Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Large Format DSLR, Part 1: It's All About the Details

No, really!  When trying to capture the very essence of the moment, it really comes down to the details.  And here's why: that beautiful moment, the very breath of inspiration, moves by so very quickly, I often don't see it all.  I try, very hard in fact, to pan over the entire scene as it unfolds, but I still just don't see it all.  I may see the warm glow off of the peak, but miss the cool blue of the shadows.  The reflection of the mountain in the quieted lake may draw my eye, but the same time I am missing the defining glow of a backlit pine.  I just can't seem to see it all.  Then, more suddenly than it appeared, the moment is gone.

And so, my captured image becomes (along with my rapidly fading memory!) the only record of that moment, one which I can study, and examine carefully for the very things--the details--that I missed earlier.  Sometimes, these details bring about an entirely new feeling about the experience.  More often then not, however, they magnify the experience, bringing it closer to my heart than I ever thought possible. 

That's why, for me, it's all about the details.

A logical question can then be asked: How can I get the absolute maximum detail out of the image? 

Like many landscape photographers, I have dreamed of owning the perfect large format field camera.  Nostalgia aside, there is something significant--professional-- about shooting with a giant, 25 pound piece of photographic equipment.  And the negative size!  You have to print it large just to see all the details!

Unfortunately, I really like wilderness.  And I like my knees.  Heavy camera gear and long trail miles don't add up to happy knees.

So where does that leave me?   Well, I have a nice DSLR that makes fantastic 12 inch by 18 inch prints.  Frankly, that's not a lot of detail.  Not enough.  To get the detail I want--no, need--I have to think beyond the single image capture.  I have to capture a "collage" of images, each carefully framed to merge flawlessly with the next.  Often, this process is called "panoramic" photography, and has now been made very simple using Photoshop and other more specialized software. 

I am not going to explain here the process of creating a panoramic image, as this topic has been covered in fantastic detail.  I will, however, clarify how I have adapted this process to create very large, very detailed images.  I'll begin by explaining the processed I used to create the above large detail collage image.

After scouting this location, I spent some time pre-framing the image.  I took several images using the wide end of my lens, framing the shot within a single frame.  This "pre-framing" is critical, as I find it very difficult to visualize a completed image that is spread over multiple frames. 

Once I had completed the pre-framing, I set up my tripod and homemade panoramic head (I'll post details on this later).  I decided at this point to zoom in the the point where I could capture the entire pre-framed image in two rows.  I began in the upper left, and moved to the far right, then dropped to the second row, and moved to the far left. I shot the upper row using a focal point of the falls, and used the hyperfocal focus point for the lower row.  For each image, I bracketed 2 stops above and 2 stops below.   All in all, I made 16 frames, each with 3 captures (that's a total of 48 images!), in approximately 1 minute.  I then repeated this process two more times.

To stitch the image, I began by first filtering out the best "round of capture".   With these 48 images (all captured on a single round, within one minute of one another) I selected and adjusted the +0EV images (those captured at meter) to my liking, and then copied the adjustments to the remaining +2 stop and -2 stop images.  I carefully adjusted the overexposed images to bring some detail to the shadows (foreground rock and far bank), and the underexposed images to bring detail to the highlights (waterfall). 

Stitching was done with Photoshop after some experimentation (PS doesn't seem to like multiple rows!).  After the stitch was complete, I carefully brought in selected over- and underexposed images, aligned them with the stitched image, then used luminosity painting to balance the overall image.  I followed with some quick saturation adjustments, cropped the image, and saved the result as my master image.

And what about the final detail?  Frankly, it is phenomenal.  Here's a crop from the lower left region of the image.  Notice that the leaf not only retails detail, but each of the strands of the moss on the rocks can be counted.  Absolutely stunning!

And so, I am hooked.  I want this kind of detail.  And fortunately, with a little bit of planning, not so special equipment and short computer time, I can capture detail that rivals medium and even large format film capture using my not-so-large DSLR!  

Friday, January 8, 2010

Capturing the Experience

I really like photography.  I like the challenge of finding an interesting and unique subject, waiting for perfect light, releasing the shutter, viewing my captures, processing the image, and sharing it with others.  Yes, I really, really like photography.  But, capturing beautiful images is not the fire that fuels my passion.  In fact, photography is really only a byproduct of what really motivates and pushes me.  

The crunch of fresh fallen snow under my feet, the twinkle of silvery glitter stretching across a high mountain lake, the calm of the morning without any man-made sounds, the giggle and call of a small stream. Miles and miles and miles of untouched, unsoiled, ever-changing land.  In a word, wilderness.  To experience wilderness is, I believe, to see a better picture of who we are, and who we are made to be.  And this is the catch.

Photography cannot possibly capture that "experience".  Every element of the photographic experience is man-contrived, in an effort to bring back some small slice of the emotions once felt.  At best, the slice is inadequate.  At worst, it makes a mockery of the mysterious complexity we call life.

Over the next several weeks, I will be posting a series of articles highlighting my latest approach to maximizing the quality of my images.  These writings will focus on a method for capturing large format quality images using a digital SLR camera, a process that I believe is important to wilderness photographers who do not want to carry the weight of large-format photography equipment.  I am excited about this information, and look forward to sharing it.

Yet, at the same time, even though these methods do dramatically increase the quality of my images, they do nothing to capture more of the experience.  Just like a storefront window, these techniques let us see what could be, but they do not allow us to touch it.  Or to hear it.  Or to smell, or taste it.  And without these senses, all of our senses engaged, what we see in a photograph--any photography--is still only small part of what the wilderness experience has to offer.

And so, I hope that instead of being satisfied with what you see here, you will be inspired to go, go out, and experience wilderness.