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).
I recently was completing some long over due editing from shots I took in 2013 and came upon this image. I had not touched it since importing it into my Lightroom catalog nearly two years ago. I decided to see what I could do with it. Below is the original file as imported into Lightroom and the version after processing in Lightroom. The feature image is the finished product out of Photoshop.
I was originally attracted to the image because of the pattern of the yellow grass and the scattering of the red leaves. The scene was in shade on the afternoon of a late fall day in November – there was not much available light. I can’t remember if I was without my tripod, or just too lazy to use it, but I took the shot handheld. To have a fast enough shutter speed to not have camera shake, I upped the ISO to 1600, which resulted in a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second. It wasn’t enough. Viewing at 100% in Lightroom showed the image was not sharp.
I thought it might be saved with the shake-reduction filter in Photoshop, so I opened up PS. Indeed, the shake-reduction filter seemed to work wonders. My workflow is normally not to bring an image into Photoshop until I’m done with it in Lightroom, but rather than go back to Lightroom, I opened up the camera-raw filter and attempted to do my “Lightroom” processing there. (Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom reportedly have the same capabilities.) I was quickly reminded why I like Lightroom better than Adobe Camera Raw and scrapped the image and started fresh again in Lightroom.
In Lightroom, I started, as I normally do, by doing a default lens correction and adding noise reduction to counteract the high ISO noise. Following my normal workflow, I went to the Basic menu and worked on the tone and presence. I started by reducing the exposure by about 1/2 a stop, warmed up the temperature to rid the image of blue tones from the blue sky reflection and adjusted the tint to add a bit of green. I then adjusted the clarity (to the mid 20s) and vibrance (to the mid 30s) sliders to punch up the colors a bit. That’s a bit more vibrance than I normally use, but it seemed like it needed it. The vibrance wasn’t helping the reds enough, so I also added a small amount of saturation.
I then set the white point with the white slider and adjusted the highlights slider down. I normally set the white point, usually increasing it, as a way to improve contrast. It often results in the highlights being lighter than I want; such was the case here – thus the reduction of the highlights slider. It took several iterations to get it where I liked. I then set the black point with the black slider (and thus finish the contrast improvement without using the contrast slider, which I normally leave set at zero – as I did here).
At this point, there was one leaf in the upper half of the photo that was too bright and distracting. So I used the brush tool to dim it down a bit. With that bright leaf now dimmer, I made one final adjustment to the white and highlights sliders. Made a final adjustment to the temperature slider, and punched up the image a bit more by using the dehazing slider and added just a touch of vignette to help focus the eye into the image. The result is the second image below.
At that point, I exported to Photoshop and re-accomplished the sharpness fix with the shake-reduction filter. After working that shake-reduction magic, I followed my normal Photoshop workflow for nature/landscape shots by working Tony Kuper’s triple play actions on the lights and darks (these actions use luminosity masks to affect the contrast, brightness and detail definition – in this case I was most interested in the detail definition).
From there I worked on targeted adjustment to bring my final vision out for the image. I wanted to yellow grass to really stand out, so I made mask for the yellows and used it on a levels adjustment layer to make them brighter. I only wanted this effect on the yellow grass in the center of the image, so I placed the levels adjustment layer in a group and masked the group, allowing only the center portion to be affected.
Next, I thought the greens were too bright, so I again made a mask from the greens and used it on another levels adjustment layer to darken them up a bit.
In looking at the image, I still wasn’t happy with the reds, so I added a hue/saturation layer and bumped up the saturation just a bit on the reds only.
I finished it off by adding a dodging/burning layer, and painting black to darken, I darkened approximately the upper 1/4 of the image as well as a bit on the sides and bottom. This improved upon the vignette I had placed in Lightroom. The result – the image you see above.
It took much longer to write this than to do the actual work in Lightroom and Photoshop. I think, in total, it took about 20 minutes. In looking at it now, I think I may have overdone darkening of the shadows. But that is the beauty of Lightroom, I can easily open the PSD file made by Photoshop and lighten up the shadows a little. Maybe I’ll do that if I ever decide to print it, but otherwise, it is ready to print now.
As always, your thoughts and comments are most welcome.
One of the challenges of shooting in RAW format is deciding what and how much processing to do. (Tangent – why is RAW capitalized? It is not an acronym such as JPEG or TIFF. It simply means unprocessed. In Wikipedia, it isn’t capitalized. But somehow, it doesn’t look right to me. I’m usually a stickler for correct writing – just ask anyone at my day job where I edit everyone’s reports; they may even call me a grammar nazi – but leaving it uncapitalized when every other file format is capitalized seem wrong. So grammar nazi or not, I’m capitalizing it.) When shooting in JPEG mode, the camera does the processing for you. You can always tweak it later, but the majority of the work is done. With RAW, you should do the heavy lifting and process the image yourself, at least if the default processing by your RAW converter program (Lightroom in my case) doesn’t do a good job. And it is rare when I find I can’t do a better job processing than the default.
But the question remains, what to do and how much? Some might answer, just enough so that it looks like it did in real life. But what is that? Take, for example, the images presented here. These are shots of water seeping out of sandstone near Moab, Utah. I’ve included both my processed versions and the original RAW versions from Lightroom with zeroed developing (with all the sliders set to zero – realize, however, there still is some processing involved, it is impossible to present true RAW images, some processing must occur to translate the images into something humans can view). I took these images in the shade on a sunny, blue-skied morning. So these were naturally lit by a broad, blue sky, which cast a rather flat, blue light onto the sandstone. Does that flat, blue light truly show what I saw, or do my processed versions show what I saw? The answer is up to me as the maker and you as the viewer. Did I go too far?
Well, what did I do to turn the RAW images into the finished images? They were first processed in Lightroom, correcting for lens distortion and chromatic aberration. Then I set the white point and the black point to add contrast, took a little off the exposure, and adjusted the highlights and shadows to bring detail into the blacks and whites. I added some clarity to add a bit of sharpness and some vibrance to add saturation. I then adjusted the color temperature, increasing it to remove the blue tint. I then added a radial filter to lighten the water patterns and darken the rest. And finally, made minor changes to many of these adjustments to fine tune them. I then took the images to Photoshop, performed Tony Kuyper’s triple play to add punch to the highlights and shadows, lighten up the orangy-browny vegetation on top, and added a “smart glow” to punch up the color a bit. In total, it took about 10 minutes each to do all this work.
I’d think the most controversial of these changes would be the changes to the color, in particular adding vibrance and the smart glow. The rest is pretty standard old-school darkroom photography made digital (except perhaps the Kuyper triple play, that doesn’t really change the images that much). The problem here is deciding what is too much in terms of the color. Because the subjects were in shadow, it is difficult to determine what the colors would look like in the sunshine. And of course, what sunshine are we talking about? Sun at noon? Sun at sunset?
I guess the answer is it depends. Did I take it too far? I don’t think so; you may. But these are close to what I wanted to show when I took the images. So for me, the answer is no; I processed them as I thought proper. For you the answer may be different. If you think so, let me know your thoughts.
Today is Pi Day. I’m not sure how Pi relates to photography, but Phi does. Pi the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, an irrational number approximately equal to 3.14159. Phi is also an irrational number, approximately equal to 1.61803. Phi is also called the golden ratio. It is the ratio obtained when a line is divided into two unequal parts such that when the longer part is divided by the smaller part the answer is the same as when the whole length is divided by the longer part. (It makes much more sense when you see it as a diagram.) Pi and Phi are somewhat related in that the product of the two numbers (phi times pi) is found in golden geometries.
I am not a mathematician, but I suspect the product of Pi and Phi is related to golden geometries because Phi is an expression of the golden ratio. And the golden ratio is special in photographic composition. Phi, the golden ratio, presents to the human mind a very pleasing relationship. Besides photography, it is found in architecture, painting, and music, as well in nature.
The golden ratio has been used for art since practically forever. The Parthenon is covered with instances of the Phi. It can be found in artworks such as the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. It is even found in Darth Vader’s mask.
The rule of thirds works, in my opinion, because it is an approximation of Phi. If you take the sweet spot defined by Phi four times in a frame, you get a pattern similar to the rule of thirds, but a little less easy to define on the fly when looking through your viewfinder. Luckily, both Photoshop and Lightroom offer crop overlays that show the golden ratio grid.
The golden ratio can also be expressed in a spiral. A logarithmic spiral with a growth factor of Phi is known a the golden spiral. Again, both Photoshop and Lightroom also have crop overlays based on the golden spiral. The sweet spots of the golden spiral are also close the those of the rule of thirds.
It is easy to access these crop overlays in Lightroom. The various crop overlays in Lightroom are found under the Tools pull-down menu. Or when using the crop tool, use the shortcut of the letter “O” to cycle through the various crop overlays. When using the golden ratio overlay, you can cycle through the various orientations of the spiral (placing it in different quadrants of the image) by using “Shift O”. The same shortcuts are used in Photoshop when using its crop tool.
With a bit of practice, you can imagine the golden ratio proportions in your viewfinder, and you can always perfect the composition with the crop tool in Lightroom and Photoshop. So if you want to move beyond the rule of thirds, remember Phi – the golden ratio – a photographer’s compositional mathematical friend.
My intention this morning was to get a lot of work done. Instead, I sat down at the computer and played with Photoshop. I long have wanted to learn how to create the tilt-shift look in Photoshop. You know the look, that of a miniature toy town or city. So instead of working, I asked Mr. Google how to do it, and he directed to a tutorial by Denise Lu. It is quite easy.
1. Pick a photo. It seems to work best with a wide view, taken from a high angle so you are looking downward on the scene. Two of the images here were taken from the Smith Tower in Seattle and the third from the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
2. Open the photo in Photoshop and create a duplicate layer so you are not working on the background layer.
3. Enter the Quick Mask Mode (the shortcut is the Q key) and select the Gradient tool. With the gradient tool, select the reflected gradient (the 4th mode over on the gradient tool bar).
4. Draw a gradient starting in the area you want to be in focus and extending to the area out of focus. You can hold the Shift key down to make sure your gradient is straight. A mask (default color red) will appear on the screen showing the area to be in focus. You will likely have to play around with it to get a mask exactly where you want it.
5. Exit the Quick Mask Mode (hit the Q key again) and from the filter pull-down menu select the Lens Blur filter.
6. Pick a radius of somewhere between 20 and 40, at least those are the values I used. The Lens Blur filter screen will let you preview the results.
7. Consider adding saturation with a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and extra contrast with a Levels or Curves adjustment layer to make the result look for toy-like.
And that’s it! The hardest part is getting the gradient in the proper place. If you have a building sticking out of the in-focus area, such as in my image of Paris here, you can use other selection tools to de-select that portion of the building after leaving the Quick Mask Mode but before applying the Lens Blur filter.
By writing this post, I suppose I am starting a tradition since I wrote a worst of 2013 post last year.This time of year, there are many “best of” lists, and as I’ve already presented you with most of my best images of 2014, I decided once again to go the opposite direction once again and present the worst of the year.
First off, a disclaimer: the images presented here are not really my worst of the year. The truly worst of the worst get deleted off the memory card before downloading or are so truly horrible that they get deleted prior to my normal editing process. That said, all the images presented here would normally be deleted during my regular editing process without a second thought.
Generally editing and deleting bad images can be an educational experience if time is taken to think about why an image is bad. In other words, you can learn from your mistakes. However, when I took the time to pick the worst of the year and try to “save” them with post-processing, I found it an even more educational experience than just deleting. This is because in trying to “fix” the images, I went more in-depth into why they are bad and learned more about the limits of my post-processing work. You may want to try this exercise yourself sometime.
Now, before I start presenting these bad images, another further explanation. Last year several readers objected to my post, stating that some of my bad images were not actually very bad, and perhaps even likable. That may be true for an individual viewer, but when picking these shots, they were selected in context of my intent when shooting the image and in relation to the other images I took at the same time. For example, last year I presented a poorly exposed image of the Skagit Valley tulip fields that one reader liked. The image was made presentable by work in Lightroom, but when compared to the properly exposed images I took at the time, it was not very good. Further, the post-processing work that made it presentable caused the extreme noise in the image to be quite visible. Another consideration is the limits of presentation on the internet. A poorly focused image might look okay when presented as a 900-pixel wide image on the internet, but when zoomed into at 100%, it would look horrible. So take my word for it, these images are bad.
Okay, enough explanations and on to the bad stuff. Below are 11 of my worst images of 2014, one for each month from January through November. December is excluded because I failed to get out of my house and try to take any serious images. That in itself is a bad mistake, but I’ll leave my preference for a warm house to a rainy, cold day in the field for another post.
Each image below was shot in RAW. Except for the October image, two versions of each are presented, one without any post-processing (other than the default settings in Lightroom needed to convert a RAW file to a jpeg) and the other my attempt to “save” the image by processing in Lightroom. I few could have been further “saved” with extra processing in Photoshop, but that wasn’t worth my time. Proper technique in the field always is better than saving through post processing. With each of these images, a small adjustment in position or a correction in technique would have saved them more than any amount of processing.
Computer upgrade is mostly complete, and I am back to having a digital darkroom. It’s like magic! Lightroom is like a totally different program. When going to a 1:1 view, it snaps into focus in about 2 seconds and not the seemingly (I never actually measured) 1/2 minute. When running my Tony Kuyper triple play actions in Photoshop, they finish up in a few seconds. This is great!
The big test, though, was running Nik Silver Efex Pro, which would not run at all on my old computer. Several months ago I posted about wanting to do more black and white work, but not being able to use Silver Efex Pro. I was still able to produce quality black and white images, but was unable to use one of the top plug-ins for creating black and white images. So now with the new computer, it was time to put it to the Silver Efex test; it passed with flying colors (or actually lack of colors that is)!
I tried it out on an image I took over Memorial Day weekend on San Juan Island. Being on San Juan Island over the long weekend, I had hoped to capture some good images. However, since we were with friends and Tanya took pains to remind me that the trip “was not a photography trip,” combined with not the best weather in the world, I didn’t get anything I was really happy with.
Since first seeing photos of the Lime Kiln State Park lighthouse, I’ve always wanted to photograph it. And Memorial Day weekend was my chance. I convinced Tanya and our friends to have an early dinner so we could go out to the state park for sunset. Sunset was kind of a bust – not much color. However, we stayed into the blue hour, and I captured the shot featured here, which I thought might work well as a black and white. Below is the original RAW capture straight out of Lightroom with no development (other than the default). Also below is the color version after I developed in Lightroom and Photoshop – not bad, but not really what I was hoping for. I made a duplicate image and tried the Silver Efex Pro plug-in. It opened right up, and within a few minutes, I was able to create the image above. I was just playing around, and this probably won’t be my final version of the image. But Silver Efex Pro impressed me with how quickly I was able to get close to my black and white vision for the image. It’s great being back in the saddle again.
For those who are interested. This image was taken perhaps 10 or 15 minutes after sunset. The exposure settings were 13 seconds at f22, iso 100. I used a 2-stop, graduated neutral density filter.
My computer is down now, going through an upgrade. So for the next week or so, I am without a darkroom. I’m wondering how many of you remember the days when a darkroom was actually a dark room and not a computer? Or perhaps you are one of the few, the lonely, who still use a wet darkroom. I imagine there are very many, probably even the majority, photographers who have never even seen a real darkroom, let alone processed film or prints in one.
I do have nostalgia for my wet darkroom days. Back then, I shot with black and white film, usually Kodak TMax, and color slide film (Velvia or various versions of Kodak Extachrome). I don’t really miss shooting with film – I like being able to bracket and experiment with digital without having to worry about the cost of film and processing (though I’ve probably replaced those costs with camera and computer upgrade costs); I like being able to see instantly if a shot works on the back of the camera. But I do sometimes miss working in the darkroom, watching a print magically change from a blank sheet of paper to a photograph, or pulling a roll of film out of its developing can and seeing the negatives for the first time.
Processing film and producing prints in a wet darkroom was a much more sensory experience than working on a computer. And working in the dark, either in complete darkness or in the glow of a dim red safelight, enhanced.the sensory experience. With limited sight, the smells, feels, and sounds of the darkroom came alive. There was the unique smell of the developer or the vinegary smell of stop bath; the smooth feel of the paper and film, both wet and dry; the sound of the enlarger humming, the timer ticking, or the water running. And though the light was dim, there was plenty to see – the negative image (or color slide) projected by the enlarger, the neon green glow of the moving hands on the timer, and, as mentioned above, images slowly appearing from nothingness in the developer tray.
There was so much more activity too. Today, with computers, processing an image physically involves using a keyboard and mouse. But in the wet darkroom days, you loaded film into a development canister (in complete darkness) by breaking open the film canister, cutting the tapered end of the film off with scissors, threading the film onto a development reel (trying hard to make sure it’s threaded properly so each wrap of film doesn’t touch its neighbors – and never knowing for sure if you did it right or not until the development was complete!), placing the reel into the development tank, and piecing the tank back together (hopefully correctly) so that it was light tight. There was the pouring of chemicals in and out of the development tank, rolling the tank back and forth on a table top to slosh the film and agitate the chemicals. There was the washing of the film, and pulling it out of the tank for your first look to see if it was developed properly and if you messed up on your exposure settings. And finally, hanging the film to dry, using a hook on top and a small weight on the bottom to keep it from curling.
Similarly, printing was much more of an activity than sticking a piece of paper in a printer and pressing a button on a computer. There was loading the film or slide into a negative holder and placing that in the enlarger, moving the enlarger head up and down to get the right size for the print, focusing the enlarger (peering through a special little scope gadget to make sure the film grain was in focus), adjusting the print easel, calculating exposure times, setting the f-stop on the enlarger and setting the timer, practicing the printing prior to putting paper in the easel, placing the paper on the easel, turning on the enlarger, conducting dodging and burning with wands or holes cut out of cardboard, and slipping the paper into its chemical baths.
Before the days of digital, it was impossible to create totally identical prints when printing from the same negative. Small differences in timing of dodging and burning, timing in the developer bath, the age of the chemicals, etc. all conspired to make each print unique.
Those days are gone for me now. All that equipment was sold for pennies on the dollar or given or thrown away. Today, I process and print many more images in much less time, without dumping gallons of toxic chemicals down the drain. That’s progress I guess. But on these days when my computer is down, thinking back on those hours in the darkness does bring back some fond memories.
I have trouble photographing the moon. Okay, it’s not so hard before for the sun sets (which is why the best full moon pictures are typically taken the day before the full moon and, consequently, before the sun sets), but after dark, I have lots of problems. There is just too much contrast. The moon is bright, basically as bright as anything lit by sunlight on a cloudless sunny mid-day. Everything else is dark. The dynamic range of any scene with the moon is too much for a camera to handle.
Perfect time to try some HDR photography, right? Maybe, but I’ve never gotten it to work well. I’ve always get funny looking light artifacts around the moon; all my attempts at using HDR for scenes with the moon have looked awful. How about shooting one exposure for the moon, one for the rest of the scene, and combining them in Photoshop. Again, maybe you can do that, but every time I’ve tried it, it doesn’t work – there’s too much glare around the moon and I can’t get the sky to look right.
Last month when I wanted to photograph the full moon rising behind the Glass Museum in Tacoma, I was disappointed when there were clouds on the eastern horizon and the moon wasn’t visible. Less than an hour later, the moon rose above the clouds, and though it was no longer aligned with the Glass Museum, it lined up nicely with the cable bridge over the Thea Foss Waterway. Nice shot, I thought, except now it was way too dark to capture both the moon and the with a single exposure. I set up the tripod anyway and took a series of shots, hoping that perhaps the contrast would not be too extreme.
Later, when I downloaded the shots, I was disappointed to find out contrast was too great – moon troubles were visiting me again. I tried HDR (once again) and was disappointed with the results (once again). I was frustrated. At that point, I figured someone else must have an answer to this problem, so I spent some time researching moon photography on Google. Most advice centered around photographing during twilight before it was too dark. Not helpful in my case. After a bit of searching, I found a YouTube video (which I can’t find again to credit here), where the photographer used HDR for only the moon and the area of sky immediately around it, a single image for the rest of the shot, then combined the two images in Photoshop. He then re-imported the resultant image into Photomatix for additional tone mapping, which I thought wasn’t necessary. But the first part sounded interesting.
I had a series of seven images, shot one f-stop apart. I imported all into Photomatix and worked it for the moon only. I re-imported the HDR moon image into Lightroom. Then I took a single image from the original seven and worked it in Lightroom for the foreground only. I also worked the HDR moon image in Lightroom to approximately match the sky to the sky (away from the moon) in the foreground image. I exported both images to Photoshop into a single document, with the foreground image as the background layer and the HDR moon image laying on top. I used a layer mask on the HDR moon layer to mask out everything but the area around the moon, feathering the mask match the sky in the underlying layer. The two skies didnt quite match, so I used a curves layer with a clipping mask on the HDR moon layer to get the tone of the two skies to be more similar. Once I was satisfied with the result, I continued with my normal Photoshop workflow to finish the image.
Perfect? No. But in the end, after a lot of work, the result is the best moon image I’ve ever captured after dark. What do you think, is it any good? And please, if anyone has some better way to handle my moon troubles, be kind and let me know.
When photography is exercised as an art form rather than an attempt to purely replicate a scene without any interpretation (which, of course is impossible, photographs cannot replicate reality – they are in 2 dimensions instead of 3, they are cropped and reality is not, etc. – this could be a whole separate blog by itself, but I digress), the photographer has a myriad of choices to make. Many choices are made when capturing the image – what lens to use, what exposure settings to use, what to leave in the frame and what to crop out, whether to use a high viewpoint or a low viewpoint, etc. And post capture, there are also a myriad of choices concerning processing – there are global adjustments for exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, the white point, the black point, clarity, saturation, vibrance; cropping; distortion corrections; adding gradients or brush stroke or radial filters; etc. etc. and that is just in Lightroom; go to Photoshop and the choices explode seemingly exponentially.
For the capture side of photography, I’m a big advocate of trying out lots of different options when photographing a subject to really explore its possibilities (see this old post on the subject). Much is said about per-visualizing an image when photographing. And doing so makes a lot of sense and can make for a great image. However, don’t let that per-visualization get in the way of looking at a subject from different, non-per-visualized vantage points.
Okay, I have a confession to make here, I did not follow my own advice when capturing the images accompanying this post. I had one viewpoint in mind, went out, took the shots, and left. Call me bad. These images were taken earlier in the week at Union Station in downtown Tacoma. Union Station is no longer a train station but is now the US courthouse here in the city. Union Station is an iconic shot of Tacoma which I haven’t explored much before (so iconic in fact that I saw another photographer’s image of it hanging on a wall earlier the same evening I took this shot). And the fact that it is an iconic shot maybe why I neglected to cover it from other angles. So here’s so more unsolicited advice – when shooting icons, get the iconic shot out of the way, then try to cover it from other angles and get your own take on the subject (yes, I hear you, I should follow my own advice).
But even when you only get one shot, even the iconic shot, with your post-capture processing you can put your own spin on a subject by the choices you make. Here are four different interpretations of the same subject. Three are HDR images, processed initially in Lightroom, exported to Photomatrix, then re-imported and finished in Lightroom. The other is not an HDR image and was processed solely in Lightroom. If I decide to work on one or more of the images in the future, I may take it to Photoshop to make additional adjustments. The HDR images are made from a set of five images taken one f-stop apart.
The images represent choices for a single exposure of HDR, more realistic HDR and more “grungy” HDR, and distortion correction and cropping versus no distortion correction and cropping. No one image is correct, and no one image is wrong. None represent the reality of the scene as viewed by my eye (this scene, taken at night, is mostly lit from ugly yellow sodium-vapor street lamps for example). All are interpretations; all are artwork; all represent different choices. With these shots, I believe, at least to a small extent, I put my own spin on an icon. I think I favor the cropped, distortion-corrected version the best; but do like the other ones as well. Do you have a favorite?
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Shakespeare might be right about roses, but I’m not so sure about the came can be said about photos of roses. I have the accompanying image of a rose currently in the Ocean Shores 2014 Juried Photography Show. In preparing for the show, I printed it last week on canvas and really liked the result. However, when I turned the canvas into a gallery wrap, I stupidly ruined it, scratching off some of the ink and making white spots on the canvas. Easy enough fix – just print it again. Wrong!
First, an aside about printing. Printing photos seems like it should be easy. But, if you want to get the color right, it is not. Everything needs to be calibrated. You need a calibrated monitor so that the color you see on your monitor is the same color sent to the printer. You need a printing profile, so that the printer knows the correct way to print the color. Add in a less-than-intuitive printing menu in Photoshop and a similarly unintuitive printer setup menu and you have a recipe for printing problems. Well I have a calibrated monitor, and a profile for the canvas I was using. Plus, I am familiar with the menus, at least enough that I should know what I’m doing.
So, I printed another canvas, and it looked totally different. So, I thought, I had some setting wrong; so again, I printed another canvas. Still not the same. I found my profile for the canvas was actually for the Epson 3880 printer and I have an Epson 3800 printer. I downloaded the correct printer profile, and carefully printed one more time, making sure all the printer settings were correct. Yes, I had the correct settings, but it still looked different from the original. It was at that point I realized that I had printed the original canvas incorrectly and that I liked that incorrect version the best!
At this point, I was starting to run low on canvas. I had enough for perhaps three more attempts to re-create my printing mistake to get back to the result I liked. On the final attempt, I got it right and re-created the original canvas. It turns out, I told Photoshop to let the printer control the color management (mistake) and then told the printer to make no color adjustments (not a mistake if Photoshop controls the color management, but certainly a mistake if the printer is supposed to). Regardless, I had the version of the rose I liked.
However, when I got ready to varnish the canvas, I brushed some dust off it, and ended up with a couple of white spots! Turns out I didn’t blow the dust off the canvas before putting it in the printer and ended up printing on the dust instead of the canvas (another mistake). So, in the end, I used the one that was printed totally correct (with the correct profile and all the correct settings), made it into a gallery wrap, and submitted it to the show. Funny thing is, that if I had printed it correctly the first time, that is the same print I would have had in the beginning.
I always try to learn from my mistakes, but in this case I made so many mistakes on printing this canvas that I’m not even sure what the lesson is. Two things I did learn (or more correctly re-learned): 1) pay close attention when printing to make sure you get all the setting correct, and 2) there is always more than one interpretation of an image, so don’t be afraid to experiment with your processing (rather than leaving it up to printing mistakes to find something you like better).
Here are two versions of the image, which I’ve titled “Rose #3.” Which do you like better?
I love black and white photographs. I think black and white photographs may have been what really started my life-long passion for photography. In my pre-digital days, I had a wet darkroom in the back of the pantry of our kitchen. Though I did a little color processing, it was black and white processing that I truly enjoyed. I loved watching those pieces of photo paper magically transform and reveal an image when soaking in the developer bath. Those days are now long gone; I sold most of my old darkroom equipment for pennies on the dollar and even just threw some of it away when I moved to Tacoma.
But I still love black and white, though I don’t do much of it. I want to change that. Recently I downloaded a copy of Silver Efex Pro. I was excited to give it a try, since so many photographers make great black and white photos with it. Today I tried it out. Today I failed. It causes Photoshop to crash on my computer. I think I may have a video card issue. Luckily, I am planning a computer upgrade in the near future, and that may solve the problem.
But I still had the urge to make at least one black and white image today before getting to my other pressing work – fun before work, right? So I tried using the black and white adjustment layer in Photoshop and was not happy with the results. It caused some of my brush strokes applied in Lightroom to show and pixelated the sky. So I resorted to Lightroom for my black and white conversion. Though it is powerful, it doesn’t allow the type of targeted black and white adjustments I was hoping for that one can make with Photoshop or Silver Effect Pro.
The image here is the result of my efforts today. It is of Cape Disappointment Lighthouse; a 30-second exposure taken after sunset. I like the color version; I really like the black and white version. And I think I could love the black and white version were I to go back and fix some of the defects that my earlier color processing caused that are only visible with the black and white conversion. It seems that black and white conversions, at least the way I like to make them, amplify mistakes in images. Sensor dust spots become more visible; halos from imprecise brush strokes are more obvious; etc. After my computer upgrade, I think I will come back to this image, start over fresh with the RAW file, fix those mistakes and process it specifically for black and white, and again try Silver Efex Pro. Until then I’ll enjoy this slightly flawed image and keep thinking of black and white.
For some reason I have a hard time getting out and doing photography in February. I’m not much of a winter fan to begin with, and by February I just want it to be over. After a fairly dry winter so far this season, the rains returned with a vengeance the past several weeks. I had two planned snowshoe trips cancelled. So without anything new to show, it’s time to dig through the archives.
Five years ago this month Tanya and I were on a wine-tasting trip to Walla Walla, Washington. (Non sequitur – I love saying Walla Walla, Washington. I think it stems from my youth when I use to watch a lot of Loony Tunes on television, and the cartoon characters there were always ordering fun stuff from Ace Novelty Company in Walla Walla, Washington. Anyone else out there like me, or am I just weird?) We stayed with friends at the Marcus Whitman Hotel, a grand old place in the heart of the downtown. I really liked the look of the lobby of this old hotel, and before we left, I got out the camera and tripod to photograph it.
The dynamic range in the lobby was extreme. Inside, the lobby was dark, lit by antique light fixtures. However, the windows were bright, lit by outside daylight. This was scene made for digital photography and the use of HDR (high dynamic range) processing. At the time, I hadn’t done much HDR, in fact, now thinking back, this could have been my first attempt. I’m happy with the results, though if I ever decide to reprocess these shots, I think I might cut back on the effect a bit – the colors, particularly the blues, are a bit over saturated. However, both images show the old grandeur of the place, which was my intent for the photographs. Hotels like this are just not made anymore.
Each of these two images is a combination of six shots, processed first by Lightroom, then combined into a single image via HDR processing in Photomatix, then back to Lightroom, and finally Photoshop. At the time, I didn’t like Photoshop’s HDR processing, which has since been updated. Photomatix has been updated as well, and I still prefer it to Photoshop for HDR processing.
If you ever plan on a visit to Walla Walla, this is a great place to stay. Their off-season rates are very reasonable (at least they were five years ago), and there are more winery tasting rooms within walking distance than any person can visit in a day. (When we visited, our group rented a limo and rode around the countryside outside the city to a number of wineries. When we returned in the afternoon, Tanya and I and another couple than walked to tasting rooms near the hotel. I can honestly tell you, all those tiny little tastes of wine add up. Needless to say, these images were taken the next morning when I was capable of focusing my camera as well as my eyes.)
Many photographers have been seeing red when looking at the Adobe Corporation this week. There’s been a lot of words, mostly nasty, flying around the internet since Adobe’s announcement that they will no longer sell perpetual licenses for Photoshop and their other Creative Suite applications, instead going to a subscription model of licensing. So, being a Photoshop user, I thought I’d weigh in on the subject.
First, I am not surprised, the writing was on the wall after they changed the upgrade policy on Photoshop last year. I can’t say I’m too happy about it, the change will likely cost me more money in the long run. Currently I use Adobe Lightroom extensively, and Photoshop CS6 on a regular basis (but much less than Lightroom). I’d say I do 80 -90% of my post-capture work in Lightroom. In the past, I’ve upgraded Photoshop with every other version (going from CS4 to CS6 last year). I upgrade Lightroom more frequently (going from version 1 to 2 to 4, and I’ll upgrade to 5 when available outside the beta version).
So for now, I’m happy with what I have and will not sign up for a subscription, but I can imagine doing so in a year or two (or if they make Lightroom available only by subscription as well). Actually, the current offer to CS6 owners is quite tempting – the complete suite of applications for $20 per month. Every now and then, I wish I had one of the other CC programs, such as InDesign or Dreamweaver. If those were available to me at no more cost than Photoshop alone? Very tempting. The question is, is it worth it after the price goes up when the special price ends in a year. That, I’m not too sure.
I think that is most photographer’s biggest problem with this change. If the only CC program you use is Photoshop, the cost of the subscription is roughly the same as an annual upgrade (assuming the non-special price of $20/month for Photoshop alone, or even less than an annual upgrade cost with the special $10/month price for Photoshop alone). The problem is, the price is not guaranteed, the price will likely go up. And if you decide you don’t want to ride that train anymore, you are left with no Photoshop at all. Currently, if you don’t upgrade, you still have the old program.
Of course, the other problem is that the change is a change, and in my experience, people are afraid of change. But, this model of software licensing has been around for several years and more and more software companies are going to it. It was inevitable that Adobe would do this. Ultimately, it is the cost of doing business. If you want to use Photoshop, you’ll have to pay Adobe’s price. Is it fair? I don’t know and it really doesn’t matter. I can’t see Adobe going back to the old way.
If you don’t want to pay up? There are other programs to use. Frankly, I probably could get away with using Elements instead of Photoshop, and it will still be sold with perpetual licenses. And there are non-Adobe programs out there as well, such as Corel Paintshop Pro, Pixelmator, or even the Gimp.
So, yes I’m disappointed, but I’m not seeing red. After all, it isn’t the end of the world, it’s just the future of software.
Since I always shoot in RAW, I almost always have the camera set on auto white balance (since I can change it during Lightroom processing). My Canon 50D does a fair job with the white balance, though I usually have to bump the purple a bit (the images are a bit green). I’ve just picked up a Canon 6D (more on this in a later post), and the auto white balance seems to do even a better job. However, in certain situations, the auto white balance setting is totally fooled. Such was the case when I shot in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Reina Sofia Art Museum in Madrid on my recent trip. It seems that my camera, if not most cameras, have a hard time with artificial light – often because there are multiple light sources (with different color characteristics) plus colored reflections off painted walls.
I suppose a quick primer on the color of light and white balance is needed (if you know about this stuff, skip this paragraph). All light has color. Daylight is naturally a bit yellow and warm. However, the same daylight in the shade is often blue because of the light coming from a blue sky. Light from tungsten bulbs is very warm and orange-yellow; light from fluorescent bulbs is green. The human eye does see these colors, but the human mind overrides what we see because the mind “knows” what color things are supposed to be and corrects for the “wrong” colors produced by the light. For example, snow is white, right. So when we look at a snow field in the shade on a sunny day, we see white snow; but in reality, the snow is blue in color. Same for a white piece of paper being lit by a tungsten lamp, it looks white, but in reality, it is colored orange -yellow. (Want proof? Try this experiment. Take a plain white piece of paper. Set it upright against the base of a table lamp with a tungsten bulb by a window. The paper should look white. Now, go outside [preferably at dusk, while there is still light in the sky] a ways off from the house and look back in the window at the paper. It should look orange or yellow tinted. This is because your mind is now “correcting” for the outside light, not the inside light.) While our minds can do this nifty little trick, cameras cannot. This is why digital cameras have white balance settings (and film cameras have different types of film for different light conditions). The white balance setting attempts to correct for the color of the light to make white white, black black, and grey grey. If you shoot JPEGs (instead of RAW), it is important to get the right white balance setting, or you may end up with color tints you don’t want (for example, using a daylight setting in the snow example above will result in blue snow in your image).
White balance settings in cameras are far from perfect. Often a scene is lit by more than one type of light (a scene with significant areas of both sunlit and shaded subjects for example). This is why I like auto white balance and shooting in RAW – the camera makes a guess, but if it is wrong, I can easily fix it.
However, sometimes I have no idea what the color of the light and no idea what the true color of the subject is. In these cases, it is difficult to get the color right. In these situations, following best photographic practices, you should set a custom white balance for your camera (many digital cameras have this option, it typically involves taking a photo of a white or 18% gray piece of paper. Alternatively, you can take your image of the paper with any white balance setting, then in Lightroom, correct the white balance by using the white balance eyedropper tool [also known as the white balance selector tool] on the paper). While it doesn’t take very long to set a custom white balance, it is only good for those exact light conditions. If you go to a different room, say in an art museum, you need a new custom white balance. Needless to say, I’m typically not that dedicated. So when in the art museums on my trip, I just used auto white balance and thought I’d try to correct later.
When I looked at the art museum photos after the trip ended, they typically had orange color casts, as in the examples here (Girl in the Window by Dali from the Reina Sofia Art Museum, and By the Seashore by Renoir and The Dance Class by Degas both in the Metropolitan Museum of Art). In Lightroom, I played with the white balance, but couldn’t seem to find a setting I liked.If I only had a neutral color (black, white, or grey) in the images, I could use the Lightroom’s custom white balance eyedropper tool and correct the color cast. My frustration was made only worse by the realization I had no idea what color Degas, Picasso, Renoir, Dali, or Van Gogh, etc. intended in their paintings, even for those areas that looked white, black or grey.
However, I soon figured out how to restore the correct color to the art masterpieces. It is my habit, when taking photos in a museum, to also photograph the explanation for the exhibit I’m photographing so I can remember exactly what it is. So in this case, when I took a photo of a painting, I also took a photo of the explanatory card next to it listing the painter, name of the painting, etc. Whether on purpose or not, it turns out, at least in these two art museums, the explanatory cards are printed on neutral-colored papers, and being next to the paintings, they are lit by the same light source.
With this realization, in Lightroom I opened the card photo for a particular painting in the Develop module and used the eyedropper tool on the card paper. Then copying the white balance settings, applied the same settings to the photo with the painting. It was as if magic, suddenly the colors popped and the paintings looked even better than I remembered them in the museums. Masterpieces restored by the magic of custom white balance.
Yesterday, being our first full day in New York, I decided to carry the full camera bag and tripod around. Probably not the best move, since the camera bag bumped into several people, including Tanya (according to her, about 25 times). We hit two big sites yesterday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Top of the Rock.
It is the museum’s policy to have visitors check all bags and backpacks – except for camera bags! At the security desk, they gave me a special pass allowing me to carry my camera bag (backpack) in the museum. However, it could not be worn on my back. Most of the visit, Tanya wore it for me on her front – what a woman! And, as it turns out, tripods are allowed on Wednesdays through Fridays – again with a special pass, this one given out by the information desk. They tape the pass to the tripod, so that the museum the guards/docents can see that you have it. I got the feeling they didn’t particularly like me using my tripod (more than one dirty look), but only one or two checked my passes. I felt rather special, being able to use the tripod; and it came in very handy, since flash is not allowed.
After the museum, and a short taxi ride, we arrived at Rockefeller Plaza. Here we bought our tickets to the top ($25 each, a bit steep if you ask me), and went to have a drink at the Rockefeller Cafe (with windows on the ice-skating rink). We had to wait an hour, then went through security (think airport, complete with x-ray machines and metal detectors) to go up. At security, they asked “did anyone tell you about the tripod policy?” “No,” I said. “Well, you cannot spread the legs; you can only use it with the legs together like a monopod.” I’m thinking, you’ve got to be kidding, a classy place like the Metropolitan Museum lets me use a tripod, and a tourist dive like the Top of the Rock will not?
The Top of the Rock is on the 68th, 69th, and 70th floors of Rockefeller center. The 70th floor is a 360-degree, open-air view. There were one of two other people using tripods, and I wanted to take a shot of Tanya and I with the city in the background, so I broke the rules and no one said anything. It was about 6:20 p.m. and dark. So I used the flash for us and a long exposure for the background lights. (Hint – when shooting a photo like this, have the subject stay still through the entire exposure, in this case 10 seconds, not just during the flash. If the subject moves after the flash goes, the background will be visible through the subject.) Tanya went inside out of the cold (the wind was blowing) and I took a lot more shots (trying to not fully extend my tripod legs). This, coupled with the wind, presented a problem, and most the shots I took turned out blurry. However, I did get a few relatively clear ones and put together the HDR image featured here (three shots, 2 stops apart).
Today, I left the tripod at the apartment we are renting, and we went to the American Museum of Natural History (no tripods allowed). Tonight, I did pull out the tripod again to take more night shots – this time with the legs fully extended. These shots are of the skyline and East River from Roosevelt Island (which is where we are staying). I doubt I’ll have a chance to process those until I get home, so stay tuned and hopefully I can show you in a couple weeks how those turned out.
Tomorrow we leave New York and fly to Spain. I hope to have another post from there in a few days.
The image above is another from my trip to the beach last month. It is my favorite of the whole trip, and I recently made a print of it. I thought I’d tell you how this particular image went from just an idea to a final print. However, if you want to skip all the details, and just see what the original RAW image looked like, you can just compare the final processed version above with the unprocessed RAW image below.
Prevision: It was near sunset and the tide was low. I had wanted a sunset shot with tide pools in the foreground, but that idea was out because of the fog bank I described in my earlier post . Instead I thought about an image with tide pools and the incoming waves mist-like on the shore. Because it was so gray out, for color I needed starfish (which are naturally purple and orange on this part of the coast) and green sea anemones. I wanted the starfish and selected tide pool to be the focus, with the rest of the image dark and misty (from the waves).
Camera Work: I found a several promising tide pools, some of which I showed in the earlier post. I spent a lot of time at this one, I thought the composition looked good, with the tide pool opening to the right rear and the big cluster of starfish. To blur the incoming waves into a mist, I knew I needed a long exposure, which forced me into using a small aperture. The final image was taken at ISO 100 and f/22 for 8 seconds. Obviously I used a tripod. I needed to be close to the tide pool, requiring a wide-angle lens to capture the entire scene. I put on my 10-22mm zoom and set it to 22mm. Finally, I wanted the center of interest to be the starfish on the far side of the pool. This was actually close to the darkest part of the scene. To help I used a flash to light up the far side of the tide pool. The original RAW capture, with just Lightroom defaults, is shown below.
Lightroom Processing: As you can see, even with the fill flash, the rock with the starfish was very dark. I knew it would take some dodging and burning work to bring it out to my original vision for the image. However, first things first. I always do global adjustments (those affecting the whole image) first before targeted ones. Usually my first step is to level the horizon and use LR’s lens correction feature. I typically use a bubble level on my hot shoe to help keep the horizon level when I shoot, but with the flash, that wasn’t possible. With the wide-angle zoom, there is a lot of distortion and chromatic aberration, both easily fixed in LR.
Next I adjusted the white balance. I slid LR’s blue-yellow slider to the right (yellow) to add warmth to the image.
The image needed a bit more contrast, so I then set the white and black points by using the Whites and Blacks sliders. In this case, I moved the sliders to broaden the histogram and add just a little clipping of both blacks and whites.
I knew I wanted to essentially invert the luminosity of the image, making most of the image darker and lightening up the back wall (which is dark in the original capture). To most effectively do this, I darkened the whole image by significantly moving the Exposure slider to the left (about 3/4 a stop), then recovered that much in the dark areas with the Shadows slider, moving it to the right.
This was generally it for global adjustments, at least initially. Now it was time to work on problem areas to bring out my vision. First, the sky and water was still too light. So I added a Graduated Filter in LR. I used a relatively soft edge, and set the center of the gradient about 1/4 the way down from the top, reducing the exposure by another 1/3 stop. Then to add a bit more contrast to the background rocks and water, I adjusted the Contrast slider on the filter to the right.
Next I knew I needed a lot of painting with the Adjustment Brush. First I needed to lighten up the main area of interest – the tide pool and nearby rocks. The following shows where I added the brush and the effect. I added about 1/2 stop with the Exposure slider and even more with the Highlights slider to bring out the highlights.
It was still to dark in my primary subject area, so I painted a second time in the area shown below. This time I added another 1/2 stop in exposure, with lighted up the shadows more, added some “crispness” with the Clarity slider, and bumped up the color with the Saturation slider. (Normally, I do not use the Saturation sliders much in LR. I more typically use the Vibrance slider as a global adjustment. Here, to really emphasis the back wall of the tide pool, I didn’t use the Vibrance slider at all, and only used the Saturation slider with targeted adjustments).
Now it was time to work on the water in the tide pool. I wanted the highlights in the water to show better, and for there to be more contrast between the light and dark portions of the water. So I added a little exposure and bumped up the Highlights and Contrast sliders. I also upped the saturation slightly.
That helped with the water, but I wanted the white areas of the water in the tide pool to be more pronounced, so I painted those areas with another adjustment brush to lighten them up.
I wanted to add a bit more color and lightness to the starfish and anemones (on the rock and in the water) in the foreground. So I added another adjustment brush, upping the exposure slightly and adding some saturation.
At this point, I liked the luminosity of the areas I had used the adjustment brushes on, but thought the rest of the image was too bright for my original vision. So I decreased the exposure slider by another 1/2 stop to darken the whole image.
Then I restored the exposure values to each of the previous adjustment brushes, adding back the 1/2 stop of exposure only in the brushed areas.
Then to further focus the eye to the center of the image, I added a vignette with the Post-Crop Vignette slider.
With that done, some of the rocks on the left still seemed a bit too bright. So with another adjustment brush, I made them slightly darker.
And, the white water at the mouth of the tide pool still looked a bit dark to me, so I added a seventh adjustment brush to brighten up this area a bit.
At this point, I was close to the final, pre-Photoshop image. However, with all the adjustment brush work, the image had lost contrast (mainly by darkening the highlights). I needed to re-establish the white clipping point to gain back the lost contrast. So I adjusted the whites slider upward and also fine-tuned the color temperature (cooling the image slightly).
But with that adjustment, some of the white water at the mouth of the tide pool was too bright, so I deleted part of the seventh adjustment brush.
Now it was time for some touch-up work with the spot removal tool to remove sensor dust spots (I’m bad, I don’t clean my sensor nearly often enough). The dust spots were very visible because of the small aperture used on the image. I was able to fix all of them except one straddling the surf line near the upper center of the image; I knew I’d need the cloning tool from Photoshop to fix that one.
At this point, I was done processing the RAW image in Lightroom. Though it looks close to my vision, I thought I could improve it a bit further in Photoshop (in addition to fixing the final dust spot). Before sending it to Photoshop, I applied some noise reduction.
Photoshop Processing: The first step in Photoshop was to adjust the global contrast again, this time using Curves, giving it a slight “S” adjustment, and giving the image some more pop.
I occasionally use a luminosity masking technique, known as the Triple Play, created by Tony Kuyper to improve the shadows and highlights when in Photoshop. I tried it out, and in this case, the Triple Play lead to a slight improvement in both the shadows and highlights.
I cloned out the final dust spot that I couldn’t fix in Lightroom. And then refined my previous Lightroom brushwork painting on a dodging/burning layer.
The final step was to apply a bit of sharpening and the image was complete. I use an adjustable sharpening action based on the book Real World Image Sharpening with Adobe Photoshop CS2 by Bruce Fraser. The sharpening applied here is intended to sharpen to remove the slight blur caused by the camera. With that, the image was complete and my vision was realized. Easy right?
After the processing was done, the only thing left to do was make a print (I do additional sharpening prior to printing after resizing the image). I made 10×15-inch print, matted it, and it is now hanging at the gallery in Gig Harbor where one of my photo clubs (Sound Exposure) hangs their work.
You might be asking, “how long did all this processing take?” Though I didn’t time myself, it took much less time to do than to write this blog post. I’d guess the complete processing, from RAW to the final photo below (not including printing) took about 30 to 40 minutes. I don’t spend that much time on every shot; but in this case, I think it was well worth it.
I previously mentioned that I am working on several personal photo projects. One of those has reached its conclusion. As a member of the Mountaineers, I decided to document the “remodel” of the Tacoma branch’s clubhouse. The remodel involved tearing down the old building, except for a portion of one wall, and then building a whole new structure. Approximately weekly from January through August, I took shots of the clubhouse as it went down and back up again. I’ve made a couple of videos with those shots. The club will be showing them at the Grand Opening of the new facility this coming Thursday. However, I’ve posted them on Vimeo with links here.
Obviously to do a series of shots like this, you want to shoot from exactly the same spot with exactly the same setting every time. I found this is easier said than done. When I shot the images, I took two sets of shots from each vantage point. Using my 24-70mm lens, I shot one set at 24 mm and another set at 28 mm. Additionally, I always used aperture-priority mode with the f-stop at f/11 and ISO at 100. I had the camera on my tripod, and I always set the tripod feet in the same spots.
After taking shots for several weeks, I found I was more successful with the zoom set at 24 mm instead of 28 mm. I found that when I set it at 28 mm, it was difficult to set the lens consistently at 28 mm – sometimes it would up being at 27 mm, sometimes at 29 mm. I suggest if you try the same thing, and use a zoom lens, always set the lens at one end or the other of its zoom range for more consistent results.
Another difficulty resulted from my tripod, which has a ball head. With this tripod head, it was difficult to always get the camera pointed exactly the same direction and angle. I used a bubble level on the hot shoe to help and tried to line the edges of the frame at a consistent spot on the neighboring building. Even so, I found considerable variation between shots taken in different weeks. Consequently, I rotated and cropped each image in Lightroom, attempting to get the orientation exactly the same for each image. I was somewhat successful, the building does “wander” a bit back and forth between images, but it isn’t too objectionable in my opinion. Overall I’m happy with the result.
Wind is often the bane of nature photographers. We are often photographing in fairly low light conditions at sunrise or sunset, and often want a wide depth of field, so end up using small f-stops. Most of us know that using high ISOs leads to objectionable digital noise. These conditions all combine to require a slow shutter speed. So what do you do if there is a breeze moving your foreground around. Not a problem with rocks as a foreground, but what about wildflowers?
The above photo of the Tatoosh Range was taken at Paradise on the Golden Gate trail last month shortly before sunset. To get both the flowers and the mountains in acceptable focus, I took one shot with the aperture at set f/16 and the ISO at 100. This resulted in a shutter speed of 4 seconds (I also used a split neutral density filter). There was a breeze and it was impossible to get a frame without some movement in the flowers.
I then shot another image with the aperture at f/11 and the ISO set to 1250. This allowed the shutter speed to be 1/8 seconds. This was enough to stop most of the flower movement; but as you might imagine, the noise was unacceptable.
To get the above image, I processed both photos in Lightroom and imported them into Photoshop. I used the low ISO image as the background layer, then added the high ISO image in a new layer and added a layer mask filled with black (making none of the high ISO image visible). Then, using a soft brush, I painted white on the mask wherever the flowers were soft due to movement from the breeze. The end result is the image above. Below are close two closeups that show the before and after effects of painting the high ISO image onto the low ISO one.
This technique to stop the wind doesn’t always work, but when it does, it can save a shot.
Fine-art photography is photography that displays the creative vision of the photographer as an artist. While fine-art photography can be either in color or black & white, in today’s digital world, black & white photography is quintessentially art since it comes as a result of an artistic choice on the part of the photographer.
Guy Tal’s latest ebook, Creative B&W Processing Techniques Using Adobe Lightroom & Photoshop, explores Tal’s techniques for creating fine-art black & white photography. However, this book does not offer any formulas or “prescriptions” on how to make black & white images. Indeed Tal does not give such advice, stating that while “it’s very easy to create high impact images by simply following prescriptions or using automated tools … such methods merely produce cookie-cutter works that, despite being visually appealing, tell me [Tal] little about what the photographer was thinking or wanted to express.” If you are looking for quick and easy methods to make black & white images, this ebook is not for you. Instead, if you want to create black & white images that express your inner vision, this book will definitely help you on that path. I highly recommend it for any photographer who enjoys black & white, wants learn to think holistically about their craft, and has the twin goals of improving their artistic vision as well as their photography.
It’s not surprising that Guy Tal would write a book with few prescriptions that is heavy on following your own vision. Tal is an extremely talented landscape photographer who has made unique images for years. I first became aware of Tal approximately 10 years ago when I first starting doing digital photography. Last year, I started following his blog. While I have always admired his work, it was through his blog that I learned how seriously Tal takes his art. He often discusses photography as art. For example, some of his recent blog posts are titled The Case for Landscape Photography as a Fine Art and Photography and the Creative Life. He continues his emphasis on art in his new book, where he explains in detail the creative visioning process that goes into digital black & white photography.
That’s not to say the book does have technical details as well. He discusses RGB values, how color is mapped into black & white tones, how histograms relate to the Zone System, bit depth, color spaces, how digital noise is different in the different color channels, etc. There are plenty of technical details in the book. So many, in fact, that occasionally I found myself wishing for less. However, when Tal does go into technical details, he does so usually to make a valuable point about why such knowledge is important to the black & white photographer artist. For example, he explains how digital sensors record red, green, and blue (RGB) values for each pixel, how with an 8-bit file there are approximately 16.7 million colors possible in an image, and how for a 16-bit file there are over 281 trillion possible colors. Why is this important for black & white? Because, as Tal explains, when the RGB values are reduced to gray tones, the possible number of tones falls dramatically – for example, there are only 256 gray tones possible in an 8-bit file. That is too small a range to give smooth transitions in many images, which leads to banding, posterization, or other artifacts. Therefore, it is critically important in digital black & white photography to shoot 16-bit files (which have 65,536 possible gray tones).
The book is set up almost as a text-book, with each chapter ending with a set of exercises or questions to test the readers knowledge of the subject present (answers are given in the back). After an introduction, Tal discusses the importance of color to black & white photography. He states, “while it may seem intuitive to think about B&W photography as the elimination of color … such characterization is, in fact, inaccurate. Rather than eliminate color, the B&W photographer converts (or maps) colors into tones, that is, degrees of lightness.” The idea that color is mapped into gray tones is important to all aspects of digital black & white photography, so Tal presents it right up front.
The rest of the book follows Tal’s general black & white workflow, which builds upon a creative process framework Tal presents in one of his earlier books, Creative Landscape Photography. The steps to the workflow are:
- and Presentation.
One interesting fact about his suggested workflow is that three of the six steps occur before pressing the camera’s shutter release – a demonstration of Tal’s emphasis on the artistic aspects of photography.
Tal defines Concept as “the instinctive realization that there is an image to be made.” It is “a significant impression … an inner voice whispering ‘there’s something here.’ “ He discusses training your brain to become more aware of these impressions, to know when there is a new concept to be had. According to Tal, developing your own concepts is important because with the advent of digital photography and the abundance of work on the internet, “the challenge of distinguishing one’s work is no longer one of technical skill but rather of creativity, personal expression and originality.”
He describes Visualization as “a mental process aimed at imagining the different ways in which the concept can be realized in an image and picking the most effective one.” Visualization “is not a momentary decision point” but is rather “a process of ongoing refinement that drives all activities from the moment of inspiration until the image is finished.” This process requires the photographer to have an ability to imagine how a scene will look in gradations of tone, including the multiple possibilities of those tones (since any given color can be translated into multiple different tones). He suggests developing such ability takes time and effort to perfect.
Tal’s discussion on composition is relatively short, since composition is not unique to black & white photography. For Tal, composition is more than the arrangement of visual elements within a frame, it is “a visual language that can be applied in order to communicate facts, emotions and thoughts.” He reminds his readers that different compositional options than originally planned can become available, so a photographer should take care not to exclude different options for the sake of their original concept. Only working on first impressions can lead a photographer to miss out on “other stories the scene has to tell.”
Capture is the process of using the camera to record light. He considers the capture one of securing the raw data necessary to create an image, not one of making a final image. He states: “creative photography is not a sport. No trophies are awarded for getting the image ‘right’ in the camera and/or in a single exposure, despite the attitudes to the contrary. Therefore, the proper way to approach the capture phase is not with the aim of rendering the final image in-camera, but rather as a process of harvesting raw materials to be used later in making the final image.” He goes on to explain several best practices to use to help ensure capturing the highest quality data from which to make the final image.
The Processing phase is “where most the ‘heavy lifting’ of B&W image-making occurs,” and Tal devotes a large section of the book to it. He does assume his readers are generally familiar with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, and suggests his earlier book Creative Processing Techniques for those who are not. One is not surprised, at this point in the book, that Tal’s processing workflow is “visualization-driven” rather than formulaic. He believes in having a final vision of what your image should look like to guide your processing. His work follows a non-linear workflow, which leads to iterative processing of an image where the photographer identifies gaps or weaknesses where the image doesn’t meet the final vision, uses adjustments to fill those gaps, re-analyzes to identify additional gaps, adjusts again, etc., until the final image is reached. His general workflow phases are: RAW conversion, analysis, global adjustments, local adjustments, dynamic visualization, master file, and output.
Guy Tal uses Adobe Lightroom to handle RAW conversions, though his techniques could be applied with other software. He does not attempt to make the final image in Lightroom, preferring the more powerful capabilities of Photoshop for that. He considers Photoshop essential to image processing, and suggests that reasons photographers give for not using it “generally fall into one of three categories: lack of time, lack of skill, or lack of motivation.” This is one of the few points I disagree with Tal. Although I do own and use Photoshop (granted several versions old), I think outstanding, creative images can be made using only Lightroom – such as the work of David duChemin (another photographer who emphasizes photographic vision). That said, I do agree for many images, and particularly for black & white images, Photoshop is superior for processing.
Because he does not use Lightroom beyond RAW conversion, his approach is to create a RAW-converted image that does not look like the final visualized result. Instead the converted image should be the best starting point for later editing to create the visualized result. Therefore, the converted image often ends up not looking particularly good, and generally has low contrast. Tal generally uses Lightroom to set white and black points, adjust the mid-tones, and adjust the white balance. He does not necessarily adjust the white balance so that the image looks good, but rather adjusts it with an eye toward how the conversion from color to black & white will occur and how it affects digital noise. Though I have made many black & white digital images, using the white balance to improve my final result was one concept I was not familiar with, and I found this section very enlightening.
Next he discusses global adjustments – those adjustments that affect the complete image rather than parts of it (local adjustments). The most basic global adjustment is the actual black & white conversion. Though there are many methods of converting to black & white in Photoshop, Tal recommends using a Black & White Adjustment layer (available in CS3 and later versions). He also discusses using a Hue/Saturation Adjustment layer to modify the results of the black & white conversion. The other major global adjustment he discusses is toning.
Tal follows with a discussion on local adjustments. Here Tal talks about using layer masking and multiple Black & White Adjustment layers to convert different portions of an image using different tonal relationships (for example, making blues darker in one portion of an image and lighter in another). He also discusses selective dodging (lightening) and burning (darkening); hybrid images, images that combine both black & white and color (color popping); and hand tinting. He ends the processing section of the book by giving an enlightening, in-depth example of the processing of a single image.
The final step in Tal’s workflow is Presentation. Although there are various types of presentation, Tal focuses on prints, which he states are “the quintessential product of a fine-art photographer.” Digital printing of black & white images presents special problems. The inkjet printers commonly used for digital prints use color profiles to obtain the correct color. Theoretically, a perfect profile can be used to print a black & white image, but even a tiny variation from the perfect blend of inks will cause a visible color cast to a black & white print. Because profiles depend upon a large number of factors, including temperature and age of the equipment and ink, color casts are common when printing black & white images with an inkjet printer. Tal discusses this issue and gives several options to get around it.
Overall, I am favorably impressed with Tal’s book and highly recommend it those wanting to improve their black & white imagery. However, it is not for everyone. Photographers who are looking for easy methods and formulas to create black & white images will be disappointed. The book is not a “how-to” manual, but rather the book is about creating your own vision and how to achieve that vision using best practices. It is definitely written for the photographer who wants to create art and is not afraid to take the time to do so.
Creative B&W Processing Techniques is available from GuyTalBooks.com for $9.95. It is well worth it.