Digital photography the old fashioned way

Moonlight, Garrapata Beach, Big Sur
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
4 seconds
ISO 400
35 mm

Photoshop processing sometimes gets a bad rap. There’s nothing inherently pure about a jpeg file, and because a jpeg is processed by the camera, it’s actually less pure than a raw file. As a general rule, the less processing an image needs, the better, but sometimes raw capture followed by Lightroom/Photoshop processing is the only way to a successful image.

I’ve always considered myself a film shooter with a digital camera. But that doesn’t mean that I’m opposed to processing an image—in fact, processing is an essential part of every image. But just as Ansel Adams visualized the finished print long before he clicked the shutter, success today requires understanding before capture a scene’s potential, and the steps necessary to extract it later Lightroom/Photoshop.

For example

A couple of weeks ago, while co-leading Don Smith’s Big Sur photo workshop, our group had an early morning shoot that was equal parts difficult and glorious. The plan was a Garrapata Beach sunrise featuring the moon, one day past full, dropping into the Pacific at sunrise. But high tide and violent surf banished us to about 500 square feet of sheltered sand, and the cliffs above the beach (it’s bad for business when workshop participants get swept out to sea). Compounding the difficulty, the most striking aspect of the scene, a nearly full moon, was too bright for the rest of the scene. But despite the morning’s difficulties, I set to work trying to make an image because, well, that’s what photographers do.

As much as I wanted to be on the sand, aligning the moon with the the best foreground from down there would have made me a sitting duck for the waves. So I made my way along the cliff to an off-trail spot above a group of surf-swept rocks. It turns out the higher perspective was perfect for emphasizing the reflected moonlight that stretched all the way to the horizon.

With long exposures on a tripod, photographing the moonlight and beach wasn’t a problem. But adding the daylight-bright moon burning through the pre-dawn darkness made capturing the entire range of light in a single frame (a personal requirement) difficult, and perhaps impossible. Nevertheless, I spot-metered on the moon to determine the maximum exposure that would retain the ability to recover overexposed lunar detail later in the Lightroom raw processor. But even after maximizing the moon’s exposure, I didn’t have nearly enough light for the rest of the scene without first darkening the sky further using five stops of graduated neutral density (stacking my Singh-Ray three-stop reverse and two-stop hard GND filters). So far so good.

Satisfied that I could make the exposure work, but with very little margin for error, my next concern was finding a shutter speed that allowed enough light without risking motion blur in the moon. Because I needed sharpness throughout the frame, from the beach right below me all the way out to the moon, I couldn’t open all my aperture all the way. Whipping out my DOF app, I computed that focusing twenty feet away at f8 would give me sharpness from ten feet to infinity. Bumping to ISO 400 at f8 brought my shutter speed to four seconds, a value I was confident would freeze the moon enough. I clicked several frames to get a variety of wave effects, ultimately choosing this one for the implicit motion in foreground wave’s gentle arc.

In Lightroom, I cooled the light temperature slightly to restore the night-like feel. Using five GND stops at capture required significant Photoshop brightening of the sky to return it to a reasonable range. A few years ago this would have introduced far too much noise, but the latest noise reduction software (I use Topaz) is amazing. As expected, even after all my exposure and processing machinations, I still needed to process the raw file a second time to recover the highlights in the moon. Because the two versions were the same capture, combining them in Photoshop was a piece of cake.

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12 Comments on “Digital photography the old fashioned way

  1. You might not be a modern day Ansel Adams, however, you are an inspiration to many of us. You are very grounded and have the soul to produce images that are real. Through your teachings and guidance you allow many of us to capture beyond what we see…… and then look at our captured image and see something else……Thanks G

  2. It might be serendipitous or not, but I think the high vantage point worked in your favor. I wonder if you would be able to pick up the moon’s reflection as well as this from the sand below. One thing is for sure, that’s a keeper shot! Plus, it gives you asnice perspective of the waves running up the beach from the vantage point above.

  3. Thank you do much for these wonderful photos! It helps me so much to understand what you go through for each shot.

  4. Truly magical image, Gary! You continue to inspire one to get the exposure right or as right as possible in camera. What DOF app do you like?

    • Thanks, Rick. I use one called “Depth of Field Calculator” by Essence Computing. I honestly can’t say whether it’s any better than the many other options, but it does the job for me.

  5. Gary, Thank you, thank you, thank you! You said so well what I’ve tried to get across to so many others who insist that every photo has to be “Photoshopped.” I also came from film into the new digital era and appreciate your “one shot” way of thinking.

  6. That’s a beautiful image, Gary, and I really appreciate your description of the process involved, including the visualization and planning. Great stuff!

    • Thanks, Marge. I don’t know anything about Android, but I imagine it’s not hard to find a good DOF app. It’s pretty straightforward technology–I just picked mine at random from the many available and it’s been fine.

  7. Pingback: Color in nature | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

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