With the weather calming down from the recent spate of storms, its time to get back into shooting some landscape photography. I’ve been reading up on a few techniques including focus stacking and exposure blending, so this morning, armed with a brain full of ideas and a nice local location, I set off to see if I could put those techniques into use.
The visualised photo in my head I wanted to shoot, was direct into the sun, have the light directly onto elements of the landscape, be pinpoint sharp from front to back, front elements extremely close to camera (around 20cm) and have detail in shadows and the majority of the highlights. I wanted colour where the sun is, but not necessarily detail, a nice glow would be perfect. Finally, I was going to shoot in portrait orientation as this allows me to really put the foreground very close to the lens and still show the sky, trickier in landscape orientation without an ultra wide lens.
I used my Olympus OMD Em5 Mark II camera, the Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 pro lens, I had a manfrotto circular polarising filter on, not to bring out colours (impossible when facing towards the sun), but to help knock a little reflection off the greenery, and finally a 3 stop soft graduated filter, just to help keep the sky/highlights under control.
I arrived about 30 minutes before sunrise, this spot is very close to home and I as I was wanting the sun up in the sky there was no real point getting there earlier, even tho the early pre dawn sky colour can be the best, that wasn’t the goal here. I found a nice composition, where the hills act as layers going into the scene, and I had the tops of some nice grasses as my foreground.
For my first tests, I put the camera in aperture priority mode, ISO 200 (base ISO), f5.6 (sharpest point of lens), and camera decides the shutter speed. As I’m on a tripod I wasn’t worried about shutter speed at all. I then enabled the in camera focus bracketing. All I had to do was pick a focus point closest to the bottom of screen, then the camera would take a series of photos, shifting focus until it figured it had everything. At these settings it was taking around 17 photographs. Now storage is easy but that seemed like too many photographs for me, and a review on the back of camera showed a lot of the final ones had been taken well past infinity and were blurry again.
So I decided on a different route, and this turned out to work extremely well and easy. I set the shutter activation in the camera to 2 second delay, and turned on the select and shoot function of the rear LCD screen. I also stopped down the lens to f7.6 so each photo had a little more in focus. Then it was simply a matter of touching the bottom of the screen, waiting 2 seconds, camera took a shot, then touching a little above that, repeat. All in all I could take photos from front of scene to back in 5 shots, then for the final photo I stopped right down to f22 (aiming for sunstars), dropped the exposure by 2 stops and took a final shot clicking on the horizon to capture detail in the brightest parts of the photograph.
Here is the series of photos I ended up with, the first photo is the completed image. Then there are 5 photos used for focus stacking, and the final f22 exposure that was used to bring some sky detail back (the exposure is adjusted here, it was captured 2 stops darker) :
To post process all of this I started in Adobe Camera Raw. Working on the first image of the focus stack, I made my initial adjustments and then synchronised those settings to the other 4 in the focus stack. For the photo where I was only going to use the sky, I made some specific adjustments relating to that, as well as adjusting the overall exposure so it was very close to the other photographs, I find this helps with blending.
Next I brought everything into Photoshop. I put all the images for stacking into layers of one photograph, auto align, then auto blend > stacking. This gave me a base photo with everything tack sharp front to back, first success!. I then created some bright luminosity masks, selected one that would allow me to merge in the highlights with detail from the f22 photo, and did the blending. I now had a perfect starting photograph, all of my testing this morning had given me the results I wanted to achieve.
From there I went through my normal post processing, which is to use some curves for local contrast adjustments, then take the image into Nik Filters for some final polishing.
Here is the final photograph in detail, I think you’ll agree the results are great, the realism is still there, I’ve been able to get everything tack sharp which is always a challenge, and I have detail in both shadows and highlights where I want them, a success for me!
Now it’s possible to get this all in one photograph, and in fact I did. But I’ve found the highlights aren’t quite as detailed, the over all image required a lot more sharpening and noise reduction, hurting the details somewhat. However, I like to enter photographic competitions, and a lot of them don’t allow the techniques used here, so I always endeavour to capture a single image photo as well and keep that just for those times where I wish to use it in a competition. This one, using stacking and blending, is perfect for printing, in fact I’ll be doing that today and adding this to my personal photo wall.
I’m now confident that next landscape photo I take, I can replicate the process with ease and get the results I want. It pays to practice!
I hope this post has given you some ideas, it’s important to experiment, have those practice sessions where there is no pressure, see what works, see what doesn’t (I won’t bother with f22 next time, the nice stars that were over the ground lost so much detail from diffraction I couldn’t use it).
If you want to learn more regarding exposure blending, I highly recommend watching Jimmy McIntyre’s free videos over at http://www.shutterevolve.com/ and if you use Olympus, your manual has very good information on focus bracketing and the Em1 series can focus stack in camera (I do prefer to do it after the fact in Photoshop, more control). Feel free to ask any questions you have and I’ll endeavour to see how I can help.
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