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.

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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.

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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!

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Before and After: Flickr Reboot Edition

I have about 1200 photos on Flickr, distributed in 32 albums, that have been on the site for between five and ten years. Given all the things I’ve been learning about Lightroom, workflows, and the Nik Collection over the past few months, I look at them and … and, what? It’s not that I don’t like them now (although that’s true in some cases) and I’m not overly concerned about flaws – technical or otherwise – in the photos, but I see them differently because I feel like they could be so much better. I’ve had this idea stuck in my head over the past few days that I might like to pull them all down, re-process each one, and either replace them on Flickr or put them somewhere else. I no longer have any of the original adjustments I made, but do have all the images, so would be “starting from scratch” with each one.

When I learned about the photography site SmugMug buying Flickr earlier this year, I had no idea what SmugMug was, other than that I had heard of it occasionally but hadn’t looked into it. That acquisition got my attention, so I learned a little more about SmugMug and attended several webinars a few months ago, tutorials about how to set up a site on SmugMug, customize it, and showcase photography. Like Flickr, SmugMug features photographers at all levels of experience, and though I don’t yet have an account, I’ve explored it enough to feel like it’s similar to Flickr from a customer profile perspective, in terms of photo-sharing and engagement, and in terms of content, with a wide variety of advanced capabilities you can use in the future. There were two things I learned that I liked a lot: the way you can organize photos and treat them as public or private galleries; and the ability to create and customize your own site by building it largely from drag-and-drop content blocks (conceptually similar to the WordPress Gutenberg editor that will become available later this year). It’s fair to say that those webinars influenced me to think about my older work on Flickr and what, if anything, I might want to do with it.

In my former life as an IT Business Analyst, I was often involved in working with teams to define new projects, estimate effort, and develop timelines, so I tend to think of activities like this in project management terms. If I play around with the Flickr reboot idea from that point of view, it looks something like this:

  • Starting with 1200 photos to rework, my first assumption is that I’ll apply the 80/20 rule and eliminate 20% of the images for one reason or another, most likely for insufficient detail, composition I don’t like, or lack of focus that can’t be corrected. So I’ll end out with 960 photos to rework rather than 1200.
  • I estimate I’ll spend less than an hour on each one, with some taking just a few minutes and some taking longer because I decide to do something more creative with certain ones. So I’ll estimate 30 minutes per photo, or 480 hours to get through them all.
  • There’s overhead to consider, mostly around finding the photos in Lightroom, setting up collections or sets to keep the work organized, and figuring out the best way to store them before uploading. I’ll add 10% for overhead to the 480 hours, which gets me to 528 hours.
  • Since I haven’t decided whether to put them back on Flickr or do something else, let’s add another 10% for uploading somewhere, so now we’re at 580 hours. Because I’m not sure if 50-60 hours is enough time to upload 960 photos, I’ll include some buffer at the end for this variable.
  • I’ll add another 10% for things I’ll need to learn along the way – including the probability that I would move the photos to SmugMug and have to learn how to set up a site – and a little bit of buffer, so now we’re at 638 hours. Round numbers are nice, so let’s go with 640 hours.
  • Ah, well, now we’ve got ourselves a 640-hour project. If I spent the equivalent of five “workdays” – 40 hours a week – on this, it would take four months from start-to-finish. But that’s not realistic, mostly because I wouldn’t want to do it. Let’s say instead that I’ll spend no more than two days a week, or 16 hours, which makes the duration 40 weeks, or 10 months … meaning that if I started now, I wouldn’t finish until sometime in the middle of 2019. Yikes!

    The value of doing this – at least, the way I think about it – is the learning experience itself: committing to re-processing nearly a thousand photos with content that I’m familiar with that has personal meaning to me surely will help me grow my skills. I would also likely tell a few blog-post stories about them along the way – especially about those I took when I was working on getting my history degree – and would want to write about what I learn as the work progresses.

    There is no real downside, other than the time it would take that couldn’t be used for something else – like taking new photos! One thing I needed to consider was whether or not I’d find that the results were worth the time I invested, so I’ve experimented with ten of the photos that are on Flickr now to see what I might come up with. The experiment results are shown below – before and after versions of the ten I selected. The only thing I did to both the before and after versions was apply the same cropping so they’re easier to compare. I don’t necessarily think the after versions are final, but I was really surprised to see what a big difference I could make with a few adjustments to each photo.

    Thanks for reading and taking a look … and Stay Tuned!

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    Before and After: Blue Window

    I was browsing through some old photos on my computer the other day, and came across this one that I took about a half-block from Oakland Cemetery a few years ago. The building shown in the photo has since been demolished, but I remembered taking the shot because I liked the color of the boards covering the window and the suggestion of similar colors in the siding. I never did anything with the photo, just kept it, but thought it would be fun to see what I could come up with by experimenting some more with Adobe Lightroom and with the Nik Collection that I downloaded last week.  Here is the original, unedited photo:

    My first step was to use the Transform panel in Lightroom to shift the photo to a perpendicular perspective, so that it appears you are now looking straight toward the window rather than at the angle shown in the original. The transformation also resulted in a segmenting the photo almost equally into three distinct elements: the siding to the left, the window in the center, and the leaves coming in from the right side and partially covering the window.

    At this point, in Lightroom, I made some exposure adjustments to brighten the image overall, to deepen the contrast, and to increase color saturation on the colors in the siding and on the window. The focus on the leaves was not great, so I adjusted sharpness, clarity, and noise reduction to try and repair some of that, but it didn’t really help. Even though the siding and window boards are clear with reasonably good detail, the fact that the leaves were originally out of focus is still very apparent. But sometimes you gotta work with what you’ve got, and see where you end out when you end out there.

    I used this image to become more familiar with different capabilities in the Nik Collection filters, but didn’t keep close track of each incremental adjustment. However, the key changes that got me to the result shown below were these:

    • Adding structure to create additional detail in the siding on the left third of the photo, which also brought out the scraggly vine running up the wall;
    • Using the Remove Color Cast filter to eliminate cyan color from the photo, which shifted the siding colors to blue/gray, purple, and magenta and the window boards from a washed-out light cyan/blue tone to a deeper blue;
    • Using the Remove Color Cast filter to remove most yellow color from the photo, which shifted the leaves on the right side into a richer and more consistent green color rather than a yellow/green blend;
    • Adding the Classical Soft Focus filter primarily over the leaves and slightly over the window boards to reduce the impression that the leaves were out of focus, and create a soft transition from the leaves to the window boards.

    With these adjustments done, I returned to Lightroom and added saturation to purple and magenta colors for the siding and blue for the door, to emphasize three individual color panels in the final image. Here’s where I stopped, with this substantially different representation of the original photo. Click the image to see a larger version.

    To see the progression as a slideshow from the original unedited image to the stylized version shown above, click on the first photo below:

    Thanks for reading and taking a look!

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