"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

Before and After: Steel and Stained Glass

From “What Is Real” in More Than a Rock: Essays on Art, Creativity, Photography, Nature, and Life by Guy Tal:

With so many easily applied computerized shortcuts to aesthetic appeal at our disposal, many people have come to associate their use with obvious, often egregious, visual effects and gimmickry. 

I take no issue with any method of creating images, so long as the artist’s purpose is fulfilled. To me, an image should encapsulate a state of mind and a deeper meaning than just aesthetic appeal, and I use whatever tools I need in order to convey the moods, sensations, or ‘stories’ that I am after….

[I] wish to reflect something of the experience of creation, discovery, and romance I felt at the time of making the image. It therefore seems obvious to me that my images should look natural, regardless of any tool used or creative license I allow myself. I create images in order to satisfy my desire for significant experiences and with the purpose of sharing such experiences with others who may be similarly inspired by them….

Various methods and tools sometimes lumped under the term ‘manipulation’ can be effective in overcoming limitations imposed by the capabilities of cameras and lenses, or by undesirable qualities of subject and light, and that may obscure what an image is about — what the artist sought to express and the impression they wished to impart….

What’s real about an expressive image is never its objectivity, but how it is subjectively perceived.

I often like to include quotes on some of my blog posts like those above from Guy Tal’s More Than a Rock. Tal’s essays move effortlessly from ideas about a photographer’s vision to writings on creating images and how to do it better, and — most importantly — how to think about it better. His is among many photography and creativity books that I often turn to for sustenance and grounding — in this case after stumbling into an internet trash heap where people were throwing rubber chickens at each other whilst debating their preferences for “un-manipulated” images. This is a recurring argument on photography web sites that never ends well … or just never ends. I didn’t participate, but I read too much and it made my brain hurt, so I needed to dive into a good book.

My quote selections are seldom entirely random: they often relate (at least around the edges) to a post I’m writing, though sometimes their equally spurred by things I haven’t written … posts still in my head, you might say; or the stream-of-consciousness of a madman, you should not say. Books, for me, always have been and always will be a refuge from the barely-hinged ramblings on the web, and More Than a Rock is no exception. Highly recommended, his book is, if the subjects he covers interest you.

With every series of photographs I take, I end out with a handful that I set aside because I’m not sure if I’ll be able to convert them into satisfying images. From my Exploring Architectural Photography: Steel and Stained Glass blog posts (see 1, 2, and 3), there were four like that, and since I learned a few new things while transforming them, I thought I would share what I learned. Here are the four almost-rejected photos:

I took the first photo (top left) while standing outside a mausoleum door, with my wide-angle/zoom lens set to 18mm, its widest zoom level. My goal was to frame the stained-glass window within the door openings, but standing a few feet from it created perspective distortion (which was not as apparent in the camera’s viewfinder) that I wasn’t aware of until I loaded the photo in Lightroom. The second photo (top right) was taken on a sunny day, in a partially shaded area, causing heavy shadows on the window while blowing out highlights on the concrete blocks — which, as you can see from the mortar lines in the photo, are not actually straight. The third photo (bottom left), taken on the same day, shows excessive lighting on the columns and walls to the right of the window, with too much shadow on the window itself. The fourth one (bottom right) was another attempt at capturing the light and color of a window while using the door as its frame. Since I didn’t stand as close as I did in the first photo, there is less distortion to the lines formed by the door, but heavy shadowing caused by exposure settings needed to capture the window without over-exposing it.

For the first photo, I wanted to see if I could square the door and its openings. Lightroom provides two tools to help correct perspective problems like this, the Lens Correction and Transform tools, shown below.

I’ve been using both of these tools on my recent photos from Oakland Cemetery as an opportunity to get some practice working with architecture images and get more familiar with the kinds of adjustments I might need to make to photos of buildings. The first of the two tools — Lens Correction — adjusts for the bowing effect often created by wide angle lenses, especially at the edges and at wider zoom levels (like the 18mm I used for this photo). In addition to correcting wide-angle distortion, Lens Correction also adjusts excess shadows (vignetting) at the edges, and both distortion and vignetting can be modified further by the two sliders just below the Profile dropdown. As you can see from the screenshot, Lightroom identified the specific lens I used, selecting it automatically when I clicked the Enable Profile Corrections checkbox. Adobe maintains a long list of lenses with supported profiles; but in the rare case that you are using a lens with no Lightroom profile, you can select “Manual” (just below “Lens Correction”) and adjust distortion and vignetting yourself.

I’ve seen recommendations in Lightroom tutorials and books that Lens Correction should be used on every image, a recommendation that I can see clearly makes sense for images with a prevalence of straight lines or angles. The impact on a photo varies a lot by lens, zoom factor, and camera position, so I normally don’t use it for closeup or nature photography unless there’s some element of the image that to my eye contains an obvious distortion. Apart from vignetting, distortion correction appears to “flatten” the edges of the images — which I think is why Adobe recommends using Lens Correction before using Transform. With some of the photos in my architecture series, minor variations in straight lines — especially as they transition from the center to the edge of a photo — were often rendered straight enough by Lens Correction alone.

With this photo, however, the distortion was pretty extreme so I did use Transform to straighten it further. The Level and Vertical buttons on the Transform panel correct horizontal and vertical distortions; both work well and Vertical works especially well to adjust for hunchback photographers like myself ( !! 🙂 !! ) who often don’t realize they’ve leaned forward or backward when taking the shot. Auto and Full are similar, though Auto creates more subtle combinations of horizontal and vertical adjustments than Full — which sometimes makes pretty extreme corrections that will require further cropping but will be technically as straight as can be. Guided Transform is fun to play with, and there is a short, precise video here where you can see it in action: Guided Upright in Lightroom. Go take some crooked pictures and give it a try!

Here are the before and after versions side-by-side. Other adjustments included my usual spot-removal/color blending magic to smooth out some of the scratches and dents on the steel door; color and luminance adjustments to brighten the window and render it as the focal point; and a bit of shadow adjustment to bring out some of the detail in the wall on the right side — which exposed some converging lines to draw your eye back to the window if your eyeballs drifted toward something else.

Select the first image to compare the two in a slideshow.

For the second photo at the top, I wanted to correct three problems: the lines between stones weren’t parallel; the stained glass window behind its rusted steel grate was barely visible in the original; and the stone was awash in shaded but bright light and lacked most of its real-life detail. As with the previous photo, I used Lens Correction and Transform to straighten the lines, then made basic exposure and color adjustments to brighten and saturate the stained glass and the steel grate. It would have been great to remove the grate, but I’d left my powertools at home and trying to spot-remove it away in Lightroom required too much patience even for me.

To get a look I wanted for the concrete wall, I added a radial filter over the window and inverted it (indicated by the green shading), as I’ve previously described in Before and After: Yellow and Green (and Lightroom Radial Filters. I then adjusted highlights (to counter the effect of bright light), blacks, shadows, and texture to create detail and grain in the stone, along with using the Dehaze slider — my go-to tool for adjusting contrast as I like how it treats color, even though that’s probably not its intended purpose.

Here are the before and after versions of the second photo. If you view them one after the other in a slideshow, you will see how Lightroom made just the right corrections to the horizontal lines to the right of the window, while keeping those to the left of the window intact (since they didn’t really need to be adjusted).

This third image suffered in two ways: the window, in the original, was fully shaded because it was set inside the concrete wall, and the sun was coming at the building in all its bright glory from the east (or left of the image). While the window was shadowed, the column and the wall were too bright, with overblown highlights and lost detail. I first made some exposure adjustments: reducing highlights as far as Lightroom would let me on the Basic panel, and lightening shadows to start recovering detail in the window. The column and wall were still too bright, however, so here I am using a graduated filter to reduce the highlights and whites even further on the right part of the wall only.

These changes improved the appearance of the column and wall — IMHO — while retaining the angled shadow lines from a tree nearby. The window was almost how I wanted it to look, but I added a radial filter over the window only to improve its presence by upping exposure, softening shadows, increasing whites, and lightening blacks. I also added a bit of sharpening to show more of the window’s detail, after first reducing highlights (which helps prevent fraying at the edges of detail emphasized by the Sharpness, Texture, or Clarity sliders).

Before and after for the third photo below. Note, especially, the color shift and detail enhancements these adjustments created, while still preserving the sense that this photo was taken under late morning sunlight on a cloudless day.

Of the four images I’ve discussed here, this last one required the least effort to transform. My changes consisted of color saturation and brightness adjustments — mostly to jazz up the stained glass — along with some spot removal to eliminate dirt, flaws, and a crack in one of the glass panels. I had originally intended to keep the door frame nearly black, as in the before version, then decided it was nice to expose the design of the door, especially on the left and right sides. Shadow adjustments alone brought out the door detail, with a bit of a color shift to emphasize the aged steel or antique bronze look so common to many of the doors on the cemetery’s property.

Select the first image to compare these last two.

Finally, here are all the photos of stained glass and steel that I recently posted — all of which underwent similar transformations — in a single gallery.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Exploring Architectural Photography: Steel and Stained Glass (3 of 3)

Here is the third of three posts featuring photos of bronze, steel, and stained glass, part of my Exploring Architectural Photography series from Oakland Cemetery.

These first three images are the last ones (for now, anyway) that I took from outside mausoleums:

On many of the older mausoleums, the stained glass windows are covered on their exteriors with sheets of plexiglass … a good thing for protecting the glass, of course, but not so good for the photographer since plexiglass fades and discolors over time, captures a lot of dust and dirt, and blurs the window colors. I had to find different strategies for the images in this gallery, so either used the doors as foreground frames for the stained glass windows (the first six photos), or stuck my lens through openings in the doors and captured only part of the window (the last two photos). Typically the lens wouldn’t fit through the door elements, though, or was impossible to turn right or left if I got it through — which is why there are six photos using the first approach and only two using the second one. With some bright mid-morning sunlight, however, the windows glowed nicely from the outside-looking-in and highlighted a lot of their color and detail.

I haven’t done a Before-and-After article in a while, so I’ve picked some of the images from this post to write about how they were taken, and mostly, how I processed them in Lightroom. Here’s a hint: the before versions of four of the images above, that I transformed substantially to create something I was satisfied with. I’m working on that post now and will likely publish it by the end of the week.

Thanks for taking a look!

The previous posts in this series are:

Exploring Architectural Photography: Dated Doors and Their Hardware

Exploring Architectural Photography: Steel and Stained Glass (1 of 3)

Exploring Architectural Photography: Steel and Stained Glass (2 of 3)

Exploring Architectural Photography: Steel and Stained Glass (2 of 3)

Hello again! Here is the second of three posts featuring photos of bronze, steel, and stained glass, part of my Exploring Architectural Photography series from Oakland Cemetery.

The first photo in this gallery probably seems like an odd one…

… but you know sometimes you see a small, rectangular, bronze-blueish-greenish thing out in the wild and you can’t resist taking its picture.

I puzzled for a while about what this really was — it’s embedded at the bottom of the stone wall of a mausoleum — thinking it might be some sort of vent, or perhaps a Victorian stereo speaker. Then I realized what it was really for: it’s how the ghosts get out!

Thanks for taking a look!

The previous posts in this series are:

Exploring Architectural Photography: Dated Doors and Their Hardware

Exploring Architectural Photography: Steel and Stained Glass (1 of 3)

Exploring Architectural Photography: Steel and Stained Glass (1 of 3)

Hello! I’m continuing my architecture photography posts with a small gallery below, one of three — I’ll post the other two over the weekend — containing mashups of stained-glass windows and steel or bronze architectural elements that I discovered while exploring Oakland Cemetery for this series. The series doesn’t have a planned end at this point; while I’ve processed most of the photos I’ve taken so far, every time I look at them I think of other approaches I might want to try … and probably will!

The variety of colors and materials for a photographer to study on the property seems nearly endless. In the gallery below, you’ll see, first, a pair of stained glass windows adorned with a sculpted bronze wreath. Bronze, steel, or concrete wreaths — representing eternity, or eternal life or love — are common on the property, but this pair of photos shows one of the most intricate wreaths I found. These are followed by windows more austere in design and color, from the top of a large mausoleum patterned after a church.

The window in the third pair photographed perfectly on the day I took these; taking pictures of stained-glass windows can present challenges (with harsh shadows or glare), but these worked out well because it was a cloudy, bright day — allowing for minimal shadowing yet still preserving the bright colors. The last three images in the gallery are photos of the same door at different zoom levels, showing an elaborate urn pattern created out of bronze and steel, framed by wood and stone.

The previous post in this series is: Exploring Architectural Photography: Dated Doors and Their Hardware.

Thanks for taking a look!

Exploring Architectural Photography: Dated Doors and Their Hardware

From Architectural Photography: Composition, Capture, and Digital Image Processing by Adrian Schulz:

“Just like the field of architecture itself, there are various approaches available to shoot architectural photographs, ranging from purely functional to complete artistic abstraction….

“Even the most perfect, realistic architectural photo has a certain degree of intrinsic abstraction, if only due to the artificial scale of the reproduction or the lack of a third dimension…. [A] photo can only reproduce the emotions felt by the viewer in a given situation. In other words, the way a building is perceived where it stands is often completely different from the way it is perceived in a photograph….

“At what point does architectural photography become art, and how can we differentiate between artistic architectural photography and its documentary sibling? The transition between the two is difficult to pinpoint, but it is safe to say that art begins where the intervention of the photographer begins to influence the purely documentary nature of a photo. This is where the choice of subject is no longer intrinsically connected with the impression made by the building….

“Artistic architectural photographs can often be found in galleries and exhibitions, usually in the context of a particular theme or artist. Here, architecture serves only as a means to an end, with no particular connection between the message of the image and the message conveyed by the architecture itself. In this case, it is the photographer and not the architect who is the focus of the activity.”

Now for something completely different: Let’s spend a little time on architectural photography!

Historical places like Oakland Cemetery and its gardens present opportunities for a visitor to examine a site from different perspectives, embedded as it is with blended natural, historical, socio-cultural, and architectural characteristics. Between trips to the property to explore its natural elements for my winter photo series, I went back on other days to focus on the architecture. On these trips — I’m still sorting out and processing the photos — I aimed the camera at structures like mausoleums, their doors and decorative elements, stained glass windows, and the symbols and iconography abundantly present there. It was fun, and an interesting change, to take photographs of subjects that didn’t shift and wiggle in every tiny breeze; and to examine, instead, the colors and textures present in stable and long-lasting materials like stone, granite, brick, wood, glass, bronze, and steel.

As I was reviewing the photos from these architectural trips, I often wondered if they’d interest anyone but me, and even if they only interested me because I took them. The more I worked on them, though, the more I noticed tiny details similar to those in my nature photographs, especially details around texture, color, balance, and symmetry that a photograph captures in a way our eyes don’t notice or at least discount as insignificant. Since many of the structures I photographed for this new series are more than a century old, time has worn them down. The wear is obvious in their pitted and discolored surfaces — which we probably do notice in real life — but less obvious in terms of perspective, or the trueness of parallel or perpendicular lines. Our eyes compensate for these “defects” and also for vertical correction: we look up at something, for example, and don’t really notice the triangular convergence of lines when we do that, or at least we don’t pay much attention to it. But a photograph — which shifts what we see from three-dimensional to flat and two-dimensional — makes a crooked door or a skewed horizontal or vertical line very apparent. Perspective correction tools in Lightroom — which I used more on these photos than I’ve ever used it before — helps quite a bit, and seemed necessary since we tend to regard asymmetry in images, unless it’s obviously intentional, as jarring and disconcerting.

For the most part, these photos are without context: by isolating part of a mausoleum or other architectural object on the property, I’ve dropped the associated stories around the person or family or organization that had the structure built, as well as its social or historical background. That’s another layer in the kaleidoscope of options presented by a historical site, and possibly a project for another day (or week or month).

Here’s the first gallery, some typical bronze doors and stone structures with embedded dates, probably construction or erection dates.

This second gallery starts and ends with closeup shots of door hardware, with wider shots of door detail in the middle. The tenth and eleventh images are my favorites: the tenth because of the way morning sun produced a soft glow on the door handle; and the eleventh because the vertical lines and their colors created a nice contrast with the silver hardware.

And, just for fun, here are before-and-after post-processing versions of those two images.

These are examples, I think, of applying closeup and macro photography experiences to architectural details, both in terms of choosing subjects and post-processing. Post-processing adjustments followed a similar approach to the one I use for nature photography: figuring out how to emphasize certain elements of the scene over others, then making basic exposure and color saturation or luminance adjustments to serve that end. And as I’ve written about before (see Before and After: Bernadine Clematis, An Illusion), I did use Lightroom’s spot removal tools to blend colors and eliminate evidence of wear-and-tear on some surfaces for a more consistent look across the subject. Select the first image below to view these before-and-after variations in a slideshow for comparison.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!