Before and After: Yellow and Green (and Lightroom Radial Filters)

The more I learn about using post-processing software like Adobe Lightroom, the more I find new potential in my photos. A few weeks ago, on a Wordless Wednesday, I posted two galleries: one of isolated hydrangea leaves with emphasized color and detail, and one containing photos of spotted dead nettle where I shifted the white highlights on the leaves to shiny silver. Those two galleries were fun to do; but equally important, I learned new skills while doing them. This is the first of two “Before and After” posts where I’ll describe what I did to create the images for those two galleries, from studying the original photos to making decisions about possible enhancements through to the adjustments I applied using Lightroom.

There’s always a temporary downside to adding new tools to a creative process, and as I’ve been experimenting with Lightroom on these and many other (not yet posted) images, I’m running into that downside: I’m spending a lot more time on individual photos and I get a little stuck with each one trying to decide what to do. Making these decisions feels a bit like confusion or cognitive dissonance with at least a dash of frustration, which I try to reduce by remembering something I heard from creativity teacher Julia Cameron many years ago. Learning and growth don’t move forward smoothly, she maintained; instead, as she described it, they move along at a certain steady pace, then seem to fall apart as you experiment, then re-integrate in your mind at a more comprehensive and useful level. She addresses this subject in many of her books, of course, but I found it most explicitly in her taped lecture called Reflections on the Artist’s Way, where she said:

“When you teach creative writing, people write along at a certain level, then everything falls apart. Well, that’s the way growth works. You go along like this, then it all falls apart, [then] it re-integrates at a different level. And when we’re talking about [creativity], you have to understand that you’re going to go along like this, then it’s going to be a mess, then it’s going to integrate….”

I’ve always thought of this as the “Everything Falls Apart” metaphor, one that applies not only to creative writing but to photography and equally to any other type of creative endeavor. To remember that everything will fall apart doesn’t necessarily eliminate the mental tension someone might feel when trying to learn something new, but it does help as a reminder to expect some level of disconnectedness as you expand your skills and make changes to your creative methods — and as a reminder that that stress is temporary. Like learning any new skill, the sense that you are “out of sorts” — the “I just can’t do this” feeling — will pass. And knowing that it will pass can help you push through it to the point where the new skills are incorporated into your thinking and become a more automatic part of your thought processes and workflows.

When I look at a group of related photos I want to work on, there’s almost always one that gets me thinking about what approach I’ll take during post-processing, even though the possible variations are endless and the starting point is often arbitrary. From the set of five hydrangea leaf images, here is the original photo that got me started:

I liked the leaf in the foreground and the one in the shadows behind it; together they created some compositional balance. I also liked the textures and color contrasts: hydrangea leaves typically grow to their final full size here in mid- to late-June, and at that point show intense colors and textures as they thicken and widen. Yet the left quarter of the photo with the blurry intrusion of other leaves and a white smudge made the image unusable as taken: to crop that out (at the photo’s original proportions) would have also cut out most of the foreground leaf. Cropping can be a great post-processing friend, except when it isn’t.

I first applied some vignetting to darken all the edges with a few clicks, then removed it because it’s not very subtle and created too much of a black frame around all four sides of the image. While backgrounds can establish context for the image’s main subject, vignetting removed most of that context and wasn’t right for what I imagined as the end result. Similarly — because the image is heavily shadowed — global exposure adjustments to contrasts, whites, shadows, and blacks simply rendered the whole scene too much darker than the original with no real presence for the subject.

So instead I thought I would experiment with a few things I’d recently learned about using radial filters from some of the B&H EventSpace presentations I wrote about previously. There are three types of similar filters in Lightroom: graduated filters (to select a linear or horizontal area to modify); radial filters (to select a circular or an oval area to modify); and adjustment brushes (which let you patiently select an area to modify by brushing or painting over it). Each of these techniques enables targeted adjustments using many of the settings available for an entire photo, including all of these:

The “Feather” slider toward the bottom of the panel determines how much the selection mask blends with the surrounding image elements; and the “Invert” toggle flips the effect from the area you select initially to apply it to the surrounding area instead.

The Texture slider — near the middle of this panel — is a new Lightroom function, added earlier this year. It enhances fine detail without (unlike Clarity) altering color, luminance, or saturation or creating raggedy edges (like Sharpening sometimes does). In last week’s Wordless Wednesday — Wordless Wednesday: Red, White, and Shades of Blue — I was able to significantly increase detail (perceived as focus) in each of the blooms by combining three adjustments: decreasing Highlights at least by half, using Dehaze to improve contrast inside the petals, and then using Texture to enhance the shapes of each of the flowers.

It may seem complicated, but it really isn’t — especially if you think of it in terms of how you want to change a photo. With the hydrangea leaf image I included above, I knew I wanted to: eliminate the out-of-focus and smudged elements on the left; eliminate the small leaf intruding from the bottom right; and emphasize the color and detail present in the leaf facing front. Some initial Tone and Presence adjustments…

… got me partway there …

… but I couldn’t reduce shadows any more at this point, and further changes to other global settings darkened the subject more than I wanted. To darken the background further, I clicked to create a radial filter in the center of the leaf, inverted it, mouse-dragged a circle to define the area I wanted to adjust, then reduced the exposure for that area (so the leaves remained mostly unchanged).

The red shading shows the area that will be affected — the mask — and can be turned on or off or set to a different color from the Tools menu. The level of feathering, described earlier, determines to what extent the mask softens as it approaches the area that will not be affected by my adjustments.

Radial filters can be duplicated (by right-clicking at the pin in the center) to stack multiple filters on top of each other, which sometimes yields interesting results as the duplication doubles the effect of the adjustments. In this case, however, I wanted to switch from working on the background to working on the leaf, so I duplicated then inverted it to simplify selecting the leaf for adjustment. I then used Dehaze, Saturation, and Texture increases to bring out the color and detail in the leaf, so that the green and yellow contrasts (as well as the increased focus) draw the eye toward this as the subject.

After duplicating and inverting the radial filter I used for the background, I slid the new one to the left slightly so it would be easier to switch from the foreground filter to the background filter. Lightroom automatically defined the area the new filter would cover when I duplicated it, though I could still adjust it by mouse-grabbing the edges of the filter.

With these adjustments complete, the final image reflects my original vision for improving it: the foreground leaf shows decent color contrast and detail, and the leaf in the shadows provides balance to the composition.

The remaining photos in this series all got very similar changes, nearly identical in the areas I was defining as the main subject. Background adjustments varied in terms of whites, blacks, and shadows — really just by sliding the sliders around until I got a look I liked.

Here are the before and after versions of each of the five images; select the first one if you would like to see them in a slideshow.

Thanks for looking … and reading!

10 Comments

Before and After: Bernadine Clematis, An Illusion

From Photographically Speaking: A Deeper Look at Creating Stronger Images by David duChemin:

“The camera will create an illusion the moment we release the shutter; if we want a hand in creating that illusion, we need to understand it. That illusion is created by every element in the photograph and every decision made. Elements and Decisions: that’s what we have. It’s what you do with what you have, as it is with every art.”

From On Photography by Susan Sontag:

“Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.”

In April, I posted a series of photos of a Bernadine Clematis, a new addition to my garden for 2019. The last image from that post was my favorite: the composition appealed to me because of the balance created by the two prominent blooms and the intrusion of large petals from a third bloom in the upper right corner. You can see the photo on that post, or view a large version here.

This is what that photo looked like coming out of the camera:

The blossoms, just a few days from blowing away, were nearly spent and — especially on the foreground petals — showed evidence of deterioration in the form of rusty-looking stripes. This rust — as well as other dark spots on all the petals — barely registered when I looked at the plant in “real life” but created an overpowering distraction in the photograph. Funny how that happens. Because I liked the composition, though, I wanted to see if I could create a version I was satisfied with by using some of my Lightroom skills and a few magic potions from the Nik Collection.

I made some typical adjustments in Lightroom to add saturation and brightness to the more subtle colors and to darken background elements, keeping those changes to a minimum since I knew subsequent processing in Color Efex Pro 4 would emphasize image colors and increase background fading. I then used Lightroom’s spot removal extensively — first to eliminate small (mostly circular) spots throughout the petals, then to remove larger rust-colored stripes. Spot-removal can be used for more than just dust spots, pollen spots, or lens dust: it can also be used to pick out larger areas of disinterest and blend them away by replacing one area with pixels of similar color and texture elsewhere in the image, usually pixels that are near the original and are … less flawful. 🙂

Here’s a screenshot from Lightroom showing the extent to which I used spot removal on the RAW image. You’ll see what looks like steel pin-heads (as opposed to circles like the one on the upper left side) that represent areas where I re-blended the colors and textures in order to remove the appearance of rust. It became a bit of a game: tracking down offending spots, zapping them or outlining them with the spot removal tool, then adjusting Lightroom’s chosen replacement when I preferred to use a selection of my own.

Here you can see some of these corrections for a magnified section of the photo. The before image is on top; the middle image shows how I defined an area to replace by dragging the tool around and creating a wiggly-shape, then selecting an area with better color and texture to replace it with; and the third image shows how this section looked after re-blending that area (as well as some of the areas nearby). Most of these changes had to be done at various zoom levels, creating a bit of dissonance where the overall composition seemed to disappear because I was focusing on areas of color and texture only. And at this magnification level, there were plenty of rust spots still showing … but I wasn’t done yet!

Here’s the image after I finished correcting many of the rusty flaws, at the point where I was done adjusting the RAW file in Lightroom and was ready to use the Nik Collection to apply some special effects.

In Color Efex Pro 4, I applied color and contrast adjustments using White Neutralizer, Brilliance/Warmth, Pro Contrast, and Darken/Lighten Center. The combined effect of these filters was to brighten whites and reduce yellows, enhance contrast, and further darken background elements to give the blooms greater presence. I also applied a filter I don’t use very often — Glamour Glow — which increased brightness and softness, and added luminosity to polish and shine the blooms.

These adjustments weren’t selective — that is, I applied them to the entire image — so they enhanced any rust spots remaining on the photo. Coming out of the Nik Collection, I found plenty of additional areas where I still wanted to blend out rust and spots. That effort — which I used to create more consistency among the colors and textures — looked like this:

After all that — about three hours worth of work — I got to the final version of the image, an “illusion” based on the original subject, here:

If you would like to see the transition from out-of-the-camera to the final version in three steps, select the first image below.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

7 Comments

Catawba Grapevine, Early Spring, in Black and White

A couple of weeks ago, I aimed a macro lens at some new leaves on my catawba grapevine and saw an unusual range of colors in its tiny shoots. I’ve only had the vine for about three years, and this may have been the first time I took a close-up look at it this early in the spring. Much of its orange, purple, and magenta color luminance — that you can see in the images here — is still apparent as the leaves grow, and I’m working on another set or two of similar photos. The vine made an appearance here last June in this post: Secrets Inside a Grapevine.

This is only the third time I’ve tried to convert a gallery of photos from color to black and white in Lightroom; for this set I used the same approach I took in my previous two attempts:

Before and After: Bradford Pear, Blooming in Black and White

Before and After: Camera Studies Camera in Black and White

This kind of black-and-white conversion makes the images more abstract, where the main subject takes on prominence while the backgrounds — originally consisting of softly focused and desaturated colors — fade even further toward insignificance, barely suggesting context or placement for the subject. These three screenshots, from Lightroom, show my typical adjustments:


Settings for Shadows and Blacks have the most impact on the image background; Exposure and Whites alters brightness for the main subject.

Black & White Mix changes the “gray level” for each of the original image colors, and adjusting these sliders is a good way to examine the effect of subtle color variations. I spent a long time micro-managing these adjustments. 🙂

These Sharpening and Noise Reduction settings may seem extreme, and would create distortion in a color image. With my black-and-white photos, however, they emphasized highlights and fine details instead.

I find it challenging to decide, with black-and-white processing, when I’m actually finished with the images. With color, there’s always a point where I feel like “I’m done” … but with black and white, I’m still learning how to recognize that shift. This is where I ended out; here are the final versions of the eleven converted photos:

If you would like to compare the color and black-and-white versions, select the first image below to begin a slideshow.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

3 Comments

Before and After: Bradford Pear, Blooming in Black and White

From Black & White Photography: The Timeless Art of Monochrome by Michael Freeman:

At the risk of oversimplifying, subtracting colour from imagery allows the other graphic elements and dynamics to increase in importance….

Colour is so integral to our experience of the world, and of imagery, that most people (and most photographers) do not separate it in their mind’s eye from everything else that is going on. In order to understand what happens when we take it away and work in monochrome, we need to know how it fits in to the total range of image qualities; also, how it differs from the other elements in its effect. [Colour] elicits subjective and emotional responses in a way that other image qualities do not…. The subjective response to colour is powerful and pervasive, and as a result, takes over viewer response to many photographs. If the colour component in an image is strong, rich, unusual, or simply noticeable, there is a good chance that it will swamp the attention….

And because colour triggers emotional responses, there is also usually an unquestioned assumption that it works on a scale of beauty, or at least attractiveness. To say “what a spectacular sunset”, or “look at how blue the water is”, or “that gray really sets off the pink”, or any of the many other common value judgments on colour, is to acknowledge that the effect of colour can be likeable — and for most people should be likeable. This gut reaction to colour is by far the most common, and in this way it stands apart from the other formal graphic elements….

There are a number of ways of subdividing the graphic components of an image, but the most generally accepted are: point, line, shape, texture, and colour. In the way that these are used and interact, there is contrast, balance, and dynamics (or vectors). Subtracting colour enhances those remaining. In practice, this means that the components and qualities most affected are the graphic ones of shape, the graphic structure of the image, and the gradation along the gray tonal scale, as well as the three-dimensional ones of volume and texture.

One Wordless Wednesday back in January, I processed and posted a series of color photos of a vintage camera; then a couple of days later, converted the images to black and white and wrote about the workflow I used. That was my first attempt at color to black-and-white conversion with Lightroom or the Nik Collection, and it was fairly easy to get the results I wanted since the color images leaned toward monochrome and the primary subject was mostly black and silver.

After posting some photos of a Bradford Pear blooming in front of my house on last week’s Wordless Wednesday, I wondered how those multi-colored images would look if I turned them into black-and-white. The budding blooms are a key image element and they vary from light green to bright white, depending on how much the blooms had opened. I wanted to see if I could create black-and-white versions that emphasized the opening blossoms, reducing — but not eliminating — background elements that provided additional context (spring!) to the images. My goal was to elevate the quality of the photos by making the blooms, regardless of whether they were opened or not, “pop” out of the image in shiny bright white.

All of my adjustments to create these images were completed in Lightroom; this time, I didn’t use any Nik Collection filters at all. I’ve been trying to better understand where the two tools overlap, when to choose one over the other, and when to use both. For these images, I converted to black and white in Lightroom — which created the flat-looking versions you can see in the middle column of the second gallery below — then made basic image adjustments (to exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks) to emphasize the blossoms and fade the backgrounds. I then worked through the individual color channels in Lightroom’s Black and White Mix panel to balance the blacks, grays, and whites in each image, mostly by adjusting green, yellow, and red channels to create that balance.

I also applied quite a bit of sharpening to the images, which, surprisingly, didn’t create any apparent distortion but helped bring out the textures, patterns, and highlights of the individual blooms — probably because the sharpening tool mainly had whites and light grays to work with. As a final step I experimented with split-toning — a Lightroom tool I haven’t used very much but want to learn more about. For these photos, I used split-toning to shift gray in the shadows from a warm to slightly cooler color, which provided the silver-white brightness I was looking for when I started this workflow.

Select the first image to view larger versions; then, if you are interested, take a look at the second gallery showing the transitions.

Below are three steps in the transition of these photos from color to black and white. The first column shows the processed color image from my original blog post; the second column shows the color image after conversion to black and white but with no other adjustments; and the last column shows the final version, with adjustments to exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites and blacks, the individual color channels, sharpening, and split-toning.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

6 Comments