The tourists have landed

Tourists invade the beach on Portuguese Island, Mozambique  

Portuguese Island, Mozambique

I've landed back home after my shipboard adventure!

It was certainly interesting. We travelled on the MSC Sinfonia for 4 days out of Durban and into Mozambican waters. I learned quite a few things. Like how to say ship instead of boat (still hard to remember, that one). That bingo is actually quite fun. That most cruise passengers prefer to lie around the pool all day, drinking from breakfast time and turning bright pink in the sun. And that I prefer to find a quiet, people-free spot on the stern and read geeky books.

The ship was a fun environment for HDR photography, and my tripod provided some humour for my nonplussed fellow passengers. We disembarked twice during the cruise for some exploration and great photo ops. The first stop was at Portuguese Island near Maputo. The second was to be at Inhambane, further up the Mozambican coast, but a cyclone the size of Madagascar put paid to that, so we docked in Maputo for the day.

Today's HDR is taken at Portuguese Island in Mozambique. It's a tiny island very close to Inhaca Island, in fact you can cross over via sand banks when the tide is low. It's also pretty close to Maputo, probably 90 minutes or so by ferry. I gather that cruise ships stop here about twice a week, and transform this quiet and usually uninhabited island into Party Island. See the tourist hordes fanning out over the sands, with alcohol tents and beach barbecues in the background. It gets so busy that a permanent structure is being built, also visible in the background.

This shot was taken while fleeing from the crowds and setting out on a 7km circumnavigation of the island. I think we were the only passengers who did this, and we were rewarded with solitude, a close-up fish eagle sighting, and the spotting of many other curious sea creatures.

The people in the picture are investigating strange sand castings in the intertidal zone, that seem to have been made by some kind of lugworm. They looked like this close up, and you could see the sand being extruded out of the middle. Very weird.

Lugworm casting on Portuguese Island, Mozambique


We also spotted intact sand dollars that were the size of dinner plates.

Sand dollar shells at Portuguese Island, Mozambique



Before and After

Today's beach shot was a handheld snapshot, bracketed at -2, 0 and +2. I liked the way the people were fanning out over the beach, so I grabbed it as quickly as I could. I'm finding that Photoshop's layer aligning feature does a very good job of putting together these handheld HDRs. The clouds were beautiful that day, so I wanted to bring them out as much as possible in the post-processing. They were building up higher and higher all day, threatening a thunderstorm that never came.

[beforeafter]Tourists invade the beach at Portuguese Island, Mozambique (0 image)Tourists invade the beach on Portuguese Island, Mozambique[/beforeafter]

HDR Tutorial: What gear do I need?

Stadsaal Cave, Cederberg  

Right, everybody, it's on to part 2 of the HDR tutorial, and another example image. This is a view of the Stadsaal Cave in the Cederberg, South Africa. It's more of a real-world example than part 1 of the tutorial last week, where I shot a random window to show the trickiness of capturing a scene that contains extremes of light and dark. This cave scene is quite tricksy too. What to expose for, light or dark? Easy, expose for everything and let your software sort it out!

The cave's name translates from Afrikaans to Town Hall Cave. I don't know if it was ever really used as a meeting hall, but it has historic graffiti all over one of the walls, supposedly by long-gone politicians which tantalizingly hints that maybe it was. Or maybe it's just graffiti from an age when people cared less about defacing such a beautiful spot. It's certainly extremely far from the nearest town (or village for matter), so it would take quite dedicated and civic-minded people to meet out here.


What gear do I need?

This is a nice and short list, so no need to stress, unless you like to. I'll be getting into much more detail on all of these items over the next couple of weeks.

Out on your photographic adventures you will need just three things, and most of them are pretty 'doh!':

  • Camera - Doh! To make your life easy, you really want to have a digital SLR, capable of shooting bracketed exposures, able to be triggered with a remote control, and with a tripod connector. Set it to RAW mode and the lowest possible ISO. If your camera can't do any of those things they can all be worked around. I use a Nikon D7000 which does everything I need. Note to self: avoid stirring up a Nikon versus Canon fight.
  • Lens - Almost anything will do, but make sure it's super clean. The process of combining multiple exposures into one tends to exaggerate any dirt and specks on the lens or lens filters. I suggest a good wide-angle or zoom used on the wider end, but the standard lens that came with your camera ought to be fine. I usually use a Nikkor 18-200mm lens.
  • Tripod - The sturdier the better. Which sadly for your carrying shoulder means heavier. Don't scrimp of this one. Get something decent like a Manfrotto and you will be able to use it for your entire photographic career. Handholding is possible and I will dedicate a tutorial to that later, but setting up on a tripod will give significantly better results. I know it's a pain to carry around, but you need to do it.

Having been out photographing and hopefully having captured some awesome images, you are ready to process your first HDR image. What you will need are:

  • Computer - Ideally a fast one with a BIG monitor, but pretty much anything should so. Further note to self: avoid stirring up an even bigger Mac versus PC fight.
  • HDR Software - This software will combine your multiple images into a single image through a process called tonemapping. There are several options here. I use Photomatix Pro, and find it very comfortable to use. You could also use Photoshop's built in 'Merge to HDR' command, or Nik Software HDR Pro which is a plugin to Photoshop. As a free option, there are a couple of options such as Picturenaut or Luminance HDR. I've tried several of these, and am sticking with Photomatix for the time being. It just works. If you want to experiment with it, you can download a free trial from HDRSoft that will do everything the paid version does, but will watermark the image.
  • Photoshop - You're going to need this to clean up your tonemapped image. You will never be able to get the tonemapping exactly as you would like it, so you will need Photoshop to adjust parts of the image, for example by bringing in part of one your original bracketed images to replace a portion of the tonemapped image that doesn't look good. You could also get by with similar software such as Photoshop Elements or GIMP.
  • Software to help you with noise reduction and sharpening. I use the Nik Photoshop plugins for this, Dfine and Sharpener Pro, and they do a mighty fine job. Photoshop can also manage this without plugins. Photomatix can also help with the noise reduction part.

Next week I'll be discussing what subjects look good in HDR and what don't.


Before and After

Unlike my epic 11 exposure bracket set from the tutorial last week, where I was really just showing off, here is the bracket set I shot for this scene. This is a far more typical number of shots for me. 5 shots, at -4, -2, 0, +2, and +4. With practice you can probably set up the tripod and shoot the set in less than a minute. I'll time it sometime and let you know.


Stadsaal Cave, Cederberg (5 exp set)


Here is the Before and After showing the middle shot and the finished product. The wind was blowing quite hard, which blurred the trees and made the post-processing quite a bit harder. Wind is the enemy of HDR, so avoid it if you can.


[beforeafter]Stadsaal Cave, Cederberg (before)Stadsaal Cave, Cederberg[/beforeafter]

HDR Tutorial: What is HDR?

Keurbosfontein Window, Cederberg  

Today I am kicking off the first of a series on tutorials on how I do HDR photography, in the hopes that I might inspire you to do the same. Earlier this year I saw an image which made me go 'wow' many, many times, and it turned out that it was made using the HDR photographic technique. I immediately downloaded some demo Photomatix software and started experimenting. I eventually spent a large part of this year learning about the technique and trying to read and practice as much as possible, and now it's time for me to pass on that knowledge. It's also just in time for a new year, and maybe for your new year's resolution to teach yourself a new aspect of photography? It's not hard, but it does need quite a bit of patience. Let's get to it!

This first tutorial is an intro to look at just what is HDR or High Dynamic Range photography? Don't worry about the acronym or the confusing sounding name. Very simply, it's a technique that allows you to photograph a scene that has complicated lighting. Where there are extremes of lighting in a scene, a camera, whether film or digital, is not able to cope with the lighting range successfully. Photography is all about capturing the light, and that light is often complicated because that's the kind that impresses us the most.

A very typical example, which is the subject of this post, is shooting an interior scene with a window onto an exterior view. It's dark inside and bright outside, and your poor camera does not have a clue how to expose this, which makes it quite sad. You can expose for the scene outside the window, but the interior will be as black as the toast I forgot in the toaster this morning. Or you can expose for the interior, but the outside will be bleached out white like you've been staring at the sun too long (instead of watching the toast).

Have a look at the before and after slider below to get an idea of the range of lighting in this scene. The darker image is shot at an exposure compensation of -3 and the lighter one is shot at +3. For those that are new to exposure compensation, 0 represents the setting where the camera thinks the scene is correctly exposed, and any + or - setting allows more or less light into the camera than the 'correct' setting.

[beforeafter]Keurbosfontein Window, Cederberg (underexposed)Keurbosfontein Window, Cederberg (overexposed)[/beforeafter]


Neither of these images works, but there are a couple of ways you could try and tackle this scene. You could maybe turn on the lights inside the house to illuminate the wall if they were bright enough, but this was cottage in the country with no electricity and candles were not going to cut it. You could illuminate the inside wall with a very big flash or studio lighting, but I don't own either of those, or have much of a clue how to use them. You could take two exposures, one correct for inside, and one correct for outside, and then combine then manually later in Photoshop, which would probably work quite well. But the most fun way to do it is to take a much larger range of photos to ensure that you have the correct exposure for every part of the scene, and then process them all using specialized HDR software. The software combines the images into one composite image that reflects the correct exposure for each portion of the scene. That's mostly correct, but also a little bit of a lie, because you can also have a lot of fun with the software and create the composite in a number of ways, from fairly realistic to completely lurid and over the top.

Here is the range of images I took for this scene. Using a tripod to ensure all the images lined up perfectly, I shot an 11 exposure bracket set from -5 all the way through to +5, using 1 f-stop increments. That's probably overkill, and I would usually have shot a 5 exposure set at -4, -2, 0, +2 and +4 for an interior scene like this, but I felt like going a bit overboard on this one. No real reason. I usually shoot with 2 f-stop increments, and for most images with less extreme lighting I shoot a 3 exposure set at -2, 0 and +2. Shooting a bigger set than you need isn't much of a problem other than taking more time to shoot and more space on your hard drive afterwards.

Keurbosfontein Window, Cederberg (11 exposure set)


These images then all get loaded into your HDR software, you get to tweak a number of sliders and settings, and out pops an HDR image. They usually look a little fuzzy and vaseline-smeared when they are freshly made, and need to be cleaned up quite a bit with post-processing in Photoshop before they are ready to show your friends.

Here's a comparison using the before and after slider of a fresh Photomatix HDR next to the fully cleaned up and post-processed HDR version of the scene. Over the next several weeks, I'll be adding several tutorials to go step by step through the whole process, from using a tripod through to Photoshop post-processing.

[beforeafter]Keurbosfontein Window, Cederberg (photomatix)Keurbosfontein Window, Cederberg[/beforeafter]


By the way, this picture was taken inside the cottage on the charming homestead of Keurbosfontein, close to where I photographed my previous blog image from. There was no electricity here, no cellphone reception, no people, and it was just terribly relaxing! There were beautiful gardens all around the cottage, even though we were in a very harsh and dry climatic area, and it felt like a little oasis.

Farmhouse in the Cederberg

Dawn at Keurbosfontein, Cederberg  

Wow! Just back a few days now from a terribly relaxing long weekend in the Cederberg, with nothing more important to do than take about 600 photos. And eat very well.

We stayed for a couple of nights at Keurbosfontein, a historic white-washed and thatch-roofed Cape homestead about a 3½ hour drive from Cape Town. The first impression was the amazing thatch smell on entering the house, and the lasting impression was how peaceful it was there. The farm is situated in a fairly remote part of the Cederberg Conservancy, near Matjiesrivier at the start of the rough dirt road to Wuppertal, so you need to do quite a bit of dirt road driving to get there. We took the quiet route from Ceres, and by the time we arrived, we had re-acquainted ourselves with the distinctive Cederberg rock formations and were in relaxed Cederberg mood.

On the first morning I somehow and very atypically managed to wake up to a dawn glow in the bedroom window, so I grabbed my kit and trekked up the nearest hill to see what the view would be like. And this is it. As the sun rose I could watch as it slowly illuminated each little house in the valley in turn, and all the while was surrounded by curious and cheerful little birds chirping and doing their morning thing. I took a shot or two of them, but without a wildlife lens they are about the size of my little finger nail seen from the neighbouring farm in the shots.

Up here is the first time I have been tempted to learn paragliding. Most times I've seen paragliders, they look like they are flinging themselves off sheer cliffs to certain death. Here there was a nice gentle slope and a hot espresso pot in the farmhouse below. How pleasant would it be to just glide gently down to breakfast and a mug of steaming coffee? Instead, I scrambled down the scratchy-bushed and slippery scree slope, nearly managing to fall over several times. At least I learned that tripods make vaguely serviceable trekking poles.

Before and After

To capture the subtle dawn light, and to justify lugging the darn tripod up the slope, I bracketed this shot more than I usually do and used a five shot (-4, -2, 0, 2, and 4) exposure bracket. I have given up using the built in auto-bracket setting when doing more that a set of three shots, which is the limit of my Nikon D7000's bracket set. I find it much easier to just run the exposure compensation dial through the five settings from -4 to 4, being super careful not to bump the tripod.

I tried a new technique this time in post-processing, which was to only use multiple exposures on part of the image. Because there was the slightest breeze, which was just visible on the close up bushes, I used only one exposure for the whole foreground area by selecting it all as a ghosted area in Photomatix. I also felt that one of the original exposures looked stronger for the sky, and blended it in with the HDR version. So ultimately only the middle ground has the full HDR treatment. Overall I tried to apply the HDR with a light touch, to keep the scene looking as natural as possible. I started from the default Photomatix setting, and then toned-down the HDR effect quite a bit. I think it works.


[beforeafter]Dawn at Keurbosfontein, Cederberg (before)Dawn at Keurbosfontein, Cederberg[/beforeafter]

It's just a jump to the left ...

Clifton Beach and Lions Head, Cape Town ... and another jump to the left. Or a skip if you prefer. If you got that right, you should now be facing 180 degrees from the view of the Twelve Apostles that I posted recently. I promised the about-face view and here it is. Pretty awesome, huh?

This view takes in the magnificent beaches of Clifton, numbered First through Fourth Beach, with Clifton Fourth being closest to the camera, and Lion's Head in the background. At full moon you will see dozens of torches marking the route up Lion's Head as hikers head up for a night time view. The Clifton water is very, very cold, and can drop below 10 degrees Celsius ... come mid-winter the crazies gather here for the annual Polar Bear Swim. You would probably want to be our local human polar bear, Lewis Gordon Pugh, to really enjoy swimming here for more than a rapid squeal-inducing and instantly-numbing dip.

This photo, and the Twelve Apostles view, were both taken quite a few months ago, in the middle of winter on an unseasonably pleasant day. Now that summer has arrived and one would expect, nay, demand, that the weather be perfect, it is no longer cooperating at all, and I feel I must have wronged it somehow.

Every recent opportunity to spend the evening after work in this exact location has been thwarted by gale force winds. We've had barely minutes to contemplate the five sand-blasted nutters on the beach, and lone sad yacht with mast at 45 degrees, before conceding defeat and doing a runner back home for Star Wars and pizza. Perhaps a weather dance is required? Or the sacrifice of some G&T?

But I live in hope of better weather, and more chance to photograph here without having to lash down the tripod with all the tow-rope and industrial epoxy I can muster from my boot.


Before and After

This gives a great indication of how HDR can really get stuck into those under-exposed shadow areas and reveal all the detail and texture hiding in there. This was a three exposure bracket at -2, 0 and +2 exposure settings, combined later in Photomatix. The shots were taken just after sunset, during that blue hour when colours deepen and richen with the diminishing twilight. A tripod was essential with the low light conditions, and I used the lowest ISO possible to minimize sensor noise. Noise likes to accumulate most in the under-exposed parts of the image, and is amplified by HDR, so I keep the ISO set to 100, and applied noise reduction later to my preliminary HDR image as the first step of my post-processing workflow, using my personal favourite noise reduction Photoshop plugin, Nik Dfine 2.

[beforeafter]Clifton Beach and Lions Head, Cape TownClifton Beach and Lions Head, Cape Town[/beforeafter]

Bosphorus Dawn

Sunrise over the Bosphorus and Golden Horn, Istanbul, Turkey  

OK, confession time.

I'm not very good at getting up early. You can't persuade me to actually go to bed in the early hours, but by the same token, you can't get me up very easily either. Which is a pity, because look at this dawn light. All this spectacular light is just out there waiting for those crazy enough to get up that early. Which is usually other people. I took this shot at dawn on my third day in the strange and wonderful city of Istanbul, which meant getting up quite a bit earlier, wandering up to the newly found tram station, buying a tram token (called a jeton in Turkey) from the awesomely named Jeton-matik machine, remembering which direction the tram travels in and which station to get off, all while lugging my camera bag and tripod, and all before dawn. It was only the thought of breakfast and strong Turkish coffee that kept me going. But totally worth it!

This shot was taken from the Galata Bridge, where the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus. This area is crazy with commuter ferries in the day, but was quite calm at this time. That's the Bosphorus Bridge in the background, which connects Europe with Asia. And that's Istanbul, one foot in Europe and one in Asia, one in the Roman Empire and one on some other planet entirely. It's an amazing place, and in some other life I'd be moving there. Or maybe this one, some day?


Before and After

I think this Before and After is really cool. All those crazy colours you see in the final version? They're all there in the before version, I haven't added any colours, but you can see that they do look a little pasty. The camera is seeing all the stuff that's there, but it's not doing a very good job of capturing it well. By taking a range of several bracketed exposures I have a sequence of images where each part of the scene is captured with optimal exposure in one of the images, capturing the light and colour as it should be, but just for that small portion of the image. Then all that remains, and this is the fun part, is to get the best parts from each image, combine them into one master image, and then amp the hell out of the colours and detail!

Don't even think of shooting in JPEG if you want to do this, you need to shoot in RAW. RAW files store just ridiculously more data and colour information than the equivalent JPEG would. Then multiply that amount of data by the number of bracketed shots you are combining in your HDR, and you get the vast amounts of recorded data for the scene that allows you to pull the best exposure and colour from every part of the image.

What I also like about this is that you can see the stunning things HDR can do with water, skies and reflections. The natural reflections in the water are turned really punchy, and the blown out detail in the sky is brought back. Those are the kind of things that can make an HDR image jump up, slap you in the face, and make you go 'woah!'

[beforeafter]Before version of Bosphorus DawnSunrise over the Bosphorus and Golden Horn, Istanbul, Turkey[/beforeafter]

Quiet day at Kirstenbosch

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens  

I'm going to kick off the Trekking Tripod with a couple of places that are close to home and close to my heart.

This is Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town, South Africa. It was supposedly bequeathed to the nation by Cecil John Rhodes a hundred odd years ago, but I like to think of it as my garden. It's got to be one of the finest gardens in the world, and it's located about 10 minutes away from my house, where my wife and I live ... gardenless. Come summer (it's just arrived for us southern hemispherians, woot!) and this is the place to be. For the cost of a day pass, or better yet a year pass, this can be your garden too.

Things to bring to Kirstenbosch:

  • significant other
  • picnic blanket
  • two kindles (so as not to fight)
  • long, cold drinks
  • vienna sausages (don't ask me why, they just work here!)
Things to take home afterwards:
  • litter
  • extreme relaxedness

I'm looking forward to many a summer Sunday propped under this very tree. The hardest part is deciding when to be in the sun and when to be in the shade.


Before and After

This HDR was part of a 9 exposure set, at 1 stop intervals. I usually rely on 3 shots at 2 stop intervals, but I was experimenting here. The before shot shows the centre exposure, and the after is the result of combining them all in Photomatix and cleaning up afterwards in Photoshop. My wife was in the picture at the time, enjoying a nap. That's her right in the middle, impersonating a rock. She fell victim to the 'cleaning up' when I photoshopped her out, and she will have you know that she is not impressed.

I often try and capture the effect of direct sun shining through leaves. I find it terribly beautiful in reality, but really hard to photograph. The camera exposure system usually screams and falls over. This HDR was an attempt to bring light into all the various parts of the picture, and as an added advantage ends up looking like it dropped a bit of acid along the way. I'm sure I saw a rabbit running by and exclaiming, "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!" Didn't I?

[beforeafter]Kirstenbosch Botanical GardensKirstenbosch Botanical Gardens[/beforeafter]