Though clear now, the skies of Washington State, and indeed most of the Pacific Northwest, have been very smokey almost the entire month of August. The smoke is from wildfires, both in the United States and Canada. I fear, with climate changes, this may be our new “normal” for August, as smokey skies have been prevalent in August the past several years.
As long as the smoke is not too thick, smokey skies can have some advantages to landscape and travel photography. Though I tend not to, some people like the sunsets provided by smokey conditions. I do, however, appreciate that smokey conditions can soften light and can extend golden hour conditions by changing the color of sunlight. On the other hand, they can also dim sunlight so that the light during the actual golden hours is weak.
In my opinion, the disadvantages outweigh any advantages gained. I am fond on blue skies and wide vistas. Smoke can suck the blue out of the sky and obscure views with haze. I also like to use telephoto lenses to pull in distance subjects. Obviously, this does not work so well if there is a lot of smoke.
On my trip to the Palouse last month, the skies were quite smokey. Not smokey enough to totally ruin the trip, but I certainly did not have ideal conditions. The Palouse is known for its blue skies with great clouds. On my last trip, the sky, though clear, was more of a dusky gray. It was also cloud free on except for one day. So much for the wide sky shots I often favor, such as this one I posted on instagram. I found myself following several techniques to minimize the effects of the smoke.
1. Limiting distance in my compositions – instead of including distant hills and vistas in my compositions, I selected relatively close subjects, or chose compositions where the distant background was less important. For example, on my August visit to the Palouse, I did shoot one evening from Steptoe Butte. However, with the smokey haze, I chose one of the lower viewpoint instead of going to the top, and I mostly shot compositions with subjects relatively close to the butte rather than subjects thousands of meters away.
2. Eliminating or limiting the amount of sky in my compositions – with the sky not the blue color one expects, in many cases, I tried to either totally eliminate the sky from my composition or at least limit the amount of sky in the shot.
3. Processing using the Dehaze slider in Lightroom – I often use the dehaze slider in lightroom, and not just to remove haze; I like the microconstrast it adds to images. However, smokey conditions are what the dehaze slider was made for. While processing images from the August Palouse trip in Lightroom, I found myself adding more dehaze than I normally would.
4. Adding blue back into the sky in Lightroom – I typically do not do selective color corrections in Lightroom. Typically I’ll set the color balance for the entire photo and let well enough alone (saving selective color adjustments for Photoshop if I want to do them at all). But with new masking tools for the gradient and brush tools, I found it relatively easy to add some blue back into the sky in Lightroom. Typically, I’d make a fairly tight gradient (or perhaps the brush too) and apply it to the area of the photo containing the sky. Then, using the range mask tool in color mode, I select a wide portion of the sky. This usually masks most of the non-sky areas, but to be sure, I’ll check the Show Selected Mask Overlay checkbox (which uses a red tone to indicate where the gradient is effective). Depending on the image, I may or may not need to do some cleanup of the mask with the eraser brush). To correct the sky, I’ll move the temperature slider toward blue, typically move the exposure slider down about 1/2 to 1/2 a stop, and move the clarity slider down as well. Depending on the image, I may also increase the dehaze slightly. Sounds complicated, but it is fairly easy with a bit of practice. This technique does a nice job on restoring sky color (see the examples below).
Adobe recently updated Lightroom, in the process creating a new version of the program. They renamed the old version Lightroom Classic CC, while the new version took the previous name of the old version: Lightroom CC. Confused yet?
If you have the photography CC subscription service (currently at $10/month), either version is available to download – but you can only have both if you fork out an extra $10 per month. The new Lightroom CC is the wave of the future. It’s main feature is that your Lightroom catalog and all your photos are saved to the Adobe cloud so that you can work on them in Lightroom from anywhere with a internet connection. Sounds like a great idea. The service comes with 1 TB of storage on the cloud. Unfortunately, I would need about 4 times as much space to upload all my photo files. And while I’m sure I could rent extra cloud space, I’m not sure I ready to give Adobe more money yet.
I have my own somewhat convoluted way of working in Lightroom on multiple computers. I export selected portions of my Lightroom catalog with smart previews to the 20GB of cloud storage that comes with the old Lightroom (and the Lightroom Classic), then work with that catalog when away from my main desktop computer. When finished, I import the catalog back into my main catalog. So, for now, I’m sticking with Lightroom Classic.
Plus, Lightroom Classic received a nice upgrade. Reportedly its speed performance has improved, but what I really like is the addition of range masking. Now, any mask made by the adjustment brush, gradient filter, or radial filter can be modified by color or luminance. Simply first create a rough mask using one of the three tools. Then, at the bottom of the Mask dialog, there’s a new setting labeled “Range Mask” with the default setting of off. Change the setting to color, and you get an amount slider and a color picker tool. Only want your blue sky to be selected, use your mouse to select the color picker, move it to the blue sky and click – the other colors are deleted from the rough mask. You can shift and click to select multiple colors and click and drag to define a “box” of colors. It helps to have the Mask Overlay selected to see how your mask changes.
The luminance setting for the Range Mask works similarly, but with brightness instead of color. It does not including a picking tool, but has a “two-handled” slider for defining a brightness range and a smoothness slider. With your mask overlay on, it is easy to play around with these two sliders to see the effect.
The photo above, that I took in mid-October in northeastern Washington, provides an example of the usefulness of the new range masking. I actually first tried developing the image without the new range masking tools. And while the result was nice, it did have problems. Specifically there was some haloing around the aspen trees, I couldn’t get the brightness of the leaves and tree trunks to what I wanted, and the sky color was not totally natural. I probably could have corrected these issues with Photoshop, but thought I’d try the range masking tools in Lightroom to see if they could help.
Below is a progression of how I developed the image in Lightroom Classic starting with the original image with default Lightroom settings.
As now has become my tradition, instead of the best of the year, I give you the worst. Well probably not the very worst, since those are often deleted immediately. While I had a reason to originally shoot these images, the only reason to keep them is to learn from my mistakes. I present these to let you, as well as I, learn from some of my mistakes. I have been doing this exercise of picking the worst of the year now for four years, and I do have to say, it appears harder each year to pick truly awful photos. Perhaps I’m learning? So, here are some of my worst shots of 2016, one for most months, both out of the camera (with default Lightroom processing) and, in some cases, with Lightroom processing in an attempt to save them (though most are not worth saving).
January – Black Dog, White Snow, Bad Combination. This is Nahla on one of my winter outings last year. She was eating snow and I thought I’d get a shot. It is very hard to get a good shot of a black animal and keep detail in the fur. Add snow, and you have a contrast nightmare. To add to it, she moved as I was taking the shot and my shutter speed was too slow. Why? I don’t know, there was plenty of light. No hope of saving this by processing. Lesson learned – use a high shutter speed to freeze action (you’d think I’d know that by now!); control the contrast (I’m just not sure how in this case).
February – Sunrise on Mount Baker with Sticks and Debris. I was up a Fir Island (see my last post) and saw some beautiful sunrise light on Mount Baker. And I liked the reflection in the pond. But to get the reflection, some foreground sticks got in the way. And what is all that stuff floating on the water? Plus, only later did I notice the walkway and lights on the far side of the pond. Processing in Lightroom brings out the colors on the mountain, and cropping gets rid of the sticks and floating debris, but it also takes the reflection. The end result is okay, but not great,and it certainly isn’t the image I was attempting to shoot. Lesson learned – don’t get so excited by the light to forget to check your foreground.
March – Why Did I Shoot This? I didn’t get out much in March, and of the images I took, I didn’t see any real horrible ones. The best (or should I say the worst) I can offer is this image of a boat at Point Ruston near my home in Tacoma. Not a truly awful image, I’m just not sure why I took it. Lesson learned – take photos for a reason, not just because you have a camera in your hand.
April – Slot Canyon Blues. On a trip to New Mexico in April, Tanya and I visited the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. On a hike there, we went through a slot canyon. I enjoyed moon hanging in sky above the canyon walls and was inspired to take the above photograph. Perfectly captures the moment does it not? Not is the correct answer. Shot with a wide-angle lens, you can barely see the moon. And can you tell it is a slot canyon if I hadn’t told you? There are contrast problems as well, but processing fixed that. The processed version cannot save the lack of photographic vision. Lesson learned – some scenes do not translate well to photographic images.
May – Small Flowers, White Sky. Early May brought me a bad case of spring fever. So Tanya, Nahla and I drove to eastern Washington to take a short hike to Umtanum Creek Falls. The route passes through a small black-rock canyon. I liked the yellow flowers blooming on the dark rock wall and took the above shot, including the trees and sky above to give a sense of the scene to the image. Again, because of the large contrast between the rocks and the sky, the sky was totally blown out. And the composition is horrible; the flowers small and insignificant when they are supposedly the subject of the image. Heavy processing brought some detail to the sky, but doesn’t help the composition. Lesson learned – make the subject prominent in the image; minimize the area of sky in the frame when there is a large contrast difference between the sky and the rest of the shot.
June – Rain Forest Contrast. In June we made a day trip to the Olympic coast, visiting the Hoh rain forest and Ruby Beach. The light conditions were not very good that day for photography, and while you still can make some good shots in bad light (see my post about that day for examples), the image above is not one of them. Here I liked the backlighting of the leaves, the look of the water underneath, and the moss hanging above. Unfortunately, the contrast between the sunlit water and grass and the shadowed moss was too much for the camera to handle, even with processing. Additionally, the composition is messy – there’s too much in the scene. Lesson learned – simplify compositions (which admittedly is hard to do in a forest); avoid extreme contrast.
July – Action Unfrozen. On the 4th of July last year, Tanya and I walked down to the annual festival along the Ruston Way waterfront. There we briefly watched bicyclists doing tricks. I grabbed a few shots. Unfortunately, I wasn’t paying attention to my camera settings. The scene was in full sun, and I had no reason why I couldn’t use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. Shooting hand-held with a 300 mm lens of a moving subject with a shutter speed of only 1/60th of a second is a recipe for failure. And that is what I achieved. It may have worked if I had been panning with the bike motion, but that was not the case here. Lesson learned – pay attention to shutter speed with moving subjects.
August – Blurs in the Sky, Blurs on the Ground. I wrote a post specifically about this photo shoot which I titled Rookie Mistakes. I was attempting to photography the setting crescent moon in the Columbia River Gorge and even taking about 30 images, almost totally failed due to not realizing how quickly celestial objects move when viewed with a telephoto lens and not fully taking into account how much camera shake strong winds cause. This image was worse than most, since I thought the airplane was out of the frame. No amount of processing can save bad blurs, though a small amount can sometimes by saved by Photoshop work. Lesson learned – use faster shutter speeds when shooting the moon and stars with a telephoto lens; use faster shutter speeds in windy conditions.
September – Closed Eye Failure. On our trip to Montreal, Tanya and I visited the Atwater Market which included this bakery. I liked the look of the line of glass cover domes leading to where the gal behind the counter was helping customers. I shot off a quick burst of 3 images to catch the interaction between customer and clerk. Unfortunately, I caught the clerk with her eyes shut. Lesson learned – when shooting people, take a lot of images.
October – Vignetting Ingalls Lake. Last year I purchased some Xune filter holder and lens adapters to use with my polarizer and neutral density filters. I knew there would cause more vignetting than when not using the system when using a wide-angle lens. Even knowing so, I wasn’t paying attention when I took the above wide-angle shot at Ingalls Lake with the polarizer. The vignetting was horrible. It can be solved by cropping, as is shown in the processed version. However, such cropping defeats the purpose of using the wide-angle lens. Lesson learned – watch for vignetting when using filters on a wide-angle lens; if you need the filter and still want the wide-angle view, try stitching two or three non-wide angle shots together.
December – Blurry Shore. No bad shots in November because the camera barely left my bag. In December night, I was down on the shoreline in the Old Town district of Tacoma. I loved the reflection of the moon over the wavy shore. However, the wind was blowing very hard. Knowing the problems I had with wind down in the Gorge (see August above), I tried to keep my shutter speeds relatively fast, but even so I failed to get a non-blurry shot. In hindsight, I should have done more to weigh the tripod down and block the wind. Lesson learned – relearn August’s lesson and take precautions against strong winds.
Summary – We can all learn from our mistakes. Above are several of mine. In reviewing these, there are a couple of running themes – problems from contrast and problems with blurring. Those, and in fact none of the issues I’ve presented here, are new for me. But hopefully, by studying my bad shots, I will make such mistakes less and less.
Adobe added a new Transform panel in Lightroom CC in June, and since I typically don’t check what is new in each Lightroom upgrade, I didn’t see this new panel until last month. When I did find it, I thought it was amazing. So much so, that from now on, I’ll be checking each upgrade to see what other new features might be available to improve my workflows.
The old transform was under the Lens Correction panel in the Develop Module under the Manual tab, where there were sliders for you to manually adjust lens, vertical, and horizontal distortions; rotation, scale, and aspect ratio. I made wide use of the vertical and horizontal sliders, but not so much the others. I found it was easier to correct rotations or change the aspect ratio with the crop tool and I usually don’t change the scale of an image except upon export. And while these transform tools where very helpful, sometimes I couldn’t get the results I wanted.
With release 2015.6 of Lightroom, Adobe removed the manual transform sliders from the Lens Correction panel and placed them in a new Transform panel (located directly underneath the Lens Correction panel, see the first screenshot below). The lens distortion slider is gone, and two new sliders, for X and Y offsets, are added. But the best new feature is the addition of automatic or guided distortion corrections. There are six options: off, auto, guided, level, vertical, and full. The pop-up help in Lightroom for each of these options states:
- Auto: “enables balanced level, aspect ratio, and perspective corrections”
- Guided: “draw two or more guides to customize perspective corrections”
- Level: “enable level corrections only”
- Vertical: “enable level and vertical perspective corrections only”
- Full: “enable full level, horizontal, and vertical corrections”
There is also a guide tool in the upper left-hand corner with a guide tool. This tool essentially works identically to pressing the Guide button. In both cases, a guide tool becomes active which allows you to place guides on the image to show Lightroom what should be level and vertical. You are allowed to add up to four guides.
I’ve illustrated the use of this new features with an image I took in Sainte-Chapelle in Paris last year. The space is small and crowded, tripods are not allowed, and a wide-angle lens is needed. These conditions make it quite hard to a decent level and perspectively correct shot. The original image, shot with my 28-300mm zoom lens set at 65mm (at 1/20 second, f5.6, ISO 6,400), is shown here below after all Lightroom corrections except those under the Transform panel.
The next image, below, is a screenshot showing the Transform panel open in the Lightroom Develop module. No transform corrections have been selected – the Off button is active. Please note, that when using the Transform corrections, it is best to have the lens profile corrections already active in the Lens Corrections panel.
The images below are the results of selecting the Auto, Level, and Vertical buttons. In this case, the results from the Full button is identical to the Vertical button.
Below I show the steps in using the Guided correction either by guide tool or selecting the Guided button.
If you have followed my blog for over a year, you know that I have started a tradition of, rather than posting a best of the year, posting the worst of the year. Well, they probably aren’t really the worst of the year, those get deleted immediately, but rather are generally bad photos that weren’t total mistakes (such as accidentally tripping the shutter). These are photos I actually had some rationale to take, though when looking back, sometimes I’m not totally sure what that rationale was. You can find great looking photos all over the web (and perhaps even on my blog), but you can sometimes learn more from the poor images. That is why I present this bad images; they provide an education to me, and you perhaps. I’m a true believer in learning from one’s mistakes, though as you will see if you go back to the 2014 and 2013 posts, perhaps I need to keep re-learning some of the same issues over and over. So without further adieu, here are some of my worst of the year images from 2015 – both the images out of camera (with default Lightroom processing) and, in some cases, with Lightroom processing in an attempt to save them (though most are not worth saving).
In January 2015, Tanya and I went snowshoeing at Blewett Pass in the Washington Cascades. One image from that trip made the Robinson Noble calendar this year. The above image did not. In fact, looking back on this image, I’m at a loss as to why I took it. And it is underexposed. There is apparently no subject. Perhaps I was just happy to be out under semi-blue skies (as much of the trip to Blewett Pass was through rain). But if that was my motivation, it failed in the image. Lesson learned – most photos need a subject or at least something of interest; many feelings are hard to translate into an image, and I need to work harder (rather than just snapping away) if I want to show those feelings in my images.
February took me to Washington, DC. I hadn’t been there and many years and was excited to photograph on the mall. I took this shot of Washington Monument with the snow-covered reflecting pond. I’m not sure why I tried this composition, bulls eyeing the monument and including tracks in the snow. Not to mention being underexposed (starting to seem like a theme). It was partly saved in Lightroom, but only with a significant crop. Lessons – 1) putting the subject dead center in the frame rarely works, and 2) look for distracting elements in the frame.
I have not horrible shots from March, largely because I barely took the camera out. But April brought this “gem.” I was photographing at the waterfront in Gig Harbor when a rainbow appeared. I had to get a good foreground for it, but this was not it. At least it wasn’t underexposed! After the excitement of seeing the rainbow wore off, I ended up getting a few better shots than this one. Lesson – when you see something exciting, don’t forget good composition.
Since there is no March imge, I’ll give you two for May. The first are koi in a pond at the Chinese garden in Seattle. Fuzzy fish, small fish because I didn’t zoom in enough. Sorry, no processed version because there is no saving an out of focus image (I tried hand holding at 1/20 second, and it didn’t work). The second image, the historic train station in Dayton, Washington. But talk about a blown out sky! Again, no way to save that with processing. Lessons – 1) hand holding at slow shutter speeds usually doesn’t work – use a tripod or up the ISO, 2) when the sky is too bright compared to the subject, minimize it in the frame.
In June I went to Discovery Park in Seattle to take some images for my up coming book. This shot didn’t make it in the book. I was trying to show Mount Rainier along with driftwood on the beach. I was close to the driftwood and used a wide-angle lens. This made Mount Rainer look like a little white spot. Processing helped a little, adding a bit of definition to the mountain, but the image still belongs in the reject pile. Lesson – wide-angle perspectives shrink the background; be sure to check the size of objects in the background if they are important to the image.
In July I went backpacking on the beach in Olympic National Park. There were a lot of bald eagles around, and I tried (and failed) to get a good shot of one. This was shot with my zoom maxed out at 300 mm. Still too far away. Even cropping in Lightroom doesn’t help much. Lesson – when shooting birds, you either need to get close or get some big glass.
In August, I took some images at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, again for my upcoming book. I like the glow of the setting sun on part of the building and attempted to capture that with this shot, partially blowing out the sky in the process. Was I really blind to those wires? At least I got most, but not all, of the street sign out of the shot. I was able to save the sky some with processing and remove the sign remnant with cropping, but only a lengthy session with the cloning brush in Photoshop could remove the wires. Not worth it. Lesson – sometimes there are too many distracting elements to make it worthwhile.
September brought me to Alaska to do a little salmon fishing, where I took this shot. The only thing worst than the poor exposure is the bad focus – nothing is in focus in this shot. Seems my camera was set to a stop under exposure from a earlier image and I didn’t reset it. There is no processed version because Lightroom still doesn’t have an unsuck brush available. Lesson – 1) pay attention to your camera settings; if you make a change from your normal settings, reset it immediately; 2) pay attention to focus, it really is necessary!
In October I was at Silver Falls State Park. I liked the leaves in the creeks, so made this shot. Do the leaves look like the subject to you? They sure don’t to me. After this failure, I took a few more compositions at the same location that were slightly better, but honestly, the whole series of shots will never be shown except here. I haven’t include a processed version because just like Lightroom doesn’t have an unsuck brush, it also doesn’t have an add-a-subject slider.
In November I took some images of the sun rising over Mount Rainier from the Fox Island Bridge near Gig Harbor. Beside shooting the mountain, I liked the mist on the water and took this shot. It seems that underexposure was one of my major problems in 2015. Processing in Lightroom did save the shot, but the digital noise is worse than it should be. Lesson – exposure is actually important!
My son, Brooks, and mother-in-law, Maxine joined Tanya and I on our trip to Europe last month. We started with a quick stop in Chicago, where this image was shot. Brooks and Maxine are toasting our the start of our vacation, and I captured the moment. Except for that underexposure thing again; oh, and the glass of beer in Brooks’ face; and oh, only Maxine is in focus. Processing helped the exposure a bit, but there is serious digital noise. Luckily, I realized my error and took a second shot that is much better. Lesson – really watch your exposure with backlit situations, and pay attention to where the beer glass is!
That’s it, a set of bad photos. Let’s hope that some of these lesson stick with me in 2016. I hope this new year brings you many wonderful photos (and that Adobe adds that unsuck brush to Lightroom).