From Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature by Alva Noe:
“Things show up for us as colorful and noisy. But this is all false appearance, a consequence of our particular makeup and local perspective. The qualities of objects we seem to see wouldn’t get cataloged in the final description of absolute reality. For they are merely effects, in our minds, of processes that are, in themselves, without color and without sound…. Everything we know in the world around us — from mountains to ice creams to sunsets to rose petals to the sun and the earth — is made up of physical parts that are made up in their turn of parts that are made up of still smaller parts. It’s pure matter… all the way down.”
“[When] excitement about subject matter goes deep, it stirs up a store of attitudes and meanings derived from prior experience. As they are aroused into activity they become conscious thoughts and emotions, emotionalized images. To be set on fire by a thought or scene is to be inspired. What is kindled must either burn itself out, turning to ashes, or must press itself out in material that changes the latter… into a refined product….
[Elements] that issue from prior experience are stirred into action in fresh desires, impulsions and images. These proceed from the subconscious, not cold or in shapes that are identified with particulars of the past, not in chunks and lumps, but fused in the fire of internal commotion…. Through the interaction of the fuel with material already afire the refined and formed product comes into existence….”
This is the third of three posts — with images magically remanufactured as black-background variations — of Iris domestica photographs that I uploaded to Iris Domestica, the Leopard Flower or Blackberry Lily (1 of 3) and Iris Domestica, the Leopard Flower or Blackberry Lily (2 of 3). Also, for extra fun, I made a collage of all twenty images and included that at the bottom of this post.
Of all of the photos I’ve converted to black backgrounds, these are the most complicated. As is implied by the quotation from Strange Tools above, Iris domestica is a fine example of something that seems to reveal smaller and smaller parts and pieces, the more you look at it. Here, for example, is one of the photos from my previous posts…
… where you would see the two flowers in the center as the subject of the photo, despite the presence of many other elements. This is correct of course, and I guided your eyes toward seeing the photo that way by Lightroom adjustments that created greater visual distinction between the subject and background, by dimming and softening the background so the pair of orange-and-spotted flowers became more prominent.
Converting a photo like this to one with a black background can be a challenge. Last year I did something similar — see Leopard Flower Variations (On Black) from September, 2022 — where I used Lightroom brushes to paint the backgrounds black, limiting myself mostly to the flower blossoms because brushing around the plants’ thin stems, leaves, and seedpods was too time-consuming. Shortly after that, Adobe introduced enhanced masking tools with the ability to select objects, subjects, and backgrounds, which I’ve been using as much as possible since they became available.
Updates to our post-processing tools serve us best when they open up new possibilities; and with these Lightroom masking enhancements, I’ve tried to take on more complicated variations. Instead of just brushing out the backgrounds around parts of an image as I did in the past, I can now use a combination of masks to get better results. With object selection, I can choose different parts of an image that I want to retain as the black-background version’s overall subject, then invert all those selections, then change the background to black.
Here, for example, is an interim step in this approach. I selected parts of the image as individual objects in a single mask one at a time — the flower petals, the seedpods, and the stems — then inverted the mask (shown in dark green). Lightroom’s object selection got a lot right; but as you can see — look to the right of the flower — some of the stems appear disconnected from the rest. This happens when selected objects are close in color to the background colors, and will also happen where there are similarities in sharpness or contrast between foreground and background.
If I stopped here and converted the background to black, the gaps in the stems would be apparent, as you can see here…
… or, up closer, here:
I often compare the next steps (in my own head, at least) to painting different colors on walls and window trim, where you have to pay attention to the boundaries between two objects (the wall and the window frame) and two colors. If you slip with the paintbrush and one color intrudes onto the other, corrective action (!!) is warranted, along with, perhaps, a bit of cussing and extra bits of patience. But you have to fix it because you know it won’t look right if you don’t.
When adjusting masks that have started out coarse as shown above, I’ve learned that I need to remember that elements of any image tend to be brighter where they’re closer to the camera (or to the eye), and darker toward the back. This light-to-dark, front-to-back brightness variation is one of the ways that we perceive two-dimensional images as having depth, and it applies to even the smallest details. In Lightroom, the masks appear to become “fuzzier” when they partially cover darker, toward-the-back elements. If I adjust the masks too much, I lose the front-to-back appearance of depth and leave the image looking flat — and something as small and thin as a flower’s stem would look like a two-dimensional geometric line, instead of a living portion of a plant. At the same time, I have to deal with an illusion: the more I zoom into a photo, the more tiny pixels appear to need adjustments. It took some practice to keep in mind that front/light-to-back/dark contrast helps us perceive something as “real” and avoid adjusting the masks more than I should.
Since I have to pay close attention while working on the masks, I’ve noticed how familiar I become with the subjects of the photos and all their details. For most of my photos, this means that — even if it’s unintentional — I’m constantly observing the structures of plants and their flowers. This in turn helps me shoot with different expectations about what I see, what I can show, and what level of focus or what kind of light I need, especially if the photos might end out with black backgrounds. This is another valuable characteristic of the software tools we use: they not only offer expanded possibilities, but they help us see something we might overlook, as we envision different ways of taking photographs and enhancing them.
Here you see the corrected mask — where the stems (just to the right of the flower) are no longer disconnected from the rest of the plant. I used a “subtract brush” to erase the black background from areas where it intruded on the plant’s stems.
Now I can turn the mask overlay off, and I’ve got a completed black background. Select the first image below if you’d like to see a larger version, and I’ve included the original starting point for this image for comparison.
Thanks for reading and taking a look!