My new E-Book has finally arrived!

Many thanks to the wonderful people at PHOTIGY ( – with their support, my long-awaited e-book on copyright is finally out into the world and on the virtual “bookstore shelf” here. Come check it out!

This book is different from most other books you will find out there. First, it is not just legal talk – and, to the most part, I tried to speak “plain English” and avoid the “big words” as much as practical. But that’s not what makes it different. The major difference is that this book is written by a photographer for photographers and it discusses things that are rarely covered in the volumes you will find on your local bookstore shelf: it talks about such things as whether your website is covered by copyright, how to submit your work to the US Copyright Office, how to set up the submission process in the way that it does not become a painful chore and many other things. It is a very practical guide and that’s why it is called a “Field Guide to Copyright”.

Please take a moment to take a look at the full book description and read the sample pages here. Enjoy the reading!

Alex Stepanov, Photographer


“Twice-cooked HDR” – Dealing with extreme contrast

I am sure you know what “twice cooked pork” is (if not – here it is). Basically, the pork is cooked once (boiled), then diced and cooked again (fried in the Wok). If you approach “cooking” the HDR image in the same way as cooking a dish, then it is only logical to try to cook different “ingredients” in different pots and then mix, slice and dice them just before serving the final dish to the table. At least, that’s what I attempted to do with the following image.

Final “twice cooked” HDR

The above image is the interior of the Memorial Church in Stanford, CA. Beside being quite interesting from the architectural point of view, it is also quite challenging to photograph because of the skylight in the cupola. On a sunny day (which is the most typical day in Stanford), the difference between the brightest part (skylight) and the darkest area (deep in the naves) can easily reach about 6 stops, which is not only outside of the physical capability of a single frame capture but also exceed the “plus/minus two stops” bracketing range of my Canon. So… to deal with the situation, I had to “cook” my image twice. Here’s how.

Gathering the ingredients

First, I took 6 frames with 1 EV step (as shown below). This particular location allows tripods (which is rather uncommon but since they do allow it, there was no reason not to take advantage of it).

Why six? Because it allows me to pull much more details in the shadows while keeping the noise in check. Also, the final image is not as “contrasty” as it would have been otherwise. Just for fun, I processed two HDRs using the same parameters – one with all six frames and the other one with only three (the brightest, the darkest and the “normal” one). The difference is fairly obvious:

Cooking the “ingredients”

Now that we have the raw frames, let’s take a brief look at them. Almost immediately, we see that the skylight is almost entirely blown out except for the two darkest frames, and the light ones have some considerable halo around the skylight (and the dome in general). It is fairly obvious that we will need two different sets of parameters to deal with the skylight (and the dome) vs. the interior of the church and the naves. So I got into my “digital kitchen” and started cooking. For HDR processing, I almost exclusively use Photomatrix, which gives me quite a bit of control.

First, I wanted to get a good “base” image with details in shadows. I didn’t care much if the skylight didn’t look good, I just wanted to have as much details in the shadows as I could get without getting too much noise and without creating those ugly “HDR-ish” halos. For the curious, on the left you can see my parameter settings in Photomatrix (I use version 4.2.2). As you can see, I went rather conservatively on the Midtones Adjustments and Saturation. This parameter set resulted in the “base” image below. Not too bad overall, I can see quite a bit of details in the shadows; the contrast is quite low but it does not bother me all too much because the overall image is usable and it is much easier to increase contrast than to decrease it. Also, I am thoroughly unimpressed with the look of the dome – much as expected.

Now that we have the base, let’s go back and “cook” another HDR, this time emphasizing the dome and the skylight. I loaded the source frames back into Photomatrix and dialed in the same parameters, then started playing with the sliders, increasing the contrast and decreasing the highlight brightness. After a short while, I had the following image – my second part for the upcoming “dish”:

As you can see, the details in the shadows took considerable turn to the worse but the dome looks much better now!

Well, now that we have the ingredients, let’s mix them and serve the dish! Here we leave Photomatrix and jump into Photoshop.

Merging the HDRs

This part is probably the easiest one: I simply put both HDR’s on separate layers (the “base” one on top) and start masking, slicing and dicing.

I bring the cupola from the “contrasty” second HDR and while at that, adjust the curves on it to give the image more “pop”. Also, I fix the “vignette” on the floor (bottom left and bottom right corners). My Photoshop layer palette looks like the one on the left – basically, I pick up the entire skylight and a bit of the contrast on the pillars from the second “contrasty” image, while the details in the shadows come from the first “soft” one.

Once I’m done mixing, I drop the image back into the Lightroom and add just a touch of “Clarity” adjustment and sharpening and voila! We have our “twice-cooked HDR” ready. Of course, there are still some issues to be fixed – there are some traces of the original halo around the skylight for example, but overall it is not too bad and I’m satisfied with the outcome – the image is quite usable and the problems are rather minor and another half and hour in Photoshop could easily fix all the remaining issues.

So here it is folks – enjoy and never stop experimenting!

Alex Stepanov, Photographer

“Instant HDR”: How to spruce up your image with tone mapping

By Alex Stepanov (

I’m sure you know what instant coffee is – drop a spoonful (or two) into the cup, pour in some boiling water and voila! Personally, I can’t survive without that brown stuff. It’s not nearly as good as the “real” brewed coffee but when you don’t have time and/or energy to go out and seek the properly prepared coffee, then this instant mix maybe just “good enough”…

Single image tone mapping is just like instant coffee – it does not produce as good an image as the “full-blown” HDR process would but it may help to spruce up your image with very little time and effort.

Most often, the term “tone mapping” is brought up in connection with HDR photography. Even the Wikipedia article on tone mapping, defines it as “a technique used… to map one set of colors to another in order to approximate the appearance of high dynamic range images in a medium that has a more limited dynamic range”. While tone mapping is certainly a key part of the HDR workflow process, it is often overlooked that the key concept of tone mapping is “recalculating the colors” and HDR is just one of the applications. In other words, you can just as well “tone map” colors of an “ordinary” non-HDR image and often times produce quite remarkable results!

First things first

Before we begin, I’d like to say that in order to fully benefit from tone mapping, you need to start with a good well-exposed image in the first place. Don’t expect to salvage a shot that belongs in the trash bin – more often than not, it won’t happen. Also, tone mapping is more of an art rather than precise science – you need to play with it a little bit to get the feeling and figure out your own personal parameters.

For the purpose of this article, I used Photomatrix 4.2.2 but any other version better than 3.0 will do fine. In fact, if you use some other HDR software, check out the menus – there is a good chance you will find the “tone mapping” tools tucked in somewhere.

Step by step

First, I started with this image of the City of Arts ad Sciences in Valencia (below) that I took last summer.
I use Lightroom plugin as a shortcut (it saves me a few clicks) but you can achieve the same results by starting Photomatrix and loading the file (File -> Open…) and then clicking the “Tone Mapping” button (see the inset below).
The plugin automates all those tasks for me, so once I export the image to Photomatrix, I drop right into the image processing area. Now, Photomatrix comes with a truckload of presets of all sorts but for the purpose of this particular task, I ignore all of them except what is now called “Photographic” (used to be known as “Compressor Default” in the previous versions). Once you click on the preset, the Tone Compressor parameter palette will pop up and at that point, you basically have to start “playing with the dials” and see whether you like the outcome.

A couple of points that are worth keeping in mind while tweaking the image:
* Tone mapping often times increases the graininess of the image so I always check the “loupe” view just to make sure I don’t get some crazy harsh grain
* Usually, I increase (move to the right) the “Compression” slider, while decreasing (moving to the left) the “Brightness” slider. My personal preference is to produce a slightly “under-exposed” image rather than blow away highlights or increase grain to the levels when it is impossible to rid of. The third slider (“Contrast Adaptation”) mostly controls the color intensity and it is up to you how far you’d like to go on that – much like salt and pepper, everyone has a different taste for that. Personally, I try to go rather conservatively.

But let’s get back to our image. Once I’m done playing with the dials and the resulting image looks OK, the final parameter set will look somewhat like the one on the right. Again, every image is different so play away!

At this point, I click on ‘Save and Re-Import’ button, which brings the tonemapped image back to Lightroom for final adjustments. Of those, you may need to bump up the noise suppression a notch or two in order to combat with the increased grain and maybe add some sharpening so that the final image does not become too soft. In my case, I added about 25% of Luminance noise reduction and about 30% sharpening at 0.8 with 40% masking to deal with the increased “softening”.

Once everything is done, we get our final image. Looks not too shabby! And the best part – it took us about 15 minutes from start to finish.

That’s it for now. Have fun with tone mapping and never stop experimenting!

Alex Stepanov, Photographer

Do-It-Yourself Studio Lighting: Sony speaker shot step-by-step

This is not a glitzy  ten thousand dollars production. This is not about most expensive studio equipment the money could buy. Quite the opposite, this is all about the results. In this Behind-the-Scenes, I will show you how to get an amazing product shot (just like the one above) using only a few cheap under-cabinet lights from Home Depot and a few pieces of foamcore.

Curious yet? If so, read the entire tutorial on PHOTIGY.

Alex Stepanov, Photographer.

Of smoke: smoke photography field guide, abridged

The good people of PHOTIGY are kind enough to continue publishing my random photographic musing, with the latest one being smoke photography field guide. Not really a field guide, rather a studio inspirational piece but I like the title anyways… For the curious, this is how it begins:

Of all the subjects I get to photograph in my studio, a few could rival the graceful beauty of smoke; also true that not many subjects are as capricious and temperamental as smoke.
While smoke is used as an important element in many advertising images, it is also fun to work with and, if everything works out to your benefit, you will be rewarded with the most beautiful abstract images that are virtually guaranteed to wow your audience…
Read the rest of the article:

DIY Lights and Sony speakers – it all comes together on PHOTIGY

A few weeks ago, I was invited to write a lighting tutorial for PHOTIGY (, a new educational resource, which primarily focuses on studio photography and all the technical and post-production aspects of it. Many thanks to Alex Koloskov, the creator and mastermind behind PHOTIGY, who invited me – I had never done anything of the sort before and had no slightest idea how much fun I was missing!

The tutorial itself could be found here:

Alex Stepanov

Studio Photography: Lightbox setup "on the go"

Every now and then, I get to shoot a translucent (or somewhat translucent) object that looks a lot better with the light shining through it – be it a fragrance bottle, slice of food or just some autumn leaves. Here I would like to share a quick and easy setup for this kind of shoots – I have learned it from David Turner and did some minor tweaking to it to make it more “portable”. I like this setup because it is very simple and forgiving, does not require a lot of precise measuring and literally “foolproof”.

Our objective is to get the light shine through the shooting surface (and the object placed on it) into the lens and to make sure it does not cause lens glare and is as even across the field as possible. The trick is to use bounced light (portrait people often call this technique “skipping” or “skip”) – instead of turning the lights towards the camera, we turn them towards some reflective surface and use the bounce as the main light source.

These are the steps to set it up:

  • Find a large enough reflective surface – it could be a piece of white fabric, white cardboard or foamcore (this is what I like to use) or anything that is large enough and bright enough to reflect the light. Avoid shiny surfaces – we are looking for soft diffused light
  • Set up two light – one on each side of the surface at about the same distance from it and at about the same height on the stand. Point the lights “criss-cross” (as pictured) so that each light points roughly to the opposite edge of the shooting area. This will allow us to avoid the “hot spot” in the center and make the illumination more even across the field. Put the lights at the same power level setting
  • Take light reading in the center and closer to one of the corners – if the difference is more than 1/2 stop then it is likely that the lights are too close – pull the lights back a bit, readjust and take another reading.
  • And that’s really all to it – enjoy your shoot!


The image on the left is just one example of what could be done in about 10 minutes flat – I’m sure you will find many other ways to use this setup creatively 🙂

Happy shooting!