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Black canyon of the Gunnison, ColoradoA Digital only trip to Colorado (2004)

Keith's first digital travel notes

Keith has used digital for much of his commercial (event and PR) work for some time, but he stuck with film for his Black and White landscape pictures – some of which are on this site.

Earlier this year (2004) he decided to move to a completely digital workflow.

There is an another article on the site giving some of his first impressions of the 1Ds. Many of the pictures in the new Gallery (Aug 2004) were taken with the 1Ds.

This second article looks at some of his impressions of using the 1Ds for a month in Colorado (April/May 2004). Once again it is not intended to be an exhaustive technical review, more to cover some of the key points he learnt.

May 2006 - Keith was in Colorado again and has written a short 'follow up' digital photography article to this one.

Where did I go?

Most of the new pictures on this site were taken in the mountains of Colorado, with a quick trip into Wyoming to visit Yellowstone. I'm not a great outdoor type, so the camera stayed in motels most nights (with me to keep it company).

digital B/WFYI: I've set up a LinkedIn group (~6100 members) for people interested in all aspects of Digital Black and White photography: Digital Black and White

What did I take with me?

I resisted the temptation to take a film camera backup 'just in case'.

The kit is certainly more bulky (see previous article) than my film gear but with a good bag is not too cumbersome.

So, for the techy enthusiasts out there...

Camera and shorter lenses were in a good hefty weatherproof bag with plenty of storage compartments. Laptop went into a laptop bag, also with plenty of compartments.

Some images and issues

If there was one area I had to select as requiring some changes in your way of working, I suggest it was exposure.

Dec '04 -- See my review of the DxO raw converter for some specific coverage of some of the 'problems' below

Specular highlights

The first picture shows a typical scene. I chose to do this particular image in colour since, on a print, the freshness of the new leaves really jumps out at you.

Spring Green, Colorado Spring Green

Taken near Strawberry Park, Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Sunlight has just caught the new leaves and some of the fast moving water.

In order to get good detail out of the shadows the exposure has just clipped the specular reflections.

The Histogram from Photoshop CS RAW

Notice the sharp spike in the red pixels, showing where clipping has occurred

Raw histogram 1
A detail (resampled in CS RAW and at 200% enlargement) showing lots of non existent colours. The slight darkening around highlights is due to slight sharpening at the default import settings - this is needed for most camera images and is quite normal Colour sparkles
The Histogram from Photoshop CS RAW after reducing the exposure setting slightly (-0.3). Raw histogram 2
The detailed area with not quite so many burnt out pixels, but still the colour. Color sparkles 2

A more recognisable section of the image, showing coloured effects that would show up in a final print

false colours 1

After creating a Hue/Saturation layer ( set at 70% desaturation) I masked it off, and using a very small brush (see the small circle in the lower RH side) applied selective desaturation. The result, below, has almost eliminated the spurious colours. Before you think that I should perhaps have got rid of more colour see how small an area this is on the full image.

false colours - fixed

I suspect that the effect comes about when point sources of light saturate individual sensor pixels and the bayer interpretation software just can't handle it - or something like that :-) (If you know, please do drop me a line)

Shadow detail

The two pictures below show the amount you can get good detail out of the shadows. The light outside (afternoon sun at over 10,000 feet) is pretty strong and has slightly overexposed the outside view (but not enough to saturate the sensor) A combination of the shadow/highlights tool and several masked adjustment layers has produced an image that corresponds with what I saw.

Latte in Leadville, Colorado Leadville latte, Colorado
Leadville Latte,

The Cloud City Coffee House in Leadville, Colorado

If you were staging the shot you could have set the camera on a tripod and bracketed exposure, combining parts of shots later in Photoshop. I was in there to have a cup of coffee and didn't have a tripod with me anyway :-)

Detail

Look at the two images below. The tree is at the bottom of the canyon (right in the middle of the picture - not the ones at the bottom). It is about a centimetre high on a 45x65cm (17"x26") print.

Black canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado tree in Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Black Canyon of the Gunnison

I suppose it's one reason why it's so difficult to convey the full effect of a huge print on a web site...

The purple stripe

This one is very difficult to show but manifests itself as a faint broad strip in the image (vertical in this one), visible in dark parts if you raise levels very much.

The effect only appeared on a few shots like this one where there was a very bright source of light in the image (underexposed to retain the cloud detail and slightly eerie feeling). I did wonder if it is due to internal reflections in the camera - there was some lens flare as well in the original image, but that was all curved. It might also be an artefact of sensor construction? There has been some talk of this on the web (B/W example)

The histogram for the original image showed plenty of room at the bottom end, so the effect was not shown up by stretching the shadows too much.

Not a great problem, but one to be aware of

Dillon Lake, Colorado

Dillon Lake, Colorado

Note added Jul 2006 -- I've been able to fix this in some images by using different raw conversion software (DxO example) It also seems that it's very much up to luck as to how prominent the effect is on your particular 1Ds

What did I learn?

Travel

Travelling with the camera bag and laptop bag as hand luggage was fine. Airport security seemed unbothered by any of the items, since I'd removed my usual set of jewellers screwdrivers to my checked in luggage. I never used up two fully charged camera batteries in a day, so the car power converter wasn't actually needed. I filled up many dozens of CDs with images and producing two of each, mailed one set back to the UK several times during my trip. So each picture was duplicated on my laptop and two CDs, one of which was sent back home. This policy was actually shown to be a useful one after my house nearly burnt down not long after returning -- back those files up and keep a copy off-site folks!

Lenses

I probably could have got away with just the wide and tele zooms, but it's better to have a lens with you that you hardly use, rather than wish you had not left it at home.

Dust!

Once you open up your camera, dust will get in. It gets attracted to the sensor and then stays there. It's not too bad to clean up from images (with the Photoshop 'Healing' tool) but it's best to be careful in the first place. There are a number of ways of getting sensors cleaned, but over the course of a month quite a few tiny specks appeared. I took such precautions as mostly changing lenses quickly, outside, and keeping the camera itself clean. Whatever you do, don't EVER be tempted to blow on a sensor. In the info section of the site I've collected some info and tips on 'the dust problem'

Exposure

As I suggested in my first article, this is the area that is most likely to catch people out moving from film to digital. It is particularly different if you are used to the latitude and dynamic range of black and white film. Think slide film. I often tried using the Program (auto) mode with a half stop underexposure, so as not to clip high-lights. The most important tool in helping you out is the histogram immediately available after a shot. Of course the 1Ds has a number of metering mode and I made use of spot metering on a few occasions.

If you look at the 'Spring Green' picture you will see that the very bright sparkles have just clipped, giving coloured artefacts. Working with RAW format files and a 16 bit workflow will certainly enable you to get the best from your images. You can get a lot of detail out of the shadows (see particularly the Latte in Leadville) but you should be aware of sensor pattern noise showing up - even at ISO100. This caused slight problems with one or two images with large flat dark areas, such as the Dillon lake pictures.

It is important to remember that you get proportionally less noise in the right hand (light) side of the histogram, so a 'good' histogram will be bunched up towards the right - whilst still minimising any clipping. If you have a wide dynamic range in the scene you wish to shoot, you will have to consider carefully what it is you want to get out of the picture (but of course we all do that every time we release the shutter don't we ;-) There is an interesting discussion on this at the luminous landscape site.

You may notice that most of the 'problems' related more to colour images than those converted to B/W. For B/W conversion I found the 'convert to LAB and remove a/b channels' method generally gave the most satisfactory results. I also used the '2 H/S layers' method for one or two more dramatic skies.

Lens issues

The 16-35L lens is a great lens to use for wide angle work, there is a some chromatic aberration which can be 'tuned out' to a large extent with the photoshop CS Raw importer (see the 'Why RAW' article). It's not perfect, with noticeable distortions at wider angles. New software becoming available will allow even better processing of RAW images -- but 16mm really is wide :-)

The 24-70 is a great lens, which I use a lot during my commercial photography - hardly at all though during this trip

The 70-200 with its image stabilisation, is a joy to use. Pin sharp shots, hand held at 200mm. Even at 1/50th of a second, no movement.

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So, what's it like going digital?

In a word GREAT. The trip has produced many hundreds of useful images (a selection of which are on this site). It was still a bit of an experiment in getting up to speed with digital, but a very successful one (IMHO). The fact that I had a great time in the US was a very enjoyable bonus. Some of the black and white prints I've produced are amongst my best and numerous people have already commented on the large amount of detail visible in 26"x17"(~45x65cm) prints like the one of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison above, or Teton Park and Hillside Lodge (both taken with the 70-200). I found myself taking more pictures (several thousand) and much more likely to experiment.

I'm quite aware of the considerable expense in getting similar kit to that used, however I feel that most of the observations would be just as applicable if you were taking a low end DSLR with you.

I've used digital for a while now in much of my other work and really noticed an improvement in the overall quality of my work, now I can add my real love - landscape photography - to that.

Do check out my follow-up article, written two years after this one - Looking back at what I wrote here, I'd not disagree with much ... I still try not to use a tripod unless absolutely necessary. I'm also really glad I have all the image taken on the trip in RAW format, since just recently (Jul 2006) I was asked for a large print (36"x24") and was able to go back to the original file, use new conversion software, and create a noticeably better quality print than I could in 2004.

The views in this article represent those of Keith Cooper.
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