To the boats!

Sinfonia lifeboat deck

Luminance Mask version

I have been experimenting quite a bit recently with different methods of expanding the dynamic range of my photos, which is really an easier way of saying ‘making a better distribution of dark to light tones in an image without there being too-light lights and too-dark darks’.

Two of my favourite methods of doing this are using luminance masks and HDR tonemapping.

Luminance masking is a technique developed by Tony Kuyper which allows you to very carefully select certain ranges of tones on your image and selectively lighten or darken them. Tony goes into a lot of detail on how to do this on his website, which is well worth reading. It’s certainly way too complicated for me to summarise quickly, and you will be kept up way into the night as you follow Tony’s tutorials. What I like about his technique is that it keeps the final image looking very natural, while still allowing your photo to show a far greater tonal range than your camera can capture in a single shot.

 

Sinfonia lifeboat deck (Photomatix)

Tonemapped HDR version

By way of contrast I’ve also shown a tonemapped HDR file. I used Photomatix HDR software, which I find the most useful of the many I have tried. I shot a bracket set of three shots, at -2, 0 and +2 exposure compensation. Then I ran them through Photomatix, trying to keep the settings as minimal and natural as possible. This software tonemaps the image, which means that it tries to compress the tones from the three images into a single image.

As you can see, it gives the photo a certain look. Everything looks softer, warmer, and more textured. In particular the tonemapping technique brings more light into all the shadow areas, usually far more than would naturally occur in such areas. Objects almost seem to glow from within. It’s enough to confuse the viewer into thinking that the image looks a little strange, without being able to quite say what it is. The advantage is that it can make the image a little more compelling due to its strangeness, while the disadvantage is that your image just looks, well, strange.

After seeing enough Photomatix images they can tend to start looking all the same. With this image, I think the HDR look is quite interesting and adds a bit of a steampunk feel. If I had to choose though, I would go for the more natural look of the Luminance Mask version.

This scene is of the lifeboat deck on the cruise ship Sinfonia of the MSC line, while we were en-route from Durban to Mozambique. The rest of the passengers were playing bingo and slot machines after dinner, so I decided to get out on deck and nab some photos. The lifeboat area was particularly interesting with all its heavy equipment. We had practised life boat drill here during the day. It was pretty chaotic, and I’m glad we didn’t need to use the lifeboats for real. The short people at the back had to stare at the life jacket of the preson in front of them for half an hour. At least the life jackets had whistles, which livened up the proceedings somewhat.

Just Can’t Get Enough

Sunset at Clifton Fourth Beach

 

Sunset at Clifton Fourth Beach, South Africa

These are the same rocks at Clifton Fourth Beach in Cape Town that I photographed last week, and probably the same birds roosting on the rocks. I love this place. It’s about a five minute drive from home, so it’s one of the easiest places for me to get to with my camera and tripod. And in winter when it’s too cold for the hordes of beach goers, there’s parking almost right here. When the sunset looks good and time is running out, like this evening about two weeks ago, this is the place I head for. I’m fascinated by the rocks in the scene. I find them very pleasing and am still searching for the best way to use them in a composition. Expect many more shots from here as I try and figure it out!

 

Before and After

Such is the joy of filters that I haven’t had to process this photograph much at all. I used a 2 or 3 stop grad neutral density filter to balance the exposure between the sky and the sea. I forget which one. Then I took a few bracketed shots for the parts of the scene where the lighting was tricky. After that it was mostly about bringing light and detail back into the silhouetted rocks, and emphasising the colours already in the image.

Sunset at Clifton Fourth Beach (before)Sunset at Clifton Fourth Beach

Slow Motion Dusk

Clifton Dusk
 

The evening star rising over Clifton, Cape Town, South Africa

I had some fun last week with my new neutral density filters. For those who don’t know them, they allow you to do a couple of cool things, and this photo features two different kinds. The first is a common or garden variety neutral density filter, which just looks like a sheet of dark grey glass. It uniformly reduces the light to the camera, allowing one to take longer exposures than normal. This shot was a several minute exposure which is why the sea is starting to smooth out and the clouds have become smudgey. The second kind of neutral density filter I used here is a gradient neutral density filter. This is a piece of glass where half is clear, and half is dark grey to reduce light. You position it so that the grey part is over the sky, and the change from clear to grey is exactly on the horizon. This lets you balance the exposure of the sea and the sky. If you don’t do it, you’ll find that the sky will overexpose and be too bright. It’s the old fashioned alternative to using HDR.

For those who care about the technicalities, I used a Lee 0.9 ND Filter combined with a Lee 0.9 Hard Grad ND. It was a 180 second exposure at f8. I had to photoshop Venus back into a dot shape, because it had turned into quite a light trail after that amount of time.

The photo was taken from the rocks at Clifton Fourth Beach on a chilly autumn evening. It’s hard to see, but the spikey edge to the dark rocks is actually dozens of roosting sea birds.

Kogel Bay at Dusk

Kogelbaai at Sunset

 

View of Kogel Bay at Dusk

After spending a relaxing day out at Rooi Els, a coastal village just beyond the corner of the mountain in the distance, we stopped at the very picturesque Kogel Bay for a sunset photo opportunity.

Kogel Bay has sadly been in the news recently for the tragic great white shark attack on bodyboarder, David Lilienfeld.

I’ve been curious for a while about how Kogel Bay got its name. Kogel is Dutch for bullets and musket balls and things like that. It’s been suggested that the early Dutch settlers at the Cape thought that the round boulders common on this stretch of coastline resembled cannon balls, hence the name Kogel Bay. I even read a description that suggested that the round boulders rolling around in the waves sound like cannon balls loose on the deck of a pitching ship, but I didn’t find any noisy boulders like that on the day I went.

Nor any sharks fortunately.

 

Before and After

No Photomatix was used in the making of this image. But even so this is sort of, but not quite, an HDR. I took two exposures, one for the sky and one for the rocks, and blended them by hand. This effectively expands the tonal range of the image like HDR does, but in a far more subtle and controlled way than Photomatix.

After that I used some selective contrast, saturation and sharpening to make the image pop.

 

Kogelbaai at Sunset (before)Kogelbaai at Sunset

AfrikaBurn 2012

Art Installation at AfrikaBurn 2012

 

I’ve just come back from a couple of days spent out in the remote desert of the Tankwa Karoo, about five hours drive from Cape Town. Every year an amazing art and music festival is held here, and there is always amazingly photogenic weirdness to be seen. The event is called AfrikaBurn, and it’s in its sixth year. It’s the Africa regional event of the Burning Man festival held every year at Black Rock City in Nevada in the US.

It’s a far smaller event, attracting about 5,000 participants to the 50,000 at the US event, but it’s very satisfying to attend. You are expected to take everything you need for yourself: food, water, shelter. There is nothing for sale, and a gifting economy is in effect. Virtually everyone is in costume, you’ll see more sequins, velvet, and mirror balls than you’ve ever seen before. There is also a huge amount of off-the-wall art, and you can spend days exploring it all.

This particular installation reminded me of the surrealist Rene Magritte’s use of umbrellas. I’ve pored over the event brochure, and I can’t really tell whose work it is.

Edit: The installation was put together by a group of friends and architecture students at the University of the Free State and is called Death from Above. See the comments section for more details, and a heart-rending counterclaim.

 

Before and After

I tried to make this image a conventional bracketed HDR, but the umbrellas were mounted on rather wobbly sticks. Even though the wind was blowing very gently, they were all bobbing around quite a bit, and there was just no way I could align the bracketed images. So I gave up and tone-mapped a single image in Photomatix. It worked pretty well all the same, and sorted out the alignment issues. After that I adjusted the tonal ranges using luminance masks, which I’ve spoken about in previous posts. Finally I selectively boosted the contrast and saturation of the image. I think it worked out well.

 

Art Installation at AfrikaBurn 2012 (before)Art Installation at AfrikaBurn 2012



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