We are back again with Jeff McPheeters as he shares his technical post-processing workflow to perfecting the storm. Learn tips and tricks for camera settings to yield better storm photography, as well as great tips for perfecting your images.
Have you learned any little tricks to capture stronger weather images?
Don’t use Auto
First off, these new cameras do a great job with auto white balance and auto exposure and auto-focus. That’s fine for many situations, but with weather events, there is a very strong, clearly identifiable subject. The camera’s sensor and meter isn’t personally aware of what that is. It’s just running some algorithms to output a very evenly balanced exposure for the scene.
Shoot in RAW
With lightning present, the ambient light can change literally from night to bright noon-day sun levels in a hundredth of a second. So the main suggestion I would offer, is to go to manual mode, manual focus, and definitely shoot in RAW, rather than JPEG, for the white balance flexibility in post editing. I try and limit the number of variables with scenes that change quickly. In manual mode, I can set focus to the point I want and forget about it for the ensuing shots in that scene.
Set a range for ISO
I adjust ISO to give me the ability to shoot brackets of exposures without slowing down the shutter. By setting a range for auto ISO to run from 100 to 800, for example, it doesn’t go too high, but for exposures where I’m over exposing the scene for a purpose, the shutter doesn’t slow down so much that movement is a problem. Set your exposure to get the best exposure of the main subject without over exposing. It’s tricky with lightning. With big storm cells, the mood is in the shadows, so don’t trust the camera’s auto exposure explicitly. Try underexposing a 1/2 or 2/3 stop or more and see what you get. If you’re already underexposed a bit, when lightning enters the exposure, it won’t blow it out so completely that it looks like a blinding white flash rather than the branching lightning you remembered.
Don’t be Afraid to Experiment with Exposure Length
Don’t assume you know what exposure length is best for a storm. Clouds are moving, sometimes rapidly, and like ocean waves, getting that sense of movement can sometimes really add power to the scene, as if you’re watching it happen. Of course, taking it a little further, try some time lapses of storms. You’ll fine it both exciting to watch but also a learning experience as seeing the passing motion can educate your senses in a way that you’ll be able to better anticipate opportunities at future weather events. Apart from the time lapse, try several different settings for the storm: 1/100 of a second, 1/10, 10 seconds. Bring along an ND (neutral density) filter for these situations. During the late afternoon, with lightning, being able to shoot longer exposures without having to stop the aperture down to extremes will allow better opportunities for recording lightning.
What are some common mistakes you see others making?
Failing to Experiment with Angles
Apart from relying on the auto settings, another thing to consider is that storms are dramatic, so your best dramatic perspectives are going to be using dramatic angles. Just as a very wide angle if the storm is huge, taken from a low position (inches above the grass, rocks, wheatfield, etc.) or alternately with a 70mm to 150mm tight view of just the leading part of the storm in a way that compresses the distance between you and the storm cloud and makes it look even more formidable. Having a fisheye lens in your kit for just such an occasion is great and don’t just use the 24-70 range standard wide angle look. Get out that 100+ mm range zoom and pull the storm in close and tight.
Forgetting the Bigger Picture
Weather events can be so dramatic and attention getting that we might overlook the possibility of a secondary element in the foreground or background to add interest and also scale or contrast. We get so excited by the subject, we forget that it’s part of a bigger picture. If we can give some context, it not only adds meaning for ourselves later, but information that helps others appreciate the scene in a richer and fuller way. It could be a tree, a building, some person standing in the scene to give scale, etc. But think about that. Also consider other leading lines and where things are going at the edge or corners of the frame. They can either point toward the subject or are taking you away from the subject and should thus be eliminated if possible by changing perspectives or angle of view.
Once you get home, how do you sort through and edit images?
My workflow varies depending on the goal I’m working on. For a portrait session or an event with people, I take steps designed to get the photos culled and edited for the client within 72 hours. For a time-lapse sequence, I have a computer dedicated to that. They all go into that system and I use Lightroom and LRTImelapse 4 to handle those sequences. If I happen to find a nice still frame or a series I want to merge into a faux long exposure blend, I’ll send those over to the main catalog as copies for further processing later on.
Mainly my system is to get the photos off the cards on a daily basis and stored in three locations: the main Lightroom Catalog, a backup master drive, and an archival 16 Terabyte DROBO backup system. I also have off site storage.
What does your post processing workflow look like?
I owe Topaz Labs a huge debt of gratitude for my workflow as it stands today. I’m serious. Not just blowing smoke. The webinars over the years are so much more than about the filters. They are some of the best webinars for watching real editing take place.
My workflow uses the zone system of editing in Photoshop. I target the tones I need to adjust, then the colors, followed by effects I wish to impute into the image. I’ve become as familiar as I can with each Topaz plug-in, so that I know which ones I might need. Depending on the image, I’ll get it ready using Denoise, Clean, deJPEG, Detail, InFocus, Remask, or Lens Effects. Images that need further work on Tone or Color, I’ll use Clarity, Detail, or Restyle. For some final effects work, I’ll use Clean, Simplify, Restyle, Star Effects, Lens Effects, Glow, Impression, or Texture Effects. For output to print, I may do some selective work with Detail, Denoise, or Clean during proofing. Most of my finished works have at least two Topaz filters. I’m a big fan of using the opacity slider and rarely applying any affect globally over 40%.
How much time do you spend editing images?
I usually don’t sit down and do the whole thing in one sitting. I may spend 10 minutes with the zone system getting an image ready. Later, I’ll come back and do some tweaking for maybe five or ten minutes on a few I want to share. Those might include some color grading using Photoshop’s gradient masking and/or Restyle and Glow. If I have one that will go into my portfolio, I will spend 15 minutes going over it at 100% on a large monitor looking at every detail. After that, it might be an hour of proofing/printing/more proofing and adjusting/printing until I have something I’m willing to sign my name to.
Any editing tips for the new photographer?
For a new photographer or for an experienced photographer new to post-processing, I recommend practicing on good photos and not trying to practice on fixing bad photos. The reason is psychological. If I spend a lot of time trying to make an okay photo look good, I may succeed but in the process, apart from learning the software a bit better, my time starts impacting my ability to be satisfied with the effort. So unless it’s just for experimentation or practice, take the time to learn with the best images and the personal satisfaction will stay high and the time involvement won’t feel out of balance.
Ultimately, a good workflow should reflect our own personal aesthetic and time values. We’re not all alike and there isn’t a set amount of time that is the right amount spent processing our photos. If you love photography like I do, then it’s like anything else we love. Sometimes we’ll spend all day with a loved one doing things and other days we’ll have only snatches of moments. It doesn’t necessarily mean we love them less. Consider the needs, purpose, and goals and try to make reasonable choices that will give satisfying results without compromising your other priorities in life. I watch a number of Topaz webinars and see different photographers each working in their own way. It might help identify the aspects of editing you most wish to employ in your own photography. Favorite beatitude: Blessed are the flexible for they shall not be bent out of shape!
Read part 1 Into the Storm with Jeff McPheeters to learn more about Jeff his artistic style.
Read part 2 Catching the Storm with Jeff McPheeters to know how to prepare for photographing weather and what makes for a great photo.
About Jeff McPheeters
I enjoy every aspect of photography. And I enjoy many kinds of subject matter. My formal education includes a B.S.E. from the University of Kansas, and I have been self employed since 1989. Photography has been both an avid hobby and a useful skill to have in my business career. My development as a freelance photographer has been a gradual process over the past ten years or so.
Currently residing in rural Douglas county, Kansas, I have been able to devote much of my time to capturing the landscape with all it’s mercurial moods and changing ‘faces’. I often will rise early to capture the earliest morning light as the sun slowly rises, creating the shifting shades and shadows across the land. Living close to Clinton Lake, I enjoy seeing the interaction between water and sky. I am someone who loves the outdoors, hiking, skiing and enjoying God’s beautiful creation. Without the support of my best friend and wife, Priscilla, and our three grown sons, I’d not have the time to pursue photography full time. As a lifelong learner, I love to share what I’m learning. Whether sharing a simple tip or delving into the intricacies of photography, I hope others I might influence others to come away encouraged and enthused about photography. Please feel free to follow Jeff on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Also feel free to view more of his images on his website or Vimeo.
One of my mottos is: ‘the only photographer you should compare yourself to is the one you used to be.’
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