Guest post by David Raboin
Part I is here
Long Shadows Cast on the Great Basin… The primary challenge of editing photos taken from an airliner is correcting the contrast. Straight out of the camera my aerial photos are flat with all the vital information packed into a small hump in the middle of the histogram. My usual editing process starts with two steep curve adjustments layers, one layer for color and another for luminosity adjustments. On top of those layers I sometimes need to do multiple local adjustments using luminosity masks, gradient masks, or soft edged brushes. I consider the above photo a triumph of my process. For years I struggled to create accurate shadows in my aerial photos. Then, on an uneventful flight last spring, while looking down on the shadows of houses in the Los Angeles suburbs in late afternoon, I got to thinking about how shadows look from the air: they’re dark, low contrast on the inside, and sharp edged. How do you lower contrast and at the same time darken in photoshop? Decrease the pitch of a curve! I cracked it. Now, to darken shadows without exaggerating the contrast throughout the entire image, I use a curves adjustment layer with a luminosity mask to isolate the darkest tones. Then, I pull the upper right curve’s anchor point straight down until the shadows are suitably dark. It’s a simple,noise-free solution and I think it looks great.
Without making a conscious decision, my dissatisfaction with that first online gallery set me on a path to becoming a serious photographer. Within a few years I was carrying a bag full of DSLR kit on every trip. My home library swelled with Photoshop manuals. And, most importantly, I became fascinated with photography as an art. I devoured all things photo related: books on composition, photography history, photo blogs, and endless image browsing on the web. By 2006, three years into photography, I was beginning to feel confident in my growing skills. I could capture the glow of sunset on a wall of thunderstorms and correct the contrast in a photo that peered through six miles of hazy atmosphere.
Thunderstorm Over Nebraska and the North Platte River The biggest challenge when composing aerial photos is portraying the sky’s volume. Airliners cruise roughly six miles above the earth and it’s difficult to impart that depth in a two dimensional image. Often I find myself flying near a massive thunderstorm, some of them reaching 50,000 feet, taller than two Mount Everests or six El Capitans; but, without a visual size reference in the frame, the size of the storm is lost in a photo. While dodging some heavy weather on our way from Chicago to San Francisco a couple of summers ago, I was fortunate to get a chance to photograph this monster cell floating above the Platte River Valley in Nebraska. The backlighting makes the storm look suitably dark (severe thunderstorms are puffy white billows when viewed from the sunny side) and, the North Platte River sparkles for a hundred miles towards the horizon. I couldn’t have planned this, it’s too perfect. Finally, a photo that shows the true size of a thunderstorm.
Today, my bag is packed with a Canon 5D Mark III and an assortment of Canon lenses, both zoom and prime. I travel half a million miles every year. My job is flying planes, so I don’t have time to baby my gear. My camera bag gets bashed through security, crunched into overhead bins, rained on, and left unguarded in public places for long periods. Over the years I’ve only had one major mishap. Once, after a particularly difficult trip, I drove out of the airport parking lot with my camera bag still on top of my car. That’s one way to justify an equipment upgrade, and I love to upgrade....
Over the decade that I’ve been flying with a camera, technological improvements in both cameras and post processing software have made previously impossible shots ordinary. Now days, with improved high ISO performance, I can take aerial photos of city lights at dusk while also preserving the details of the landscape and sky, something I wouldn’t have dreamed of in 2010. I imagine that not too far in the future I’ll be able to photograph noise-free moonlight on cloud tops while screaming along at Mach .78.
Moonlight Ride Above Denver Taken with my Canon 5D Mark III and Canon 16–35mm image-stabilized lens, this photo pushes the limits of current technology. I used ISO 8000 at ⅛th second and ƒ/4. There’s a little more noise than I’d like in this photo and the lights of Denver aren’t as sharp they could be, but we’re getting there. I’m excited for the future of night photography. (Full disclosure: this image falls into Mike’s new “Photo Art” category due to some heavy Content Aware Fill to remove reflections from the windshield)
Although it took a lot longer to get here than I’d originally planned, my career (thanks to low oil prices and industry consolidation) is now that of a gentleman aviator. I’m fortunate to fly beautiful modern jets between America’s major cities, stay in posh downtown hotels, and live the life of a flaneur and street photographer during my overnights. I hesitate before complaining. However, any job that requires strict adherence to procedure can become brutally routine. A sense of loneliness creeps in while spending half the month flying around with strangers, and doing a job that, when done right, leaves no trace and little memory. The camera helps turn that around. With a camera, airline flying becomes a scenic cruise, an adventure, a story waiting to be told. As we track down the lonely corridors of vapor, I’m looking for something beautiful that I can share when I get back down to earth.
My Current Ride: Airbus 320 Getting ready to push back from the gate at San Francisco International Airport
To see a collection of my best flying images please visit my website: www.photos4u2c.com
Note: All photos were taken in accordance with federal aviation regulations and company policies. Safety of flight is every pilot’s primary concern and the camera only comes out in low workload situations.
Words and images ©2016 by David Raboin, all rights reserved
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Warren Jones: "Wow, Dave, nicely done sir. Thank you for sharing your images and story with us. I very much enjoyed it."
Dave Van de Mark: "I have thoroughly enjoyed this guest post. Would love to see a more detailed view of the processing carried out for the some of the photos. As a 'ground' landscape photographer, rendering the proper degree of contrast relative to other (tonal and color) variables in pursuit of a satisfying and realistic print, is the hardest thing I typically encounter. And rarely have I been totally satisfied. And as David demonstrates so clearly with his stunning photos, that journey has been challenging, but with new possibilities always appearing on the horizon (pun intended). It's the same story for me and I'm sure glad he shared his. Thanks to you Mike for this guest post."