A few days ago, I took a quick photo of the T.A. Moulton Barn along Historic Mormon Row in Grand Teton National Park. I included it below. Clouds weren’t exactly inspiring, but there were at least a few low clouds in front of the Grand. It wasn’t much of a photo, I readily admit! I think of these kind of images as reconnaissance photos or record photos. I make a mental note of the spot, then plan on going back when conditions are more to my liking.
Over the years, I’ve taken thousands of photos of the Mormon Row Barns. It’s a challenge to photograph them differently than the thousands of photographers that have stood in the same spots over the past 75 years! I am always looking to photograph them at different distances or different angles. An irrigation ditch runs under the road, through a head gate and then diagonally across the pasture in front of the T.A. Moulton Barn. A few times a year, water in the ditch is high enough to offer unique opportunities if you set up just above water level.
The photo I took earlier was okay, but it needed some extra time at the point of capture. I focused on the close bank, and even at F/11, the barn was slightly out of focus. If I had focused on the barn, the water, reflections, and close leaves would have been out of focus. Lastly, I was there a little too early in the day. Early morning shadows from the cottonwoods stream across the foreground and across the left half of the barn. Like I said earlier, was a reconnaissance shot.
Return to the Scene
Weather reports are seldom accurate in the Northern Rockies. Such was the case this morning. When the weather report calls for “clear skies” I have a tendency to either stay home or look for wildlife. I stayed home and did some bookkeeping, but when I looked out my window, I saw moody clouds in almost all directions. I saw golden light on the snow covered peaks. Time to go…and I knew exactly where I wanted to go!
Some summer photographers have little use for the mid-day photography. By Mid-October, the sun can stay fairly low in the sky, and if there are a few light clouds, it’s possible to take photos throughout most of the day. A mid-morning shoot at the barns would also mean the shadows would be off the barn. The same shadows can help create a dark zone near the bottom of the image.
It takes me about 30 minutes to get to Mormon Row from my home in town. That’s plenty of time to plan out the shoot. If the conditions remained in my favor, I’d use my 47 mpx Nikon D850 and Nikon 24-70mm lens. I could use a “CamRanger”, but it wouldn’t be needed with that body. I’d want to grab my bean bag and make sure my remote trigger was with the camera. The plan would be to “stack focus” the image—meaning I would focus close on the leaves on one shot and then focus on the barn on the second shot. I didn’t take the time to do that last time.
When I arrived, I was the only photographer at the barn. There were probably dozens of them at the same spot at sunrise. Unfortunately, a cloud was covering the top of the Grand. I call them “clingers”. The rest of the clouds looked great, but my preference is to see most of the tip of the Grand. Mother Nature is great at teasing a photographer. The cloud can appear to be ready to blow off, then fill in again within seconds. I shot away, never knowing if the current set of photos would be the best of the day. I stayed with it for two hours! In doing so, I managed to get quite a few different “looks” or moods. No complaints!
At about 12:15 pm, I finally got light on the barn and light on the mountains, with only part of the tip obscured by the ever changing patch of clouds. Light was hitting the barn and cottonwoods. Within another hour, all clouds cleared. The weatherman got it about half right!
One of the features I like on my Nikon D850 is the flip out rear screen. When in Live View mode, it is possible to open it and look down to compose the scene, even when the camera is on the ground. Without this feature, I’d have to lie on my stomach for a long period of time. A CamRanger would work fine, but I didn’t need it with the D850. Focusing on a D850 in Live View means simply touching the screen where I want it to focus. New technology is great! Note: A CamRanger will allow you to view a potential photo on a cell phone or iPad, then focus on a spot by touching the screen, and it will allow the photographer to actually trigger the shot without ever touching the camera.
My previous attempt at the barn was quick and spontaneous. I simply handheld the camera and pressed the shutter release. On this attempt, I used my trusty Kinesis Safarisack to hold the camera and lens. I assume any brand would work, but I’ve aways liked this bag filled with plastic beads. I used the bag to hold the camera and lens to frame the shot, and an “old school” Three-axis bubble level (AKA spirit level) to let me determine if the camera was level. Most current cameras have a virtual level feature, but I like the bubble level for shoots like this. I triggered my D850 with a Vello FreeWave Micro Wireless Remote Shutter Release (RFN-4S) remote while standing next to the camera. (Note: you can find a wireless remote for most cameras. This is the one I like for my Nikons).
You’ll note in the photo above that the “lake” is actually just a few inches of open water in the ditch. I took this reference photo with a Nikon D500 and Tamron 18-400mm lens.
Part of the scene was in shadows, while the barn and mountains were well lit (off and on anyway). I chose to “bracket” the shots, adjusting the over and under captures at two full stops. Each “set” consisted of three captures focused on the barn and three captures focused on the leaves. I spent most of my time watching the tip of the Grand. When it cleared a little, I shot several sets. After taking a few sets with the peak exposed, I touched the screen of the D850 to focus close to take three new bracketed images. I did this over and over for two hours. Tourists and photographers came and went over this period, but none of them caused me to miss any shots.
Adobe added an HDR feature in Lightroom CC a few versions back. It saves a lot of time and a lot of hard drive space! Simply select the three (or more) bracketed shots, and select the Photo Merge option under the Photo pull down menu. Pick HDR Merge. Note: I seldom make any adjustments to the three images before merging them. The program merges the selected photos into a single DNG. I did the same step for the close and far images. At this point, I made a few adjustments (hue, saturation, dehaze, contrast, lens correction, exposure, color temp, etc) on one of the two images using the sliders in Lightroom, then add the second DNG image to the selection. Clicking the Sync Settings applies the same adjustments to the second DNG.
Currently, Lightroom lacks the option to “stack” images. This step requires Photoshop. With the two DNG images selected, the command is to right mouse click to Edit In>Open as Layers in Photoshop. Lightroom dutifully passes the two images with the current adjustments to Photoshop. The next step is to Shift-Click the two layers in Photoshop and align the pixels.
Pull down the Edit menu and run the Auto-Align Layers command.
Lastly, with the two layers still selected, select the Auto-Blend Layers command under the Edit menu. The defaults under the Stack option usually work fine. Photoshop creates a new merged layer. At this point I usually save the image in Photoshop as either a TIF or PSD file. If you are happy with your original Lightroom adjustments, you’re done!
Photoshop is a great program for final adjustments. I typically make a copy of the top layer and do some “housekeeping” on it. That’s where I remove distractions, dust spots, power lines, trash, and so forth. While still in Photoshop, I often check out other possibilities using my third party filters like NIK, On-One, Skylum, Topaz and many others. For this project, ran the Polarizing Filter in NIK and tried out a few filters in Topaz Studio. I could spend all day playing with the hundreds or thousands of creative options. Almost all filters have sliders to pull back on saturation or other effects. Almost all filters work on a new layer, allowing users to dial back an effect as desired when they are returned to Photoshop.
(Bonus: Lightroom Classic CC also introduced a new HDR Pano option. It falls in line with this article, but I didn’t actually need to make panos today. This new feature eliminates the need to create three to six DNGs before assembling them into a HDR Pano. Very cool!)
Post Processing can be much quicker to do than you might expect! Out of curiosity, I went through the same steps described above with another set of images from the same shoot. It took 7 minutes to create the Stacked composite image, and I spent another 5 minutes cleaning up the distractions and running a Topaz filter for a total of 12 minutes. I’ve been using Photoshop and Lightroom for a long time, so it is easy for me to go into autopilot. If you try some of the techniques described on this page, you should soon be doing them on your own soon.
There weren’t a lot of high-tech elements in this shoot. The D850 (D500 also has the flip screen) makes it easy to look down and touch to select focus points. I took the photos in Aperture Priority, with ISO set to 100 (base ISO for most cameras), and F/11. The resulting shutter speed varied on the bracketed shots between 1/800th second, to 1/200th second for the middle shot, and 1/50th second for the bright shots. The I bubble level made it easy to know my camera was level when nestled into the bean bag. I didn’t have to touch the camera to trigger it using the electronic remote and only had to lightly touch the screen to change focus areas.
Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop are getting more and more efficient tackling more advanced commands. The third party filters can make complex and creative adjustments a breeze!
Most people visit this area during the summer months and into the colorful fall season. As soon as the leaves drop, they often clear out, but the off season months can be equally rewarding. Needless to say, there are fewer tourists and photographers and the Park has a much more relaxed feel. October and November are great months to visit the Tetons! If you are interested in a custom tour, Click the photo above for more information!