This week's column by Ctein
This picks up where last week's column, "Photographing from Commercial Airplanes," left off.
The tricks to making good black-and-white photographs from commercial airliners aren't much different from the ones for color photography. I've been getting spectacularly good results in the infrared, as the lead illustration, above, and figure 1 show. Atmospheric scattering, though, is even more of an issue for black-and-white work than color, because the only thing that differentiates parts of the photograph are differences in brightness.
Clear air primarily scatters short wavelengths (Rayleigh scattering). Dusty air scatters all wavelengths (Mie scattering). Both kinds of scattering reduce the contrast in black and white photographs. If you want to retain panchromaticity, you need to boost the contrast way up to get a decent-looking photograph. There's nothing that looks worse than a washed out black-and-white photograph. Back when I was using film, I did my aerial photography on stuff like Tech Pan film developed to a gamma of over one. This looked a hell of a lot better than normal contrast film that had to be printed on grade 4 or 5 paper. Exposure was a bit tricky, I'll admit.
Digital photography lets you easily increase contrast when massaging the data, but substantial increases in contrast will also produce substantial increases in image noise. Even a very low noise camera may produce fairly "grainy" photographs once you're done correcting the contrast. It's just something you have to live with. This is one of the very rare cases where "expose to the right" makes sense... but watch out for blowing out the clouds.
If you're willing to forgo a panchromatic response, and most photographers would under the circumstances, what you want is a really sharp-cutting red filter. I recommend a Wratten #29. That will do a better job of cutting through the haze of scattered light than merely selecting the red channel from your digital file.
An infrared camera, like my converted Olympus Pen, works even better. The photographs don't actually look much different than ordinary black-and-white ones made with a red filter—it's just it's a super-effective red filter. Since there's a huge amount of scattered light, infrared photography just kind of gets me back to where I want to be to begin with.
Even IR can't deal with all the scattering. Remember what I said about dust scattering all wavelengths. There's always a little dust in the air, and when you're looking through kilometers and kilometers of it, that Mie scattering gets pretty fierce. Photographs from an airplane, even with a deep red filter or an IR converted camera, are often going to be low in contrast. Figure 2 shows the original photograph that produced the lead illustration, with just a straight default RAW conversion.
This is very low in contrast, even for an infrared photograph from the Olympus (see my earlier columns about infrared photography). I gave it a considerable boost in Adobe Camera RAW (figure 3) using the conversion settings you see in figure 4; I slammed those contrast and clarity sliders almost to the max. That still doesn't get me a great result, but at least it gives me a good starting point. I can tell you that a lot of work went into getting from this to the lead illustration, which prints gorgeously. At least I can get some sense of what I want the final photograph to look like from figure 3. Figure 2? Who can tell?
Most of the time I don't think digital photography or printing have made a profound difference in my photography. I was tolerably adept at making film and darkroom processes jump through whatever hoops I needed them to to get me to the print I wanted. This aerial stuff is something else. Having new tools and techniques at my disposal has made a huge difference in the quality of my results and my rates of success.
Columnist Ctein flies high on TOP on Wednesdays—except this week, when he had to move over to make room for the print sale. Back to normal next week.
©2013 by Ctein, all rights reserved
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Featured Comments from:
Mike K: "I was thinking of your initial post before I took off from Amsterdam this morning—then the rain started pouring down and I left the camera in my bag in the overhead locker. Twenty minutes later we were through the rain, passing over the Dutch coast, looking back at an incredible stack of rain clouds with the morning sun illuminating the top. 'Bugger,' I thought...."