How I Got the Shot: Sunset Clouds Reflected in Lower Cascade Lake
by Mark Bowie
5 exposures: each f/16, ISO 100, at varying shutter speeds
Nikon D7000, nikkor 12-24mm lens set at 12mm
Last summer, during the Adirondack Photography Weekend workshop, I took a small group of photographers to the Cascade Lakes to photograph at sunset. The Cascades occupy a narrow, fault-bounded gorge and the light is often contrasty—the shadowy mountainsides can be much darker than the sky. That evening, I could see details in the rocks, foliage and sky, but the range of light was beyond what my camera’s sensor could suitably record. Scenes with a wide spectrum of light can be particularly beautiful, so I seek them out. I’ll often shoot toward the sun at sunrise and sunset. To deal with the high contrast, I shoot multiple exposures and merge them in processing as layer masks or high dynamic range (HDR) images.
At Lower Cascade, I initially metered the overall scene, took a medium-toned exposure and consulted the histogram. It showed pixels piled up against both sides, indicating that highlights were blown out and the deepest shadow areas were too dark to register good detail. So without moving the camera, I shot exposures one and two stops below and above the initial exposure, changing only the shutter speed. Varying the aperture can put the images slightly out of register. To minimize movement in the clouds and water, I set the camera to Continuous shooting mode and Auto Bracketing for one-stop intervals, then quickly fired off the sequence using a shutter release. I also recommend setting white balance manually in camera or in processing, so that it doesn’t vary between images. Same for focus: once focused, toggle the focus control to manual so that autofocus doesn’t engage and possibly select a different focus point between images.
Having shot my sequence, I checked the histogram of the darkest image to confirm that no highlights were blown out, and that of the lightest image to be sure deep shadows weren’t blocked up. If either were, I would have shot more exposures with a one-stop difference until I got the detail I wanted. Five exposures worked here. I later combined the images in Photomatix Pro (www.hdrsoft.com) to render an HDR image. The software retails for $99, the less robust Photomatix Essentials for $39. I also recommend Google’s HDR Efex Pro software (www.niksoftware.com, $149 for the entire nik collection).
In the past, HDR images were criticized as being overly saturated, with unnatural tonal reversals. They looked fake—too candyish or garish. But the software has improved significantly, allowing photographers to more accurately portray in images what they see in the field. Still, HDRs sometimes come out of the software relatively flat. I often bring them back into Lightroom or Photoshop and boost contrast where needed. I also tone down overly saturated colors. The great power of HDR technology is that we can capture a much wider range of light than ever before, better matching our creative vision.
Mark Bowie recently released his second e-book on night photography, AFTER MIDNIGHT, which supplements his first comprehensive guide, The Light of Midnight: Photographing the Landscape at Night. They are available as digital downloads from his website, www.markbowie.com. He and other Adirondack Photography Institute staff photographers will partner with Adirondack Life for the annual Adirondack Photography Weekend workshop, September 20-22 in Lake Placid. For information, see www.adkpi.org.