Tree Details - How To Do It In Easy Light

April 18, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Winter Trees #1, Yosemite Valley, USA.
Phase One XF with IQ180 back, 240mm lens, 1/4 second @ f11, ISO 50

Okay, I confess that this is a personal favourite. And when I made this as a print, I loved it even better. No, it's not an 'in your face' composition and it doesn't have an atomic colour palette either. Some unkind souls may even suggest it's not very 'me' given how subtle the colouration is, particularly the greens in the shadows. I think it will work nicely on my wall for a while...

So, what are the tricks to capturing photographs with lots of fine detail like this? First up, you need the right conditions. At 1/4 second, any movement would have caused detail-killing blur. Of course, I could have waited for there to be more light (so I could use a faster shutter speed), but then the quality of the light could have changed. On this morning, there wasn't a breath of wind down the bottom of Yosemite Valley. There was snow on the ground which was reflecting light into the trees and the overall illumination was very soft. So, yes, the light is directional (the tops of the branches are lighter than the bottoms), but it's a soft light with lots of detail. Tripod mounted. Sharpest aperture for the lens. 

Second point: don't over expose your image. A camera meter will look at this scene and give you a great 'average' exposure, but even in low light situations like this, the highlights on the tree branches, especially the dead branches which are very light grey in tone, can be easily 'clipped'. The histogram might look like it's okay on the back of your camera, but take another shot two stops darker and you might find there are still a few bumps in the histogram up next to the white values. If you want to keep detail in your highlights, you need to manage your exposure correctly in camera.

Third suggestion: spend a little time in post production adjusting your exposure, your contrast and your black point. I set the exposure so the highlights were light but not clipping (not paper white), then adjusted the contrast to bring out the texture in the tree trunks, then finally I used the black point (you can use the black slider in Lightroom/ACR or the black point on a curves dialog) to darken the shadows to give me some rich blacks. It's the blacks in the photo that makes the rest of the tones stand out.

Perhaps I was channeling Ansel Adams a little bit and while I did convert this to a black and white, I found it hard to resist bringing back a hint of colour. Next week I'll show you how I shot tree details in difficult lighting conditions - you may be surprised at the technique!

I'm presenting an advanced Photoshop workshop in Sydney on Sunday 5 June. Click here for details.


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