Surfing and Florida usually don’t go together unless there is a hurricane involved. The waters in Florida are mostly calm and tranquil. Once in awhile, the wind picks up and we may get a ripple. This is one reason why boating is so popular due to the great weather and uneventful seas. However, there are times when a thunderstorm or bigger storms such as tropical waves come to visit and this is when it’s a great time to photograph surfers. I recently wrote about these amazing athletes, here is the link: Revisited: South Jetty Surfers – Venice, Florida. Catching these guys doing their thing, is a hit and miss opportunity. When ever I’m in the Venice, Florida area, I always make my way down to the South Jetty to see if it’s going to be my lucky day or not. It’s kind of like Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa (What ever boat you are in!) to see if it’s going to be a lucky day or not.
Usually when I go out, I have my 80mm-400mm so I can reach out and touch someone….in a good way of course! I prefer to shoot in manual mode so all of my exposures are the same no matter where I point the camera. I also have the continuous feature enabled so that the camera will fire like a machine gun. Most of the time when I’m shooting sports or an event like an air show, I like to get my frame rate as fast as possible. This means that I shoot JPG to achieve this speed. However, since I like to try new things and never settle for status quo, I decided to shoot in RAW. Those of you who are regular readers of the blog know that I’m a big RAW fan. I would sell t-shirts and pennants if that would help people see the advantages of using this camera format. Since RAW is a much bigger file, my frame rate is reduced to about eight frames a minute. I do have a vertical grip on my camera that has an additional battery and that is what helps give the camera a boost is a situation like this. Since shooting on the water can be tricky, I thought that the RAW file may help me get some realistic results in the post processing end where as JPG has thrown me a curve ball once in awhile. On to the photos, as always, click on the photos to see the full size.
I have photographed with folks who surfed out in California and I asked if they had ever seen anyone go backwards on a surfboard. I got a “look” but no reply. It was an honest question! Any shoot like this involving water you have to watch the highlights so the tops of the waves are not blown out or have no detail. Is this always possible? Maybe not, but we have to do the best we can. The tops of the waves are white and the surfers are wearing black wetsuits. This couldn’t be more difficult than if I was trying to run the length of the Great Wall of China while eating a bowl of fried rice with chopsticks. I’ll leave you with that visual for a moment for those of you who have seen me!
What is the best way to even out the scene? In a perfect world, the ambient lighting would be softer or I could use a really powerful strobe to fill in the shadows. However, this is life. All I have is the camera and a pop up flash that is as powerful as a flashlight. This is where the RAW file comes in and using a lower ISO. Using a lower ISO such as 100, will keep the maximum dynamic range that your camera can produce. Using a low ISO coupled with a RAW file, this will give us the best possible chance of making this work. I usually split the difference after looking at my histogram and see how much I can push the histogram without blowing out the details.
After the shoot, I loaded all of the photos into the computer and I like to give them a quick once through. The big thing that I’m looking for in the first pass is focus. If the focus is shot or soft, in the trash it goes. Photoshop is pretty amazing, but turning a blurry photo into a clear image it still can’t do. I shoot thousands of photos when I photograph a subject like this to help tip the scales in my favor of getting the shot that I want. For each pass that I do after that, I’m looking for composition things like, people looking away from me. These are the next ones that go in the dumpster. I usually do five or six passes until I may have it down to less than fifty photos that will be passable.
At this point I have all of my “keepers” and depending on the project, I may whittle this down to five or six really strong images. Now comes the fun part, how to make these really contrasty photos look like what I saw when I was standing there with my naked eye. Camera RAW is a help however, if I need more localized adjustments, it’s off to the adjustment layers I go. I have found that using the Curves adjustment layer gives me the best looking adjustment. This is in Photoshop CS and not in Elements. If you are using Elements, I would use the Levels adjustment layer. In a nutshell what I do is that I place my cursor over the darkest shadows of that scene and have Photoshop tell me on the curves graph where it falls. Once this spot is achieved, I manipulate that part of the graph until the shadow area looks like what I’m going for. At this point the whole photo is washed out, but since adjustment layers comes with masks, this is an easy fix. All I do is invert the mask color to black and this hides the adjustment. Then using the paintbrush tool, I paint over just the shadow area to revel the lighter version in those areas only. This is called making localized adjustments. In all of the photos that are on this post, that is how they were manipulated. Most of these were fixed in about fifteen minutes or less.
I have found after doing this exercise that even though I lost a couple of frames per second, I gained a huge advantage in the digital darkroom as there was plenty of information to work with. If your camera shoots RAW, I would recommend giving it a try. If you are new to this format, I wouldn’t go on an overseas vacation and shoot RAW right away without first testing and understanding how this is going to change your workflow. However, once you get the hang of it, you won’t look back. The biggest difference between shooting a RAW file and JPG is what will read it. You need either Photoshop or Elements to open your RAW files into. There are other software packages out there and I’m sure some are free if you dig deep enough. There have been times when the actual file format of RAW actually saved my hiney as my exposure wasn’t quite right and I really needed that photo. Give RAW a chance and see what you think on your next shoot.
Until next time…
Keep Your Glass Clean