The danger of going somewhere well known is everyone’s going to have the same image. My images of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Florence were taken on a private photography workshop I was running with a working photographer who wanted to learn my methods. In a small way, it was a defining moment for me – even after 35 years as a professional photographer, they happen now and again!
We had photographed around Tuscany and were leaving to fly home from Pisa; not having seen Pisa or Florence, I said: “why don’t we photograph them?”. The reply was everyone has those images, we don’t want the same images as everyone else. My immediate reaction was agreement. Then I had a moment of real clarity. The fact that everyone has shot Pisa and Florence is exactly WHY we need to shoot them. That’s the whole point of what I’m teaching. My process allows you to create something that looks totally different.
I said to him, look, you want to impress your clients. What better way than showing them, your version of Pisa and Florence, so they can compare it with so many identical compositions on the internet. They will not find a similar image in terms of style. Show your clients, what you offer is unique; that you can make post-card locations look completely different and beautiful. That will give them confidence that you can do the same on their projects.
Instead of avoiding the same image everyone has, let’s intentionally shoot the same image everyone has. We took up the challenge. This is a quick view of my approach to landscape photography.
In the days of shooting film, what we shot, was pretty well what we got. Digital photography created a more powerful, creative middle process; the computer. Photoshop and Lightroom are very powerful creative tools. However, this stage still retains the reputation of being a mere corrective process after shooting. It is not fully accepted as a full-blown, legitimate, creative process. The final image is no longer the product of just the camera, but also the computer via Photoshop or Lightroom.
If we fully embrace Photoshop as the heart of the process, it opens up a whole new world of creative options for our images. It transforms our photography from a recording process to a creative process that leans more towards art, like a painting. The perceptive transition is to see Photoshop as the creative stage in the process of creating a photograph; not the camera. A camera is now a recording tool that creates the Photoshop material. Of course, your source material, the camera images, need to be as good as they can be. The better technical information and composition of the source image the better the final artistic output.
I’ll stop here and add a thought about the constant debate that “Using Photoshop is cheating”. No, it’s not; provided you are not trying to deceive. My approach is not to hide and deceive, but to publicly promote the legitimate marriage of photography and Photoshop as two sides of the same coin, inseparable when creating beautiful landscape images. It is also interesting to note, that painters said photography was cheating and would never last. Photoshop is still finding its legitimacy and using it as an option in post-processing should be a fully accepted part of the process of creating artistically enhanced images.
Judge “What it could become; Not what it is now”
We stood and looked at both Pisa and Florence through the camera like everyone else there that day. What made us different, is we were visualizing the scene beyond the camera. Not judging what was literally in front of us now but visualizing the final image in Photoshop in our mind, before taking an image. Working out how we wanted the image to look in Photoshop first and the dramatic transformations we could make meant we knew what to look for when shooting. We factored in what type of sky we wanted in the final images. What objects we needed the sunlight on and what we needed to be in shadow. Then, it was just a case of waiting and shooting multiple frames for different areas of the photograph using a tripod as the light changed, working through our mental shopping list of assets we needed to acquire. Getting the perfect single frame was not the aim. Getting the perfect assets for Photoshop was.
Shooting the Photoshop Assets
The process demands all exposures perfectly align in Photoshop, a tripod is therefore essential. You gamble and commit to one composition and you shoot all your exposures or Photoshop assets for that single composition. This process is like image stacking and also reflects some aspects of HDR or finding the elements you want to accentuate within a wider dynamic range than you would get with one image.
The Photoshop assets fall into three types:
1. The base image. The best image of the scene you can get in a single exposure. As if you only had one sheet of film to capture the final photograph. The base image becomes your final photograph in Photoshop; the file you polish by adding information from the two remaining types of exposures you shoot:
2. Technical exposures. We look at the base image and shoot any additional exposures we need to improve the image technically, in effect bracketing. Exposures to fill in missing or weak shadow detail or blown out highlight detail.
3. Artistic exposures. This is the important one. We look at the base image and shoot any additional exposures we need to improve the image artistically. Taking exposures for specific objects in the photograph when the light is best for that object. The chances of getting the light to do what you want, in every inch of the image and in a single frame, is minimal.
4. Skies can be taken anywhere and dropped in. It is not essential to get the perfect sky when shooting the location-specific main objects.
The Three Step Photoshop process
Step 1: Composite
The first stage is to edit then to perfectly composite all the assets together as if to make the most perfect single raw file from the camera. This can include joining multiple frames to create a more panoramic image as happened with Pisa (4 frames L-R). Skies are one of the most important elements in a photograph. Skies set the mood and drama, the story. The tone of the sky is also important for creating contrast with the main objects. Italy was all blue sky that doesn’t set the mood and drama I like in images, so a new sky was chosen, darker and moodier. I love the skies found in old master paintings and maritime scenes. Full of drama and clouds that give the great compositional design to the image.
Step 2: Technical Photoshop
The second step is what I call technical Photoshop. It is not about mood, atmosphere and feeling but creating a three-dimensional optical illusion with what I call “super-readability”; super-rich, over-the-top detail and texture in every inch of the image. Later we are going to knock down the image making it tonally much darker, making it cohesive and moody, dramatic. However, when we make an area darker, we lower the local contrast within objects and very quickly areas fill in to become flat, solid tone lacking detail. If we start with over-the-top separation, we counteract this later problem and retain rich shadow separation in the final image, even in the darkest of areas.
At this stage, we also ask three main questions about the image and apply the solutions.
1. Does the image have an overall sense of spatial depth?
2. Do the objects have a sense of three-dimensional form and texture?
3. Does the picture have a sense of light?
Once we have satisfied these technical criteria we should have technically perfect, but a clinical photograph. Soulless.
Step 3: Artistic Photoshop
The final phase is to make the image work as an overall cohesive and aesthetic image with order. Imagine a choir where everyone is singing their own part, in their own time, at the top of their voices, all at random. No cohesion, no logic, no order. Chaos. We must give them order. We must nominate the lead singer and the backing group – and those we simply don’t want! We make the whole image very dark, in fact, the brightest highlight will be only a 50% grey value. We then paint back in our lead singer as the brightest tone, followed by the backing group. We nominate the importance of the objects (to a degree) by how bright they are; knowing that our eye is drawn to the brightest area of an image first. Those we don’t want to be noticed, we simply keep dark.
With a great deal of subtle painting and blending, we start to give the picture order, structure and logic, creating a feeling of cohesiveness and aesthetic beauty. We also use this stage to enhance the light, mood and drama of the image that gives the image soul, thinking of the image in logical terms of light source and light effect, like a painter. We also set the color mood to hold the image together, giving the image a limited color palette like a Rembrandt painting. Slowly the picture comes alive and the story of light unfolds.
I do not set out to make my photographs look like paintings. I just have a passion for old master paintings and that shows in the treatment of my photographs. Photoshop allows me to make my images as statements of personal artistic expression, not literal renditions of a view. My philosophy is to compose the subject, shoot the light then print the atmosphere. After composition, the subject almost becomes redundant, just a canvas to portray the story of light and mood.
My technique is not for everyone. It is slow and methodical, you only end up with one image, not twenty, but I prefer one beautiful ‘A-grade’ image over 10 ‘B-grade’ images. Photoshop brings back the freedom to create like a painter yet retain the technical sharpness and detail of photography; for the right personality, a very enjoyable and absorbing process. Is Photoshop cheating? I am honest and upfront about its use, it’s a personal decision. I only ask that people judge what they see.
For those wishing to learn more, please visit my website for tutorials, images and more detailed information about the workshops I run worldwide, where I teach the complete process I outline here.
Shot with Nikon D800E, Sigma 50mm ART lens, f11 at 100asa. Shutter speed depends on conditions but is the only variable. All images copyright of David Osborn.
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