I am writing about this picture because I hope it will inspire you to keep looking when you are pretty sure you are destined for failure.
I was down in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. If you haven’t been there, there is a lot of beach with heavy commercial development up and down the coast. This is not the sort of coast where you are going to find great scenic views, unless your idea of a scenic view is one full of condo buildings. I was walking around in the middle of the day when the light was at its worst. In fact, the skies were totally clear so I knew I was going to have a problem with harsh shadows even if I did find something worth shooting, which I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to.
Not exactly a recipe for success.
That said, I had an idea. I knew this odd shaped pier existed. I believe it to be called the Malecon Vallarta, but I am not entirely positive.
My thought was to take a photograph along the beach where the pier absolutely dominated the frame. That would hopefully allow me to create something interesting even though the sky was a boring, blank space. The other part of my vague plan was to shoot from underneath the pier so that its elements would dominate and provide some interest. Finally, I wanted the water to be serene, so I planned to use a neutral density filter.
I was walking around with my bare minimum kit. That consists of my camera, a “walking around lens” (Canon 24-105 f/4), a remote shutter release, and a neutral density filter. I’d need each of these items for this shot.
I set up to the right of the pier and composed the picture. I tried a few small variations, but I never strayed too far from what turned into the final picture (above). I really liked it with the pier in the top half of the frame, as though you are looking up to it. The only aspect of the composition I didn’t like was that the horizon line is right down the middle of the frame. I decided that was ok though, since you don’t see much of the horizon line in the picture.
In setting the exposure, I knew I wanted a 15 second shutter speed. Why 15 seconds? I knew I was going to bracket the shot to deal with the dynamic range problem caused by the bright sky and the darker foreground. By limiting the shutter to 15 seconds, that would allow for a longer shutter speed for the overexposed picture in the bracket. Even as bright as it was, and even using a 15 second shutter, that 10-stop neutral density filter is so strong that I had to moderate the aperture and raise the ISO a bit. I ended up keeping the aperture at f/11, which is enough to provide a pretty wide depth of field when shooting with a wide angle/shorter focal length. I increased the ISO to 400, which is higher than I like, but not something likely to result in a noise problem.
Then I just took a few brackets for the picture, making minor changes between them to make sure everything looked as good as possible. I was immediately optimistic about what I was seeing.
I knew this shot was going to require some work. I wanted to brighten some of the darkest areas of the picture, and tone down some of the highlights. I also needed to add some color. Finally, I wanted to sharpen the pier. These are pretty common changes, but the difference here is that I was going to have to really push the changes a lot further than I normally would.
That said, it was easy. I made the edits in about 30 seconds on my laptop using Lightroom. To deal with darkness/lightness issue, I didn’t even use the bracketed photo, but rather just used the normally exposed shot. I pulled the Highlights all the way down (-100) and pushed the Shadows all the way up (+100). I also pulled down the Blacks a bit (-30) to maintain contrast. While these sort of moves are pretty common for me, I usually don’t push things nearly this far. After doing that, I felt like it was a touch dark overall, so I increased the Exposure by .39 stops.
With that done, I punched up the colors using the Vibrance slider. I pushed it all the way up to +88. It is very common for me to increase the Vibrance, but I cannot remember ever pushing it that far. A normal adjustment for me is less than half that amount.
After that, I went to work on sharpness. I didn’t want to push things here because I didn’t want to sharpen the water or the beach. I increased the Amount of sharpening to 53, but also Masked it by 21 to keep from sharpening anything but the pier. After that I simply increased the Clarity to 23 and the Dehaze to 17.
The final result, after I did some minor cleanup work with the Spot Healing Brush and the Clone Stamp tool in Photoshop to remove a few boats, was the picture you saw at the top of the page.
It was my favorite picture from the trip, and it is all the more pleasing given the low expectations I had going in.