Wide Lunch

My wife packed my camera when she took the boys to have lunch with me at the park earlier this week. The boys enjoyed themselves but the weather continually threatened rain with intermittent sprinkles until it finally opened up just as we were leaving. This left little time for pictures, but I tried to squeeze one in anyway:

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I hadn’t been to Crystal Lake Park in a while and had forgotten about this bridge. The “No Fishing On Bridge” sign begged for a wide-angle treatment, emphasizing the sign and exaggerating the depth of the bridge. If you want to use a wide-angle lens to “get it all in,” you’re going to wind up with the subject too small in the middle, surrounded by a bunch of irrelevant cruft on the border; push in close and you get all kinds of wonderful swooping and converging lines. Exaggerated depth and environmental portraiture are the two best uses of wide-angle lenses.

This image also illustrates the dynamic range available in D90 RAW files and the abilities of Lightroom 4 to remap that dynamic range. The base image has murky shadows and large areas of apparently blown sky, but the highlights were recoverable and the shadows could be boosted without noticeable problems. No HDR needed for a tonally rich image.

Trusting the Software

The photographers I admire can (or could) anticipate the tools needed to produce a certain effect, and get it right more often than not. I aspire to that level of mental preparedness and fluency in the craft. Since I remain a rank amateur, there have been far too many days when I just can’t make the tools do what I want, all of which ended with me throwing away images which a better photographer would know how to process. Today was almost one of those days, but this time, the tools came to my rescue: the programmers at Adobe seem to have anticipated exactly what I wanted to do.

Prarie Gradient

Every so often the twilight resolves into this sort of lovely full-spectrum pattern when the sun is far enough below the horizon. I’ve seen it many times and have never successfully photographed it until now. The red on bottom and blue on top are easy; it’s the yellow and green in the middle that have always frustrated me. I was pretty frustrated tonight as well after hacking at it in Lightroom for a while, and in desperation I headed over to the presets. I idly moved my cursor over the Cross Process 2 preset and, wouldn’t you know, there were my yellows and greens. Unlike the others, the Cross Process 2 preset doesn’t perform hue shifts, only saturation and luminance. With the preset as a base I tweaked the tone curve and shifted the blues, which had turned cyan, back to blue.

Funny thing is, I had tried to do something similar without a preset five minutes earlier, but I had failed. I still don’t understand why a modified version of Cross Process 2 did exactly what I wanted, and I am angry with myself that I couldn’t develop this image without help, but I’m glad at least that I didn’t throw it away.

Exercises in Visualization

The outing where I was able to capture some neat underpass graffiti was originally intended to take advantage of clear cold weather for getting a shot of the University of Illinois’ power plant in full steam.

The previous day had much the same weather but I was limited to scouting the area for a good location, which gave me time to visualize my image. I wanted a strong monochrome rendering of the scene, and thought of Ansel Adams’ visualization of his famous photograph Monolith, The Face of Half Dome, as described in Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs:

I saw the photograph as a brooding form, with deep shadows and a distant sharp white peak against a dark sky. The only way I could represent this adequately was to use my deep red Wratten No. 29 filter, hoping it would produce the effect I visualized. (p. 4)

In the same way, I wanted the stacks and steam to stand out against a dark sky, while the values of the rest of the building could fall where they may, as long as they were legible. The old Main Line of Mid-America runs right next to the plant; I realized that the top of its embankment was the best place to put my camera.

Not being sure of the optimal focal length, I used my 18-105mm Nikkor, my most versatile lens. f/8 provided adequate depth of field. Without camera movements to manage convergence, I knew I’d have to tilt up and correct perspective in post, and frame just a touch loosely to allow an accurate crop. I exposed to the right and made several exposures with different shapes of steam plumes.

Lightroom’s B&W converter is like Channel Mixer on steroids; it allows the user to control the relative contributions of eight colors to the values of the final image. For this image I took the automatic levels and severely decreased the contribution of blue, darkening sky and shadows without appreciably affecting other values. It took a little more work to find the right amount of perspective correction, and not all parallel lines are strictly parallel even in the final rendering; the stacks are appreciably straight, however, which establishes the necessary orientation and sense of height.

I could have further darkened the sky by using a polarizing filter, but did not think of it while shooting; in any case, it is probably better to capture optimal data and tweak the relative color luminances later, rather than polarize and bake-in relative tonalities I cannot undo.

Endless Journey

My series of interesting local graffiti continues with this gentleman, frozen for all time while walking east under the railroad tracks at Neil and Stadium.

I was constrained by space on the sidewalk, so I broke out my Tokina 11-16mm ultrawide and chose a low camera position. I really would have liked to have someone on the left side of the frame, but alas, I was shooting by myself.

This was also one of my candidates to use for testing the beta of Lightroom 4. So far, I have successfully avoided selling my soul to Adobe, but I so enjoyed using Lightroom for my Sunday shoot that it will be difficult to avoid buying it when the final release is ready.