792 – Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow

Well, I shouldn’t promise things that I can’t deliver. These are images of yesterday afternoon, and when I posted the lens index, I had all of them already taken but none post-processed. Doing so took me until mid-afternoon today, but I guess it was worth not rushing things, and there are even lessons to be learned.

Weather in Carinthia is crazy at the moment. Villach has about a foot of snow, Klagenfurt has none. They are 40km apart with a height difference of 50 meters. There is only a lake in between, no mountain range, no nothing. For all practical reasons they should have the same weather. It’s only they don’t. This was the third weekend in a row, that I arrived in Villach during snowfall. The only reason that the snow does not pile up higher, is that we are too low. Half of the snow does not make it down to us and ends up as rain.

Unfortunately rain makes the snow quickly fall down from the trees, and somehow this looks bleak and sad. I wanted to have real snow, freshly fallen or at least looking like that, and so I took the car and drove the street up Mount Dobratsch. You know it by now, it’s that mountain that broke apart during an earthquake in 1348, the year when the Great Plague arrived in Europe. As if the plague wouldn’t have been fun enough.

From 700 meters on the road was solid snow, but I had no problem driving all the way up to 1750 meters. From there I could have gone up to the summit, but as I had entered dense fog at 1600 meters, I was not sure if it would be a good idea to go any higher. I took some images up there, made some wrong steps and was suddenly in deep snow up to my chest, in short: it did not look promising. Not winter wonderland, only winter, fog and no view. And here comes one of the lessons:

Every now and then someone posts about how RAW is inconvenient, how they don’t see a difference, how much less hassle JPEG is, while it provides superior or at least comparable image quality, and so on and so forth. Ken Rockwell is famous for it (and for all other sorts of interesting viewpoints, some remarkably lucid and some simply ridiculous), but even David Ziser did it for some length of time (Lightroom had him converted), and my friend Paul Lester does it still.

Actually there is nothing wrong with that, as long as it works for you. It certainly did for David as a highly successful wedding pro, and it obviously does for Paul. For me it does not.

JPEG is much too restrictive for me. I like to do extensive post-processing, enjoying the work in Photoshop almost as much as the actual shooting, but that is not my point today. The point is that without a RAW file, a good RAW converter and an arsenal of tricks in Photoshop, some images would not be possible at all. This is one of those images.

Take your time, click on the two versions, the second, the pale one being what the camera saw (and I as well, to be honest), and the first one what I did in DxO and Photoshop. Can you do that with a JPEG? No, you can’t. You would have to stretch the image so far beyond its capacity, that half of it would suffice to render it a mess.

Look at the JPEG from the camera: there is no contrast at all, no texture in the snow, and from that image alone, you’d get no idea of what it looks like up there. Sure, sure, I said I didn’t see much more than the camera, so why would I want to make an image that would not be true to reality? But that is the wrong question.

If I only had the JPEG, I wouldn’t need to bother showing it at all. This gray mess, what it is about? Well, not much more than bland grayness. You can’t really tell how the snow covers these barns, you can’t see how it smoothes out any jagged form, the picture is a complete waste of storage. As a JPEG shooter you’d have to throw it away.

So, obviously there is a reality of soft, ondulating forms up there on the mountain, and shooting JPEG, the true-to-reality plain JPEG, you can’t show it. Well, in RAW you can.

When I work on such an image, I always try to get the best RAW conversion possible. I know I’ll have to stretch the image contrast beyond believe, and I know that all flaws in the RAW conversion software, all flaws in my own technique will be amplified and thus revealed. Knowing that, I always begin as solid as possible, and since almost two months this means to convert the RAW in DxO Optics Pro. I have already written a lot about that program, I am still satisfied with it, and at the moment I use it for all high ISO and for all snow images.

Why for snow, you ask? Well, the reason is, that I need to stretch contrast, and often also to dramatically increase saturation. RAW conversion artifacts and lens flaws like chromatic aberrations would become dominant in such an image. I have experienced that once with a conversion done in Adobe Camera RAW (I believe it was this image), and when I then tried the same process based on a conversion by DxO, it was dramatically better.

DxO reaches that level of precision by doing much of its work before de-mosaicing. One good example is noise. In all these images I begin with a straight conversion in DxO, using one of the presets. I use the Photoshop import plugin to pull it as base layer into Photoshop. Then I duplicate that layer, push local contrast using Photo Lift, multiply this layer with reduced opacity and normally also a mask, often apply a photo filter adjustment layer to fine-tune colors, strongly saturate with “Hue/Saturation” layers in various blending modes, apply levels and a contrast curve globally, may add further local contrast with a masked curves layer, and finally apply a vignette.

All that of course increases noise, even if the original image was taken at base ISO (which is true for all these images), and in case of the barns covered in snow, I even had to apply a surface blur to the Photo Lift layer, but still, when you amplify so much, some noise is inevitable, and then it is of utmost importa
nce how this noise looks like. The noise that remains in images converted by DxO looks … crystalline. Not like digital noise at all. It does not harm any image, but it actually enhances snow images.

Most of these images were made using the Sigma 10-20, a fine ultra-wide lens for DX format sensors, the one exception is the barn image, for that I used the Nikon 18-200 VR. Have you ever changed lenses standing up to your chest in snow and not knowing how to best get out of it? Funny, I can tell you ๐Ÿ™‚

The Image of the Day was taken on the way up, at a height of about 1100 meters, at the same place where I shot the last of the series, on my way down, like all other images.

There is another lesson though. Just look one more time at these images. They all look slightly different, don’t they? Just rightly so, I’d say, given that they were taken in different places and over the time of about two hours. And still, they make no proper series. Remember my SoFoBoMo book? There I had shot all images in an afternoon, but it has taken me weeks to post-process them in a way that they had the same look.

All the images on this page look fine individually, but were I to make them a true series, for example a book, I would have to invest much more in visual coherence, probably giving up individual “truth” for the flow of the series.

The Song of the Day is “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” from the 1992 Manhattan Transfer “Christmas Album”. Hear it on YouTube.

9 thoughts on “792 – Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow”

  1. Thanks for the clear arguments about using RAW. Although I’m a jpeg-shooter, I have done some experimentation with a RAW workflow recently because of high-contrast snow landscapes.

    It takes quite a lot of effort and experimentation to discover how many ways there are to fail…

    Do you have some suggestions for references on this for a beginner? Is there a “Photoshop book” tailored for techniques such as this? I’m (for now) interested in getting best out of the files whether generated from RAW or bracketed exposure jpegs.

  2. I think that the main issue with many in selecting jpeg versus raw is the workflow issue. When you take just a few images per shoot, working with raw is just fine.

    But if you take several hundred shots per shoot (or more), old workflows with raw were just too slow. Lightroom was, at least for me, a deal breaker in this sense. Now that working with raw is just as fast as jpeg I won’t go back to jpeg (except when using my old 300D which is just too slow with raw).

    And once you shoot black dogs in poor light with raw, you’ll really learn to appreciate it ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. You made me smile, obviously a metric man but you had a “foot” of snow! Sorry, as I couldn’t help myself ๐Ÿ™‚

    Oh, and I only use RAW.

  4. Andreas, your lead picture today is precisely why I hate to see young gifted photographers wasting time with black & white. We live at a time when we have been given keys to entirely new portals. No one has ever gone this way before. We have lenses, cameras and processes which allow us to pursue clarity, contrast, sharpness, and of course access to color without constraint. Only our imagination limits the possibilities. Here you show us some of the distance we can go… it is a masterpiece.

  5. Actually, I still really like JPG; however, now that I shoot fewer shots per ‘session’, I’ve been experimenting with raw and converting to DNG.

    When I shoot JPG, I shoot on the lowest compression, highest quality, which gives me the best JPG that I can get. I’ve never been disappointed and have never been in a situation where I didn’t get the shot, so the raw argument doesn’t necessarily wash for me. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I think it important each person give both a try, see what they like, and shoot with it for a month or two, then make a decision. I’ve seen so much propaganda about raw files that it has almost become a religion, similar to the camera wars of who is better, Nikon or Canon.

Comments are closed.