Brandon Smith (Redwoodtwig)
That afternoon on a late May day was heavily overcast and threatening to rain again as it had already twice earlier today. When I set up my tripod to get some images of the landscape, this cat, the king cat of the household, came and sat guard about 10 feet in front of me. He was alerting on something out in the field and was very still. What you see on the left is the final version of what I saw at that moment. The remainder of this post is about how I got this image, developing the image the camera saw to the image I wanted to capture.
The cloud cover was thick enough that the sun only showed as a dim disk. However, there was plenty of light to see by, it was not one of the dark stormy days. Instead it was a day of "open shade," a day when there seems to be no shadows to speak of.
An average meter reading of this scene would have produced a "flat" image, one in which there's not much difference between either the shades of color and or the distribution of light values. The kind of scene that the camera with capture just fine, but to the human eye it looks rather lifeless, even if the camera is set up to record the finest detail it can.
Since the lens i'm using has a sweet spot at f8, I start there in my settings. Actually I start by setting ISO to 100, since the lower the ISO the finer and richer the detail. Rather than a average exposure reading, I used the spot meter function to set the shutter speed, the only thing I let the camera do by itself. In this case I aimed at the cat's back. This way I know I will have the best detail on the cat.
Since I had come to this place thinking about doing a landscape, and since there was a wide range of light values between the scene and the sky, I'd set the camera motor to fire three exposures in a row -- one at normal exposure, one 2 stops underexposed and one 2 stops overexposed. This is a basic preliminary to using High Dynamic Range (HDR) processing.
However, this original "normal" exposure with the metering spot on the cat's back throws the light curve way to right side and the image is nearly worthless.
Lightroom does have an Auto Tone button that would do a decent job of normalizing this exposure, though the result would be muddier details in the cat's dark fur. However, doing any kind of development to an image means that some detail gets lost. I'd rather start with an exposure that is closer to what I want.
I also had two more images, one 2 stops over exposed and one 2 stops under exposed. The overexposed one above was simply too thin to do anything at all with; however this one, 2 stops underexposed for the fur on the cat's back keeps the detail in the fur as well as shifting the overall image curve more toward the middle.
I did not consider using HDR techniques on this image because the curve does not show the extremes that HDR handles so well. The light values in this particular shot are low or medium dynamic range, not really exceeding what the camera can capture.
The image above, as it came out of the camera, does not quite look right to me. My eyes saw more of a curve. In Lightroom, I turn on the on image cursor control for the tone curve, and stroke the areas of the image I want to adjust. I tend to be either very cautious or quite wild about how I use this tool. In this case I'm being cautious. Perhaps subtle would be a better word.
This adjustment gives me richer greens and browns.
I wanted to show better how it was slightly muddy from rain in the morning and clouds all day. I used the tone curve again, this time going to 100% view and working a particularly rich chunk of mud. I put a little touch of luminance there, too.
At 100%, you can see the detail in the dark fur, very important if I want to make a full size print of this image. You can also see that the tip of the tail is in motion, remarkably little motion for a half second exposure, but as I said, the cat was on guard.
This level of detail at full resolution is why I try to shoot mostly at ISO 100 or lower. I could have set the ISO up to around 1000 or so and shot at maybe a 45th of a second and frozen the tail movement. However, at full resolution, the edges of the grass stems and the individual cat hairs would be fuzzier than they are now. The texture on the surfaces of the twigs at the center bottom would be impossible to see.
Still not quite wet enough. I go back to the general image and tweak the overall saturation and luminance. Again, cautiously.
This is where the final set up for printing takes place, where it is important that your monitors show what will be printed. The most common problem with monitors is that they show it brighter than it prints. The labs I use have processes in place to correct this kind of common situation and I've found them to be right on with what they do to print my final version.
When I compare my developed image to the original, even at this small size, it's obvious that the developed image is technically better than what the camera handed me.
After cropping, I now have an image that is balanced both compositionally and tonally, though I'm not sure that's a word. In any case, the tonal values present in the raw files had enough detail that I was able to pull out of the image the visual impact of what they were at the time.
My camera is only a tool, and even with top of the line sensors and lenses, can only give me what it captures based on the light available and the adjustments I've made to the camera.
With forethought and a little luck, the image that I get directly from the camera and the default software processes between clicking the shutter and seeing the image on screen will be both technically and aesthetically good.
With a very few exceptions, though, most images need a bit of tweaking before they can be printed. I used to do that tweaking in a darkroom with an enlarger and chemical vapors swirling around me for hours at a time. I am perfectly happy to spend those same hours sitting in a comfortable chair without chemical vapors.
Please feel free to comment or to contact me if you have any questions or ideas.