Digital info for serious shooters: specializing in Nikon & Canon

Digital Landscape Workshop--Yosemite

First, if you've never been to a Digital Landscape Workshop (DLWS) and have any interest in landscape photography, you should go. You get to hang out in great locations with some of the world's greatest photographers and better yet they spend all their waking hours helping you learn to shoot! I've been the guest shooter at DLWS in both Moab and Yosemite, and have really enjoyed meeting and teaching the wide variety of eager students. This month we had the good fortune to have full waterfalls and gorgeous rainbows coupled with some nice shady moments in the forest to capture the babbling brooks of Yosemite Valley.
The bright sunlight streaming over the valley walls made an understanding of contrast--and how it inter-relates to the dynamic range of your camera--essential to getting good photographs. Basically, sunlight and shade mixed in an image creates far more contrast than can be captured by a single digital image. In technical terms, the dynamic range of the scene exceeds the dynamic range of the camera. This is far more difficult to teach than it seems. Because our eyes can incorporate large dynamic ranges we see many light and dark scenes as being perfectly exposed. But our cameras don't. Limited by the sensitivity range of their sensors, their meters must choose between keeping the highlights and relegating the shadows to a boring blackness, or showing us the forest detail in the shadows while turning the sunlit water into an eye-burning sea of bright white highlights.

How do you know if your camera will fail at capturing the range of light in the scene? If you are using a D-SLR the very simplest way is to use the Highlights, often called "blinkies", in the LCD on the rear of the camera. If portions of the image blink in highlight mode then they will be captured as pure, blazing white and not provide your image with any information. If you don't have highlights on your camera you can spot meter off the bright and dark areas of the scene. If the difference is more than 3 or 4 stops then you are unlikely to be able to record all the detail in both the light and dark areas. A D-SLR can record a dynamic range of up to 9 stops of light (each stop of light is a factor of 2, so 9 stops is a contrast ratio of 512:1 from brightest to darkest), but only the "middle" few stops of that range really contain enough detail to produce a high quality final image.


With film there are three traditional solutions to this problem: a split neutral density filter, overcast conditions, or early morning or late evening light. The high valley walls of Yosemite make getting early or late light on many of the falls impossible at most times of year. And we had almost no clouds while we were there. With film this would have left us with the option of using ND filters. While they are a great tool and one I employed liberally during the class especially for sunrise and sunset shots, they don't give you an easy way to protect highlights in the middle of the frame such as the water rushing down a waterfall.

Instead we needed to rely on digital to help us. The first big trick that digital provides is the ability to capture multiple images and blend them together into a single image. Unlike multiple exposures with film you have complete control of how the blending occurs. Creating one exposure metered for the highlights and another metered for the rest of the image is one simple way to gather the raw material to create a single "high dynamic range" scene by blending the two images in Photoshop. I first used this technique with scanned slides at the Grand Canyon years before I was shooting digital, but digital capture makes it much faster and easier. One key of course is to try to get the images exactly in line, by shooting them on a very stable tripod with the camera locked in place. Below is an example of using this technique to assemble a single image of Half Dome captured at sunset reflecting in the Merced River.

Exposed for shadows
Exposed for highlights
Blended image

If you'd like more information on this technique, I highly recommend Photoshop CS Artistry, which has an entire chapter devoted to using it for landscape photography.

Contrast in Styles

Light didn't provide the only contrast at DLWS. Moose and Vincent both create stunning images and prints but with vastly contrasting styles. Moose works to create his vision from a single image or perhaps two images blended for exposure, followed by some simple work in Nikon Capture or Photoshop to share his original vision, while Vincent is an innovator at what he calls "image harvesting." He takes portions of as many as 6 images and masterfully blends them together to recreate his artistic vision of the scene. Whichever style resonates with the attendees they are treated to detailed sessions in learning both styles as well as hands on advice on how to apply them to their own vision and images. They are then treated to free paper and use of numerous Epson 2200 printers where they can evaluate the results of their efforts. Most importantly, in extensive shooting sessions every morning and evening Vincent, Moose, Laurie Excell and the guest shooter help participants learn how to see the final image at the time they press the shutter release--including composition, exposure, color and most importantly the message they want to communicate. From beginning to end it is stressed that Photoshop is not a tool for fixing bad images but instead a tool for helping us realize our vision of a scene by recreating what we saw and the camera was unable to capture directly.

DLWS is also an official Nikon Spirit event, so Stan Menscher, a 30-year Nikon veteran was there to answer any and all questions about Nikon gear, no matter how old or new. All in all, the participants were treated to a great three days of learning and growing their photography, as well as coming away with some really nice prints they were able to create while they were there. If you decide to go, let them know you heard about it here in DPS and make sure they think of inviting me back:-) You can also learn many of the same concepts at our own Fall Color in Michigan photo safari this October.

Field notes on the Nikon D2H, D70 and Nikon Capture:

The first and perhaps most amazing thing about shooting for 3 days straight with a D2H and a D70 is that I took over 1,000 Raw+JPEG captures and never once had to recharge a battery on either camera. And that included plenty of highlight checking and letting students look at my LCD after I captured shots. What a joy after the years of carrying 3 or even 4 batteries for a single day of shooting. Just as important is that both cameras felt great and were tons of fun to shoot. The D2H was my preferred camera for capturing the rapid fire action of the water cascading through the rainbow on Yosemite Falls, while the D70's 6MP image provided stunning detail for scenic shots.
I did learn from Stan that the D2H white balance sensor (the small translucent dome on the camera) can tell by sensing the frequency whether it is under fluorescent lights and adjust the Auto white balance accordingly. A very slick trick indeed. However the WB sensor can also be a problem. If you are, for example, standing in shade and shooting into the Sun, the sensor is fooled into thinking the scene is shady. I had trees in one scene turn out nearly red as a result. Of course, shooting Raw I could change the white balance in Nikon Capture or Adobe Photoshop, but if I had been shooting wildlife using JPEG--my preferred mode for action photography--I would have had to manually set the white balance in order to make the shot work.

The D70 was very well balanced for a small SLR. I had no problem shooting it, although I did miss having a vertical grip. It also seemed well built and very sturdy for its sub-$1000 price. The pop-up flash and small size also make it a handy "go anywhere" alternative to a full setup of D2H plus flash. I am seriously considering using one as a backup to my D2H, although of course it won't handle action sequences nearly as well as my D1H, which is my current backup. Photoshop CS does not yet support D70 Raw files, although Nikon has released Capture 4.1 which handles them nicely. Before buying one you should know that the only Raw+JPEG mode is compressed Raw + Basic JPEG. I love the compressed Raw, since it is fast and quite accurate, but basic JPEGs are really only good for previewing, so you need to process the Raw file before you'll have a really usable image.

Speaking of Capture, Stan also demoed the fisheye correction feature usable with the 10.5mm fisheye and I was blown away. It was just like having a 10.5mm rectilinear lens and then some. I personally don't care that much for fisheye effects so I wasn't planning to buy the lens, but after the demo I'm seriously considering it. He also showed me the DEE feature in Capture that remaps shadows and highlights in an image. I've never tried it on my images, but it was very effective at 'saving' the poorly lit sample images.

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Nikon is a trademark of Nikon Corporation. is not affiliated with Nikon Corporation.




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All contents copyright Pro Shooters LLC. All rights reserved.
Nikon is a trademark of Nikon Corporation. is not affiliated with Nikon Corporation.