On March 6, 2014, I was poised to make an image of Irish Rail 085 (in relatively fresh grey paint) using my Canon EOS 7D with 40mm lens. Before the train arrived, I made my requisite test exposure.
I always do this. A test exposure insures the camera is working and is set properly. It also allows me to fine tune my settings to optimize the amount of information captured.
In this case, I realized that to obtain the best exposure and retain sky detail, I would necessarily need to allow the ground and primary subject to be bit dark. However, since I can adjust this in post processing, I opted for the darker exposure.
I could have simply used the ‘levels’ or ‘curves’ feature in Photoshop to lighten the image. This is my normal quick adjustment. However, I thought I’d experiment. So I made series of localize contrast adjustments using the ‘Magnetic Lasso’ tool.
My aim was to even out the relative exposure of various areas, and specifically to reduce the extreme contrast between the sky and the train’s shadow areas, with an ultimate goal of presenting the scene in the final image as it appeared to me at the time of exposure.
I had no intention of exaggerating or distorting the effect of the overcast morning, but rather to correct for some of the inherent limitations of the camera system.
Below are a series of images that illustrate the steps of my contrast adjustment. I’ve intentionally grossly exaggerated adjusted areas as to make the process more obvious. My actual adjustments were relatively subtle. It is my feeling that if the process becomes obvious, the end result will seem artificial.
I’ve long been intrigued by the short section of the former Southern Pacific Bayshore Cutoff at the old Potrero Wye, where the railroad runs beneath I-280.
This location offers a graphic contrast; the immensity of the highway shadowing the railroad both literally and metaphorically.
The location also poses a photographic challenge. During high light, the tracks are completely within shadow, so I’ve found the best time to photograph is early in the morning or late in the day, when sunlight is below the bridge.
Yet, low sun also poses a problem, as calculating exposure is neither intuitive nor can a camera meter be relied upon. The overwhelming highway structure will tend to result in overexposure as a camera meter tries to compensate for the darkness, yet the side of the train reflects the full brightness of the sun (which to further complicate matters, may be less than sun at midday).
I made this photograph of an inbound Cal-Train ‘Baby Bullet’ in April 2008, using my Canon EOS 3 with a 50mm lens on Fujichrome slide film. I used my Minolta Mark IV handheld meter in reflective mode to sample the exposure on the side of a gray highway support column, and preset my camera accordingly. (I didn’t make note of the exposure, but it was about f5.6 1/500th of second.)
The resulting color slide looks just about perfect, but my exposure/contrast problem was repeated when I went to scan the image.
Here, I found the scanner software’s auto exposure had the reverse problem of my in-camera meter and tended to underexpose the scan. The result was not only too dark, but unacceptably contrasty.
I switched off the auto exposure, and instead used the software’s exposure histogram to set exposure manually as to better balance the highlight and shadow areas. Using this setting, I made a another scan. Afterwards, I fine-tuned the improved scan using Photoshop to make for a more pleasing image by adjusting both contrast and color balance.
This image is an exception; most of the time I’m satisfied with my first scan. Incidentally, the pictures reproduced here are scaled Jpgs from very large Tiff scans. The file size of the Jpgs is just a fraction of the original scan size, which is adequate for small-size internet viewing.
The other night in Palmer, Massachusetts an arctic breeze was blowing, but that didn’t stop me from making time exposures to capture the holiday spirit.
I exposed these photos despite numb hands and cold feet. I used my Lumix LX-3 (choice night camera in cold weather) fitted to a large Bogen tripod.
Years ago, I fitted plastic-foam pipe insulation to the tripod legs (as per recommendation by experienced cold-weather photographer Mike Gardner). This makes it easier to handle the tripod when it’s very cold.
My exposures varied from about 1.6 seconds at f2.8 (ISO 200) to 25 seconds at f4.0 (ISO80). I set the camera manually using the histogram from test exposures to gauge my settings.
Christmas lights on dark nights make for exceptionally difficult contrast. If you overexpose to allow good shadow detail the lights get blown out (losing their color[s] as a result). Underexpose to feature the lights and the sky and shadows turn to an inky black.
Somewhere in between is a compromised setting. Rather than ponder the subtleties of the histogram as the blood in my toes congealed, I opted to take a series of images, one after the other, and select the best of the bunch in a warm environment later on.