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,

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Just a quick note

It is fair to say I am becoming disenchanted with Facebook, Twitter, all social media really. That being said, I am closing down all of my pages except for this blog and my photography website. For awhile now, I have been contemplating a return to my blogspot page where I can tell the story behind a given photograph and even, perhaps, share why I would want to post it publicly. I will be making some changes, updates really, and we'll see from there. FYI, I am done with the NYIP course, for those that might be interested.

See you soon, here in the blogosphere.

Taken by my wife with a Nikon J5 during a recent visit to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. This shot reflects my attitude towards photography: Being in the right place at the right time and seeking to capture a moment that would speak to another.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Why take a photograph?

A few days ago, a friend of mine, Russ Lewis, posted a photograph on Luminous Landscape, a forum that I frequent for criticism, stimulation, and conversation about photography. I asked Russ if I could blog about the discussion thread that resulted and he graciously agreed. If you're interested, the thread can be found here (you need to be a member to see images), but the following will present what I consider the important and interesting essence of the discussion.

The Tracks
The image can be seen here and I find it very strong for many reasons, but the interesting part was the discourse it engendered amongst the forum denizens, amateurs and professionals. Some shrugged their shoulders. Some focused on the terrific post processing and technical details regarding rendering, composition, and subject. Some had very strong negative feelings about the image: What exactly is the subject? Why would you take a picture of an empty train track? It's lonely. I don't like it, but it's a strong image. It's a cliché. Others felt very positive about it: Strong image. A photo that would stimulate much speculation if it were an assignment in English class. It's mysterious. It's a metaphor for universal experience. It's an ongoing thread, so there will be further responses, no doubt!

But what struck me so vividly I wanted to write about it, was that this image seemed to divide my photographer colleagues into two camps, if I may over-simplify intentionally. Some felt the photograph unappealing because there was no "formal" subject or point to the image other than the cliché of tracks running off into the distance and therefore, if it was about nothing, then why take it? I take a different view and while the photograph elicits very negative feelings in me, therein lies the "Aha!" Below is essentially a direct quote of my comments on the forum, which I wrote because I am training myself not to simply like or dislike a photograph, but to work on the discipline of trying to evaluate the "what" and the "why" of that judgment. I tried to address the question of whether something is valueless because others have done it before. In photography speak, is an image a cliché if someone else has already captured it?

I argue that a photograph, which makes us feel anything beyond indifference is worthwhile whether it elicits a sense of loss, an appreciation of beauty, or interest in a particular subject or product. Russ calls  it a "transcendental experience" and it is precisely this that makes photography it's own language. "A picture is worth a thousand words." There's a reason for that! But is there value in trying to restate or retell a story and does it lose its "magic" if it's part of a "same old song?" I say it is important and for good reasons; my belief (for it is that) is based on the following logic.

Photography is a medium (maybe a currency?) like everything else we use to try and connect with one another. Words, paintings, sculpture, theater, science, etc (some of these are mixed media no?) are forms of expression and organization that we use to communicate subjective and necessarily approximate realities. We say we have heard that song before about unrequited love and tragedy (Tristan and Isolde, Hero and Leander, almost any country western song, etc), but each re-telling of the "cliché" can be appreciated for variations on a common theme that we all have had or will experience, for the richness of the embellishment by the story teller, for the sheer size of a tapestry depicting the events re-told, or for the technical execution of the attempt to communicate even what is an old, old story. For example, revealing my childish predilection Wink, I love the female form; all the time, every way, size, shape, real or "fake" it doesn't matter. My 89 yo father still loves the female form, too! Sure, I would love Platonically ideal females, but I sure like going through the discovery process and examination to find the most perfect approximation or should I say approximations Wink? Please pardon my being cute, but it makes my point: In this case, familiarity does not breed contempt! Media can be used to create everything from the profound, to the mundane, to the vulgar, but I would argue that to be successful, the ones that succeed must in some sense represent a "cliché" at least a cliché to someone, somewhere, probably someone highly educated. An important caveat that professionals sometimes forget: A cliché to one skilled in the art may not be a cliche to a neophyte, which does not negate the fact that a rendition (think photograph) is appreciated or found irritating and overused, precisely because it communicates something of our common experience; beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I guess, but then, ironically, I had to try and say it my own way.

When I saw Russ' photograph, I could appreciate it for it's technical excellence (composition, exposure, post processing, etc). I could also appreciate it aesthetically, feel the sense of emptiness that exists in a million different venues and within all of us. But I loved most of all the empty tracks, which to me signify the inevitability of loneliness and I found Russ' rendition beautiful and terrible, at the same time. I keep hearing Soul Asylum's "Runaway Train" in the background as I write this, which is probably mixing metaphors Wink, but I also love the performances by Rosanne Cash and every other artist that sings this song even though I've heard it a million times (that's hyperbole) Wink!
Just because Shakespeare writes another story about a mad king or a cuckolded husband, doesn't mean we don't appreciate, enjoy, even revere how he uses common (vulgar?) words to tell the tale. Now, I'm no Shakespeare with a camera, but I sure enjoy all of the renditions I see in LuLa land and elsewhere, some are successful, some are not. I enjoy the repartee and thought provoking discussions in LuLa, and while I have yet to produce my own "masterpiece," I also love the gathering of kindred souls around a warm fire on a cold evening, even if we are re-telling "old stories."
I submit that this is why we take photographs... to perfect the story and thereby connect with another human being.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

Blocked! NYIP Unit 5

Stymied. Frustrated. Exasperated. Discouraged. Hopeful.

I am completely blocked on the New York Institute of Photography Unit 5 and I cannot seem to come unstuck. I am writing about it in the hope that somehow I may become inspired and get through this next to last step. The assignment is fairly straightforward:

1) Photograph a newsworthy event.
2) Photograph a sports event.
3) Make a fashion photograph by copying something from a magazine.
4) Create a photo essay.

Not particularly difficult, but this assignment has become a serious roadblock for me.

Where do I go to find a "newsworthy" event? Photojournalism. Right place, right time, right equipment, luck. No car accidents out on the front lawn, no trains derailed at the Amtrak station, no aliens landing on Ensign Peak and stealing Brigham Young's monument. Sports? I could go down to the local soccer field. Heck, I could even buy a ticket to watch the Utah Jazz or the Utes. Fashion photography? Copying a magazine ad? Yuk. As for a photo essay, I do have a bunch of shots from when the ceiling collapsed in my laboratory last Spring and had to be cleaned up. Disgusting; toilet overflowed in the rehab lab above us. I thought THAT was newsworthy, but nobody else did.

Why? I can only think that part of the reason for my photographic constipation is that this assignment is very, very, VERY structured. I find I am very resistant to structure, schedules, restrictions, programmed venues. Ironic, since I was the Sports Editor of my high school yearbook and I enjoyed that.

Thanks for letting me bitch. Only time will tell if I can get off this position and finish the course I started.