Shooting Capelinhos Volcano

What you see above is a shot I thought I would never be able to take.
The subject is Capelinhos, a volcano located on Faial Island in the Azores.
I have been there quite a few times but, as my pictures were never really satisfactory, I ended up thinking there was no convincing composition possible for that spot.

Of course, that was a silly thought. You know how it goes... you search the web for images of the place you are planning to shoot and, usually, you quickly find a whole bunch of amazing ones.
Well, with all respect, that was not the case for me with Capelinhos, giving me a second reason to believe the volcano was way more dramatic than it is photogenic.

It goes without saying that I was soon to change my mind. For my birthday this year, my wife Dania booked a 2-night stay very close to Capelinhos.
Guess what? Having two sunrises and two sunsets at my disposal made it a totally different ball game.
I know what you are wondering: - Why the hell did I keep shooting Capelinhos in harsh daylight before? -
Good question. The answer is that I always had to catch the last ferry to Pico after my shoots in Faial.

The important point here is not that the golden hour is a much better time for photography. We all know that.
What I am trying to say here is that light is absolutely everything for Capelinhos and I guess it has to do with its monotone colour in daylight.

Look at one of my previous shots there:

While the image above sells reasonably well locally as a postcard, I do not find the foreground nearly as interesting as the one I picked for my April 2017 shot. Yet, I had to include quite a lot of that foreground in the picture, since I needed to be far enough from the subject to keep both the volcano and the lighthouse in the frame.

As an alternative, I could have had the sky filling 2/3 of the frame from the top, leaving just 1/3 for the volcano and the lighthouse. But then again, the sky was not so interesting that day at 1pm.

Now, one year later, it is easy for me to criticise the composition above:

  1. I should have moved more to the left and include more water in the frame.
  2. I should have shot wider.
  3. I should have looked for a more interesting foreground, such as rocks and boulders (as in my best shot of Capelinhos).
  4. I should have shot lower (to make those rocks and boulders more interesting).

Easier said than done, right? But once again, light is absolutely everything for Capelinhos, no matter what composition you choose.

The place looks very dramatic and almost scary. You walk around and it does not take long until you realise that something apocalyptic happened there.
In 1957-1958 the volcano erupted for 13 months in a row. It all started with a submarine eruption and then involved lava bombs, pyroclastic clouds as well as lava streaming into the ocean.
A new island even emerged off the cape, which sank again in the Atlantic Ocean shortly after.
Although there were no casualties, thousands of people had to leave their homes.

In 1958, the United States of America helped through the so called Azorean Refugee Act, by authorising the emigration of 1500 people. Among the Congressmen sponsoring the act was a young Senator of Massachusetts named John Fitzgerald Kennedy

The first floor of the ruined lighthouse you see in my shot is still completely buried in ashes and sand.
Considering that Flores (the westernmost island of the Azorean archipelago)  lies within the North American plate, the volcano of Capelinhos can be considered the westernmost point of Europe.

Back to photography, apocalyptic landscapes and warm tones do not exactly go hand in hand.
Indeed, I do believe the best time to shoot Capelinhos is on the edge of the blue hour (for the non-photographers, it is the time after sunset when everything gets a blue colour cast).

The story behind this shot would not be complete if I did not mention that I actually had a big issue while I was there: I assumed that any of the long exposures I had taken would be long enough to have the dark foreground decently exposed. Well, I was mistaken!

After I exposed for the sky and bracketed two stops higher for the volcano and the rocks, I was ready to get my camera off the tripod and go home. Since I shoot raw, this is normally enough to have details in the darkest parts of my images.

What I did not consider is that I had never shot before as dark a subject as Capelinhos in twilight.
Luckily, I have the habit to double check the histogram of my shots before I wrap up a shoot and, sure enough, it was evident that I had constantly clipped the shadows to such an extent that I would not have been able to recover a clean, reasonably noise-free foreground from any of those exposures.

By that time the sunset was well over and it was getting very dark very quickly.
Drama! What to do? Give up?
Of course not. Landscape photography is all about surviving tonnes of frustration to rarely capture a milligram of magic.

In the end, it was not that bad and I managed to save my shot (and birthday!) with a 72-second exposure in increasing winds.
Although the picture did not look very promising on the back of my camera, I managed to pull off a nice foreground with just a couple of tweaks in Adobe Lightroom:

  1. Exposure: +0.70
  2. Shadows: +100 

Please see below the Before and After:

 

I am extremely happy I was able to get the best of both the golden and blue hour on the evening of the 16th April 2017. That made it indeed a very Happy Birthday!

Below is my final shot, which is a blend of two exposures followed by more post-processing (including setting the white balance, as it is completely off in the image above). 
The picture is available for sale as print, wall art or digital download. My very patient blog readers can get 20% off anything they buy in my portfolio website just by entering the coupon code enricophotoblog2017.

The volcano at the very end of Europe
Click the image to access my eCommerce website.

What a birthday present Dania gave me. Once again, I must thank her for a shot I would not have taken otherwise.
Why 'once again'? Find it out here...

Cheers,
Enrico

References:
Capelinhos. (2017, April 10). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 11:02, April 25, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Capelinhos&oldid=774763529 

Making great shots out of snapshots

Nothing to do with over-processing a single photograph. Rather, I am referring to a technique known as exposure blending, where two or more exposures of the same composition are used to create the final image. I use it mainly for interior design, exteriors and commercial spaces, although it can also be very useful for landscape photography.

Every winter I spend some time in the alps and I love to shoot buildings that I find particularly inspiring.
As an example, here you see my exterior shot of Villa Kofler Wonderland Resort, a beautiful hotel in Campitello di Fassa (Trento, Italy).
The shoot was also an opportunity to meet the owner Mr. Ivo, who made history as a climber in the area and showed me some absolutely stunning pictures of frozen waterfalls he took with his phone the day before!

Back to the main topic, I blended 10 exposures to compose the final image below.



Before I show you those 10 exposures, please have a look at a comparison between an average shot I took that day and the final image I pulled off from my entire shoot.

 Move the vertical slider left or right too see a complete 'Before' or 'After'. 

To me, the image produced by blending several exposures is far more compelling than the average one.

Exposure blending comes in handy in quite a few scenarios. For one thing, no matter how great the dynamic range of your camera is, there will always be scenes that exceed it, so that you end up clipping either the highlights or the shadows, or both. Clipping means that parts of your image become completely white or completely black, so that no information can be recovered from them.

When this happens, you are left with only two options:

  1. Take a single shot, with a combination of aperture, shutter speed and ISO that produces a good compromise.
  2. Take several shots (e.g. normal exposure, + 2 stops, - 2 stops) and blend them together in some way.

To get good results using the first method, you need to have a camera with an amazing dynamic range.
It goes without saying that such cameras tend to be expensive and, no matter how good, the result will always be some sort of compromise.

The second method has the potential to lead to perfection and is all about producing a single shot by combining two or more exposures. It also allows for much cheaper gear, as your camera does not need to have such a great dynamic range.
Several tools are available and HDR software is one of them (HDR stands for High Dynamic Range). These programs are usually easy to use, but there is a tradeoff as they do not provide full control over the final result.

If you do want to have full control (guess what? I do!), you are better off using exposure blending. 
The tradeoff here is that exposure blending requires a fair bit of post-processing. To tell you the truth, it sometimes involves a lot of post-processing, especially if you are blending a lot of images.

What you need to do is brush in and out parts of different exposures to compose a blended image in Adobe Photoshop or similar software, using masks to control what parts of each shot are going to be revealed in the final image.

There is actually more to exposure blending than simply being able to produce high dynamic range images with full control. For example, I love to take several exposures of the same composition at different times of the day. For my final image of Villa Kofler Wonderland Resort, I kept shooting the hotel for 1.5 hours, as natural light and artificial lights changed their intensity and quality from before sunset until it was completely dark.

While this is not intended to be a tutorial on exposure blending, here is a tip: if you are planning to get a final image as a blend of several exposures, it is important to shoot those exposures with that precise idea in mind.
What I mean by this is that you should expose for a single feature at a time, ignoring entirely how under or overexposed all the other elements of your composition are going to be in that particular shot, since you will expose them correctly in a different shot.

Now have a look at the bunch of snapshot-looking images I took to produce the final image of this hotel in the Italian Dolomites: 

 
Exposed for the mountain and nothing else.

 
Façade (pretty dark) + some artificial lights.

 
Façade, + 2 stops over (nice white!).

 
First artificial lights appearing on balconies.

 
Balcony lights + Christmas decorations.
 
Artificial lights again.
 
Terrace and artificially lit façade.
 
Best exposure for the sky.
 
Lights/shadows (electric blue sky not good).
 
Restaurant lights (sky pitch black, not good).

 

If you consider each shot in isolation, they all look pretty average at best. Nonetheless, each exposure had a precise purpose and was key to the final result.

I always stop shooting exteriors once the sky gets completely dark. Also, I am not at all a fan of electric blue skies. With no exposure blending planned, I would not have taken the last two shots in the sequence above.

Here is the final image again:

I reckon the result I achieved with exposure blending is well worth the extra time spent shooting and post-processing the images.

Cheers,
Enrico