Bunny Chafowitz and I were making plans to go out at 4 a.m. this morning to try to catch some sunrise “agscapes.”

Unfortunately, my day job got in the way of being able to adequately scout out locations. Since I had no idea where we might go to look for agscapes that might look good under a rising sun, I asked Bunny if it was okay to move our schedule by one day. She agreed, and we’ll go out tomorrow…or tonight…or…aargh…sometime after the next 4 a.m. following this post.

Meanwhile, she went on to bed, and I got to thinking about the sunrise.

This naturally led to me wondering what that pesky ol’ Sun was doing right about then, and how I was going to photograph it….

I’ve bought a few new toys lately, oriented towards shooting agscapes and landscapes. I haven’t actually gotten to try them all yet. One of the more recent acquisitions is a Gepe Pro SK-GT100 Slider.

When I bought it, my thinking was that this would help me create a kind of “Poor Man’s Medium-Format Digital Camera,” using my Canon 5D Mark III. Not having the money to spend on a decent digital medium-format,1 I thought that by taking photographs of my subject, and “stitching” them together, I could get the detail and megapixel distribution of a medium-format (or better), at a significantly lower cost.

Unfortunately, my experiments to date have been less than satisfying. And I came to the conclusion that the reason for this has to do with the distance between my camera, and most of the subjects — agscapes — that I’ve been shooting. The Gepe is only about 40 inches long, and when you’re shooting (say) an entire crop field, moving in a straight line 40 inches from one side to another just isn’t enough to see any significant difference, even with the camera placed in “portrait” mode.

So as Bunny Chafowitz slumbered, and snored, and occasionally snorted (yes, she sometimes laughs in her sleep; I’ve often thought she must have some hilarious dreams), I sat and thought about Old Man Sun, where might be the best place for him to show off what he could do to an agscape, and how I was going to shoot him.

As I sat in the living room, thinking in the dark, I looked up and out through the dining room window. And who did I see there, but Old Man Sun, surrounded by cacti, and whistling and strumming on a banjo!

By now, it was about 9 p.m. I knew that if I went out to set up for shooting this, it was going to make for a long night. Aside from the time involved shooting, there would be the stitching, and any other post-processing I might decide upon. I already knew I wanted to use my Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 II USM lens.

And, of course, the Gepe. Since in this case the subjects would be quite close to the camera, I knew the 40-inch side-to-side slide, with the camera in portrait mode, was going to give me the ability to end up with a very high resolution print.

I also figured given the drastic contrast between the areas that were lit, and those that were in deep shadow, I was going to shoot for HDR, or high-dynamic range.

Yes, it was looking to be a long night.

I gathered up my tools — the camera, with the 85 mm and a remote trigger; my Sekonic L-758DR spot meter; a mini-flashlight; and my tripod, with the Gepe mounted between it and the tripod head — and headed to the RV pad beside the house. I set up about four-to-six feet from the subjects, and tried to align the Gepe as close to parallel to the fence as possible, without getting out a tape measure. At that distance, the Gepe was just a wee bit short of taking in the whole scene. So I ran the camera all the way to one end, and rotated the head atop the Gepe just a hair for the first set of shots. I then rotated the head back so the sensor was parallel to the fence, took another “slice” of the scene, slid the camera over towards the center-post to get another slice, and so on, finishing off with another slight rotation at the end to get the opposite side. I ended up with a total of five “slices” of the total scene, and three exposures for each “slice.”

My Manfrotto 161MK2B heavy-duty tripod with Gepe slide mounted between the tripod and 808RC4 Manfrotto head.
My Manfrotto 161MK2B heavy-duty tripod with Gepe slide mounted between the tripod and 808RC4 Manfrotto head.

I had intended to shoot a set of five different exposures to combine later in Photomatix 5. My camera, however, is not capable of doing that via auto-bracketing under those lighting conditions. Even shooting at f/6.3 for all frames, my bright exposures were 30 seconds. To get longer than 30 seconds — I haven’t looked this up, but it appears to be the case — I’d have to handle the bracketing myself, calculating exposures for, and shooting, individual single shots.

Incidentally, I should probably also mention that for maximum sharpness, and because I was shooting in the dark anyway, I utilized Live View. This locks the mirror in the up position for all exposures in the bracketed sequence. Otherwise, even if you lock the mirror up, it’s going to drop down between each exposure. That’s going to make auto-bracketing not so much fun.

So based on my spot metering, and my intended outcome for the image as I pre-visualized it, I ended up with exposures at 30 seconds, 0.8 seconds, and 5 seconds, all at f/6.3. (I also ran a set at f/8.0, but I haven’t processed these. I doubt they will turn out as well, since as dark as the scene was, the shutter speed isn’t ideal for capturing a very bright image with auto-bracketing.)

As per my usual HDR workflow, I processed the selected images first in Photomatix 5. I’m set up so that when I save in Photomatix, the image automatically opens in Photoshop CS6. Using the Photomerge (File -> Automate… -> Photomerge…), I added all the open files and let Photoshop do the heavy lifting.

In order to massage these particular images into what I had in mind, I ended up with approximately 20 layers. At least three of these were dodge-and-burn layers dedicated to different aspects of the image. Three separate Adjustment layers handled yellows, while I also did some tweaking on greens, blues, and Vibrance, as well as adding some Curves adjustments. (Because Bunny has bright solar-charged spotlights on what she calls her “Cactus Garden Fence,” the tonal range was quite dramatic. I probably should have shot with longer exposures, but didn’t for the reason given above.)

So far, I’ve printed one proof on a 17 by 22 inch sheet of Museo Silver Rag. That print looks great, with amazing sharpness. Because of the custom aspect-ratio, I’m going to probably want to print the final print-for-sale on a roll, so that I get a full 17-inch height. Based on the aspect-ratio, that should give me about a 34-inch long print that will look spectacular mounted above one of our hutches.

And that, my friends, is how the Sun and I roll at night.

  1. More accurately, not wanting to suffer the wrath of Bunny if I did buy a digital medium-format! []

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