"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
A Profusion of Irises: White Blooms on Black Backgrounds

A Profusion of Irises: White Blooms on Black Backgrounds

From “The Onset of Spring” by Elizabeth Lawrence in The Writer in the Garden, edited by Jane Garmey:

“When the daffodils are waning and the tulips coloring, dogwood and pearl bush, flowering almond, snowflakes, and the early white iris are at their best, and trees and trellises are dripping with purple wisteria. Then spring is in full flower with tulips, lilacs, and flowering crab-apples, followed closely by peony, iris, and mock orange.”

From The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives by Stephen Buchmann:

“Color is one of the main signaling strategies flowers use to beckon their pollinators. Floral colors also serve as filters, selectively attracting specialist pollinators to certain blooms while eliminating others. For many of those pollinators, the brighter the better, which must be why floral colors, especially those created by the petals, are among the most highly saturated colors found in nature. Technically speaking, saturation is the strength of any given color in relationship to its own brightness. The purest, most highly saturated colors are of one or a few close wavelengths and contain almost no white light (the combination of all wavelengths), while unsaturated colors appear faded or washed-out because white light has diluted the colors. Saturated colors can be equated with their perceived intensity.”

Hello! Below are a few photos of white irises I found while iris-hunting at Oakland Cemetery a couple of weeks ago. Click here or page down to view the galleries.

As I’ve written here before, I use both Lightroom and the Nik Collection for developing my images. My general workflow includes culling RAW images in Lightroom to eliminate those I don’t plan to process, then working through Lightroom panels to adjust sharpness and noise, optimize exposure, remove spots, and improve overall color saturation and luminance. For black-background photos, I use Lightroom graduated filters, radial filters, or brushes to “erase” everything around the subject by reducing exposure, whites, and shadows to remove all the color.

Once I’m satisfied with the appearance of a photo in Lightroom, I edit the image in several Nik Collection tools, using Color Efex Pro to further enhance contrast, color, and detail. The Nik Collection tools don’t update RAW files directly, so on first launch they create a copy of the original RAW file (which is added back into Lightroom). I have a recipe (or preset) in Color Efex Pro for seven filters I use most often:

  • White Neutralizer, which brightens and removes any color cast from whites.
  • Brilliance/Warmth, which enhances individual colors and has a setting called “perceptual saturation” that adds a touch of depth to the image.
  • Tonal Contrast, which affects the color and contrast of image detail in such a way that I often use it to soften backgrounds and make them appear more out-of-focus than they were in the original RAW file.
  • Pro Contrast, which also enhances contrast, but in a way that increases the texture of key details in the image.
  • Darken/Lighten Center, to brighten areas I want to draw your eye to, and darken others (especially color-filled background elements).
  • Reflector Efex, which simulates the effect of directional light from a flash or reflector on selected parts of the image, that I usually use to brighten shadowed areas.
  • Levels & Curves, which provides tone-curve adjustments (similar to those in Lightroom) that I use specifically to remove excess cool-blue color cast that my camera tends to produce.

I seldom use all seven of these; it just depends on the image and what I decide I like while making adjustments with each filter. There is also some overlap between results you can achieve with the Nik Collection and those you can achieve with Lightroom; but the two tools use different techniques for enhancing photos, and (for my purposes) the Nik Collection targets colors in subtle and effective ways that can be very tedious to accomplish in Lightroom. For the photos in the galleries on this post (and for several dozen other iris photos I’ve updated with black backgrounds), I tried to render whites that were nice and crisp, and create color variations that contrasted well with other parts of the photo, and so that you’re eye would register fine lines and details in the shapes of the flowers.

Park all that for a moment.

When I finish post-processing and exporting the photos from Lightroom, I use an app called FileBrowser on my iPad to review every one. I got into that habit a couple of years ago, after discovering that I could find flaws in a photo that I still needed to correct, typically spots that I didn’t notice on my computer monitor or color variations that didn’t look quite right. These perception differences occur because mobile devices use different color spaces and screen resolutions than monitors do, and, of course, it’s easier to inspect an entire photo on a small screen held closer to your eyes than it is on a monitor. With black-backround photos, tiny areas around the edges of the subject or elsewhere in the frame that I missed while brushing in the darkness are much easier to see on the iPad, but I also noticed some artifacts appearing when I created pure black backgrounds that surprised me.

Here’s a screenshot from my iPad showing one of the photos from the galleries below. If you look at the bottom of the image and move your eye up, you’ll see that the black of the iPad screen and the black background of the image are different, and there are slightly off-black horizontal pixels running from the bottom toward the middle of the photo and, less obvious, a halo around the flower itself.

At first I thought it was just my eyes reacting to the contrast between the white flower and black background, or the iPad’s overall brightness, or the room lighting, or maybe a ghost in the machine. I had completed about fifty black-background photos of Oakland irises for this ongoing project, though, and found the off-black shading on all of them — with the intensity (especially of the halo effect around the flowers) varying quite a bit, but very evident on many of the photos. And, you know, some things you see you just can’t unsee … so I decided to try and figure out why this shading was occurring.

Here’s the RAW image in Lightroom after I completed exposure and color adjustments and darkened the background, with the exposure cranked way up so I could determine if the ghosting was occurring in Lightroom. As you can see, the background is pure black, showing no artifacts.

Here’s the same image, after passing it into the Nik Collection’s Color Efex Pro and returning it to Lightroom, also with exposure cranked up. Here you can see the artifacts clearly: the shift to light gray running from the bottom of the photo to the middle, and the concentric halos around the flower.

So now I knew that Color Efex Pro was creating the ghosting effect; but since I had applied as many as seven of the filters to each photo, I didn’t know which one was responsible. To figure that out, I started over with a couple of the photos, passing each one through Color Efex Pro, applying only one filter on each pass, then checking the results in Lightroom — and determined that the horizontal shading running from the bottom up was from the Reflector Efex filter, and the concentric halos came from White Neutralizer.

I interpret this — possibly inaccurately — to mean that these two filters are altering the red, blue, and green pixels (especially evident on the halos) to create their effects, gradually decreasing in intensity as they transition away from the targeted part of the photo. If the background wasn’t black — meaning, if it still contained colorful elements in shades of red, blue, and green — then the filters would simply alter the intensity of those colors and not show any sad effects. Having learned what causes this ghosting, I need to avoid using these two filters on my black-background images… which also means I need to re-process about 40 photos — argh! — so am headed back into my “darkroom”. See you in a couple of days! 🙂

Select the first image from each set to see larger versions; and try “View full size” if you would like to get a closer look at the color and detail.

The previous posts in this series are:

A Profusion of Irises: Black (Iris) Friday!

A Profusion of Irises: Iris No. 1

Thanks for reading and taking a look! 🙂


      1. Dale

        Haha! and thanks!

        I just recently figured out that emojis added to comments from mobile devices get translated to question marks. Not sure if that’s some new bug somewhere or what is going on, but I dug around and learned (from https://www.w3schools.com/charsets/ref_emoji.asp) that I could update the comment from my dashboard and use the HTML code to get an emoji to display. Weird, that, but it worked. So I replaced your question marks with six little detectives!

        Thanks for the comment! 🙂

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