the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “Exposure Fusion



Nice house, decent shot, but not quite the fantasy look I wanted for this subject. So, into the Nikon “retouch” menu we go (see next image).


JUST AS SOME PAINTERS PRIDE THEMSELVES on producing works that “look just like a photograph” there are photographers who love it when someone tells them their image “looks just like a painting.” Both arts borrow strongly from each other, each envies what the other does, and, in pages such as this one, spend altogether too much time worrying about it. Still, if your foot is predominantly in one camp, it’s fun to occasionally dip a toe into the other, just to see what it feels like.


The “pencil sketch” effect created in-camera, via Nikon’s retouch menu. Cool, but now a little too much like a drawing. Almost there (go to next image)……

In trying to use photos to idealize certain subjects, to, in effect, make them better visually than they may be in mere reality, I’ve tried lots of tricks, many of them just novelty effects and some of them useful tools. You have to judge their effectiveness one picture at a time. Recently I went back to an in-camera look that most Nikons have contained in their “retouch” menus for years, mostly because it never seemed to deliver quite what I wanted. In the “color sketch” mode, you make a second copy of a master shot that is mostly just the outlines of the objects and people within, losing a lot of interior detail within the image and making it look as if you whipped it up with, yeah, okay, a set of colored pencils. I had created occasional copies with the effect over the years but never fell in love with it. Please forgive me, but the word sketchy is the only one that applies, and not in a groovy way. Over the years, I mostly forgot that the effect existed, along with several others that Nikon gave me without asking me if I wanted them (!)

Recently, however, I have been reworking several pictures of homes I considered to be nearly in a fantasy category, old designs so fanciful and fussy that they’d look at home in a fairy tale or a Hobbit community. I wanted some extra quality of unreality mixed into their post processing, and so was taking multiple exposures of the same house and tweaking them in exposure fusion programs like Photomatix, which allows you to blend a custom mix of both pictures together with sliders, almost like working on a movie dissolve that’s frozen in the middle. I found that mixing a pencil-sketch tweak with the original shot it was derived from made for an interesting look. A controlled amount of detail, a lot of color patches that looked as if they were washed on by a brush, and a super-sharpening of the peripheral lines. I had stumbled into something useful.

Dream House Sketch EF

Final composite of original and sketch images, hand-mixed as an “exposure fusion” in Photomatix. 

The result is part photo, part painting, and controllably surreal. It almost recalls those lovely artist renderings that architects used to produce as previews for investors in the early days of acrylics…the kinds of “coming soon” illustrations you saw in sales brochures. And, even though it’s certainly like birthday cake, in that a little of it is more than plenty, it’s fun to just make some pictures that are solely about process, not to try to hide a lousy picture, but to explore what happens when you kick Papa Reality out of the room and just get down on the floor with the other kids and play.



OF ALL MY REGRETS AS TO WHY AN OLD PHOTOGRAPH CAME OUT WRONG, my usual default is the wish that I’d done a whole lot….less. In most cases in which a picture doesn’t age well with me, I don’t feel like I neglected to add just one more thing. Instead, I typically wish I’d left out five. 

Over a lifetime as an illustrator, I should already know how easy it is to “overdraw”, to so exhaustively festoon a sketch with  much detail and surplus “stuff” that it becomes claustrophobic. I had to learn that, of all my original pencil lines for a piece, only about a fifth of them should be inked permanently into the final rendering. So too with photographs. That’s why I almost always have to lock post-processing hardware out of my own reach, lest I gorge myself on it like a kid breaking into a candy store. 

See-Through HDR

Picktown Bridge EF

These two images show better than I can explain why I have to dose very sparingly on tweaking apps, at least if I want to streamline the effect of my pictures. In both frames seen here, I have tinkered after the snap, applying High Dynamic Range software in the first and Exposure Fusion in the second. The mission of the picture is ridiculously simple: to memorialize a charming old covered bridge and the surrounding scenery. That’s it. But a funny thing happened on the way to making that very basic picture. 

HDR, developed to help compensate for the poor dynamic range of early digital cameras, was designed to rescue detail in the dark passages and dial back blowout in the lighter parts, typically by blending a series of bracketed exposures into a balanced composite. But it also could over-emphasize details, making the grit grittier and the wood grain woodgrainier, all with the unwanted result of upstaging the central impact of the picture. Moreover, it tended to amp up color saturation, which delivered a surreal, lit-from-behind quality. Hence, all but the most restrained users of HDR found it far too easy to keep even simple compositions from morphing into some kinda gooey ’60’s drug poster, and I was, predictably, far from restrained in its use. Ick.

Exposure Fusion, by contrast, doesn’t overly accentuate detail, doesn’t produce day-glo colors, and produces a more natural look overall. It does what HDR does in fewer steps and produces a far less hyperbolic result. Note: this is not an article advocating either type of processing, although there are excellent online articles comparing them, such as this one from the editors of Photofocus. Still, since I have created both okay and tres-awful shots with both tools, this demo shows what can happen when you overthink, over-process, or otherwise glop up a picture. Find what’s essential in your narrative and deliver just that, then pull up your wheels before you crash in a sea of your own artiness. We all know what “overdoing it” means. Over time as photographers, we need to learn how good underdoing can feel as well. 


Dream Parchment, 2016.

Dream Parchment, 2016.


URBAN PHOTOGRAPHERS ACT IN MUCH THE SAME WAY AS ARCHAEOLOGISTS in that they must try to supply context for objects, backstories that have been either altered or erased. Cities are collections of things created by humans for specific motives, be it profit, shelter, play, or worship. Often, the visual headstones of these dreams, that is, the buildings, survive beyond the people that called them into being. Photographers have to imply the part of the story that’s crumbled to dust. Like the archaeologist, we try to look at shards and imagine vases, or see an entire temple in a chunk of wall.

During the dreaded “urban renewal” period in the mid-twentieth century, my home town of Columbus, Ohio duplicated the destruction seen in cities across the country in the wanton devastation of neighborhoods, landmarks and linkages in the name of Progress. Today’s urban planners thumb sadly through vast volumes of ill-considered “improvements” wrought upon history from that period, with New York’s Penn Station, Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, and Columbus’ Union Station surviving today only as misty symbols of fashion gone amok.

In the case of Columbus’ grand old railroad station, there is at least a fragment of the original structure, its beaux-arts entry arch, left standing, serving as either stately souvenir or cautionary tale, depending on your viewpoint. The arch has been moved several times since the demolition of its matching complex, and presently graces the city’s humming new hockey and entertainment district, itself a wondrous blend of new and repurposed architecture. Better late than never.

Thus, the Union arch has, by default, become one of the most photographed objects in town, giving new generations of artists permission to widely interpret it, freed, as it is, of its original context. Amateur archaeologists all, they show it as not only what it is, but also what it was and might have been. It has become abstracted to the point where anyone can project anything onto it, adding their own spin to something whose original purpose has been obliterated by time.

I have taken a few runs at the subject myself over the years, and find that partial views work better than views of the entire arch, which is crowded in with plenty of apartment buildings, parklands and foot traffic, making a straight-on photo of the structure busy and mundane. For the above image, I imagined that I had recovered just an old image of the arch….on a piece of ancient parchment, a map, perhaps an original artist’s rendering. I shot straight up on a cloudy day, rendering the sky empty and white. Then I provided a faux texture to it by taking separate a sepia-toned photo of a crumpled piece of copier paper and fusing the two exposures (the HDR software Photomatix’ “exposure fusion” feature does this easily). Letting the detail of the arch image bleed randomly through the crumpled paper picture created a reasonable illusion of a lost document, and I could easily tweak the blend back and forth until I liked the overall effect.

Cities are treasure hunts for photographers, but not everything we find has to be photographed at, let’s say, face value. Reality, like fantasy, sometimes benefits from a little push.


Letting the shadows be the shadows.1/100 sec., f/1.8, ISO 250, 35mm.

Letting the shadows be the shadows.1/100 sec., f/1.8, ISO 250, 35mm.


FOR SOME PHOTOGRAPHERS, THE END OF A CALENDAR YEAR MEANS BUSTING OUT THE “BEST OF” LISTS, and, certainly,for people with a certain level of skill, that’s a normal instinct. I am always far too horrified by how many losing horses I put in a given year’s race to try to find the few who didn’t go lame, wander off the track, or finish last, so I confine my year’s-end computations to lists of what I tried, and whether I got close to learning anything. For 2013, one bulletin emerges:

I like the dark. A lot.

That is, a simple head count of shots taken this year reveal that I was outside, after supper, at nearly every opportunity. And yes, with mixed results. Always and forever will them results be mixed, amen. If my results were in a Waring blender, going at full “puree” speed, they could not be more mixed, okay?

But for some reason, the quest took me back into a renewed appreciation of shadows, shades, a lack of light. I probably embraced the missing information and detail that the dark represents more joyfully than I have in many years. And that’s something of a journey, since, if I had any kind of post-processing crack habit recently, it was the mania to rescue more and more of that detail, whether in High Dynamic Range photos, Exposure Fusion photos or Tone Compression photos. For a while, I was acting like your Grandpa the first week he owned his new Magnavox (“…hmm, needs a little more green….no, now the horses look purple….let’s add some red…”).

What's left out is as vital as what's shown. 1/50 sec., f/1.8, ISO 640, 35mm.

What’s left out is as vital as what’s shown. 1/50 sec., f/1.8, ISO 640, 35mm.

Maybe 2013 was the year I pulled back a bit and just let darkness be, let it express the unknown and the unknowable. Photography is always at least partly about what you don’t show, not depicting the world as a giant Where’s Waldo overdose of texture and detail. In ’13, I spent a lot more time shooting night shots at the technical limit of my camera, but did not fiddle about much further afterwards. I was interested in “getting as much picture into the click” as possible, but what couldn’t be achieved with faster lenses or mildly enhanced ISO just got left out of the pictures. I feel like it was a year of correction, with me playing the part of a new teen driver has to learn to correct for over-steer.

The whole thing is about remembering that technique is not style. What you have to say is style. The mechanical means you use to get it said is technique. Learning to execute a technique is like mastering the workings of a camera. It does not guarantee that your results will be revelatory or eloquent. That means that falling in love with the consistent polishing of processing is a danger, since you can begin to love it for its own sake. Technique says “Look what I can do!”. Style says, “but, is this what I should be doing?”

Anyway, whatever I presently think is essential for my growth will, eventually, become just one more thing that I do, and will be supplanted by something else. That said, a good year in photography should not end with the collection of a pile of hits, but an unafraid assessment of the misses.

That’s where the next batch of good pictures will come from, anyway.