Behind the Shot: Nautilus

In this latest article in my 'Behind the Shot' series, I’ll talk all about one of my most popular shots, 'Nautilus'.

The image features an ice cave we visited in Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland (and in Europe), on a photography trip in December 2011, while scouting locations for my 'Land of Ice' workshops. It wasn’t easy getting there, and we had to use a modified jeep to traverse the snow. Even when close to the cave it was tricky to spot it, but luckily we had a wonderful guide who had previous knowledge of the whereabouts of this hidden wonder, and he brought us there quickly and safely.

I love shooting ice caves, there are just so many unique things about them. Each cave has its own different shape, texture and patterns. The light strikes each differently, and brings about a unique atmosphere. And this image is especially special in the sense that all these aspects were just perfect: the incredible spiral shape, the colors on the snow outside and the reflections on the ice. But an amazing location isn’t enough: we need to know how to compose, shoot and post-process such an image to get the best result possible.

Composition

The most important aspect here is, naturally, composition. I feel the composition is really what makes this image stand out, so let’s talk about the different compositional elements.

First and foremost, there’s the converging spiral starting on the bottom and going a full circle into itself. This element alone can make a shot, but there’s more. I see the opposing circular shapes as important, too: the dark hole in the ice, 'facing' left, balances the quasi-circular reflection on the left. The lines of the dark path on the bottom-right also lead the eye to the cave's entrance, contributing to the strong feeling of convergence.

Note that I had to choose my position extremely carefully to make sure the reflection was in this shape. Other shots from the same location have other reflections which I liked much less.

Setup

The image was taken with a Canon EOS 5D mark II, and a Samyang 14mm f/2.8 ultra wide lens. I love using the 14mm for ice cave shoots, since you can fit so much into one frame without needing a panorama. This is especially important when shooting HDRs since it’s quite tough building an HDR panorama, and I try to avoid it unless absolutely critical. The 14mm is also good for creating an extreme perspective, because it allows you to get really close to the foreground, while still having enough background in the frame.

It’s very important to mention that this shot is a manual HDR. This means I took several shots of the exact same composition, but at different shutter speeds, to cover all brightness levels in the scene. Ice cave often demand the use of HDR, since their insides are usually much darker than the outsides. This was the case here, and the bright blue sky was quite a few stops brighter than the cave walls. I thus had to take 3 different shots to cover the entire dynamic range. The aperture was set to F14, and the shutter speeds were 1/2sec, 1/6sec and 1/25sec. I used ISO 100 for maximum quality. In the images below you can see the untouched RAW files.

Post-Processing

On to post-processing. The dark art of manual HDR is far too complex to be explained in one short article, but I’ll try to briefly explain how I blended the image. 

To manually combine different exposures, we first have to stack them as layers on a Photoshop project. If we stack the images in descending order of brightness, we need to gradually get rid of the washed-out areas by selectively deleting the very brightest pixels of the brighter layers. Selection of the brightest pixels is done by ctrl-clicking the RGB channel and then multiplying the selection by itself (by ctrl-alt-shift clicking the same channel-mask) numerous times, until the selection is discriminatory enough for our needs.

The images are stacked as a photoshop project layers, in descending order of brightness. The histogram is that of the top layer, since it's all that is seen.

This is the state of things after ctrl-clicking the RGB channel one time, which selects each pixel according to its brightness. The marching ants show us the boundary of the set of pixels which are selected 50% or more. See the histogram now - it only contains the brighter pixels, since the histogram refers only to pixels which are 50% or more selected.

It might seem a bit complicated to understand, but in a nutshell, the selection is now stronger for brighter pixels.

After multiplying the selection by itself by repeatedly ctrl-alt-shift-clicking the RGB channel, the selection is discriminatory enough to distinguish the bright pixles from the dark ones. You'll understand it much more easily if you try for yourself!

We then use the eraser (partial opacity) to delete the selected bright pixels and reveal the darker pixels in the layer underneath it. Try it at home and you’ll see it’s not too complicated.

The stacked layers after a few passes of a low-opacity eraser. The brighter pixels have been affected to a much larger extent, since the selection was much stronger in those pixels. The cave walls remain unchanged, and the washed-out entrance is now somewhat darker and more dynamically-balanced.

After carefully deleting the washed-out pixels in the top layer, I merged the two top layers and did the same: I selected the brighter pixels by ctrl-clicking the channel mask, multiplied the selection several times and erased those pixels on the brighter layer to expose the darker ones underneath.

Merging the 2 upper layers is done by shift-clicking to select them both, then right-clicking on any of them and choosing 'merge layers'.
Again, I achieved a selection favoring the lighter pixels by ctrl-clicking the RGB channel, and then ctrl-alt-shift clicking it a bunch of times to multiply the selection by itself and strengthen the discrimination toward the bright pixels.
The image after another few passes with a low-opacity eraser. Now it looks much more balanced!

It’s critical to avoid over-blending. Doing so usually results in a very ‘HDRy’, unappealing look. The blending only serves to compensate for the huge global contrast in the image, and not to avoid local, desired contrast. In addition, see how I maintained a relatively high brightness level in the sky. Having the sky at the same brightness level as the inside of the cave would seem unnatural, which is highly undesired in my eyes.

After merging the 2 remaining layers, the image is almost ready. To finish up, I boosted the saturation a bit, and then converted the shot to the sRGB color-space (for internet use), applied some sharpening, and I was done. I hope you've enjoyed the outcome! 


Erez Marom is a professional nature photographer and photography guide based in Israel. Every January, Erez guides his Iceland winter photography workshops: 'Land of Ice' in the south and 'Winter Paradise' in the north and west. If you'd like to experience and shoot some of the most fascinating landscapes on earth with Erez as your photography guide, you're welcome to see the workshop webpages for details and participation, and view Erez' Iceland gallery.

You can follow Erez on his facebook page500px and deviantArt galleries.

More articles by Erez Marom:

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

Comments

Total comments: 47
wansai
By wansai (7 months ago)

Hi Eraz, good guide but may I ask why you opted for an HDR type of processing over using a single RAW and adjusting black, shadow, white & highlights in the RAW editor?

I'd imagine you could get a similar image. My only guess would be you wanted to avoid noise or detail loss from the darker shadow areas?

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (7 months ago)

Hi,
there's no way I'd get the same quality from one file, not even close, for exactly the reasons you've mentioned.
Erez

0 upvotes
listudio
By listudio (7 months ago)

Great article, thanks!

1 upvote
Fincho57
By Fincho57 (8 months ago)

This was an informative article on what is a beautiful photograph. The opportunity to learn from people such as yourself, in a free and open environment, is a real pleasure. Your time and efforts empower us all. It never ceases to amaze me the some folk are obviously so competitive and small that they cannot be positive about anything, especially a craft that is an art form and can bring so much pleasure. I always look out for and enjoy your articles Erez. Please do not stop sharing them with us. Thank you.

6 upvotes
Lochgoyle
By Lochgoyle (8 months ago)

The eternal divide between the HDR enthusiasts/exponents and the HDR police goes on forever it seems. The simple fact is that regardless of the method, Erez has produced a stunning image which effectively allows the viewer to enjoy the same view that Erez had when creating his RAW files. To me the logic is simple . . . why not 'see' what the photographer saw when the means is available to do so? If HDR techniques were outlawed by the HDR police as 'not photography' then how would one ever visualise this scene? Would the blown out sky be appealing? Would the black foregound be appealing if the photographer exposed for the sky? No. Without Erez's technique this image would not exist.
As for the choice of technique, everyone has their own ways, and if the outcome pleases them, then so be it. After all, there are many ways to skin a cat :-)) Just my 2 cents.

1 upvote
tomservo33
By tomservo33 (8 months ago)

Very good points, I agree that the goal is to render that magic vision that the human eye and brain perceive, aka, the moment, as you saw it...and a camera just can't do that in one shot with such difficult lighting conditions, so we innovate to recreate.

1 upvote
Lanski
By Lanski (8 months ago)

Really enjoyed this. I've been meaning to develop this kind of "non-HDR HDR" technique for a while and your description of your method seems like a good starting point.

2 upvotes
steve joseph
By steve joseph (8 months ago)

Great originals give great results, as they do here. Personally, for viewing on screen I prefer less blending and a more natural look, even if the sky ends up pale and the cave dark, because you get the drama of the large scale tonal contrasts, and they feed into the composition. For a print it is a different story. It would be interesting to see a series of treatments, starting with just some dodging of the mid image alone, then luminosity masks, then the treatment shown here, so we could see what returns you get for what efforts.

0 upvotes
fallenartist
By fallenartist (8 months ago)

Nice image! It'd probably be better to use a non-destructive "Blend If" layer blending option instead of deleting pixels?

0 upvotes
Shema
By Shema (8 months ago)

To represent nature as it really is you need a HDR because no camera sees the same as our eyes. Digital cameras have a narrower dynamic range than humans. It has been improving but no there yet and canon 5D surely is one of the best. As long as you try to replicate the dynamic range of our eyes you are not doing "art". Also you should shoot raw and control colour casts, and have a calibrated graphic card. Not doing so, you are seeing the photo as your system sees it. If you shoot JPEG the photo will be a result of camera settings ...

1 upvote
Gurki82
By Gurki82 (8 months ago)

I'm a little in trouble with "nature photography" and HDR (and likes). In the end I allways think, HDR is more something like an artistic work, to show a subject that never really existed like this in nature. "Nature photography" (as I suspect this sample could be) is more about showing, what the world out there (beyond the reach of everyone) is. To share the beauty of our planet we where able to see with others, so we can take care of it.
This is some kind of contract a photographer has with its audience, that he doesn't "fool" them with some kind of "cool" foto editing trick into something that never existed like this. Like I'd say, perhabs some nice art but nothing more. Maybe this is the reason, why there are only so less great and real "nature photographers" around.

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (8 months ago)

It's the exact opposite of what you claim: I had to use HDR to get the image to look like the reality I saw. Do you suppose I saw white when looking at the cave's entrance?

6 upvotes
Gurki82
By Gurki82 (8 months ago)

You are right. The camera doesn't record what I can see with my eyes. But for me there is a really fine line between nature photography and over processing. And its ok to "over process", if you don't claim to do nature photography.
Perhaps it's just personal taste but for me sometimes less is more.

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (8 months ago)

I really don't think this image is over-processed. Not every HDR is "bad" HDR, and generalizations are often misleading and plain wrong.

0 upvotes
Gurki82
By Gurki82 (8 months ago)

I don't claim HDR as bad. It has its purposes and one can get really artistic with the camera. No generalizations.

0 upvotes
George Lepp
By George Lepp (8 months ago)

HDR is a tool, just like the lens that was used, the exposure that was used, and the composition. If you think that the camera by itself actually sees nature as it is, you are mistaken. Secondly the photographer has every right to interpret as he saw the scene, or as he wishes to portray the scene. You weren't there, he was. Get over this HDR is over processing and look at the final result. Erez could not have captured this scene without HDR, and he did it tastefully in my opinion. I personally would have used one of several excellent programs to composite the HDR as in Photomatics, or Expose. Look at the end result and either like it or reject it and move on and do it yourself. I personally like the work presented here. The HDR police need to get a life and do their own photography.

George Lepp
Field Editor Outdoor Photographer
Canon Explorer of Light

2 upvotes
Photomonkey
By Photomonkey (8 months ago)

The efforts of photographers to mimic the scene as perceived by the eye is as old as photography. All the great photographers in our pantheon of photo gods labored enormously in the darkroom to create images that do what Erez's do. The notion that somehow there is some sort of "purity" to the straight photo completely misses the point of the art. As the saying goes " you don't take a photo, you make a photo.

1 upvote
nacho02
By nacho02 (8 months ago)

Hi Erez,
I've read a couple of your articles here, and regardless of the comments made by people who might think that you could do still even better... i'm positively baffeld by your pictures... I'd love to be able to attend one of your workshops in Iceland. Maybe one day.

2 upvotes
Lanski
By Lanski (8 months ago)

I agree, and we need more people like you in these comments sections!

1 upvote
anthonyGR
By anthonyGR (8 months ago)

You should check out "Enfuse". It is an open source program that does the exposure stacking for you and it is super easy to use. Even if it does not reach your desired result, it will certainly give you a better starting point the the original images.
Great shot, by the way.

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (8 months ago)

Hi guys,
thanks for your kind responses and comments.

Chenavi: I find your comment confusing to say the least. Here's a response I hope you find useful (in the comments due to length).

1 upvote
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (8 months ago)

First of all, you stress that you want me to explain how the image was made. Well, THIS is how the image was made. No luminosity masks, but the method you claim is inferior. This method is, in fact, superior in this case, as the areas with different brightness are well defined and do not overlap. I just can't fathom why one would use waste time on a more complex and time-consuming process when getting the desired result is so straight-forward here - just a few clicks and I was done. Luminosity masks are NOT always the way to go, and DEFINTELY NOT in this case, which you don't seem to understand. This article is not about different manual HDR techniques, nor did I use this technique here - why should I elaborate about it?! This makes very little sense, and cries pettiness. A professional photographer needs to control more than one way to get the result he wants, and opt for the easiest one, as I did here.

1 upvote
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (8 months ago)

Second, you complain about the final image being different than the shown steps: This is because it was rather impossible for me to fully reconstruct my steps. The main idea, however, is fully there, sorry to disappoint. There was no magic or undisclosed technique utilized, and the final image is close enough to what's shown, unless you're ultra-petty.

1 upvote
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (8 months ago)

Again, sorry to disappoint, but this article is not an atom-to-atom dismantling of the post-processing. For some reason people don't understand that a DPReview article is required to be concise, and there was only so much I could fit in without getting too out-there. If, for some reason, you don't think I'm honest in trying to convey what I think is important (which is NOT getting every pixel exactly how you need it to be, but rather an explanation of the general setting, PP approach and most importantly- composition), than by all means, skip my articles- they won't give you what you seek, although I should advise you that what you seek will probably bring you nowhere. Good luck!

1 upvote
role_of_72
By role_of_72 (8 months ago)

Thank you for the article! Of course there are quite a few methods to make an HDR image in PS.
I'm still searching for the best technique for me so I'll certainly give it a try. There are some bracketed shots of mine waiting for post for a long time..
Special thanks for presenting a more realistic (not overcooked) style in this category :)

1 upvote
narddogg81
By narddogg81 (8 months ago)

luminosity masks are the way to go. i have an action setup in PS5 that will break an image down into 4 levels of bright tones selected, 4 levels of dark tones selected, and 4 sets of midtones. you get way better cleaner results merging manually this way than any automatic program ive used

0 upvotes
madeinlisboa
By madeinlisboa (8 months ago)

I use active d-lighting in capture nx. gives even luminosity across all image in a much faster and easier way.

0 upvotes
groucher
By groucher (8 months ago)

Same here madeinlisboa. Why to people insist on making life hard for themselves by using substandard or inappropriate tools?

0 upvotes
TheInfinityPoint
By TheInfinityPoint (8 months ago)

Nice article Erez. The notes on composition are definitely helpful.

1 upvote
TheInfinityPoint
By TheInfinityPoint (8 months ago)

Chenavi:

There isn't that much difference. Open both up in a separate tab and blink the images. All he did was brighten the lower right corner, brightened the other foreground elements, added a bit of contrast to the foreground, and added saturation. The difference is nothing compared to some of the raw editing I do in Lightroom.

0 upvotes
Chenavi
By Chenavi (8 months ago)

I did more than blinking the images in my browser, I copied both into PS and compared them there. I then tried "boosting the saturation a bit" to try and get the same result. I'm positive there was more to it (and I'm not talking about the obvious brightness equalization he didn't mention in the tutorial, that I can accept).

I'm glad these processing techniques are trivial for you (really). Unfortunately, not all of us, me included, are as good as the professionals. If we knew how everything is done, we wouldn't be here reading these tutorials. Which is why I expect them to include all these details. Otherwise they're just lousy promotions for a photographer who's not willing to truly share his experience beyond the obvious (and in this case, ill-presented) tips.

1 upvote
TheInfinityPoint
By TheInfinityPoint (8 months ago)

Don't take this the wrong way, but here's a quick and dirty before and after edit using only things I mentioned:

http://www.dpreview.com/galleries/6219412386/photos/2653932/nautilus_12_after_2_eraser_pass-comparison

0 upvotes
airdima
By airdima (8 months ago)

chenavi, perhaps if you would be able to work with the original, full size tiffs and not the tiny jpegs you would be able to achieve a similar result

0 upvotes
Chenavi
By Chenavi (8 months ago)

Very nice photo, a good attempt at an article. Two things bother me:

1) I too use a "manual" HDR technique, but at least I use the more advanced editing features of Photoshop. Namely in this case - using layer masks instead of "selecting and deleting pixels" gives you so much more freedom, and unless you know EXACTLY which pixels to delete and get it right the first time around - it also saves you a lot of time. I'd expect a pro photographer who's giving a mini-tutorial on HDR to at least mention this in his text, even if he doesn't want to go into a multi-page tutorial.

2) The difference between the final result and the last image on the tutorial is stunning. He doesn't explain any of it, except for the very general "I boosted the saturation a bit". Yeah right - no way that was all you did (try it yourselves). I find this very dishonest, or careless at best. If you don't want to reveal your methods - fine. But in that case don't write tutorials and save us the time of reading them.

1 upvote
Ronie-AAA
By Ronie-AAA (8 months ago)

I guess you are upset because you cannot achieve the exact same results, so go ahead and "blame" the photographer....

2 upvotes
Mescalamba
By Mescalamba (8 months ago)

Thanks for that "how to do manual HDR" description. Very useful!

And obviously nice photo. :) I think I saw it on 500px..

2 upvotes
Sdaniella
By Sdaniella (8 months ago)

just like how we would see it with our own eyes

bravo

2 upvotes
Sdaniella
By Sdaniella (8 months ago)

@cercis:

rather, this genre of HDR image photography is to non-HDR 'fixit pp' photography

as Natural-Vision DR image better matching reality (what we are able to see naturally)

is to
traditional (film or digital) unnatural LOW DR unrealistically flawed imagery (limitations of film and digital) that still plagues today's photographers... what the camera captures, we never see (so far)

no one yet has digital imagery tech that can match the natural DR of how we see the lit world in a single shot straight out of the camera with no pp whatsoever...

that is
until multi-ISO sensors are the norm...

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
2 upvotes
audijam
By audijam (8 months ago)

oh my....beautiful!

2 upvotes
cercis
By cercis (8 months ago)

This genre of image is to photography as the Pacer is to automobiles.

0 upvotes
Mikhail Tal
By Mikhail Tal (8 months ago)

Or you could have just exposed for the sky and used flash...

0 upvotes
Dave Luttmann
By Dave Luttmann (8 months ago)

LOL...are you serious?

3 upvotes
Caleido
By Caleido (8 months ago)

Ha nice one

3 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (8 months ago)

I do hope you're kidding...

0 upvotes
Jude McDowell
By Jude McDowell (8 months ago)

Thanks for posting this very interesting and informative article.

2 upvotes
ExaktaFanUK
By ExaktaFanUK (8 months ago)

Great image! I am interested in use of manual technique for HDR instead of the automated procedure in Photoshop. I can get better results manually than with Photoshop, with method similar to that used by Marom. The automated procedure seems to produce low contrast and generally dull images.I wonder about other peoples' experiences with it. Maybe I don't use it correctly.

3 upvotes
cantanima
By cantanima (8 months ago)

Very nice article. Thanks!

3 upvotes
Total comments: 47