“Surrealizing” The Landscape
This Article Features Photo Zoom
on landscape

Last fall, I visited nearby Yosemite Valley to deliver a print and posters to The Ansel Adams Gallery. While heading home, I stopped at the Gates of the Valley turnout just in time for some sunset photography. I’ve lived here for a long time, and I was amazed to see the parking lot full, and a solid line of photographers at work! I wiggled into a decent position and tried some HDR exposures. I’ve made so many images from this location over the past 31 years, it was fun to try something new, and the weather/light was cooperating.

To create this Gates of the Valley image, I first exposed five frames in a bracket at one-stop intervals. I set this up on my Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III using the auto-bracketing feature set to record five frames. The bracketing range can be set from .5 to 3 stops between each exposure. The wider the contrast range of the scene, the wider the exposure range needs to be in order to capture all possible detail in the highlights and shadows.

In postprocessing, I used Photomatix, the most widely used software for “extended range” photography. The five frames were simply selected in Lightroom and dragged onto Photomatix’s Generate HDR Image box to start the process. There are many options in the software for various creative directions. In the case of this image, the image was “double-processed,” meaning it was tone-mapped twice to get a surreal look.

When I posted this image on my blog, the response was dramatically opinionated! It’s certainly not my normal style! I didn’t create this image with the intention of it looking realistic, believable or otherwise accurate. I wanted this “surrealized” look, and I know that it certainly doesn’t look like a traditional landscape. I’ve been intrigued by the HDR imagery of other photographers, so I wanted to experiment with it myself. This is the first successful (at least to me!) surrealistic landscape using Photomatix.

Even though I’ve photographed this location often over 31 years, I only have a few I really like. Those I’ve made with a wide angle look much like everyone else’s. I have three decades of trying to create fresh work in Yosemite, and this HDR is just another effort in that direction. Whether this image endures for me is yet to be determined. Time will tell.

on landscape
Sunrise, Mono Lake, California. Experiments with HDR (High Dynamic Range) can create a more balanced landscape.

HDR also can be used very effectively to create a more traditional photo. I’ve made several over the past year or so. On another photo trip I made last fall, I visited the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. The intention of using HDR with this Mono Lake Sunrise image was to capture the full range of contrast I saw for a realistic look rather than a surreal one. I could have achieved the same without using HDR with just one of the bracketed frames since the contrast wasn’t too extreme, but I’m having fun testing the creative potential of HDR.

I’ve taken all sorts of creative tangents as an artist. I experiment and try out many options when I photograph and so have plenty of failures. By sharing new work such as these HDR experiments here and in my photoblog, I expose my creative efforts, whether successful or not. My hope is to portray a process that I think all creative artists must go through—explore and stretch and grow.

John Sexton once said, “The only difference between me and my students is that I have made more mistakes.” Failure is a natural and vital aspect of learning. Here’s another quote for you, this one from John Paul Caponigro: “…failures aren’t failures if you learn from them—they bring confirmation and direction.”

If you’re willing to experiment and risk failure, you can tap into creative growth! As a teacher, I often see this—students unwilling to take risks, and this inhibits their creativity. Take a chance. Don’t fear failure. Turn your mistakes into learning experiences.

HDR Resources
John Paul Caponigro
HDR articles in Digital Photo Pro (See Parts I through IV) www.digitalphotopro.com

Tony Sweet
HDR Made Easy

Ben Willmore
High Dynamic Range (HDR) Mastery www.digitalmastery.com/content/view/211/104

HDR Software
Photomatix (Mac and PC):www.hdrsoft.com

Bracketeer (Mac) http://pangeasoft.net/pano/bracketeer/

Essential HDR(PC):www.essentialhdr.com

To learn about William Neill’s new e-books, Impressions of Light and Landscapes of the Spirit, Digital Edition, visit his photoblog or sign up for newsletter updates on his courses with BetterPhoto.com, go to www.williamneill.com.

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.