In my workshops and presentations over the past few years, I have discussed my extensive use of two powerful software packages: Helicon Focus and Photomatix. Helicon Focus stacks multiple images, each focused on different planes, creating one super-focused image. Photomatix combines multiple images photographed with different exposure values, creating one file with a super-wide exposure range.
I have written on the advantages of using Helicon Focus elsewhere. In short, the three major benefits of utilizing Helicon Focus are the following:
- The ability to create nearly infinite depth-of-field.
- Extreme sharpness of your subject while throwing the background out-of-focus.
- Great depth-of-field while using f/5.6 or f/8 or f/11, typically the sharpest apertures on most lenses.
The benefits of HDR photography have been written on more widely. HDR photography allows photographers to greatly expand the dynamic range of an image—both beyond what is or was possible with film and beyond the capabilities of today’s best digital sensors. Images that contain bright light, for example, may now be devoid of burned out highlights, and shadow areas, such as corners of rooms, may depict hidden details.
At my events, as I demonstrate my use of Helicon Focus and Photomatix, I regularly get the following question: Is it possible to use both Helicon Focus and Photomatix for one image. The answer is YES! The central image of this column—“Wild Chervil at Sunrise, Kelleys Island, Ohio”—is proof.
On the final day of the 3rd annual Sigma-sponsored Kelleys Island Photo Adventure—which I co-lead with Art Weber, the Director of the National Center for Nature Photography—I was coming back from a beach just after sunrise. All around me in the woodland was a carpet of wild chervil, softly illuminated by the early morning sun. It was magical.
The problem with photographing wide expanses of flowers like this is that the widespread blooms can be impressive in person but end up looking monotonous in photographs. The key is to position the camera to include points of interest that encourage you to move your eyes around the image. In this Kelleys Island image, the dark, vertical tree trunks provide visual elements that draw you through the space. As your eyes are drawn across the light-colored scene, pausing ever-so-briefly at the variegated tree trunks, you increasingly appreciate the bounty of flowers as your eyes survey them.
The carefully planned cadence produced by traveling through the flowers to each tree trunk, however, is not enough to make such an image strong. In the case of “Wild Chervil at Sunrise, Kelleys Island, Ohio,” the addition of the sun, peeking from behind one tree trunk, provides the Archimedes point for the image. It is the spectacular eighteen-ray sunburst around which the rest of the picture hinges.
Artistically, the sun provides expansive, warm light that illuminates the chervil. Scientifically, our nearby star energizes plants and, indirectly, animals. Graphically, the bright orb toward the top, left of the image boldly counterpoints the smaller sunburst-like blooms scattered throughout the forest. And, photographically, of course, without light we have no “photo”graphs.
The problem with making the sun function so dramatically on so many levels is that, if the flowers and shadow-filled tree trunks are to have anything close to proper exposure, then the sun itself will usually burn out. This is where HDR comes to the rescue. “Wild Chervil at Sunrise, Kelleys Island, Ohio” showcases how HDR photography can reasonably create—without bizarre painterly effects—a photograph that depicts reality as we experienced it. Standing in the woods, anyone would be able to look at the intricate flowers of the chervil, notice the lichen-covered bark on the dark sides of the trees, and see the criss-crossing of branches across the bright morning sky.
Indeed, using Photomatix in even augments the being-right-there experience: the final image allows the sun appearing as a sphere, something our eyes might not have been able to see without a lot of squinting or, of course, peering through a pair of welder’s goggles! To this end, HDR clarifies the scene a bit beyond on-site perception.
So HDR solved the biggest dilemma I faced in capturing the beautiful scene that morning on Kelleys Island, but I still had one more problem to solve: How was I going to maintain full detail in the image from several feet in front of my D800E to the back edge of the carpet of flowers, some 300’ away? Even with the extraordinary optics in Sigma new 35mm f/1.4 lens, capturing sharp details from 3’ to 300’ is not possible.
Consulting a depth-of-field chart will support this: at f/16, a typical minimum aperture for this type of lens, reasonable sharpness can only be achieved from about 3’ to around 10’, not enough to showcase the full carpet of flowers. And, while many wide angle zooms allow you to stop down to f/22—where depth-of-field expands from 3’ up to 1000’ feet on a full-frame camera—you then face image-wide quality degradation caused by diffraction. No matter what lens you shoot, no lens can provide great sharpness at such minimal apertures. [I might also add that a tilt/shift lens might seem like an option, but then you have the problem of the vertical tree trunks going out-of-focus at the top of the portrait-orientated image.]
Coming to the rescue is focus stacking software. For the Kelleys Island shot, I took six photographs, each focused at different points from right in front of the camera to where the flowers ended, about 300’ away. I opened the lens up to f/11, which on every lens I’ve ever tested is a bit sharper than f/16 and definitely sharper than f/22. The result is that what’s in focus is a amazingly sharp, and, with six differently-focused images, the final combined images show extreme depth-of-field.
Here’s my workflow:
- In the field, I took 6 RAW images using mirror lock-up on my Nikon D800E with a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 lens attached, all atop a Gitzo GT2451EX tripod and matching Gitzo GH2780QR ball head. I focused from about right in front of the camera to 300’, manually focusing a bit further away in six progressive steps. I was careful to underexpose the images about 1.5 stops, knowing that the full-frame sensor on the D800E would allow me to increase exposure quite a bit during the RAW conversion without introducing too much noise.
- In the studio, I identically processed the six RAW images using Adobe RAW Converter and then saved them as 16 bit TIFF files. I saved each of the six differently focused (but identically exposed) images at three different exposure values (-1 EV, +1 EV, and +3 EV). This resulted in 18 files, six differently focused images at -1 EV, six at +1 EV, and six at +3 EV.
- Using Helicon Focus and keeping the settings the same throughout, I combined each of the sets of six images to make three super-focused files—a dark file that retained sunburst details at -1 EV, a middle-toned file that showcased the flowers and tree leaves at +1 EV, and a seemingly over-exposed file that brought out details of the stems and leaves below the flowers and the back side of the tree trunks at +3 EV.
- Finally, I combined these three files in Photomatix, using the Exposure Fusion option. Exposure fusion tends to create less painterly, more realistic images.
- Then in Photoshop I fixed a bit of an HDR anomaly on the tree trunk within the sunrays, using a polygonal lasso tool to select the affected areas and then a curve adjustment layer to even out the gray tones.
- Finally, still in Photoshop I applied two NIK plug-ins. As I do with almost every image I process, I used Viveza to pump up the image’s Structure. Then I sharpened the image using NIK Sharpener Pro.
If you are interested in trying out this combined technique, plan ahead. Make sure you get all the files you need while shooting. To be sure, the processing takes about an hour, maybe a bit more, but sometimes no other method will allow you to convey just what you saw, or, better put, exactly what you experienced.
Interested in the Kelleys Island Photo Adventure? Visit www.fitzsimmonsphotography.com for more information about this and other Sigma FitzSimmons Photography workshops, seminars, and presentations.