Evolution of an image

Whenever I've been asked, 'How did you take that photo?', the questioner is invariably seeking information on shutter speed, f-stop and the specific gear I used. Yet, if I'm honest, most of the relevant answers I can give actually involve issues of planning, preparation and most importantly, being clear about what I'm trying to achieve. In this article I'm going to share with you the process of creating a specific landscape image while on a recent shooting assignment.

Glencar Lough, Ireland
Canon EOS 1Ds MKIIIEF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM (@ 35mm)
ISO 100, 2.5 sec. @f/22, 0.9 ND grad, polarizer

Some years ago while working on my second book I spent a memorable morning at the shores of Glencar Lough at the borders of County Sligo and County Leitrim in the North West of Ireland.

I had scouted the site a few months before, when the landscape was wrapped in the dull green colours of late summer. Now it was autumn and the forecast had promised settled and calm weather for a few days. So I got up at 4 a.m. and drove the three hours to Glencar. On arrival I was greeted by the precise conditions I had envisioned. The green hues had been replaced by warm brown and yellow tones, the sun rose in exactly the place and at the time I had hoped, the air was still and the sky was just beautiful.

I got exactly the image I had in mind (shown above) and it became one of my most successful photographs. Over time, however, something kept bothering me about it. I was unhappy that the upper part of the tree is lost in the background and overall wished for a greater sense of depth.

A second chance

Earlier this year an assignment brought me back to Glencar; a perfect opportunity to tackle the tree and lake idea again. The time around my goal was an image with a more pronounced feeling of depth. To accomplish  this I knew I would need a bit more foreground and some leading lines.

For the foreground I was hoping to find some flag iris, a beautiful yellow flower that grows in groups in damp habitats like lakeshores. My leading line would be the shoreline if I could find a suitable spot. And of course I also needed to find another tree.

Day 1: First attempt

Arriving at Glencar, I began - as always - with a location walk. Starting right where the original image had been shot I made my way along the shoreline.  Glencar is a glacial valley with towering hills on two sides, among them the famous King’s Mountain and Ben Bulben. The valley opens to the West and faces the Atlantic Ocean.

After wandering the shore for the better part of an hour I came across a promising spot that had everything I needed; a tree, flag iris and a bending shoreline. Unfortunately, at this time of season the flag iris was not yet in bloom.

Day 1: First attempt
Canon EOS 5D MKIII, TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II
ISO 100, f22 (merged from 3 exposures +/- 1 stop EV)

I set up for a first test shot facing south like I did with the original image. The bending shoreline added some sense of depth but overall the composition wasn’t very satisfactory (see above). With the flag iris in bloom and some dramatic evening light perhaps it could just work… but only just. I would have to keep looking.

Day 1: Second attempt

I put away the camera and started walking around the tree, exploring it from every side and the obvious became clear very quickly.

The solution was to place the tree’s crown exactly in the opening of the valley. Because the valley opens up to the West this would be most effective as a sunrise shot. In my mind’s eye I envisioned the rising sun casting its warm light on the mountains while the lakeshore and the tree remained in shadow. The flag iris field would provide some necessary foreground interest.

The technical challenges of making my vision a reality revolved around positioning the camera and balancing the scene contrast. There would only be one spot where the tree would fit exactly in the gap between the mountains and I would have to figure out the rest of the composition from this spot.

Since the tree would protrude into the sky I wanted to avoid using an ND graduated filter because it would turn half of the tree into a silhouette.  Instead I decided to  bracket exposures which I could later merge into a composite image. The 24mm focal length was perfect here. A wider lens would have been taken interest away from the tree and a longer lens would not have captured the sense of space in the valley.

Even though I had planned to return for a sunrise shoot, I proceeded to make some test exposures so I could anticipate any problems that may arise. By this point it was evening and I was shooting under rather dull and cloudy skies so I wasn’t expecting to make any usable images.

Day 1: Second attempt
Canon EOS 5D MKIII, TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II
ISO 400, f22 (merged from 3 exposures +/- 3 stops EV)

The backlit clouds, however, turned out to be visually interesting (see above). With the contrast range far exceeding that of my camera I set about determining exposure and bracketing values. I set an initial exposure that allowed for some highlight clipping in the brightest parts of the sky and through quick tests set exposure bracketing at +/- 3 stops. I kept shooting for about 30 minutes before packing it in, with a plan to return the next morning for the sunrise shoot.

Day 2

The next morning looked promising when I arrived on location at 5:30 a.m. Because I had worked the location the previous evening I knew exactly where to set up and what settings to use on the camera. Unfortunately, the rising sun was accompanied by low clouds and mist. I waited for almost 2 hours, but the light I was hoping for never appeared. The result is a cold and dull scene (below).

Day 2: Early morning
Canon EOS 5D MKIII, TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II
ISO 400, f22 (merged from 3 exposures +/- 3 stops EV)

Day 3

Perseverance is one of any photographer's most important tools. And so, 5:30 a.m. the following morning found me all set up and ready to press the shutter button. A good deal of clouds were in the sky so my expectations were rather low. By 6 a.m., however, the cloud cover had started to break and some shafts of light appeared on the hills. And just 20 minutes after that, conditions had transformed into a beautiful spring morning. Soft light was caressing the mountains, broken clouds dotted the sky and the lake was almost perfectly mirror-like. Planning and patience had paid off with an image largely as I had envisioned (below).

Day 3: Early morning
Canon EOS 5D MKIII, TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II
ISO 400, f22 (merged from 3 exposures +/- 3 stops EV) 

Of course, this doesn't mean that there's no room for improvement. The image shown above is rather cool, because of the dominance of blue and green tones. And the foreground still lacks a dynamic feature.

Back home on the computer, I also created a monochrome version of this shot (using Nik Silver Efex Pro2) that represents yet another direction in which this image could evolve.

I'm determined to return next year when the flag iris is in bloom. A sea of yellow flowers will make a huge difference. Some more direct light on the hills or a red dawn glow in the sky would add warmth. And maybe I'll be lucky enough to get some fog lingering on the lake. The possibilities never end.


Carsten Krieger is a professional landscape and wildlife photographer based in the West of Ireland and author of several books on the Irish landscape and nature. To find out more about his work please visit his website: www.carstenkrieger.com.

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: 123
12
Kilrah
By Kilrah (Aug 9, 2012)

That article is vers interesting on 2 points:

- The intended one - know what you want and prepare acordingly, something I still really struggle with, but I try...

- The huge differences in perception between people. Reading the article, and discovering each image by scrolling down after reading the description and intentions was very interesting. By reading and seeing the first attempts I started making myself an image of the intended result - and the final image did not match it at all.
I actually don't like it as it is presented here, I find it flat and dull...
As they are again, I find the "Day 1: Second attempt" version much more interesting (slightly colder WB would be even better IMO).
I've tried reprocessing both to my taste, and there the "final" version would indeed take the edge, but not by much, so that if they were mine I'd have to keep both.

Too long, continued below in reply...

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 11 minutes after posting
3 upvotes
Kilrah
By Kilrah (Aug 9, 2012)

Mixing both points leads to an interesting conclusion - From the photographer's point of view, it is a good thing to know what you want to do, and do what it takes to achieve it, no doubt about that. But on the other side, you can spend days creating an image YOU will be pleased with, but in the view of someone else it might not be worth it, on the opposite he might actually prefer the test shot...

That's what I find difficult about sharing photography. Personal taste has so much importance that sometimes it feels like spending hours on a shot might probably just be useless. I just say that I do it for myself so I'm happy, and at least what I show is consistent with my own feelings. If some others like it - well, that's even better! But I'm happy not to be a professional and thus have to deal with this everyday, in the form of customers who have a different vision from mine for example.

And yes, the very first shot is also my favourite of the lot.

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 12 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
alfredo_tomato
By alfredo_tomato (Aug 10, 2012)

I'm not a big fan of much of the HDR out there, but tend to like the ones with that photorealistic painting feel.

Reality is boring, that is why we have Photoshop and beer.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
2 upvotes
Atsel
By Atsel (Aug 9, 2012)

I prefer Day 2 photo overall.
EXIF says that shots were made with Canon EOS 5D Mark III, not Canon EOS 1Ds MKIII.

Comment edited 39 seconds after posting
1 upvote
CarstenKriegerPhotography
By CarstenKriegerPhotography (Aug 9, 2012)

It was the 5D MK3 indeed which has, unlike the 1Ds MK3, a very handy HDR feature. The images here are however not the in camera HDR files. I processed from RAW and used Photomatix to create the final image.
Apologies for the mistake.

Carsten

0 upvotes
Amadou Diallo
By Amadou Diallo (Aug 9, 2012)

Image captions have been corrected.

0 upvotes
Sherman Gong
By Sherman Gong (Aug 9, 2012)

Nice article on the daily struggles we all face as photographers, which is what we do when the subject matter is dull (because of the seasons, weather, light)

In a ideal world, the scenery would be much better if we can add some active elements, a bright colored kayak, a flock of birds, a fox or something more interesting, maybe a more inspiring title to the photo will do also.

Next time, bring a fox, (two legged or four legged) and shoot again:)
Waiting for the next continuation.
Thanks.

1 upvote
masterofdeception
By masterofdeception (Aug 9, 2012)

I also like Day 1 2nd attempt, but I think I prefer Day 3 and well done on your perseverance in achieving that. It's pretty sad when a real photograph is criticised for being "too HDR-ish". Says a lot about the state of photography today. But for my money, great picture! What I like about this (or any) series is how it shows up the effect of changing light on a scene. I guess we all know this, or ought to know it, but it's so important. Unfortunately I'm too lazy to drag myself out of bed at that time of morning!

0 upvotes
Michael Engelen
By Michael Engelen (Aug 9, 2012)

Great article-thanks. I like especially that besides the merging of three images there was no manipulation used that changed the original impression. This IS photograhy the way I understand it.

3 upvotes
JensR
By JensR (Aug 9, 2012)

ISO 400, f22, from a tripod.
Why?

1 upvote
CarstenKriegerPhotography
By CarstenKriegerPhotography (Aug 9, 2012)

I always shoot landscapes with a tripod, it aids accurate composition and is necessary for longer exposure times. On this occasion I tried to keep exposure time short to avoid any blur that could be caused by the slight breeze, that's why I went for ISO 400. Usually I go for ISO 100 when a long exposure time isn't an issue. F22 obviously is to get maximum DOF.

Carsten

4 upvotes
rootsup
By rootsup (Aug 9, 2012)

Carsten, you should experiment with shooting at a lower fstop, start at 20 and go down as far as you can go, while maintaining the focus you want; with a wide lens you should have a little leeway. You'll be surprised how much sharper images will be.

2 upvotes
EmmanuelStarchild
By EmmanuelStarchild (Aug 9, 2012)

Why, JensR? Because there is no hand-holding in professional photography, regardless of shutter speed when it comes to landscapes. The pros take no chances. Always use a tripod, turn the IS off, lock the mirror, and use a cable release. Professional results every time.

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 2 minutes after posting
3 upvotes
CarstenKriegerPhotography
By CarstenKriegerPhotography (Aug 9, 2012)

I know, I know... Most lenses are at their sharpest around f8, not to mention that I was working with a tilt/shift lens here, but I have to admit I am probably a little old school (and have been working with medium and large format for a good while) where f20/22 was the standard setting for landscape shots. It obviously stuck.
Carsten

4 upvotes
MarkByland
By MarkByland (Aug 9, 2012)

Ask Ansel and the f/64 crew

2 upvotes
micahmedia
By micahmedia (Aug 9, 2012)

Sharpness and resolution are the results of physics. DOF is an artistic decision one makes independent of questions of resolution. And truth be told, different lenses hold up different amounts of resolution at different apertures which on paper are diffraction limited. Diffraction impacts resolution and sharpness--it's not a hard limit.

1 upvote
Clint Dunn
By Clint Dunn (Aug 9, 2012)

Just to add my 2 cents......using a Canon wide angle lens you can usually get away with f11 for the optimum DOF and least amount of diffraction. Shooting at an aperture of f22 gives you too much diffraction and minimal increase in DOF from f11.

1 upvote
JensR
By JensR (Aug 10, 2012)

Danke Carsten! But f/22 seems a bit extreme. Why did you not use tilt? At f/22 you are losing resolution and extending the exposure time needlessly, introducing extra noise because of the increased ISO. f/11 and a slight tilt at ISO 100 seems like the better option?

Emmanuel - the question was not just why Carsten used a tripod. The exposure-merging alone would explain that. The question was primarily why Carsten went for ISO 400 despite using a tripod.

Mark: While we are at it, might we want to ask the f/64 group about the Scheimpflug effect and camera movements?

Comment edited 11 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
Chez Wimpy
By Chez Wimpy (Aug 10, 2012)

>Ask Ansel and the f/64 crew

Equivalent to f8 on FF... f22 is fine on MF, but if you want to get your 21MP worth on 135, you have to keep it to f11 or less (in fact, with this lens, f8 is really the "upper limit" for pixel peeper, un-shifted output already MTF perfect at f5.6 - while DOF is not normally a problem with tilt in landscapes. At f22 you might as well stick with the 24-105 for framing precision, or the classic 24-85)

1 upvote
LandoftheCleves
By LandoftheCleves (Aug 9, 2012)

I think Day 1: Second Attempt was your best image.

The value range on the last one feels a bit flat to me.

0 upvotes
The Schillings
By The Schillings (Aug 9, 2012)

Really nice shot. I find the image a little too HDR-ish. I think the foreground is too bright, and there are no distinctive shadows so maybe up the blacks.

5 upvotes
Joesiv
By Joesiv (Aug 9, 2012)

agreed, particularily the grass, looks unnatural not having blacks (local contrast). Since the shots were bracketed, I would have suggested picking on exposure for the green grass, and masking/blending it into the otherwise HDR image.

2 upvotes
photonius
By photonius (Aug 9, 2012)

agreed, too hdr-ish (at least on my screen).

1 upvote
mosc
By mosc (Aug 9, 2012)

What you're actually complaining about is depth of field. It's highly amusing. Photographers for years focused, at least for landscapes, on maximizing depth of field with small aperture and massive film. I agree it does give a similar effect to what we call HDR now. We're so used to smaller sensors since the move to digital (even 35mm "full frame" is small for this conversation) that we've come to see consistent exposure across the picture as some kind of digital trickery. An APS-C camera needs to keep the f-stop down to gather in light and we've shifted attention to pixel-focused detail so even when raising aperture it's only to get more sharpness given sufficient light. The art of a landscape picture seems to still sit on the boundary of digital even in 2012.

0 upvotes
Clint Dunn
By Clint Dunn (Aug 9, 2012)

Mosc...no, we are NOT talking about DOF. We are talking about a photo that looks flat because there are no blacks left in the image...it looks unnatural when everything from the sky to the shadows share the same level of exposure. This has nothing to do with DOF.

3 upvotes
bossa
By bossa (Aug 10, 2012)

The reason it looks flat is because the sun is behind the camera. Where do you expect to see a shadow? The high 'key' also gives the impression of HDR but that does not mean that it is a multi-shot HDR.

0 upvotes
JensR
By JensR (Aug 10, 2012)

No Bossa, it is clear to see that the foreground shadow brightness was increased a lot, robbing it of natural depth. And yes, it is a 3-shot HDR image, as stated underneath each picture.

0 upvotes
CoolHandLu
By CoolHandLu (Aug 9, 2012)

Absolutely wonderful account of how truly magnificent photo's don't jus "happen" - they are the end result of hours and hours of work, preperation and perserverance, as this article amply demonstrates. BRAVO!!!!

4 upvotes
smallcams
By smallcams (Aug 9, 2012)

This probably rings more true for landscape photography, but good photos can "just happen." Many iconic images of the last century were created in a haphazard, serendipitous fashion without any planning at all.

2 upvotes
mosc
By mosc (Aug 9, 2012)

My best shots have all come from careful consideration of lighting. Sunlight can be planned for, to a fair extent. Particularly shots I've taken at sunset and sunrise have abnormal lighting conditions I find visually interesting. They do not happen by accident. Certainly as a photographer trying to capture a moment in history what you say is very true. It's more about the subject matter than the photography. But for capturing something relatively static like a landscape, I think you're way off.

0 upvotes
JosephScha
By JosephScha (Aug 9, 2012)

I know I'll never be a real photographer because I don't have the time or desire to return for multiple days to the same spot, certainly not if I have to wake up before dawn repeatedly to do so. And I don't travel much except on vacation, in which case I'm with my wife at least; or on business, in which case my time is not my own to spend on photography.
So, part of what makes the final shot so special is that Mr. Krieger CAN spend the time and DOES have the perseverance to get up before dawn multiple days to get exactly the scene he wants - and he'll do it again, he says, to get one with irises in bloom. If I visited there with on vacation we'd probably get there after breakfast, perhaps 10 AM or later, and this scene would not exist. So Kudos to the photographer.
I guess it's self fulfilling - if you're willing to make photography your job, then you get the time to actually do good photography. *sigh*

8 upvotes
Studor13
By Studor13 (Aug 9, 2012)

Whilst the composition is OK, that is one seriously limped tree.

0 upvotes
CarstenKriegerPhotography
By CarstenKriegerPhotography (Aug 9, 2012)

It's an Irish tree near the West coast... they all look a bit beaten.

Carsten

2 upvotes
youheardright
By youheardright (Aug 10, 2012)

wrong reply

Comment edited 20 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
Total comments: 123
12