Several times each week during the month of May, I took a series of photos of a lily that I added to my garden in April, as a way of chronicling its growth. It’s a variation of Lily of the Nile, a hardy plant that builds clusters of blooms on tall green stems, and so far has produced about a dozen such clusters since I got it. I don’t know why it’s called “Baby Pete” — but I assume someone somewhere had a good reason for that.
According to Wikipedia, a Lily of the Nile may live 75 years. Which means! When I’m in my 120s, I’ll still be taking pictures of this plant — by then most likely with my eyeball camera and macro contact lens, followed by post-processing with Adobe Lightroom sensors embedded in my fingers, then direct uploading from my networked brain stem. Good times!
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).
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.
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.
For several months now, I’ve been regularly attending photography webinars offered by B&H Photo Video, the well-known retailer of photo and video equipment. B&H broadcasts these webinars on their own B&H EventSpace site as well as on Livestream, where they also archive past webinars under their Livestream B&H EventSpace account. You can watch these past events with a web browser from their Livestream page without a B&H or Livestream account, though you need an account with B&H to register for future events and receive notifications when they’re about to start.
The live seminars are typically presentations by a photographer or subject-matter expert and are available for a broad range of topics, from macro photography to portrait photography to social networking to using tools like Lightroom and Photoshop, and are all free to attend in person or online. Events are added frequently, sometimes less than a week before they’re scheduled to occur, so I’ve been checking their website regularly and have registered for several new ones taking place in June.
I believe its always valuable to hear what photographers have to say about how they do what they do, and each of the presenters I’ve watched showed passion for their work as well as eagerness to share their knowledge with others. Even if they talk about something you think you already know, hearing someone describe their thought process helps fix it in your mind and make you more aware of the method or technique when you’re shooting. There is, also, a lot to learn from photographers working in areas other than those you think of as your favorites. While I tend to focus more on macro and nature photography, for example, I learned a lot from how portrait photographers work with lighting or interact with their subjects; or how other photographers prepare their images for posting on the web or printing.
I’ve attended about a dozen of these webinars so far. All of them were excellent, and here are Livestream links to and brief descriptions of five of my favorites:
Sarah describes her perspective on color theory, lighting, the ability of color to evoke emotions, and how she uses Lightroom to transform her images. Toward the end of her presentation, she suggests that everyone attending take a close look at some of their images and think about (or talk about, or write about) what they like about the images. That’s what prompted me to photograph and assemble these four galleries — the first one appears below — and as I publish them here, I’ll write about my thoughts on some of the images.
How could anyone resist a presentation with such a provocative title? Adam Marelli pulls the audience away from gear and tools to thought processes, describing what he thinks about when he photographs. Broadly separated into three mental models — point of view, form, and content — Adam presents a series of questions a photographer can ask about each one … not checklist questions, but things to consider and states of awareness to bring to any kind of photography or to post-processing.
Photographing craftsmen is not something I’d ever really thought about doing, but that may have changed after I watched this presentation. It’s the application of Adam’s ideas about photography (from Are You Expressing Your Creativity or Just Pushing Buttons?) to real world examples, along with discussion about bringing your own sense of curiosity and wonder into the field along with your camera; choosing the right gear for specific situations; and making the best use of just one or two lenses and natural light rather than over-thinking what you might need for a photo shoot. Adam grounds his approach in art history and cultural theory, creating a unique perspective in his presentations and writing about photography.
Jackie starts from the premise that, with artistic macro floral photography, she is specifically not trying to represent reality, but is instead trying to create flower images as if they were stylized portraits, portraits that include complementary colors, textures, composition, and lighting. Taking that approach, she concerns herself much more with the relationships among elements of her photos than with their realism or even accuracy of focus. She also describes the idea of “shooting through” — a term I had not heard before but essentially means framing a subject with blurred foreground elements instead of the typical approach using blurred backgrounds or bokeh. She also describes capturing images of interesting textures she finds while on a photoshoot, and how she combines those textures with foreground subjects in Photoshop to create a unique composite image.
Lester’s presentation is a more technical discussion of macro photography, and an excellent refresher on topics like aperture and depth of field. He also discusses how different types of equipment — macro lenses versus extension tubes or closeup filters, for example — change what you can do when photographing close up, and the advantages and disadvantages of each one. He also describes how slight shifts in your point of view — especially shifting your camera and lens so it’s parallel to areas of the subject you want in focus — can have a powerful effect on the results you are able to produce, regardless of the closeup equipment you’re using.
Here’s the first of the four galleries, where I tried to use some of what I learned from these (and other) B&H webinars. The hydrangeas in this gallery have been in my back garden since I bought my house — about 15years ago — and every April or May produce mophead-type blossoms that have very muted colors on each of the petals. Since they came with the house, so to speak, and I didn’t buy them, I can’t differentiate them from the dozens of hydrangea varieties so just call them Anonymous Pastel Hydrangeas.
I had two goals with these images: first, to get as much of the blossom in focus as possible (which meant being intentional (and experimental) about aperture and depth of field); and second, to retain the softer, pastel-like colors in the final photos despite having emphasized sharpness and depth of field when taking the shots. The contrast between the blooms and the dark backgrounds might have been achievable with flash, but instead I used an LED light mounted on the camera to get a similar effect, and to get strong lighting (with a lot of highlighting) on the blooms. The extra light gave me the aperture flexibility I wanted; and while the RAW files appeared to have blown out highlights on the blooms from some break-all-the-rules over-exposure, reducing those highlights and overall contrast muted the colors so they looked more like the pastel shades you would observe if you saw these flowers in real life. After this minimal processing in Lightroom — as well as a bit of cropping and straightening — I applied a dash of Classical Soft Focus and Glamour Glow from the Nik Collection to further soften and polish the petals.
Select the first image to view larger versions in a slideshow. Thanks for reading and taking a look!
“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.”
“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.