Category Archives: The Making Of

Articles documenting what went into the making of an image

HDR Processing: A New and Effective Technique

It has been a while since I posted an article on post-processing, and having discovered a new, effective and pleasing technique just last month, now is a good time to discuss my learning and show my results.

Hopefully readers will find value in what I am about to present, both in words and images.

HDR (high dynamic range) processing has been a large part of my workflow since my initial foray into this technique in January of 2011. The results I achieved with my first HDR image seriously impressed me, and I’ve been using HDR imaging techniques ever since.

I discovered that it is possible to achieve very photo-realistic results with a combination of careful capture and restrained HDR post-processing. It was always my intention to produce photo-realistic results — ie, reproduce what the human eye can naturally see — rather than opting for more ‘artistic’ and less realistic results.

The software I use for HDR processing is HDRsoft’s Photomatix Pro, which is one of the more common and more popular HDR imaging packages available.

Photomatix Pro has unfortunately attracted some negative attention due to some of the very garish results it can produce. Such is its pervasiveness that many over-processed, intensely-saturated, halo-laden, noisy, illustration-like images have been described as having the ‘Photomatix look’.

This look does not at all appeal to me, and with restraint and sensible choices, I’ve found that Photomatix Pro can produce very photo-realistic results; and in all of my HDR images since, I’ve aimed to produce such results, and avoid the over-processed look that so many before me and after me have either set out to achieve, or accidentally achieved through a lack of restraint and judgement.

I find HDR processing most effective for interior images (such as cathedrals) where the dynamic range is very broad; such environments have bright highlights from windows, and very dark shadows. This range of light levels is too much for even the most expensive camera in the world to capture, so HDR processing is a very effective way to reproduce what you can see when you’re standing inside such an environment.

While I use HDR processing almost exclusively for interior architecture images, I have also found it effective in landscape, cityscape, seascape and even still-life and macro images.

My interest lies in achieveing a very photo-realistic result which shows what the human eye can see, but what the camera can never adequately capture.

To achieve this objective, I typically shoot between five and nine exposures, each a stop apart. Once I have metered and determined the ‘correct’ exposure, I dial in up to four stops of over-exposure and work my way back to four stops of under-exposure. This gives me nine images with which to work, capturing details from the deepest shadows and the brightest highlights.

My post-processing workflow is summarised as follows:

  1. convert the raw images;
  2. save high-quality JPGs;
  3. load the high-quality JPGs into Photomatix Pro;
  4. choose a realistic tone-mapping preset;
  5. load the HDR composite into Adobe Photoshop; and
  6. perform my usual Photoshop post-processing.

Astute readers might wonder why I choose to work from JPGs at the HDR processing phase. In short, the raw converter in Photomatix Pro does a bad job (in my opinion and experience), and the high-quality JPGs produce a much nicer result. See my earlier article HDR Generation: Raw or JPG? for a more detailed and visual explanation.

In choosing one of Photomatix Pro’s tone-mapping presets, I find that the ‘Natural’ preset produces the most realistic results, and 99% of the time, it just works well. Of course, the nature of the subject and dynamic range can affect the ability of the preset to produce the desired results, but as a general rule, the ‘Natural’ preset works best. I have dabbled with a few others, but most of the presets are garish and unrealistic, so I avoid them.

During a recent trip to England, whilst processing my images, I discovered a new way of producing photo-realistic results with extra ‘pop’.

Rather than using just one Photomatix Pro tone-mapping preset, I performed the HDR processing twice, using two different presets. The first was the ‘Natural’ preset, and the second was either the ‘Enhanced’ preset or the ‘Creative’ preset.

In Photoshop, I then blended the two HDR composite images together, taking the best from each.

Now, the ‘Enhanced’ and ‘Creative’ presets can and do produce some very garish, unrealistic and unappealing results; but when one takes only the ‘good’ parts from the image, and blends them with the more subdued and realistic results of the ‘Natural’ preset, the resulting image has extra ‘pop’.

The best way to illustrate this is with two actual images. I will show:

  1. the results Photomatix produced using the ‘Natural’ preset;
  2. the results Photomatix produced using the ‘Enhanced’ or ‘Creative’ preset;
  3. the result of blending the two HDR composites; and
  4. the final result after the rest of my processing in Photoshop.

Let’s first look at one of my images of Ely Cathedral.

The capture phase consisted of nine exposures, from -4EV to +4EV.

This is what Photomatix Pro produced, using the ‘Natural’ preset:

Ely Cathedral - HDR 'Natural' Preset

Ely Cathedral – HDR ‘Natural’ Preset

Now, this looks nice and realistic, and contains lots of rich details throughout, but to my eyes it is too bright and tonally flat. Granted, at this stage the image has not been darkened or had contrast applied, but despite that, it summarily lacks the ambience and atmosphere that I saw with my own eyes when I was standing there.

I then processed the nine exposures in Photomatix Pro again, but this time I used the ‘Enhanced’ preset. This was the result:

Ely Cathedral - HDR 'Enhanced' Preset

Ely Cathedral – HDR ‘Enhanced’ Preset

This version of the image has more ‘pop’, but it is bordering on the over-done side of HDR processing. Like the first version, the image is flat, but that’s normal for HDR composites, unless you tinker with contrast in Photomatix Pro, which I don’t do.

I like the tonality of this image more than the first version. There is a darker overall feel, which is reminiscent of the actual cathedral, and there is more contrast and tone in the architecture. However, it looks ‘HDR-ish’ (particularly in the ceiling), and not as realistic as I’d like.

If only I could take what I like from the first image, as well as take what I like from the second image. The good news is that I could. I decided to experiment by blending both of these HDR composite images into a new version.

This was the result of that experiment:

Ely Cathedral - HDR 'Natural' and 'Enhanced' Presets Blended

Ely Cathedral – HDR ‘Natural’ and ‘Enhanced’ Presets Blended

To achieve this result, I added the ‘Enhanced’ composite to the ‘Natural’ composite as a new layer, added an inverted (ie, black) layer mask to hide the ‘Enhanced’ version, and then using a soft white brush at 50% opacity, I brushed the richer ‘Enhanced’ version onto the woodwork and side walls, leaving the ceiling and stained glass windows untouched.

By brushing in the ‘Enhanced’ version at 50% opacity, I was able to infuse some of that more over-done look without actually over-doing it; the detail was there, but the HDR look wasn’t.

Doing so gave me the extra tonality, darkness and detail enhancements I wanted in specific areas (especially the woodwork and the columns), but preserved the more realistic ceiling in the ‘Natural’ version.

In my workflow, the blending of the two HDR composite images was the very last step. There was basic processing to be done first.

Here is the final image, after all processing was completed:

The Organ and the Nave of Ely Cathedral

The Organ and the Nave of Ely Cathedral

There was a fair bit of extra processing involved, most of it being standard practice for my HDR images.

The first step was to bring back the details and the colours in the stained glass windows in the distance. To do so, I added one of the darker JPGs as a separate layer, added a black layer mask, carefully selected the stained glass, and brushed in the details using a soft white brush at varying levels of opacity, depending where more aggressive or subdued blending was required.

The next step was a contrast boost. I added a Levels adjustment layer, in which I marginally increased the blacks and marginally decreased the whites to add a global boost of contrast.

The next step was to apply some selective darkening, which I achieved by adding a new layer, changing the blend mode to ‘Soft Light’, and brushing in the desired darkness with a soft black brush at 20% opacity. This is my usual technique for darkening, and sometimes I use multiple layers.

After darkening certain areas, I felt that the areas underneath the organ needed some subtle lightening. I added the same type of layer as in the previous step, but used a white brush to lighten those areas.

The next step was to merge all of the previous layers, and add some Unsharp Mask to increase the contrast, as well as the Spart Sharpen filter for detail sharpening.

The final step was the blending the ‘Enhanced’ composite with the ‘Natural’ composite, on top of all of the above processing.

I added the ‘Enhanced’ composite to the ‘Natural’ composite as a new layer, added an inverted (ie, black) layer mask to hide the ‘Enhanced’ version, and then using a soft white brush at 50% opacity, I brushed the richer ‘Enhanced’ version onto the woodwork and side walls, leaving the ceiling and stained glass windows untouched.

And that concluded the processing of this image.

Let’s look at another image, this time an exterior night shot, where I found that details from two different HDR composites together made for a better image.

I captured a twilight image of London‘s iconic Elizabeth Tower (colloquially, but incorrectly called Big Ben — Big Ben is actually the bell inside the tower) on our last night in London.

Like most of my images, I bracketed exposures, and decided to use HDR processing to bring out more detail than a single exposure would yield. For this image, I used only three images, as twilight light is not so punishing as far as dynamic range is concerned.

Here is the result of the ‘Natural’ preset in Photomatix Pro:

Elizabeth Tower - HDR 'Natural' Preset

Elizabeth Tower – HDR ‘Natural’ Preset

In this HDR composite, there is lots of detail, and the detail in the clock face in particular can be clearly seen; however, the image looks flat, and the architecture of the tower itself looks very yellow and lacks again what I call ‘pop’.

I then decided to try another HDR merge, this time using Photomatix Pro’s ‘Creative’ preset. This was the result:

Elizabeth Tower - HDR 'Creative' Preset

Elizabeth Tower – HDR ‘Creative’ Preset

I can mentally hear you exclaiming “Eeeeeewwww!”. Yes, so did I. In this case, the ‘Creative’ preset most certainly went over the top, and introduced some very displeasing and cringe-worthy artefacts. There is too much contrast in the sky, there’s a nasty halo around parts of the tower, and there’s a lot of noise in the sky.

However, of interest to me in this image is the less garish appearance of the tower. It contains loads of contrast, but isn’t such a flat, yellow expanse; and, most appealing of all, it contains the appearance of gold rather than the horrid yellow cast produced by sodium vapour lights.

It’s just a little too much, though, so let’s see what happens when we take the sky from the first HDR composite, and subtly blend the tower details from the second HDR composite. Here is the result:

Elizabeth Tower - HDR 'Natural' and 'Creative' Presets Blended

Elizabeth Tower – HDR ‘Natural’ and ‘Creative’ Presets Blended

This is much more pleasing and realistic to my eyes. The garish sky has been omitted, and the more metallic, golden, detail-rich architecture of the tower has been preserved.

For this blend of the two HDR composites, I used a brush at 50% opacity for the tower, but used 100% opacity for the clock faces. The details in the clock faces in the ‘Enhanced’ HDR composite were just what I wanted, and the appearance is richer.

Unlike the cathedral image, the first layer I added was the HDR blend. I then did some other processing, but not as much as what I did to the cathedral image.

I cloned out some dust blobs and flare, added a Curves adjustment layer with the ‘Linear Contrast’ preset, darkened the sky, merged the layers and applied Unsharp Mask and Smart Sharpen for the final image. Here is the result:

After 9pm on a Rainy London Night

After 9pm on a Rainy London Night

So, as can be seen by my images above, I’ve found a new way to produce richer HDR images using a combination of tone-mapping presets from Photomatix Pro, and restrained digital blending to take the best of both images for a stronger final result.

I hope that readers found value in this lengthy article, and also find inspiration to experiment with my new approach to HDR processing in their own photography.

The Making of “The Smoking Gun”

Almost five years ago to this date, an old Flickr contact of mine, Rich Legg, created a photographic image of a smoking gun.  I was impressed, and I commented on his image at the time.

I recently decided to have a go at this type of shot myself, and did so today.

Rich used a Glock 29, but I decided to use a real gun (sorry — gun humour).

Firstly, here is the image I produced this afternoon:

The Smoking Gun

The Smoking Gun

Now I’ll explain how I created it.

I vaguely knew how Rich went about creating his image, but I decided to take a slightly different approach.

While Rich did it in one shot, I decided in advance that the final image would be a composite of two images: one of the firearm, and another of the smoke.  I didn’t want to rig the set to capture both elements in one frame, and more critically, the lighting setups for each shot would be different, and wouldn’t work together.

The image of the firearm was shot with one lighting setup, and the image of the smoke was shot with a different lighting setup.

To photograph the firearm, I did the following (not in this particular order):

  • set up the firearm on a table, and angled it to point upwards at roughly 45 degrees;
  • placed a non-reflective black backdrop 90cm behind the firearm;
  • mounted a Canon Speedlite 580EX II on a light stand, positioned at 45 degrees camera left;
  • mounted a 42″ white translucent (shoot-through) umbrella on the stand;
  • configured the flash for half-power at 24mm zoom;
  • placed a white backdrop under the firearm to bounce light under the barrel assembly;
  • mounted my camera (with 135mm lens and remote shutter release) on a tripod, composed, focused and dialled in 1/160th at f/11 and ISO 100; and
  • attached PocketWizard PLUS II transceivers to both the camera and the flash.

With my remote shutter release in my left hand, using my right hand, I held my 80cm silver reflector to the right of the firearm, pointing upwards, to bounce light into the underside of the muzzle area.

To photograph the smoke, I used the same ‘set’, consisting of the black backdrop and the camera setup.  What changed most significantly was the lighting setup.

The smoke source was an incense stick I had bought.  I placed this in a glass bowl on the table where the pistol was positioned for the earlier shot, and lit it.

I placed the flash at 90 degrees to the right of the incense stick, about 10cm away, and elevated to the same height as the smoke.  On the flash, I dialled in 1/4th power and set the zoom to 80mm to concentrate the light to a narrower beam.

From that point it was simply a matter of snapping away, capturing various smoke formations wafting through the air.  I occasionally moved around, or waved my arm to agitate the smoke.

Shooting the smoke was the most challenging aspect, as smoke tends to be unpredictable, and it can take a while to score an aesthetically pleasing, well-composed shot of smoke, especially when it is to be used in Photoshop compositing as the smoke emanating from the muzzle of a gun.

After many shots, I landed one or two that were useful.  I settled on the second of the two candidates.

To create the final image, I performed raw conversion on both the firearm image and the smoke image.  I rotated the smoke image so that the smoke wafted upwards rather than at the angle it was moving at the point of capture.

I added the smoke image as a new layer in the firearm image, re-positioned it to align with the muzzle, added a black layer mask and painted the smoke into the image using a soft white brush at 100% opacity.

As anyone who has shot smoke can attest, smoke tends to appear blue.  To counter this issue, I added a desaturation adjustment layer, dialled down the saturation in the smoke so it appeared a more natural grey, and using a black layer mask, I painted the desaturation effect onto only the smoke.

Other minor adjustments included cloning, contrast and sharpness.

For those curious about the firearm, the pistol is a Kimber Gold Match Stainless II, chambered in 9mm Parabellum.

In conclusion, a few important legal and safety-related notes:

  1. Yes, this firearm is real.
  2. Yes, it is mine.
  3. Yes, I am licensed to possess and use handguns.
  4. No, it is NOT loaded.

I hope you enjoy both my image, and learning about how I created it.

The Making of “Riedel”

A couple of years ago I created a simple still-life image, which I still enjoy viewing.

The image is titled Riedel.  Here it is:

Riedel

Riedel

As simple as the image appears, so, too, was the work that went into creating it.  It is surprisingly straight-forward.

The image consists of four Riedel wine glasses.

I photographed them inside a light tent, with a blue backdrop.  Using a ruler I aligned them precisely so that I could produce a symmetrical image.

The lighting setup consisted of two desk lamps (one with a tungsten globe and the other with a fluorescent globe), each placed on the outsides of the light tent on the left and right.  This produced the orange glow visible on the stems and bases of the bowls.

The backlighting was achieved with my Canon Speedlite 580EX II positioned outside the light tent, to the rear.  I triggered it wirelessly with a pair of my PocketWizard PLUS IIs.

There was very little post-processing involved: just some simple straightening, cropping, contrast and sharpness adjustments, plus some clone-stamping of a few distracting specular highlights.

A simple setup, but an effective result to my eyes.

The Making of “Fire or Flood?”

In November of 2009 I attended the first of Brent Pearson’s light painting workshops, which consisted of an afternoon of theory, followed by an evening of creative light painting landscape photography.

Fire or Flood? was my image of the night, created as a result of a collaborative effort at the capture phase.  Here it is:

Fire or Flood?

Fire or Flood?

In this article I will explain how I created this image, from the capture phase to the post-processing.

Capture Phase

Firstly, this image is a composite of four images of identical exposure, selectively blended together in post-production to result in what you see.  More on the post-processing later.

The lighting effects were all produced in camera.

Here is a view of the four exposures I used to create the final image:

Fire or Flood? - Source Raw Images

Fire or Flood? - Source Raw Images

Each image was captured with a Canon EOS 5D camera and Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 16mm.

The camera was mounted on a tripod, and each exposure was triggered with my Canon TC-80N3 remote shutter release.

For each of the four images, I’ll now explain:

  1. the exposure settings;
  2. how the lighting was created; and
  3. how the image would be used in post-processing.

First Image

The first image (top left) was exposed for 13 seconds at f/8 and ISO 200.  The purpose of this white-light image is for a base exposure.  The idea is to paint the entire scene with light, and use it later in post-processing for texture details.  While this is considered the base image, when I processed these images, I didn’t use it as my base layer, but the image turned out to be quite important.  (More on that later.)  The light source was a 48W fluorescent light globe powered by 240V AC in a belt pack I was wearing.  The 240V AC was supplied by a 350W inverter taking a DC feed from a 12V rechargeable battery.

Second Image

The second image (bottom left) was exposed for 60 seconds at f/5.6 and ISO 200.  This was to be one of the creative lighting exposures to be used for the dramatic lighting in the final image.  There are three interesting elements in this image: the fire, the night sky with blurred cloud movement, and the warm glow on the surrounding concrete as a result of the fire.  I created the fire by going into the room on the left of the corridor and spraying a can of deodorant into a cigarette lighter for two or three seconds.

Third Image

The third image (top right) is another variation on the second image.  It was also exposed for 60 seconds at f/5.6 and ISO 200.  One of the other participants in the shoot (there were four of us in the group) took the can of deodorant and cigarette lighter into another room on the right, and sprayed flames all throughout the doorway during the minute-long exposure.

Fourth Image

The fourth and final image (bottom right) was quite fun to create, and very dramatic on camera.  Like the second and third images, it was exposed for 60 seconds at f/5.6 and ISO 200.  The funky blue lighting, which resembles smoke, was created by myself and another member of the group using a length of electro-luminescent (EL) wire.  This is a fibre optic-like neon cable which emits a rich blue light.  When it is wiggled around, resembling the movement of a slithering snake, it produces a smokey, misty effect during a long exposure.  The two of us wiggled the EL wire near to the ground from the front of the scene to the top of the stairs in the distance.

More About the Images

I actually captured many more exposures using the fluorescent light, a length of red EL wire, and camera flashes with pink gels attached.  I manually fired these inside the windows on the left to produce a rich pink glow from behind the bars.  However, I didn’t use any of those other exposures for the final image.

What’s important to note is that during some of the exposures, I was either in the scene and visible to the camera, or in the scene but hidden from the camera’s view.

For the base exposure, I stood behind or beside my camera when I painted the scene with light.  In this image the bright light source was not visible to the camera.  The fluorescent light in an otherwise pitch-dark scene is very bright, hence the shorter exposure time and narrower f/stop.  The exposure was around one eighth of the other three exposures.

For the fire shots, myself and another photographer were hidden inside the rooms along the moody corridor.

For the smokey shot with the EL wire, another photographer and myself were walking along the corridor in plain view of the camera.  We did not appear in the image because it was a long exposure and we were constantly moving.

The fire and EL wire images are examples of images where the light source is visible to the camera, as is the effect.  In the base exposure, only the effect of the light source, rather than the light source itself, is visible.

And that brings me to the end of the capture phase.

The capture phase was all about creatively illuminating a scene with a variety of lighting effects during multiple long exposures.

Now, onto the post-processing.

Post-Processing

I loaded my four images into Adobe Camera Raw for raw conversion (where I also applied white balance, clarity and saturation adjustments) and then dropped them into Photoshop.

Let’s first look at my layer stack, and then I’ll explain the different layers.

Here is my Photoshop layer stack:

Fire or Flood? - Photoshop Layer Stack

Fire or Flood? - Photoshop Layer Stack

First Layer – Fire in the Doorway

I used the third image (fire on the right) as my bottom layer.  In hindsight, looking at how my post-processing has developed since then, and considering that I only used a small portion of that frame, it didn’t make sense to use that as the bottom layer, but at the time it probably did make sense.

Second Layer – Lightening Curve

As can be seen above, the second layer is a curves adjustment layer whose visibility is switched off (no eye icon to the left).  That layer was a lightening curve to brighten the flames on the left and the surrounding walls illuminated by the flames, but I decided it was too much, having lost details in the flames, so I didn’t use it.

Third Layer – Fire in the Hall

The third layer is the second image, containing the fire on the left of the scene.  I used almost the entire image, but masked away the flames on the right, which I preserved from the bottom layer.  See why the bottom layer doesn’t make sense in that capacity?

At this point I had a composite of the two exposures containing the flames.

Fourth Layer – Punching the Sky

The fourth layer is a curves adjustment layer, which I used to add punch to the sky.  I masked out everything except the sky and applied a reasonably dramatic S-curve to boost the saturation and contrast in the sky and clouds.

Fifth Layer – Smokin’

The fifth layer is my blue smoke exposure.  I added a layer mask, inverted it, and brushed in only the blue “smoke” from that exposure.

At this point my composite image consisted of the two fire images blended with the blue smoke image.  It was starting to look exciting, but there was more work to be done.

Sixth Layer – Got the Blues

The problem I had at this point was that the rich blue in the “smoke” was a completely different blue to the rich blue in the sky.  Two different blues, which are both appealing, yet distinctly different, causes what I consider to be a visual clash.

To get around this, I added a hue/saturation adjustment layer and created a clipping mask to bind the layer mask to the previous layer, in which only the smoke was visible.  This eliminated the need to manually create another mask, as I’d already done the work previously.

I adjusted the hue setting to -17 to bring the blue more in line with the blue in the sky.

Seventh Layer – White Light

Remember the white-light base exposure I made with the 48W fluorescent light?  Here’s where I made use of it.

Up to this point, I had a blend of three exposures: two containing the fire and warm glow on the surrounding concrete, and one containing the blue “smoke”.

The problem was that there was a very dark, detail-less mass of black on the wall near the far left edge of the frame.  That wall occupies most of the left third of the frame, so it was a significant amount of darkness.

There was also considerable darkness in the concrete at the top right of the frame, as well as the rusty beam in the centre of the image.

Using the white-light exposure and a layer mask, I brushed in the rich, gritty textures I had captured in that base exposure, which achieved two things: firstly, it eliminated the large expanses of black throughout the image, and secondly, it provided great texture detail which shows the grittiness and character of Middle Head Fort.

Eighth Layer – White Curve

The next adjustment I made was the addition of a curves adjustment layer to tweak the white light I had brushed into my image in the previous layer.  I again made use of the clipping mask feature to re-use the layer mask I had created in layer seven, so as to apply the adjustments onto the concrete and beam where I had brushed in my white light.

I applied a gentle, semi-straight S-curve to marginally darken the white light textures and pop the contrast.

Ninth Layer – A Handy Removal

My ninth layer was somewhat necessary, as my hand (and the deodorant spray can) was captured when I was creating flames in the left-most window.

I added a new layer and then made use of the clone tool to remove (as best I could) my hand and the spray can.  I did this in a separate layer so as to maintain my non-destructive processing workflow.

I think I did a bad job of the cloning, but it wasn’t an easy task, and while it’s certainly not perfect to my eyes (and probably wouldn’t be noticed unless you looked hard or knew it was there), it looks less obvious than it would have done had I not performed the cloning.

Tenth and Final Layer – Dodge and Burn

The final layer of this image is another plain layer, whose blend mode I changed to soft light.  I then used the white and black brush with 10-20% opacity to dodge and burn respectively.  I lifted the brightness of some areas and darkened others.

Fait Accompli

This brings me to the end of the making of Fire or Flood?.  I hope you have enjoyed learning about what went into the production at this image, both behind (and in front!) of the camera, and behind the computer screen.

The Making of “Drinking Problem”

Some time after I created my image Wine is a Primary Industry, I set out to create a new image, also exploring the theme of liquid in wine glasses, but this time with something more.

The result was Drinking Problem.

Drinking Problem

Drinking Problem

This image took me over three hours to create, as a fair bit of setup went into it.

The splash was generated by moving a platform, to which the wine glass was affixed, across the camera’s path, and abruptly stopping it precisely within the lens’s field of view so that the momentum would cause the liquid to splash up and out of the glass.

I built a dolly and platform using wheels and rails so that I could easily and consistently slide the platform along the same horizontal plane. I had pre-focused the lens (I used a 135mm lens for this) and wanted the glass to always end up in the same place, and be in focus.

I placed a heavy object at the end of the dolly to stop the platform dead in its tracks.

I used Blu-Tak and copious quantities of packing tape to attach the base of the glass to the platform, as I’d broken another glass earlier in the night during “dress rehearsal”. I had practiced slamming the platform into the weight to make sure I’d get a splash, and see what sort of splash I’d get (each splash is unique and can never be repeated).

Unfortunately the Blu-Tak I had used in the rehearsal was, of itself, not enough to keep the glass affixed, and during one run it lost its grip and fell into the weight, breaking in the process.

As for the background and lighting, I used the same staging I built to create Wine is a Primary Industry previously. I pointed a strobe at a white backdrop, dialled in the right amount of power (1/32nd at 24mm zoom), and using a radio trigger I fired it from the camera at the moment of exposure.

On the camera I used a remote shutter release so that I could push the platform with one hand, and fire the camera with the other hand at the moment the platform struck the weight. I wasn’t looking through the viewfinder when shooting; I physically couldn’t do so, and didn’t need actually to use the viewfinder, as I knew exactly where the glass would be at the critical time.

There was a surprisingly little amount of liquid spillage as a result of doing this (I had counted on a lot more), but I was prepared, and placed my strobe and radio trigger in zip-lock bags to protect them from the liquid.

So, there you have it.

The Making of “Wine is a Primary Industry”

On Christmas Eve of 2008 I was inspired to create an image.

I produced Wine is a Primary Industry.

Wine is a Primary Industry

Wine is a Primary Industry

I knew some time prior that I wanted to create this type of shot.   I saw some incredible images along this line, created by another Flickr photographer.  This inspired me to actually do it.  I had been busting to create at the time, and this guy’s work got me revved up.

The setup was quite simple, but took a long time to arrange.

I spent around an hour and a half just setting up this shot, and 1/200th of a second actually capturing it.

The amount of work that goes into setting up a shot like this is quite time-consuming and very fiddly.  One needs to be exact, as you’ll see.

A while back, I bought some food colouring, knowing I wanted to create this type of image.

I knew how I wanted to light the scene: pure white backdrop, with backlighting.

The first thing I did was set up the “studio”.  The white backdrop was simply my 800 x 800 x 800mm light tent.  It was collapsed flat, and I leaned it against a wall.

I grabbed my Canon Speedlite 580EX II, positioned in behind the wine glasses, and pointed it at the backdrop.  I attached a PocketWizard PLUS II to trigger the flash remotely.  Some fiddling around with heights was done, as was some fiddling around with the flash power output settings.

The final flash setting was 24mm at 1/64th power.  This was sufficient to illuminate the backdrop and not blow out the detail in the glasses, or bleed light around the edges of the glasses.

Camera-wise, I had an 85mm prime and another PocketWizard attached, all mounted on a tripod.

I placed one of the wine glasses on a pedestal (a moderately large box).  I took some reference shots to check the exposure, and make sure that what my mind saw translated to the camera’s chimp screen.  I fiddled with exposure settings, and went with 1/200th at f/5.6 (my base exposure settings when I’m using strobes).

I soon found that my 85mm lens didn’t give me the nice, tight framing I wanted, and its rather long minimum focusing distance (MFD) of around 90cm prevented me from moving it closer to the subject.  I knew that I needed my 135mm prime, whose MFD is also around 90cm.  This gave me much nicer framing.

To set up the wine glasses, I used a plastic cutting board.   I used large blobs of Blu-Tak to stick the bases of the glasses to the cutting board. I used a T-square to line them up evenly.  The glasses had to be affixed to a flat surface, as the entire assembly would be tilted on an angle, and I couldn’t risk the chaos of the subjects moving out of alignment, or far worse, sliding right off.

I placed a thick book under the left side of the cutting board to tilt the glasses to the right.  The slant is around 13 degrees.

I tilted the camera so that the tops of the wine glasses were parallel to the top edge of the frame.

The next part was the liquid.

I pre-mixed the red, blue and yellow food colouring with water.  I used way too much colouring at first (half a cap full), and with the blue in particular, it was too dark.  The yellow was also too rich, and appeared orange.  I then diluted all of the mixtures considerably so that they were saturated enough to look nice, but not too saturated to appear dark on camera.

I poured out even measurements of the liquids into a jug for dispensing into the glasses.

Unfortunately at first, I used the same amount of liquid in each glass, which meant that the surfaces of the liquid in the glasses did not line up.

I then had to disassemble the subject, wash and dry the glasses, reassemble the subject and pour the liquid again carefully so that the surfaces would line up such to give the appearance of a continuous line of liquid.

Now, pouring liquid is actually fiddly business.  I discovered quickly that using the jug wasn’t a good idea, as there was too much splashing (even when poured slowly, as I was doing), which meant that there were droplets of liquid on parts of the glass above the liquid line.  It was also harder to control the amount of liquid dispensed.  Back to the sink for a wash and dry.

When setting up again, I reached for a funnel, and used that to complete the job.

There was still a little bit of splashing, so I used cotton tips to touch-dry those little droplets on the inside and outside of the glasses.

Finally I was ready to shoot.  I ended up capturing three images.  I captured the second because I’d missed a spot on the blue glass.  The third and final frame was captured because there were a couple of droplets on the stem of the yellow glass.

Third time lucky.

To say I was pleased with the result is an understatement.

However, as I’ve outlined, just getting to a point where I was ready to actually shoot was very time-consuming, consisted of trial and error, and was fiddly.

There was very little post-processing:  just conversion from raw, contrast adjustment, tighter cropping, some sharpening (not really needed), and a bit of dodging of the not-so-white corners where the light faded off.

Oh, and the wavy lines above the liquid lines are a result of the geometry of the glasses; they have a swirled pattern which protrudes away from the curvature of the glass.

To top off the experience, I later won an award for this image at my camera club.