In Focus, Bangkok Photography Blog July 11th, 2009

Wat Rong Khun / HDR III

England Hotel Guide
New Linden Hotel
Duke of Leinster Hotel
Russell Hotel
Waverley House Hotel

Feature Photograph

Atop a shrine on Doi Suthep (Doi Suthep is the name of the mountain where the famous temple often called “Doi Suthep” is located) sits a representation of a monk. This monk is meant to represent and honor the monks who built the temple. It’s rather rich in detail compared to most statues you run across in Thailand. The inscription underneath gives the dates and other details of the statue.

This image is significant not for the subject, but for the technical accomplishments you wouldn’t be aware of from looking at the image. I’ve often said, and I’ll repeat it again, that the 70-200/2.8 IS/VR zoom telephoto lens is the photojournalist's best friend. Even from a distance you can make great detailed captures with relative ease.

This image was shot with the 70-200/2.8 IS at 70mm, F5, and 1/160th. ISO 100. See how far away the shrine is? I was sitting in my car waiting for a friend to come down the stairs and out of boredom picked up my camera with the 70-200/2.8 IS already mounted, and snapped this picture. The engine was idling, the car was vibrating, and I was turned around almost 180 degrees in my seat. The image looks rather ordinary.

Then I thought that a close up of the figure/statue might make an interesting capture, so without changing any other settings I slowly rotated the zoom and from the exact same position captured the Feature Photograph above. This is the sort of situation that makes the 70-200/2.8 IS so useful for photojournalism and any use that requires a high quality versatile lens. The feature photograph merely shows you what’s possible with such a lens at the ready.


Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai

In previous columns I’ve teased you with select images of Wat Rung Khun and some decent descriptions, and in this column I put it all together in one place.

Wat Rong Khun is perhaps the most unusual Thai Buddhist temple in the country. It is solid white in appearance, almost like white glass (when clean), and began construction in 1998. It appears a few more years will be needed for completion.

Above is the most fancy restroom I’ve seen in Thailand. At first you mistake it for another grand building, perhaps a museum or display hall, and then with a closer look you notice the gender displays and signs.

This is a sad indictment on the behavior of foreigners in the Kingdom. At first take we suspected they were just trying to drum up business for the tour guides, but on this slow day with plenty of guides available the lady at the gate smiled and waved us in. I strongly suspect they screen your appearance and demeanor on an individual basis, and perhaps maintain a bit of a bias against the bus loads of Koreans and Chinese who have the tendency to be very loud and in fact disrespectful of religious and sacred sites in SEA. While I’ve personally witnessed the occasional loud and obnoxious ‘farang’ at these sites, it’s actually quite common to see an entire tour bus of Koreans or Chinese act like rude and boisterous school children, climbing on top of religious artifacts to pose for pictures, yelling loudly in temple areas, and even littering.

Even the gift shops are nice.

This was a very bad day for photography. Very hot, blown out white skies, and the temples themselves were a dirty tan/brown color and not the crisp clean white you see in the advertisements. The images were so bad out of the camera that I took the unusual step of manipulating most of the photographs I’m sharing. Some of them turned out well, others are quite obviously manipulated. This is okay, I’ll be back, probably several times, during the right season and weather. This place is very much worth the effort to photograph at its best.

There are many nicely designed sub buildings, ponds, and landscaping.

Everywhere you look the landscaping is well maintained.

This is a side view of the main bridge you cross over to get to the central temple building. The fountains are nice, but the very hot weather had taken its toll on the grass.

From this view you can see the central temple building.

Yes, this image is heavily manipulated. Unfortunately the original image was so poor I felt the manipulation would be more a help than a distracter. From this view you can see the big teeth you pass through to the bridge entrance, the bridge, and the central temple.

This is a frontal capture as you go through the teeth and enter the beginning of the bridge. The skulls and reaching hands in the pits to the sides represent the artist’s depiction of eternal hell. The contrasting beauty and stark horror work well together.

A closer shot of the reaching hands which I shared in an earlier (along with a more complete description) column as the feature photograph.

I thought a properly toned black and white image would work well.

With an ultra-wide angle lens you can play with the many perspectives afforded by the modern architecture.

This temple has no resident monks. At least not in the traditional sense. These orange robed monks were merely visitors like everyone else. There were quite a few of them.

From the central temple building facing back over the bridge. The fountains on each side were nice and provided a limited cooling effect.

This is along the far side of the central temple building. Notice the rich detail and play on directional light?

This is the sort of detail that catches your eye and demands a closer look.

A closer look.

Resident or not, the monks seem to fit in with the temple and make for an interesting compositional contrast.

As you exit the rear side you head out towards the way you walked in.

Most of the trees and landscaping is immature, save for this grand old tree providing much needed shade.

Facing the rear of the central temple building.

This is very much a “must visit” destination. The galleries are open to the public and hold some of the most unusual art you’ll see in Thailand. Sex, sin, astrology, beauty, there’s a bit of everything in this temple. Most temples hold little real interest, you see the exteriors, perhaps a nice Buddha on the interior, and you’ve seen them all. This temple is much different. From its art, fancy restrooms, gift shops, and much more.. you can tell this was built for you to enjoy. And of course it’s turned into a commercial endeavor. You won’t regret putting this temple on your list.


HDR III Some Examples

High Dynamic Range (HDR) image processing continues to be popular, and for good reason. Done properly, and with an HDR appropriate scene, some really nice images result.

The problem is that even though the concept is easy enough to understand, the actual application takes skill and experience. This isn’t to say a relatively inexperienced photographer shouldn’t be attempting HDR images, far from it. The experience gained through the process is invaluable for many parts of your skill set building. What I will say, is that you should expect to spend a significant amount of time perfecting all the variables involved with the technique. This isn’t simply entering values. This is about nuances, experience, personal taste, and more.

A fairly new but promising photographer send in this result of HDR processing and tells me:

“Steve, it just doesn’t look right. What am I doing wrong?”

He sent in two examples. An exterior of the Sanctuary of Truth, and an interior of the same temple.

At first take it's an interesting image. Then you start to notice a color cast in the sky, darker areas along the roof line which could be better lit, and the strongly saturated base. It’s nice, it could be better.

Let’s talk about the conditions and setup for this image. I was with him when he captured the exterior set of images. More, because his camera malfunctioned I loaned him my own camera. I also provided the tripod, external shutter release, and talked him through the exposures. He pointed the camera and following my advice learned what to look for in an HDR friendly scene, and how to capture it for maximum effect.

When we left Bangkok for the day it was raining. He was hesitant, not sure if we’d drive all that way and come up with a rainy drab scene. I was a bit more optimistic. After all, I’d just written more than a few pieces on getting out there during rain storms and looking for that rare shot with the dark rain swollen clouds in the background, and the sky opening up providing a beautiful directional light. I had to be optimistic. Put up or shut up time.

Ok, I got lucky. A few minutes on site and we were presented with the most beautiful conditions. The best conditions I’d ever seen for photographing the Sanctuary of Truth in the few dozen times I’ve been here. I was really pumped about collecting some great images to work with.

Then the unthinkable happened. His camera broke. A Canon 40D. What are the odds? A few months old, the failure surprised both of us. What could I do? Yep, I loaned him my professional Canon DSLR telling him I had tons of shots of the SOT. That part was true. As he was shooting the SOT I was already asking him “be sure to send me a few sets of these so I can try processing them.. “ Life is like this sometimes.

When capturing images for a HDR shot you expose for a well exposed sky (usually the brightest part of the scene), and then while maintaining the same aperture you increase shutter speed thereby increasing the exposure on the darker areas of the frame. You do this in 2/3 to 1 stop increments. Depending on the apparent/real dynamic range of the scene you’ll need to capture 2 or more increments. 3 – 5 would be pretty average, 7 – 10 not unusual. You want to use the minimum number of exposures/increments necessary to capture the full dynamic range.

He sends me the above HDR processed images, and then uploads the five exposures he used to my FTP. Looking at the five exposures I could immediately see the image only needed three of the exposures, not five. This is one of the three unprocessed:

Looking at the above image I could see that we needed two other exposures to achieve the full dynamic range of the scene, and because of the orientation of the lens to the building we’d also need to correct for a fair amount of perspective distortion on top of corrections for lens distortions.

This is my workflow. If you’re familiar with the software used you’ll be able to follow along. If not, you’ll get an idea but you’ll really need some more prerequisite experience either through a lot of self-learning, or a single day workshop on just HDR images.

  1. Import the RAW images into Lightroom.
  2. Select the three images you want to process and highlight them.
  3. Choose the Photomatix (www.hdrsoft.com) plug-in and click “Export to Photomatix Pro.”
  4. Once in Photomatix Pro select “process a HDR image” vs. “blending.”
  5. Once it processes the HDR image select Tone Mapping.
  6. Tone mapping has no set rules or guidelines. The controls will react differently to each image depending on the captured scene. This is basically what the Photomatix tutorial says and this is correct. This is where you’ll need to put in your hours of processing practice time to get a good feel for how the controls react to the different types of images you capture.
  7. When done tone mapping close the program and it will bring it back into Lightroom

The seven steps above simply process the raw images into a tone mapped HDR image. The image is far from complete if you want maximum effect. The next steps take place in Photoshop.

  1. From inside Lightroom select the tone mapped HDR image and export it into Photoshop.
  2. Under the “Filters” menu select “distort” and then “lens correction.” Correct the lens distortion.
  3. It still will look off, so now go to “Edit” and use the “Transform” tool to ‘skew’ the image the best you can. These last two steps take a considerable amount of experience so except to spend some time putting in the practice.
  4. Now go to “Images” and choose “Levels” and adjust the levels for maximum effect. This will depend much on personal taste, but you don’t want to clip any highlights or shadows. Take your time on this and make sure you understand exactly what is happening to the image with each slight adjustment. It is easy to miss things here.
  5. Now, go to “Image” and then “saturation” and adjust your final saturation levels in your color channels. Depending on what settings you chose in Photomatix a little to a lot of correction will be necessary.
  6. Choose “Filters” and select your favorite sharpening tool and sharpen to taste. Be careful you don’t overdo it.
  7. Zoom in and check your noise levels. If necessary run the image through your noise reduction plug-in.
  8. “Save” back into Lightroom. You are now ready to export a finished image in any size or image type desired.

Easy right? I’ve tried to cover HDR processing in single day workshops when we’ve already been going strong for 10-12 hours. In such cases it’s only possible to barely touch the surface of the basics. To learn HDR processing correctly, even at a basic level, it would take a full day. But at the end of the day you’d be able to process the image like this:

Pretty cool, eh? Dramatic but no overdone. Much but not all of the perspective distortion is corrected. The stormy dark clouds provide an excellent backdrop, and the temple itself is well exposed but not too much so. Much of this is taste, but this is how I did it.

Could you do close to this good without HDR processing? Sure, but the final result will take 2-3 times more skill and time in Photoshop.. and IMO won’t be as good. It certainly will not stand up to the close scrutiny of a large enlargement. This is what you could expect with a single exposure with the same scene.

It’s still not a bad image. The distortion was done a bit differently. It looks okay at this size, but loses a lot the closer you look.

Okay, now let’s look at the second image of the interior. Before we go any further I have to admit that I was knackered from the heat and was still recovering from being sick, by the time we wanted to do the interior. Instead of going in I retreated back to my SUV to rest in the blessed air-conditioning, but not before explaining how he needed to capture the scenes. Unfortunately I really should have gone in, because the scenes captures weren’t suitable to HDR.

Let’s take a look at the best exposed interior capture.

It looks fine as is, but as I looked at the set of five images I immediately noticed that five images were not enough. The inside was so dark, and the outside so bright, that perhaps as many as 11-13 increments/images were necessary. This would be easy enough to check using the LCD and zooming in on the windows to check exposure, but I failed to mention this finer point before he went in.

The result was all five images had severely overexposed highlights outside the windows. Because the lens being used was a fast 20mm F1.8 lens used at F2.8 (as I suggested), chromatic aberrations manifested in a huge way. Take a look.

See the purple and blue lines running along the vertical and horizontals? This is CA. Usually you can easily remove mild to moderate CA in you raw converter such as Lightroom or ACR. This was so bad it couldn’t be removed.

I went ahead and HDR processed the five images anyway, knowing full well the images would be unacceptable because of the CA. But I processed them so you could get an idea of what HDR would offer in such a scene had we properly captured it in the first place.

Now, imagine this image with blue or cloudy skies showing in the blown out highlighted areas. This would have made an awesome capture! See the directional light on one side of the pillars? The reflections in the floor? Exposure detail in the roof and walls? He was soooo close to perfection.

HDR is like that. You either nail it perfectly, or you don’t.

I hope this helps those of you still working on your HDR techniques gain a little more perspective into the capture and processing of HDR images.

Photography News of Interest

Oh my, yet another “offensive” photograph. This letter to the editor of a newspaper lambasts the paper for using Gettysburg’s most prominent church WITH an OUIJA board on its steps to advertise an antique show. Quite the rant. You can read it here.

Local photography contests are always fun and you never know which images the judges will choose. Criteria can be quite varied. A Vallejo retired police officer won a contest where the image will be used to advertise the city. It’s a nice image. See the image and read about the contest here.

Art and sports are often the first classes to go when schools trim their budgets. It’s nice to see high school students volunteer time and resources to ensure a photography class stays. What do the students have at this private school to help them see the need, that students at public schools don’t? Perhaps their parents financial investment in their education? Read more here.

In this column you’ve heard about the Micro 4/3’s system, a new DSLR which is both small and light and ideal for travel. The Panasonic G1 was the first model available, and now they’ve upgraded it to the G1H which now offers decent HD video recording as well as still images. You can read a review on the Panasonic G1H here.

Readers' Submissions

Steve;

Here are a few night shots I captured in Zheng Zhou.

The Four Towers in the background are the housing complex that Fangs parents live in. Each is 33 stories tall and holds around 4 apartments per floor.

This structure is actually a shopping mall of sorts. The tower is the main store.

Dancing in the park

On top of the illuminated fountain there was a group of ladies practicing their dance moves.

I hope you enjoy them.

Tom

Tom –

Thank you! As always I very much enjoy your travel shots of Thailand and China. Seeing images of China is a real treat for everyone.

Thanks

Steve

I suspect the readers submissions will be a highly anticipated section of this column and I encourage anyone with photographs and travel accounts they'd like to share to please send them to me at: [email protected]

Readers' Questions

Khun Steve:

Extra batteries for my Canon DSLR cost a small fortune. What do you think of the non-OEM (aftermarket) battery brands? Do you use them, and which ones do you find the best? You can save a lot of money with these batteries.

Regards

Kyle

Kyle –

This is an excellent question. Yes, OEM (manufacturers) batteries really do cost a lot. The original batteries for my five year old Canon 1ds Mark II run about $159 USD each. Smaller batteries like for my 30D and XT350 are as much as $79 each.

In contrast after market batteries for my 1ds Mark II can be as little as $39 and $18 for my other cameras. This huge price difference, along with the higher advertised capacity of the batteries, conned me into trying at least five different brands over the last few years. Here are my observations.

Not a single aftermarket battery with its “higher capacity” EVER lasted nearly as long as the original Canon batteries. And their capacity dropped off noticeably within the first 10 – 20 charges.

The batteries for the 1ds Mark II have a little latch which holds them into the camera body. EVERY latch on the aftermarket batteries broke off within 120 days rendering them useless. No matter, by 120 days they were pretty much useless anyway.

The smaller batteries for the 30d and XT350 faired better, but only slightly. They would be okay initially if you used them right after charging, but they wouldn’t hold a full charge longer than a few days. They became so irritating to use that I stopped using them.

I had the same experience with four different aftermarket brands when I was shooting Nikon DSLRs.

In contrast, my five year old ORIGINAL CANON batteries are still going strong, they still hold a charge for weeks (though not as long as when new), and the latches are still attached and working as they should. ALL the aftermarket batteries (3 times as many as the originals) have now been trashed, and ALL the original batteries are still in service and going strong.

By now you’re probably realizing I don’t recommend aftermarket (Non-OEM) batteries. They seem cheaply built, don’t fit in the body as well, don’t hold a charge long, don’t have the capacity, and fail early on a grand scale. And yes, I’ve tried the very best and most recommended brands.

It seems the original Nikon and Canon batteries are really worth the price they charge.

I hope this helps.

Steve

Please submit your questions to [email protected] All questions will be answered and most will show up in the weekly column.


A Snapshot of Bangkok Images Week in Review

Two workshop days this week. One portrait session. And two quotes for other work. Better than last week by a long shot!

Infocus Blog

Blinky Blink Lights

The great thing about a blog is that you get to write whatever you want in it. This week I’m going to rant on a bit about the blinky blink lights you see on Thai cars everywhere these days.

What are they thinking? Does the law allow these? (don’t laugh) These Knight Rider wannabe’s are mounting blinking multicolored lights on the front of their cars that are often so bright they can be dangerously distracting. And lets not forget they’ll often make a tuktuk driver jealous.

Really, do grown Thai adults think these blinky blink lights make them look cool? Really?

Trends for Thai drivers is sometimes hilarious. Have you noticed how many shiny bright red brake calipers bearing the Brembo name you see these days? These expensive brake sets often cost $3000-$4000 USD in the States, yet you see them on every beat out old Honda Civic with race product decals. You’re also finding these brake sets on more and more luxury brand cars. A true status symbol.

And then there’s the steering wheels and gear shift knobs. Of course they wouldn’t be complete without their own blinky blink lights. Steering wheels with blue and red LED lights. Why? Big ugly shift knobs with LED lights. Gimme a break..

How about the big giant tailpipe ends? The ones that make the average Toyota Corolla sound like a 125cc motorbike? The painted stock rims. The antennas with lights. Thai car trends..

And then you put them all together. Knight Rider blinky blink LED lights all over the front and back of the car, red Brembo brake calipers, white painted stock rims, steering wheel with LED lights, gross lighted shift knob, and a big muffler tip that makes the car sound like a chain saw to call attention to al your lights.

The only thing more hilarious than Thai car trends? The DTAC “Happy” commercials they play during the movie previews at the theatre. Not because they’re actually funny, but because everyone else in the theatre thinks they’re funny.

Thai individualism at its best.

Until Next Week..