Going for gold in Istanbul

Interior View of the Mustafa Pasha Pavillion at Topkapi Palace, Istanbul  

This is the Mustafa Pasha or Terrace Pavillion at the amazing Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey. It also seems to be known as the Sofa Pavillion, and the word Kiosk is often used in place of Pavillion. Little know fact: the work kiosk comes from the Turkish köşk, meaning pavillion. Neat.

Topkapi Palace was the main residence of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire from the mid-1400s to mid-1800s or so. It became a museum in the 1920s when Turkey became a new state. It's a huge complex with a large amount of impressive and well-preserved Ottoman architecture.

This particular room was built in the Rococo style in the 1750s to give the Sultan of the day and his friends a comfy viewing spot for the events in the gardens below. Probably on their sofas, hence the one name of the room. Or on their ottomans, perhaps? Ottomans on sofas? This view gives a good idea of the opulence of the palace. I don't think they believed you could overdo gold.

 

HDR Stuff

I was glad that this shot worked out well. The  room was closed to the public, and I could only get to view it through the windows from outside. Tripods were banned in the palace complex. I held the camera steady against the glass and set the shooting speed to high for a fairly well aligned handheld HDR bracket set of three (-2, 0, +2).

This is also for me a rare example of processing with Nik Software's HDR Efex Pro. I quite like the software, but don't find it as intuitive to use as Photomatix Pro. HDR Efex Pro has the cool feature of control points, which allow you to set a point on the photo from which you can set the amount of exposure level or saturation or sharpness or whatever in a certain radius from the point, and it auto-detects edges to contain its effect. It seems to do a good job of it, but often feels a bit fiddly to me. It is on my agenda to fiddle with more though, because it feels pretty powerful, and I'm sure there are some very good effects to be had, pun not intended.

HDR Tutorial: What looks good in HDR?

Cogmankloof, Montagu This is a view of the road between Aston and Montagu in the Western Cape, South Africa. The road passes through the mountains here at Cogmanskloof. There's a really short tunnel just below where the picture was taken, and a small stone fort above the tunnel, next to where I am standing. The fort was built by the British in 1899 to protect the tunnel during the Anglo-Boer War. You get a magnificent view from next to the fort, but once you go inside it's quite scary. Suddenly, all you have for viewing the surrounds are tiny gun slots, and you can just imagine people creeping up to your position, completely unseen. Or maybe I've been playing too much Skyrim.

For this week's tutorial I want to talk about what looks good in HDR. Now, first off, please bear in mind throughout this entire post that this is my opinion and is terribly subjective. You can choose to break these guidelines and be happy with the results, but they are my own rules of thumb built up through a fair bit of experimentation.

What looks good in HDR?

  • Landscapes. I find that big scenes with lots of details work very well, especially when you get to see them printed to a large scale or can view them on a high resolution monitor. The HDR process brings out all the myriad details, and brings light into all the shaded areas where you would normally not be able to see the detail. Once you combine with some sharpening, you can really get lost in these images as you explore every little detail.
  • Dramatic skies. HDR can do cool stuff to clouds, and to sunset and sunrise sky tones. Watch out for generating too much noise in your skies when you do it though. Sometimes the skies can go a bit too over the top, and start looking too unbelievable, so watch out for that as well.
  • Textured stuff. HDR brings out details, so any image with lots of texture can look good. Try it on things like rocks, mountains, bark, grass, sand, concrete, brick. Old stuff tends to have a lot of texture as well. Things like old weathered wood, rusted machinery, ruined buildings, and architectural detail often make good subjects for HDR.
  • Water. Water seems to do interesting stuff when you HDR it. Reflections can be beautifully enhanced, and things like sunset tones reflecting in water seem to get amplified by the HDR process.
  • Difficult lighting. Any scene that can't be exposed correctly in one image makes a good candidate for HDR. That includes landscapes with skies much brighter than the ground, sunsets and sunrises, scenes with bright light and dark shade in them, backlit scenes, and interior scenes with outside views. Blue hour and night time also make for good HDR shots.
  • Interiors. I mentioned interiors above but they deserve a category of their own because they can work especially well. They usually have a lot of texture and architectural detail which can be enhanced. They usually have interesting lighting that's a combination of natural and artificial. They often have windows that have very differently exposed exterior views. All these can make for a great HDR shot.
The shot of Cogmanskloof at the top of the post shows the effect of good sunset light, a landscape with lots of detail and texture in both the near and far rocks, and how HDR deals with some of the scene being partly in shade and partly in light.
This shot of Istanbul below from a previous post also shows some of the things I think make for a good HDR, like dawn light, the water catching and amplifying the light, the glass of the buildings doing the same thing, and the texture of the buildings and water.
Sunrise over the Bosphorus and Golden Horn, Istanbul, Turkey

 

Now for the flip side. What doesn't work in HDR?

What looks bad in HDR?

  • Portraits. People, and especially their skin tones, just don't seem to come out right. Give it a go if you want, but mostly the HDR process exaggerates every freckle and pore, adds in some more for good measure, discolours the skin, and ends up making the person look like the living dead. Unless your friends actually are zombies, you may well lose a few if you insist on HDRing their portraits. Don't make Dale Carnegie cry. If you think their clothes and background would HDR well, then do that, but blend in non-HDR skin with your image.
  • Movement. This doesn't have to be a bad thing, but you need to look out for it. Wind, for example, can ruin your shot. If you have a lot of trees in a scene and the wind is blowing, each of your bracketed images will have the leaves and branches in a different position. You just won't be able to HDR successfully because the movement will turn into a smudged mess. The closer the movement is to the lens, the worse the effect will be on your image. Either leave it until a calmer day, or else blend in the moving trees from one image to keep them sharper. You might be able to use the ghosting settings from your HDR software to help. The same applies to things like waves and people (or cows) moving through your scene.
  • Don't HDR everything. HDR is a cool look. But it is a look, and that can get boring if you do it all the time. Before you automatically HDR every photo you take, think about processing it in some other ways. You could process as a single image and not HDR at all. You could take two shots for say a sunset and manually combine one with a correctly exposed sky with another of the  correctly exposed ground. You could choose to use HDR on only part of your image, and blend in non-HDR parts to the rest of the image.
  • Don't overdo it. Just because the sliders can go to 11 doesn't mean you need to slide them that far. If you overcook your HDR image you get what my friend Stuart not-so-fondly calls psychedelic clown vomit. You don't want clown vomit. Eeeew.

Here's a before and after of what you get when you go too far. Well, it's not really a before and after, just a side by side comparison. On the left is an HDR pushed to crazy surreal levels, and I get nauseous just looking at it. On the right is the severely toned down version of it, still HDR, that I personally think works much better. Keep it restrained is what I'm going to recommend.

Don't do this! Seriously!

[beforeafter]How not to do HDRStadsaal Cave, Cederberg[/beforeafter]

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul  

This is the world above Istanbul.

In the old city of Sultanahmet the streets are thrumming with tourists and markets and restaurants and vendors at most times of the day or night. This lively ground level is replicated up in the sky, where every hotel jostles to have the highest roof terrace with some view of the minarets and the sea. This roofscape is the world that tourists inhabit for breakfast and dinner and sundowner drinks, and perhaps reach a vague nodding acquaintance with their counterparts on the adjacent roof terraces.

This was the view from our particular terrace one beautiful dusk in autumn last year. That's the Blue Mosque in the background, just a few minutes walk away. A benefit of staying this close to the Blue Mosque (apart from it being one of the great buildings of the world, of course) was waking every morning to the beautifully evocative call to prayer. There are apparently some 3,000 mosques in Istanbul and it's quite impressive when they all start the call just before dawn. It makes you remember that you are somewhere very exotic and far from home from the moment you wake up each morning.

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]

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]