Why Do Your Fall Images Look Better This Year?

Yellow aspen in the Eastern Sierra

Eastern Sierra Fall Colors

I often receive supportive feedback on my photography, as well as questions on how I get my results.  Since I’m “in this for the photography” I tend to prioritize photography over writing.  So my answers to questions provide a great opportunity to address common questions in a blog post.  This time, I’ll just have it all be the blog post, illustrated with photos that I’ve post-processed in the past month, fall 2017…

Yosemite Daylight Long Exposure Composite

On 9 Nov 17, 5.52PM PST ———- said:
I see a dramatic change in your fall images….much improved, even though the old ones were great to start with. What software are you using to develop your images? It looks like you are using focus stacking for the landscapes as well. Is this so?
Nice job, ————

Hi ———-,

I’ll answer in two parts, first regarding post-processing.

I honestly don’t know if I can narrow it down to one or two factors and answer the question completely, but here goes…Everyone’s looking for ways to improve their photography, and the questions often assume that a new camera or post-processing software must be the key.  To be sure, cameras and applications do evolve, so there are benefits to new versions, but there’s a lot to be said for the influence of experience and personal stylistic choices.

Spring in the FallIt would be really easy to simply provide “the answer” and point to one new product that will provide the magic bullet.  You find that all over the Internet with people paid to promote products, and they often do not follow FTC guidelines to properly identify their social media and blog “reviews” of their sponsors’ products as paid ads.  I’m unencumbered by product/manufacturer relationships, so I can take a more comprehensive and less biased approach.

I do find Adobe Lightroom 5 and lately 6 to be meter than older versions of the software, and I do often re-process results as recent as two years ago and get better results.  But here’s the catch: I also notice that I’m using a different approach and settings than I did even as recently as two years ago.  So I can’t really attribute the improvements to solely or even mainly to newer Lightroom software.

Fall Colors in the Virgin River NarrowsI’ve been using Photomatix from HDRsoft for many years, and I remember as early as 2009 I was occasionally layering my best edit of the original photo on top of the HDR result to make the result more realistic.  Unfortunately that required exporting the files to Photoshop for the layering.  I prefer the photography side of the process over the computer/graphics arts options, so I often just settled for an average of the three exposures in Photomatix, and touched that up on Lightroom instead.  The new version Photomatix 6 that I started using in beta last spring includes the layering of any of the original files on the HDR output, and enables blending using a slider from 0 to 100%.  So in addition to being to select from more preset HDR results, it’s little extra effort to blend in the best straight photographic result that you were able to produce in Lightroom.

That would certainly account for many of the files that I post-processed in Photomatix, but I try to tag all of them with HDR and Photomatix, so you can see for yourself that it’s not a huge percentage of my overall fall results.

Yosemite Fall DogwoodsSo what’s left is some combination of experience and what I choose to do with it.  I think that I’ve become more demanding with my results, which forces me to take a more critical look at them.  I often say that I prefer to spend five minutes or less post-processing a photo on my computer, but to get better results, at a minimum it is necessary to take the lead of Ansel Adams and at least invest some time in dodging and burning.

Stylistically, while I always preferred to produce more or less realistic images, sometimes digital cameras simply didn’t have the dynamic range to capture an entire natural scene well, so I’ve decided to accept the compromise of visibly manipulated results.  As cameras get better in subtle ways and I continue to master my skill with the various techniques and tools available, including the software tools, I can shift my focus to stylistic choices instead of fighting the tools to get an acceptable result.

Fall CalmI recall that I decided to get a little more assertive with contrast and blacks about a year ago.  At some point earlier this year I decided to produce some more colorful results, although I still don’t want the first impression people get to be “manipulated”.  I may not always succeed, but I’m exploring a wider range of results, and reining myself in when I can detect that the photo is crossing some invisible line.  I guess that you could boil it down to developing my own effects, range and style, mainly within the bounds of what Lightroom can do, but occasionally using Photomatix if/when the dynamic range of the scene warrants it.

The next logical question is what am I doing in Lightroom.  The short answer is that what I like about landscapes is the photography “pursuit of light” side in the field, experiencing the moment itself, so as mentioned, I tend to keep my adjustments under five minutes or so per photo on the computer, whenever possible.  I push as much quality as I can back to the capture side of the process, and automate some of the post-processing, so I can get back outside.  The fine details of how I achieve that, from image capture through post-processing, are probably best left for interactive post-processing demos during my workshops, since sharing my process and some of my favorite locations is exactly how I continue to pursue photography.

Yosemite's El Capitan in the Fall by Jeff Sullivan on 500px.com


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How To Predict Moon Rise for Landscape Photography

Originally posted in 2010, I occasionally bump this forward in my blog to tell people that they can plan to take an amazing sunrise moonset or sunset moonrise shot on an upcoming date.  As I update this on September 17, 3013, here on the California/Nevada border, the moon will rise at 5:50 pm tonight and be about 12 degrees up in the eastern sky at 7 pm sunset.  Somewhere with something tall to place the moon next to should work well, like Yosemite Valley.

Tomorrow the moon will rise around 6:25 then be about 5.8 degrees up in the sky at sunset (close to 7 pm).  That will work best somewhere with a relatively low horizon.  These times will vary by your specific location on the globe, and the application described below can correct the times for your position.

I used to line up moon shots the old-fashioned way… looking up the full moon rise, arriving and seeing where the moon was emerging, predicting where it was going, and changing my position several times to try to be in just the right place at just the right time.

Fortunately there’s an application that takes a lot of the guesswork out of lining up the sun and moon with natural or man-made objects to take stunning photos. The application The Photographer’s Ephemeris allows you to plan a shooting location for a fairly exact alignment with particular landmarks: Free Download for PC or Mac

It runs on Google Earth satellite photos, so you can easily see your planned shooting position, it shows you the azimuth angle (compass direction) of the sun and moon at any give time from there, and you can read the elevation angle as well.  If the lineup isn’t just right as the sun or moon is coming over the horizon, you can adjust your shooting position (at various times and stages in the sun or moon rise) to get just the alignment you want.

View the tutorials for some examples of the capabilities of, and applications for, this program.

Tutorials: stephentrainor.com/tools#tutorials  You’ll be surprised at just how easy and intuitive it is.

Below are my results from researching on TPE a much more subtle event: anticipating and planning for the position of a crescent moon. I identified two positions a couple of blocks apart for two different times, then adjusted my position a few yards onsite to place the moon beside or behind the same courthouse, while avoiding trees or power lines.

So fire up TPE and go give this a try in your area on the next full moon rise (and set), or whenever!

Remember to pick a target reasonably far away (say 1/2 mile to several miles) to put the moon alongside, so you can use a long zoom lens and capture the moon appearing really large beside it.

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