Monday, 7 September 2009

Introspective - Barbican Steps image

I've moved this introspective over from my main site where it's been for a while. A lot of my followers only read my blog and would otherwise miss it.

Barbican Steps

Ancient and worn granite steps. Plymouth Barbican, 2008

I'd never had occasion to go up these steps until I used a car park (Lambhay Hill) for the first time, one which
overlooks the Barbican. My destination was the B-bar for a catch-up with a mate, and to fill up on one of their renowned Thai Noodle Baskets.

Making the capture

Spotting the shot

As soon as I started down those narrow, almost claustrophobic steps, their character began to sink into me. I could see that although the steps were made of granite, they were still showing a definite dip from the wear of countless thousands of feet.

Another quirky thing... because of the curve, you couldn't see if anyone else was coming the other way, until you'd committed and were a few steps down yourself. I imagine that there must have been some tight squeezes as people passed each other down the centuries.

Also, the curve, in shortening your view, added to that closed-in feel—it was definitely a transitional space, a
between-places space, not one to pause in but one to pass through.

Ok, so how to capture that and make the shot?

Making the shot

So having briefly noted this little lot, I got to the bottom of the steps to check how it looked. Perfect. Apart from a pub sign that was padlock-and-chained to the handrail—but that was easily moved to the side, out of frame.

For me this sort of shot requires what is almost a side effect of the HDR  / tone-mapping process,
getting enhanced local contrast. I find that this best reproduces the texture and feel of
stone under bright light.

I also needed the enhaced dynamic range that comes from using HDR (I used 'simple' HDR where the different exposures all come from a single (RAW) shot). This was because the range betwen the bright summer sky and the deep shadow in the corners of the steps was just too much—either the shadows would lose all detail or the highlights, the sky and clouds, would be blown.

Exposure, ISO etc.

f16 1/80th 17mm HDR ISO 200

So with a basic plan in mind I whipped out the camera and checked readings etc. I needed to be at the 17mm end of the zoom to get it all in and use a deep depth of field.

So, with aperture priority set as usual, I rolled it up to f16. That meant, at my usual setting of ISO 100, the shot would have been made at 1/40s.

Much too slow, given that people were up and down the steps all the time. So I pushed the ISO up to 200, (which gave me 1/80s) and waited for a lull in the sudden foot-traffic that always happens when you're finally ready!
It didn't take too long and I made the shot. Actually, I took two or three, choosing different exposure locks from
different parts of the sky. Then I chose the best one to take forward when I got back to base.

Digital darkroom

Pre Photoshop

I pushed the shot through my usual RAW workflow to get it into Photoshop. In short, 3 exposures from RAW, followed by HDR / tone-mapping software to combine the three into one shot.

Photoshop

Once in Photoshop, I cloned away a a small amount of litter on a copy of the background layer and then applied TLR Capture sharpening (and erased any sharpening in the sky—it was already quite noisy). The bw conversion came next, juggling the sliders to get the tonal balance right.

Another little trick I picked up, this time for applying perfect contrast. I create a new curves layer and immediately ok it. Then I change the blend mode to overlay and reduce the layer's opacity to somewhere between 7% and the mid-twenties—whatever suits the image. This time it was 26%.

Then a little dodging and burning to enhance the difference between the mid-tones and highlights of the wall and steps not in shade.

Next I applied a soft light layer and erased away the centre to form a little vignette. I repeated this to get the balance I was after.

A final step to tweak the levels was in order. This was to make sure the darkest parts of the image equated to pure black and the extreme highlights to pure white. It didn't take much and I also shifted the mid-point grey to be a little lighter.

To prep the image for upload I did the usual sharpening, final contrast tweak and image resize. I'll give you that tip on another occasion.

Well, I hope you've enjoyed my walkthrough and maybe have found something to inspire you on your explorations.


comments / critique / feedback always welcome :)
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