Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

March 2002

Tip of the Month

Shoot For The Future - Part II


In a previous Tip of the Month (September2001) we discussed some of the electronic imagery advances and suggested, then, that you try shooting scenes with the future in mind. One of the ways this can be easily implemented is with scenes of high contrast. Most photographers are aware of split and graduated neutral density filters and their use in high contrast scenes - such as sky or sea and a darker landscape foreground or a sun-lit wall of a canyon framed with the shaded wall included in the sky. The filter is used to mask the brighter area, thereby reducing the exposure there, and putting it to an exposure value closer to, or equal, that of the darker area of the scene.

This works reasonably well for skies or seas if there is a relatively level horizon, or area of darkness, where the transition line between filtered and unfiltered can be hidden. If you look closely at many graduated neutral density filter shots you can vaguely (sometimes you can quite clearly!) see this transition. It looks unnatural, yet we accept it, most of the time, as the filters do reduce contrast and bring a scene to a value that simulates what our eyes see.

Reading this, you may wonder if we're knocking ND filters. We're not, and we use them in our work, although admittedly we find that we often are not carrying them, or packing them, when we should. Sometimes, frankly, using the ND filters has been a hassle and an inconvenience, and we fail to use the filter just out of laziness.

But even under the best circumstances, and with the best of intentions, ND filters have very definite shortcomings. We've often joked, when attempting to ND a scene, that we needed a 'split roof' filter, or a 'canyon' filter, or a 'bird and bright background' filter, because many scenes simply do not lend themselves to easy filtration. Remember, to work, these ND filters need a fairly regular background, and a bird's outline against a bright sky just doesn't work in those cases.

Sometimes fill-flash will help, reducing contrast by adding light to a darker subject or one less bright than the background. But that technique won't work with distant birds, or landscapes, or broad views. So … what can be done?

As I discussed before, shooting two scenes and matching them up in the computer is a viable solution. In the two examples illustrated, both shot on Carcass Island in the Falkland Islands off the SE coast of South America, I combined two images taken only seconds apart to recreate what my eye really saw. In both cases the contrast was great. In both, the exposure for the sky was an easy two stops (perhaps even three) brighter than the foreground. In the cabin-lupine scene, the sky AND the cabin were significantly brighter than the lupine flowers in the foreground. As you can see in the before images in both cases, only one of the two extreme exposure values is correctly exposed in each image.

Left: I exposed for the lupines. Center: I exposed for the Cabin and sky. Right: Composite of the two.

Yet by combining the two, I merged the two values, and recreated exactly what my eyes saw. As we look at a scene we see the 'whole picture' correctly exposed, generally speaking, and the computer merged image did a pretty good job at duplicating what our eyes actually see.

Left: Exposed for the foreground. Center: Exposed for sky. Right: Composite

How's it done? First, I shot two images, exposing each for the correct exposure value of the various contrast areas. For example, for the shed landscape, I exposed for the path in one shot, and the sky background for the other. In these examples I used a Canon D30, so I didn't need to scan the images into the computer. Instead, after downloading to my laptop, I brought both images up onto the screen - in Photoshop 6, then created a new page with the same dimensions as the original photos.

Left: Sky. Center: Foreground grass. Right: Composite.

Using the Move tool I dragged each of the two originals over to the new page, creating two Layers in doing so. I made sure that the edges matched the corners precisely, then went to Layers again, and reduced the opacity of each layer to about 50% so that the bottom layer was visible thru the top layer. By using the arrow keys on my keyboard I moved one of the layers incrementally, and in doing so I could see when the two layers were misaligned, and by backtracking with the arrow keys, confirming the two layers were in alignment.

Next, I used the Background Eraser Tool and erased the light areas of the top layer, revealing the darker sky (and roof top and siding of the cabin in one of the images). To speed up my work I used various brush sizes - from a large 100 point to a tiny 10 point brush. When I had erased all the light areas and revealed the desired tonality found on the next layer, I went back to the Layer Menu and hit Merge Visible, making the two images one. I then saved the new page under Save As with the name I gave it.

Question? Is this image manipulation? Would this image need to be labeled Digitally Enhanced?
I don't know, really, and since I'm just doing this type of work, for now, for my own use in prints or for our Web Site or for instruction, it doesn't matter much. But consider this: Has the scene really been changed? I'd say no. Has the 'new' computer generated image captured what my eyes have really seen? I'd say yes, since my eyes have a broader range in 'stops' than does either digital or film renderings. Could I have done the same basic thing with a ND filter, using traditional photographic practices? Yes, if anyone made a custom ND filter that would follow the various outlines of the scenes I've shown, but unfortunately no one has. Nor can one, unless the filter sensed light itself and worked via a LCD or via some other fashion to filter and reduce the light.

To me, a digitally enhanced or computer manipulated image should imply creating an image with elements not originally present in a scene. Adding penguins to an iceberg, for example, or flying birds over a landscape. Just as photo 'sandwiches' (where two or more images are combined in a slide mount and either projected that way, or photo copied into a new original) should be labeled, these computer images should be, too. But if a photographer is simply using a computer to truly capture what your eye can see, using the computer as a sophisticated and highly advanced ND filter, I'd argue that that is not digital manipulation. At least not in its purest form.

Undoubtedly, there will be much written about labeling and identifying digitally enhanced and computer generated images in the future, and I'm sure we'll address this issue in a future Tip of the Month or Question of the Month. But for now, if you're 'shooting for the future,' remember to take several exposures of the various light values in a scene so that you can, if you so choose, recreate exactly what you saw inside your viewfinder!

Do YOU have a Photo Tip or Natural History Tip you'd like to pass along? If you do, please send it to our email address (below), and under the subject field for the email type "Proposed Tip of the Month." Can't promise you that we'll use your tip but we may. If we do, I'll elaborate on the text, I'm sure, but I'll be crediting the submitter unless otherwise requested. Thanks!

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