Thursday, October 11, 2012

Mesa Arch & HDR

The first time I saw a photo of Mesa Arch, I knew I had to go there and experience it. I loved the different layers, and even the second arch in the distance. Now, it has become a bit of a photographer's mecca, drawing photographers from all directions of the planet.  I went last May during what was the most beautiful weather with really nice clouds the entire trip.  Many photographers have a love/hate relationship with icons such as this.  Icons are icons because they are amazingly beautiful. The problem is that they can be photographed to death, eliminating any originality.  Unless you are prepared to travel to the ends of the earth, finding an original epic landscape is becoming more and more difficult. We have to settle on re-interpreting those icons trying to find an original composition to stay away from the cliche. My philosophy is that if I haven't shot the icon before, than it is not yet cliche. I will have my personal vision and creativity to keep the mundane at bay.  We'll see if you agree. 

I arrived at the arch at about 4:30 in the morning, and some people had been there for hours already. I wasn't sure what to expect, but there were 5 photographers lined up and waiting for sunrise. With an hour to kill I began to talk to the people, after setting up my tripod on 'the line.'  One person had been there since 2 am, and another had been there the morning before, saying they had to comeback due to heavy cloud cover.  I had no idea where the sun was going to rise, but since I was late to the party, I happily positioned myself for the big moment, ready to press the shutter when it was time. I had an idea in my head of what I wanted out of the shot, it definitely had to have a sunburst in it. Just as the sun came up a tour bus arrived with about 50 Chinese tourists.  They swarmed the place and at one point a guy with a long lens set it on my shoulder to take a photo. I turned my head and hit my face on the lens. He backed off and with out an apology went about his business of machine gunning the scene.  A few female tourists started to climb to pose on the arch. This was met with an angry reaction from the more serious photographers.  A white guy on 'the line' with the Phase One spoke Mandarin and cursed them all out, in Chinese.  He he.   Fortunately within about ten minutes they all disappeared back into their tour bus and took off.

I was able to work the scene, taking turns with the others at an intimate or original perspective, if one could be had. All the minor aggravations aside, it really was a bit of fun.  Hanging out with like minded individuals, sharing each other's shots and anecdotes left me with a feeling of camaraderie. The mob mentality directed toward the inconsiderate tourists was entertaining as well. 

My Pentax K5 has pretty good dynamic range, but I chose to bracket my shots +/-1.3 Ev so in post I could have more choices on how to process them. As a study on HDR techniques I processed the shots three different ways, on three different shots to see what each process had to offer.  It wasn't totally dark before sunrise, as moon was quite large and setting in the opposite direction. It gave some light on the front of the arch, but left the rock face with a bit of blue tint to it.  The first shot here was done with Tony Kuyper's luminosity masks. His way of dealing with high dynamic range is quite complex and involves masking different luminosities from separate exposures in several layers in photoshop.  See the link in the right side bar titled "Good Light Journal" for more information. His methods of HDR among other things are cutting edge in modern processing. His method gives the photographer complete control of color and light.  The second image shown here was simply loaded into Photomatix, an HDR program that uses algorithms to extrapolate the highest luminosity values into one image.  I used three exposures, again at +/- 1.3 Ev then loaded them into Photomatix. Typically they come out more saturated than natural, as this image ended up being. I had to selectively remove some purple fringing in the sunburst afterward.  The third image is just one image chosen out of the three I bracketed. The rock face is a bit dark and blue, which I felt might have been accurate to how the scene actually was since it was the earliest shot and the moon was still quite bright.

Each technique produces quite a different result, as you can see. Having displayed different images it might be a bit difficult to choose a preferred method based on my findings here, but any image should be processed differently from another based on it's own merits or weakness anyway. The artist's feeling and mood have to be considered before processing as well. Over all, I would choose the first method over the others. It is definitely more work, but the results are more realistic looking, and the artist has much more control of every facet.   The other methods are easier, but may reflect the artist's vision better.  What do you think?

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