Whiteface

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Whiteface Mountain and the Sterling Range.

Here we are in 2014 and I wanted to start things off right with a shot of a remote Vermont beaver pond. The pond here is quite a trek to get to requiring some driving on dirt roads and a two and a half mile hike into the mountains! Normally hikes like this are no problem for me but I was not up to snuff at the time with a pretty severe cold, sore throat and cough. Conditions while sunny on this day were quite cold and in the single digits but thankfully there wasn’t much wind which made the long hike that much more enjoyable.

The pond here sits at the bottom of Whiteface Mountain with Sterling Mountain and Smugglers Notch ski resort off to camera left. It is a difficult hike in the Summer as the trail and beaver pond are quite wet and tough to navigate. The Summertime brings a huge amount of bugs which is why it’s much easier to make the long hike here in the Winter…No bugs and the ground is frozen! This spot is off the beaten path and hard to find but the images were well worth the effort. I had just enough time to do an hour or so of shooting before the clouds started to roll in but this is quite the majestic view.

The image is a three shot composite as I had to crawl out onto the ice to get the shot! I was really taken with the circular patterns in the ice so I took a shot and crawled out on my belly and set my gear close to the ice. Luckily it had been really cold for a week prior to this shot so the ice held and I was able to realize my vision for this one. I blended two shots for the ice and one for the background mountains getting a nice and sharp shot from front to back. This was shot in early November when we had out first cold snap and snow in the mountains….Much success to everyone in 2014 and happy shooting!

Stars Over Burlington

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Star trails over Lake Champlain and Burlington, Vermont from Oakledge Park.

I wanted to take this opportunity to wish all of my photography friends and followers a happy holiday season! I have been struggling with a never-ending and terrible cold for three weeks now so my posting has been a bit erratic. It’s been three years since I started this blog and my Twitter account at the same time and it has been quite the journey. It has been a great pleasure to meet and interact with photographers from all over the world and I am truly grateful for the support and friendship. While it has been slow going building a small photography business I feel I have made great strides forward with my work in the past year and a half. There are ups and downs of course and I wanted to thank everyone for joining my journey!

I have been thinking about the shot above for a number of years now and with the ending of the Autumn foliage season I decided to get more seriously involved with night photography. It’s been a challenge learning the ins and outs of shooting at night but the rewards for all of the hard work are well worth the effort. I love the city of Burlington where I live and I wanted to capture it in a new and unique way. It really is a beautiful city to look at from a distance and a star trail shot is just what I had in mind!

The final image consisted of 120 images that I took over an hours time stacked in Photoshop. My settings were F4 at ISO 400 for 30 seconds and I used Lightroom to perform the final edits. The only speed bump with this one was a small cloud in the bottom third of the frame that slowly dissipated over the time that I was shooting. A minor annoyance but I loved the final result of one of my first decent star trail shots! I hope you all enjoy this one and that you have the best holiday season!

Exposure Blending for Landscape Photography: A Guide for Beginners

Lake Champlain-Sunset-Burlington_Vermont
The final, completed exposure blend of two images, One image shot for the foreground rocks and another image shot for the background horizon and sky.

Like learning anything in photography, Exposure blending requires a ton of patience and time to become familiar with the process. Everyday as we are out shooting our images we are confronted with the challenges of bright skies, dark foregrounds and how to best balance each into a single photograph. My own journey into exposure blending actually started with focus stacking and getting a tack sharp image from front to back. This naturally evolved into exposure blending and typically for me a mixture of the two so that I have one image that is sharp throughout with an exposure as close to what my eye was seeing as I can get.

You might first ask yourself, “Couldn’t you use filters to achieve the same effect?” The short answer is yes you could and I do use filters quite often in my work however there are times when the light is changing rapidly and I have to move from composition to composition fairly quickly and I don’t want to be messing around with filters taking up valuable time. Another thing to remember is that anything you put in front of your lens like a filter or multiple filters can at times add in a bit of softness that isn’t always desirable. You could also argue for doing HDR photography but for me personally I abandoned the HDR process a few years ago because I never really liked the look of it in Landscapes.

Now there are multiple ways that you can do this for sure but I wanted to show beginners an easy way to start learning the process. I have done blends with only two images and some with several images and no image is ever the same. The key is to set yourself up with a good set of initial captures and if you nail this part then the processing can become like second nature after a bit of practice. A word of caution in doing these blends is sometimes they just do not work because of focus “bloom.” Focus bloom happens when you have two images where you focused at two different points and if you look at the images side by side parts of them will not align.

As a beginner trying out this technique I would start with images where there is a clear break between the foreground and the horizon. This way you will have an easier time with the blend and then you can work your way into more complicated ones. As you can see in the final image above there is a clear, dominate foreground followed by a break with the water and then the horizon and sky at sunset. There isn’t anything from the foreground intruding into the horizon line which can complicate the blend.

The following should be taken as guidelines because there is a thousand ways to peel an onion so to speak within Photoshop. The process can vary from image to image and each image, each composition will present it’s own challenges. This is my process when I first start out to make a blended image but each image rarely follows the same path. Some work and some don’t but I hope that this at least starts you on the path to a better well rounded image!

1. Pick your candidate images.

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The two selected candidate images that I used for my exposure blend side by side in Lightroom.

As you can see in the two images that I chose for the blend the image exposed for the rocks has a blown out sky and the image exposed for the sky has the rocks much too dark. A common problem especially at sunset but by combining the best parts of each we will get a natural looking image that will be exactly what my eye was seeing. In this composition I shot a series of several images covering all the focus points I could on the rocks and on the horizon.

From these images I inspected each at 100% to check for sharpness, alignment and overall quality. From this series I chose the best two that I wanted to work on. It really starts to get complicated if you have compositions where there is a middle ground you want to blend in or when there are elements in the composition that are not completely straight. In this instance we have a nice, pleasing foreground that is common along Lake Champlain and some nice color and clouds as the sun is setting on the horizon.

At this point we will not be making any corrections to the two images until they are merged together and imported back into Lightroom. I don’t want to edit twice and it’s easier to clear up any lighting inconsistencies between the two images in Lightroom. We just want to make sure the images are sharp where they are supposed to be and that the two will line up correctly when layered together.

2. Export your candidate images from Lightroom to your computer as TIFF’s at 300dpi with a bit depth of 16 bits. I generally will label the images as foreground, middle ground, back ground, etc. as the more images you have the more confusing it can become when you are blending. This is a personal choice so you should do whatever is easiest for you.

3. Import into Photoshop.

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My two selected images open in Photoshop side by side.

Here are the two images side by side and open in Photoshop CS2. (CS2 has all the tools you will need for an exposure blend and I am cheap. Adobe makes CS2 available as a download on their site for free!) Using the foreground (lighter image with the blown out sky) as the bottom layer I will click on the move tool and while holding down the shift key I click  on the darker background image and drag it into the lighter image. By holding the shift key you ensure that the dark image will snap to proper alignment directly over the lighter image.

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The two images layered on top of each other in Photoshop for exposure blending.

Now that we have the layers on top of each other we can begin the blending process. You can chose to duplicate the bottom layer but in most cases all I want is the final merged image…I have backups of the originals so most of the time I am ok with not duplicating the first, bottom layer. Occasionally a composition will be easier to blend with the lighter foreground as the top layer and in that instance I will go ahead and duplicate the bottom layer and move it on top of the darker sky layer. It’s a fluid process that is never the same.

The final thing that I want to do to prep this image for blending is to add a layer mask to the top layer. In the layers palette click on the add layer mask icon and add the layer mask to the top layer. The layer mask will allow us to use the gradient tool to blend the two images together as well as to do some brush work later on.

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The two images in Photoshop with a layer mask on the top image.

4. Using the Gradient tool to blend the two images together.

Select the gradient tool in the tools palette and the gradient editor will pop up at the top of the screen. Click on the rectangular bar the goes from solid color to transparent and in the window that opens you will be able to fine tune the gradient based on your images.

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The gradient editor window where you can fine tune the fade of the gradient based on your images as well as change the style of the gradient.
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The gradient bar will appear at the top of the screen where you can adjust opacity and the ability to reverse the gradient if needed.
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Here I am setting the gradient to fade at roughly 2/3rds of the way in the image.

In the presets area at the top of the gradient editor window you want to select the foreground to transparent box. This will allow us to fade from one image to another on the layer mask on our top layer. You can move the sliders for the gradient to change the position of where the fade begins and in my images I set more of a hard edge gradient with the fade starting about two thirds of the way into the image. My composition is roughly two thirds foreground so I can use this as a starting point and tweak as necessary. My blend mode is normal but I have set my opacity at 80%. The opacity is key because here I don’t want the rock layer to show through at 100% because it will have too much light showing which would not be natural. Instead I lower the opacity and later I will brush in light from that layer in small quantities until I get the scene to match how my eye was seeing it. Remember I shot several images at different exposure values and the layer with the bright rocks gives me enough light to play with to blend the two images into a realistic whole.

When you select the gradient tool the cursor will turn into crosshairs on the screen. Here you have a choice to draw a freehand gradient or if you hold shift while clicking and holding the left mouse button you can draw a perfectly straight gradient which is what I did here. With the crosshairs starting at the very bottom of the image on the layer mask of the top most layer and holding down the left mouse button I will draw upwards on the image right about in the middle of the cloud layer and then release the key and the mouse. It is at this step that you will see the two images start to blend together.

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The image with a gradient applied to blend two exposures together before I start to brush in some light from my light rock layer.

In this image above you can see the two images in the layers palette, the layer mask on the top most layer and the gradient applied to the layer mask blending the two exposures together. Remember to set your foreground color to black…”Black conceals and white reveals.” In my case the opacity of the gradient is at 80% so some of the light rock layer is now showing through on the sky and horizon layer. Here though we are not quite perfect…The sun is to camera left and we need to brush some more light into the rocks to clean up and balance the exposure. In this image you can see that I have my brush tool already selected in preperation for painting with the brush tool. Same thing applies to the brush tool in that you need the foreground color set to black. By doing this we are concealing the dark rock layer and letting the lighter layer come through when we use the brush tool on our layer mask. There are some obvious inconsistencies which will be taken care of in lightroom on the final stage of our image edits.

5. Use the brush tool.

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The brushes palette in Photoshop with my chosen brush selected.

Next I want to brush in some more light from the bottom most light layer into the top layer to get a better match between the blended exposures. This will allow me to have an image that is as close to what I was seeing as possible. I have chosen a soft edge brush at 300 and using the bracket keys I will make this brush larger or smaller while I am painting. I always begin by setting the opacity of my brush anywhere from 15% to 30% as a starting point. I always try to paint in small amounts rather than large because I can layer the painting to get a more natural effect. There is no secret to this part of the process and it will take a lot of practice to master. Again with my foreground color set to black and being careful around the rock edges I slowly paint in light from my light exposure layer revealing more of the rocks and balancing the exposure. If you look in the layers palette of the image below you can see how the layer mask has changed from a solid mask and where I have painted in the light from the bottom layer. I also don’t paint in a uniform manner to better mimic how the light is falling on the rocks. There will be portions of the rocks that are darker and do contain some shadows so here is where you have to practice, have patience and use your best judgement.

There are some subtle differences between the before image and this one but again we will be importing this into lightroom for the final edits. Images like this are a bit more difficult because of the sharp edges of the rocks so great care must be taken around the many jagged edges, This is another reason why I paint in with a very low opacity, Any mistakes you make may be imperceptible to the viewer but you can always switch the foreground color to white and paint back in with the darker layer. This image is now right where I want it to be…From here I will flatten the image and export as a TIFF file to my computer for importing into lightroom.

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My blended image after painting to revel portions of the lighter layer below the dark layer. Here I am cleaning up any exposure issues with final edits to be done in lightroom.

6. Import into Lightroom for final edits and fine tuning.

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The final blended image imported into Lightroom and before any edits are made.

Here I have imported the image into Lightroom and at this point I will inspect it for any flaws and corrections that need to be made. There are several that jump out at me right off the bat such as the sky is a bit too dark for my taste, A crop is needed to get rid of a small amount of the blue sky above the clouds, straightening of the horizon and a general exposure adjustment to name a few. This image required multiple uses of the graduated filter (5 to be exact) to better fine tune the exposure but some images don’t require much work at all. First off I use a landscape preset in lightroom as a starting point for my corrections. It take care of about 70% of the corrections and includes a contrast, clarity, vibrance and saturation adjustment along with a lens correction and chromatic aberration adjustment. After I apply my preset I then fine tune the corrections with the ones I listed above…Straighten any horizon issues, cropping if needed, white balance and tweaking the lighting with the graduated filter and the adjustment brush. Here I don’t want to get into every single little edit I made as each image should be evaluated on it’s own as to what corrections should be made to it.

Exposure Blending-Lightroom-tutorial
The before and after view of my blended image in Lightroom.

If I had to sum up the process in a nutshell it would be Chose your composition, Shoot several images covering the exposure range and your focus points, chose your candidate images, Use the gradient tool to blend your images together and fine tune with the brush tool and then perform your final touch up edits in Lightroom. The final image is balanced and has a much better exposure then I could get with just one image. Again I wanted to present an easy way to get into exposure blending and one that would be easy to follow and understand for beginners. Hopefully this will start you on your way into the many doors that exposure blending can open in your images and allow you to get some images that maybe you thought were never possible!

-On a side note I have done some research on exposure blending and please note that this is not the only way to achieve this result. There are numerous ways to do this and my particular way works for me. It’s also an easier way for a beginner to start learning about processing exposure blended images. There is now right or wrong way but this tutorial can be used as a jumping off point in learning more complex blending techniques.

Mountains Shadow

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Forest foliage at the base of Mount Mansfield in Underhill, Vermont.

This year during the foliage season I decided to take a different approach to my photography work. In years past I would head into the woods, Shoot waterfalls and trees, Then repeat over and over. Don’t get me wrong I love that type of work but this year I wanted to do something different and take a big step out of that box. I did much more scouting then shooting to prepare for future foliage photo ops but I also started to make more trips to random roads and places I have never been to before. I really believe that getting lost on a country road has a ton of benefits…One of which is finding new and unique compositions!

I focused a lot of my attention in the Mount Mansfield area this year and I was rewarded for all of my driving and hiking with shots like today’s image. The road I was on here is a dirt one and it skirts around the base of the mountain giving some impressive views of the peak. It was a blue sky day but I really liked the contrast between the colorful leaves, The mountain top and the tiny bit of blue sky I included in the top of the image. There is something special about Vermont’s mountains and finding views like this really leave you speechless.

The weather for this year’s foliage season I do have to say was fantastic with a few exceptions. My days of shooting fell into two categories…Either blue skies with no clouds or stormy days with mixed lighting of all types. Exposures were a challenge and with several weeks of little to no rain many of the streams and rivers were just not flowing. I made do with the weather I was given and found some new shooting locations in the process!

Monolith

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A large boulder and trees with clouds on Lake Champlain.

Foliage season is in full swing here in Vermont but the leaves are not quite at their peak yet so i am holding off on sharing any of those images just yet. Peak foliage should be within the next two weeks with probably another week or so of foliage in the valley’s after that and then it will be all over. In the meantime I still have several images from over the Summer like today’s image! If you want to see a couple of other shots from this area head here or here!

I was out shooting on a blue sky day with some exceptional cloud formations however it was mid day so the light was rather strong. The conditions were actually great for some black and white photography so I made a few images with the intent on converting them. The rock here is part of the shoreline in Burlington that is part of a larger Thrust Fault that runs under the lake and over to the New York Side. There are a few parts of the shoreline here that I have yet to explore due to the difficulty in access. The rock here is very slippery at the waterline as well as being sharp and jagged so you either cut your hands or slip in the water.

The cloudscape and blue skies here made for a nice conversion to black and white and I did a simple conversion in Silver Efex Pro. I only had to use one control point to darken the lower left corner a bit and I thought out of several different images shot this one had the nicest amount of contrast and combination of lights to darks. Normally I hate shooting in this light because of how harsh it is but I couldn’t pass up the clouds and with a decent exposure I came up with keeper!

A Painted Sky

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Storm and rain clouds over Lake Champlain at sunset.

We had a ton of rain in the Spring and early Summer this year and lucky for me that I am a Photographer and I was able to capture quite a few of these storms coming over Lake Champlain! The Lake is only a few minutes drive from my house so I can react quickly when they come in and get into position for some shots at several different locations. Every time I shoot these storms I am amazed at how varied they are…I never know what I am going to see from night to night.

If you notice in this image there are raindrops visible on the rocks and I only had a few moments to capture an image or two before it started to rain on me! I was fortunate that there were a few trees around for me to stand under while the rain quickly passed so I could keep shooting! The thing that impressed me most about this storm was the painterly quality to the clouds and light behind the rain clouds. The foreground clouds were really defined with some great depth but the sunset light and clouds behind looked almost like an abstract painting to me!

I had to do an exposure blend here due to the exposure difference on the foreground and in the clouds. A slightly more difficult one than usual because the rocks here were jagged making it a bit more challenging to blend the two together. I almost deleted these images but in the end I stuck with the image files and managed to make a cohesive image out of them!

Sleeping Dragon

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Storm clouds at sunset over Lake Champlain.

Nothing makes me happier as a photographer than when a good set of storm clouds rolls over Lake Champlain at sunset! You really never know what’s going to happen…Sometimes you get it right and are in position for a great photograph and sometimes you guess wrong and are sitting at home while the magic happens outside. The light takes on a special quality at the beginning and end of a storm and I love when I am there to capture it!

As I was shooting this passing storm I was lucky to capture a number of small boats zipping around the lake. The boats and activity give the image scale in relation to the massive storm clouds above. At times the good cloudscapes like this peter out pretty quickly and even in this image you can see the tail end of the system in the lower left corner where the clouds are thinned out and there is a bit of rain coming down!

There wasn’t much in the way of processing on this one. The image here is pretty close to the original raw file with the exception of some lens correction, white balance and exposure changes. It’s nice that you get a hint of color way off in the distance with the looming clouds dominating the scene. Blue sky conditions just never are as exciting as some good storm light!

Tranquility

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The top of Mount Mansfield reflected in the Lake Of The Clouds.

There are certain places here in Vermont that instill a certain amount of peace and tranquility in me when I am on location and making images. In many places around the world it’s rare to find places where you are totally alone and at peace with what you are doing there. I am fortunate here where I live to have many such places especially in the early morning hours. It’s nice to go and reset myself after a long week of work or if I haven’t been out shooting for more than a week.

This was my first time up here at The Lake Of The Clouds and it was quite a beautiful site. With the exception of a few overnight campers up on the very top of the mountain my hiking companion and I were the only soul’s here at the pond! A 3 a.m. start time brought us to this spot at about 7 in the morning and while there wasn’t a cloud in the sky it was still breathtaking none the less. A tough spot to shoot as the pond is in deep shadow and if you wait too long for the sun to add in some light your highlights can look a bit harsh. It can also be tough to predict what the weather will be like at the elevation here so often you have to run with what your given!

The water here is hardly disturbed by the wind so you can get some awesome shots here of Mount Mansfield’s distinct shape reflecting nicely in the water of the pond. The water is also very clear with many of the shoreline rocks visible so you can also get some great shots with different foreground elements in them. Made a simple blend of two images here due to the extreme exposure difference in the rocks and the mountains. The hike is quite a moderate one but your exertion will pay itself off with a great set of images!

Descent

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Sunset light reflecting off of clouds on Lake Champlain.

Sometimes the best light at sunset isn’t what is in front of you but what is behind you. If you get a good set of clouds the reflected light on them will often be much better and more dramatic than pointing your camera right where the sun is setting. It takes only a moment but looking behind you to see what the light is doing can be really rewarding and make for some very striking images! Usually clouds like the ones here tend to dissipate as the sun sets over Lake Champlain but on this night they were staying put!

I was a bit rushed here as this light was changing very rapidly and the best cloud formations were off to my left and not over where the sun was setting. What you see here is the very first reflected light from the setting sun and it does not last long! I moved my gear quickly and managed to find a decent foreground getting this image before the clouds passed me by. The deep blues and subtle pinks here lasted only a few moments but they were just beautiful. Sometimes the best part of the show isn’t straight ahead!

Nothing fancy here in terms of shooting or processing of this image. I had to rush a bit to find a decent composition and the light only allowed for a shot or two before it changed as the sun set. This is looking South along Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains away from the setting sun. Train your eyes to look away from where the main action is in a sunset because there will always be a surprise waiting for you!

Brendan

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Brendan’s senior photo session
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Brendan’s senior photo session
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Brendan’s senior photo session

A few weeks ago I had the great opportunity to shoot Brendan’s senior portraits. He will be going into his senior year and as he and his mother are personal friends I was delighted to make some images for him. There are some pretty choice photography locations here in Vermont and Brendan chose Shelburne Farms, A favorite spot for him and his family.

The shooting conditions were not ideal due to the midday sun but as a photographer you often have to work around such conditions and my speedlight came in very handy here! I am a huge fan of using flash in portrait work and this day was no exception. With the help of a large diffuser held up by Brendan’s mom and my trusty flash I was able to counteract the sunny conditions and get some really nice portraits!