Passion Over Fashion
A whole world swirled around my feet. Around my camera. The crashing surf eroded the well-worn yet sculpted stone, and reflected the dawn’s primordial radiance. Revolving sets of waves textured the wet rocks with salted spray, further accentuating the time-etched grooves marring the stone.
Overhead, a faint orange light traced gentle lines in the gray morning clouds, illuminating the horizon and hinting at the possibility of a sunrise symphony of color.
Wonderment overcame me as I set down my tripod, and I could only be thankful for my groggy decision to wake up to darkness and embark on the trek down the many, many stairs to the beach. As dusk transformed into dawn, I took in the scopious seascape around me and began the search for the perfect rock to anchor my composition.
After exploring the narrow stretch of dry beach untouched by the rising tide, I discovered a row of striking stones protruding from the gently lapping waves. The angled edges sloping into the water resembled an ancient, eroded pathway stretching out into the endless Pacific Ocean. I set up my tripod squarely in front of the rock formation in question and began taking test shots to refine my composition.
Spurred by the rapidly changing conditions, I got down to business and started by screwing on my dark, 8 stop ND filter. These filters are essentially very dark pieces of glass that create a long exposure (typically ranging from seconds to even hours) by allowing small amounts of light to enter the camera over a long period of time. This allows for the “long exposure” effect of smoothing out any movement in the water for a dreamy, peaceful image. To dial in my settings, I switched to full Manual mode, read the light meter built into my camera, and determined that the proper shutter speed (the duration that the camera lets in light) was thirty seconds. Time was of the essence during this shoot, since I had to achieve all of my exposures before the sun became too bright and would create flares, forcing me to change my camera settings. Pressing the mushy, indented shutter release button every thirty seconds, I waited to review each image in the series, and repeated this procedure for 15 shots. After hunching over my tiny camera for the approximately 12 minutes that seemed like hours, I reviewed the shots on my camera’s LCD screen and breathed a lengthy sigh. Captured within this long-awaited expulsion of air was the satisfaction of creating technically sound images, the elation of successfully completing my first-ever solo shoot, and the appreciation for the minuscule portion of nature’s magnificence permanently encapsulated in my camera’s tiny, 1” sensor.
While still on location, with my dawn shooting session coming to a close, I envisioned the final, composite image that I would create on my computer at home. It would be a striking, expansive image with beautiful blue colors, a soft and dreamlike sea, a hint of the explosive sunrise to come. I would blend all of my exposures together to create a super “long exposure” of about seven minutes. The resulting effect on the water would be reminiscent of a magical, soothing mist blanketing a once-traveled sunken pathway.
With the limitations of my gear in mind, I also envisioned the issues that I would encounter upon reviewing the RAW images. I knew that the files would lack contrast, sharpness, and that extra “pop” factor. Furthermore, the limited focal range offered by the fixed, retractable lens characteristic of point-and-shoot cameras had stifled my field-of-view options while I was at the scene. With a professional DSLR, the user has the option to interchange lenses in order to achieve a focal range from very wide to very telephoto (zoomed in). These options can greatly impact a photographer’s creativity, since different lenses—and thus different focal lengths—offer varying perspectives on a certain subject. In this example, if I had access to a wider lens than the 28mm maximum focal length offered by my Sony DSC-RX100, I would be able to include greater areas of both the rocks and the sky in my image straight out of camera. However, due to focal length restrictions, I was forced to prioritize capturing the full expanse of the rock formation in my image and sacrifice some of the voluminous sky. Despite this, the resulting RAW image offered a pleasing take on the scene that I had encountered; however, it lacked a certain sense of scale and grandeur.
Cognizant of these obstacles, I entrusted the stacked images to my suite of editing applications. Immediately, I boosted the contrast, exposure, sharpness, and clarity to coax out the rich tonal palate ready to emerge from the wealth of information embedded in the flat, uncompressed RAW file.
Then, I started to manipulate the blues, magenta, and oranges of the image to bring out the dramatic, sweeping cloud cover, emphasize the pre-sunrise glow, and imbue the water with a surreal arctic radiance. Subtly painting soft light and warm tones onto the slanted rocks with a brush tool (which allows the user to apply a certain effect such as exposure over specific parts of the image) served to accentuate the rays of morning light catching the sodden rocks.
It is important to note that the image above displays a slightly different color scheme and level of sharpness when compared to the edited and stacked image below. This is because single exposures are sharper than the combined image due to flaws in the stacking process of multiple files. Additionally, the changing light across all of the exposures taken created a lighter and more diffused blue color on the ocean as well as a magenta and orange cast in the sky.
At this point, I had exhausted my amateur knowledge of photo editing. Fortunately, I decided to approach the high school photography teacher for advice. Over the course of a few weeks, he graciously taught me how to bring my image to the next level in Adobe Photoshop—a more advanced editing application—even though I had never taken one of his photography classes. Under his patient mentorship, I learned how to further edit my photograph and expand part of the sky to “artificially” make the image taller and add a wider sense of perspective. Some may express a concern that I have in some way manipulated nature through this process; however, I see it as quite the opposite. During every photography shoot, I strive to accurately capture my experience of a particular location to the best of my ability in-camera. Nonetheless, I also recognize that all gear has inherent limitations that may prohibit the photographer’s vision from its proper execution. Thus, since gear can be limiting, taking advantage of the variety of options available in post-production is a completely valid and necessary step towards providing a more authentic, true-to-life image.
The fact that all cameras have their own, unique drawbacks should not be overlooked. Given that more expensive cameras provide fewer limitations, there is a technical point of diminishing returns. My tiny Sony camera has many deficiencies including a non-interchangeable lens system, which can limit creativity by restricting the photographer to a narrow focal range without the super-wide and telephoto options often necessary to adequately capture an expansive or distant scene respectively; The Sony’s small, low-quality sensor limits the maximum print size before flaws such as lack of detail can be perceived; Relatively poor dynamic range (the information available from the lightest to darkest areas of the image) characteristic of 1” sensors allow for less flexibility while editing the image to correct for dark shadows and bright highlights; A lack of weather proofing is perhaps the most fatal flaw; In fact, on one shoot, I accidentally unbalanced my tripod sending my camera careening into a salty tide pool. After a week of soaking in rice to dissipate moisture, my camera fortunately came back to life, albeit slower and prone to random, debilitating glitches. However, these seemingly suffocating flaws never crossed my mind while I was absorbed in my creative flow on location. Deciding that becoming a “master” of my current setup was of paramount importance, I educated myself on how to use my camera by reading books, watching countless YouTube tutorials, and consulting fellow photographers. In doing so, I made sure that only my gear bounded my creativity and skill as a photographer. My reasoning was as follows: If I could learn to be versatile and technically proficient in my craft, then I could create great images on any camera system.
Almost a year later, this has held true. Throughout my journey from amateur to semi-professional, I have used everything from my cheap, outdated Sony point-and-shoot to borrowed starter Nikon DSLRs to professional cameras with a plethora of lenses. The only difference in my experience using these various camera systems has been the amount and type of editing required. When using beginner cameras, I had to edit more extensively to compensate for relatively poor image quality and restricted focal ranges. Now that I have a high quality and expensive camera setup along with many accessories for landscape photography, I still take the time to carefully and creatively edit my images. However, my process has simplified greatly. With more personal know-how from experience combined with high dynamic range, sharp RAW files, I have streamlined my editing process to the point where it has become relatively intuitive. Reflecting back, I am grateful for my humble beginnings. If I had simply been gifted a professional camera upon even a remote interest in photography, I would have been overwhelmed by all the foreign features and options. Further, I would have had nothing to work towards. Starting out with my Sony camera with the awareness that there were better tools available, I knew that I needed to first maximize what I had before I was ready for the next step.
My Professional Camera Setup (Canon EOS 6D Mark II)