I wouldn’t presume to know the motivations behind some of my fellow photographers reasoning for making or not making a photograph. The only information I have to go on is the discipleship of experience and what I see displayed on their social media or…whatever. That being said, more often than not my own photographs seem to be oddly paradoxical; something pulled from the ether yet somehow unconsciously planned. Both an accident and an intention.
Sweet God…where was I? The river. That’s right. Utah. Early May when the snow is in full melt from the mountains. The river of Yoo-Hoo or at least what reminded me of that divine beverage. Not familiar with Yoo-Hoo? For our purposes just know that Yoo-Hoo is akin to some Sorcerer’s Stone or Unicorn, known only to a few initiates who have become fully awakened…. A drink which could be thought of as chocolate milk only…not. It is thoroughly American. It’s brown. It was this familiar yet anomalous chromatic sheen that first moved me to make this photograph.
Having secured my heroically simple camping spot for the night and making the requisite beer run I decided, for the aforementioned reasons, that this location offered more than just a welcomed rest from a day’s driving.
The river, which is by name Coal Creek, presents as nothing more than a murky vein of turgid, ice cold mountain mud and silt. In seasons other than Spring I assume it would be a relatively pristine waterway but now it is fully overtaken by mountain snow runoff. That was until the sun began to fade.
So, let’s talk about the making of the photograph, or rather three photographs which would later become one. This would be the first occasion I would consciously visualize the integration of multiple exposures from the outset of the process. A “high dynamic range” image as the parlance of our times might dictate. What the hell is that, anyway? “HDR”? It’s a weird delusion that cameras offer any deeper tonal range than our own eyes, the truth remains thoroughly in opposition. Your eye is capable of sensing an approximate 20-stop range of brightness values between lights and darks, highlights and shadow. As far as I know at the moment, the majority of commercially available digital camera sensors are pushing the 14-15-stop watermark. That’s still a hulking deficit in light sensing capability when compared to the human eye.
Alright, enough of that. I’ve already admitted the less than poetic reason I wanted to make the photo at the time; that reason being nothing short of the conscious delusion that the water reminded me of one of my most beloved milk-like drinks from childhood (and yesterday). However, it was the waning light of the late evening sun pouring over the far mountains to the west that made the scene significant to me.
A Light Problem….
While the late afternoon sunlight would be a cornerstone of the entire image it was also it’s largest problem. The overpowering brightness of the sun in relation to the shadows cast by the mountains simply could not be overcome. The inherent stretch in tonal ranges were too great. Exposing for the sky of course left the foreground far too dark not to mention arresting the motion of the water.
Exposing for the foreground of course completely banished any and all detail of clouds and color in the sky. Even if I had elected to stack both of my GND filters to combat the brightness I would still be faced with the irregularities of the ridge line which would prove to be another problem.
Then of course there was the matter of the mid range tonal values of the mountains foliage occupying the space in the center of the frame. Compounding the exposure conundrum further was the added nastiness of me wanting to impart a moderate sense of motion to the silky waters of Coal Creek. This meant an even lengthier exposure would be needed. Hence, or rather thus, I decided to pull off one of the greatest photographic cheats in history: blending exposures.
I’m not here to offer excessive commentary towards blending exposures. Personally, I almost never do it in my work. Not because I’m wholly against it for idealistic reasons but rather I seldom NEED to make multiple exposures to achieve the results I’m after. Usually I’m able to compensate for vast differences in luminance values based solely on the use of external filters (GND, ND, ect.) and my camera sensor’s respectable dynamic range capabilities. Even though I call it “cheating” exposure blending is not exactly deserving of that grim of a label. It’s a perfectly justifiable method of overcoming the inherent limitations of our current photographic tool set…when used in context. That fact remains that on this occasion a single exposure just wouldn’t suffice. So, I made three and here they are:
From left to right, the exposures were 1/30 second, .6 second and 1 second, respectively; all at f/22. I obtained three images which covered the areas of luminance that I new I would want represented in the final photograph.
Processing the Image
Around 9:30 P.M I crawled into the back of Bruce for the night. After bringing these three photographs into Lightroom Classic CC I made use of its excellent exposure blending tool: HDR photo merge.
In a shameful act of self promotion I’ll mention that I have an entire chapter devoted to using this and the other nifty photo merge features of Lightroom in my freshly updated eTextbook Lightroom Mastery. Essentially, HDR photo merge does the heavy lifting for you by blending multiple exposures together automatically.
The resulting photo looks something like this. Well actually, exactly like this:
Although relatively flat and unpolished Lightroom’s photo merge did a hell of a job. After some basic adjustments to contrast and color temperature I kicked this image over to Photoshop.
It’s here where I’ll get rid of those damn dust specs and chisel away at the image until it looks as close as possible to the photograph I saw in my mind while I was standing behind the camera. The bulk of the edits involved dumping in a huge amount of contrast to the entire photo and selectively brightening the highlights in the water and making sure that the sunlight cast itself the most brightly right down the middle of the frame. I also kept the entire image overtly dark simply because that’s how it best felt to me and added to the serene nature of the experience. This was achieved by copying the base layer and applying a Hard Light blend mode. Also of note was to keep the plant at the bottom right of the frame highly visible as an anchor point for perspective.
Finally, I added an extremely slight Gaussian blur effect with a color burn blending mode as well as some selective sharpening via a high pass filter. As far as blending modes are concerned, don’t let anyone tell you there’s a defined rhyme or reason involved in choosing one. I literally go down the list until I find one that offers the look I’m after and then adjust accordingly. After I’m finished in Photoshop it’s back to Lightroom and a few final tweaks. And then…done.
Here’s a gentle reminder of where we started. To the left is the original exposure blend as it appeared after being cooked with Lightroom’s HDR photo merge utility. To the right is the finished photo after post processing.
Parting thoughts on Yoo-Hoo, Motivation and Truth
I feel the truest photographs we can make are produced through an understanding of our own motivations; both in terms of self-expression and accurate self-realization. My reasons for making the photograph we talked about here today didn’t arise from some high level of artistic inspiration and forethought nor through careful planning or intent. It wasn’t something I set out to do and I could have just as easily not taken the camera out that evening. The truth is, the rushing waters of Coal Creek connected with me through an admittedly weird visual memory which made the scene somehow personal. This lead to my studying the elements presented to me more closely and adding up the sum of it’s parts. After that, all that was required was knowing how to fill in the gaps between what I felt and what I wanted you, the otherwise disconnected viewer, to feel as well. It’s this interpersonal translation of emotion which can be the most challenging aspect of making any photograph. It’s my hope that after seeing how this photograph was made it will help you to understand that the most important skill you can learn in photography is to not be ashamed of how or why you want to make photograph. Just make the photograph.
Channel your own motivations into your pictures and stay true to your original intentions for the image. Use whatever methods you need until the final photograph manifests itself. Do this and you will never make a mistake.