Shooting into the Sun

Posted on April 3, 2015


Beautiful Failure

Showing up may be 90%, but crossing the finish line has it’s advantages, too.

(Tons of photos below the text.)

I had some camera failures recently which made my DSLR my main camera. Honestly, most people get better pictures with their cell phones than I do with my digital camera. But a combination of needing to produce some work for a commission, helping my sister get some photos for a series of books she has been working on (with a much more advanced camera than mine), and creating some covers for my own books finally forced me to sit down and RTFM.

It’s not that I have an aversion to digital photography at all. I simply understand that quality images of any sort require post production and I prefer to spend my time in the darkroom rather than Photoshop. So it’s an aversion to digital post processing that I embrace. This is somewhat easier for me because I prefer B&W and I feel that while color digital far exceeds film digital, that film B&W is still far ahead of digital. Most digital B&W makes my teeth hurt. This is a due to a combination of dynamic range and midrange tonalities. For me, a lot of digital is still blocked and blown and incredibly flat. Even a well processed digital B&W if it is printed on a printer lacks the luminosity for me of a silver gelatin, platinum, or carbon transfer print.

Combine this with a natural proclivity for me to take extremely contrasty shots (containing from full black to full white), and I’ve never been happy with any digital work I’ve done. Instead of saying “man, I need to spend some time in Photoshop,” I think “man, I need to get back to work building my ultra-large format camera, printing on glass and backing it with gold leaf, using my tilt-shift, finishing my film testing, printing my backlog of negatives…” well, you get the idea.

So it’s ironic that the first time I really needed to shoot digital was in a situation where I was taking 10 minute film exposures and looking at some extreme processing for the film. This was inside an old Sears kit barn that was scheduled for demolition in a few days and I realized my RB67 50mm wide angle lens was not firing correctly. I had my DSLR with me for back up and took it out, but I quickly realized that I would not only need to shoot digital, but I would have to take multiple exposures and layer them to get the contrast range I could get with a single film exposure.  I knew this, I’ve written about it before. This is called High Dynamic Range or HDR, and for a guy who can barely turn the camera on (and always forget to turn it off), this is starting at the top of the learning curve.

HDR shots can be sublime or ridiculous, looking like those 1980s supranatural laser postcards of tigers against luminous jade jungles and porcelain blue skies. This depends largely on color mapping you do before you layer them, how you layer them, and a bunch of other stuff I’m vaguely aware of. Certainly I know that when I’ve played with it I’ve always felt my results were more on the ridiculous than the sublime, but I’ve quickly come to realize that for scenes that interest my eye,  it is often a requirement and I don’t worry too much about the colors as, well, I’m probably going to convert it to B&W anyway.

At any rate March and October are fantastic times to shoot in Seattle, and especially in my valley which often lies in the eye of the convergence zone where the air coming across the top of the sound and warmed by the ocean meets the air coming across the bottom of the sound and cooled by the water.  The morning can dawn as flat and gray as the inside of a pearl, but by midday huge cumulous clouds are sailing across the mountains like men of war, only to be chased by afternoon storms driving in on banshee cloaks. Trust me, carry a camera, any camera.

So one day I was heading to work and there on the road across the valley was a rare site: a dramatic sky that yet did not occlude Mt. Rainier which sometimes you cannot see even on a clear day. I pulled over Rockford style, slid to a stop, got my camera, set it for aperture exposure (-1,0,+1), and ripped off a few shots. I realized the f-stop was set to 5.6, so I adjusted that and ripped off a few more. No tripod, barely any contemplation. Tossed the camera in the trunk, grabbed my coffee cup off the roof (for a change, I once left a cup up there for 2 weeks rattling around inside the luggage rack of my Subaru, thinking that death rattle meant the eminent demise of my beloved car), and continued to work. Five minutes max.

Basically I had taken these pretty much as an exercise. I knew that shooting into the sun would create terrible problems photographically and I wanted to use these images to play with the EasyHDR program I had downloaded to verify I had indeed gotten usable shots from the barn before it got demolished. For one thing, the program had 3 different ways of stacking the images (4 if you wanted to select certain regions, but I’m not ready to go there yet), add to that about a dozen preset filters for the final images,and I wanted to compare them. I’m not pretending by any means that they are good or that I’ve applied HDR at all skillfully. I’m more documenting the journey. But, however skillfully or not I recorded  and produced these images, I did manage to be at the right place at the right time and hopefully that accounts for something. Maybe someday I will meet somebody who can make me some nice digital negatives out of these and come full circle back into the darkroom.

One reason it took me so long to post these images is because there is something just wrong with the colors. I cannot tell you what it is, and I could not fix it. Both pinkish and blue at the same time I had my friend Bernard play with them in Photoshop, and there didn’t seem to be any easy resolution. But then I remembered: I’m converting it to B&W anyway, so while the color thing is interesting, it’s not actually all that important.

(As an aside, whilst reading the manual I stumbled across this thing Canon digital cameras do where the JPEG images are “post-processed” by applying a “color picture style” to them. Basically, there are preset tweaks to the red, blue, and green channels. The out of the box settings are a little cold, blue. I had recently set mine to neutral to reduce the number of variables I was dealing with, and thought this might be the issue, but in fact the weird colorization actually also exists in the RAW versions of the files.  At any rate if you shoot Canon and don’t post-process RAW files, you may want to look into this and play with them to get pleasing colors.

As if that isn’t confusing enough they also have preset “color spaces” which also affect the JPEG images. You should play with those to, to get the best pics directly out of the camera.)

Here is an example of my first shot, shot wide to capture this truly inspiring sky. The camera does this weird thing where it shoots the “proper” exposure, then does the under, then the over. By themselves, none of these shots are compelling to me, after all I’m basically standing in the rain shooting the sun, they convey the gloominess, but not the majesty or dynamism:
Each of these rows is a little gallery you can click on.

And then I just went crazy stacking them. I did the Default stacking method and then converted to B&W, ignoring any subtleties of configuration.

Then for fun, I restacked the B&W and the color image and merged them.
IMG_9236_9237_9238_easyHDR_RAW_Stack_BW_9236_9237_9238_easyHDR_default_and BW_merge

There has always been this old wagon there that I think is supposed to be picturesque, but I could never make anything of it. Fortunately, this winter it collapsed and is much more interesting and integrated into the scene.  I tried the Natural Bright merge on this one, but the composition was weak. Doesn’t even look like I finished working on this one!

I backed up and used the Default merge for the next shot.

IMG_9239_9240_9241_easyHDR_natural brigh
And another view. I guess it’s still not photogenic.
I fiddled with it a bit more:

And the B&W.
But it was the sky and the mountain I was there to shoot.  And I decided to stop screwing around, the color was a lost cause at my skill level (I really did play with it before asking for help). The default stacks seemed to work as well as any other for the B&W.

Here are the base shots.

And here are the HDR and B&W shots.

I think for a print I would go portrait, though ,to truly get both the mountain and the sky. First row base exposures, second row various stacking methods.


A mixed bag of the original and stacked.

And the B&W from them.

IMG_9257_9258_9259_easyHDR_RAW_BWThat’s the shot! Look at how it pops that storm cloud and shows the motion. Did I say banshee? Did I?

Zooming out:

And the B&W

IMG_9260_9261_9262_easyHDR_RAW_BWMore sky; less mountain. It’s like that old beer ad. I’m okay with the block foreground as it hides a lot of farm crap that is distracting. Next time, I might head one road south, which has a better foreground.

I took a few shots across the valley.

And the B&W. I love how it pops that snarl of clouds in the lower left. It’s like the North Wind is puffing his cheeks and blowing across the shot. You don’t even see that in the color shots.

Then tried to get the whole thing.



Right now HDR is my hammer and digital images all seem to be nails. In the end, these are fun, and I will admit I’m glacially getting better with my camera, but I never stop wishing I had my film camera with me instead so that I could “really” capture those shots. Man, what I could do with these in the darkroom.

An all-up gallery:

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