Grainy Sunset plus Making Of

During my vacation on the Baltic sea, where we planted a tree, I also took some other photos. One of them was a beautiful sunset behind a field of grain and I thought I’d write a bit about what I did to get the final picture:

Grainy Sunset

About the only thing you can do on a camping trip during bad weather is sit inside and read books or visit Restaurants in the area. We had just returned from a dinner trip when the clouds opened up and the sun came through to mark the end of the day. I grabbed my camera bag from the car and the tripod from the tent and rushed towards the coast. I spotted the field of grains and immediately knew what kind of picture I wanted to take. The idea isn’t that original to be honest.

Behind the field, there was a group of trees with a gap in between. I moved around until the sun fit in the middle of that gap, dropped my tripod into the grains and mounted the camera with the Sigma 10-20mm ultra wide angle lens on it. An ultra wide angle lens can be positioned very close to an object and still capture a really big scene. This results in the grains in the front looking very large while the sky with the sun is still visible.

The next important part is how to frame the picture, or in other words, what kind of composition to choose. A simple trick is to divide the image into three equally large horizontal strips. Then let the ground take up two of these strips and the sky one – or vice versa. This looks more interesting than having the horizon in the middle of the picture. The same rule applies in the vertical axis. Divide the picture into three vertical strips and place interesting objects on the borders of these strips. In this case, the only interesting object was the sun. This is called the Rule of Thirds and once you know about it, you see it everywhere. As you can see below, I got pretty close:

Grainy Sunset - Rule of Thirds

With the camera placed on the tripod and the picture framed, I took some photos. Because I was shooting directly into the sun, I had to underexpose the photo. With digital photos it is always better to underexpose photos because dark parts can be made brighter without much effort whereas once a piece of the photo is white, it is lost. So this is what comes out of the camera:

Grainy Sunset - Original

I take all photos in raw format where the camera saves all the information it receives from the sensor and doesn’t yet convert it into a picture that can be viewed. This allows me to use extremely powerful software where I can fine-tune many options of the conversion process. I use the free tool RawTherapee for all raw conversions. It has many options but isn’t easy to use as a beginner. Here’s the same image as above, after raw conversion:

Grainy Sunset - Developed

It looks a lot better, but the colors don’t really pop and the shadows look very flat. Also it is almost impossible to see where the sun is shining onto the field and where it isn’t. This is where high dynamic range imaging (HDR) comes into play. To get as much details out of the scene as possible, I let the camera take five different photos, from very underexposed to very overexposed and later merged them into a single HDR image with the free tool Luminance HDR. Again, an HDR image can not be viewed in its original format but has to be converted first. Luminance also provides several algorithms for that. The one I use most is called Mantiuk ’06 and this is what the result looks like:

Grainy Sunset - HDR

Yes, this looks horrible, and the reason so many people hate HDR is because there are many lazy photographers out there who publish pictures like this and call it a day. Or maybe they just don’t know better. But the trick is to take this image and the previous one and combine them in GIMP. By placing them into different layers and then experimenting with layer modes I eventually got the look I want for the entire image – beautiful colors, a large amount of contrast but without the cheap look the HDR version alone has. You can see the final version at the top of this post (in case that wasn’t obvious).
The only downside is of course that the whole process takes a lot of time – an hour or two in this case because I already knew what I was doing but I have also invested more than 20 hours into a single photo when I was experimenting with different techniques (I will share that one some other time).

I am still unsure if I like this photo enough to have it printed on canvas – there are some imperfections that would annoy me if I had to look at them every day. Most notably the clouds in the top right and the ear in the bottom right that were moving due to the wind and now look a bit blurry. But the photo has already become my most popular picture on 500px.com, which is pretty cool.

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