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Autumn Backlight and HDR Photomerge

A beautiful forest of colourful, autumn foliage on a body of water with a backdrop of hills and sky presented a tricky lighting situation. The problem was the sky and the position of the sun.

This photograph displays a colourful stand of autumn forest on the ocean, boldly accented by backlighting.
A colourful stand of autumn forest on the ocean is accented by strong backlighting (click the image to view in a lightbox and for more detail).

Backlighting through autumn leaves is one of my favourite subjects. The visual impact of color and vibrance in a backlit autumn landscape is hard to beat. The problem is, sometimes the number of stops of light are so great that the camera’s sensor (or film if you still shoot with it) can’t handle the latitude of dark to bright scenes in the image – not with one shot, anyway.

Bracketing and Lightroom (or another software program) to the rescue! Ideally, I would love to have this stand of colourful forest against the hills in the background, without any sky at all. Under that circumstance, one shot would have captured this image. As it is, the sun drenched sky – the sun is just out of the picture and over the hill in the top left of the image – was a total washout when I exposed for the shadow detail.  Conversely, trying to hold detail in the sky caused a loss of shadow detail. Therefore,  I took three images:

  • One for the midtones, while keeping the highlight of the backlit leaves from blowing out
  • A second exposure for the shadow areas, providing detail for the canoe and other items along the shoreline
  • And, a third to retain detail in the sky.

When I got back to my trusty digital darkroom I imported the three images into Lightroom and applied the command Photo > Photomerge > HDR

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, and that’s what I was explaining earlier when I said your camera’s sensor or film could not capture the full range of tones in the image without clipping the highlights or losing shadow detail on a single shot.

In the pop-up dialogue box I checked Auto Align (because I didn’t use a tripod), and I unchecked Auto Tone, after the first attempt turned out quite muddy.

The final merged image required Tone Curve adjustment and a small push on the Vibrance  and Saturation sliders, and Voila!

I would liked to have gotten rid of the sky altogether, but my vantage point on the side of the road made it impossible. This being my first go at HDR, in retrospect I would have taken another image, holding back more detail in the sky to add more drama to the image. But, I can live with this colourful scene of autumn tranquility in Swift Current.

It’s a great day for photography. Shoot ’til it feels good!

The yellow autumn leaves of birch trees were photographed using backlighting to make the leaves radiate.
Backlight through the yellow autumn leaves of birch trees. By eliminating the bright sky, one shot captured the full range of tones in this image.
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Photo Focus Merge

On a recent trip I made two images of the same subject; one with the foreground in focus and the other with the background in focus. I settled on the image with the foreground in focus for future use in a gallery, article or print, as it conveyed a stronger message of the subject at hand.

A few weeks later while reviewing my images again, I thought to myself ‘What if I could overlay the two images and combine them to give me one in-focus image?’ The use of a tripod on the original shoot would have let me capture at a slower shutter speed and stop down to an aperture as small as f32, if necessary. However, I didn’t have it with me so, as they say, no use in crying over spilt milk! The image below focused on the background, with the rear of the boat not in critical focus.

Note: Click through any of the images for a larger light box view to see more information about the image and technique.
A photograph of an old boat and village in the background, with the camera lens focused on the background. This image is used here to show a technique in Photoshop known as Focus Merge.
In this image I focused on the background. Because the boat dominated the frame, this did not work for me.

I decided to try my luck with Google and search for ‘combine images, focus near, focus far.’ The search result yielded an article by PhotoShop Essentials, and the article proved to be an invaluable resource for the image that I’d ultimately create (third image down). That said, after a few steps into the article I deviated from the instructions (more on that in a moment). The basic command in Photoshop to merge the images together into one focused image is: FileScripts>Load Files into Stack. A pop-up window opens and you select the files that you want to merge from your applicable drive.

A photograph of an old boat and village in the background, with the camera lens focused on the foreground. This image is used here with another to show a technique in Photoshop known as Focus Stack.
In this image I focused on the foreground. The cracked paint on the rear of the boat is in focus, with the background blurred. This image was exported from a raw file without any adjustments.

After I selected my images in the pop-up dialogue box I pressed  OK and Photoshop opened them in a new file with two layers (the number of layers corresponds to the number of images you select). The next step in the article explains how to Auto-Align Layers from the imported images. That is the last step I performed before I distractingly ventured out on my own, this due to the fact that the technique explained in the article was more appropriate for multiple images (more than two) and use of a tripod.

On a whim, I started to erase the top layer to expose the in-focus back of the old boat in the underlying layer.  Therefore, theoretically, I really didn’t focus-stack the images – and you’ll notice I’ve changed the name of the technique to focus merge, inadvertently  – but aligned two images; one with foreground focus and the other with background focus to get an image with great depth of field that I otherwise had a difficult time achieving without the use of a tripod. Also, depending on my proximity to the subject in the foreground, I may or may not have achieved the desired depth-of-field on the initial shoot, but some math would have solved that equation if I’d taken the time to do the calculations. One thing’s for sure: take your tripod on all photo excursions!

Below is my focus merged image. Photoshop did a great job of aligning them, considering that I’d shifted position for the two images (note the different composition of the above images). After post processing the merged images I was happy with the results on my first attempt at focus-merging two images.

A photograph of an old boat and village in the background, which is a composite of two images - one with focus on the foreground and one with focus on the background. The technique in performed in Photoshop and known as Focus Stack.
This image was the result of combining two images, one with the background in focus and one with the foreground in focus. This image is a jpg which was exported from a tif file made up of layers.

My technique used here was a derivative of the focus-stack procedure and in the future I’m excited to try the technique in full as explained by Steve Patterson on his great blog It looks to be a professional in-depth Photoshop resource and I’ll definitely reference it again in the future!

Until the next time…

It’s a great day for photography. Shoot ’til it feels good!


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Summer’s End

With summer firmly to a close, here’s a few photo favs from the beautiful, warm and extended season ever slowly slipping into the next!

A purple wild clover flowering with a background field of same but out of focus.

I recently read a photo article about the needs and wants of photography buyers. One request was image space to place a message. After all…why not? It’s not all about a pretty picture any more. Well, yes it is, but images are designed to sell a message and if they don’t contain ad space…it ain’t sellin’!

Of course, if you want to make a print to sell in your gallery then that’s a different pitch. In that case, fill the space! Both of these images have space to place a message, but the image of the wildflower more so than that of the fishing stage doors, below.

The doors to an old fishing stage are painted clean white save for the rust running down from the hasp.

That said, the white painted doors with the rust has lots of room to convey a written message, but they tend to contain their own message – without words – with the busy arrangement of buttons and hinges. Put a hip frame around and there’s a story in itself.

The final image in this post can be used either way, straight up or cropped. To the right of the bee is a good spot to place a message or story board, or it can stand alone.

A bee clings to the underside of a wildflower, wet and attempting to shelter from the water.

Alternatively, with the right-third of the image cropped (click it and crop with a sheet of paper) the photograph is busier and tells a tale of a bee sheltering from the dampness, without the need for words.

That’s it for summer, save for plenty of phone pics, people pics, landscape and architectural shots to sort through and make a few prints.

Next post, let’s talk about Autumn. It’s in full swing and upon us.

If you’re interested in doing a photography course, Go Learn! A custom learning experience may just be the cure to get your awesome prints on the wall or simply share with your friends on social media!

See you soon!