PAINTED HILLS....CLEARING STORM
JANUARY 2011 "IMAGE OF THE MONTH"
A mid-summer thunder storm rolled across the high desert leaving pools of water and lightning strikes a plenty. After six years of effort with at least two to three trips a year to photograph the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument's Painted Hills I finally hit the jackpot. Late in the afternoon, last June, one last rain cell rolled through the area (see dark cloud on image left) drenching the landscape as it moved off to the East and small sun breaks began to appear. Over a period of about 10 to 15 minutes the sun spots played across the muddy terrain creating surreal patterns that enhanced the tonality and depth of this remarkable landscape. An added bonus was the rich, deep colors that materialized from within the hills themselves as a result of the saturated clay and mud. Colors I had never seen or imagined emerged right before my eyes.............and my camera.
After six years I no longer feel the need to go back.
BACKGROUND AND TECHNICAL REVIEW OF THE SHOOT
After two weeks of Summer rain, thunder storms and gray skies this day finally had all the indications of an increasing clearing storm pattern. I left within the hour hoping the same weather would exist at the Painted Hills, a little more than 100 miles to the East. On arrival I found a very wet landscape but the weather was definitely breaking up with a suggestion that it could be very good.
I drove and hiked all over the area for the next 5 hours shooting near/far, wide angle, long lens, Infrared B&W the whole while looking for that just right, make my socks go up and down kinda scene. Late in the day the weather continued to improve with only the occasional shower and more and more sun breaks.
Ultimately I found that perfect spot. I decided on a Grand Landscape Panoramic perspective, and set up to wait for the light.
My first challenge was the significant difference in the light values on the landscape before me. As the sun breaks moved across the scene I found there was an 8 stop difference between the hi-lights in the clouds to the shadows in the folds and crevices of the hills within the scene. If I exposed for the clouds in the sky the folds would block up and go completely black........that was unacceptable. If I exposed for those shadows in the folds then the clouds would completely wash out and there would be NO detail in the majority of the clouds...........also unacceptable.
So the first decision was to bracket my exposures to ensure that I captured ALL of the detail, in the right amount, in each of those areas. I elected to shoot 3 bracketed frames of the scene to ensure a final image that would have detail (at the level I envisioned) in both the shadows and the brightest hi-lights in the clouds. I always shoot in RAW because it gives me some latitude with exposures but the combination of bracketing, with three different shutter speeds, and the RAW processing means almost never missing a shot.
My second challenge was the scope of the subject matter before me. It was clear that it had to be a panoramic with a lot of real estate included. To do it in one shot I would have to use my 14mm wide angle, on my full frame Nikon D700 to get it all in and then the COI (center of interest) which for me was the folds in the landscape, would be so small I would have been guaranteed not enough pixels or detail to create much more than an 11x14. As the scene began to unfold in front of me I knew this one had to be able to go big, I mean really BIG ! I was going to need a WHOLE lotta pixels that a single shot capture simply could not provide.
So that meant I was going to have to shoot multiple shots of the scene and bring them together in post processing there by multiplying the size of the finished file by the number of total images in the final capture if I hoped to retain the detail in the scene before me.
So I chose my 28 to 70mm fixed 2.8 Nikon zoom mounted in a vertical format on my really sturdy graphite tripod with a Really Right Stuff ball head and found a 34mm perspective was perfect for the crop I wanted. A quick look through the view finder, of the scene allowed me to factor in the amount of overlap I would need for a quality stitch of the finished files there by coming up with just how many frames I would have to capture to truly tell the story.
The final count was; I would need 11. So I determined the degree of arc the camera would have to rotate for the proper overlap and figured out where to start and end and I was ready.
Now all I would have to do is set the camera at the start point, wait for the light, wait for the sun to be in just the right place, or places, hope it didn't rain again, pre-set my mirror lock up and pre-program my camera's auto bracket feature for three, two stop spread captures with each depression of the remote release and be ready to quickly manually rotate the camera through 11 different points on the compass stopping at just the right point of view to ensure the appropriate overlap and depress the shutter release twice. Once for the mirror lock up and the second time for the shutter release. Lets see, that's 11 points of view times three separate exposures and that's all there is to it!.
Oh yeah............the light just kept getting better and better the first five times I did the 11x3 shot combo so I did it another six times and believe it or not the 11th set of bracketed, overlapped exposures was the ONE ! Now you know why they don't call it.... Point and Shoot.
OK, now the images were "In the Can", as they say, so I brought the 363 image files into CS4's Bridge and began editing them down to the final 33 needed to create my Painted Hills image.
Since there were three different image files, with different exposure values, for each of the eleven angles of view I had to select the best one of three from all eleven sets. They were all processed in ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) with close attention to color temperature, balance and overall tonality, especially in the sky area of each selected file. The RAW converted files for all eleven views were brought into PS and the manual stitching, of the eleven images, began. *(I did try a high end stitching software with this project but it simply couldn't merge the sky from image to image because of the cloud movement from one file to the next.)
It took me two days to merge and stitch all eleven images into one master file. Though my PS computer is fairly robust it did choke a little and was, at times, painfully slow as it attempted to create my eleven image pano stitch. And, yes the final file ended up being a 1.2 GB file. Once I had the Master PSD file completed then I spent a while fine tuning the overall image. You know, a little more contrast here, a little less there, some dodging and burning here and there until it finally looked exactly like it did to my eye when I was standing behind the camera on that wonderful afternoon.
I ended up printing the image on Breathing Color's Brilliance Canvas as a 2'x6' Gallery Wrap. Having examined the entire image up close I continue to be amazed at the detail and clarity the six foot long print exhibits. I am anxious to create an 8' footer of the image...........I have no doubt that it will explode off the wall and do very, very well.
Oh, Remember when I said "I knew it had to be able to go big, I mean REALLY BIG !" Well..............it does.
** (Please know your questions, and or comments, are always appreciated)