1/1600s @ f/8 ISO 100 @ 200mm
It’s January, but it’s summer in Peru. It seems to be just about the perfect time to photograph this majestic landscape. The skies are a vivid blue, often with interesting and contrasting clouds. The landscape is layered, and perfectly designed to draw the viewer’s eye forward through the image. We can see a sparse, but colorful, alpine forest in the foreground, purplish mountain peaks in the middle ground and finally snow-capped peaks in the background. Dynamic range is broad, starting with shadows that fade to black in the foreground, and ending with highlights that go to white in the background.
I sing the praises (often) of shooting in CameraRAW (Canon) versus JPEG. This is a great example to make my point. JPEG could never have captured the broad dynamic range in this scene, and to make matters worse (at least for me) the image would have processed in-camera with the manufacturers preset algorithms. No thank you. I want [complete] control (yeah, I’m a control freak when it comes to photography). The huge RAW file allowed me to bring out the full potential of this image, without having to resort to HDR (High Dynamic Range) software like Photomatix. I have no objections to using HDR software, and use it myself frequently, but you always run the risk of degrading the image.
After uploading the file to Adobe CameraRAW I adjusted the White Balance (Daylight 5500). I then increased the exposure using the histogram as a guide (about +50). I made no adjustments to contrast, highlights or shadows at this point (preferring to do that in Photoshop if required). I did tweak the clarity slider a lot (+70), and it made a huge difference. It focuses on the mid-range pixels and often provides a much better result than using the global contrast slider (which tweaks all pixels universally). On landscapes the clarity slider acts like a de-hazing tool, and the scene pops into sharp focus. I also leaned heavily on the vibrance slider (+40). Again, this slider focuses on the mid range color pixels and enhances the saturation of those pixels, where the saturation slider applies a global adjustment that is often heavy-handed.
Once I was satisfied I uploaded this file to Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 to complete my post-processing adjustments. Here I cropped the image to a 16 x 9 panoramic ratio to enhance its majesty. I sharpened the overall image and once again checked the blacks and the whites, making slight adjustments. You typically want the image to contain the full spectrum of dynamic range, from the blackest black to the whitest white, with everything else in-between. Finally I burned in the clouds at about 15% to increase contrast, and added a touch of overall contrast (+15) and color saturation. Is this the RAW image that came out of the camera? No, but this final image is very close to what my biological eye actually saw.
A couple of final thoughts: you don’t always have to shoot a landscape wide-angle, in fact this image was shot long at 200mm. If I had shot this at a super wide-angle focal length (16 – 24mm) or even a modest wide-angle focal length (28 – 35mm) I would have lost the grandeur of the scene. Even so-called normal focal lengths (40 – 70mm) wouldn’t have done it justice. In this case 200mm was the perfect focal length in my ever so humble opinion. The lesson? Think out of the box, and don’t be afraid to break the rules and try something different. Sometimes it even works. Camera settings: AV mode (Aperture Priority on Canon) @ f/8, auto ISO, Evaluative Metering and One Shot autofocus. The bright sun did the rest, lowering my ISO to 100 (perfect) and increasing my shutter speed to 1/1600s.
I’m fairly pleased with the final image. There is sufficient detail in the shadows, and no blown highlights. The colors are saturated, but don’t look overly processed. The image is crisp and sharply focused, and well composed (16 x 9 is the proper crop format here, as opposed to a more common 10 x 8 format). This image meets the three basic requirements of any acceptable photograph: critically sharp (tack-sharp), well exposed and pleasingly composed. The rest is Mother Nature and my artistic vision. This was all accomplished by shooting in CameraRAW, and processing in Adobe CameraRAW and Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 (no HDR software was used).
Stephen F. Dennstedt
Photographer, Writer and World Traveler