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Photography On Location: Laguna Beach Palm Trees

Photography On Location Video: Laguna Beach Palm Trees at Heisler Park
View on YouTube to see this video in HD

I'm no stranger to Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA. I've taken more pictures there than I can count and I've worked with more students there than I can remember. It's one of those postcard-type parks - the kind of scenery that hotels want front and center on their website. And it's a tourist spot for good reason. The views are stunning, the beach is sheltered, and - my favorite part - the palm trees dotting the landscape are classic Southern California.

On a recent visit there, I came across 3 palm trees that I've photographed a dozen times before. They reach high above the Pacific Ocean right on the edge of a cliff where benches and coin-op binoculars give visitors an excuse to soak in the scenery. From the right vantage point, the crystal blue waters provide a perfect backdrop for these 3 palm trees.

In search of a different photo near the palms, I envisioned a composition that immediately had me wanting for a different camera. I had my medium format 6x7 camera with me at the time but the composition I visualized required my 6x17 panoramic. Oh well, I'd have an excuse to revisit this gorgeous park again - bummer. And I thought it would be a good opportunity to create another on-location video for your enjoyment. So with my panoramic gear and my video gear packed up, I ventured to my spot.

I normally shoot at sunset to get the best color and contrast for my Laguna Beach landscape photos, but this shot was going to be different. I actually needed to shoot at high noon with the sun directly overhead. The reason for this was two-fold. First, I needed the sky to be evenly illuminated behind the palms. In late afternoon or at sunset, the sky would be much brighter off to the right side of the image as the sun descended in the west. And secondly, I planned to use a circular polarizer to minimize the glare off the water. This would also darken the sky (which I was fine with), but only at high noon would the darkening effect be even across the whole panorama. Again, with the sun low in the west, the polarizer would have darkened the left-hand side of the photo much more than the right, further exaggerating the unevenly lit sky.

Shooting at high noon brings some challenges, though. For one, the color isn't as vibrant compared to sunset. No problem, I planned to shoot black and white anyway (Ilford Delta 100). The midday sun would also bring excessively high contrast. But again, no problem. I wanted the high-contrast look. The composition I envisioned consisted of a medium-dark ocean, medium-light sky, and nearly black palm trees. The midday sun coupled with my polarizer provided that perfectly.

The last challenge of shooting midday was the lens flare. I have no lens hood for this camera, so I had to shade the lens with my hand instead. As you can see in the video, it wasn't the most comfortable way to shoot. Keeping my hand over the lens for 2 and a half minutes at a time for 4 separate exposures got a little old...

I also used a Lee 10-stop BigStopper filter to get my exposure way down to 2 and a half minutes. I wanted a slow shutter so as to smooth out the ocean waves, turning the Pacific into a nice flat surface, and to let the palm tree fronds "fuzz out" in the breeze. The name of the game for this composition was simplicity. I wanted just the palm trees in the center with a lot of negative space to the left and right. I didn't want clouds or waves or anything else in the background to distract from the palm trees. The slow shutter smoothed everything out for me and created a great ethereal fuzziness around the palm trees.

Palm Trees at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA

Three Palm Trees - Heisler Park, Laguna Beach, CA
Click Image to Enlarge

Normally when shooting panoramas this wide, it's wise to use a center ND filter. This is a filter that is dark in the center, but clear around the outside edge. See, a wide angle lens on such a wide piece of film creates a major vignette at the edges of the frame. The center ND filter darkens the center of the image to match the natural vignetting and, thus, even out the exposure. But for this shot, I deliberately avoided the center ND filter. I wanted the natural vignette. I wanted those dark edges because I knew it would create a mood to match what I envisioned. I didn't want a bright, evenly exposed Peter Lik scenic (we got enough of those). I wanted an artist representation of these palm trees - a photo that incited a mood in the viewer, not just a snapshot of a tourist destination.

To put it simply without sounding arrogant, I'm really pleased with how this shot turned out. It's nearly identical to what I envisioned and it works as well on film as it did in my head. And this, by the way, is the reward of good training and experience - whatever you envision, you can make happen. So if you're a novice reading this, hang in there and keep working at becoming a better photographer. Eventually you'll have the tools to realize your visions on film (or digitally), whatever those visions may be.

Digital Photography Tips: Auto White Balance Kills Color

View on YouTube to see this photography tip in HD

Photography Tips: Don't Use Auto White BalanceSkill Level: Intermediate

I've had a lot of students ask me lately why the colors in their photos are coming out inaccurate, so I thought it would be fitting to post a digital photography tip all about auto white balance. I'm marking this photography tip as "Skill Level: Intermediate" because I'm going to assume you already know what white balance does and how to control it. And if you don't know what it is, I offer group classes and online courses that can get you up to speed.

The topic of this photography tip pertains specifically to auto white balance - often abbreviated "AWB." The auto white balance setting is like many automatic functions on your camera: it works well enough a lot of the time, but it can really screw things up if you're not paying attention.

Auto white balance works like this: it looks at the photo you're taking and it tries to determine if there's too much of one color family. If it sees too much of one color, it floods the picture with the opposite color to try and cancel it out.

So let's say you have some incandescent lighting overhead when you're taking a picture of your family. Well, incandescent lighting is throwing out a ton of yellow-orange light. So auto white balance sees the excessive warm tones and says, "That's way too much yellow-orange," and so it floods the picture with blue to cancel it out. This is assuming auto white balance is doing a good job. Many cameras don't add quite enough blue in this scenario and leave your indoor shots looking too yellow.

That's the basic concept of auto white balance - if the camera sees too much of one color, it deems that an "unwanted color cast" and then tries to eliminate it by adding the opposite color. This approach to eliminating unwanted color casts is good enough for many pictures. And when you have to shoot quick, good enough is good enough.

But here's the problem with auto white balance...how could it possibly know the difference between a color cast you want and a color cast you don't want? The yellow color cast from incandescent lighting is a color cast you don't want, but the yellow color cast from fall leaves is. The camera can't make the distinction between these two. Your camera is dumb! It doesn't even know what it's looking at. It just sees too much yellow, regardless of where that yellow is coming from.

So when you shoot fall leaves on auto white balance, what ends up happening is this; the camera's auto white balance sees a bunch of yellow and it says, "Well, that's way too much yellow. Must be a color cast my photographer doesn't want," and so it floods the picture with blue to tone down the yellow. The result is fall color that isn't so fall color-y anymore.

Here are some examples:

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

 AWB (above) vs. the accurate shade setting (below)

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

 

 

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

  AWB (above) vs. the accurate cloudy setting (below)

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

 

 

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

 AWB (above) vs. the accurate daylight setting (below)

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

 

Same thing on a sunset. The auto white balance sees a bunch of warm tones from the setting sun, assumes you don't want them, and then floods the picture with blue to tone it down.

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

 AWB (above) vs. the accurate daylight setting (below)

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

As you can see, auto white balance can really destroy colors in your photos. That leads to my very simple digital photography tip: when photographing subjects with strong color casts, don't use auto white balance. Instead, use the appropriate white balance setting (daylight setting in daylight, shade in shade, etc) or adjust it yourself in the computer by shooting RAW files. I used Adobe Lightroom to adjust the white balance on my RAW files. It's a great program and I highly recommend it to all shooters. Get a great price on Adobe Lightroom at B&H.

Use auto white balance when you need to shoot quick and you're not too worried about the colors being perfect. But when the colors have to be just right, don't use AWB...it may just tone down the colors too much.

Photoshop Tutorials: Supermoon Composite Image

View on YouTube to see this Photoshop tutorial in HD

To my regular readers, the title of this post may come as a surprise to you. You know I'm not a big Photoshop guy. I'm more of a "get the image right in camera" guy. I think Photoshop is overused these days to distort our view of human beauty and to create digital abominations passing themselves off as "photos," so I tend not to put out Photoshop tutorials.

BUT, I'm certainly not opposed to using Photoshop to do something that couldn't be done in the camera or couldn't be done with better quality in the camera...so long as it's done with good taste. And "good taste" is key. It's always amusing to me when someone will spend 3 hours working in Photoshop to create an image uglier than sin (*cough* HDR *cough*).

So I ran into a situation recently where the image I envisioned was literally impossible to create in-camera on a single exposure. Thus, I had to resort to Photoshop.

We recently had a supermoon, which is where a full moon happens to coincide with the moon's closest approach to Earth in its orbit. The result is a bigger and brighter moon, which I envisioned photographing in Laguna Beach, CA with some silhouetted palm trees in the foreground.

It is, in fact, possible to create this exact photograph in a single exposure, but only if the conditions are just perfect. To do it in a single shot, the moon has to get into the desired position in the sky immediately after the sun has set. Basically, the moon's gotta be where you want it at twilight, not nighttime. That's what happened in the following photo I took in Joshua Tree National Park. I was lucky to have the moon rise up over the mountains immediately after the sun set. The twilight light kept the foreground cactus and the sky illuminated enough so that I could accurately expose both the foreground and the moon.

Moonrise over Cholla Cactus in Joshua Tree National Park

If the moon gets into position just a few minutes too late, the sky and landscape will have no lingering light from the sunset to illuminate them. Thus, if you try to lighten the exposure to get detail in the foreground, the moon will blow out white. If you try to darken the exposure to get detail in the moon, the foreground goes too dark.

That's what happened on my most recent shoot of the supermoon in Laguna Beach. You'll see in the pictures below that when I exposed bright enough to see the palm trees, the moon became overexposed. But when I exposed darker to see detail in the moon, I lost the trees.

Photoshop Tutorials - Supermoon Composite Image

The purist in me really just wants to scrap these photos and do a reshoot when the moon is in the right position at the right time, but the next supermoon is over a year away, so until then I'll venture to the dark side and utilize Photoshop to fix this problem.

The general idea in this Photoshop tutorial is that I will extract the better-looking darker supermoon from the second exposure and overlay onto the brighter moon in the first photo. The process is simple and best explained in the above video tutorial, but here's a write-up to walk you through it:

Step 1
Take your two exposures and make your usual adjustments to color, white balance, contrast, and whatever else you like to do. I did this in Lightroom.

Step 2
Open these 2 exposures in Photoshop and lay them out side-by-side.

Photoshop Tutorials - open both images side-by-side

Step 3
Using the move tool in Photoshop (shortcut "v"), drag the darker exposure on top of the lighter exposure. Hold down Shift when you do this so that the images line up perfectly. You should have 2 layers in your image now - the top layer is the darker exposure, the bottom is the lighter exposure.

Photoshop Tutorials - Drag darker image on top of lighter

Step 4
Now it's time to delete that black sky around the supermoon. I used the magic wand tool and simply clicked on the sky. Photoshop automatically creates a selection around the moon.

Photoshop Tutorials - magic wand tool

Step 5
At this point, I opted to expand my selection by 4 pixels so that it overlapped the moon a tiny bit. This will prevent a black border showing up around the moon. I also feathered the selection by 2 pixels so as to create a softer transition around the moon. This will help create a more seamless blend into the brighter background.

Photoshop Tutorials - expand the selection

Photoshop Tutorials - feather the selection

Step 6
Center the darker supermoon over the brighter moon using the move tool. Use "Free Transform" to enlarge the moon a little bit if necessary.

Photoshop Tutorials - Reposition the supermoon

Photoshop Tutorials - Enlarge the supermoon

Step 7 (Optional)
I then dropped the opacity of the darker supermoon layer to 85%. This lightened the moon a tiny bit by allowing the bright exposure behind it to shine through. I did this because I felt that the darker supermoon looked too dark and out of place on the brighter background exposure.

Photoshop Tutorials - Drop the Opacity

Step 8
Save the new file, because you're done, baby.

Photoshop Tutorials - Supermoon Composite ImageThe completed composite image
Click to Enlarge