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Into the Poppies

by  John Wilhelm

One weekend we walked with grandmother, grandfather and our two daughters through the stunning landscape of the Weinland — a beautiful region in the north of Switzerland. I decided to take this opportunity to combine a family hike with a “photo hunt.”
This picture was created for a local photo competition, promoted by a grocery chain in the Weinland. For the journey, I brought my Nikon D800E (I love that camera so much), a Nikkor 24–70mm (I love that lens even more) and a Nikkor 14–24mm (which is never a bad choice). Everything was neatly packed in a cheap backpack.


The whole day passed without success. I could not find anything of interest that was suitable for the competition. When we returned to the house in the evening, grandma felt my disappointment and told me about a charming poppy field that was on our way home, where I could stop and take some photos. And that's what I did. 

"It seems this photo can hit many viewers right in the heart and soul."

Half an hour later, I was back home. I opened Lightroom 4 and browsed through all the photos I had taken that day, not very excited about what I saw. Finally, the poppy photos appeared. This is the picture that caught my attention the most. I uploaded it to several well-known photographic platforms, and a few hours later I was completely overwhelmed with the feedback. It seems this photo can hit many viewers right in the heart and soul.

The foundation of my work is still photography. Unless you are a properly educated and trained digital painter, you should really know what you do with your camera before you enter Photoshop. Unfortunately, I have been working extensively with Adobe Photoshop and a Wacom Cintiq 24 HD for over a year now, which means it's almost impossible for me to leave a shot untouched. Sometimes I try really hard, but it's not long before I find myself applying masks and filters. I just can not stop myself! Even for this shot, I completely ignored the rules of the contest, which said that no manipulations were allowed, and I ended up not entering the photograph. I just wanted to get the most from this photo. I wanted it to touch my heart, tell a story and be perfect.
I processed the files and created the final image in Photoshop. I also used a few Nik Software plugins to make some adjustments at the end.

The field of poppies

1) First I wanted to remove the lens flare. Then I extended the horizon with some more poppies, which are mirrored on the left and right. It looked much cleaner now. The small houses to the right and the highway to the left vanished behind lovely flowers. 

2) I then needed a new horizon. I chose a tree-covered hill with clouds.

The clouds pasted into the sky

3) Now the sky did not seem dramatic enough. So I added a few clouds from an earlier shot.

4) Finally, I had a beautiful scene of a very large poppy field — but no story. So I placed my older daughter into the field and the tree in the background, pointing in the same direction as she is running. 

The running girl pasted into the field of poppies

5) Finally I worked on the sun. I could have painted it with beams, but that was too distracting. The attention should be on the girl. 

6) Once the composing was done, I needed at least another hour to apply the final look with color style, global light and Nik filters. All in all, it took me five hours to reach this result.
1) If you can afford it, buy a good camera and good lenses.

2) Learn which aperture your lenses have optimal sharpness. 

3) Stick with ISO 100–160. The slightest noise can be annoying in post-production. 

4) Take a tripod with you if you are using a narrow aperture and ISO 100, as this will cause a slow shutter speed, making it difficult to hold the camera steady enough to produce a sharp image.

5) Take several shots with different aperture/exposure settings. You do not have to generate HDRs to gain top results, but sometimes certain over- or underexposed elements can easily be taken from a differently exposed shot. 

6) Do focus stacks, especially if you have to shoot with a wide-open or large aperture. Blur can easily be applied later, but not sharpness. 

7) Be careful with different light settings. Sometimes it is almost impossible to put elements neatly together if they were shot in different lighting situations.

8) Do not use stock photos. You will not be proud of your final work if you do.

I was born in 1970 in Winterthur, Switzerland, where I still live with my wife and two daughters. Photography was always important to me. My father was an experienced hobby photographer and founded at least two local photography associations. I grew up in an environment of cameras, magazines, lenses, self-made camera bags and darkrooms. Back then I was not very excited about film or the development processes that it involved.

Photography turned to joy when I got my first digital camera. The fire was set and a long journey began — through camera systems, techniques, experiences and software products. In February 2011, I decided to take a step across the boundary of plain photography and entered the world of Photoshop. That was the best thing I ever did. Now photography is a complete passion!
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Thanks for the inspiration! So great to be able to follow your work flow. I think you created a stunning picture!