Thursday, May 10, 2018

Rebuilding Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico, devastated by last year's hurricane, is still rebuilding what was destroyed. But this is not a photo documentary of that process; it's a short series of images from 2012 "rebuilt" from the original files using newly adopted digital workflow, tempered with patience! Patience because each image is comprised of many subtle adjustments, layered one on top of the other, often over the course of several days.

In San Juan, there is a magnificent old Spanish fort, Castillo de San Cristobal, now a national park. During a medical conference, I decided my time was better spent walking about the monument with my camera rather than trying to stay awake listening to blah, blah, blah just so I could pick up some continuing education credits! Ah, the joys of now being retired!

All of the seven photographs were taken with a Nikon D7000 and Nikkor 24-120 f/4 zoom lens. They are decidedly "fine art" images rather than landscapes per se. Except for the last one, Yellow Thunderstorm, of course. During the week, we were beset by some of the most dramatic and violent thunderstorms each afternoon; this was in early October, hurricane season, and I'd rarely seen anything comparable. Wonderful cloud formations!

Of course the castillo was interesting from an historical perspective as well as from a photographic vantage with its centuries old textures and the juxtaposition of sky and clouds and fortress edges. I hope you enjoy. Drop me a line if you like these, better yet, let me answer any questions you might have.
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Door Window Horsecart took my eye due to its pre-staged composition, but more importantly, I was intrigued with fantastic textures and colors in the decaying plaster. For the astute observer, you may recognize this image from my website where it is displayed with a different composition, one that I have always thought was crowded and incomplete, but for which I didn't know how to compensate. You can see the original here. You be the judge as to whether this version is an improvement.

Door Window Horsecart
Nikon D7000, Nikkor 24-120 zoom at 30 mm, 1/180 sec, f/8, ISO 200
Overlook was taken mid-day, full sun, not the most interesting conditions. When I was going through the photographs, I discovered I had near perfect alignment of the gap in the wall and the distant guard tower, about four or five feet in diameter. I decided I liked the minimalistic composition and processed the image accordingly. I really like the nearly clear blue sky, the deeper blue of the sea peeking through, and the subtle colors in the wall.

Overlook
Nikon D7000, Nikkor 24-120 zoom at 120 mm, 1/750 sec, f/8, ISO 200
By the time afternoon was rolling around, the humid air was roiling with magnificent clouds percolating into a terrific thunderstorm. I titled this image Opposing Forces because of the thought that the fortress, here represented by the edge of wall, has withstood the onslaught of nature for centuries. Yet ultimately, nature subdues all works of man; it's just a matter of time. Note also the yellow color in the wall, complementary to the blue of the sky; complementary colors create visual tension, consistent with what I was trying to achieve.

Opposing Forces
Nikon D7000, Nikkor 24-120 zoom at 24 mm, 1/750 sec, f/8, ISO 200
Three Doors is a fun little composition, at least in my mind. Where are the three doors, you might ask. First of all on the left is a window, not a door. Clearly there is one door, but where is the third? Far right, a little mouse hole perhaps? At least that is how I visualized it. By the way a window could be a door for birds or mosquitoes I suppose! More importantly, there was the sublimely oblique ray of diffused afternoon light cutting across the scene from upper right to lower left, which I tried to emphasize. That soft and gentle illumination contrasts with the variegated textures and colors in the walls. You see into the gloom of the interior only because of reflected light. Can you see how that could be?

Three Doors
Nikon D7000, Nikkor 24-120 zoom at 24 mm, 1/30 sec, f/8, ISO 200
If there is one theme within this blog, it is the contrasts in color and texture. Soft and Hard is about this. Note the complementary colors. Water and sky and clouds are soft, stone battlements are hard: Complementarity and juxtaposition. I like the minimalist composition, too.

Soft and Hard
Nikon D7000, Nikkor 24-120 zoom at 24 mm, 1/125 sec, f/8, ISO 200
Storm Clouds is also about contrasts, but not just between hard-edged structures and billowing clouds. It also images contrast in the gathering thunderclouds and gives you a peek of how pockets of light illuminate the sky. I love the flash of blue and tranquil sky against the gathering storm, which was a whopper indeed! For those of you with a close eye, you will note that something seems to be "off" about the upper far right of frame; the wall is curved, unworthy of a straight line. Ah, Grasshopper, the wall is indeed curved, but by the arch overhead. It took me quite a while to figure out that camera perspective was causing this effect, rather than a defect in my lens!

Storm Clouds
Nikon D7000, Nikkor 24-120 zoom at 24 mm, 1/500 sec, f/8, ISO 200
It was my last night in Puerto Rico and Yellow Thunderstorm was a southern view from my hotel room balcony, looking over the resort area of San Juan. The last bit of waning sunlight illuminated the upper reaches of the burgeoning cumulonimbus clouds, which can reach thousands of feet into the sky. The golden-hour reflection of this magic light bathing the sea took me and as it transported me, I hope it does you.

Yellow Thunderstorm
Nikon D7000, Nikkor 24-120 zoom at 24 mm, 1/125 sec, f/8, ISO 200



Sunday, April 15, 2018

Antelope Island Revisited

One of the benefits of cheap computer memory is that you can store enormous amounts of data on multi-terabyte drives. This means thousands of digital images can be accessed, that is, if you remember to keep them! No, this is not a sad story of memories lost or wistful regret at lack of forethought. In fact, as I have been practicing some new post-processing skills, I was delighted to remember that I always save the original image files on a separate hard drive! This post is about revisiting some of these old captures to see if I can make them "sing" when viewed through new eyes and with advantage of more than ten years experience.

In 2009, the year my mother was diagnosed with an odd form of dementia, we were fortunate enough to host her along with my wife's parents at our house in Salt Lake City. One afternoon, we visited Antelope Island situated in the Great Salt Lake. It was late afternoon as we were returning home and the air was calm, warm light diffused the beautiful earth tones of the land, and yet the sky was full of beautiful soft clouds. I pulled over to the side of the road when I noticed the reflection of this island peak in the lake waters. Mr Seagull also was kind enough to pose for me. Not an image of special significance, just a beautiful scene and I wanted to share it with you here.

Antelope Island Revisited
Nikon D5000, Nikkor 18-55 @ 48 mm, 1/125 sec, f/22, ISO 200
This started out as a rather blah image, the light was very flat and the exposure was not quite optimal. That being said, I started in with a complex series of luminosity masks (thanks to Tony Kuyper) and relatively simple curves adjustments. Layer by layer, I built up the image to increase the contrast, bring out the subtle colors and the structure in the sky, all this without destroying the lovely ethereal mood. After more than thirty layer adjustments, I knew I was finished, at least for the day! Reworking this photograph brought back pleasant memories of time well passed when Mom was still with us. She was gone from us in less than two years.

This reminds me of one of her many paintings. Wish she could see it. Life is ephemeral. Enjoy.

ADDITION: I found that I'd shot a second image a few moments later, same beach, a little further down the road, and at a wider angle setting on the lens. This one was processed with the same approach strategy, but in its own unique way. Each image has a different mood, I think. But this is how post processing an image becomes a dialogue between the photographer and what he sees as the photograph speaks to him.

Antelope Island Reflections
Nikon D5000, Nikkor 18-55 @ 18 mm, 1/640 sec, f/11, ISO 200

Monday, March 19, 2018

North Rim After the Storm

Monsoon season is a wonderful time of year in Arizona, if dramatic skies are of interest. We had travelled to the north rim of the Grand Canyon to hang out with some hunting friends, driving through pissing rain every few miles. After locating our campsite, we took off to the North Rim Lodge where the Bright Angel Trail begins (or ends), depending on which direction one is headed. The trail joins the north and south rims of the canyon.

I have shared a number of images from this time (2016), but was re-working one recently, based on some new things learned from discussion forums on optimal exposure. Look up ETTR (expose to the right) if you are interested. In any event, the sun had just about vanished when I looked to the west, towards the south rim in fact, and saw these marvelous cloud formations and the brilliant colors. Choosing what seemed to be the optimally-exposed frame from a bracketing series, I used minimally invasive curve adjustments to bring out what I consider to be optimal contrast, texture, and saturation.

It's a beautiful scene and I hope you like the end result:

North Rim After the Storm
Nikon D800E, Nikkor 28-300 zoom @ 28mm, 1/180 sec, f/8, ISO 200
PS The North Rim is closed from October through April due to snow. It is at 8,500 ft elevation and so temperatures can be quite chilly in the evening and maybe even during the day. A beautiful spot, well worth visiting.

Image can be viewed on my website by clicking here.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Misty Desert Spring

How much Photoshop manipulation is too much?

This question is one debated by photographers the world over. On one side, if it isn't captured straight out of camera (SOOC), it isn't a photograph; it's something else. On the other side, anything goes in Photoshop! Of course, everything in between is legit, depending upon which end of the spectrum you start from. Sounds like politics, doesn't it?

In this post, I wanted to try my hand at illustrating my approach to a photograph, from SOOC to what I consider the "final" image. The word final is in quotes because an image is finished in my mind only at the time I stop working on it; I can return to it at any time with new vision, new technique, both indicative of a new interpretation.

As I was going through some of my older images from 2015, I came across a three shot group with an outstanding ocotillo cactus in the foreground and some spectacular boulders in the background, more or less silhouetted against the distant Superstition Mountains of Arizona. We had just finished an off road Jeep adventure and stopped to view the desert in Spring. Even though the light was quite flat due to an overcast sky, sensing that there was a photograph, I clicked off three overlapping vertical segments with my Nikon 1 v2 knowing I would have to merge them in Lightroom, the result of which you see below, unmodified and SOOC.

Misty Desert Spring - SOOC
Raw (NEF) file converted to DNG in Lightroom from 3-frame merge
Nikon 1 v2, Nikkor 10-100 zoom @ 62 mm, 1/1000 sec, f/8, ISO 800
Pretty ugly, huh? That's often the case with raw files, which represent the relatively uninterpreted data from the camera's sensor. I say relatively because even the zeroes and ones of the electronic file need to be converted into something a human can understand, in this case, an image. But I still thought this shot might have some potential redeeming qualities that I could bring out in the post processing using Lightroom.

When I import images to my Lightroom catalogue, I use a preset to automatically apply lens corrections and some sharpening (25,1,50,75), noise reduction (10,50,0), clarity (50), and vibrance (50). The numbers in parentheses are the settings I routinely start with in LR. I also apply a daylight white balance. A little creativity comes next to adjust exposure and contrast: In order of my usual process, for this image, I set whites (+57), blacks (-30), shadows (+31), and highlights (-52). If this looks good to my eye, usually I open the image in Photoshop; if not, I keep working on it until it does.  Sometimes I abandon an image altogether because it might not look like it has potential. However, in this case, with LR adjustments, this image seems a bit different!

Misty Desert Spring
With Lightroom adjustments, ready for finishing in Photoshop
Better, no? But, as I looked at the image on my monitor, I thought is still lacked something, pizazz perhaps, or something je ne sais quoi. I took a break and stood at the window, contemplating the almost completely socked-in valley outside. Then it occurred to me: Fog! What if I could add some mist, not necessarily common in the desert, could the image be made more visually interesting? Could I bring out the red of the ocotillo blossoms? What about clarity in the boulders? What to do about the distant mountains? Most of all, could I make fog? Importantly, would it enhance the photograph?

The following is a sequence of my steps in Photoshop to bring out what I consider to be the important features of this image as I wanted to interpret it. I don't get into the details of the various settings, just the steps and a brief rationale for each. At the end, we'll see if it all works out.
  1. Noise reduction. I noticed that the sky and mountains in the far background were a bit noisy; after all the pic was taken at ISO 800 on a camera not known for its low noise. I applied a Topaz Denoise filter only to the blue channel using a luminosity mask plugin from Tony Kuyper's TK Actions Set.
  2. Ocotillo flowers. Next, I added a bit of clarity along with red/yellow saturation only to the blossoms. It is subtle, but it adds a little much-needed pop.
  3. Boulders. I thought the rocks needed to stand out a little more, so I added clarity and saturation, applied strictly to the boulders with luminosity masking. To increase clarity, I have a series of steps that add clarity to increasingly finer details. But enhancing clarity can reduce vibrancy, which is why I restored it with a saturation layer.
  4. Fog. Now I was getting to the hard part; how was I going to add fog? I went to my window again, and studied what the fog seemed to do to form and colors. The first thing I notice was that objects, particularly those deeper into the mist, seemed to lose detail, so I applied a blur smart filter. The second thing I noticed was that things not obscured by fog, are whiter, not necessarily brighter, yet lose saturation, so I played with the saturation, brightness and contrast of the scene until I achieved what I thought was a believable level of all three, fading the effect in the foreground, increasing the effect with distance. The adjustments seemed a little strong, so I backed off on the opacity of the appropriate layers. Getting closer.
  5. Vignette. To draw the eye to the subject, in this case the ocotillo plant(s) and the boulders, I created a vignette around the image, darkening distracting items. Better, but still not where I wanted it to go.
  6. Dodging, burning, and coloring. I created some soft-light layers with which I could lighten (dodge) and darken (burn) specific areas to enhance or de-emphasize areas that needed it. I also wanted to warm up the central subjects, so I painted  very lightly with a yellow brush, which helped the bush and boulders stand out more to the eye. I also painted the mountains and sky with light strokes of pure blue to darken and push them further into the background. Warm colors advance, cool colors recede; color theory. Nearly there!
  7. To finish, I tweaked the various layers for emphasis and to diminish the effects of distracting elements. Twenty-four layers in all! I was also wanting to find just that right combination of "believable unbelievability" that Vincent Versace talks about in one of his books. This was about as far as I wanted to go in Photoshop.
  8. Moving back into Lightroom, I applied some stronger contrast to the imported and now complete tif image. Voila!
Did I succeed? The answer to this question is, to my eye, at this time, why yes I did! That which started as an experiment, an exercise in pure whimsy, in my view turned into a rather subtle example of how to enhance an image:

Misty Desert Spring
Final version, taken in April 2015
Ah, but is it still a photograph? Only the eye of the beholder can tell. Many images you see on the web have been thus altered. But here, I have provided the beginning and the end along with some of the in-between steps that lead to the finished product and which you never usually get to see. Is it successful? Again, a subjective answer is called for and can only be answered by the viewer. To me, it is, but let me know what you think!

Update 3/12/18: One of the comments I received on another site where I posted the final image was that the "mist" was not consistent with reality. I am not sure I agree with that because I think the thought has more to do with esthetics, which are personal and subjective. I think it looks believable, but that does not mean everyone would agree. All of that being said, if you go back to some of my opening thoughts in this blog, you'll see that there are those that believe that it must look real to be a photograph. I am not sure this is so. Nevertheless, I value such critical comments because they make me think a little harder and improve a little bit with each, whether I agree or not; it makes me a better artist!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

New Stuff

It's been awhile. Finally, I decided I just needed to sit down and discipline myself to write. I was out for a year, needing surgery to repair a hole in the retina of my left eye; as a photographer friend pointed out, "It's bad juju to mess with a photographer's retina!" Then that surgery was followed in a few months with a lens replacement to repair the cataract that inevitably follows retinal surgery. All is well with only a small loss of visual acuity in my left eye.

Water under the bridge. Now, I feel like I am just starting to get back in stride and because I had not been out much to do some shooting, I was revisiting a few of my old images to see what I saw then and to see if I had new vision. Pun intended 😉 I will share some of these going forward along with my newer activities in future posts.

One subject, intriguing for me, is looking for simplicity in composition; different from my usual landscape photography. Canola Field Fantasy is such an experiment. It started as a cropped RAW file captured during a PhotoZone Tour of the Palouse region of eastern Washington state in 2014. It was the first such tour of which I had taken advantage; and I loved it. Driving up from Salt Lake City to join the tour, I  discovered the brilliant yellow canola fields, which was very exciting. Startling almost. However, in this shot, I had only the soft green of newly sprouted summer wheat against a clear blue sky. Thinking back to the tour and trying to remember why I had pressed the shutter, I remembered that Photoshop could do many wonderful things, including the changing of one color into another! With that, I changed the green into yellow against the complementary blue sky, at least in the RGB color model. While the image has the same colors as a canola field under a clear blue sky, it's not real and thus I deemed it a fantasy. I also call it artistic license.

Canola Field Fantasy 
Nikon D800E, Nikkor 24-120 at 120 mm, 1/2000 sec, f/8, ISO 800
So the answer to the question, "Did you Photoshop this?" is always yes, because digital photographic technology requires rendering into a human-compatible interpretation, also nearly always subjective. This is even true for film photography in which engineers that designed different emulsions kept a certain outcome (aka interpretation) in mind. Very inflexible considering modern technologies such as Photoshop et cetera. But I digress.

So I knew blue and yellow were complementary colors in an RGB color space, but I discovered something new today. Blue and orange are complementary colors in the traditional RYB color model. So this morning, I made a new capture with a different experiment in mind the result of which is  Mogollon Rim pre-Sunrise. Shooting off the Sedona Veranda (my back porch 😉), the sky had a lovely orange cast to it about five minutes before the sun crested the horizon formed by the mountains about 20 miles distant. Shadows are often bluish especially at long telephoto lengths. Keeping with the simplicity theme, I composed a very simple shot having discovered (see above) that the complementarity of color could adequately serve as an ample subject.

Mogollon Rim pre-Sunrise
Nikon D7100, Nikkor 28-300 at 450 mm, 1/750 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200
Complementary colors create tension and for some reason we are drawn to them. Minimalist artists (painters) often exploit the emotional undertones of pure color, as do others, of course. Complementarity is visually interesting and I was experimenting with simplifying the thing  photographed while emphasizing some of the complexity of color interactions that occurs in our minds. For what it's worth, I also placed the horizons at the midpoint, which heightens tension and violates the "rule of thirds." This is a fundamental law of composition that divides an image into three equal horizontal and vertical sectors; placing subject elements at the intersections of the lines demarking these sectors often provides a stronger composition. Rules are made to be broken, certainly in art, and doing so can often enhance visual interest. Besides, it's fun to break rules, sometimes that is!

These and other photographs can be viewed on my website, DavidEckelsPhotography.com.