be a slight S-shaped curve.

Once the curves are completed you will now move on to sharpen just a pinch more. Yes, I know I said that this is done in RAW edit, but sometimes it just needs what I said, a pinch more. Or not, sometimes I find that I don't like how it looks and I just leave it alone. First you will duplicate the layer. Then under filters, go to high pass and crank that baby up to a radius of 90. Yes you will at first think that the image looks awful. Not to worry. After you have this you will change the layer style to vivid light. The result now will look like somebody's poor attempt to recreate the uniquely awesome Dave Hill style. Many have tried, but few have succeeded to recreate what he has accomplished. Anyway, now that you have your crazy looking shot you will then take the opacity down to 10%. You may want to lower or raise that depending on taste. I keep it low to just give a tiny pop in sharpness.

On to the black and white conversion. As with anything in Photoshop, you can travel many different ways to get to a same or similar result. For this type of conversion, I like to go to the black and white adjustment layer mask. Once you are there, you have many different adjustment sliders. These adjustments should never be the same on any two black and white photos. There are some presets that you can choose from, after finding one you like for that specific photo, you will then need to just play around with the sliders to get your desired effect. For this particular photo, I made sure the water looked almost white as if it were ice, and as for the pier and bulkheads, I wanted them to be very contrasty and dark.

Now the photo is starting to look close to being complete. I now have flatted the image into one layer and decide to work with another adjustment, brightness and contrast. As with some of the other adjustments, you may only need to approach these very delicately. I felt for this shot that only a 5% bump in contrast and a -5% bump in brightness would do the trick. Nice, now flatten one more time (only flatten if you know you will not adjust that layer again).

I mentioned earlier how I can sometimes be obsessive with my photos, well this one is like no other. I felt like those bulkheads needed just a smidgin more pop to them. I decided to some dodge and burn techniques. Dodging will result in brightening the painted areas and burning will do the opposite. You can choose what you are dodging or burning also. After picking your tool, you will then decide if you are going to paint the highlights, midtones or shadows. I set the exposure to 20% for both tools. First I dodged the highlights and after that burned the shadows a bit. This resulted in nicely contrasted and very rich black bulkhead.

Last but not least. If you notice the photo dimensions are not that of coming straight from camera, it is not. I had to do some slight cropping for taste. At the top of the photo and to the right there were some more pillars coming out of the water that I had in the end decided that they didn't belong. I could have easily cloned them out, but cropping seemed to do the trick just fine.

Well that's it for today. For those who are still reading, well, congrats!!! I'm not sure if I would have even lasted this long.

Signing off and with some internet lingo I learned from another photographic genius Joe Mcnally...

more tk (meaning more to come, I think?)...