Before and After: Soft Steel

From The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human by V. S. Ramachandran:

“[If] art is about realism, why even create the images? Why not just walk around looking at things around you? Most people recognize that the purpose of art is not to create a realistic replica of something but the exact opposite: It is to deliberately distort, exaggerate — even transcend — realism in order to achieve certain pleasing effects in the viewer. And the more effectively you do this, the bigger the aesthetic jolt.”

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

“Stories move forward through conflict, but photographs — limited to one frame, one moment in time, and no possibility of a character arc — move forward and imply story through contrast. Contrast in photographs occurs in two significantly different ways. The first is visual contrast. A high-contrast black and white image is one in which the extremes — the blacks and whites — are strong and prominent, and what lies in between — the midtones — are fewer. With color images, that contrast occurs between colors at opposite ends of the color wheel — blue and yellow, for example. Similarly, conceptual contrast is about the extremes of ideas, and the point at which they clash. Both can be called contrast, but to distinguish them I will call the difference in tones and colors contrast and the difference in concepts juxtaposition.

“Contrast, a strong difference in tones or colors, is what pulls the eye. Our eyes function on contrast and look for areas where those contrasts are the strongest. Even perceived sharpness in images is a function of stronger contrast. Where there is a slower gradation of contrast, i.e., blacks slowly turn to gray and then white, the eye sees it, in a photograph, as less sharp. In color, as in black and white, contrast pulls the eye, and that pull will be read as intentional…. Awareness of the visual pull of contrast allows us to orchestrate the image in the most intentional way possible, pulling the eye to key areas with greater contrast and pushing the eye away from areas with lower contrast….

Juxtaposition also draws the eye, but it has more to do with engaging the mind as it’s less a contrast of visual elements and more a contrast of concepts. Where tonal contrast is about the difference between blacks and white, juxtaposition — or conceptual contrast — is about the differences between ideas…. Why this matters is the same reason tonal contrast matters: we pay attention to it…. The contrast draws our attention.”

A couple of nights ago I had a dream that Wordless Wednesday was a real thing in the real world, not just a blogging meme on the internet. On Wordless Wednesday in the real world, people stopped talking for twenty-four hours once a week. Interactions among humans were done without spoken words: everything from going to the bank to meetings at work to running errands took place with hand signals, writing notes, and showing each other pictures. Phone calls were out; text messages with emojis were in, bigly. Wordless Wednesday had evolved into a cultural practice that — in the backstory of a dream — was simply accepted, like so many norms, as the way things were done.

You never really know what precipitates certain dreams, but they often seem to arise from intense mental experiences. Maybe I’ve spent too much time on the blog lately, which could be true since over the past couple of weeks, I put in quite a few long hours prepping this site before migrating followers from WordPress.com. Or it may be from a subconscious current that started flowing as I was reading the Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness — which I loved and tore through all 1,300 pages earlier this month — where the characters (humans and animals) can hear each others thoughts, communicating words, images, and events without speaking aloud. The capability is called Noise — a term that in itself creates an interesting juxtaposition (opposites and contrasts!) since it occurs in the mind and not in the auditory physical world. As the novels progress, and the characters develop their Noise capabilities, they shift more and more from using words in their thoughts to communicating in images … so just imagine the Wordless Wednesday possibilities….

The images I posted on Wednesday were taken some time ago at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, where a series of large leaves crafted out of steel are attached to the wall of the visitor’s entrance. These photos are among many still lurking in my archives that I’ve not previously done any work on, potential candidates for deletion that I come back to now and then to see what I can create. The original images always bugged me because they were under-exposed and certain background elements seemed intrusive or badly colored and once upon a time I didn’t know what to do about that.

Here are the original images (click one to see larger versions in a slideshow):


Other than the generally mushy backgrounds, the upper left corners of the images in the second column needed attention; but I couldn’t crop those elements and shadows out of the picture without clipping too much from the main subjects. So as a first step I used spot-removal in Lightroom with some carefully-adjusted feathering to blend the colors and shadows in those corners out of existence. I also spot-removed out the bolts used to attach the leaves to the wall, since I knew from experience that they’d get emphasized when I added saturation to the images in the Nik Collection.

For most of the images I’ve posted here on my blog, I’ve typically used a Darken-Lighten Center filter in the Nik Collection to shift emphasis to a focal point and draw your eye to that point by — as the filter’s name suggests — darkening the background and lightening the center. After applying contrast and color adjustments, I tried the same approach with these four images, but the results weren’t good: the shadows cast by the leaves looked raggedy and grainy, creating inconsistent vignetting around the edges of each image and splashing too much reflected color from the leaves onto the backgrounds. No matter how much I fiddled with the Darken-Lighten filter’s adjustments, I couldn’t get to a result that I liked.

So … what do you do when the way you always do things just doesn’t work? Try doing the opposite.

Instead of darkening the backgrounds and lightening the centers, I switched to lightening the backgrounds and darkening the centers — which removed much of the color cast from the backgrounds and eliminated most of the vignetting, leaving only some subtle shadows behind each leaf. As a last step, I applied Classical Soft Focus, which does just what the name implies: it softens the appearance of primary image elements, which, in this case (with backgrounds now largely a single color) softened and brightened each of the steel leaves while leaving the backgrounds unaffected. The result, I hope, was to “achieve a certain pleasing effect” for you, the viewer.

Select the first image to page through a slideshow and examine the before-and-after versions. You won’t regret it! 🙂


Thanks for reading and taking a look! Bye for now….

Before and After: Camera Studies Camera in Black and White

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

“Black-and-white film photography, its image qualities and processes, have a great deal to teach us…. What sets black and white apart from colour is that it is not the way we see the world, and it does not pretend to represent reality. It is a translation of a view into a special medium with very particular characteristics.”

On Wednesday, I posted a series of photos of a vintage camera, a No.1 Pocket Kodak. While working on the photos, I accidentally converted one to black and white in Lightroom, briefly thinking “Well, that’s kinda cool” but then flipped it back to color and continued processing the batch. I hardly ever work in black and white, you see, because I’m so colorful, but I still thought it might be fun to come back to this set of photos and give black and white a shot, especially since most of the color in the photos came from the background or from the slight blue cast emanating from the camera body. I also got a bit of inspiration from a Christmas gift a friend sent me…

… a series of books by photographer Michael Freeman — including the one I quoted above — that I’ve been reading from nearly every day since I got them.

I took the color photos with two of my favorite lenses: a Minolta 50mm f/1.7 lens that’s about 25 years old (that even has its own Wikipedia page) and a Sony 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens that I’ve had for a few years (that has no Wikipedia page but gets used for many of my closeups and macros). Both lenses do well in low light and even intentional under-exposure, so were ideal for the camera photos: taken on my dining room table lit by a single window, with supplemental lighting from a small LED flashlight (yes, you read that right) that I normally use for finding things in the depths of dark closets. I did use a high ISO when taking the photos — because I forgot to check my camera’s ISO setting before shooting (oops!) and it was set to 1600 — but Lightroom and the Nik Collection did a suitable job of ridding the photos of what little noise was captured.

So I made copies of the color images that I’d processed and posted — having done mostly saturation and contrast adjustments — and ran them through Nik’s Color Efex Pro, applying these filters:

  • Black and White Conversion, where I made brightness, shadow, highlight, and contrast adjustments;
  • Tonal Contrast, to soften the images slightly and create smoothness in the backgrounds;
  • Darken/Lighten Center, to accentuate lighting on the camera and shift the eye’s focus to the camera body;
  • Detail Extractor, to reveal the structure and texture of the camera’s bellows and leather case, recovering a bit of detail that was lost by the Tonal Contrast adjustment.

The first gallery below shows the black-and-white versions of Wednesday’s images. Personally I think they’re interesting, but what I really liked was experimenting with the same tools I’ve been using for color photos for a while now, in the world of black and white. I avoided special effects — like applying warming filters, converting them to sepia-tone, or adding grain for that aged look — and concentrated on how to make the primary subject appealing without color.

In the second gallery, I’ve set the black-and-white and color images side-by-side. You can select the first image and page through a slideshow to view them as before-and-after versions. Thanks for looking!




Before and After: Exposing Hidden Autumn


“Photographs led me to cameras, and over the years the camera became an object I could think with. I could think about light and shadow, about composing the frame, and about what it meant to live in a certain way, to make decisions at many levels, and to document the world.” — from the essay “Salvaged Photographs” by Glorianna Davenport in Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, edited by Sherry Turkle

“Nobody can commit photography alone.” — from Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man by Marshall McLuhan


One of the reasons I’ve always liked photography – and why I’m often drawn to closeup or macro photography – is that viewing the world through a camera creates an opportunity to focus on sights that might otherwise remain unseen. Looking through the camera restricts my view to what fits within the frame, letting distractions fall away, and that remains true if I zoom in or out, or pan horizontally or vertically: what I see through the lens becomes what I choose to see at that moment, and most of what’s outside the frame slides from awareness as I make those choices. I might add to or subtract from that view by manipulating the camera or the lens; but when I take the photo, I’ve selected something that’s captured my interest, or struck me as aesthetically pleasing, or has frozen an instant of time that seems to matter subjectively.

After taking the shots, what I do with them now includes a set of additional (and for me, recently learned) choices that give me the chance to further refine the images toward this deceptively simple idea: this is what I saw and this is what I want to show you.

I assembled the gallery of images below from those I’ve been working on for my Flickr Reboot project; they were all taken at Point Au Roche Interpretive Center or near the city of Plattsburgh in northern New York. While I’ve been posting quite a few similar images (see Autumn Close Up: A Photo Gallery), I set these aside for a couple of reasons. First, as I was reviewing my archived photos, I had flagged every one of these (and quite a few others) to be deleted. Second, I didn’t actually delete any of them and decided to take another look once I got more experience with the tools I was learning, to see what I might do with them even though I originally thought they should be deleted. Other than being on the chopping block for a while, these images had something else in common: they were all hidden bits of autumn, subjects tucked away behind tree trunks, barely visible among shrubs, or nearly buried under fallen logs. Because they were all so hidden – and it was an overcast day as well – the exposures were pretty poor and most of the original images were very dark. I remember crawling on the ground at times to get some of these shots and was disappointed that they ended out being so badly exposed, but I kept them anyway from some vague notion that one day I would figure out what, if anything, to do with them.

With the help of new skills, I wanted to find out if I could recover each of these well enough to create an acceptable image, and simultaneously learn more about how to think about image post-processing. It can be quite a challenge to convey the thought process involved in work like this – words fail and the images help resolve the ambiguity – yet here are a few things, technically and otherwise, that I think I’ve learned:

  • There are limitations to what you can do with an image that is out of focus and most of the tools emphasize rather than reduce the out-of-focus condition. Yet still, if the composition and content of the image seem to matter, those tools that intentionally render the image with special effects (blur, softening, and grain, for example) may help you produce something that is creatively satisfying.
  • Digital cameras capture so much detail that even an under-exposed image may have embedded surprises hidden in the dark. One technique I use often is to over-adjust the image in Lightroom (setting exposure, contrast, highlights, and shadows to an upper or lower extreme) to get a look at what I might easily miss, then dial back the settings to something more subtle.
  • Composition and content rule. Spot removal helps eliminate distractions and shift a viewer’s focus to key elements of the image. And I’ve also seen how replacement of foreground elements (for example, removing a stray branch or stem of grass that seems to intrude on the frame) or blending colors in background elements to improve their consistency, both change the image to help direct the eye toward the intended subject. Changes like this also reduce the amount of information a viewer’s mind has to comprehend when looking at the image, something I think is especially appropriate for closeup or macro shots.
  • Knowing what options you will have in post-processing changes how you compose on a photo shoot. But that can be a double-edged sword and it’s a good idea to take the best image you can, regardless of what you might do with it later. It’s better, for me anyway, to think of post-processing as a way to enhance a vision or point-of-view on what I’m trying to convey, rather than assume I’ll be fixing things I did poorly while toting around the camera. This isn’t an argument against post-processing; it’s recognition that learning those techniques is as important as understanding the camera’s settings and buttons, and that the creative arc of photography extends through all the technology and tools you might use to produce your images.
  • The first gallery below includes my final versions of these seventeen images. The second gallery shows the before and after versions of each one, where hopefully you can see by comparison how I’ve used some of the ideas described above.

    More soon; thanks for reading and taking a look!



    Single Frame: Autumn Close Up

    From the essay “In Plato’s Cave” in On Photography by Susan Sontag:

    “The photograph is a thin slice of space as well as time. In a world ruled by photographic images, all borders (“framing”) seem arbitrary. Anything can be separated from anything else: all that is necessary is to frame the subject differently…. Through photographs, the world becomes a series of unrelated, freestanding particles…. The camera makes reality atomic, manageable, and opaque.”

    Below is a photograph of three isolated red leaves — an image I imagine many people would associate with autumn — taken in northern New York one October. You may see the image as having a certain 3D quality to it … that’s a bit of an illusion, an enhancement the brain makes because of the focused foreground and out-of-focus background, with the strong color contrasts emphasizing the illusion. If you close one eye (which eye you should close varies by person), the 3D effect may be strengthened depending on what kind of device you’re using to look at the photo. You may have never tried this before, but it’s often true that you can see this sort of 3D magic when viewing just about anything on a screen that displays in HD quality or better, by using only one eye. Apparently the brain’s not so crazy about seeing the world in two-dimensions, and the realistic image quality of modern screens cause it to over-compensate for the sense of “flatness” that ought to be created by closing one eye.

    Here’s a before and after version of this same image; click the first one and page back and forth to compare the two. You can see the 3D quality is somewhat present in the original, and contrast and color enhancements jazz up the illusion: some of the Color Efex filters in the Nik Collection include settings for “perceptual saturation” that can be used for that purpose. You may also notice I removed some spots from the leaves … because, well, I can’t help it!! 🙂

    Before and After: Flaming Feathers

    I think it’s possible that flamingos may have lost some of their social standing over the years — in North America at least — as a result of their objectification as plastic lawn ornaments and even, occasionally, as Christmas decorations. Their presence at the entrance of many zoos — and their ubiquity as unnatural icons on many lawns (not mine!) — made me feel like they were sort of a zoo-cliche and that I might just discard their photos from my collection. But then I thought: ah, well, it’s not the birds’ fault, is it? — and decided to run a few pictures I had from Zoo Atlanta through my Lightroom and Nik Collection workflow to see how they came out. After a bit of trial and error to get the colors right, I ended out with a “look” to the photos that I liked: one that brought out the detail and thickness of their feathers, emphasized the contrasts between pink, orange, and red on their bodies, and rendered them almost as pretty as Fancy Beasts and Snakes on a Blog.

    With one exception, Lightroom adjustments for these photos were pretty standard as I felt like I would want to do most of the color and contrast adjustments using the Nik Collection Color Efex filters. So other than basic exposure adjustments and sharpening, I decided to remove most of the shedded feathers scattered throughout the backgrounds or in the water as they were distracting to my eye, and I knew the filters would emphasize them and make them even more obvious. Lightroom spot removal to the rescue! Though I’d hate to calculate how much time I spent removing tiny clumps of feathers from each of these images, it was true that they acted like little light-catchers in the Color Efex filters — as I learned after missing some and having to continue the spot-removal effort even after I thought the photos were already done.

    Among other things, the Nik Collection filters excel at enhancing colors, creating contrast improvements, and correcting color cast. In the Before and After gallery (scroll down a bit), the third picture in the second row shows a substantial color cast, where the yellow and brown from the background permeate the whole image, likely because of sunlight throwing a reflection across the scene. The fourth picture in that row shows how it looks after correction, where the yellow/brown is gone and the original colors of the bird and rocks have been restored. The filters I used to create a relatively consistent look across these photos were: White Neutralizer (which corrects some of the color cast and emphasizes whites); Brilliance/Warmth (which adds saturation to the colors and also helps separate background and foreground elements); and Pro Contrast (which completes the color cast correction and enhances contrast throughout the photo). For some of the photos, I also used Darken/Lighten Center to add brightness and create a focal point in the picture, to draw the viewer’s eye from the background to the main subject. The effects of this filter are most evident in the last four photos in the Before and After gallery below.

    Here are the final versions of the twelve flamingo images; select the first one to see larger sizes.


    If you would like to see how the images looked before and after the processing I described above, select the first image then page through the slideshow:

    Thanks for reading and taking a look!

    Before and After: Fun with Big Rocks

    At the base of Whiteface Mountain in northern New York, on the road to Whiteface Mountain Ski Resort, just before you cross a bridge over the Ausable River and where your eyes widen to take in the size of the mountain close up … there is a large dirt and gravel parking lot. If you park your car and walk up the mountain road, you just might miss the forest opposite the lot: it’s hidden behind rows of birch trees and ferns that have gathered in the sunlight and grown right up to the left edge of the road.

    After you step beyond the birch tree gateway and through the knee-high valley of ferns, your feet land in a blanket of soft needles discarded by pine trees that have been growing and shedding for decades. Your sense of hearing is instantly altered: the pine needles absorb and mute sound from the road and river nearby just as if you’d walked through a doorway and closed the door behind you. Your footsteps make no sound. Bird-call that you didn’t hear just a few minutes earlier is suddenly everywhere, accompanied by the rhythm of a breeze fluttering back and forth over the landscape.

    Inside this forest, many of the birch trees that likely grew in before the pines took over have become degenerating deadfall, scattered across the forest floor or leaning against the rocks, and the rocks … well, they’re just enormous. You’d need a ladder to climb onto most of them; their surface textures range from smooth but finely pitted to rough like sandpaper to something that feels like it was spit from a volcano — but was more likely created by snow and ice and the slow roll of glaciers that molded the Adirondack Mountains. The rocks with flattened tops have given life to their own miniature forests, where ferns, small shrubs, and even tiny trees have taken root.

    Some of the pine trees have grown so close to the rocks that the rock surface and the tree trunk are barely separated: you couldn’t fit your hand in the space between the two. That’s the case with this blue-green monster that blocks your view of the river, poised as it is just a few feet from the cliffs that dive about thirty feet almost straight down. It’s striking that rocks this large are so far above the river, that they remained on higher ground while the river carved and deepened its path.

    You wonder about the tension between the rock and the tree if the rock shifts and as the tree continues to grow, then you walk around them both to the clifftop and views of the boulders in the river below. The first few steps feel pretty comfortable; the second ones get your legs a little rubbery as the speed of the water flow seems to increase; then you’re just glad you brought a zoom lens.

    After a few shots, you reel the zoom back in, step back into the quiet of the forest, make your way back to the parking lot, and regret that you have to leave, because:

    Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life. — John Muir


    If you got this far, thanks for reading and taking a look! These photos are among the landscape images I’m reworking; more about that project here: Flickr Reboot. If you would like to see before and after versions of the images that I processed for this post (including two bonus boulders not shown above), select the first photo below to begin a slideshow.

    Before and After: Swamp Things

    There are two galleries below: the first includes a set of images from a woodland swamp in northern New York, and the second contains the before and after versions of the same images, showing the differences between the original and final versions processed with Lightroom and the Nik Collection.

    For the first two images, I tried to emphasize the detail of the beaver cuts on the tree trunks, while still conveying the aged, worn smoothness of those cuts. My approach to the third image was to highlight the pair of trunks topped with moss by adding green saturation and increasing focus and lighting on the trunks to separate them from the background.

    With the wider angle images of the swamp, I started by treating them as low-key photographs by significantly darkening the backgrounds. As you can probably imagine from looking at the before images in the second gallery, the gray in the backgrounds — once darkened — would give the scene a heavily shaded, foreboding appearance. Not a bad look overall, and I may still do a set like that. But then I thought it might be interesting to try something else: convert the images from scary-swamp to happy-swamp by intensifying the colors and creating high contrast between the water (and the thick, green algae on the water’s surface) and the twisted deadfall throughout the scenes. The result, I think, suggests a greater sense of standing at the edge of the swamp, with the eye tracking from the greens in each foreground to the depths of the swamp and the trees in the backgrounds. The intensified saturation and contrast also brings out many more colors present in the images that weren’t evident in the original photographs.

    I included the last four images from the same area just because I liked them. What photographer can resist a colorful clump of fungus (with a big bug in the middle!), some bright red leaves, and an old Ford truck partly buried in the woods?

    Select the first image below to begin a slideshow, then skip to the second gallery if you would like to compare the before and after images.

    Before and After: Flickr Reboot – Orchids

    For my Flickr Reboot project, I decided to start by working on photos I’d taken of orchids at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, thinking that the variety of colors, focal lengths, and scenes in these photos would help me explore the capabilities in Lightroom as well as the tools and filters available in the Nik Collection by DxO.

    I first cropped and straightened the images in Lightroom, then removed any distracting spots as well as any artifacts created by dust on the camera sensor or lens. If I thought the image would be improved by darkening or softening its background elements, I used graduated or radial filters to make those alterations by decreasing exposure, clarity, and sharpness. For some of the images, I increased saturation on or shifted some of the colors (usually those in the blue, purple, and magenta ranges) just a bit, since I knew I might apply additional color, saturation, or contrast adjustments using the Nik Collection filters. Given that the focus and light characteristics of all the images was similar, I typically applied the same amount of sharpening and noise reduction to each one before moving on to continue processing with the Nik Collection.

    The Collection includes a tool called DFine 2 that I used on each photo to further reduce noise, which the tool accomplishes by taking a few seconds to analyze the image and apply an automatic noise reduction. To this point in the workflow, everything was pretty straightforward and once the noise reduction was applied, I had a good idea whether to keep working on an image or move on to a different one. With several hundred to choose from, it seemed smart to be strict about culling those I thought might yield unsatisfactory results. Obviously, the rejects aren’t included in this blog post … 🙂 … although it might be fun to bring up a few examples of the “fails” and write about those too.

    I spent most of my time adjusting the images using the filters in Color Efex Pro. It was a little intimidating at first to determine which ones would be most useful, since some of the filters are more aligned with technical improvements and others introduce creative effects. All of this is very subjective, of course, especially when there are so many choices and you can readily convert any photo to something completely different by selecting different filters. But since my goal was to improve the photos rather than significantly change their appearance — and after processing some and starting over several times — I ended out using certain filters frequently and in a similar sequence, like this:

    White Neutralizer: This filter removed color cast from the photos, brightening and clarifying the whites and altering some color characteristics. Though I used it on every one, its effects are very evident on the first four, where white in the blooms is much more like “pure white” in the after-image. The filter also shifted purple to light blue, and the extent of that color change was easily adjusted with the filter’s settings.

    Brilliance/Warmth: I used this filter to adjust color saturation and emphasize contrasts between colors, mostly to the foreground elements of individual images.

    Darken/Lighten Center: This filter was a lot of fun. Its settings allowed me to brighten specific areas in the images while simultaneously darkening other areas. The filter lets you set your own image center with a point-and-click and define the size of the area to be brightened, so you can stab at an area of the image then decide how broadly you want to apply the effect. This one is most evident in the second to last photo, where I wanted to re-balance the lighting over the cluster of orchid blooms.

    Tonal Contrast: While this wasn’t necessarily the only filter I used to alter contrast, I found that it did a good job of enhancing the distinction between foreground and background elements. Very evident in the last photo (though applicable to all), the effect of the filter was to increase the appearance of depth by further darkening and softening backgrounds beyond Lightroom graduated filters, giving the foreground elements more color, clarity, and presence.

    As a last step, I ran all of the images through Nik’s Output Sharpener, mainly to apply sharpening, structural detail, or additional focus to specific parts of each image rather than the whole. I learned pretty quickly that I had to be careful about applying too much sharpening with this tool, and that it was most appropriate (since I had already globally sharpened the image in Lightroom) for selective sharpening.

    I’ve added a “Nik Collection” category to this site; my previous posts exploring the software are here.

    Over the weekend, I’ll be attending two webinars presented by DxO Labs: one providing an overview of all the tools in the Collection, and one about advanced features. I will take notes!

    Select the first image below to slideshow through the before and after versions; thanks for reading and taking a look!