Venturing into the woods to capture the first light streaming through the canopy is one of the special moments in photography. There’s a true feeling of satisfaction in shooting forest photography, particularly on bright autumn mornings, but it also presents its share of challenges – namely, how to get a good exposure. In this tutorial we explain how to set up your camera to shoot high-contrast photography, and then edit your bracketed exposures on the computer.
To demonstrate the challenges of high-contrast photography, we visited Stockhill Woods in Somerset’s Mendip hills for our shoot – you’ll need to find a bit of forest where the canopy isn’t too dense, so the sunlight can get through, and which has attractive ground cover.
You’ll need to check a few things before you head out for your shoot. First up you’ll need to keep an eye on the weather: you’ll want a mostly clear sky, although if there’s a bit of early morning mist this will add some atmosphere to your image.
Second, you need to check the sunrise time, as you want to be on location, set up and ready to shoot before the sun appears.
And third, make sure that you know where the sun is going to rise, so you can work up your composition beforehand; we all know the sun rises in the east, but the exact position actually varies between northeast and southeast, depending on the time of year.
Because our sunrise scene will inevitably have very high contrast it would be virtually impossible to capture the full range of tones, from highlights to shadows, in a single exposure, so we’ll shoot three bracketed exposures, then combine the images in Elements.
How to set up your camera to shoot high-contrast photography
01 Location and timing
Find a piece of woodland where the trees are closely spaced, but the canopy isn’t too dense – tall pine trees are ideal, as the tall, thin trunks allow plenty of sunlight to get through. Choose a morning when there are no clouds to diffuse the light, so that you get attractive rays of sunshine. Before our shoot we scouted the location, and made sure we knew where the sun was going to rise – a compass comes in handy here!
02 Tripod and remote
You’ll need a tripod because you’ll be shooting relatively long exposures, and also because you’ll be bracketing your exposures (see step 3), so you want your images to align perfectly when you combine them in Elements.
When you’re shooting long exposures you need to avoid touching the camera, as this can create vibrations that will cause blurred images. It’s useful to have a remote shutter release to fire the shutter, but if you don’t have one you can use the self-timer mode on your DSLR.
03 Exposure bracketing
As our scene includes both direct sunlight and deep shadows the contrast range is vast, so we’ll use exposure bracketing to capture three shots two stops apart to capture the full tonal range.
To set this up go to the main menu and select the exposure compensation/AEB option. Move the markers two stops apart; this means that, for example, if the ‘standard’ exposure is 1/4 sec at f/16 and ISO100, the camera will take the subsequent exposures at 1/15 sec and 1 sec.
04 Aperture and ISO
Set your camera to Aperture Priority (Av) mode, and set the aperture to f/16; in addition to ensuring front-to-back sharpness the narrow aperture will also create a starburst effect in the rays of sunlight, caused by light diffraction around the aperture blades in the lens.
Keep the ISO at 100 for maximum image quality. In low light at these settings the camera is likely to select a shutter speed between 1/30 sec and 3 secs.
Focus the scene manually using Live View mode. Switch your lens to Manual focus, then on the rear LCD zoom in on the closest tree in the foreground of the scene. As we’re shooting at f/16 and using a wide-angle lens we can be confident that if this area is sharp then our image is going to be sharp from front to back. Rotate the focusing ring until the zoomed-in area on the LCD screen is at its sharpest.
06 Make the most of the light
Once the sun is up you’ll have about an hour of good light, providing the sun stays out; as the sun gets higher the effect won’t look as good, so you need to work as fast as you can.
As we’ve set up our camera to bracket-expose the scene you’ll either need to press the remote three times to take a set of images, or select the Continuous drive mode and press and hold the shutter button to take the three shots.
PAGE 1 – How to set up your camera to shoot high-contrast photography
PAGE 2 – How to blend exposures to make a high-contrast photography composite: steps 1-5
PAGE 3 – How to blend exposures to make a high-contrast photography composite: steps 6-10
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