It’s been a few weeks since I took the photos and completed the first round of adjustments … so I didn’t realized how much I’d altered them until I reset all the changes made to the originals. The last of these four pairs above, especially, show a photo that once upon a time I would have considered unusable, since it was so over-exposed. Yet with some highlight, texture, contrast, and color adjustments — along with using radial filters to remove the background — I ended out with a pretty decent close-up image of that brightly colored bloom. If you would like to see the four before-and-after versions in larger sizes, select the first image above to begin a slideshow.
Here are the second fifteen Landmark Citrus Lantana images, showing the flower buds a few days after they first appeared. With these images, it’s easy to see how the plant earned its “citrus” name: the larger flowers show how magenta, purple, red, yellow, and orange transition to lemon-yellow and orange-orange as they grow up.
[We] make pictures. We don’t find them. They aren’t natural occurrences in the way that reflections in the surface of a pond or on the chrome of my bicycle handle are natural occurrences, or the way a shadow on the wall is a natural occurrence. We don’t stumble upon pictures. We produce them. They are artifacts. Bits of manufacture. Many of our picture-making devices — the digital or photographic camera — exploit phenomena of natural image making, reflection, and the like…. [Pictures] are products of human handiwork, and picture making is a technological practice.
Photography — or art in general — should not be something you practice only with your camera, only on weekends or holidays, or as a distraction from other things. Instead, make it part of who you are. Think creatively, whether or not you intend to make an image. Remind yourself at random times throughout the day to think about interesting visual elements in your surrounding, challenge yourself to compose them in the most favorable way, seek ways in which visual elements may serve as metaphors for concepts, ideas, and emotions, regardless of whether they make a “good” image, or whether you’ll ever actually point a camera at them. The goal is to increase awareness of your environment and the ways in which it is (or can be) meaningful.…
To photographers of natural subjects, among others, composition is a constant challenge and always limited by constraints that are beyond the photographer’s control — the actual, and random, arrangement of visual elements in a found scene. The same is not true of painters, who may render their compositions with as much precision and as few distractions as they please. In addition, I also consider an image to be its own (aesthetic) experience, which is related to, but not a substitute for, the actual experience of the photographer at the scene. It follows that precise visual transcription of a scene — ostensibly, photography’s greatest power over painting — is not, in fact, my primary goal….
For this gallery of Landmark Citrus Lantana and two upcoming galleries — as well as three sets of Mary Ann Lantana images that I’m still working on — I’ve been selecting a few photos from each batch to transform with Lightroom’s graduated filters, radial filters, and brushes. I wanted to practice using these tools where the backgrounds were fairly complex, to get accustomed to masking areas for adjustment and figuring out what combinations of exposure, detail, and color enhancements satisfied me the most. The last three photos in the gallery at the bottom are examples; here are the before and after versions of those three images side by side.
I had previously written (see Before and After: Bernadine Clematis, An Illusion) about using Lightroom’s Spot Removal tool (it’s not just for spots!) to alter and re-blend colors in an image’s background, and I often use that technique to remove blobs of color then fade them out-of-sight using Nik Collection’s Darken/Lighten Center filter. This approach works well in many cases, but its effectiveness is limited when blurred background elements are a blend of shadowy dark greens, reds, or grays; or when color crosses over the borders of the main subject. The first two before images above show that prominently: the center-right and center-left portions have some green and reddish swatches that are behind the pair of small leaves in the middle, that are difficult to alter using spot-removal since they touch the edges of the leaves.
In another earlier post — Before and After: Yellow and Green (and Lightroom Radial Filters) — I described learning to use Lightroom’s radial filters, which I continued to experiment with for these lantana photos. With both radial and graduated filters in Lightroom, you can use brushes to extend (or reduce) the coverage of the filter’s effects. The first few times I tried using brushes, I found the experience very frustrating (and time-consuming); but — like most of Lightroom’s advanced magic — working with brushes got easier with practice. I also attended a B&H Event Space tutorial by photographer Clifford Pickett — Advanced Techniques for Post-Processing Your Images in Adobe Lightroom — and watched how effortlessly he used brushes to define image areas for adjustment. Seeing someone else use Lightroom’s brushes showed me that I was trying too hard to draw a precise area around the image’s main subject, that mistakes were easy to correct, and that I could rely on Lightroom to adequately mask the background area without intruding on the foreground.
Here’s how masking looked for the third image above. The circle with the pin in the lower left shows the area I initially selected for adjustment by drawing a radial filter over the shadowy leaf in the original. I then used the brush to “paint” the rest of the background (it’s a lot like using a crayon in a coloring book!) until most of the background behind the leaves was filled in with the mask (shown as bright green below).
The Auto Mask setting kept the brushes from intruding on the four leaves and tiny flower buds that I didn’t want adjusted. After a bit of practice and slobbering on the photo, I figured out that — instead of trying to trace around the leaves — Auto Mask worked best if I dragged the brush perpendicular to the leaves’ edges until the masking looked like it had been painted behind the leaves. The mouse movements reminded me a bit of painting walls in my house …. where I had to be careful (but not TOO careful) to roll paint over masking tape but not so much that it might seep through.
With the area masked, I then worked down this panel, adjusting Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks until the background shifted fully to black. It’s not always necessary to adjust all six settings; but in this case, I did that since there were some subtle greens and white or gray pixels behind the leaves. Adjusting Texture, Clarity, Sharpness, and Noise helped “smooth out” the pixels so that artifacts didn’t appear when I passed the image from Lightroom to the Nik Collection for additional changes, or when I viewed the images at larger sizes or on devices (such as an iPad) that use different color spaces than my computer monitor.
Here are the first fifteen Landmark Citrus Lantana images, showing the flower buds as they’re just starting to appear. The symmetry of the emerging bud is typical of most lantana varieties, but the Citrus color variations are unique among the four kinds of lantana in my garden. The flowers appear even at this early stage to have multicolored blends of magenta, purple, red, yellow, and orange that will transition to dominant shades of lemon-yellow and fruity orange as the buds grow. You’ll have to wait for the second gallery to see that transition…. 🙂
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.
“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.
Every now and then I like to prowl around in my photo archives to see if there are some images I’ve forgotten about that capture my imagination, freshly. The photos I posted on Wordless Wednesday last week (Wordless Wednesday: Five Found Flower Photos) came from one of those prowling expeditions, when I discovered a folder containing about 200 photos that — despite all the photo rework I had done for my Flickr Reboot project — I had overlooked. They were all taken nearly a decade ago, one fine spring day, when many of the flowers were in bloom, and include bee balm, butterfly bushes, coneflowers, hibiscus, lantana, and mandevilla. I’m working through them all now, and will upload a few galleries throughout the week, but I finished this set of lantana blossoms that all had tiny bubbles in common, and decided to post them now.
I think these are photos of Mozelle Lantana — though I’m not entirely sure. I’ve grown many lantana varieties, some perennial, some annual, and some that were technically annual but came back for a couple of years anyway. If I could tell from the photos where on my property they were taken, I’d know for sure; but, as you can see, there is no defining background detail so I’m guessing the plant’s name based on the variety of colors in the blooms. I had just watered the garden, and when I noticed how the water droplets attached to the flowers as little glassy bubbles, I abandoned my gardening chores and brought out the camera instead.
The first gallery shows the final versions of these eleven images, after processing them through Adobe Lightroom and the Nik Collection. Select any image to see larger versions; and if you would like to read more about how the photos were processed, scroll down.
The second gallery shows the before-and-after versions of the eleven images above. I like to write these before-and-after posts (which are now assigned to their own category on this site) to help me think about what I’m doing with image processing and give me practice explaining it. One of the key things I’ve learned from all this practice, though, is this: subtle changes can improve a photo as much as drastic ones, but the cumulative effect of a set of subtle changes can be pretty dramatic.
Cropping and straightening are the first two things I do to every image in a set I’m working on, to set the images to 16×9 aspect ratio if I didn’t take them that way in the camera. Once that’s done, I use Lightroom’s automatic tone adjustments, letting Lightroom adjust exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks. I then apply the same level of sharpening and noise reduction to every photo.
These initial adjustments establish a starting point for the rest of my workflow in Lightroom and the Nik Collection. After completing them, I refine Lightroom’s automatic adjustments, typically reducing exposure slightly if it looks like Lightroom has over-exposed the images. With these photos, I also darkened both shadow levels and blacks, which emphasized color in the flowers without adding saturation or luminance.
Since it was High Pollen Season in Atlanta when I took these photos, the before images show a yellow cast from the pollen dust as well as artifacts that collected on the camera lens and the flowers — which present as dark dashes (if on the lens), black spots (if in the shadows) or white spots (tiny-bright “light catchers” from the sun). I removed some of the yellow color cast by adjusting white balance to a cooler (more blue) setting, then used spot removal to clean up the artifacts and dust. As a final step in Lightroom, I adjusted the sharpening mask, which has the effect of applying more sharpening to the image foreground and less to the background, reducing the appearance of background noise. In Lightroom, you can press the right-slash (/) key to compare the before and after versions of any photo you’re working on, so I used that to perform a quick visual check on each one, to make sure I hadn’t strayed too far from the original image with my adjustments. Then I selected each image for processing with Nik Collection’s Color Efex Pro.
From all my practice with Color Efex Pro, I’ve settled on a handful of filters that I apply to photos when I’m trying to enhance realism but not necessarily add creative effects. To make the process more efficient, I have a recipe set up in Color Efex Pro to apply the effects to each photo simultaneously, then work through them to adjust settings on individual photos:
White Neutralizer, which brightens whites without altering any of the other colors.
Brilliance/Warmth, which increases saturation and has a setting called “perceptual saturation” that enhances the three-dimensional or depth-perception character of the image.
Tonal Contrast, which I use to soften backgrounds if I want to further reduce background detail beyond Lightroom adjustments; or Pro Contrast, if I want contrast adjustments but want to retain background detail.
Darken/Lighten Center, which I use to shift visual focus to a specific area of the image and create additional background shadowing.
Remove Color Cast, to remove any color cast that has been created by the other adjustments — which, for these photos, consisted of ridding the photos of too much yellow or green shading.