In this article I'll take you far away to a special place in Namibia, where I spent a month shooting and preparing for my upcoming 'Desert Storm' photo workshop. I spent 3 days in the amazing ghost town of Kolmanskop (read more about my experience here), and I'd like to discuss my favorite image from my stay there, one that is also worth explaining due to several interesting characteristics.

'Dalí's Dream', Kolmanskop, Namibia, March 2013

I really enjoyed shooting in Kolmanskop. There's such an abundance of surreal subjects, and the combination of the decaying houses and nature reclaiming them is extremely photogenic. I had found this specific house on a sunny day, and was swept away with the pristine sand dune which filled the symmetrical room. The collapsed wooden roof supplied another important element, which I knew would contribute even more to the image once the sun shone through it. I therefore decided to wait for the right moment.

Setup

I took the image with my Sony A7R and my Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens. I wanted as wide an angle as I could, so I shot at 16mm. The exposure time was 0.6 sec at ISO 100.

Now it starts to get interesting. There are two very important things about this shot. Firstly, I used the 'Magic Finger' technique. This technique is used when you want to shoot into the sun, including it in the frame, but still want to avoid the flare it produces, which can harm the rest of the image. As I wanted to include the sun in the frame - the 'sun star' of the 16-35mm is legendary and really contributes to this image - I had to take care of the flare it created. The way to do it is very straight forward: take one shot with the sun in the frame, and another shot hiding the sun with your finger. Then combine the two in your favorite editing software and voilà! You have the sun in the frame, but no flare.

Before looking at the RAW images, let's mention the second important aspect. It's very easy to see that the images are strongly underexposed. The reason is that the specific sensor I used, that of the Sony A7R, has tremendous dynamic range, and holds an amazing amount of detail in the darker pixels. I could therefore expose 'to the left', maintaining good detail in the light areas, and brighten the shadows in post processing without compromising quality and without the use of HDR, which would be difficult to do with the hard contrast in this scene. Let's look at the RAW images.

Yes, they are very dark. But based on my familiarity with the A7R sensor, I knew I'd be able to extract perfect color and detail from the dark areas. Praise Sony!
As for the finger technique, let's see why I had to use it. To do this, I'll have to brighten the RAWs a bit. 

Post-processing

Let's look at the RAW files after some changes I made in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR):

It's easily seen that I needed to brighten the shadows quite a bit. I boosted the shadows to the limit, and even brightened the image by almost a stop, but due to the low ISO and the Sony sensor, there's no visible noise even at 100% view. To compensate for the brightening, I lowered the highlights, and to compensate for the flat output of the Sony A7R, I boosted contrast and clarity.

Back to the Magic Finger technique. If you look at the image on the left, you'll clearly see the lens flare, caused by the direct sunlight in the frame. This direct sunlight is critical, creating the sun star and being an important compositional element in the image, but the flare needs to be dealt with. On the second image, which I took right after the first, I blocked the sun with my thumb. I did it in a 'thumbs up' kind of form, instead of just using my index finger, because I needed the detail in the wall to the right, which is ruined with flare on the original file. By the way, pardon the dirty fingernails, shooting in the desert for a day can do that to you.

When all this was done, I opened the images in Photoshop, and stacked them in layers.

There are two main places where the flare bugs me: next to the sun star to the right and on the sand to the left. To get rid of the flare while keeping the rest of the image intact, I needed to delete the upper layer very carefully. Here's the result after the deletion. Note that I didn't delete all of the flare next to the sun star, to make it look a bit more natural.

Ok, now we've gotten rid of the flare. On to improving the rest of the image. The inside of the room was still too dark, and I need to brighten it while maintaining contrast. To do this, I used luminosity selections: I selected the midrange-bright pixels by selecting all pixels, then subtracting the very brightest and the very darkest pixels. Here is the mask related to the resulting selection:

I saved this selection as a channel for further use. As I didn't want the adjustment to affect the outside, I deleted this part from the channel:

I created a levels adjustment layer and boosted the brightness.

The mask still needs some touching up. The left hand side is too dark, so I brightened the adjustment layer's mask to make its effect stronger. Here are the final mask and the resulting image, after flattening it.

The only thing left to do was a boost in saturation, size reduction and sharpening, and I was done.


Erez Marom is a professional nature photographer, photography guide and traveler based in Israel. You can follow Erez's work on InstagramFacebook and 500px, and subscribe to his mailing list for updates.

If you'd like to experience and shoot some of the most fascinating landscapes on earth with Erez as your guide, you're welcome to take a look at his unique photography workshops around the world:

Land of Ice - Southern Iceland
Winter Paradise - Northern Iceland
Northern Spirits - The Lofoten Islands
Giants of the Andes and Fitz Roy Annex - Patagonia
Tales of Arctic Nights Part I and Part II - Greenland
Earth, Wind and Fire - Ethiopia

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