QOD 8/16/2017: What gear do you use? How much time do you spend in post-processing?

by | Aug 16, 2017 | QOD | 2 comments

With gear, it’s always easier to show instead of tell.  I’ve always been a bit of a minimalist when it comes to gear; this is the heaviest I’ve ever been in terms of stuff.  Check out the cell phone snap below to see the typical contents of my photography bag; dog is optional!

On Gear:

Tripods:  the two tripods are Really Right Stuff TVC-33’s with BH-55 ball heads equipped with screw-tension knobs.  Why two?  Redundancy.  I’ve started taking on assignment work more and more.  When there is a deadline and a promise to provide, a tripod failure would mean non-fulfillment and that’s not an option.  I still believe in the old saying that my word is bond.  Why screw knobs versus levers?  I’ve had bad experiences with levers; they don’t hold up in my world.  Also, screw tension knobs allow me mental assurance each time I personally set the tension.  Why Really Right Stuff?  Best tripod I’ve ever owned, hands down (not paid to say that).  They are strong, light, agile, wide, durable, easy to take apart and reassemble.  The tripod is the most important part of any landscape photographers kit in my opinion; invest here first!  What’s with the duct tape?  Well, if you’re wondering, it is certainly possible to kill an RRS tripod, although it’s difficult.  Salt water in the internal hinge mechanisms will corrode and tighten the legs; splaying the tripod to get low to the ground will require extra elbow grease as a result.  Over time, the manufacturer’s contact cement that serves to anchor the legs to the tripod will break down and the legs will literally fall out.  I simply reapplied my own contact cement, used the duct tape as a temporary hold as it set, and then just left it on (convenient way to distinguish tripods).  It has been over two years since that fix and the legs are better than ever.

Cameras and lenses:  my primary landscape camera is a Nikon D810.  The second camera you see is an older model Canon 5D Mark II (yes, I shoot with both Nikon and Canon!).  The Canon was a hand-me down from my mother; I use it solely with a 100mm macro lens for my small work.  Given a choice, I prefer Nikon camera bodies for their controls.  I’m just more comfortable with the operation of the camera.  Both Nikon and Canon output beautiful images.  My three primary lenses for landscape work are the 17-35mm f2.8, the 24-70mm f2.8, and the 70-200mm f2.8.  Truth be told though, I use the 17-35mm wide-angle lens for 90% of my work.  The 24-70mm was a recent addition to cover a middle range that I needed only occasionally.  The 70-200mm is a rare use lens for me in landscape work, and I think my copy is pretty crappy anyhow to be honest. My biggest fear with my camera is the lack of redundancy; a second D810 is something that would ease my mind greatly.  Unfortunately, my finances do not agree!

Filters:  I still use screw-on filters primarily.  I know that they are not as flashy as the big square jobs that you see folks with, nor are they as flexible in application.  But, for me, they are convenient and fast and don’t take me out of the creative pocket.  I don’t even think about them, and that’s how I like it.  I use a circular polarizer, 0.6 graduated ND, and a 1.2 neutral density.  I have a ten-stop ND as well, but I don’t believe I’ve ever used it.  The brown package you see is my sole square filter, a 0.6 reverse ND graduated filter that they don’t make in circular; I simply hand hold it when necessary.

Remote release:  I use the remote shutter trigger almost always.  The tiny remote you see is a Vello Freewave Micro.  There is a receiver that you screw into the front of your camera’s remote slot (it is on in the photo).  Then you can keep this little guy in your pocket and use it for triggering the shutter.  I find this gadget much more convenient than using in-camera delay or fussing with a wired remote hanging from the camera.  I seem to break them frequently because I’m rough on things; I buy a new one almost every year as a maintenance item.  I also have a cheap wired remote in the bag for backup.

Bag:  I’m still using an old F-Stop Loka bag.  Loved it since I tried one.  They are made for hiking.  All other bags seem geared towards airport or urban use and are extremely uncomfortable when worn on the trail.  This bag has been very durable and fits more gear than I care to carry on extended outings.  The only shortcoming for me is when I need to carry camera gear and camping gear.  In that situation, I wish this bag were slightly larger.

On Post-Processing:

To the first question, none of my work is straight out of the camera (SOOC).  I shoot every image in RAW mode and thus, each image requires some degree of post-processing to bring the file back to some resemblance of what was actually seen in the field.

And so, here’s where I’m probably not the best barometer for comparison!  I currently do not use Photoshop in any capacity whatsoever for photo editing.  I’ve been studying pretty intensely how to do so; this past month I’ve spent over 1k on tutorials to bring myself up to speed on all things Photoshop (blending, compositing, luminosity, dodging and burning etc. etc.).  I completely understand the versatility and value of Photoshop as a result and I feel much more comfortable in conversation with others now.  However, I’m still unsure as to how much or when I’ll begin using Photoshop with my own work.  I feel many of the techniques, while resulting in beautiful effects, have a tendency to make photographs look “unreal” to me and to distance me from the work.  I think about the process itself and the talent of the retoucher him or herself; what I’m not thinking about, however, is the place and how much I wish I were experiencing it.  When I find the right balance between Photoshop and my own work to mitigate that disconnect, perhaps I’ll jump into more.

I current do all of my photo editing in Lightroom.  As to the typical amount of time it takes to run an image through a full process, it really depends on the image itself.  Sunrises, sunsets and dynamic lighting situations require more work to balance color and dynamic range.  Other times, an image is pretty darn close right out of the camera; it needs some black and white tweaks, a bump of this and that here and there and I’m happy with the result.  This might take five minutes end-to-end.  I would say that my actual time with each image is somewhere between 10 and 25 minutes (though I’ve admittedly never really paid much attention to absolutes).

This question is particularly difficult for me to answer, though, because I don’t process images linearly.  It is a disjointed process that can take weeks, months and/or, in some circumstances, years.  The first thing I do is offload my memory cards into Lightroom and scan through the images looking for something that catches my eye.  I mark those images with a flag or star rating to know where to return later.  I then usually head back into the field and put some distance between myself and the creation of the images.  Truth be told, I’m typically always very disappointed with what I see on the computer when I return from a trip.  The experience and the memory is too raw; my expectations are never usually met with the images I’ve captured.  I have to put some space between myself and the actual capture to begin to appreciate what I’ve actually got.  So, I’ll return to the images a week or two down the road and begin to revisit those that caught my eye.  I’ll spend fifteen minutes or so adjusting the global controls, setting some white and black points of sorts, doing any localized balancing necessary for particularly bright or dark areas, bumping vibrance and clarity to taste, and then proceed to cleanup any dust spots etc.  And then I’ll take another spell away from the image, sometimes a couple hours and sometimes a number of days.  I’m never really happy with my first edits.  I push too hard or not enough.  My colors are not quite right.  You name it.  These tweaks are usually minimal, but take considerable time because I’m really splitting hairs and constantly toggling between what was and what is and asking, “did this change really do anything positive to how the image reads?”

To shoot you straight here, I’ve always felt very inadequate on the computer and as a result, I’ve felt that my work is decidedly less professional than others because I don’t maximize programs like Photoshop.  The artistry that I’ve witnessed when a photographer brushes in dodge and burn lighting is really spectacular.  Or the compositing work that an architectural photographer does–it’s really quite enlightening what is possible with knowledge and technology.  With respect to landscape photography, I’ve come to realize that there are a couple of post-processing philosophies going.  I tend towards front-loading the capture, while others view capture simply as a data grab:  get as much as possible on the card and then mold, shape, and finish later in the computer.  I do the opposite.  I spend an inordinate amount of time outside, getting to know places, and just simply waiting…waiting for the conditions to fall within the parameters that will work with my particular style and process.  The photograph, for me, is essentially finished at the point of capture with the exception of moving the raw file back into acceptable parameters to resemble the actual scene.  I think, like most things in life, the optimal result would be some mixture of front loading capture and maximizing the computer together, and that’s where I’ll likely ultimately head with my own work.


Situating Post-Processing:

Any time I’m asked about post-processing I always try to place it into the photographic process as well for emphasis.  If we define the photographic process as involving 1) the artist, 2) the place, 3) the capture, and 4) the post-process, it’s important to point out that post is the last component that we should concern ourselves with along the path towards a finished photograph.  Some quotes that I think reinforce this:

The Artist - “A good photograph doesn’t come from a camera, but from the heart and mind.” (Arnold Newman)
The Place - “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.” (Jim Richardson)
The Capture - “What you can get out of an image is limited only by what you start with at default.” (Jeff Schewe)
Combination - “The challenge to the photographer is to command the medium, to use whatever current equipment and technology furthers his [her] creative objectives, without sacrificing the ability to make his [her] own decisions.” (Ansel Adams)

So, post-processing is very important; it impacts capture and is the finishing touch to really accentuate both the place and the artist intention.  However, the artist drives the process and the photo is only as good as the place allows. You can’t process a bad capture of an uninteresting place.  Nor can you expect a beautiful process of a great capture with no artist intention to be interesting.  Be intentional as an artist, invest in figuring out yourself and your own goals first and foremost.  Then, stand in front of great, inspiring scenes, and finally, capture and process a spectacular photograph that reinforces who you are and what you believe in!

Got a question?  Fire away!  Use the comments section below and keep an eye on the blog in the near future for an answer.

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