Drama in the Sky

The most intense colors in the sky often appear before sunrise or long after sunset. I mentioned this phenomenon in the blog post titled “Waiting for the Light”.  Fine particles of dust, such as those of volcano eruption, suspended in the high regions of the atmosphere, scattering sunlight, result in some remarkable colorful afterglow ,  up to one hour or so after sunset.

And it was certainly the case on that unforgettable evening near Mono Lake, California.  A huge wild fire near Mono Lake, California (see my previous blog post “Set Fire To the Sky”)  brought huge amount smoke and ashes to the sky, forming incredible ash clouds and the richest and most vivid afterglow I’ve ever seen.

This picture was exposure for the sky, so the ground was too dark. Also the composition was way to tight, even with a 16mm ultra-wide lens.

This picture was exposure for the sky, so the ground was too dark. Also the composition was way to tight, even with a 16mm ultra-wide lens.

“F/11 and hold it steady”, Walker Evans would advise.  I arrived at this magic location at the right time. I had some most incredible condition presented in front of me. I had a great camera, a pro-quality lens, and a top-of-the-line tripod/ball-head comb with me.  Taking some beautiful pictures should be easy, right? Just put the camera on the tripod, set to f/11, and fire the shutter.

Not so simple.  The sun had settled behind mountains. The ground was already very dark. The sky was brilliant and on fire. The most difficult challenge here was how to handle the extreme difference of brightness between the sky and the ground, a problem we landscape photographers are all too familiar with. A Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filter, hard or soft, would not work, because there was no way to find a transient line or zone to separate the sky from the tufas in the foreground. If I had been still shooting slide films I would have given up.

With digital techniques, however, I just bracketed the exposure, and did some exposure blending (not HDR, though) in post processing. Problem solved. It is important to note that exposure blending is not intent to “cheat” or create something out of nothing. It is simply a mean to overcome the limitation of the existing camera technology, to recreate what can be seen by human eyes. The actual methods of doing exposure blending, such as how to use Tony Kuyper’s Luminosity Masks, are too complicated to describe here. I will try to write a few more articles on this topic if I have time.

I had another big problem: I was so close the tufas that even with a 16mm lens (which was the widest lens in my arsenal), I could not capture what I wanted (see the photo on the left).  The composition was just way too tight.  I could have moved the lens left and right taking multiple vertical frames, and stitched them together to get a wider view, but the result would be a close-to-square format.

My solution was put the camera body in the horizon position, taking multiple groups of pictures while moving the lens up and down. At each position I shot a group of three pictures with different exposures.  In the post, I first did exposure-blending for each group, generating several photos that have correct exposure for both the sky and the ground.  I then stitched the resulting images to a vertical panorama.

This picture was exposure for the sky, so the ground was too dark. Also note the tufas are leaning toward the center. This was caused by tilting the lens upward. ultra-wide lens.

This picture was exposure for the sky, so the ground was too dark. Also note the tufas are leaning toward the center. This was caused by tilting the lens upward. ultra-wide lens.

Finally I applied some vertical perspective correction.  When you tilt a ultra-wide lens upward, the resulting images will show perspective distortion — vertical lines such as trees, buildings and tufas will appear to lean toward the center of the frame (see the image on the right). Although sometimes we can creatively use this effect to make some visual impacts, there are often times when such distortions are simply very distractive.  I did not have my favorite Canon TSE (Tilt and Shift for EOS) lenses with me, so I could only straighten the tufas in software.  Fixing such distortion will require some serious stretching and cropping, therefore it have some major impact to the image quality. Luckily I had a huge stitched image so I could afford to waste some extra pixels.  Even after all these destructive transformation and cropping, I still ended up with a file of more than 34 million pixels.

Despite all the troubles, I really like the final results.   With modern post processing techniques, I could document such once-in-a-life-time experience that was otherwise impossible to capture with traditional means.

Here is the final image :

Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 16-35mm F2.8 L II,  Gitzo 3541 Tripod, Markins M20 Ballhead, RRS PCL-1Panning Clamp, RRS L-Plate

Mono Lake Drama

Mono Lake Drama

And here is another shot from the same location.  This is the result of fusing three different exposures together. No panorama stitching or  perspective correction was needed.

Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 16-35mm F2.8 L II,  Gitzo 3541 Tripod, Markins M20 Ballhead, RRS PCL-1Panning Clamp, RRS L-Plate

Drama in Sky

Drama in Sky

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