Touchdown?

We’ve driven about 50 miles to get ahead of this storm and now we’re heading south on Highway 207 right towards the leading edge. We pull over in an entrance to a rancher’s land and I grab my gear to get a few quick shots before we come too close to the storm.

I setup my tripod, level my camera and begin to compose the scene when it dawns on me that the tall grass directly in front of me looks freshly “trampled” or blown down somehow. I don’t see the same phenomenon anywhere else in these hundreds of acres of grass and I’m left wondering if I’ve stumbled across a “crop circle” or the touchdown of a recent micro-burst from the storm. It was an eery feeling standing there in the middle of the Texas plains watching this ominous thunderstorm sweep across the sky and wondering if I was pushing my luck just a wee bit much. Needless to say, we made quick work of shooting at this “location”.

Have a great Halloween or Samhain (if you’re from the old country) this weekend!

Touchdown

Touchdown – Claude, Texas
Copyright © 2010 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 24mm, f/16 for 1.3 seconds at ISO 100 with a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3 and Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro plug-in.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

View Location on Panoramio & Google Earth: Touchdown – Claude, Texas

Palo Duro Canyon in Fall

It’s been a very busy week already and I’m amazed at the hundreds of email messages that seem to stack up when I’m out of town and out of touch. My week long adventure in the Texas panhandle recharged my spirits considerably and the majesty of these beautiful canyons refreshed my soul even more. Better than chicken soup on a cold October afternoon.

Here’s a shot (sorry Sabrina) photograph that I took deep inside Palo Duro Canyon State Park while waiting for the haze to lift and the sky to clear. A little black & white to add some contrast to your day!

Palo Duro Canyon in Fall

Palo Duro Canyon in Fall – Canyon, Texas
Copyright © 2010 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 70-200mm f/4L USM lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 97mm, f/16 for 1/15th of a second at ISO 100 with a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3 and Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro plug-in.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

View Location on Panoramio & Google Earth: Palo Duro Canyon in Fall – Canyon, Texas

I’ve Seen Fire and I’ve Seen Rain

I always smile when someone plans to visit Texas in the autumn and asks what kind of weather to expect. Considering that Texas is larger than most European countries I generally tell folks to expect temperatures from the low 40′s to the upper 80′s with humidities in the low teens to somewhere over 90%. I also tell them it may be sunny and humid one day and cold and rainy the next with winds from the south, southwest, east, southeast, west and if we’re lucky, from the north.

Most places have climate, but here in Texas we have weather with a capital “W”. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Texas panhandle. These high plains of wheat, cotton and sorghum are home to some of the most diverse weather patterns found anywhere in America. For landscape and nature photographers, the weather in the Texas plains and canyons is darn near perfect.

On a recent seven day “safari” to the panhandle we saw several days of clear blue skies, intense thunderstorms, morning fog and afternoon clouds. Add this variety of weather to the beautiful plains and spectacular canyons in the region and you’ve got everything a photographer could ever wish for.

One afternoon we decided to drive well north and west of a developing thunderstorm and wait for it to catch up to us. It’s more than just a wee bit humbling to stand at the edge of a large ranch and watch those rolling blue thunderclouds sweep over the plains at 30 mph and head right for you. As the song goes, “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain”.

Rolling Thunder

Rolling Thunder – Claude, Texas
Copyright © 2010 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 23mm, f/16 for 3/10th of a second at ISO 100 with a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

View Location on Panoramio & Google Earth: Rolling Thunder – Claude, Texas

Small Cameras, Big Results, Lightroom Magic

As many of you recall some of my best G10 images were been featured in Jeff Carlson’s book; Canon Powershot G10/G11: From Snapshots to Great Shots published by Peachpit Press last December. If you shoot with one of Canon’s Powershot “G” series cameras, this book is a great resource for taking your photography to the next level.

One thing that was lacking in this book however, was a good chapter on post-capture processing of the high-resolution raw images generated by the “G” series cameras into stunning JPEG files ready for printing or publication on the web. I’ve talked about this briefly in previous posts but I thought it was time to describe my current G10 post processing methods in enough detail, so that any amateur using this camera and Adobe Lightroom can achieve consistent results from their G10/G11/G12 cameras.

So here goes nothing . . .

Step 1: The Zeroed RAW File
I don’t generally start with a completely “zeroed” raw file in Lightroom 3 but in this case I wanted to illustrate what the raw file looks like straight from the camera. A raw file exported to a JPEG using Lightroom 3′s “Zeroed” preset. No added contrast, vibrance, clarity, luminance, exposure, brightness, fill light, black point or anything at all. Just dull, lifeless, slightly overexposed raw file.

Lighthouse & Castle Peaks - Zeroed

Starting with a Zeroed File

Step 2: Always Check the Histogram
The first rule I teach during my landscape workshops is to always check the histogram and never, ever trust the camera’s LCD for judging exposure. This rule holds true in post-capture processing as well. The very first thing to adjust on any raw image is the overall exposure and the Histogram (shown below) displayed in Lightroom 3′s Develop Module is the key.

As you can see in the histogram screenshot below and the zeroed file above, this raw image is slightly overexposed and the bright white clouds in the upper right-hand corner of the frame are slightly blown out (clipped in the histogram). I’ll explain how to correct this in the next few paragraphs but for now, it’s enough to understand that anytime your histogram is clipped on the far left (underexposed) or on the far right (overexposed) you will need to adjust it to create a well exposed image.

Lighthouse & Castle Peaks - Histogram

Always Check the Histogram

Step 3: Camera Calibration
Strangely enough I normally begin by working my way “up” the panels in Lightroom 3′s Develop Module. For my G10 images I’ll generally use the “Camera Faithful” (Canon Powershot G10) profile for my landscape images because it tends to deepen the earth tones and adds contrast to the sky.

Lighthouse & Castle Peaks - Camera Calibration

Lightroom's Camera Calibration

Step 4: Lens Corrections
Next I use the new Lens Correction settings and check the Enable Profile Corrections box which fixes any barrel or pincushion distortion, chromatic aberration and vignetting problems inherent in my G10′s built-in zoom lens. This is similar to what the well respected PTLens plugin from Tom Niemann does in Photoshop, although the effect in Lightroom 3 is more subtle.

Lighthouse & Castle Peaks - Lens Corrections

Correcting Lens Distortion

Step 5: Basic Settings
At this point in my workflow, I’ll adjust the Exposure, Recovery, Brightness and Contrast settings until I find the right exposure balance (lights and darks) and tone (color gradations) for the image. Since this raw file was slightly over exposed I’ll adjust the Recovery settings to prevent the highlight clipping shown in the right end of the histogram. I’ll also add just a bit of Fill Light to open up the deep shadows on the side of the mesa and set the Blacks slightly higher so that the image doesn’t look washed out.

My next step is to adjust the other Basic settings such as White Balance (usually set for Daylight depending upon the image), Clarity (which adds some wonderful mid-tone contrast) and Vibrance and Saturation until I achieve the look I’m after. This process may take as little as five minutes or as much as several hours to accomplish.

Note: It’s important to remember Ansel Adams’ Zone System. To make a scene look realistic you need some bright whites and pure blacks in the shade, so a little “clipping” in the histogram is perfectly acceptable.

Lighthouse & Castle Peaks - Basic Corrections

Making Basic Exposure & Contrast Corrections

Step 6: Tone Curve
Next I generally adjust the Tone Curve by setting the Point Curve to Medium Contrast which adds contrast to the entire image. Notice how I’ve set my sliders to an almost symmetrical pattern for this image. For most G10/G11/G12 shots, all you need to do is increase the contrast slightly using these sliders. Add too much and your images will look grainy and unrealistic. Add too little and they’ll look flat and dull.

Lighthouse & Castle Peaks - Tone Curve

Choosing the Best Tone Curve for Your Image

Progress Report: Starting to Look Better
So let’s review our progress so far. We’ve taken the dull and lifeless raw file we began with and corrected the exposure and added some much needed contrast as shown below. At this point it’s a pretty good snapshot that any amateur visiting Palo Duro Canyon would be proud of, but not exactly the great shot we were after.

Lighthouse & Castle Peaks - Halfway There

Starting to Look Better

Step 7: Luminance
My final “tweaks” to the image are done by adjusting the Luminance settings. This is where my fine tuning is done to create drama in my images. I’ll generally reduce the Aqua and Blue color values to darken the sky and make the clouds stand out more. I’ll also increase the Green and Yellow luminance values to enhance the color of the foliage and in this case I also decided to decrease the Red luminance values to add vibrance to the unique geology of these stratified formations.

Note: I’ve found nothing in Lightroom 3 that works half as well as a circular polarizer does in the field to enhance contrast and add saturation to an image. Luckily, the folks at Lensmate in Seattle make a line of precision machined aluminum lens adapters for the Canon G Series that allow you to add a polarizing filter to the camera without creating a vignetting problem. Lensmate also sells the 72mm low profile Kenko Pro1 Digital CP filter that their adapters are designed to work with.

Small, incremental changes go a long way here, so I’m careful not to push things too far and end up with an image that looks unrealistic. I have enough trouble with folks that don’t live in Texas believing that our skies are actually this blue and our clouds this white.

Lighthouse & Castle Peaks - Luminance Corrections

Making Luminance Corrections to Add Contrast

Step 8: Sharpness and Noise Corrections
This is where the rubber meets the road folks, especially when working with high-resolution images from Canon’s “G” series cameras. The Canon “G” series have a sensor the size of a postage stamp. Packing 10 or 15 megapixels into a sensor this size is no mean feat and it comes with a significant drawback, digital noise.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love the 15 MP resolution of my G10 camera and when exposed properly, the images it produces can rival what my $2700 5D2 does, as I’ve shown in my previous post entitled A Tale of Two Images. However, controlling sharpness and noise in Lightroom 3 is critical for making the most of your G10/G11/G12 images so here are a few counterintuitive suggestions to help you out.

  • Sharpen your raw landscape images using the Wide Edges (Faces) setting not the Narrow Edges (Scenic) preset in Lightroom 3. This preset is normally used for sharpening portraits but seems to work well with the high-resolution / high-pixel density raw files created by the G10/G11/G12 cameras. The other setting creates far too much pixelation and noise in the blue skies.
  • Use Lightroom 3′s built in noise reduction settings to eliminate luminance and color noise in your G10/G11/G12 images, especially in the shadow areas and the sky. You’ll give up a little sharpness but will gain a printable image using the settings shown below. I’ve tried a hundred different combinations but for the Canon Powershot “G” series, these seem to work best.
Lighthouse & Castle Peaks - Detail Corrections

Making Sharpness & Noise Corrections

Progress Report: Almost There!
This image is shaping up nicely and needs only a few final tweaks to add some detail and depth.

Lighthouse & Castle Peaks - Almost Complete

Now for the Fine Tuning

Step 9: Local Adjustments & Final Effects
As you can see in the next two screenshots, I made extensive use of the adjustment brush to add back detail and saturation in the shadows of the Lighthouse and Castle Peak formations. It’s important to add some saturation when increasing the exposure in a local area using the Adjustment Brush tool to make the image look more realistic. One thing to remember is with any of the local adjustment tools you have incredible flexibility in which adjustments to apply in combination.

Lighthouse & Castle Peaks - Local Adjustments

Fine Tuning using the Adjustment Brush

I also like to add a slight post-crop vignette to many of my landscape images as another way to draw the viewer’s eye into the scene. With any adjustment, a little bit goes a long way.

Lighthouse & Castle Peaks - Special Effects

Using A Vignette to Finish Your Images

The Final Result
I’m fairly pleased with the final results considering how dull and lifeless the original raw file looked. I also enjoyed experimenting with my G10 specific post-capture process to obtain the best results with the least effort.

A Final Thought
The Canon Powershot “G” series cameras are great tools for moving your photography from “snapshots” to “great shots”. But they’re just tools, like a carpenter’s hammer or a plumber’s pipe-wrench. Have you ever seen two carpenters arguing over which brand of hammer is best? No, I haven’t either.

To move your photography to the next level takes hard work, persistence and patience. It doesn’t matter what brand of camera you choose or how expensive it is. Like all good things in life, the journey to become a better photographer starts with you and lasts a lifetime. So saddle up, lock & load and join me for the ride of a lifetime.

Looking West at Lighthouse

Looking West at Lighthouse – Palo Duro Canyon, Texas
Copyright © 2010 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon Powershot G10 set on aperture priority (Av) using a circular polarizer. The exposure was taken at 28mm, f/6.3 for 1/50th of a second at ISO 80. All post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3. Click on the image above for a larger version.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

View Location on Panoramio & Google Earth: Looking West at Lighthouse – Palo Duro Canyon, Texas

Hiking to Lighthouse in Palo Duro Canyon

Hiking in any desert region requires preparation, persistence and perseverance. Hiking to the summit of Lighthouse and Castle Peaks in the Palo Duro Canyon State Park also takes a degree of stupidity. Palo Duro Canyon State Park is one of the most picturesque places in the entire state and is visited by thousands and thousands each year. Hikers love the park for its miles and miles of well-groomed trails and spectacular views of the canyon wall.

One of the most popular hikes is to the Lighthouse and Castle Peak formations in the middle of the park. It’s a 3 mile stroll out, through some of the beautiful desert scenery you’ve ever seen but it ends with a 150 foot climb up a shear cliff face with no steps or stairs and few rocks to grip. It’s the second toughest ascent I’ve ever climbed in such brutal conditions with loose soil and gravel all the way up. In fact, if my hiking partner hadn’t brought 50 foot of climbing rope I doubt we could have made it back down without breaking our necks. The image shown below was shot atop the mesa right after we made the 150 foot ascent.

Looking West at Lighthouse

Looking West at Lighthouse – Palo Duro Canyon, Texas
Copyright © 2010 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon Powershot G10 set on aperture priority (Av) using a circular polarizer. The exposure was taken at 28mm, f/6.3 for 1/50th of a second at ISO 80. All post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3. Click on the image above for a larger version.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

View Location on Panoramio & Google Earth: Looking West at Lighthouse – Palo Duro Canyon, Texas

In the past this trail was well maintained with steps made from old railroad ties supported by rock and concrete. With all that washed away from the strong rains each spring and fall, the hike has become a real danger to anyone, even the most experienced climbers. I usually have nothing but praise for the folks that work for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department but in this case, the climb is so dangerous that I feel TPWD should close it to the public or spend the money to repair it and make it a safe (but strenuous) climb.

A good example of this would be the climb down to Gorman Falls at the Colorado Bend State Park. Many years ago, the folks at TPWD added cables running pole to pole in the most difficult spots of that steep descent, making it possible for almost everyone in good health to make the descent. These type of improvements cost very little in the grand scheme of things (probably less than $1 Million) and make the beauty and grandeur of our state parks accessible to all visitors, not just the crazy few (like me) that risk life and limb for a photograph. I’m sure there’s more to this story, especially with the current budget shortfall but in my view, the state should either fix the problem or make the climb off limits.

Packing for Landscape Photography

Gear selection and packing for a landscape photography trip is a cumbersome task. Each time I set out for a few days or a few weeks I begin by putting together a shoot list and hiking schedule. I also check the weather forecast for the area of Texas I’ll be traveling though and pray for any cold fronts approaching from the north or west. The last thing I want is a cloudless sky.

Packing for Landscape Photography

Pulling together a shoot list is a common enough task for most commercial photographers but I find few landscape or nature shooters that follow this discipline. I like to maximize my time in the field but I can’t carry fifty pounds of cameras and lenses on each hike so a shoot list is essential.

So here is a list of what I pack for a typical landscape outing.

  • Canon 5D Mark II with EF 17-40mm f/4L USM zoom attached.
  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L zoom with lens hood.
  • Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Tilt & Shift Lens.
  • Gitzo Traveller Tripod & RRS Ballhead.
  • Singh-Ray CP, Vari-ND & ND Grad filters.
  • Black Rapid R-Strap & Clips.
  • Bubble level, CF cards, lens cloths.
  • Garmin Dakota 20 GPS on one strap.
  • Motorola MR350 Two Way Radio on the other strap.
  • Emergency Thermal Mylar Blanket.
  • Hiker’s First Aid Kit.
  • LED Flashlight & Hunting Knife.
  • Water, typically three 24oz bottles.
  • Trail Snacks (for energy).

This much gear weighs in a little under 20 lbs and fits comfortably in my pack. The nice thing is, the weight decreases during the hike as I consume my water supply and trail snacks. I caution folks about carrying too much weight in their packs. I’ve done these hikes and climbs several times in the past few years and every extra ounce of weight you carry takes that much more energy. When you’re out shooting in nature, the last thing you need to be thinking about is how sore your lower back is from lugging around all that gear.

In fact, during my spring workshop (Texas Landscape Safari) I generally carry only one lens (24-105mm) on my 5D2 and a few filters in my pockets. I load my pack up with as much water as I can carry along with some apples for energy. One thing I tell all my attendees; if it’s a choice between a lens or a bottle of water, always take the water. The Texas sun can be a relentless companion and folks that don’t respect its strength soon find themselves dehydrated and exhausted. Not a great combination for a budding landscape photographer.

At the Close of the Day

We landscape photographers are a curious sort. Prone to impulsive behavior and known to drop everything at a sudden change in the weather. Folks that follow this path in life can best be described as “driven” and not just because of the thousands of miles we travel each year.

We’re a strange breed and not well understood by our loved ones or by ourselves. We glower at a cloudless sunny day and pray for rain. We get up before dawn and stay up well past sunset. Where other cower, we seek out those thunderstorms, snow storms, wind storms and any other weather that provides excitement and drama to our vision. We’re known to be reckless, fickle and restless and can’t stand the thought of sitting at home and watching the television.

We live for color. Bright, subdued, hazy or clear. Color, glorious color. But we love black & white. The tones, contrasts and shades of gray speak volumes to us like a a sonnet on a summer’s eve. Yes, we’re a fey folk. Who else would drive 120 miles just to capture a few moments at the close of the day?

Close of the Day

Close of the Day – Smithville, Texas
Copyright © 2010 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 80mm, f/16 for 4/10th of a second at ISO 100 with a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

View Location on Panoramio & Google Earth: Close of the Day – Smithville, Texas

Spanish Skirts of Palo Duro Canyon

I’m in the final stages of preparing for my next trip to the Texas panhandle and really looking forward to hiking some of the great trails in Palo Duro Canyon State Park near Amarillo. Palo Duro Canyon State Park is 20,000 acres of the most colorful and beautiful sections of the vast canyon lands in the Texas panhandle.

The trails in and around the park are rugged and steep, but well worth the climb. The climb is not for the faint of heart however, and to get to the best spots to shoot from you’ll ascend over 600 feet and hike about 3 – 5 miles. Hiking in Palo Duro Canyon is best done in the early spring or late fall months when the high temperature rarely exceeds 85F and the low temperature seldom gets below 45F. Like all desert climates, the air is usually very dry with relative humidities in the 20% – 30% range.

Once you hike past all the camping areas, the canyon really opens up and offers you vistas like this to enjoy and photograph. Surrounded by all this beauty, it’s easy to come home with some really nice shots to print, frame and enjoy.

Spanish Skirts

The Spanish Skirts of Palo Duro Canyon, Texas
Copyright © 2010 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 84mm, f/16 for 1/40th of a second at ISO 100 with a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

View Location on Panoramio & Google Earth: The Spanish Skirts of Palo Duro Canyon, Texas