The Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon Gorge at sunset

Clifton Suspension Bridge Image

In Trip Reports On Monday, November 7, 2011

(Click here to buy this image of the Clifton Suspension Bridge)

This Saturday I made a last minute decision to head for the Clifton Suspension Bridge after looking at the sky and realising late on that something special might happen! High cirrus and a gap on the horizon had me thinking of pink skies and so I cancelled my shopping plans and headed for the bridge.

After a short drive and run I was at one of the classic viewpoints of Clifton Suspension Bridge just as the sky became colourful. In my rush to leave home I left without my wide-angle lens (I usually have my gear ready but not this time!). This turned out to be a blessing in disguise and forced my hand into shooting an ultra high resolution panoramic.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon Gorge at sunset

The Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon Gorge at sunset

Shooting technique

Armed with my Canon 5DmkII, 50mm 1.4 and tripod the only way I could capture a full view of the bridge was to shoot a panoramic of vertical frames.

When shooting panoramic it is important to ensure that the tripod is not only stable, but also level. This is so that as you pan the camera the horizon position doesn’t move vertically around the frame. If you want to shoot a panorama in vertical orientation it helps to have an L-plate as well (I have never got on with the slots on ballheads for changing camera orientation!)

Once the tripod is in the right location you can start to figure out your exposures. Usually at sunset you will either have to use graduated filters or exposure blending. I tend to prefer the exposure blending option due to its flexibility. In this case the highest contrast was on the right side of the image. The Avon Gorge was in shadow, providing the darkest tones, whilst the sky above it wasn’t far from the sun and so was significantly brighter than the rest of the sky.

When shooting panoramas it is best to shoot in manual mode since otherwise the camera is likely to vary the exposure as you pan the camera. Using live view and a timer I fired off 3 bracketed shots towards the right side of the final image to determine my exposure. The 3 shots generated had a total range of 3 stops and captured the full tonal range. I fired another set of exposures to the left side of the image just to double check that the exposure was correct. I double checked my focus, stopped down to f13 and then waited for the clouds to become more colourful.

As the pinks developed in the clouds over the Clifton Suspension Bridge I shot a series of bracketed panoramas. Generally it’s best to have massive overlaps and take more shots than you need, this makes a good stitching result more likely. I generally try to get 50% overlaps. In total the final image was produced from 5 bracketed sets of frames (5×3).

Processing

The 15 frames were combined into 3 separately exposed panoramas using PTGui and the same settings (I will do a tutorial on this process at some point but essentially the geometry of each panoramic exposure must be the same otherwise the blend will never work!).

I copied the 3 panoramas onto separate layers on a Photoshop file, cropped the image to the final composition and set to work creating the exposure blend. Again, I wont go into details here of how the blend was achieved but it was a relatively simple process. One slight complication came in areas where there were streaks on the road from cars where I was mixing the two brightest exposures. This created an unpleasant ghosting effect. The only way around this was to show the brightest layer at 100% opacity in that local region, and then locally darken it to match the brightness of the blended exposures. This might be hard to understand so take a look at the Photoshop file!

I used 3 exposures to capture the full dynamic range. Each of the panoramics is comprised of 5 frames. The darkest image is used for parts of the sky, the other 2 make up the bulk of the pixels!

Once the blend was done I started making adjustments to the image. I almost exclusively use curves and hand painted masks to correct my images. In this case the priority was improving the clarity of the image by removing a magenta cast and setting a true black point. Once this was achieved I started editing the local brightness and contrast of the image to reveal the full detail of the scene, its true colour and create balance between the bright cliff side on the left, and the dark side of the gorge on the right.

At the top is the image after the exposure blend. Below it is the image after the adjustments have been applied. Nearly all of which were curves adjustments.

At the top is the image after the exposure blend. Below it is the image after the adjustments have been applied. Nearly all of which were curves adjustments.

Final Result

Some lazy masking lead me to tweak the image a few times but I am now pleased that the result captures the full potential of the scene.

The cropped panorama is 11000×5000, 55mp. At 300ppi this will allow a print of 37″ and would produce outstanding detail at this size. I have no doubt that a 60″ image would look excellent up close.

Here are some 100% crops. You can see people on the bridge!

Scaffolding

This image is one of the highest quality images I have ever taken in terms of sharpness and detail, rivalling medium format. The composition is classic but still successful, the light was of course wonderful and I was even lucky enough that it happened to be high tide! . The only slight niggle I have is the scaffolding, what a shame!

Shame about the scaffolding, of course nothing can be perfect!

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Hi Alex

    I just wanted to say how impressive your images are. So many landscape photographers these days tend to oversaturate their photographs, or produce seascapes with very long exposure times that take one far too much into the realm of the abstract.

    Your images inspire me to get out there with my 5D2 and away from here, from my computer screen.

    Kind regards

    David J. White
    Sydney
    Australia

    • Hi David, thanks for your kind comments. It’s true that a few too many photographers revert to long exposures and processing to pull the cat out of the bag. That said, I have seen many of these photographersprogress quite quickly and some people just needthat bit of encouragement early on, if if they get it with a bit of a shortcut!
      I hope you get to take some great images in Sydney!
      Alex

  2. I stumbled onto your blog earlier today researching the Canon 6D (which I’m planning to purchase in the near future), and proceeded to get lost in your work and posts for several hours. I have an ancient Canon Rebel T1i that has gotten the job done in learning the ropes, but is not the quality necessary to move on to a more pro level of work. I didn’t shoot for quite some time, but started again this spring and have been really interested in more seriously shooting landscapes and other wide angle, tripod favoring subjects.

    While the process you used here is probably very similar to what I’d have used on my own it’s great to see it laid out to validate the approach for me. I love seeing how other photographers get the most from their images. Manual blending of multiple exposures can be such a powerful tool and provide far better results than an HDR algorithm in software. Wonderful work, and thanks for sharing some of your process and insight!

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