Friday, November 9, 2012

A return to ... 15 miles from home

Two years ago, the Indiana Photographic Society photo club, for one of its monthly assignments, asked members to drive 15 miles in any direction from home and take photographs of whatever we'd find at that location. We'd then show our images at a meeting at the end of the month.

It was one of the first assignments I tackled after joining the club, and it remains one of my favorite to date. I elected to drive southeast from home, ending up in northeastern Clark Township in Johnson County, near the junction of County Roads 700 East and 1000 North. There, I used Pleasant Valley Church as my base ... and as the subject of many of the photographs I took that day. I posted images from that shoot at my blog in 2010 in two installments, one on Nov. 13, the other on Nov. 14.

After a two-year hiatus, the 15-mile out assignment resurfaced recently. This time I headed straight south and again ended in Johnson County, at the junction of 500 North and 400 West in White River Township, where I saw a striking building -- Risen Lord Lutheran Church and Montessori School -- on the northeast corner and decided to make it my base. The church has a remarkable, distinguished and color-rich mosaic on its front facade, illustrated in the photo leading off today's post.

There was also road construction going on there; Whiteland Road is being widened into a divided thoroughfare, so my photo opportunities centered on the church, the construction ... and yet a second church, Salem Missionary Baptist Church, about 100 yards southwest of the intersection.

For some time now, I've made a habit of bracketing exposures in triplicate for all of my landscape shots -- and lots of indoor, non-people shots. One reason is to give me options for selecting the optimum exposure for single-frame shots, but more importantly to give me an opportunity to treat these scenes in high-dynamic range (HDR) software. This has come in handy especially on days when timing is such that I cannot exploit dramatic early-morning or late-afternoon sunlight. HDR gives me a little edge in making a better picture than I would have gotten otherwise. All of the photos in today's post were bracketed for exposure to treat in HDR software.

Working with HDR software to the extent that I have has enabled me to stumble into a technique, in most instances, where I can achieve what I'm wanting to do -- cull maximum detail and add pop to the color and vibrance without having the result look too surreal or, as a fellow member of the IPS once referred to the look of many HDR shots in general (not necessarily my photos), "like clown vomit." (Quick aside: How clown vomit would look much different from that of anyone else's is beyond me, but the remark was colorful -- which I'm sure was his point, as it did conjure a chuckle from me).

The technique, or "trick," that I've hit upon using Photomatix HDR software is difficult to explain, but the key involves processing a merged image not once, but twice -- first through a somewhat dark (via the midtone slider) exposure fusion (EF) treatment, then again through the tone maping/details enhancer option (TMDE). And a note: You have to do it in that order -- EF first, TMDE second. Photomatix will not let you do it the other way around (i.e., a TMDE-processed image through EF).

Before doing any processing, you observe both EF and TMDE "previews." The darker the TMDE preview, the brighter you go on the midtone slider during the EF processing, and the brighter the TMDE preview, the darker you want the midtone slider during EF processing. Using this two-layer treatment allows you to exploit EF's ability to preserve more natural colors (the TMDE process on its own tends to distort greens and reds, especially), so you can avoid that "clown vomit" look. This process has worked successfully for me about 80% of the time, indoors and outdoors. The one situation where it falls short is in backlight situations, although it still can deliver an image looking better than processing it only through TMDE.

Also ... if, during the TMDE processing, your skies and clouds in an outdoor landscape tend to have unnatural colors (purple-ish) or display some dramatic color changes in a short amount of space or render bizarre color shapes, you can do one or both of two things in Photomatix -- select a higher or the highest light smoothing modes (unfortunately, that can lose you some nice highlighting), or go to your miscellaneous TMDE settings and move the highlights smoothness slider to the right end until those color/shape anomalies disappear or at least fade to levels you can accept. That, too, could cost you some detail, but if the unnatural colors or shapes are offensive or unacceptable, it might be worth the trade-off). A last resort is to accept the distortions and try to resolve them in Lightroom, Photoshop/Elements or some other image editing software using a blending brush.

All of the above is contingent on you having your other slider levels set at positions you've become comfortable with, and that varies with each photographer ... and that is why explaining this "trick" is complicated. I could tell you what levels I find comfortable, but you might not like those. It's one thing you'll have to figure out to your own satisfaction.

To see the full gallery of images from this shoot, visit my site at SmugMug.

Above: Risen Lord church's south facade, treated in an "antique" monochrome conversion.

Above: Closeup of a statue along the south side of Risen Lord church.

Above and next two below: Full views and closeups of the mosaic and signage.

Above and next three below: Road and infrastructure construction activity.

Above: A drainage mechanism on church property near the road intersection. I particularly liked the contrasting colors and criss-crossing pattern of the utility wires at the top. 

Above and below: Whiteland Road (County Road 500 North), as widened (above) and used by one resident to walk her dogs.

Above and next two below: Having some fun with traffic signs, using a Sigma 10-20mm f/3.5 wide-angle lens. 

Above: Looking into the sun, a view of some homes along Whiteland Road, as seen from the south parking lot of Risen Lord church.

Above and below: A home at the northwest corner of the two county roads, with the colorful trees below lining its driveway. 

Above: Again using the wide-angle lens and looking northeast from the southwest corner of the intersection of County Roads 500 North and 400 West. This composition piqued my interest more for the utility-wire busywork, patterns and angles than it did for the church, construction and signage elements. 

Above: Trees separating the Risen Lord church's south parking lot from a drainage ditch and Whiteland Road (500 North). 

Above and next two below: The "other" church near the intersection -- Salem Missionary Baptist Church. The second image below was another backlight composition ... and also a monochrome conversion using the "antique" filter option.

Above: My way of saying, "The End." 

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