My photo of Lodge Alley in Charleston, South Carolina combined two photography techniques involving bracketed shots and focus stacking. During a trip to South Carolina to visit friends over Thanksgiving, I spent one day in Charleston exploring the historic downtown. I was looking to capture some of the charming homes along the side streets between Waterfront Park and Meeting Street. My exploration started with a stroll through Waterfront Park taking some photos of sailboats enjoying a beautiful day on the water. I then walked to the famous Rainbow Houses on East Bay Drive, but with plenty of tourist taking photos, I decided to look for other subjects. Walking along the side streets connecting to East Bay Drive I found a back alley near Magnolias Restaurant.
I walked up and down the cobbled stone alley several times looking for different compositions. Subjects like the cobblestones, the old brick buildings, wrought iron fences, a magnolia tree with leaves back lit by the sun, and the combination of shadows and light that intermingle along the alley were some of the photos I captured. I also wanted to capture an image of the entire alley that combined many of these elements. I specifically wanted to use the cobblestones as a leading line down the alley passing the back doors and windows that I found interesting.
My composition was to include the large open arched wooden doors that provided entry to the back of Magnolias Restaurant, most likely the kitchen as staff would occasionally walk out into the alley taking a break. While a single photo of the alley would have provided the result I wanted, I wanted to make sure I got good focus throughout my image, especially the cobblestones and large doors in the foreground as well as the brick building proceeding down the back alley. The combination of shadows and light also presented a challenge, especially with the clear blue skies above. There it was, the opportunity to combine taking bracketed shots to capture the dynamic range of shadows and light with focus stacking my images to get continuous focus down the back alley.
To emphasize the cobblestones as a leading line I set-up my tripod close to the ground to provide a different prescriptive and used my 24-70 Nikon lens to get a wide angle shot that included the blue sky above. Working from foreground to the background, I took a series of three bracketed shots focusing on the cobblestones near my camera lens, a series mid-way down the alley focused on the brick building, and a series focused at the end of the alley with the intersecting street. For each bracketed series I used the auto bracketing feature of my camera with a 1-stop interval providing 1 photo overexposed, 1 photo underexposed, and a single neutral exposed photo. Once I checked the 9 individual photos captured for my composition to make sure I achieved proper focus I was all set to process my image.
To process my images I used a combination of Lightroom, Photoshop, and Aurora HDR. After importing the photos into LR and only applying lens correction, I processed each set of 3 bracketed shots in Aurora HDR to provide a naturally toned single photo without additional adjustments or HDR presets. Once I completed processing the 3 sets of bracketed shots in Aurora HDR providing 3 individual photos focused at different locations in the alley, I opened these files in PS to focus stack the 3 photos into a single photo using a technique of exposure blending.
After importing the 3 individual files as separate layers in PS, the first step is to align the photos, which is a fairly straight forward process that involves selecting all the layers and selecting auto-align layers from the edit menu. Once the layers have been aligned, I utilized the auto-blend layers in the same edit menu, which automatically creates masks for each image that hides areas that are out of focus and revealing those in focus. Then PS simply combines the in-focused areas into a single layer that I simply flattened into a single layer and exported back to LR. In LR, I continued processing the image by providing basic adjustments of the light, color, and details to my preference. For additional information or details on my processing technique, please send me an email and I would be happy to answer your questions.