Saturday, January 18, 2020
After having just been on a very successful trek to the mountains just a couple of days ago, I was not really feeling like going back out with the camera quite so soon. It normally takes me a little while to recover from such a long creative process. However, Toni and Sierra were taking a little road trip this morning and I was up to see them off. Since I was up before the sun came up, I decided to take advantage of what was supposed to be a decent sunrise over the Piedmont. I had been thinking a little bit about where I could go in order to take advantage of the conditions and ultimately settled on going to Historic Bethabara which is about 12 miles from home. It wouldn’t take long to get there and if things didn’t go well, I wasn’t really out anything at all. I figured that it was appropriate since I have been working on both a webinar and a presentation about shooting close to home and the benefits that it holds. The presentation will be on Monday with the Capital City Camera Club in Raleigh, NC, and I am looking forward to going through this brand new material with a group. It was actually an adaptation on a webinar that I have been working on for Singh-Ray which is scheduled for February 20th at 7pm. It is a free webinar and you can sign up through their website to get access to the webinar which can be viewed afterwards if you miss the original airing time. With my mind focused on staying local, I have really been thinking about the places that I can get to close to home.
Historic Bethabara has been one of those places that I have photographed at several times over the years, but nothing recently at all. Ironically, it was a place that I would go too a lot when it was learning photography and remember very well going there with my little digital point and shoot camera that saved pictures on a floppy disk. I worked on composition very heavily those days since I didn’t have the ability to adjust the exposure with that camera. This morning, I had a very different approach to why I was there. My intention was to shoot the Moravian Church as I had done before on many occasions, only this time I was going to concentrate on capturing very different images of the same subject from different angles with different light. I was expecting to choose the best of the group and use that one as my keeper image while looking around for some isolations and other compositions depending on the conditions. I had basically assigned myself a project to work on for the morning which was a little different than I normally approach a scene. I just really wanted to stretch my creativity without having to hunt for subjects.
Since I was familiar with the church and had shot it from three different angles in the past, I knew pretty much what my compositions would be, or at least where I would find the compositions. That is usually the hardest part of the process for me, so that pressure was off. In fact, the only pressure was for the weather and the sky. I was supposed to have high clouds up until about 9 or 10 when the lower ones would come in and the rain chances would start. Since I was getting there about 30 minutes before sunrise, I would have about two hours to collect several different moods and images if all worked out.
When I arrived, I could see that there were some openings in the horizon that looked to be letting the sunlight shine through. This was good and hopefully would allow the high clouds to pick up the colors of the rising sun. For my first composition, I wanted to capture the warm light of the street lights shining on the church with the trees stretching up into the colorful clouds. I found the location that I wanted to shoot this from and I fitted my 16-35mm lens and added no filters at all since the lighting was pretty even across the scene. I struggled with some of the branches in the composition with the location that I had to shoot from in order to block the street light with a large tree. I found something that was tolerable and shot a few images as the sun started to come up. The colors were looking good and I was pretty happy with how the image looked, but I wasn’t sold on it at all. As the contrast in the sky became too much to work with, I decided to moved to another location where I would be able to get a little softer light and a better angle on the church..
I crossed the street and moved over to the back side of the church where there were some archaeological remains that I could use as a foreground since I was fully committed to capturing the scene with a dramatic wide angle flare to get a little perspective distortion to show off the foreground as well as capturing a large swath of the sky. I got things set up and started off shooting a vertical composition. This was very dramatic, but seemed to lack breathing room on the sides of the church. If I backed up enough to give it room to breathe, I ended up losing the punch of the stone walls in the foreground. After shooting a couple of different variations on that composition, I decided to see what it looked like as a horizontal image.
I immediately liked the landscape orientation much better as it gave the church room to breathe while still including the dramatic foreground and a great deal of the sky. Of course, the sun was coming up at this point and the sky was getting brighter. In order to control that, I decided to slide in a Galen Rowell 3-stop soft edge ND Grad. I did this in order to keep the division line from being too obvious. With the clouds moving, I wasn’t going to be able to shoot an HDR and still keep them defined which I really wanted to do here. Something that was developing that I really liked was a thin spot in the clouds by where the sun was that was positively glowing right behind the steeple. It happened to work out that I was able to organize the composition with that natural highlight showcasing the steeple while still keeping the foreground in the right place in the frame. I had to work quickly to get the image though since the sky was constantly changing.
Looking at the exposure, I was going to have just enough latitude to capture the details in the shadows as well as the highlights thanks to the grad filter. I fired off the first shot and could see just the slightest bit of overexposure just at the steeple which was not terrible since that was the natural highlight in the image. I fine tuned the composition just a little bit and shot another one with the same exposure. This one turned out even better with the addition of the bare tree to the right that was now highlighted with a break in the clouds. The visual weight in this image was just perfect, and the exposure looked to be fantastic considering I was shooting into the sun, on the shaded side of the church. The light was very soft considering which allowed so much detail to record in the foreground and midground of the image.
When I got this image home, I didn’t have to do much to it in order to get the final presentation done. It was all based on local adjustments in Lightroom with a very particular attention on the color rendition. Each main part of this image was in a different quality of light which caused some very odd color casts to develop between the ground, church, and sky. By breaking them all up and processing them individually, I was able to balance the colors through the entire image which resulted in a photograph that was very true to the scene as I saw it with my own eyes. This has now very quickly become my favorite image of this historic church.
Normally, I would have stopped and started looking for another subject to shoot, but I remembered that I wanted to work this church completely from three different angles. With the sun steadily rising in the sky, I knew it was time to move to the next angle which was on the other back corner of the church. This gave a different view, and also had its own foreground interests to use. I kept the camera built as it was and went over to the far side and started to look at what I had to deal with. Obviously, the color was not as strong over here, but the sky still had some interest to it. I started to see some potential for a very moody rendering of the church as the clouds would support that atmosphere. I started to look for a composition that would tell the story. As with the other side, I started to focus in on the ruins that were at my feet. They were not as pronounced as the other side, but that was actually a good thing. I embraced the opened ends of the foundations as I started to frame the scene.
Instead of having a single stone box as a foreground, I was able to use the segments almost like leading lines into the frame. The strong diagonals helped to pull your eyes into the frame and then ultimately right to the church. I didn’t have the benefit of a bright section of sky right behind the steeple, but there was a slight clearing in the sky where there was some emptiness which gave some additional visual interest. The clouds were thickest near the top of the frame which gave a very natural vignette which I loved having. The ND Grad was still on, and I brought it down just enough in the sky to where it darkened that band of clouds at the top of the frame, but didn’t encroach into the roof of the church much at all. There was a nice and natural progression of tones here, and that was what I was after.
I had started this composition out with color in mind, but since I was setting up a nice and moody image, I decided at the editing stage that it was going to be done as a monochrome image. The colors were rather flat from this angle and I could see so much more potential with it as a black and white composition. As with most of my conversions, there was a good deal of work with the tonal relationships as I chose what areas were dark and which ones were brighter. Dodging and burning can be so much fun in these black and white images and really sets them off with the selective contrast adjustments. It took about twice as long to process, but in the end it was very much worth it. It brought to mind a foggy black and white shot that I had done of this church back in 2006. It had actually won a ribbon in a photo contest, but looking back on it, it was not a good image at all. This one doesn’t even look like it was from the same photographer. Of course that is a very good thing as it shows my progression in the art. It has been said if you are not embarrassed by your earlier works on some level then you aren’t growing as a photographer.
OK, I had to do it. I’ll close my eyes and ears while you laugh at this one.
I’m still waiting….
You can stop now…
I mean it…STOP LAUGHING!!!!
As I was saying, you can really see how I have progressed as a photographer over the years. Back then, I was a slave to the rule of thirds without fully understanding it. Yes, this one brought home a third place ribbon and I was very proud of that achievement. Looking back though, I see so many things wrong with it, not the least of which is I cut the top of the weather vane with the framing of my shot. There is too much empty space (different than negative space) at the bottom, and horrible balance. I was going for a moody shot from the same angle as the opening picture in this blog. It was an early attempt at converting an image to black and white and that was when I just thought that either a picture was in color or black and white with the difference being the press of a button. How wrong was I?!?!
Now that we have taken a little trip down memory lane, and you have now laughed so hard your ribs are sore, we can get back on with the current trek and some much better quality images (I hope). I was about to wrap things up as I had images from the three angles that I had intended on capturing. I wanted to try a few isolations at this point, so I swapped my lens for my standard 24-70mm glass. That would give me better flexibility to pick out details. The only problem was there were no real details that caught my eye. I tried a few window shots, but they lacked the needed textures in the walls to keep the image interesting. I moved from the church to some of the other structures and and found other issues that prevented me from getting the images that I was wanting. While I was at one of the historic buildings, I happened to look back at the church. I was sitting in about the same position that I had been earlier in the morning and I saw a similar composition to what I had shot, but with vastly different lighting. Now the the sun was up and the street lights were off, the lighting had a more natural feel. Hey, it was a different mood while the original composition from earlier had a very similar mood to the second composition that I had shot. I figured that I would give this one a try. As I was looking, I was pretty sure that the current lens would handle the framing, so I just left it on.
Just like earlier, I decided to use the large trees to frame the church and have the church centered and mostly separated from the branches. This was easier to do now as I didn’t have to get as low to focus on the clouds this time. I also didn’t have to worry about street lights and how they were entering into the frame. This was a much easier composition to make. When I had it all set up the way I wanted, I started to dial in the exposure and realized that the sky was going to be just a bit too bright for the shot. It was time to slide in that 3-stop ND Grad once again as it is becoming my go-to filter for these kinds of shots. That did the trick. I was now looking at a histogram that covered everything that I was wanting. As with the other shots of the morning, the clouds were moving too much for an HDR blend so I had to do this in a single capture.
It was at this point I realized something. There was no surface wind at all, so the branches were very still. The traffic had died down to where I was pretty sure I could get a long exposure shot. With the clouds moving like they were, I really wanted to try a Mor Slo 10-stop filter to get something in the range of two to three minutes. Oh, this was going to be great!!! I pulled out the filter and started to slide it into my new Lee 100 holder behind the ND Grad that was already in there. It got stuck about 2/3 of the way in. I was familiar with this as the gasket on the filter will sometimes bind up sliding into the holder. I pulled the holder off and started to manipulate it. There was no sliding this one in. I flipped the filter to try a fresh side and it ran aground on the lens opening just like it had in the other direction. I could see no way of making this filter work with this holder, at least not in time to get the shot. I just stowed the filter back in the case and went back to setting up the shot as a regular single exposure image.
The image actually turned out really nice with just enough detail in the sky while still keeping full detail in the trees and the church. I did a few exposures of this one with slightly different compositions so that I had a choice when I got home as to what I liked better. Now, of course, you have noticed that this is the first time you have seen this composition, but I had shot it about an hour before as the sun was just starting to come up. Well, I had processed both of the images in Lightroom and found a few little quibbles with the earlier one. The biggest was while I had found the image with the best overall composition and lighting, I had a serious problem with a branch going through the weather vane on the steeple. These are the little details that I try to catch when I am setting up the shot, but it was just too dark to see that there was a crossover like that. I had processed the image figuring that I would try and clone it out in Photoshop which would have been possible, but not my first choice. I was actually pretty mad at myself for letting that happen in the capture phase, but accidents do happen, especially in low light.
When I started to process the later image, I almost didn’t bother with it since the sky was very faint in the RAW file with hardly any detail at all. I liked the composition though, so I started to tinker with it to see if I could pull any detail out of the sky. Surprisingly, I was able to do just that and got a really nice sky in the process. That is the beautiful thing about RAW, you can always find detail in the image where you didn’t think any had appeared. I remembered seeing the histogram and being happy with the exposure latitude that I was seeing, and this is why I live and breathe by the histogram. Even looking at the image on the computer, I had no idea that I had the information available to render the sky, but I knew at the capture that I could do it.
When I got the image roughly processed and started to compare with the earlier image with a similar composition (although with more perspective distortion), I decided that I liked the more neutral image much better. It told a different story, and had a different feel. More importantly, there was no need to clone out part of a branch due to an error on my part. This composition finished up my trifecta of images on this church. I had three images of the same subject, that all told different stories with different moods attached. They will all appeal to different folks, and it just goes to show that an hour’s difference in time and using different angles, three entirely different pictures can be created.
With the three images selected, I was so impressed by the differences, I decided to to make this blog less about the trek and more about the creative process behind the images. It became a tips and tricks entry more than just a tip of the hat to my upcoming presentations on shooting local. I say it every chance I get when I am talking to fellow photographers. “You control what the image says and how it says it by your choices with the camera.” You can see here, three very different images and stories, with a bonus image that says all the wrong things. I was at Bethabara for about an hour and a half while the light was changing rapidly. By knowing how to read the light and knowing where to shoot that takes full advantage of it, you can create very different images of the same old subjects every time you press the button of your camera.
I’m so glad you got a chance to join me on this little mini trek, and I hope that you learned a thing or two about creative photography. If you are ready to get into the art of photography, but are scared to take control over your camera, I would like to invite you to join me in my first classroom workshop which is an introductory level workshop on photography. I will be talking about many of the creative concepts that I have mentioned here as well as the basics of exposure and focusing. It will be a great class, and I’m looking forward to teaching it in the beginning of February. I hope to see you there.
As always, if you have seen an image here that speaks to you, I would love to help get a print of it in your hands. My images are best enjoyed in their tangible form hanging on the walls. I offer regular photographic prints as well as canvases and metal prints depending on your decorating style. Just let me know what I can help you with and I will do everything that I can to make it the best art buying experience that you have had.
Until next time…