Sometimes you take the photo, and sometimes the photo takes you

This is the story of a photograph that I made a couple of weeks ago when we were in Wisconsin at the Shalom Wildlife Sanctuary, and how I eventually made a print that I was happy with. Along the way, Lynn laughed at me for taking so much time to print a single photo and my photo friends gave me all sorts of suggestions on techniques to make this come out right (some of which I even used – thanks, Keith).

I knew when I saw this scene that there was a photo here. The lighting conditions were overcast and gloomy – exactly right for the kind of image I wanted, but this made capturing the photo a little difficult. And, it turns out – made printing the photo even more difficult.

I had my Canon G9 with me and used the built in flash in fill mode. I had visions of a 13×19 inch print, so I kept it in ISO 80 and saved it in RAW (like I always do). The skull on the ground looked like good foreground material, so I cranked the lens to the most wide angle setting and got up close to make this exposure (this is straight out of the camera, with no re-touching other than conversion from raw in Lightroom 2)(click on this image for a larger version).

Original photo - straight out of the camera

This is an interesting scene, I really liked the concept of this photograph, but the initial image left a lot still in my imagination. The sky is washed out, the skulls on the pole are way too dark, and the foreground skull is too bright. Also, the grass in the foreground is too bright and distracting (among other things).

I tried various methods over several days to make it work using mostly Lightroom2 and some Photoshop tools. Lightroom2 has some very nice new local adjustment tools which I played around with along with the usual curves, etc. to darken the sky and lighten the pole skulls. I also used the black and white conversion tools in Lightroom2 and generated the version of the photo that is posted in my previous blog entry. This was a lot better than the initial photo, but I thought it could be better. Here’s where Keith comes in. “Why not run it through Photomatix?” he said. “Why didn’t I think of that?” I said. And so …

Here are the steps I went through over several days (some of the steps multiple times – it’s a good thing Lightroom is a non-destructive editor)

1. Basic exposure, clarity, curves, etc. adjustments
2. Create 3 virtual copies of the image – one for the sky, one for the skulls on the pole, and one for the foreground. Adjust each one separately: First adjust the exposure and then convert to Black & White to highlight the appropriate features. Export these as 16 bit .tiff files.
3. Use Photomatix Pro 3.0 to create a combined HDR of the 3 B&W .tiffs, then tone map the HDR file and save.
4. Load the tone mapped file into Photoshop. Clone as needed from the appropriate B&W conversion file to highlight the skulls on the poles. Clone out a portion of the horn on the foreground skull. Crop to the final dimensions. Adjust levels, sharpen for output.

Here is the final image (click for a larger version):

The image after a "little" editing

If you want more details on the steps I went through, I’ve posted the intermediate photos for each step at this link .

It is quite a bit different from the original, and it looks pretty good enlarged to 13″x19″ (especially for a point and shoot camera). So I think it was worth the extra effort. What do you think?

©2008, Ed Rosack. All rights reserved.

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