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Beyond What the Eye Beholds

10.05.12 / Alex Matthews, LEED AP BD+C

I generally think of photography as a documentary, or sometimes editorial medium, attempting to capture solely what the eye beholds. However, as with other arts, sometimes we find something in the process of creation which changes our expectations, and yields a more compelling result. The era of digital photography has widened such horizons dramatically, and made experimentation widely available, instead of being limited to the selected few with access to a darkroom.

Architectural field visits involve photography for the sake of documenting construction progress and issues as they occur, but occasionally the opportunity arises for photography of a more artistic sort. On a recent visit to my current project, the Wat Nawamintararachutis (NMR) Meditation Center, a Thai Buddhist Temple under construction in Raynham, MA, I found myself presented with such an opportunity. The temple structure crescendos through a series of stepping gables, culminating in a 95’-tall golden spire, or Chedi. This building form lends itself to compelling photographs, but when thunderstorms rolled in, I knew there would be even more drama to behold.

Drawing upon my training and experience as a lifelong photography enthusiast, I considered the composition, chose my viewpoint, and waited for the clouds to cooperate. Limited by the site and by my point-and-shoot camera, I found that I could not capture the entire composition in one shot, so I did it with six:

OK, I’d captured the scene—now what? An art-class collage wasn’t going to cut it. So, I turned to my preferred panorama stitching program, Hugin. It’s a free, open source, program with a tremendous level of functionality. There are many options for stitching panoramas out there, including panorama modes built into cameras or phones, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Hugin is arguably the most capable of them all; though, it has a steep learning curve.

However you choose to assemble your panoramas, the key is how you take the photos to begin with. A tripod—with an offset mount—is the preferred approach, but it’s possible to get decent results with a hand-held camera. The key is to rotate the camera around what’s called the “no-parallax” point of the lens, while holding that point as close to still as possible. With my small point-and-shoot, I just assume that point is the front element of the lens. With larger cameras like my SLR, that point varies but is generally somewhere inside the lens.

So now that I’ve got my pictures, I bring them into Hugin. It aligns the images, I adjust the projection to yield a fairly realistic perspective, tweak the horizon line, select the cropped area of the finished product, and I tell it to stitch:

Yawn. I’m pleased with the composition, and feel that the stitch is fairly successful, but the image does nothing to convey the gravitas of being there. The clouds are blown-out, the structure is dark and lacking in detail, and the mood is just wrong. This is a classic problem in photography, compounded by one of the most significant limitations of digital cameras: dynamic range. Dynamic range is the depth of tones between highlight and shadow. Film has a far greater dynamic range than any affordable digital camera.

Even with its increased dynamic range, film would struggle with this image. A backlit subject is simply a problem they tell you to avoid in photography class—unless you want to lose all the detail in your subject. So enter the digital age, and the advent of High Dynamic Range photography, HDR for short. HDR is a process of compositing multiple exposures of the same image to get increased depth of highlight and shadow beyond what can be captured in one image. It’s a controversial technique; purists feel it’s unnatural, some feel it’s the inevitable progression of the art, and others simply see it as a gimmick. I haven’t made up my mind yet, but have recently begun experimenting with it, to see if it has a place in my work.

I only took one set of exposures for my panorama, so a “true” HDR image wasn’t an option here. However, the panorama was composed of separate images exposed for different portions of the shot—some were properly exposed for the sky, and others for the building in the foreground. This meant the detail was there, if I could coax it out.  To that end, I output two more panoramas from Hugin, the same exact shot, but with exposure pushed two stops plus, and two stops minus: 

The next step was to composite all three panoramas together, which brings me to my next open-source software plug: Luminance HDR. I’m only just beginning to explore HDR, so I can’t vouch for Luminance the way I can with Hugin, but I’m pleased with it thus far.

I bring the three panoramas into Luminance, feed it some information about exposure, and let it process the images. One hiccup is that HDR images contain too much color information to be displayed by a conventional computer monitor; you create what’s called a “tonemap,” which is a processed form of the HDR image.   As a result, the next step is a process of trial and error, adjusting the processing until it yields a desirable tonemap:

Now this was getting somewhere… detail in the shadows, texture in the clouds, but it still didn’t quite capture the experience of standing there.  My interest in HDR work has been solely to increase dynamic range, attempting to maintain a natural and documentary appearance to my photographs. However, as I attempted to coax that missing element from this image, I caught glimpses of something powerful, but not documentary.  Chasing those glimpses, I pushed the dynamic range further, increased the color saturation, and enhanced the detail levels:

I didn’t want to like it. It wasn’t what I set out to create, it’s not what my photographic style is about. I deleted it. Then made it again. A few more times I discarded this image, writing it off as gimmicky and unsophisticated, only to feel compelled to see it again. This image is not what I saw. It’s not the photograph I envisioned. But it’s more. It transcends simple photography. It goes beyond what my eye beheld, and in doing so captures the spirit of that moment far more effectively than any pure photograph could.

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