Canon 5D Mark II, Zeiss ZE 2/28 Distagon
By popular request, I’m now accepting an image or two from readers to critique every month. Today’s image was submitted by Aizuddin Danian, a friend and fellow photographer here in Malaysia. I’m going to go easy on him and say he’s in the keen amateur category; otherwise the assessment criteria would be much harsher 🙂
I’ll break down the assessment into three categories – composition, technique and other; the other category deals with things such as lighting, timing, subject opportunity, etc. Photography is subjective, so I won’t give points or scores.
The main subject here is obviously the KL tower, dominating center frame. A diminishing row of buildings to the right of the tower, including the Petronas Twin Towers, creates a nice flowing dynamic to the edge of the frame. Unfortunately, it feels like this never quite gets to finish and is artificially truncated on the right hand side. The left side, is empty; there is nothing to balance out the right hand wedge of buildings. It doesn’t help that the last two buildings are dark colored and seem to blend into the background. Then there’s the intrusive pointy building at the bottom left edge of the frame – again, it’s intrusive and distracting. The composition overall is simply not balanced; something that could have easily been fixed by watching the edges of the frame – shifting the camera right and down a little would have helped immensely here.
I was told a 3-frame HDR technique was used for this shot – it’s fairly obvious, actually; you can’t get overlaps in luminance values without using it. There are also visible haloes around the darker buildings, which is not particularly pleasing and gives the impression of buildings masked out and pasted onto a background. The same can be said for the mountains in the background: they just don’t look like that in real life. I have never been a fan of HDR for scenes of normal contrast – I believe this scene could have been properly exposed for with a single frame and careful processing – and anything more tends to look very, very unnatural. The simple reality of HDR is that the display medium of a photograph is not capable of more than about six or seven stops (a good print) or perhaps eight to nine stops (LCD monitor) – by its very nature, trying to display fifteen stops is simply going to look odd. The other weakness of HDR images is that they tend to look flat, with no particularly strong contrasts leading the eye to the subject; I feel this image looks flat overall, and could be fixed with some judicious curve use combined with strategic dodge and burn. A couple of very obvious dust spots should also be removed.
When shooting architectural subjects – cityscapes included – care should be taken to ensure that building verticals do in fact look vertical; either by aligning the camera properly, or using a perspective control lens. This avoids keystoning (note buildings at edges; they have a pronounced lean). One exception is extreme perspectives, where leaning buildings/ tilting edges are acceptable as they create a strong visual dynamic.
HDR is not the only thing contributing to the overall flatness of the image; it’s also the time it was shot. By the lack of shadows or dynamic lighting (but obvious contrast in the sky), it’s fairly clear the image was shot around noon or thereabouts. It’s a bad time to shoot buildings because there isn’t enough tangential light to provide detail on the facades; when there are many buildings it also doesn’t create enough shadows to isolate one from the other. This shot at sunset or sunrise would be considerably more arresting.
Bluntly: it is a flat, ordinary shot; but there are several very simple fixes that would have turned this into a decent image.
1. Watch your edges.
2. Don’t HDR.
3. Watch the lighting: shooting at noon is like using direct flash only for your subject.