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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

You Wish You Were Here

Brandon Riza’s spectacular mountain photographs transport the viewer into the place and the moment. They’re invitations to adventure.

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Riza also bucks another photographic convention, preferring to underexpose slightly to ensure he retains detail and doesn’t blow out highlights. “I shoot underexposed,” he explains, “because it allows me the dynamic bandwidth to pull up areas in post from the RAW data that are too dark without introducing grain. If you overexpose, it’s very hard to recover your details. It can be done, but I find that underexposing does it better. If you expose for the terrain and your cloud or snow highlights get blown out, there’s only so much recovery you can perform, and sometimes you can’t recover anything at all. If you expose for your sky and let the terrain fall—underexpose—you can pull up the terrain and leave the whites where they are.”

Depending on lens selection, Riza makes several exposures per setup. The wider the lens, the smaller the finished composite will be because he needs considerably more overlap to minimize distortion. With telephotos, though, he has gone upwards of 200 individual exposures to create an immense and detailed final image. Still, time-consuming as the process may be, it remains fairly straightforward.

“I used to do it by hand in Photoshop,” Riza says. “It would take me days to get one done. Now I use Kolor’s Autopano Giga to stitch images—the best software I’ve found for the purpose. I tweak various parameters—horizon leveling, projection mapping type—and then render the pano to a 16-bit image format. From there, I continue developing in Photoshop if need be. Crop. Save. Done.”

Adds Riza, “Any camera can be a pano camera if the user knows what he’s doing. Being able to carry a camera as essentially small and light as the Canon EOS 5D Mark II into the mountains and coming back with all the data you need to stitch up 35,000-pixel-wide panos is, for me, infinitely more sensible than carrying an older camera built for wide vistas before the technology advanced to a point that rendered it unnecessary.”

Ultimately, no matter how he makes them, Riza wants his photographs to remain true to life—especially the shots of Neutron, his altimeter or his self-portraits because they also serve a very real personal purpose.

“I like to refer to those as maintenance photos,” says Riza, “as in ‘memory maintenance.’ I see them and I remember. The pics of my altimeter and GPS just offer proof-positive that I stood X. I like to document key points in my life. Standing on top of Aconcagua was a key point. I can look at the shots of myself bundled up at the summit and think, ‘Man, I’m glad I did that. Man, I’m glad I’m back.’”

Brandon Riza’s Technique From Exposure To Stitched Image

Given Brandon Riza’s extensive experience with digital imaging and 3D graphics—he worked on Star Wars game cinematics for Lucasfilm—it’s somewhat surprising how natural and unaffected his landscapes are. The “why” is because he wants viewers to see what he saw, experience the mountains as he did during a climb. He couldn’t provide that if his pictures looked like paintings. The “how” is also fairly straightforward.

Riza’s approach to panoramas is no different than most: make multiple overlapping exposures to be stitched together in post. The most unreal aspect of his landscapes is the fact that they aren’t made from a single exposure. Though Riza says photography and 3D VFX go hand in hand, he approaches each quite differently. “I sort of view my photography as revenge against 3D,” he says.

“My process is as follows,” explains Riza. “First, proper lens selection; I’m a sucker for sharpness. I don’t shoot with any filters; I shoot underexposed and only in RAW. I shoot multiple shots per image, depending on what lens I’m using, how much overlap I need for the stitch and how large I want the final to be. In essence, the wider the lens, the smaller the final will be as compared to the same shot captured with a tele. I’ve done telephoto stitches comprised of 200 20-megapixel images. Makes for a huge final.

“I process images, if need be,” he continues, “leveling tones, gamma correcting, etc., and I output all of the constituent frames as 16-bit-per-channel files, usually TIFFs.”

Then it’s time for the stitch. What used to be the most time-consuming and mind-numbing part of the process (when he was doing it by hand in Photoshop) is now much more efficient and effective, thanks to what Riza calls “the best software I’ve ever found for stitching.” Kolor’s Autopano Giga software allows the photographer to create panoramas automatically while still providing the control to make subtle tweaks for perfect alignment.

In the end, Riza may create gigapixel-sized panoramas, but his primary concern isn’t the technique or even the photograph itself. Ultimately, what he wants to create is a document that helps share his climbing adventures with an audience. The most straightforward images offer the best means to that end.

To see more of Brandon Riza’s photography, go to www.brandonriza.com.


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