Digital Thinking in the Dry Tortugas: Travel photography workflow

Arrive with your camera at Fort Jefferson in Florida and all your senses come alive. You’ll see a brick red civil war fort on a sand island rising from sparkling teal blue waters, hear the calls of sooty and noddy terns by the thousands, and feel the breeze caress your skin under shaded palm trees on the natural sand beach. It is a fun setting for improving your photography, so I’ll talk about how you can do that with digital thinking. But first, some background about this unique national park.

In its stunning setting at the end of the Florida Keys, the Dry Tortugas were named for an abundance of turtles (Tortugas) and a lack of fresh water. Your journey there will be an easy 2 hour trip 70 miles from Key West (see the If You Go section below).

Labeled “dry” on nautical charts because its island had no drinkable water, Fort Jefferson’s builders put in 100 cisterns on Dry Tortigas to store rain water. With its artificial mote and island location, Fort Jefferson made an ideal prison as well. There were no bars in the prison, as escapees would have had no where to go. But Fort Jefferson was the stealth bomber of its day in 1839. It housed 2000 American troops, had several hundred advanced cannons, and with walls 8 feet thick and 50 feet high, it was constructed to be a vital part of America coastal defenses against foreign attack.

While some travel articles discuss photo techniques during a trip, you are better served by following a path rather than just techniques. If you think digital photography is technique, you are seeing the stars of the night sky without seeing the Milky Way.Below is one of the workflow paths I use for travel photography. Whether you carry a digital camera or scan your film after your trip, your thinking and visualizing how you want your photographs to look is important. Establish your workflow, and you’ll get consistent results even under challenging lighting conditions like those at Fort Jefferson.


Digital Workflow in 7 Easy Steps

1. Awareness: What is my personal vision for this work and what is unique about the surroundings?
2. How can I minimize equipment?
3. Control Contrast with camera and Photoshop together: Use Layers and fill flash when making pictures.
4. How to control color? : use hue and saturation enhancements.
5. How to get sharp images? : Use Unsharp Mask.
6. How to make enlargements? : Genuine Fractals to enlarge 1000% with no loss of resolution.
7. Print or web output and prints


Let’s discuss the first 4 steps in the Digital Workflow box.Mentally, I use this workflow to make pictures I consider challenging, ranging from the motion of frigate birds high above the water, to high contrast images of the architecture against the jewel blue Florida reef water.

Step #1, Awareness is the most important aspect of your photography. Fort Jefferson’s walls tower 3 stories above a shallow moat. Almost 200 years old, the brick and coral walls are under continual repair, and unsafe areas are closed, with caution areas are well-marked. Despite this, a park ranger told me of a photographer who fell backwards off the top of the wall into the moat while walking backwards framing her picture. I see many beginning photographers keep a close eye on their equipment, and lose awareness of where their feet are going.

With Step #2, when you Minimize Equipment, you’ll find you make more images with better concentration. With the physical effort of exploring this huge Fort, I took only one camera and a hip pack to keep my hands free and to hold a flash and two lenses. On top of crumbling fort walls forty feet above the moat, I chose to leave the tripod behind for this trip. Less is more when you photographing in remote areas. Let your feet act as the zoom lens. While I had a laptop with Photoshop, I left them back on the mainland.

Workflow step #3 is to Control Contrast. With bright sun over the ocean outside and deep shadows inside the Fort, a high contrast lighting situation can be beyond the range of the digital camera and the film camera. This was the case at Fort Jefferson, so I prepared for two photographic challenges as I crossed the moat into the Fort’s interior: washed out and underexposed images because of the high contrast between the ocean and the Fort.

First, there was contrast between the dark interior of the unlit fort and the bright sky. Second, the interior was so dark that it needed time exposures, and I did not lug my tripod. Instead, I made many exposures with my digital camera, some for the highlights and others for the shadows. While photographing, I imagined what the scene would look like after the layers were combined and after adding flash fill, and employed the LCD preview on the back of the camera to check all exposures, looking at the histogram in the information display to make sure I had shadows exposed well in one image, and highlights covered in another exposure of the exact same scene.

Workflow always starts with seeing, not with software. When in class, I teach my students to pre-visualize how the digital camera sees, and to try to get the image correct in the camera without Photoshop. I take them out under a night sky, and we discuss how their visual brain can adapt to low light quickly to see details after a minute or so. After they photograph, they understand that the camera cannot adapt as well, and they have to overexpose under dark or high contrast conditions. I overexposed deliberately in the darkness inside the Fort in order to capture detail in the dark that my eyes saw, but the digital camera could not record with standard exposure.

<p”>Layering in Photoshop is easy if you understand workflow and make exposures knowing that you are going to use them in a layered composite. For the frigate bird photograph, I photographed from the top story of the Fort, directly under the birds as they soared on the thermals above. Among a few blurred exposures, I made 15 really sharp ones, and since I’d pre-visualized the image as a collage, the best were combined in Photoshop’s layers palette. I tried to keep the sky a uniform tone, which meant shooting from the same angle below the birds with each exposure and keeping the sun out of the frame.

For a collage, be sure to take advantage of Photoshop’s “Overlay” mode in the layers palette to make it easy to combine objects on a uniform background, as the Layers figure shows. You can find Overlay in any version of Photoshop by clicking the black triangle next to the word Normal in the layers palette. In Photoshop, click Window > Show Layers in the top menu to display the layers palette.

For a collage, be sure to take advantage of Photoshop’s “Overlay” mode.

The shallow water around the fort is magical, and with the color in the coral reefs so compelling, many visitors spend their time on the beach just looking in the water. No Photoshop technique will substitute for your color awareness. So, as a commercial photographer, artist, or designer you must develop an enhanced awareness of color.

To capture accurate color:

a) Hue and Saturation enhancements will help correct flaws, particularly if you know beforehand that in sunny conditions, colors tend to be under-saturated, and address this by exposure and color balance in the camera. Once you’ve downloaded the image, you may click on Image > Adjust > Hue/ Saturation and correct the color, or

b) Balance the images tonality using Levels in the menu under Image > Adjust > Levels in any version of Photoshop (Shortcuts for PC and Mac are Control L/ Command L and Control U / Command U.) With practice, your mental image of how the scene looks will guide you when you enhance the image. Additional Note: Use Unsharp Mask before you print. The settings I start with are Amt = 85, Radius = 1, Threshold = 10, but consult with others to plan your own Unsharp Mask guidelines, as they vary).

Original Canon D30 digital Image
Same image with hue/saturation correction
<p”>When using levels, you can develop sense of when color casts are changing your whites, and your blacks. For example, look at the sand and sailboat picture. The camera left the beach sand way too pink, so I used the white eyedropper in the levels palette on the white sailboat in upper left background to remove all the color casts, and this corrected the beach sand by removing some of its magenta color cast. The ability to see these color casts is knowledge that comes from printing for over 10 years with a color enlarger in the darkroom.

Standard exposure for the scene
Flash fill, off camera, for detail in the dark brick wall.

Bring a Flash for Daylight.

Some of Fort Jefferson’s 16 million bricks have crumbled, due to the expansion of iron beams set behind the brick. Parts of the wall are now windows. These are superb framing elements. All of the parks guides had photos looking outside through a hole in the walls, like my photo on the far left.

But, with a personal vision as part of the workflow, I wanted to show details of the brick wall interior, since the construction was so impressive and vital to the history of the Fort.

Because there was high contrast between the brick in shadow and the light outside, a standard exposure made without giving any thought would expose the outside correctly and leave the bricks as a silhouette, as at far left. In advance of making the image at right, I added a flash to the digital camera to bring out the brick more. Adding fill flash is an effective way to control contrast, as in workflow step #3.


A Brief Note on Composition:

While pre-visualizing a scene sounds good, it isn’t always possible. Standing on top of the Fort with the wind blowing 15 knots, a breathtaking 360º view of the blue water, and a forty foot drop off to the moat just several feet away, I just forgot to compose.

So, I sat down and paused, to stop photographing. I habitually check the LCD screen on the back of my Canon D-30 digital camera. The photo of the walls and sailboat was predictable and without much depth. In making it, I’d neglected a simple compositional idea: fore ground, middle ground and back ground make for compositional depth.So, I resumed shooting, and this time included the “loose brick” warning sign in the foreground. With this white foreground sign and the white sailboat in the background, the second image had much more depth.

Compositional idea: fore ground, middle ground and back ground make for compositional depth

Back to Step #1: A Personal Vision

To conclude, I’d like to emphasize a personal vision, as in the photography of the frigate birds again. Usually when you see frigates they are several hundred feet up and appear as small specks. At Fort Jefferson, they flew right above the walls, soaring on the thermals, and capturing my attention by coming so close. I spent an hour just watching them circle and call to each other.

For the image, I added a color gradient in Photoshop. I spent time working on this picture, as I find that subjects that captivate me are those I put time into because they come close to my personal vision. With practice, you’ll be using your own workflow to get consistent results, and images closer to your personal vision.

By James Austin

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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