Since I started digital photography, I've been interested in the issues surrounding post-processing in nature photography. A few years ago I wrote a somewhat controversial blog article on the subject, which you can read here. I still stick by what I wrote in that article. Like many nature photographers, I try to get the best RAW file possible in the field and to have the final presentation not stray too far from that RAW file. I consider those images where I'm able to do this to be more successful than images that require cloning or other heavy processing. The obligation to present a RAW file to the judging panels in competitions like the Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Nature's Best Windland Smith Rice International competitions is probably why many apparently amazing nature photos we see out on the Internet don't make it to these contests.

I'm a music fan and a halfway decent drummer (think the love child of John Bonham, Steve Gadd, and Carter Beauford - that's an inside drum reference informed by my apparently staggering ignorance of basic human biology!), and there's a similar debate these days among musicians as to the relative value of playing it live or incorporating electronic effects into music. The Foo Fighters' most recent album, for instance, was recorded entirely on tape in Dave Grohl's garage, and he's made no secret of being proud of the achievement and more than a bit disdainful of computer musicians. Jack White, one of my generation's best guitarists, has a love for vinyl and basic instruments. Radiohead, on the other hand, can rock with the best of them but have also incorporated computers into their sound to produce some fantastic music.

If I were a guitarist, I'd want to be more like Jack White than The Edge of U2. Jack White uses relatively bare bones equipment while focusing on technique. The sound is awesome. The Edge, on the other hand, was a pioneer in using feedback loops and echo effects coupled with simple cords played with really basic technique. The sound also is awesome. If I had to judge a guitar contest, my inclination would be to go with Jack White who is absolutely shredding it on his own without too big an assist from processing but I certainly enjoy listening to The Edge. Check out these clips from the movie It Might Get Loud for an idea of what I'm talking about.

Click here to see Jack White doing his thing.

And here's The Edge demonstrating how he does it.

Now The Edge has some serious guitar chops; his playing is not the musical equivalent of someone taking horrible pictures but producing magic solely through Photoshop (the partial analogue there would be Milli Vinilli - check here if you're under 30). The Edge's genius was in using technology to generate a sound not possible with standard technique alone. In photography, the same type of thing is often said about Ansel Adams, who considered his film, though well-exposed and well-composed, to be only half of the finished product. He was a darkroom master who got the best out of his images by using complicated processing techniques.

I'm also a big Radiohead fan, and they are a group that went from an electric guitar band to an electronic music band in a fairly abrupt transition at the height of their popularity just because they wanted to spice things up. It was a radical departure, and you can read critics musing on the subject ad nauseum.

Here's The Bends from their second album -- full on guitar and a great song.

And here's Everything in its Right Place from their fourth album -- no guitar at all except for bass (in fact mostly computer sampled loops manipulated by the two guitar players) but a great song too.

The two songs above are from the same concert but it sounds like two different bands. The guys in Radiohead are great musicians but singer Thom Yorke once remarked that if he could choose one instrument with which to make an album it would be a laptop.

All of this had been percolating in my brain for some time and got me thinking that if cool guys in bands like U2 and Radiohead can embrace technology, maybe it would be OK to try out a little heavier processing in some photos. After all, I'm no U2 or Radiohead :-) So, when I had the chance to photograph the Poas volcano crater a few months ago, I decided to loosen my own approach a bit to combine in-camera techniques (my first love!) with heavier than usual post-processing to produce a different take on an oft-photographed subject.


Above is the RAW file that came out of my camera, along with the histogram (the lack of aperture info and the 50 mm focal length below the histogram are how my manual focus Rokinon 24 mm lens shows up in the EXIF data). Two things are noteworthy to me. First, as with all 10-stop neutral density filters I've seen, images taken in harsh light will have a color cast and some flare/contrast issues. (Nonetheless, though Formatt sponsors me, I have just recently bought a Lee Big Stopper to see if I find the color cast to be more manageable.) This needs some massaging for sure. Second, however, I was happy to get a nice histogram with neither clipped shadows nor blown highlights, a chore on this bright sunny day.

Despite the fact that there was some heavy post-processing involved to get to the final product at the end of this post (heavy at least from my perspective), this actually was a very tough image to make in-camera for two reasons. First, the light this day was quite harsh (meaning strong shadows), and the clouds on the other side of the volcano crater were quite a bit brighter than my foreground. This meant that I had both local and global dynamic range issues. To solve these dynamic range problems, I needed a two-pronged approach that required some creativity.

To start, I needed a strategy to tackle the global dynamic range challenge, the fact that the sky was brighter than my foreground. A graduated neutral density filter would have worked fine with this fairly regular horizon line but I chose to go with a small piece of black cloth for two reasons. First, by metering both foreground and sky, I determined the difference between the two to be 2 stops. My grad ND filter is 3 stops, a bit too much. Second, however, and more important, I wanted to be able to move the grad filter during the exposure in order to feather the transition line. My piece of cloth is much larger, and moving it around during a 2 minute exposure gave me much less chance of catching the edges of the frame than  would have been the case with my grad ND filter. So, cloth it was.

Next, I needed to deal with the localized dynamic range issues. By this, I refer to the deep shadows that the late morning sun, high in the tropical sky, would cast on my foreground leaves. I don't mind deep shadows, but it's not what I wanted for this photo. The best way to deal with localized dynamic range/contrast issues is with flash. So, I decided to incorporate some off-camera fill-flash on the Poor Man's Umbrella leaves (Gunnera insignis) in the foreground. The big challenge was how to do this while I was holding my black cloth, which required two hands (and I'm no Vishnu!). Luckily, to cover the sky for 2 stops of my 2 minute exposure meant 90 seconds. Two minutes x 0.5 = 60 seconds or one stop. 60 seconds x 0.5 = 30 seconds, one more stop. Add the two together, and I needed to cover the sky for 90 seconds out of my ~120 second exposure to hold back the sky by 2 stops. That left me 30 seconds where I could drop the cloth and then pop off my untethered Canon 550 EX Speedlite flash a few times to tame the shadows on those big foreground leaves. By untethered, I mean that I put the flash in manual mode at full power and fired it as many times as I could until my 2 minute exposure ended. I thought this was an elegant solution, and I'm sure I looked really cool doing it!

Astute observers may be wondering why I used ISO 50. ISO 50 is an artificial construct, whereby the camera overexposes the image and then underexposes the highlights in order to keep from blowing them, thus sacrificing dynamic range. I decided, however, that I really wanted a 2 minute exposure in order to get maximum movement in the clouds and the sulfuric vapors blowing off the lake in the volcano crater. I was already at f/22, which was the minimum aperture of my lens. And even if my lens were capable of stopping down further, I think going beyond f/22 brings loss of sharpness due to diffraction enough into play that it would outweigh the loss of dynamic range from using ISO 50. I can bring back some dynamic range with my cloth and flash, but bringing back lost sharpness is a taller order.


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TECH NOTES: Canon 5DII, Rokinon 24 mm f/1.4 lenspolarizer, Canon 550 EX Speedlite flash, black cloth, Formatt Hitech 10 stop neutral density filter, f/22, 124 seconds, ISO 50, Induro CT 313 tripodInduro BHL2 ballheadcable release

PROCESSING NOTES: Full-frame/no cropping, minor tweaks in Lightroom, tonal contrast and diffusion with Nik Color Efex Pro, black/white conversion with Nik Silver Efex Pro, detail added through Topaz Adjust, layer adjustments in Photoshop CC to apply effects and deal with noise and detail selectively.

Although I'm proud of the work I did in-camera to capture a workable RAW file for this scene, it's the post-processing that really made the image come alive. To me, it looks like a shot taken by moonlight, which is pretty cool. The Nik and Topaz plug-in suites allows for some wild effects, but I think they work best when the photographer starts with some quality ingredients and then uses the plugins to produce a final result that doesn't look too artificial. The moral here, I think, is to have a final vision in mind before you even set up your tripod. Think about what you need to accomplish in-camera and then what can be done in post-processing to achieve an evocative yet at least somewhat realistic image.

So, does this mean I'm going to start post-processing all of my images to death just because the technology exists? Heck no, that would be like a band using synthesizers just because they exist, which happened a lot during the 1980s. This is something that this band should have learned before producing what is universally considered to be the worst song of that decade!

I hope you've enjoyed this post and the thought process behind the image. I think it's fun to look to other fields of artistic endeavor to philosophize a bit and then bring back some thoughts to incorporate into your photography. Hopefully this little article will give you some ideas for the next time that you're out in the field. If you have questions or comments, please leave them below, and I'll respond as soon as I can.

Cheers, Greg