Sometimes you set out on a picture taking trip with an idea of a shot you want to get, and end up with an entirely different shot in the end that makes the whole trip worth it. This was the case with my recent trip down to the USS Lexington. I’ve visited the Lady Lex several times in the past, but I hadn’t made a trip back down there since I started doing more serious photography and I really wanted to get one of those really cool shots of the Lexington lit up at night.
The shot itself should have been an easy one. There’s a nice long jetty that juts out into the water right next to the Lex and allows you to shoot back towards the bow of the ship, and right around sundown they turn on several really large blue flood lights that light up the side of the ship and give it a really tranquil blue color – which is contradictory when you think about it – but that’s neither here nor there. The plan for the shot was to arrive in the afternoon, wait until dark, walk out onto the jetty, set up the tripod, snap a few pictures using my fancy wide angle lens I recently acquired and bingo, bango, bongo I’d have a really cool picture to add to my collection.
You can probably already tell that things didn’t go that way – but it’s okay. I’ll explain why soon.
So this last weekend my brother in law and I jumped into the car and drove down to Corpus Christi to get the shot I was after. We spent the afternoon running around snapping different daytime pictures of the USS Lexington and of the nearby Harbor Bridge. He’s not a photographer so I was showing him some of the basics on my old camera, so the time was going by quickly. I did end up with this side shot of the Lex. But I wanted the Blue Ghost all dressed in blue, and from up close.
Since we were going to be out late, we caught a quick dinner over at Blackbeard’s, which is a short walking distance away, and then returned back to the Lex and trekked out onto the jetty to set up for the pictures. A word of advice, the jetty is concrete all the way out to the end but there are some rough patches that have been washed out so you need to be careful when walking out there. You might consider a flashlight too, as it’s kind of dark. It’s not too bad when the lights shining on the Lexington are turned on, but once they’re off it gets significantly darker.
We found our spot and we set up the tripod, and my brother in law set up the camera he was using – which was my older Nikon with a generic walk-around lens on it. I stepped him through how to take some bracketed shots that could be merged later because of the really dark shadow areas, and the really brightly lit areas. He snapped off a handful of shots and then I set up my camera and proceeded to do similarly using my newer Nikon and my new wide angle lens.
This is where things went wrong – and I wasn’t paying enough attention to even realize it – by the way. Because I was too busy talking about taking pictures I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the images my camera was saving. (I have the auto-show after taking each picture option off.) As a result what I didn’t see was that a spotlight up on the Lexington was causing a horrific lens flare when it hit my wide angle lens which has a rounded front glass element.
And this is how most of my images turned out. Lovely rainbow isn’t it? I checked the photos that evening back at the hotel and was crushed. We had to drive back the next day so I missed my chance for the shot I wanted.
Once I got home I was able to go into Photoshop and take the colors out of the rainbow flare and make the picture a little better. But it still bothers me.
Luckily for me though all was not lost, because my brother in law, captured some good images without the rainbow lens flare and was able to produce this image.
So I still have the image I wanted from my trip to the Lexington – I just don’t get to claim that it’s my image. But that’s okay, because this is just the first half of the story.
The next day, he and I took the tour of the Lexington and spent some time walking around, mostly capturing shots of the aircraft on board. Getting those shots can be tricky because it’s hard to get a clean shot without a lot of people in the background, or without catching the wings of other planes in your shots. You have to really think about your shots before you take them to see if you can move around and find a better angle with less distractions, and you often have to be patient to wait for someone to walk out of the frame or to walk behind something before you grab the shot.
For example here’s one shot I took. If you look at it you can see all sorts of clutter in the background. You can see part of another plane cockpit on the floor on the left and the sign in front of the plane doesn’t really help the image much either.
By moving over some, I was able to get this picture which is better, and even though the sign is in the picture still, it’s not blocking the plane.
Here’s a shot from up on deck. I had to wait several minutes for a time when there weren’t people milling around the plane or the aircraft carrier’s island. The bird in the picture was just a happy accident. I just got lucky that I managed to get the whole bird in the frame. Barely.
Sitting on a corner of the deck, on a section of wooden decking is an old SNJ-5 Texan. Here’s a shot of it taken from the bridge, showing where the plane is and the area around it.
From on deck I was able to move around and find an angle where the benches, signs and the dark trailer to the right of the plane were cut mostly out of the frame and was able to take this shot.
Admittedly the picture needs some help. But that’s what post-processing is for. So here’s what I did to it in Lightroom. (For non Lightroom or Photoshop users, just skip down and see what these programs can do to make your images look better.) For the geeks out there…
- Left the white balance alone.
- I cropped the edges of the picture in tighter to cut out some dead sky space and to clean up the edges a little.
- Added a gradient to lower the exposure by about 2 stops and also lowered the highlights on the sky at the same time, making the top part of the sky darker and lightening up to normal as you get closer to the center of the image. This added some mood to the photo and also made the plane stand out more. Lowering the highlights helped bring out some of the cloud detail as well.
- Used a small brush to add just a touch of brightness back to the upper tip of the propeller, because in Lightroom you can’t add a mask to a gradient like I used on the sky, and I wanted to bring just a little color back to the prop tip.
- I used another brush to push up the Saturation on the wood decking, just painting in the areas underneath the plane.
- I adjusted the overall Exposure up by .71 stops.
- I left the Contrast alone.
- Lowered the overall highlights by -74.
- Raised the Shadows to +26.
- Raised the Whites to +38.
- Lowered the black to -14.
- I pushed the Clarity up to +60 – which is high but it really helped bring out the detail in the wood deck.
- Raised the Vibrance to +36.
- Raised the Saturation on the Oranges and Reds a little.
- Performed some basic noise reduction.
Total time spent editing this image about 10-15 minutes. (I spent probably as long typing what I did, as doing it.)
The final image is this.
Admittedly, I could possibly improve this image if I wanted to go in and take out the sign on the left, or maybe take out the fencing along the deck edge. But everyone has to draw a line in the sand as to how much editing you’re willing to do to an image before it quits being a ‘photograph’ and starts being a work of digital art. For me I try to not change the original content of a photo too much, and so I don’t want to take those things away from the image. Also if I took the fence out of the picture, then the plane would look like it was sitting on a wooden deck floating in the ocean. Without knowing it’s on an aircraft carrier it would look strange.
I haven’t been able to put my finger on it yet as to just why, but something in this image just works for me and this image has quickly moved way up the ranks in terms of my personal favorites so far. While I may not know why, I do know that for me, this image alone was worth the hours of driving and all the walking around; even if I didn’t get my own shot of the Lexington lit up like I had hoped for.
As usual, some of my other pictures from my trip to the Lexington can be found on Flickr.