The Photo


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The Equipment and Settings

How We Shot It

This episode of How We Shot It will include my in-the-field thought process when I “fool around” with in-camera Picture Controls. (AKA Picture Styles, for you Canon shooters)

As a landscape photographer I always shoot in RAW, so you might be wondering, why even bother with in-camera settings?  If you find this odd, you might want to watch THIS VIDEO that I created which expands on the whole concept of aiding your creative vision in the field using in-camera picture adjustments such as contrast, toning, and dynamic range enhancements.  (Known as Active D-Lighting for Nikon, and Auto Lighting Optimizer on Canon.)

So, let’s begin!  “Fire Wave” is a geological feature in Valley Of Fire State Park.  My adventure companions (Sean Goebel, Michael Relich Jr) and I had stopped here on our way to the Vermillion Cliffs area.  Unfortunately, the sunset was rather un-exciting and we arrived just in time to see the last bit of sunlight go behind a cloud.  Feeling a little demoralized by the boring light, but still in awe of the beautiful scene in front of us, I decided to do what I always do when the contrast gets a little flat: go B&W and have fun with tonal management.

Here’s the first exposure I made, as it appeared in-camera using Picture Controls that included +3 contrast, no Active D-Lighting, and of course B&W mode using the green filter and a faint sepia tone:


Moody and emotive in my opinion, but most would accuse it of being downright under-exposed.  Instead of grabbing a GND filter or brightening my exposure, I decided to simply try cranking up my Active D-Lighting to “Extra High” and see what happened.  Here was the same exact exposure, with Active D-Lighting turned on:


WOW, that’s a pretty impressive increase in brightness!  Indeed, Nikon’s Active D-Lighting is just that powerful.  However I know my camera very well, and even if “ADL” can bring out this much shadow detail, the exposure might still be needlessly under-exposed in Lightroom.  Lo and behold, here’s what this exposure looks like in LR:


It definitely looks like I could brighten the exposure without losing any highlights.  By the way, here’s what the Lightroom histogram looks like:


I certainly could have “made it work” with this exposure, since the image fits easily within the histogram, but I still decided to brighten my exposure from 1/20 sec to 1/13 sec.  ETTR, “expose to the right”, as they say.  I also turned Active D-Lighting off, and left the in-camera contrast set to the maximum of +3.

matthew-saville-fire-wave-sooc-brightThis gave the image a slight bit more “pop”, while at the same time being a little more accurate to what I would be working with in post-production.

In-Camera B&W Picture Controls & Color Filters

Before we get to the post-production, I still need to explain one more choice I made in-camera, and that is the color filters that you can apply to your camera’s B&W mode.  No, I’m not talking about sepia or those types of tones.  I’m talking about the Red / Yellow / Green filtering options, that offer a type of tonal control very similar to traditional B&W film photography.  Here is what I mean:


You guessed it-  in order to heighten the stark contrast of the red stone layers against the pale stone layers, I used the green B&W filter.

This works in the same manner as using a red filter to turn a blue black in B&W:  a colored filter darkens its opposite color tones, while brightening / leaving alone similar color tones.  The science behind this is, well, another article for another day.

At this point I was pretty happy with the overall tone and exposure.  The last thing I did (well actually the very first thing I did, but the last thing I’ll mention) was to apply a very faint sepia tone to the image in-camera, simply because I felt the scene’s naturally rich warm colors deserved it.

The Post-Processing

Once I get any RAW images into Lightroom, all of their in-camera processing goes away of course.  This is the advantage (and the curse) of shooting in RAW.  I work around this by culling and proofing my images using Nikon View NX 2, a proprietary Nikon file browser program that allows me to see my in-camera adjustments as if I had shot JPG in the first place. To be honest, I mainly just do this because it is more exciting and reminiscent of sorting slides on a light table, than sifting through dull, flat RAW images processed by Adobe’s RAW engine.  I also use Nikon View NX because it allows me to start browsing rather instantaneously, with no import process or preview rendering necessary, plus I can reference my back-of-camera vision as I edit in LR to create my final vision.

Of course if you don’t shoot Nikon, or don’t care to use a secondary program, I guess you could always just shoot RAW+JPG and tell Lightroom to treat your RAW and JPG files separately.

But I digress.  Here’s the un-edited image in Lightroom:


From here I started with The SLR Lounge Preset System and the “Vivid Base” presets.  They help me manage / stretch dynamic range while maintaining high contrast & vibrance.  However since this image was going to require significant amounts of customized B&W processing, from this point on it gets a little crazy so I’m just going to share the Develop Module settings that are of importance:


In the develop panel, I had to keep the Highlights down and the Shadows up to compensate for such a high Contrast adjustment.  Since this image wasn’t a traditional HDR type image with extreme amounts of highlight / shadow recovery to do, I was able to keep the Blacks relatively low, and even increase the Whites by +15.  Dialing the Highlights all the way down to -1oo and bumping the Whites up to +15 is sometimes a great way to maintain good dynamic range while still giving your highlights that little “pop” so they don’t start to look too weird and over-processed. (We get more into this in our HDR Workshop DVD!)

In the B&W conversion, I attempted to mimic the in-camera filter by dropping the warmer tones way down and bumping the green / cool tones up a little bit.  I also like to make the conversion adjustments a smooth curve, instead of a more “jagged” array of sliders, because even if those intermediate colors are barely even present, it helps avoid any harsh transitions / posterization.

Then, I applied a very subtle split toning with my favorite 45/25 recipe.

Here is the final image, again plus a color version that also turned out great, ironically:


I think I like them both equally, however the journey to create the B&W version was far more rewarding and enjoyable, especially in the field.

Take care, and happy clicking,
=Matthew Saville=

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