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Princeton University Chapel





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TBale November 30, 2017
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Behind The Lens

This photo was taken early at Princeton University Chapel in Princeton, NJ. I grew up near there and had been in the building several times growing up for concerts, so when I had the opportunity to spend a day shooting back in my old stomping grounds I was hoping to be able to shoot here without too many distractions.
This was shot between 9 & 10AM. I was there to participate in a photo walk that started at 11, and I knew I wanted to get here early so that I could have the freedom to shoot as close to "by myself" as possible. When I arrived the doors were closed but unlocked and there was only one other photographer in the building and one or two people just looking.
This is all natural lighting with the exception of some very dim internal lighting. This is the altar area of the chapel and it was slightly more lit than the rest which was largely dark except for the sunlight coming thru the stained glass. I fully expected this and was ready to do some bracketing so that I could bring them together as an HDR image when I got home.
Fully expecting to shoot here in low light conditions I used my Nikon D600 with the Nikkor 16-35mm F4 mounted to a Manfrotto tripod with a Vello remote shutter release. I set up so that the camera was just below the level of the ornately carved handrail that divides the choir and apse(?) areas from the nave (seating) in order to get as much of the look and feel of that part of the building as I could, combining the wood, the organ pipes, Gothic stonework, and stained glass. I shot 9 bracketed images one stop apart (constant aperture, varying shutter speed).
I had just started doing HDR photography so I had been shooting various architecture indoors in natural light, bracketing exposures. Having been here many times in the past when I signed up for a photo walk at the University I wanted to try and capture this place both from a sentimental perspective, and to see what I could do with HDR techniques to balance the dark interiors with the natural light streaming through the windows.
There are many different methods for combining bracketed exposures these days, including one in Lightroom itself. At the time I was using Nik HDR Efex almost exclusively. However, on the day I got home with these shots I had just updated my Lightroom software and all of my Nik tools were refusing to work. More annoyed than panicked I decided to try the HDR Merge function in Photoshop since it was available. I had never used it before so I had no idea what to expect. The only processing I did in Lightroom beforehand was to apply both Lens Profile and Chromatic Aberration corrections (something I do automatically on import for every camera). When the images opened up in Photoshop what I got is largely what you see. I was astonished. I can't tell you what I set anything to on the merge, probably just the defaults, but I have never been able to get this kind of results with other images using HDR Merge, not have I been able to merge the same 9 images in Nik HDR Efex Pro as successfully. Once I had an almost complete image I set about dodging and burning some areas to bring out some of the shadows that didn't quite come out as much as I wanted, and also to burn back some of the dark areas that the HDR process brought out too much. I love HDR for things like this, but I'm a fan of the overly compressed, over-structured look that often gets associated with it. Dynamic range is so good on modern cameras that if you're shooting RAW (which I always do) you can usually get away with 2 or 3 widely bracketd shots even in the most extreme of circumstances, if you even need that.
In my camera bag
What I have in my bag depends on what I'm doing. I shoot primarily wildlife, nature, and candid stuff, very little studio-type work, so it's more about the versatility of fewer items than lots of stuff. When I'm not shooting wildlife I'll take my D750 with 24-120mm F4 mounted to it and then one or two other zooms (wider and/or longer depending on the situation, all in a small shoulder bag. If I'm traveling then I have at last 2 bodies (Nikon D500 & D750), and generally a wide variety of zooms that will allow me to get pretty much anything. All my lenses are full frame so they can be used on either camera, and the go-to's are: Sigma 15mm Fisheye, Nikkor 16-35mm F4, Nikkor 24-120mm F4, Nikkor 70-200mm F4, Nikkor 300mm F4 PF & Nikkor TC1.4ii. I have smaller primes but will generally only pack them if I know I'll have a need for them (like a macro). Remote triggers, batteries, ND filters, and a high powered, ultra compact flashlight (always have a flashlight). I never carry a tripod around with my but there is one in the car at all times (MeFoto Backpacker), and if I know there will be waterfalls then I bring the sturdier Manfrotto. Day to day you can be sure that I have my Sony a6000 with 18-135mm in my car no matter what, because if you have to go get your camera then it's already too late. And I have a drone in the trunk, because everyone needs a drone in the trunk. :)
If you're going to shoot HDR in extreme light like this you need to be methodical, something I'm not exactly good at. You want a steady, solid tripod (both for when you're doing the long exposure and to prevent movement when you change your settings), and a remote release (wired or wireless - I use the latter just because it's one less thing touching the camera). Now you have setup prep. I shoot a lot of stuff in Auto ISO and Auto WB which doesn't work here. You want to shoot in native ISO (generally ISO100 for most DSLRs) and a fixed White Balance value so you have no color variation from frame to frame (if you're shooting RAW this can be fixed - always shoot RAW for HDR). You'll also want to fix both the aperture value and the focus (no Autofocus!!) so that they do not change during the series. Now start with your brightest possible image and work backwards. Use the histogram. Your first shot in the series should be set so that the darkest areas of the histogram (left side) are empty meaning that you've now captured details in the darkest area of your frame. Now you'll want to start increasing your shutter speed to reduce the exposure, and in general you'll want to do this at least 1 stop at a time because, again, modern DSLR sensors are so good that you can pull clear details out of very dark areas in a RAW file. I've actually redone this photo with 3 (3 stop brackets) and 5 images (1.5 stop bracketing) and the results are nearly identical, so I recommend you do some tests to see what it's capable of. Shoot a series of 1 stop bracketed exposures and then see what happens when you combine them all, combine just the two extremes, and then what happens when you go every other or every third shot. I suspect you won't see a difference. And either get lucky like I did or get to know your HDR software. I've found the HDR merge in Lightroom works really well if you give it minimal information. In other words, no more than 2 or 3 images. I still use Nik HDR Efex Pro and try to avoid the presents, mainly because I like to work to keep things natural looking. But go for what you like - you're the artist.

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