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How Are Images Created?

This kind of seems like a dumb questions, right? You take your camera out to your favorite location, set up a composition that you like and wait for nice light and click the shutter. BAM! You nailed it. You check the back of your camera and it looks good on the little tiny screen. For the next few moments you enjoy the rest of the sunset and pack up and go home happy. Back at home you load up your images but they don't look the same on the computer screen as they did on the back of your camera. Upon closer inspection you realize that the important part of the image isn't in focus. You really wanted to focus on that flower next to the tree but instead, the camera focused on a rock that was slightly more prominent in the foreground and now the flower is out of focus because your f stop wasn't stopped down enough...

There are so many different situations we face as photographers and with each situation comes an entirely new set of mistakes we can make. Are they mistakes if we don't know about them? Not really, I mean you can't blame someone for not knowing about hyperfocal techniques, or how to stack images for maximum DOF and sharpness. To a person who is new to photography, they may not even know that you can pick where you want your camera to focus.


A friend of mine posted this to her IG stories and it really got me thinking about how much work we, as artists (photographers) put into our images.



I think it's safe to say that for photographers who have been doing this longer, we probably put more work into our images simply because over time we have learned more about the craft. For someone starting out, they simply don't know as much yet. I want my blog to be a place where people can come to learn and gain insight. We all start somewhere and we are all in different parts of our journey so it wont be the same for everyone.


Getting back to the image above, as an example, I have 1657 images on my website that I have put out for the public to see and view. That may seem like a lot. I've been shooting digital images for almost 20 years now and I have managed to collect almost 2 million images according to my offline backup. That's not even close to 1% of all the files I've taken. To me, that's crazy and I think most of my peers would say something similar about their work.

Nonetheless, I wanted to write this blog today to discuss the work that actually goes into making an image. Maybe not the work itself but the story about how the image came to be. Start to finish, it's more than showing up and pressing the shutter. This blog post will only be about the work done to create the image. I wont be discussing any of the business side of it and the insane amount of work that goes into that part. I want to keep it fun for you.


Orion's Winter Watch -

I'll share this one first since it's the most recent image and still fresh in my head.

This is a blend of 108 images total and just because it's a blend of images, doesn't mean it's not what the scene looked like when I shot it. Blending images is just a way to overcome some of the limitations of our cameras in order to produce more detailed, better exposed and less noise in the images. My goal as a photographer who sells prints and licenses images as part of my work is to create the best quality image I can with the tools I have. In the winter months Orion is up right after sunset and with a little planning I knew I could capture it over the church and I wouldn't have to be out all night long. It was 7 degrees when I was capturing these images.

Foreground image was shot just after sunset with my Sony A7r4 and Sigma 14-24mm lens. It's a focus stacked image to maximize sharpness and depth of field. After it got completely dark I photographed Orion and Bernard's Loop. Bernard's Loop is the red nebula half circle that is just to the left of Orion's Belt and I have found that it's best photographed at least 2 hours after the sun goes down or before it comes up. I shot the sky with my Astro Modified Nikon D850 and a Sigma 28mm 1.4 Art lens. I shot 99 images for the sky to stack and reduce the noise for a very clean and detailed sky. While the sky exposures were going, I used a Tiffen Double Fog Filter for half of the exposures. This allows me to capture some nice diffusion around the brighter stars and because the filter was only used on half of them, the effect is cut in half when I stack the images. This is one way to create nice natural skies with out over doing it.. Once I had the sky and the foreground processed I simply blended the sky image into the foreground image with photoshop and created my image to further process with DxO for proper color and contrast. This sounds like a lot of work and for one photo it probably is too much for most people. After posting this on FB I had all kinds of comments and messages telling me that it was too much work for them, it takes too long, some people mentioned they don't have the patience....ect... Let me break it down a bit for you so you can properly understand the REAL amount of time that went into this.

Planning was very minimal - from experience and using tools like Photopills or Stellarium I could tell that Orion would be over the church right after sunset this time of year. Confirming this took about 5 min total from the comfort of my own home. I did have to wait for a clear night after some snow since that was what I wanted in my foreground. A little patience and working out schedules allowed me to get out for the evening. I planned my timing to arrive just before sunset. This allowed me to walk around, find a good foreground and get set up so that once the sun dipped below the horizon I could start shooting my focus stack for the foreground. If you are not familiar with focus stacking it's basically taking several images with your focus point in different spots (I like to do a 9 or 12 image grid) so that you can be sure you get good sharp focus front to back and side to side. Some newer cameras have this feature built in. Shooting these 9 images only took me less than a minute. I then waited for 2 hours until it was as dark as it was going to get and then used my Nikon D850 that has been astro modified to shoot the sky. I took a few test shots to make sure my focus was dialed in and then began my sequence of 99 images. I think this is where people say they don't have the patience... to get images this clean and detailed, I have the patience. Shooting the sky took less than 10 min. Each image was shot at 8000 ISO, F/2.5 for 6 seconds. In total, that's less than 10 min. I did more photography while I was there but for this image I was able to plan and shoot in under 2.5 hours... if you take out the time I had to wait for it to get dark, shooting really only took me 15 min max.

The longest part of the entire process is downloading the images from the card to my hard drive. Focus stacking the foreground images took about 3 minutes, stacking the sky in Starry Landscape Stacker took about 5 min, blending the images took about 10 min and refining the edit after the blend was done took about 3 minutes..

Yes, there is a lot of work that goes into an image like this BUT, it's not nearly as bad as what people may think. Is it worth it? To me it is. The results you get by shooting your foreground while you still have good available light compared to when it's totally dark out is literally Night and Day difference, pun intended.


That was an extreme example on one side of the photography spectrum. Now let's take a look at another image.

Red Mountain Rainbows - Single Shot

Absolutely no planning at all. Complete Luck.

My friends and I were driving from Silverton, Colorado over Red Mountain Pass back into Ouray and when we rounded the corner we saw these amazing rainbows arching over Red Mountain. We stopped, got out, grabbed our cameras and started shooting. There were a few cars going by at the time but with just a little patience we were able to get a shot without any cars. 99% of my shots are not captured like this. This was a one time thing for the most part. It does show you that photographers can be lucky once in a while. Had we waited 10 min later to leave Silverton we would have never saw this.



Chaos in Kiwanda - Planning & Blending

Maybe one of the most heart pounding shots I've ever taken.

Living on the Oregon Coast most of my life I had the opportunity to shoot certain places over and over again. I'll never forget the morning I shot this. I had planned to shoot this on an incoming tide but I had to get there just after sunrise before the tide got too high and I couldn't get to this view through the arch. I parked and walked the mile down the beach. The rocks were very slippery but I was able to navigate my way up to a larger boulder (not the smartest idea) and set up my tripod. Just as I got my camera on my tripod a surge of several waves started hitting the rock before entering through the arch and crashing on the rocks in front of me. I got soaked. Lucky for me I was up high enough that the rocks took the brunt of the hit from the waves and I got the splashes.. By the time I got the camera off the tripod, cleaned up and put back on the waves were rocking again. I took a sequence of several images before getting hit again by the wave you see in the very bottom coming over the rock. The water you see there, swelled up, went over that rock and nailed the rock in front of me. The water splashed straight up, completely covering me. That wasn't the heart pounding part. You see the wave hitting the rock at the entrance to the arch? When that water hit that rock face the entire place shook. I felt the vibrations go straight through my body and I knew I was getting wet but I didn't want to leave. I felt I was in a very safe place that was up high enough and I was, for the time I was there. This image is the result of proper timing of the tides and blending 2 of the images in the sequence together to create the splash in the back and the water coming over the rocks in the foreground. I focused on the rock that was sticking out into the arch from the left side, I shot at F/18 to make sure it would be sharp, ISO 200 so I could use 1/6th second and keep a lot of nice detail in the water while still allowing it to move and show motion.


I guess these dramatic images were my reward for driving almost 13 hours to see this place. Images like this come at a price. For me that was an extended trip away from home, lucky for me, it was also for work. From my house to this old church is almost 800 miles. It was just "on the way" to another location I wanted to shoot. I felt I was doing a good job of watching the weather as I knew there were storms in the area. When I arrived I could see dark clouds and very strong winds. I knew something exciting was going to happen. What i didn't know is that after these 2 images, I'd be stuck under a large tree in my car calling my wife to let her know this may be the end. It's the only time in my photography adventures, I honestly didn't think I was going to make it. When I got to the church I quickly set up my camera very low to the ground because of the intense winds. I just let it keep shooting for about an hour. The image on the left was captured 30 min before the last image in the sequence was captured on the right. I sat right there on the gravel road and watched this entire storm develop into a tornado. It went from a nice lightning show to this massive shelf cloud that moved in as fast as you can imagine. When the image on the right was shot, that was the last shot, I knew I had to get out of there. The storm was supposed to be moving NW to SE but what happened was another storm to the south of me swelled up and produced golf ball sized hail. I was stuck in the middle and as I was driving away looking for an exit plan the storm to the north produced a medium size tornado just at the end of the road in the image. Once I was in my car I had remembered this huge overgrown tree next to this old abandoned house and I went there and parked. My thought was that the overgrown tree would protect me from the hail. It did that to some extent but I couldn't see where the tornado was because by now it was pitch black out. The winds were howling like I never heard before, hail was just pounding my car and very very loud. I am very thankful that the windshield didn't break. This went on for about 40 min and then the hail stopped, the rain stopped and it got deathly quiet. I waited a few more min and then took off out of there. With the storm passed I could actually see city lights in the distance and knew I had a safe route. I look at these images often as a reminder to always be prepared, take nothing for granted. Mother nature can be brutal and amazing at the same time.


In 2022 I started a project that I had wanted to do for a long time. I finally had the time and space and the correct lens for the job. Using natural rocks with unique patterns and shapes I wanted to photograph these as highly detailed images and create some interesting and abstract art. I spent countless hours online looking for rocks with the right colors and designs that I thought would make for nice art. Once I had the rocks used my Sigma 105mm Art Macro lens to isolate very small sections of the rocks in what I think are compelling compositions. If you look online, you will see the sellers dip the rocks in water to bring out the colors. When I tried this the water evaporated quickly and I was left with uneven colors in my images. I quickly figured out a solution to this and it worked quite well. You would think that if you set a flat rock on a flat surface and mount your camera and lens over the rock that you can get a good shot in one single image. Not the case. I found it almost impossible to get the plane of the sensor exactly in line with the plane of the rock. What does this mean? This means you need to focus stack these images and not just 4-5 images. Because there are divots and the surface of the rock is not perfectly flat you have to focus stack many images. Most of the macro/geological images you see from me are made from at least 30-40 images. This gives you the ability to get incredible sharpness throughout the entire image. In this image you can see at least 4 places where there are indentations into the surface of the rock. If I were to just focus on the surface, those indents would not be in focus when working at such a close range. With set up, shooting time and processing each one of these images probably takes close to an hour to complete.

It's a fun project i've been working on and I have close to 30 of these images finished.

While I enjoy all the ones I've photographed, this one above is one of my favorites. These are tiny air bubbles trapped inside dinosaur poop. The type of rock is fairly common but it was the interesting lines and intricate details and color that caught my attention. I feel this type of art isn't for everyone and that's ok. For those who enjoy this type of art, there is sure a lot to look at in these images.


I hope this gives you a little insight into the work we put into our photography. If you're a new photographer, I hope you found some takeaways and can move your photography to another level. Remember, slow progress is still progress. I learn new things everyday and feel thankful I can share them with you. I feel each image comes with its own story, either about the process of getting the shot or the journey to the location where the shot was captured. I love this about photography.


If you have any questions at all please don't hesitate to ask. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog.


Happy Shooting,

Darren





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