Elevated Illusions

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Image title: “Elevated Illusions no.1 – Y Bridge”
Location: Denver, Colorado
Gear: Camera: Nikon Df, Lens: Nikkor 24-70 2.8 at 50mm, Settings: 300 seconds at f8 on ISO 100; Other gear: Lee Big and Little Stopper stacked for 16-stops ND light filtration, Induro Tripod with Really Right Stuff BH-55 ball head, ProMaster wireless remote release, basic black hand towel for light-leak blockage on the camera and viewfinder.

Vision: I have embarked upon a series in which I aim to portray a world of bridges as if they appear to be set in a more futuristic time. This illusion is brought forth in the long-exposure capture as well as the processing of light in the final image. My goal is that the end result will be a cohesive set of imagery all working together to tell my story of these “Elevated Illusions”. The long-exposure capture technique is paramount in order to give the image a surrealistic feel of movement, while the post processing technique further drives that notion of surrealism by adding and subtracting light in a unique manner.  

Capture technique: Relying on my graphic design background, I seek a very basic composition using leading lines and basic shapes to drive the viewer’s eye throughout the image. I have to see the image in the viewfinder as a 1:1 aspect ratio, knowing that it will be cropped to square in the end. From there, I simply compose the image, using grid-lines in the camera, to achieve an overall aesthetically pleasing composition with movement.  

Once I have composed the image and locked down everything on the tripod, I set critical focus and determine proper exposure without filters. I like to stay around f8 on most occasions, if I can. This day gave me a 1/250th shutter speed at f8… perfect! That will mathematically translate to 4 minutes and 22 seconds using 16 stops of ND filters for light blockage. I just round that up to 5 minutes knowing that there is a bit of reciprocity failure anyway. After putting on the filters and covering the camera with a towel to block light leakage, I simply wait for the clouds to set up in a pleasing manner and release the shutter for the 5-minute long exposure. This time I nailed it in one take… normally I’m not that lucky! 

RAW processing in Lightroom: 

  1. Basic lens corrections to assure the verticals are straight and parallel.
  2. White balance adjustments (if needed).
  3. Overall global exposure adjustments, contrast added, details brought out in the shadows and highlights, and a tiny bit of clarity added.
  4. Crop to square format.
  5. Export as uncompressed 16-bit TIFF for round-trip processing in Photoshop and Nik Silver Efex Pro by Google.  

Photoshop and Silver Efex processing:

This process is where the fun (but somewhat tedious) part begins. It may be long, but very well worth it in the end. 

  1. The first step is to run the image through Nik Define to remove any noise, other than the hot pixels caused by the long exposure, which are removed with the Spot Healing Brush later.
  2. Now I begin the long process of making individual selections around each separate surface in the image. For example, the side of the bridge is a separate surface from the underneath, which is separate from the lamp poles, etc. Each and every single surface will be given its own selection so that it may be processed by itself and not interfere with the other elements around it. 
  3. To make selections, I use a variety of tools. I use the pen tool, the polygonal lasso tool, and sometimes the paintbrush tool. It all depends on how “hard” of an edge-selection is needed as to which tool I will use. The image above is primarily hard edges and the pen tool works great for me here. I can add some very slight “feathering” to the selection prior to saving it. To keep it simple, I won’t dive too deep into details regarding how to best do this, but rather just simply say there is no right or wrong way. Many others do things in a much different way than I do, but the end results are what matters and this has been my method for quite some time and works well. 
  4. Once a selection is made, it is given a name that I can remember, saved, and shows up as a mask in the Channels panel where it remains so that I can call upon it later. 
  5. Now it is time to take the image into Silver Efex for the black and white conversion.
  6. I make 3 (sometimes 4 or 5) different conversions that become independent layers in Photoshop. One Neutral, one underexposed, and one overexposed conversion. These “exposure” layers are what I will use to add and subtract light in the areas I see fit.
  7. For this series, my vision is to have fairly low-key images to emphasize the surrealism. Here I made 2 underexposed conversions so that one would be much darker for the areas beneath the bridge, on the lower left next to the bridge, and in the sky. 
  8. Back in Photoshop I begin calling upon the selections that I saved earlier, one by one. Here I will add a layer mask to a “working” layer (normally a copy of the Neutral conversion) and bring up a saved selection (for example, the side of the bridge). Just below my working layer is a copy of the overexposed conversion, and by using a black to white gradient on the layer mask I am able to bring out the light from the layer below on just the right hand side of the bridge. Once I’m happy with it, I will merge those two layers, make a copy of the underexposed layer, bring it underneath the working layer, add another layer mask and do the same thing to the left side of the bridge now by bringing out the darks of the layer below with gradient masks in the same way.
  9. It is imperative that I work with layer copies, as I will be merging layers all the time. 
  10. Once I am happy with the bridge, it’s on to the sky. This is actually much simpler than the bridge as I just add one basic gradient mask to bring out the darks in the underexposed conversion layer. I want the sky to remain pretty dark and surrealistic. 
  11. The final step with all of this masking is to “turn on the lights” on the lamp poles. I take a very overexposed conversion, place it below the working layer, add a mask to the working layer, and just bring out the highlights of those very small selection areas of the lamps where the lights reside.  
  12. Once all of this is complete, I take the working layer back into Silver Efex and do some very small adjustments with control points. Certain areas just need some light that spills from one surface to the next and I find this is best done with control points on the (almost) final image. 
  13. Last step is to zoom way in and clean up any leftover hot pixels and fringing areas on the selection edges using the Spot Healing and Clone Stamp tools.  
  14. Save the file and it will automatically reimport back to Lightroom as part of the round-trip process.

Closing statement: This type of processing is not for the faint-of-heart and cannot usually be done in one, or even two sittings; it takes a great deal of time and commitment to go through all of the steps above. I like to think of it as a painter sitting down at a blank canvas…. They don’t simply sit there for a few minutes and walk away with a masterpiece. I treat each image the same as the aforementioned painter by committing to it 100%, investing the time, and am rewarded with an image that is truly a work of FINE ART! 


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I’d love to hear from you and answer any and all questions you may have. Please don’t hesitate to contact me at: www.kevinhollidayphoto.com/contact

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