How to turn this… into THIS
I just got back from Turks and Caicos and while I didn’t take many photos there, I did manage to capture this:
This is one of only two tourist scenes I shot in Turks and Caicos. It’s a photo I’ve always wanted to take, and while it’s admittedly not the most original out there, I was happy with the end result. Although I take far fewer photos now than I ever did before, the percentage of shots that I’m happy with has gone way up. I used to shoot hundreds or even thousands of pictures on any given trip, but I’ve slowly changed to where I now prefer experiencing the scene first, and photographing it second.
Find the scene
In keeping with my “fewer photos, more keepers” theme, often times I don’t even walk around with my camera. But I am always looking for scenes that work photographically. When I find a scene that works, I take note and plan to return with the right gear when the light is ideal.
I happened to be out for a morning run when I passed by this pier. With it’s open bottom and worn support structure, and with lots of interesting patterns in the wood, I thought it would be a nice subject for my long sought after “pier shot”.
Discovering this scene without having my camera allowed me to think about the photograph I wanted to take without the desire or distraction of photographing it immediately. Taking my time, I imagined what kind of lens I might use, and how I would frame and capture the scene. I decided on a wide angle lens with a long exposure. I now had a solid plan, and all I had to do was return with the right gear at the right time.
Grab your gear and go!
Later that day I grabbed my tripod, my camera (Nikon D810) and my wide angle lens (Nikkor 16-35mm f4). I brought two filters: a circular polarizing filter to cut down on reflections in the water and highlight the turquoise blue color, and a 10-stop neutral density filter to increase the exposure time so I could smooth the appearance of the water. I also grabbed my remote shutter release cable so I could manually exceed the standard in-camera exposure time limit of 30 seconds.
Photographing the scene
Because the morning light during my run had been harsh, creating distracting shadows, I returned to the scene during sunset to photograph it.
The light was still a bit harsh, casting strong, uneven shadows in the white poles lining the pier. The light was fading quickly, and I knew the harsh shadows wouldn’t last long. I used this time to set up my tripod and take a few test shots.
My first test shot was not bad, but you can see how the shadows are distracting in the support poles. Photographing a pure white object in direct sunlight also can cause problems with overexposure in digital cameras. I needed the light to fade further.
As the sun slowly set, I got my circular polarizer in place:
You can see the colors have shifted with the polarizer and the exposure time has increased (my polarizer cuts about 1.5 stops of light) The sky is also a deeper, darker blue. Time to screw on the 10 stop neutral density filter.
The 10 stop filter cuts light by 10 stops. Read more about 10 stop neutral density filters here. Since light levels entering the camera are so low once the filter is on, you can no longer autofocus or meter. Before I put the filter in place, I ensure the lens is correctly focused and I switch into full manual modes for both focusing and camera exposure/metering. I hook up my remote shutter release cable and multiply my exposure time to correct for the neutral density filter (1024x), giving an exposure time of about 41 seconds. Since the light had faded as I was getting set up, I added an additional 5 seconds and took the shot:
This shot is too dark for a Canon camera, but for my Nikon D810 it is more than usable. I say this not as a fanboy of either brand, but rather based on my 15 years experience shooting nearly every model from Canon’s lineup and measuring their best performance against the D810. Although the shot appears dark overall, I was getting highlight alerts on the last two poles supporting the pier. This means that any additional exposure time would start to lose detail in that part of the image. Read more about correctly exposing your digital photos here.
Edit the shot in Lightroom/Photoshop
The neutral density filter and circular polarizer can really throw off your white balance. My shot was far too blue, so I first bumped up the warmth.
Next, I increased the exposure while lowering the “whites” value. Increasing exposure without adjusting “whites” can lead to clipping, resulting in an ugly digital look.
Normally adjustments like these would increase visual noise (grain), necessitating some noise reduction, but on the Nikon D810 shooting at ISO 64 you don’t really get noise until you get past +3 or +4 on the exposure.
I then adjusted the Clarity, Vibrance, and Saturation sliders to achieve the look I wanted. You have to be careful with these because images can quickly begin to take on an overprocessed appearance, particularly with the Clarity and Saturation sliders.
Finally, I made some lens profile adjustments. Thankfully Lightroom has most lenses built into the program, all you have to do is check the box and your shot is instantly corrected for any lens imperfections like distortion and vignetting.