Unveiling the Masterpiece

I’ve shared a huge number of images through this blog over the last couple years, but in this post I’m going to try and give more of the information about the creation of a specific photograph than I ever have in the past. If readers find it valuable, I will try to make this type of post a regular feature of the TKM Journal. Yes, that means I could make extremely sporadic posting a thing of the past, but we’ll have to wait till school starts in a few weeks to see how that really plays out.

“Laying Down a Masterpiece” – even before the water has uncovered it, a beautiful tapestry of silt and sand is taking shape

Most of the photographic work (at least in landscape and nature photography) comes after a subject has been identified and the lighting possibilities have been evaluated, but it isn’t as easy to identify a valuable subject as one might think. Of course, there are times when the drama or colors of a vast scenic view stop you in your tracks, but clearly the photo above does not show one of those cases. When it’s not enough just to have your eyes open, you have to be conscious of the act of seeing. While preconceptions can get in the way, there is immense value in having experience in and understanding of your surroundings. My most recent visit to the Herbert Glacier was not my first or second. Rather, I’ve been there more like a dozen times in the last few years. I’ve been there enough times to know that shadows from the surrounding mountains cross most of the valley by early in the evening, so there isn’t much chance of finding your subject bathed in the last golden rays of the sunset. I know that clouds are almost never cooperative even if they look promising in the time before the light is ready. Most importantly for this particular image, I know that there are often splendid patterns in the glacial silt on the edge of the river.

At first glance, when I arrived at the head of the river, it didn’t appear that silt abstracts would be an option. The river was flowing furiously, and it was over it’s normal banks in many areas. I was glad I had come prepared by biking the first portion of the trip in my Xtratuf boots. I used them to wade through shallow edges of the river as I made my way upstream, and being able to stick close to the river instead of going up into the trees allowed me to keep my eyes searching for possible images. I made about 100 other exposures before finding this small scene (mostly as a result of bracketing for both exposure and focus), but at the first sign of rippled mud under my feet, I was scanning the whole area for possibilities. It was none too surprising that the very best patterns were submerged in water, but that is what gives this photograph its unique and special qualities. Now, how would I best record this subject?

LDAM Unadjusted RAW – This view into the image making process gives two important bits of information. The first is that the default settings I use in Lightroom result in a very flat image. The second is just how subtle the subject I’m looking for might be.

One of the first considerations for a photo is the choice of focal length, or in other words, how much should I show? On this trip (as with most) I had options ranging from 17mm to 200mm and just about every point in between. On the one hand, wide-angle views can be problematic with flat subjects like this one. On the other hand, even short-telephoto would probably exclude to much to tell the complete story. At the end of my thinking, I stuck with the focal length of the lens that was already on my camera, my TS-E 24mm L II. But I promise, it really was the right lens for the job. I already mentioned the flat subject and that is where a tilt-shift lens can work like magic. I didn’t want to compose straight down, and I was worried that 24mm might be too wide, but I was able to work close to the subject and still maintain focus by tilting the lens.

Not only could I keep the whole subject in focus, but I could do it with an aperture of only f/5.6, and that provided two more perks. First of all, most lenses are sharpest at apertures one or two stops down from their widest (not all the way down where diffraction smears all details). The second thing was that I wanted to freeze (at least mostly) the ripples in the water moving across the frame. With the wide aperture, I could choose the right shutter speed for the exposure and not even have to think about the water movement. It shows up perfectly clear. Still, anytime there’s water moving, I like to take a handful of exposures in order to choose the best when I can view them more carefully on the computer screen.

LDAM Output RAW – Some photos take a lot of work and localized adjustments in Photoshop. This one was almost done at the stage where I exported it from Lightroom.

Though you see a striking difference from the beginning to the end of the RAW processing, the thought process and execution were both very simple. I knew that the scene actually had very dark silt and very light sand in the patterns, so I made adjustments to the “black clipping” and “white clipping” to work against the flat light and bring out my subjects natural contrast. The rest of the adjustments were about color. When a scene has colors as subtle as there were in this one, it’s a difficult choice between decreasing (completely) or increasing the saturation of colors, but you definitely can’t leave them alone. It tested some monochrome options, but in the end, I decided there was a beauty in the colors that I wanted to bring out.

Aside from a further enhancement of the color, the final adjustments in Photoshop are so subtle that they don’t warrant much comment. The colors were achieved through the use of Tony Kuyper’s “Make it Glow” action, and though I often find that particular action to affect the blue tones too severely, it worked perfectly in the case of this image. Picking a title for the photo was easy because I consider silt patterns and designs to be great works of art in and of themselves, and here I was actually watching the water roll little grains of sand through this scene. The end result is one of my most personally satisfying images of the last couple months, and I hope you enjoyed getting this behind the scenes looks into the discovery, record, and processing of the photo.

“Laying Down a Masterpiece” – The final version really comes to life for me and shows all the aspects of the subject and light that I hoped to convey.

I’d love to get your feedback on this type of post in the form of a comment. Thanks so much for your time.