Checking out the Slopes – HDR or Not?

When we visited the Snowbowl Ski Resort recently, they had just had their first snowfall of the year the previous night.  It wasn’t enough to completely cover everything, but it was certainly enough to cause some excitement among the people who had driven to the top of the mountain just to view the scenery.  And, of course, the kids were thrilled.

I was happy to get a chance to photograph snow at the same time I was shooting pictures of the aspens.  I was shooting everything in bracketed series of three (-2.0/0.0/+2.0), in both RAW and JPG format, just to try and cover my options for processing.  I wasn’t sure whether I would want to give these the HDR treatment, or just work with the single images.

Here’s an example of just how different the processes can be.  I took this shot just around 1:00 in the afternoon.  It was heavily overcast, with low-hanging clouds and fog in the trees just a few hundred yards above where we were.  It was a tricky lighting scenario with the dark pines, white snow, golden aspens and gray clouds.  There was a guy and his two kids climbing the slopes, offering a great perspective of how large the trees and the slope are.

Here’s the shot I took at “normal” exposure (I had set the camera to Aperture Priority mode), and let the camera control the shutter speed.  This one was at F/14 at 1/100 second, with the Nikon D5000’s equivalent of ISO 100.  I tweaked this one a little bit in Topaz Adjust (yeah, I went ahead and purchased it last night), and then did a little more adjusting in Paintshop Pro X3 (CLICK THE IMAGES TO VIEW LARGE!):

Now here is the same shot, but processed as an HDR by merging the three bracketed images in Photomatix v4.  I used the Fusion preset in Photomatix, and used the de-ghosting functionality to take care of the movement of the hikers between the three shots.  I then did some adjusting in Topaz Adjust, with final tweaks in Paintshop Pro, and here’s the result:

I like the way the HDR kept the gray of the clouds while highlighting the gold of the aspens, and this one obviously has more detail of the snow on the pines but to me it looks over-processed.  And I don’t think either of the images are exactly what I saw, color-wise.

So, I’ll keep practicing and processing until I get better at using the software as well as the camera.  But, it was sure fun seeing the snow last week.  Hopefully it’s a sign of a good ski season just around the corner.

Snowbowl On the Cusp of Winter

Tonight I went back to processing photos from the Snowbowl near Flagstaff.  If you’ve been keeping up here, we visited the Snowbowl last Saturday, right after they had received their first snow of the season.  On our drive up the mountain we stopped several times to photograph the beautiful aspens that still had most of their golden leaves.  Although the skies were mostly cloudy, occasionally the sun would peak through, and that’s when I would shoot like mad trying to get as many exposures as possible before the next cloud covered the sun.

I was doing almost all my shots in bracketed series of three (-2.0/0.0/+2.0) .  This first shot is an HDR image produced from one of those series.  I used Photomatix V4 to merge the images.  Fortunately, this must have been one of those moments when the breeze stopped blowing for a few seconds, because I couldn’t find a lot of evidence of ghosting.  I then applied a slight contrast adjustment in Topaz Adjust (I’m trying out the trial version), and then did some final adjustments using Curves and Sharpening tools in Paintshop Pro X3:

This next image is also an HDR of one of the ancillary ski lifts at the Snowbowl Ski Resort.  The main lift (not pictured), which is a little further up the mountain, was running that day, carrying visitors to the top of the mountain just for the viewing experience, which was probably minimal because of the heavy cloud cover.  The snowfall from the previous night had reached down to 9,200′ which was right about  where that main lift started, but it didn’t get down quite as far as this smaller lift.  You can just get a glimpse of snow in the background, and you can see how heavy the cloud cover was.  There’s a lot of mountain hidden in those clouds!  I loved the massiveness of this huge weight on the lift machinery.  The dark, black metal of the lift is accentuated by the heavy gray clouds, but one can just imagine that in a few weeks the entire scene will be softened by a white covering of snow:

I used the same general process on this shot as the first one–Photomatix, Topaz Adjust, Topaz DeNoise and Paintshop Pro.  There is still more noise in the clouds than I would like, but when I tried to remove it I was losing detail in the shadows of the machinery.  Guess I need to play around with that tool a lot more to learn its nuances.

It was almost 90° here in the Phoenix area today.  It really made me wish I was back up in Flagstaff where we were last weekend.  It’s so hard to remember that it’s almost November when it’s so hot outside.  Much more fun to drive north and play in the snow!

Fall Color and Frustration

This is one of those days when I’m not satisfied with anything that I’m working on, in the digital darkroom at least.

Before I even started trying to process any of the shots from last weekend, I downloaded the trial version of Topaz Adjust and six other Topaz products (they have a great deal on their bundle right now).  I wanted to see how Topaz might handle some of the single exposure shots that I took of the aspens.  Even though I took almost every shot as a bracketed series of three, I knew there would be some issues with processing them as HDR’s because of how windy it was last Saturday.  I was thinking that I might just stick to processing the single exposures, and I wanted to see how some of the presets in Topaz Adjust might render them.

Anyway, after downloading the bundle, it took me a little while to get it to work in Paintshop Pro, not because I had installed it incorrectly, but because I was testing it on a raw NEF file.  Evidently, TA doesn’t play well with raw NEF files (at least in Paintshop Pro).  When I fed it a JPG or TIFF file, there was no problem. But by then I had wasted an hour and was ready to move on.

So then I decided to start looking through the bracket sets to see if there were good candidates for HDR.  You know how it is, you take all these shots and in your mind you imagine how great they’ll be….but then they just don’t turn out like you pictured them.  That’s been my evening.

Here are a couple of HDR’s that I produced this evening, using Photomatix V4 (I’m still trying to decide if I like it or not), with follow-up processing in Paintshop Pro.  These were taken on Snowbowl Road, north of Flagstaff, Arizona, using a Nikon D5000 with the kit lens (18-55mm), tripod-mounted:

Autumn Color 001

Autumn Color 002

I mean, I think they’re okay, but still they’re not as crisp and detailed as I would have liked.  I did run them through Topaz Adjust just to see how the presets would render them–it was pretty freaky and not at all an improvement.  I know I need to learn more about processing, and maybe I shouldn’t have tried to do these as HDR’s.  But you never know until you try.

Let me know what you think (and be gentle!).