Behind-the-Photo: Eclipse Over Washington

Yesterday I shared a remarkable experience with millions of Americans... I joined them in looking up at the sun and enjoying a breathtaking display of the 2017 solar eclipse. During the eclipse, I made a series of images that were later merged into the following photograph (Buy a copy):

The final composite photograph of the August 2017 solar eclipse over the Jefferson Memorial.

The final composite photograph of the August 2017 solar eclipse over the Jefferson Memorial.

Today I am going to break down that photograph to share insight into the capture... part of my process to decelerate from the excitement of seeing the eclipse!

PLANNING THE SHOT

The eclipse came as no surprise - unless you have had your head buried in the sand, you probably knew for weeks (or months) that it was coming. While I knew the eclipse was coming far in advance, it was only in the last three weeks that I started to really plan my photograph.

Unlike many other photos, this is a 'one time only' shot. The next eclipse that would cover the Washington, DC area won't be for at least seven years, and that will no doubt look different from this one. Where the sun will set again tomorrow, offering another chance to re-do a sunset image, the moon and sun won't repeat this alignment every day. One chance. Had to be prepared.

NASA compiled a number of great resources, including some interactive maps that let me calculate the exact time the sun and moon would position themselves over Washington, DC. Using that map, I determined the maximum eclipse coverage over my area would be around 2:45pm EST.

A screenshot of the NASA interactive map, where I could determine the time of the eclipse over Washington, DC.

A screenshot of the NASA interactive map, where I could determine the time of the eclipse over Washington, DC.

With the time and date of the eclipse known, I went to one of my favorite apps for planning shots - the Photographers Ephemeris ("TPE"). The TPE app is wonderful because it lets you place a pushpin anywhere in the world and adjust the time and date to see where the sun and moon will align relative to that location. I normally use this app to plan sunrise and sunset shots because I can determine the exact location of the sun rise/set in advance and position myself and my camera for that event. 

This was the first time I'd used TPE to calculate a photograph at mid-day, but the app responded beautifully. I changed the date to 21 August 2017 around 2:45pm EST and looked at the alignment of the sun and moon to find a location in the DC area that would offer a nice alignment. Many people would photograph the sun that day, so I wanted my final image to include a foreground element that was clearly "DC" - something that gave context and location to the sun images I would also capture.

A quick look at the TPE app and I found my location.... there was almost perfect alignment between the sun, moon, and Jefferson Memorial. Shooting across the Tidal Basin would offer a wonderful alignment for the elements I wanted in my final composition.

A screenshot from the Photographers Ephemeris app, showing the alignment of the sun, moon, and Jefferson Memorial. In the bottom right corner, the app also displayed the lunar coverage of the sun in a small animation, providing exact information for me to use in planning the shot.

A screenshot from the Photographers Ephemeris app, showing the alignment of the sun, moon, and Jefferson Memorial. In the bottom right corner, the app also displayed the lunar coverage of the sun in a small animation, providing exact information for me to use in planning the shot.

I started to imagine the image in my head - a spectacular composite showing several stages of the solar eclipse staged over the Jefferson Memorial and Tidal Basin.... I may not get totality in DC, but I would have a chance to make a beautiful image anyway!

At this point I had a mental construct of the final product, and it was time to deconstruct the image into its individual elements to plan. The first step was to calculate if it would be possible to get all of the elements in the scene in the camera at the same time, or if I would need to shoot everything as individual elements and merge it later. I suspected it would need to be a composite, but still wanted to do the math to be sure.

Based on the information I had, I put together the following sketch:

SunHeightCalcuator.jpg

This sketch depicts the information I had - the relative sun angle above the horizon (57.5 degrees), my calculated distance from where I would stand along the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial (1,200 ft) and the height of the Jefferson Memorial (129 ft). From there, I needed to calculate the height of the sun over the memorial. 

Ouch.

It's been awhile since I did geometry, but Google is a great resource for those of us who have forgotten how to do math! I calculated a height of 1,754 ft from the top of the monument to the sun, and my sister, who also happens to be a high school math teacher, confirmed my work. Phew.

After putting down my calculator, it was clear I would have to shoot this as a composite - each element would be a separate image and I would merge them all in Photoshop to create the product I envisioned.

THE EQUIPMENT

With my plan in hand, it was time to get the equipment needed to create my image. Through my math and mental deconstruction of the final image I wanted, I determined there were two different elements I would need to photograph: 1) The Jefferson Memorial and 2) The stages of the solar eclipse.

Those two elements would require completely different equipment, so let's look at each one in turn:

The Jefferson Memorial

Normally, this is a very easy photograph. Point camera at memorial and click, right? Not so fast.... I am taking this photograph at 2:45pm remember. The sky will be a light blue, there will be harsh light and no bright colors. A yellow sun on a baby blue sky will look....out of place. The solar eclipse is also going to darken the sky, so it would be more appropriate to depict the solar elements on a darker sky. But it's still 2:45pm.

I solved this problem with the help of several neutral density filters, which allowed me to darken the sky and create the impression that it was closer to dusk than it really was. Normally I wouldn't employ this tactic during a mid-day shot.... I would just wait until dusk (no filter replaces the real thing), but I felt like this was an acceptable time to use the filters.

I decided that I would get my shot of the Jefferson Memorial before the solar eclipse show started so that I could be totally focused on the sun during the eclipse. 

To get the photograph of the memorial, I used the following equipment:

  • Leica SL Type 601

  • Leica 24-90mm Vario-Elmar lens

  • Gitzo Tripod

  • Acratech ballhead and leveling base

  • Several stacked neutral density filters and a polarizing filter

The Solar Eclipse

The images of the solar eclipse were the ones I was more nervous about getting correct; I have never shot directly into the sun during mid-day, so I needed to get smart in doing so! Thankfully there is no shortage of websites from astrophotographers who explain their techniques!

The longer the focal length, the better. I have a Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens that has a modified Leica R mount that I got to photograph wildlife with, and figured that would be a perfect choice. Even at 400mm, the sun would be fairly small against the sensor - this really is a time for big glass to shine. So I got a 2x teleconverter - which made this lens the equivalent of an 800mm monster! Normally the teleconverter offers a major loss in light reduction, but I knew that wouldn't be an issue when shooting straight into the sun!

The next thing I needed was a solar filter for my lens to protect it and the camera from the harmful sun. The lens is over 6 inches in diameter, so my best solution was to use a piece of solar film and cut my own filter.

I found a piece of solar film on Amazon and used the shipping box and some gaffers tape to engineer a removable holder for the film to sit in front of the lens.

The following equipment was used for each of the solar shots:

My camera rig pointed up at the sun during the eclipse

My camera rig pointed up at the sun during the eclipse

The homemade solar filter mounted to the front of my lens

The homemade solar filter mounted to the front of my lens

GETTING THE SHOT(S)

Alas, eclipse day arrived and I packed some gatorade, a beach towel, and my camera gear for an Uber ride to the Tidal Basin. I setup in the grass in the area I'd pre-determined was the right spot for my final shot.

As previously discussed, I planned to shoot the Jefferson Memorial element first, which I did. But the one I ended up using in my final image came last; scattered puffy clouds earlier in the afternoon meant I'd have to contend with a cloudy sky when placing the sun elements in the composite. Since clouds always cover the sun (and never the other way around), I could not place the sun on top of a cloud.... but by the end of the eclipse, the cloud situation had stabilized and I only needed to contend with a few puffy guys over the horizon. A storm cell had moved in, darkening the scene (which I was already going for with my filters), and the uniform grey sky provided a better and more realistic location to place the solar elements.

Because I had planned so meticulously, I was ready the instant the first bit of the moon started to move across the sun. Since I had never photographed the sun, I used these first few moments of eclipse activity to test my settings and focus, ensuring everything was exactly as I wanted.

All of the solar images were shot at an ISO ranging between 100-400 at f/11. Shutter speeds varied based on the amount of sun visible.

Shooting the eclipse at the base of the Tidal Basin.

Shooting the eclipse at the base of the Tidal Basin.

By the end of the afternoon, rain and storms were starting to move into the area, so I packed my gear and returned home to finish building the final image in Photoshop. I was confident that I had all of the elements needed to build the final image, it was just a matter of assembling them all correctly....

BUILDING THE FINAL IMAGE

The final image would require a composite of several solar elements from various stages of the eclipse overlaid onto my foreground shot of the Jefferson Memorial. In terms of complexity, this is probably the most challenging image I have ever assembled - everything had to look like it was real - the assembly had to be seamless. We've all see poor Photoshop hack jobs - this could not be one!

Is This a FAKE Photo?

Some people will accuse me of making a fake photograph. Sure - the sun never looked like this over the Jefferson Memorial - so in that regard, the photo is a fake. But that's not the point. The point of my artwork is to share an experience. This image is an accurate depiction of my experience - I watched phases of the eclipse move across the sky above the memorial. The photograph I created and shared is an accurate capture of the feeling, emotions, and experience I had. Every element is genuine - there was nothing I created that is not authentic, it is only the combination of those elements that is not genuine.

Assembling the Solar Elements

The photographs of the sun, while the trickiest to get, were actually the easiest to edit. I cropped them all to 1x1 squares (each one in the sensor was the same size since it was a fixed focal length) and adjusted the exposure slightly to correct any over/under exposure. I shot the sun at 10 minute intervals during the early stages, then at 2 minute intervals during the periods of maximum obscuration. The images used in the final shot were taken at the following times (as derived from my in-camera GPS):

  • 21 August 2017, 13:36:10 EDT

  • 21 August 2017, 13:51:35 EDT

  • 21 August 2017, 14:02:50 EDT

  • 21 August 2017, 14:14:39 EDT

  • 21 August 2017, 14:28:56 EDT

  • 21 August 2017, 14:39:30 EDT

These images were not selected for the precise interval separating them (clearly!) but rather because they were good images depicting the various stages of the eclipse. In other words, it was an artistic decision, rather than scientific decision.

Each of the six solar elements that would appear in the final composition were then exported at high resolution to be merged with the foreground shot of the memorial.

One of the six solar elements used in the composite image

One of the six solar elements used in the composite image

The Foreground Image

The photograph of the Jefferson Memorial proved a trickier prospect than initially expected. I thought I might present the whole capture in black and white, but the sun started to look more like the moon when done in black and white. Having the sun remain a brilliant orange was the only way to convey to the viewer that it was actually the sun.

That meant the foreground also needed to be in color. I went through several iterations of how this should look before building one that looked correct. In each iteration, I found the balance between the brightness of the solar elements and the brightness of the background sky to be the most challenging element.

Finally I adjusted (and re-adjusted) until I had a foreground image I was happy with. Below is that image before I cleaned it up in Photoshop and added the solar elements.

The early version of the Jefferson Memorial image that was used to create the final composition

The early version of the Jefferson Memorial image that was used to create the final composition

Before adding the solar elements to the composition, I also went through and 'cleaned up' this photograph. There were many dust spots on the sensor, and I didn't like the distraction of the people on the stairs (although I did like the blur of the people on the paddle boats). So I removed each of those things and made slight lighting adjustments to the rest to bring out the best colors across the image.

I brought the final foreground image into Photoshop and then created several layers with each of the solar elements. Using the 'lighten' blend mode, I brought each into the foreground shot and started to build the composite.

I will spare you all of the Photoshop clicks - partially because I don't remember them all and there was a lot of trial and error - but the end result was six solar elements and one background image layered together. 

The next step was to adjust the size and location of the solar elements. For this, I drew a hot pink line across the sky, and used the Photoshop ruler and measurement tools to align each sun at equal intervals along that line. The line trick was a lifesaver - it made the alignment so much easier! I also used this to ensure each solar element was sized similarly.

A screenshot from Photoshop of my final image coming together. Notice the pink line I drew the align each of the solar elements as I built the final image.

A screenshot from Photoshop of my final image coming together. Notice the pink line I drew the align each of the solar elements as I built the final image.

THE FINAL PRODUCT

After weeks of planning, the final product had come together. The weather cooperated. The equipment all worked. The planning paid off. 

I let out a huge sigh of relief when I had finished assembling the final image. Unlike most of my other photographs, I was not confident I would be able to pull this off until the very end, and it was a huge relief to finally celebrate the success. Without a doubt, this was not only the most technically difficult photograph I have ever captured, but it was also the one with the slimmest margin for error; failure to capture the solar elements meant there would be no finished product!

Thank you for taking the time to read this behind-the-photo entry, and leave me a comment if you have any questions about the final image!

You can purchase a copy of this photograph for your home and have it delivered framed and ready to hang!

Behind-the-Photo: Elakala Falls

Photography is more than just the 'click' - there is a lot of planning and editing required to make a spectacular photograph. I recently posted about my revisit to Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia, where I photographed Elakala Falls. This photograph was particularly difficult to create, so I wanted to deconstruct the image into its raw parts and share the creation process with you. It's like a chef showing you the recipe...

PS - this technique is *exactly* the same as the technique I used to create this waterfall photograph at Great Falls. Once you know the technique, you can apply it anywhere!

The Equipment

Obviously the first step to taking a photograph like this is having the correct equipment. The basis of this image is a long exposure at the base of a waterfall, which requires two fundamental pieces of gear: a tripod and neutral density filter.

In this case, I was using my Leica SL and Leica 24-90mm lens. I use a Really Right Stuff L-bracket on the Leica SL and mounted that via an Acratech GP bullhead with leveling base to my Gitzo tripod. I use a funny combination of filters and mounts for my neutral density filter - it is greatly oversized for this lens, but that results in no vignetting, which can be a problem with filters. Here's a quick iPhone photo of me with my gear for the day (note the boots so I can stand in the water):

So, to recap, we have the following equipment in use on this photograph:

The Secret Sauce

There are two secrets to this photograph: 1) the neutral density filter and 2) the leveling base. Let's explore why...

To create the flowing water effect and the swirl in the bottom of the image, I need to take a long photograph. That long image exposure will allow the sensor to see things - like the swirls - that are not really perceptible with the human eye. It takes some practice to spot things like the pools of water that will swirl in a long exposure, but it is doable with the naked eye. Anyway, in daylight, the only way to get the camera to take a long photograph and not have the image washed out is by putting a pair of sunglasses on the camera - known as a neutral density filter. Like sunglasses, this darkens what the camera sensor sees, and thereby makes the exposure time required to get a properly exposed image longer. I stacked two filters to give a really dark effect - resulting in exposures of over a minute.

Not all tripods are created equal, and this photograph is a great example for why investing in good gear matters. I knew this was going to be a panorama, and the only way to ensure a level plane as you rotate the camera is with a leveling base. Let's explore.... Set up your tripod in your house and purposefully make it a little uneven by putting a book under one leg of the tripod. You can remove that un-level-ness by making the ball head level. But now if you loosen the rotation on the tripod head and move the head left to right, you'll see that the head doesn't stay level.

A levelling base sits below the ball head on the tripod. Once you level that, you can rotate the ball head portion and the whole things stays flat. Compared to the price of a great tripod and head, the leveling base is cheap, and it's a must have if you plan to shoot panoramas.

Planning the Shot

The goal was to get a swirl of water at the base of the waterfall - the trick was how. I walked around the falls taking some test shots for a few minutes before eying this pool of water. I knew it'd be prefer to make my swirl, so I setup my tripod. 

Unfortunately, there was no way I could get the image I had in my head in a single capture. The 24mm focal length of my lens meant I'd have to aim down toward the pool of water, and I wanted the image to feel more straight on. Thankfully there is a solution to this problem - shoot the image as a vertical panorama.

When most people think of making a panorama, they mistakenly orient their camera horizontally because they want the final image to be wide. But you actually get a better final product by taking vertically oriented images and stitching those together to get a wide final image (see photos below to illustrate this point).

The five photographs that were stitched together to make the final image. They are intentionally underexposed to preserve shadow detail.

The five photographs that were stitched together to make the final image. They are intentionally underexposed to preserve shadow detail.

The next challenge was lighting. It was a cloudy day, and the sun would pop out of the clouds to create a harsh light, then would duck behind a cloud and generate a soft diffuse light. I wanted the later. So I waited.... a lot. Every time the cloud went in front of the sun, I triggered the shutter and waited for the 60 second exposure to complete. Unfortunately this process isn't scientific, so the end result was that there were some images that were just brighter than others. 

In the images below, you can see how the rocks in the foreground are brighter in one shot and darker in the next. I knew I could resolve this in post production, so I didn't stress over this - as long as the waterfall was evenly lit between images, I knew I could adjust the foreground.

Two images showing a big change in the lighting as I shot the panorama

Two images showing a big change in the lighting as I shot the panorama

Post Production

I don't do a lot of 'chimping' (aka looking at the back LCD screen), but I gave a quick scroll through my results and determined they were satisfactory for my final product. The rest of the image would wait until I got home.

Back in my studio, I downloaded the original RAW files to my backup and primary hard drive and imported them into Adobe Lightroom. Before creating the panorama, I did some minor adjustments on the individual files to make them uniform in the lighting. In other words, I reduced the highlights and exposure values for the 2nd image slightly.

I then asked Lightroom to turn the five images into a panorama, and this was the result:

The panorama resulting from the five images - notice there is some distortion, which I resolve by cropping.

The panorama resulting from the five images - notice there is some distortion, which I resolve by cropping.

I cropped the image to remove the distortion and to crop out the branches in the foreground. Next was to go in with the spot removal tool and clean up that sensor dust (I am very anal about sensor dust!). 

Finally, it's the fun part! I used the sliders to adjust the image to bring it back to what I had in my mind's eye. Remember, I intentionally underexposed the images as I shot them so that I could revive some of the shadow detail, so the final product was always going to look more vibrant than the RAW files. That is why we shoot in RAW, so we can have all that dynamic range to play with!

The biggest adjustment I made was a selective whitening on the pool in the foreground to really enhance the swirl.

And there we have it - the final product. I exported it in several sizes - one suitable for printing, another suitable for the internet, and a third suitable for mobile devices.

This technique is a process I use all the time - including with this other waterfall photograph. There are dozens of images on my website shot like this, so I hope this little tutorial helps! Ask questions below....

Digital Photography Workflow on Your iPad

Living in Europe, I spent a lot of time traveling and on the road. Every day spent away from my main workstation is a day less blogging, editing, and producing content (although it is usually a day creating new images). Travel is important for me to create new works, so I'm certainly not complaining! However, the down time spent at airports, on trains, flying, and in layovers between destinations could be spent supporting ScenicTraverse.com. 

It's important to pause here by saying first that as much as Apple and Microsoft would love to convince you that their tablet systems are capable of supporting digital photography workflow independent of a 'traditional' desktop / laptop, I don't think that is fair (at this point in 2016). Processing speed, memory, storage, and application complexity alone are evidence that the iPad cannot substitute for a traditional workstation. And, in my experience, the workflow on the iPad is much slower than on the desktop, so even if you could one-for-one do the same tasks, the time required to complete them is very different. For that reason, the iPad is designed to compliment my workflow by enabling me to extend it to the field.

I can't wait until I get home to edit and download all my images.... I'd have a forever long backlog! So I have complimented my desktop by working in a mobile Lightroom setup, even if it isn't as fast as the desktop. 

Let's start by discussing what I'd like to be able to do, in a perfect world, from my tablet (Apple iPad Pro in this case):

  • Download RAW files from SD media
  • Review / quality control files on the iPad
  • Apply a rating (1-5 stars) in Lightroom Mobile and have that rating preserved when the file is imported into Adobe Lightroom Desktop
  • EASILY send a selection of files between Lightroom Mobile and Lightroom Desktop
  • Do minor adjustments (contrast, blacks/whites, sharpening) to the RAW file
  • Do spot healing adjustments to remove dust
  • Controls for black and white developing
  • Export images to display on my website / Facebook / Instagram

The good news is that most of these things can be done, although not as perfectly as I'd like. For discussion of how this actually works in practice, you should know that I am using the 2016 Apple iPad Pro 9.7" with the Apple Keyboard, Apple Pencil and Apple SD Card Reader.

The cool thing about Lightroom mobile is that you can share images between your mobile devices, and edits on one carry to another. This is a screenshot of my "photography page" on my phone.... lots of Adobe apps!

The cool thing about Lightroom mobile is that you can share images between your mobile devices, and edits on one carry to another. This is a screenshot of my "photography page" on my phone.... lots of Adobe apps!

Now let's take a quick step backward and look how I got here....... I started using Adobe Photoshop in 2008, long before Creative Cloud existed. I didn't buy Lightroom and just used Adobe Bridge (gasp) and Adobe Photoshop (really, Adobe Camera RAW...... don't want to upset the Adobe crowd with the wrong terms) for all my editing. I became very fast editing a RAW file with that combination, and as much as Bridge sucks, I adapted it to fit my archive method. All was good. When I travelled, I'd haul my laptop and do some editing on the road, but that became a real pain. Laptops are big, they need a different power source (or not the same one as my iPhone), and don't las as long. So I got to thinking about trying to swap out the laptop for an iPad and being even more portable in my editing away from home.

Photoshop on the iPad isn't really "Adobe Photoshop" - its a smattering of the best functions from the desktop version, but it isn't designed to do the basic edits. Adobe gives us Lightroom Mobile and has clearly emphasized that Lightroom is the future of digital workflow and archiving. 

I hadn't learned Lightroom previously because I didn't need to  - I was fast and efficient with Photoshop and Lightroom didn't offer me anything else. But the mobile apps finally tipped the scale, and I spent a few weeks building the muscle memory and recall to be as fast with Lightroom as I was with Photoshop. Now I use Lightroom more. Same results, different app.

Back to the mobile workflow..... does it work? Can I accomplish that list of wants?

Sorta? 

Generally, most of the things on that list can be done with the mobile applications, but I'm not totally on board with the entire workflow. For starters, I hate how many apps are involved. I need at least FOUR different Adobe apps running on the iPad to achieve the same results as I get from desktop Lightroom. For instance, you can edit the basic exposure and sharpness in Lightroom Mobile, but need to change apps to do dust removal. In all fairness to Adobe, I suspect they had to break up the processing into several apps to make it manageable for the processors on the iPad, and they do have the apps able to pass images back and forth between themselves, but it still is a slow down....... in fact, the slow down is really my beef.

I edit roughly 200 images per week. If I spend one minute per image, that's 3+ hours per week spent editing. Kill me please. I've mastered the desktop software and can edit most photographs in 20-30 seconds (there are plenty of exceptions, so don't get all judging). But the same edits in Lightroom mobile might take 2-3x longer. 

What better time to work on editing your digital images than when you're flying with a budget airline? It's not like they are about to bring me a drink, snack or meal!

What better time to work on editing your digital images than when you're flying with a budget airline? It's not like they are about to bring me a drink, snack or meal!

What that translates into is that I'll edit a selection of image on the road just to 'keep ahead of the curve' and take advantage of that down time at an airport, but if I have access to my desktop, I'm using that. I have also found that using Lightroom Mobile and the iPad is a great way to review, but not edit, the images from that day, and often use it for that without editing. 

As a side note: I LOVE that Leica has programmed apps for the Leica Q and Leica SL to connect to the iPad via wifi. The photo download and transfer rate over the self-broadcast wifi network is significantly faster than the SD card reader that Apple sells (apparently the transfer rate is better on the 12" iPad, but I didn't want something that big). So if you are using a mobile device to edit, get the free apps for your cameras, because they may make this even faster.

I suspect the difference in editing times will shrink in the next few years; mobile devices are getting faster and continue to close the gap in processing performance to their desktop counterparts. As Apple installs better processors, Adobe will be able to collapse apps together and streamline workflow. I genuinely believe that we will get to a point where the tablet workflow is on par with the desktop workflow, at least in speed. 

Do you edit with the mobile applications? Have you found them a nice compliment to your desktop?

 

Quick Shot: Big Ben(s)

As I often do, I shared these photos with some family and friends before sharing them online. When I sent these to my dad, he replied with the following question, which I thought was worthy of sharing and answering online:

"Why waste all that film when you could use photoshop to more accurately and directly control the images?"

Well (dad) and everyone else - it's not about the most effective way to create an image.... it's about art, creativity, and fun! If I sat down at my computer with a blank Photoshop document, I would never have dreamed up the images I created. And assuming I had thought up these photographs, I would have spent hours manipulating and playing with them to be 'perfect' rather than accepting the creative randomness that I experienced.

I really didn't put much pre-visualization into these double exposures - which is unlike most of my photography. Normally I have clearly planned my perfect image in my head before I arrive on site or take the photograph. Although film photography means I don't know the results of my shoot until after I've developed the film, I still try to pre-plan photographs. The exception came with these double exposures.

I knew the general themes I wanted, but much of the final composition was to be decided in person. It was only when I was looking at Big Ben that I decided to try and compose upside down. It was only after I took that shot that I thought "I bet it would look interesting sideways." Being creative and artistic means that sometimes you operate without a plan and try something crazy. It means that sometimes you try something you couldn't do in Photoshop!

Shot with the Hasselblad 503CX on Ilford Delta 100 film.


Quick Shot: 10 Minute Photo

A few weeks ago I got an idea for a 10 minute photograph - something I've never tried before. The idea was to take long exposure photos for 10 minutes and merge the final product into one photo in Photoshop - essentially creating a single image that represents 10 minutes of time.

The challenge was to find a place where I could do this experiment and where it'd be obvious that 10 minutes of time had passed. That meant that I needed a location with some nice moving clouds and (preferably) some water. After extensive research, I decided to try this out at the fishing pier at Leesylvania State Park. 

To get this image, I mounted two neutral density filters on my Nikon D800 with Nikon 14-24mm lens. The neutral density filters limit how much light gets to my camera, so the camera compensates by taking a longer image. Think of it like tricking the camera into thinking it's nighttime during the middle of the day. I had to use a tripod because each image was 20 seconds long and the camera couldn't move at all during this 10 minute stretch.

In total, 30 images were taken over 10 minutes.

To get this result, however, required even longer with Photoshop! First, to speed up processing times, I converted all the RAW NEF files into TIFF format. Then I used Adobe Photoshop photomerge to create a blended image of all 30 photos into one. Of course, this left a little ghosting and vignetting where there were things like fishers standing on the pier, but I removed those to create a seamless image. Finally, I opened the composite TIFF and adjusted it in Adobe Camera RAW and converted it into black and white using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2. 

I am pretty pleased with the end result and I think it's neat having a single image that represents 10 minutes in time. What do you think?

My 10 minute photograph of the fishing pier at Leesylvania State Park

Photoshop World Day 3 Recap

Holy cow... I've got sore feet and I'm exhausted, yet I feel great after having my brain stuffed full of information for the past few days! Today was day 3 of Photoshop World Atlanta and concluded the conference, but there still were a few highlights to share. 

I started the day with Vincent Versace and a class about using LED lighting. It was a wildly fascinating class and he had some super cool lights - including the Ice Light which is basically an LED light saber for portraits. I'm not a big user of external lighting, but I still believe it's important to understand the fundamentals of properly lighting a subject. Although my subject is rarely a human, the same principles that apply to humans apply to lighting virtually anything else.

I also saw classes from Frank Doorhof and a class from Julieann Kost to round out my morning. Between classes, however, I again hit the expo floor in search of new stuff to discuss.....

  • Model shoot. As I mentioned earlier this week, Westcott brings some models and sets them up for the conference attendees to shoot during the week. I took a few snaps of the various models but have been so busy, that I really haven't had a chance to do much editing. This isn't a finished photo, but it gives you a sense of what Westcott offers the photographers....
One of the models photographed this week as part of Westcott's live model shoot. I like the mischievous look in her eyes - it's like she's trying to sell you cigarettes knowing that she's going to give you lung cancer and then, once you are dead, she can steal your camera. Or something like that....

One of the models photographed this week as part of Westcott's live model shoot. I like the mischievous look in her eyes - it's like she's trying to sell you cigarettes knowing that she's going to give you lung cancer and then, once you are dead, she can steal your camera. Or something like that....

  • More aerial photography. I was sent some questions about the aerial copters I previewed in earlier blogs, so I went back to get more information for everyone. The specific question here was about the various iOS apps used to fly the copter and what those were like. I'm not one with words, but I have a camera..... 
The iPhone app used to control the camera on the quad copter. The app is very straight forward with easy to use camera controls and you can set the camera to do all sorts of advanced features, like shooting in RAW or HDR photography. These features make the copter far more than a "toy"!

The iPhone app used to control the camera on the quad copter. The app is very straight forward with easy to use camera controls and you can set the camera to do all sorts of advanced features, like shooting in RAW or HDR photography. These features make the copter far more than a "toy"!

  • I bought some stuff. Considering all the cool items for sale, I managed to escape the show with most of my money still in my pocket. I did break down to purchase two things - the Flixel software and the Promote Control. I am still learning about both and will review them in due time, so stay tuned.
     
  • I hung out with Vincent (again). We'd taken some photos when he'd presented my award to me, but they were in funny colored lighting for the opening ceremony. So when I ran into Vincent at the expo hall, we decided to take 2 and get a normal shot. 
     
  • I listened to Julieann Kost preach Photoshop. This woman is truly a wizard with Photoshop - which makes sense as she works for Adobe. What makes her talks so incredible is that she's not only very smart, she's also a talented photographer and instructor. Photoshop is arguably one of the most complicated pieces of software available and widely used today, but Julieann can humanize the software and always teaches me something new!
Julieann Kost delivering a sermon on Photoshop at the Adobe booth. She always draws a big crowd!

Julieann Kost delivering a sermon on Photoshop at the Adobe booth. She always draws a big crowd!

This was a great Photoshop World and I'm a little sad that it'll be a few years before I can attend another one due to my upcoming overseas move. Before I sign off, let's review some of today's winning quotes:

  • "What am I supposed to do? Bend over and that's going to be my 'natural lighting'?"- Frank Doorhof
  • "Good enough is not good enough. Perfect is close" - Vincent Versace
  • "Be taken by the photograph, don't take the photograph" - Vincent Versace
Standing with Mr. Vincent Versace - earlier this week I won the Vincent Versace Award for Excellence in Photography, which is obviously named after him. 

Standing with Mr. Vincent Versace - earlier this week I won the Vincent Versace Award for Excellence in Photography, which is obviously named after him. 

Stay tuned as later this week I'll dig into a few more of the products I found at Photoshop World and will offer some updated reviews once I've played with them!

Photoshop World Day 2 Recap

Yawn! Not out of boredom... that yawn is from a full day of learning and shoving my brain full of inspiration at Photoshop World.

The morning started with a slew of classes covering topics from 32 bit HDR to organizing photos in Adobe Lightroom to creating composite images. It was all great stuff, as usual, but for me, these classes are more than just new techniques. They serve as inspiration for new work. While these professionals are showing off their latest images and processing techniques, I'm busy taking wild notes about how I can evolve and morph their ideas to match my style of photography.

Julieann Kost from Adobe Systems preparing to give a presentation on creating composite images in Adobe Photoshop CC. She's a Photoshop goddess and a fantastic instructor!

Julieann Kost from Adobe Systems preparing to give a presentation on creating composite images in Adobe Photoshop CC. She's a Photoshop goddess and a fantastic instructor!

After a busy morning of classes, I went back to the expo floor for some more great demos. There were a few things that I spent time on today...

  • Exploring different paper options from Moab, Epson, etc. There are so many different types of paper available to print on and each paper gives my photos a slightly different look. Although I currently have a "go-to" paper for my printing, that doesn't mean I can rest - new production processes enable papers to be made today that just a few months ago were impossible! Think about that - we're still inventing paper! How exciting for photographers that we get to play with all the latest paper offerings! 
  • Got up close and personal with Promote Control. I saw this yesterday but after more research and talking to the company, I've decided this is one of the coolest gizmos at the show. In short, it can do everything my camera cannot. Things like elaborate time lapse series, focus stacking, video racking, or (my favorite) custom HDR bracketing. The Promote Control plugs into the side of the camera and over-rides the camera to achieve things that otherwise would be extremely difficult (or impossible)! It's also weather proof for use in nasty weather and the battery life is rated at over 100 hours. Although I haven't purchased one, this is now on my short list of stuff that I want to take away from the show.
The Promote Control mounted on top of a Nikon D7100 camera on the show floor. It's a very easy to use tool with intuitive controls. Very cool!

The Promote Control mounted on top of a Nikon D7100 camera on the show floor. It's a very easy to use tool with intuitive controls. Very cool!

  • Purchased the Flixel Cinemagraph Pro software for Mac. I saw this on the showroom yesterday, but, like the Promote Control, wanted to learn more before committing. Essentially, this is a piece of software that lets me make still photos with a slight "video" feel to them. This is the kind of new technique that will let me stand out with my photography to catch the attention of future clients - I've learned that alot of being successful in this business is being innovative and this software will enable some new creative productions. It's hard to explain in words what this software does, so here's an example I've borrowed from their website.
  • Explored drone photography to create a new perspective. This was probably the highlight of my afternoon - I spent several hours talking to the company that makes these little UAV drones with cameras attached that are enabling photographers to get a new and different perspective for their artwork. I can think of a TON of applications for this with our upcoming move to the United Kingdom and had my brain filled with new information about these nifty flying machines. Check out the pics:
The UAV drone seen here can pack up into a small backpack and weighs only a few pounds, yet it can take high resolution aerial images!

The UAV drone seen here can pack up into a small backpack and weighs only a few pounds, yet it can take high resolution aerial images!

It's a terrible iPhone photo (I need to upgrade to a new iPhone - clearly!) but you can get a sense for how small these UAVs are.

It's a terrible iPhone photo (I need to upgrade to a new iPhone - clearly!) but you can get a sense for how small these UAVs are.

  • Finally, I spent a few minutes watching some various demos from Adobe. The first was an in depth look at the new Lightroom Mobile and how photographers can incorporate mobile technology into their workflow. The second presentation talked about using Adobe Photoshop CC to do 3D printing. In this case, this is the printer model for using a 3D printer to make an iPhone case.....
Who knew that Adobe Photoshop CC could be used for 3D printing? Not me!

Who knew that Adobe Photoshop CC could be used for 3D printing? Not me!

The day concluded with a few more classes from instructors like Vincent Versace (the artist who gave me the award yesterday) and then a panel discussion from the best names in the industry about their current inspiration and projects. This panel, called the Art of Digital Photography, is one of the highlights of Photoshop World and left me with a lot to think about. 

Finally, to conclude another great day at Photoshop World... here are some of the best quotes from today:

  • 'Photoshop isn't sentient, but it does sense fear' - Vincent Versace
  • 'This is a dead bird that I put on a scanner' - Julieann Kost
  • 'It's not legally against the law to shoot at high noon' - Jay Masial 

......and, the quote of the day:

  • 'Carry a camera. It's easier to take pictures that way' - Jay Masial

Tomorrow wraps up another great Photoshop World, but I'll be back with more updates from the show in the afternoon. Until then, happy shooting!

Photoshop World Day 1 Recap & Vincent Versace Award Winner

Greetings! Today marked the official start to Photoshop World Atlanta 2014 and it was a busy and fun filled day! Let's recap some of the highlights.....

The show opens with an opening ceremony where Adobe announced the new Lightroom Mobile, but before we talk about that.....

..... Let's talk Vinnie!

As I mentioned last week, I was selected as a finalist for one of the Photoshop World Guru Awards for my photo of Elakala Falls. The winners were going to be announced at the opening ceremony, so I have been waiting with baited breath to find out if I won all week. The Guru Awards are presented at the end of the ceremony, so it was a long hour of fidgeting with anticipation to find out the results...... One of the last presentations in the opening ceremony is the Vincent Versace Award for Photographic Excellence - it's the "big prize" at the show and the winner gets lots of cool photo equipment. Vincent Versace, for whom this award is named, came in person to present it, so I sat eagerly hoping he'd call my name as the winner. Sure enough, he did! 

This was a very humbling experience - Vincent is an extremely well know photographer - to have him select my photograph was a huge honor. Being selected as a finalist for any of the awards was a great acknowledgment of my hard work, but actually winning the "Vinnie" - the big award at the show - was more than I could have ever hoped for. As part of winning this award, I was given a TON of photographic equipment, for which I am very grateful. Photography isn't a cheap hobby - I've always purchased all of my equipment at retail prices and have spent a significant amount of money on taking the photos you see on my website. Winning all this new equipment will open alot of new doors for me - it will give me opportunities to expand my photograph vision to entirely new levels. Winning this award not only represents an acknowledgment of the work I've put in to date, but also serves as a launching pad for me to continue to expand my photography and take it to places that yesterday, I could only dream about. 

So you're asking, what photo did I win for? It was this photograph of Elakala Falls, West Virginia. If you missed it before, be sure to read the whole story behind this image.....

Elakala Falls, West Virginia. Winner of the 2014 Vincent Versace Award for Photographic Excellence!

Elakala Falls, West Virginia. Winner of the 2014 Vincent Versace Award for Photographic Excellence!

On stage, receiving my award from Vincent Versace. Photo by Ed Buice.

On stage, receiving my award from Vincent Versace. Photo by Ed Buice.

Standing in front of the winning photograph in the Expo Hall. You can't blame me for the blurry photo - I obviously didn't take it! But you get the idea.... ;-)

Standing in front of the winning photograph in the Expo Hall. You can't blame me for the blurry photo - I obviously didn't take it! But you get the idea.... ;-)

Detour over - back to the show! Adobe kicked off the conference with a bang when they announced the new Lightroom Mobile app. Although they only spent a few minutes on the demo, it looks to be some really powerful software and will create more integration between mobile and desktop computers for users of the Adobe Creative Cloud. For instance, you can take a picture, edit it on your iPad, and then have that edited version automatically sync through the cloud with Lightroom on your Macbook. Sweet! If you already subscribe to Adobe Creative Cloud, then you've got Lightroom Mobile now - so go check it out!

With the opening ceremony complete, it was time to get my learning on! I started with a great light painting workshop by David Black, but the highlight of the day was the back-to-back flash workshops with Joe McNally. You might not know Joe by name, but I promise you've seen his work in National Geographic, Time Magazine, etc - he's the king of flash and lighting. In his workshops, he grabs someone from the audience and will light them in front of you. What's great is that you see everything as it happens - even the mistakes. It can be hard to deconstruct a finished photograph to figure out how the photographer took that photograph, but in these sessions, you watch Joe from start to finish as he selects his model and trouble shoots his way to getting that magazine shot. 

After lunch, the convention expo center opens and I spent the next few hours exploring the latest equipment and technology. Let's review some of my favorites from the day:

  • Tamron was there with the new Tamron 150-600mm lens that wildlife photographers have been eyeing. They only had it in the Canon mount (no delivery ETA on the Nikon one - I asked!) but I played around with it to get a sense of how well it was going to work. Initial thoughts were very positive - it was pretty smooth to focus at 600mm and didn't search for the focus. The weight wasn't too bad and the construction looked pretty sturdy. The lens did get confused sometimes with the focus because I was shooting in an expo center and there were LOTS of people walking around, but this isn't an easy environment for any lens to track a subject, so I won't hold that against the lens.
Tamron's new 150-600mm telephoto lens. This is the Canon mount (Nikon mount version delivery is TBD). I was pleasantly surprised with how well it shot!

Tamron's new 150-600mm telephoto lens. This is the Canon mount (Nikon mount version delivery is TBD). I was pleasantly surprised with how well it shot!

  • Epson has some groovy new canvas paper! I actually don't know how "new" it is, but is't new to me, so we'll go with it! The paper has a canvas feel and is available in matte, satin and glossy finishes. I was very impressed with how this looked and I think it'll be a great addition to my print offerings because of the durability and unique look. From a distance you can't tell it's canvas, but when you get close, the texture is great. I took a quick iPhone snap of the glossy version, which can be seen below. Best yet, Epson claims it doesn't use any more ink that normal papers!
The glossy canvas paper. It's a terrible iPhone pic, but you can see the texture in the paper. Very cool stuff!

The glossy canvas paper. It's a terrible iPhone pic, but you can see the texture in the paper. Very cool stuff!

  • The Westcott model shoot..... every year Westcott comes out with some different lights and brings some models for show attendees to photograph. I only took one photo today, and it was an el basic iPhone shot of the whole scene. Tomorrow I'll actually work on shooting the model - today I was busy drooling!
The Westcott model shoot. The theme for the show is pirates, so I think she's supposed to be some pirate wench, but don't hold me to that!

The Westcott model shoot. The theme for the show is pirates, so I think she's supposed to be some pirate wench, but don't hold me to that!

  • Other cool things that I saw, but haven't explored enough to speak to with any authority.... some cool quad copters and dSLR video stabilizer rigs, the Promote Control dSLR camera controller, new software called Flixel Cinemagraph Pro, and some new options in metal prints. 
Camera copter anyone? Or how about a bada$$ dSLR video rig that is super smooth? Both are being used in demos at the Adobe booth in Photoshop World Atlanta!

Camera copter anyone? Or how about a bada$$ dSLR video rig that is super smooth? Both are being used in demos at the Adobe booth in Photoshop World Atlanta!

The day concluded with an inspiring talk on aviation photography from Moose Peterson, who has been one of the most influential pro photographers on my career to date. Moose could put on a class about almost anything and I'd attend it - his passion is truly contagious. 

After almost 10 hours, day 1 of Photoshop World Atlanta has concluded, but it was an AWESOME day. I cannot wait for another busy day tomorrow! 

Once again, my thanks to Vincent Versace for the award and thank you to all of you who have sent me a note on Facebook or Twitter today about the award! I'm very humbled! 

Until tomorrow.... happy shooting from Atlanta!

Photoshop World & Guru Awards Finalist

Hey friends! No, I wasn't eaten by a shark or anything like that.... I've been busy traveling recently and haven't had much of a chance to take some pictures. Add to that our upcoming overseas move and I've been keeping VERY busy. However, next week I'll take a break from the hustle and bustle for a photography vacation to attend the Photoshop World Conference in Atlanta.

Last year was the first time I attended Photoshop World and I had lots of fun. It's a conference dedicated to different digital arts - photography, drawing, design, etc- and has several class and seminar tracks to suit all levels of photographer. Last year I met some great people and had a chance to have my creativity really pushed to the limit. One of my favorite parts was watching photographers like Joe McNally, whose work has graced the covers of magazines like National Geographic or Time, do a photo shoot live and all of his images, including the mistakes, are shown on screen for the audience to see. It's a great opportunity to see how other pros work and get the creative juices flowing. I'll be there all week and start the trip off with a special trip to a World War II aircraft museum to photograph some beautiful planes.

I will be live tweeting from much of the conference, so make sure you're following me on Twitter (@ScenicTraverse)! If you are also going to be there, send me a note and we can grab lunch!

I also found out today that I'm a finalist for the Photoshop World Guru Awards, which is very exciting! I won't find out until next week at the awards ceremony if I won or not, but I'll make sure to let you know! Either way, my photo will be on display in the exhibit hall, which is still very exciting. What photo you ask? It's this crowd favorite of Elakala Falls in West Virginia...... (if you missed the story about this photo, then read it here!)

This photograph of Elakala Falls, West Virginia, is a finalist for the Photoshop World Guru Awards.

This photograph of Elakala Falls, West Virginia, is a finalist for the Photoshop World Guru Awards.

Video Blog: Why Every Photographer Should Shoot in RAW and Edit their Photos

I have had many of you email me in the past few weeks asking me to do a photo critique. I am always happy to do so but found that I kept giving the same advice over and over.... 

I am a firm believer that all photographers should shoot in RAW and edit ("Photoshop") their photos. Unfortunately, there is a stigma associated with editing, but I address that and why it is so important in this video blog. In fact, I believe editing is so important that I edit every single photograph before sharing it on Facebook, Twitter or my website. 

If you aren't shooting RAW or don't edit your photos, watch this video and see if it helps you understand why this is so important. Questions? Leave me a comment!


I Use Photoshop & I Am Not Afraid

I Use Photoshop and I Am Not Afraid: Confessions of a Professional Photographer

I, Kristen Meister, use Adobe Photoshop and other image editing software to create my fine art prints.

There.

I said it. Feel free to stare and gawk. What kind of professional would admit to modifying their images with software?! Before you start throwing spears, lets have an honest conversation about what image editing software does for a photographer (software such as Photoshop, which is the term I will use in this article for simplicity).

Why the stigma? The word "Photoshop" has evolved from a noun into a verb. It's become synonymous with "airbrushing" and for many people, carries a negative connotation. We think about the models on the cover of magazines and see them as "Photoshopped" to look unrealistically beautiful. As a result, we are lead to think that photographers who use Photoshop as part of their workflow are cheating or modifying their work unnaturally. While I won't deny that some photographers do use Photoshop to modify their images significantly, that is not how I use the software. It is unfair to assume that every photographer who uses Photoshop is making extreme modifications to their images. In fact, if I don't use Photoshop to edit every single image, then my prints would look like poop. This article is dedicated to explaining how I use Photoshop as part of my workflow.

Admission #1: I edit every single print in Photoshop.
Admission #2: I'm not ashamed of this fact.
Admission #3: If I didn't, my prints will look like poop. Let's look at why.....

Photoshop (or any other image editing software) is a tool. In this case, it's a very powerful tool that allows for the creation and modification of graphics and images. My camera is also a powerful tool. So are my lenses. So are washing machines. As photographers, we need to use a variety of tools to convey our photographic vision (our art) to you, the viewer. To understand how Photoshop fits into building that artistic vision, lets look at how my camera works.

Camera 101, Why You Should Shoot RAW and Edit in Photoshop: Digital cameras all work essentially the same way - they use a combination of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to create an exposure of a scene. How that exposure is represented and saved, however, can vary greatly between cameras. A basic point-and-shoot camera saves images in the common .JPEG format. This format is a compressed image- meaning some of the data from when the image was captured gets compressed (lost) for size. The small size is what makes .JPEGs the most popular for the internet. As part of compressing into a .JPEG, the camera also is given "permission" to make some adjustments on your behalf - when the .JPEG image is rendered, your camera applies contrast, sharpness, color saturation, etc as it sees best. Unfortunately, there is no way for a camera manufacturer to program a camera with creative vision - the camera takes it's best guess at what it thinks looks the best, and you have to hope that what it thinks is in line with what you think! With a .JPEG, you can do a certain amount of editing after you've made the image, but the compressed format will ultimately limit your ability to adjust and fine tune colors, contrast, etc.

Most dSLR camera allow images to be processed and saved as RAW image files. RAW images are essentially that - raw data as collected by your camera with no compression or correction for contrast, color, etc made by the camera. Images saved as RAW files are saved in a proprietary image format based on the camera manufacturer and are 'decoded' by your computer using most common image editing software. The benefit to a RAW image is that the camera does not compress the scene, meaning you have all of the data to work with in editing later. The file sizes are huge by comparison to a .JPEG, which is why many photographers shy away from this format. However, the bigger file means you are given the freedom to recreate your photographic vision with all of the data - a .JPEG has limited ability to edit later and any edits you wish to do are being done on a smaller dataset. Because the camera does not make assumptions about contrast, sharpness, color correction, etc, you get the ability to adjust all of those variables very specifically in post processing (aka Photoshop or Adobe RAW, which comes as part of Photoshop) to recreate your photographic vision. A RAW image that isn't modified in Photoshop is ugly and boring. It looks like poop.

Ready for some examples?


Un-edited RAW file (shot in Nikon D800 with Nikon 50mm lens)Colors are fairly bland, the basket isn't very sharp. This image generally lacks any "pop" and wouldn't catch my viewer's attention.My focus was the sticker on the bottle with the dragon - it's not terribly sharp and the red of the dragon lacks pop. In real life, that sticker was very bright.
Un-edited JPEG Fine file (Same camera, same place)I think this is actually worse than the un-edited RAW! I didn't change anything, just shot in JPEG! The colors are really bland and the red tag is looking more orange. Bleh.The red on the dragon sticker is brighter, but the whole image now has a funny green hue to it. If I hadn't shown you the RAWs, you might not have noticed the green tint.
Edited RAW image (same file as before - basic edits in Adobe Camera Raw for color, contrast, etc)To edit this image I increased the sharpness so that the straw has some fine detail and adjusted the contrast and saturation to make the tags the correct color. If this image was a print, I probably would have cropped.Now the red on the dragon sticker is bright and grabs attention! Some contrast and sharpening goes a long way! The sticker is now the focus of your attention.

I shoot in RAW, always. I therefore need to edit every image in Photoshop to make the modifications for contrast, color, sharpness, etc. I shoot in RAW and choose to make these modifications because I want control of the creative process and don't want to leave the decision making up to the camera. Want more reasons to shoot in RAW? My friend Jared Polin of FroKnowsPhoto.com has a very enlightening video on the point. If that doesn't drive it home, this is a very graphic video to the same point (also by Jared Polin of FroKnowsPhoto.com)

Quick History Lesson: The concept of shooting in RAW and editing in Photoshop is closer to the days of film photography than many people realize. Ansel Adams didn't take an image on film and then expose it without modification - he spent hours in the darkroom dodging and burning and adjusting the images to create his photographic vision. If you aren't familiar with the terms "dodging and burning," they refer to the adjustment of areas of bright and dark in film photography to lighten or darken portions of the image. It is essentially a fancy way of saying he adjusted the exposure and contrast. I've never heard anyone accuse Ansel Adams of 'cheating' by manipulating his images in the darkroom? Photoshop is just the modern day darkroom. 

Acceptable Editing/Modifications, My Thoughts: As a photographer, I have one goal - to present a print to my viewers that captures their attention and sparks their imagination, causing them to place themselves into the world as I captured it at that moment. In order to do that, I need to ensure my prints don't have distracting elements that could prohibit the creative process I want my viewers to participate in. Without physically modifying a scene, Photoshop is the tool that lets me remove distracting elements from a print. When making these modifications I remain careful to not physically change the scene to the point that it has lost a realistic element. Let's look at an example:

This image is part of my "Alone at Night: Lincoln's Washington" collection. It was shot at 2am on a weekend so that there would be almost no one at the monument. At the base of the statue of Lincoln is a small chain fence that is designed to keep tourists from climbing on the monument. Along the chain are small signs warning not to trespass or climb over the chain. The fence and signs themselves are very small - most visitors to the monument would never see or remember seeing that sign. When I made this composition, however, one of those signs was prominently on display facing the camera (you can see two others along the chain facing away from the camera). In a color image, the sign probably wouldn't have been as distracting, but the white letters on the black sign jumped out at the viewer when I converted the image into black & white. This was the type of element in the photograph that would keep someone from experiencing the photographic vision as I intended and removal of that sign using Photoshop didn't change the print in such a way that it became 'unbelievable.' In fact, if I hadn't just told you that story, you probably wouldn't have noticed the sign was gone, even if you visited the monument regularly!

Photoshop also gives me precise control of adjusting other elements in my prints as part of my photographic vision. For instance, a standard black and white conversion allows for no creative adjustments, while the tools in Photoshop allow me to precisely craft the black and white scene that exists in my mind. Film photographers could use different black and white films to create different looks, but my digital camera doesn't take film.... I need to use Photoshop to create the same looks and effects that different films afforded. And by no means am I suggesting that you should shoot with film to solve all these problems - you'll still edit images, but it's in the darkroom (which doesn't carry the same stigma. No one uses "darkroom" as a verb). 

Do I have to use Photoshop? Nope. There are a variety of software that all achieve the same thing, Photoshop happens to be the most common and robust. At the time of publication, I use Adobe Photoshop CS6 with plug-ins from OnOne Software and Nik Software to create my prints. These plug-ins make it easier and faster to create the looks I am going after. As a professional photographer, time is money and I need to use every plug-in I can to save time and improve my workflow.

What about Photoshopping people. That's cheating? It depends. If you are a wedding photographer, you are expected to do some touch-ups on the bride and maybe the bridal party to make them look better than they might in real life. When people pay for photos of themselves, they want to look better than they really do look. They expect editing. If you don't edit, you'll be out of business fast. It's brutally honest. 

Similarly, we expect to see the Hollywood actress de jour looking stunning on the cover of that magazine at checkout in the grocery store. Ever notice how they don't edit the actresses in the trashy tabloids (the extra eye and devil horns don't count)? Non-edited images send a message. Edited images send another. You wouldn't buy the Women's Gossip Journal advertising 100 great tips for looking sexy in 7 days if the model on the front looked normal, she has to be unnaturally pretty!

Editing people also happens regularly in fashion photography to create dramatic and attention getting effects. In those cases, however, we tend to understand there is a level of manipulation for the sake of creativity. 

Personally, I believe extreme editing isn't acceptable on people when you are doing certain types of journalistic photography. If I was reading a reputable journal article discussing Afghan refugees, I'd be pretty disappointed to realize the refugees' faces were manipulated heavily (IE, beyond basic adjustments for color, contrast, etc). This is my personal opinion and you are entitled to disagree.

Where can I learn Photoshop? There are a variety of books and materials on the internet to teach Photoshop. This is my favorite book on the subject (by non other than Scott Kelby, the master of all things Photoshop). I also recommend Kelby Training videos, which require a subscription, but offer unbelievable value for their price.