Archive for the 'Landscape Photography' Category

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Of Pofadder and Puff Adders

Road to Pofadder


The Road to Pofadder, Northern Cape

Pofadder is a small town in the Northern Cape of South Africa, synonymous with remoteness to South Africans, like Timbuktu is to others further afield. Not being satisfied with that sort of remoteness, I decided to take this photo an hour or two out of Pofadder where it really gets quiet. This is the road from Kenhardt to Pofadder, which is about 200km of dirt driving with very little to see, unless like me you love the remoteness of the Northern Cape. It’s always pretty but especially like this, with rain recently fallen and more on the way. I didn’t see another car for that entire 200km of road: it was just me, my Land Cruiser, and Paul Oakenfold Live in Ibiza. What a wonderful afternoon of driving it was!

For non-South Africans, Pofadder is Afrikaans for a puff adder, which is a beautiful but lazy snake that likes to lie in footpaths and bite hikers that stand on them. You really don’t want to be bitten by one: you will likely experience feelings ranging from ‘really really sore’ to ‘dead’. The town is however apparently named after one Klaas Pofadder, a local Khoi-Khoi leader back in the day. The snakes aren’t in short supply around here either. However the town was named, I think it’s a name David Lynch would love.

Here’s what puffies look like, this one from another Northern Cape trip to the Biedouw Valley…


Puff Adder (Bitis arietans)


This is a baby, probably about 30cm long, and was very happy just lying in the sun, even with me shoving a camera in his face. Maybe not my wisest moment.


Telescope at Sutherland


South African Astronomical Observatory, Sutherland

This is one of over a dozen telescopes operated by the South African Astronomical Observatory at their main base of operations at Sutherland in the Northern Cape. They range from some rather old ones from the 1940s, to the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), inaugurated in 2005, which is new and quite, well, large.

The observatory was moved from Cape Town in the early 1970s because of light pollution, and Sutherland was selected as the new site because it was far from any light sources, and because it is one of the most cloud-free parts of the country. Funny that when we were there the clouds decided to come out and spoil our night time star-gazing (but aid our photography). The (usual) lack of clouds, together with the altitude here, also means that Sutherland is legendarily cold, and is usually the coldest part of the country every winter. This time we stayed in an old stone cottage in the town with lots of charm but no heating whatsoever, and so spent most of the time in several jerseys, trying to keep slightly warm.

I’ve made a few visits now to Sutherland in winter, and keep hoping to be caught in the snow, but no luck yet. For a South African, where we get almost no snow, it seems the most glamourous excuse in the world to call in leave at work due to being snowed in!

The image is an HDR composite of 3 hand held images, at exposure compensations of -2, 0 and 2, and they were tone-mapped in Photomatix Pro Software.

Photomatix vs Hand Blended HDR

View from a Cave House in Cappadocia (Photomatix version)View from a cave house in Cappadocia

Selime Monastery, Cappadocia, Turkey (Left: Photomatix version | Right: Hand Blended version)

In my previous post, I talked about how I used the concept of Luminance Masks from Tony Kuyper’s blog to make a hand blended HDR as an alternative to Photomatix. This post shows a side by side comparison of the Photomatix version of the image on the left, and the hand blended version on the right.

Bear in mind that I haven’t worked as much on the Photomatix version, which could be made to look a little better, but it still serves as a good comparison. Also bear in mind that I’ve only done one hand blended HDR to date and many, many Photomatix ones, so Photomatix has the advantage there. I’m not going to talk much about how to do hand blending as Tony does an excellent job of it on his blog, and I recommend that you read it.

Here’s what I think so far:

    • Ease of Use.
      Cave with a View (Photomatix Settings)

      Photomatix tonemapping settings used for this image.

      Photomatix is far and away the easier of the two techniques to use. Tonemapping your three bracketed images in Photomatix takes all of a minute, and the final image can then be cleaned up and adjusted in Photoshop, which should take from a few minutes to an hour at most. Hand blending requires far more decision making, followed by a lot of selections and actions in Photoshop. These can be speeded up by automating in Photoshop, but even so this first image took me three evenings to complete. With practice, I could reduce the time a lot, but it would still be nowhere near as fast as Photomatix.
    • Control. Photomatix has a few sliders to twiddle and then it throws out a tonemapped image. There’s not much control, but it does what it needs to do very well. The downside is that you can only work on the overall image, and you seldom get it that you are happy with the entire image. Hand blending lets you have an incredible amount of control. You can split your images into as many zones of tonal range from light to dark as you like, and you can decide exactly which ones to blend together in which part of your image. The choice is so open that it’s quite overwhelming, but that’s the fun of it. On the image above, I think Photomatix has flattened the rock texture in the cave too much, and has done odd things to the sky, but has improved the texture on the light ground outside the cave. Hand blending allowed me to improve the inside rock texture, although I think I could have done a better job on the outside ground.
    • Picture Quality. 
      Cave with a View (Photoshop Layers)

      Photoshops layers used for hand blended HDR instead of Photomatix tonemapping. The bracket set is arranged from darkest on top to lightest on the lowest layer, and the luminance masks are carefully created to ensure the best blend of the three images.

      The way in which the techniques differ makes a big difference in final image quality. Photomatix blends your three bracketed photos together into one tonemapped image, and in the process can increase the amount of noise in the image considerably. If you go too aggressive on the settings, you can also get unpleasant looking haloes forming on edges between light and dark  areas (for example at the rock / sky edge of the above image). With hand blending you layer your bracketed photos on top of each other in Photoshop. You then use masks to determine which parts of which image you want to see. Because you aren’t processing the underlying images, you aren’t increasing noise, forming haloes, or producing other undesirable effects on your image. The difference is very apparent to me when I look at a full size version of each of these images, but makes less difference at web sizes.
    • Look. Photomatix has a look that has become quite prevalent in the world of HDR. Some people love it, some hate it. I enjoy it, especially when not overdone, but it remains a very distinctive look. What I’ve enjoyed about hand blending so far is that it doesn’t seem to automatically have a look, or at least it’s more natural, and you are far more free to make the HDR image match your memory of the scene.

In summary, Photomatix will allow you to process your HDRs quickly, they will look pretty good, but will have a distinctive Photomatix look. Hand blending will take considerably more time and Photoshop skills, but will allow for a better quality image with a very high degree of control in the blending and final look.

HDR Tutorial: How to handhold for HDR

Onboard the MSC Sinfonia and leaving Durban Harbour, South Africa


Leaving Durban Harbour, South Africa on the MSC Sinfonia

Today’s shot was taken from the deck of the cruise ship MSC Sinfonia, as we departed the Port of Durban en route to Portuguese Island and Inhambane, Mozambique. The weather looked a bit threatening, though it was very warm and humid, and the keenest tourists were already lying by the ship pool with cocktails in hand by this point. More technical details on the shot below, but first the tutorial, because it’s been a while since the last one!

In the last HDR Tutorial, we looked at how to use a tripod for HDR shooting. Now, suppose for a minute that you have decided to take some HDR photos but you are too lazy to carry a tripod, or too cool to carry a tripod, or are being threatened by a burly but well-cologned museum security guard who confiscates your tripod.

This leaves you with a problem. Not a major one, granted, but a problem nonetheless. You can use handheld shots for HDR, but shooting without a tripod is not advised. Here’s why:

  • Camera shake. Remember with HDR how you take at least three bracketed shots, varying the shutter speed with each one? Well, your slowest shot is likely to be at quite a slow shutter speed, and possibly hard to handhold without getting camera shake and blurry images. You won’t be able to use a blurry image in your HDR set.
  • Poor alignment. While your camera is busy shaking and making your image all blurry, it’s also ensuring that your three images won’t line up at all well when it gets to HDR processing time. You can try and line them up later in software with Photoshop or Photmatix, but if you get them poorly enough aligned when shooting, your software is not going to work.

I do often shoot handheld HDR though, and it works surprisingly well. Here’s what to do to make sure things (mostly) turn out ok:

  • Auto-bracketing. Use auto-bracketing if your camera supports it. On my Nikon D7000, I can shoot shoot a three shot bracket set on auto, so I can just hold down my shutter button once, and the camera takes three shots for me. I never have to take the viewfinder away from my eye to change settings, so I have very small risk of things not aligning.
  • Rapid fire mode. On my Nikon this is called Continuous High (CH) and it allows me to shoot the bracket set very fast. Combine this with auto-bracketing, and you can shoot off your three shots in a second. Again, this makes your alignment much easier later.
  • Bigger bracket sets. If you’re going to do bigger bracket sets than your camera can auto-bracket, you need to know your camera very well, and your odds of success will be rapidly reducing. You will either need to change all settings by feel without moving your camera from your eye, or you will need to remember exactly how the previous shot was framed. Good luck with that!
  • Favour brighter scenes. With brighter scenes you are less likely to run into low shutter speed problems. Unfortunately, the best time to photograph is usually when the light is lower. Murphy’s Law right there.
  • Watch your shutter speed. Here’s a simple calculation you can run in your head to see if you can handhold the shot. This assumes you are shooting a set of -2, 0, +2  and in that order. Your first shot will have the fastest shutter speed, let’s say 1/2000 sec, as worked out by your camera exposure meter. To work out the shutter speed of your 0 shot (which has two stops less light), you halve your shutter speed twice. That means your 0 shot will be at 1/500 sec. To work out your +2 shot, do the same thing. It will be at 1/125 sec. You can see that the shutter speed decreases fast, and handholding can quickly become a problem.
  • The Reciprocal Rule. This is not about being nice to people and stuff. Rather, there’s a rule of thumb from back in the day that helps tell you when you can safely handhold a camera. Take the focal length of your lens. Let’s say you are shooting with a 100 mm lens, so take 100 as your value. The reciprocal value of 100 is 1/100, and therefore 1/100 sec is the slowest shutter speed at which you would be able to handhold this camera. If you don’t have a full frame DSLR, correct the focal length to full frame first, before you do this calculation. For example, a 100 mm lens on my Nikon D7000 is equivalent to a 150 mm lens on a full frame camera, so I can’t handhold below 1/150 sec. Image stabilization cameras and lenses can help you set the shutter speed even lower than this. So can hands of steel.
  • Open wide. Opening up your aperture has the effect of allowing you use a faster shutter speed, so if you risk camera shake with a slow shutter speed, make sure you are using your biggest aperture. This is when it’s especially sweet to have a fast lens like an f2.8.
  • Underexpose. You may want to consider deliberately underexposing your whole bracket set by a stop, to allow a faster shutter speed. So you could shoot a -3, -1, +1 set instead of the usual -2, 0, +2. Watch out for increased noise though, as underexposing will tend to emphasize this.
  • Increase your ISO. This is a last resort, as increasing ISO will increase noise on your images, and HDR amplifies the heck out of noise. Still, if it means getting the shot, consider increasing your ISO by a few clicks. How much you can get away with will depend on your camera sensor, and how it handles noise, but I wouldn’t push it beyond ISO 400.
  • Be the tripod! Be the envy of photographers everywhere. Try and cultivate a sturdy and well-braced posture, and not only will people find you more desirable and assertive, but you could train yourself to handhold another shutter speed setting or two slower.

Today’s shot was a bit of a handholding test to illustrate the tutorial. The day was bright, so shutter speed wasn’t a problem. I shot the three shots at 1/2000 sec, 1/500 sec and 1/125 sec , which was a -2, 0 and +2 set. The focal length was the equivalent of 30 mm, so the Reciprocal Rule says I can handhold at 1/30 sec. The kicker though is that not only was this shot handheld, but it was handheld while on a moving ship.

As a consequence, the three shots were very misaligned, about as bad as you are likely to get without trying to misalign. I threw them at Photoshop with thumbs held tight, and it did a very impressive job of aligning the images. There were a few slight errors, especially on the crane, and various towers on the skyline, but I was able to remove them with the Photomatix ghosting tool.

That’s it! We’ve come to the end of the tutorials about capturing your bracketed shots on camera. From next week, I will start looking at processing your first HDR image in Photomatix Pro.

The tourists have landed

Tourists invade the beach on Portuguese Island, Mozambique


Portuguese Island, Mozambique

I’ve landed back home after my shipboard adventure!

It was certainly interesting. We travelled on the MSC Sinfonia for 4 days out of Durban and into Mozambican waters. I learned quite a few things. Like how to say ship instead of boat (still hard to remember, that one). That bingo is actually quite fun. That most cruise passengers prefer to lie around the pool all day, drinking from breakfast time and turning bright pink in the sun. And that I prefer to find a quiet, people-free spot on the stern and read geeky books.

The ship was a fun environment for HDR photography, and my tripod provided some humour for my nonplussed fellow passengers. We disembarked twice during the cruise for some exploration and great photo ops. The first stop was at Portuguese Island near Maputo. The second was to be at Inhambane, further up the Mozambican coast, but a cyclone the size of Madagascar put paid to that, so we docked in Maputo for the day.

Today’s HDR is taken at Portuguese Island in Mozambique. It’s a tiny island very close to Inhaca Island, in fact you can cross over via sand banks when the tide is low. It’s also pretty close to Maputo, probably 90 minutes or so by ferry. I gather that cruise ships stop here about twice a week, and transform this quiet and usually uninhabited island into Party Island. See the tourist hordes fanning out over the sands, with alcohol tents and beach barbecues in the background. It gets so busy that a permanent structure is being built, also visible in the background.

This shot was taken while fleeing from the crowds and setting out on a 7km circumnavigation of the island. I think we were the only passengers who did this, and we were rewarded with solitude, a close-up fish eagle sighting, and the spotting of many other curious sea creatures.

The people in the picture are investigating strange sand castings in the intertidal zone, that seem to have been made by some kind of lugworm. They looked like this close up, and you could see the sand being extruded out of the middle. Very weird.

Lugworm casting on Portuguese Island, Mozambique


We also spotted intact sand dollars that were the size of dinner plates.

Sand dollar shells at Portuguese Island, Mozambique



Before and After

Today’s beach shot was a handheld snapshot, bracketed at -2, 0 and +2. I liked the way the people were fanning out over the beach, so I grabbed it as quickly as I could. I’m finding that Photoshop’s layer aligning feature does a very good job of putting together these handheld HDRs. The clouds were beautiful that day, so I wanted to bring them out as much as possible in the post-processing. They were building up higher and higher all day, threatening a thunderstorm that never came.

Tourists invade the beach at Portuguese Island, Mozambique (0 image)Tourists invade the beach on Portuguese Island, Mozambique

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