“Rousseau claimed to be incapable of thinking properly, of composing, creating or finding inspiration except when walking…. It was during long walks that the ideas would come, on the road that sentences would spring to his lips, as a light punctuation of the movement; it was paths that stimulated his imagination….
“Walk, work, discover…. Trampling the earth with his heavy shoes, disappearing into the brush, wandering among ancient trees.
“Alone, and surrounded — or rather filled — with the quiet murmur of animals and trees, the sigh of wind through the leaves, the rattle and creak of branches. Alone, and fulfilled. Because now he could breathe, breathe and surrender to a well-being slow as a forest path, without any thrill of pleasure but absolutely peaceful. A lukewarm happiness, persistent as a monotonous day: happiness just to be there, to feel the rays of a winter sun on his face and hear the muffled creaking of the forest.”
I’ve been prowling my neighborhood, hunting for splashes of winter color. I’ve ended out with a large, slightly unwieldy batch of photos that I’m organizing into a half dozen galleries, that I’ll be working on and posting over the next week or so. Unlike summer and spring here in the southeast, green no longer dominates the scenes that become my photographs. Where green is present, it’s typically found in hardy grasses; or more commonly, among the ivy varieties whose color shifts from deep green to a shadow-filled version, where aqua or blue are emphasized by seasonal changes and the softer light of a winter sun. Backgrounds, especially, transition toward muted gray, chocolatey brown, and pastel variations of yellow, orange, and gold. My eye moves toward the surprising shapes and textures of plants in their dormant stages, and how those forms stand out as abstractions of their growing season versions.
The two galleries below include images of hydrangeas — bits of hydrangeas — that I found shaded by the trees of Oakland Cemetery’s gardens. The first gallery features those where pink and red was still present on the leaves, after their fall turn and while still barely attached to their stems. The white filaments on some of the leaves — a form of mold or fungus — presented some interesting (that is, frustrating) challenges for the photographer because their contrast with the red shades created a difficult-to-overcome sense that they were out of focus … fuzzy, that is. To (attempt to) improve their appearance, I used radial filters in Lightroom individually over each of the leaves, reducing whites, highlights, and saturation then adding a bit of texture and sharpening to emphasize the veins in the leaves over the cottony fungus.
Except for the last photo below, this second gallery shows side-by-side pairs of the same clumps of spent flower clusters, framed differently. I did very little post-processing on these nine images, mainly some brightness and shadow changes to soften and darken the backgrounds and emphasize the remnants of the buds — which through the zoom lens looked almost like they were suspended in mid-air, held up as they were by tiny threads. Our eyes tend to pass over sights like this; but zoom and macro lenses provide a view of the world that our unaided sight typically misses.
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 gallery below features the last of the four sets of hydrangea photos I started posting earlier in June. These blooms are Bluebird Hydrangeas, which I planted several years ago at the edge of a shade garden surrounded by holly ferns and hostas, where they seem to be thriving. The presence of the holly ferns created a lot of dark green in the shadows, and provided a unique background for the sixth and seventh images.
For these photos, I put some extra effort into getting appropriate focus where I wanted it, and I experimented with casting light from different directions to learn how that affected the images. The clusters of tiny, unopened blooms were challenging because they extended several inches behind the white petals, creating some confusion for the camera (and the photographer!) with even the slightest motion. I added some last minute sharpening to those sections of the photos only, so that those clumps would take on some shape rather than appearing as mushy blobs of alternating colors. To add light, alter its trajectories, and create a little drama, I simply placed an LED lamp in varying positions near the plants until I got an effect that I liked. All in all: great fun!
Here are links to the previous three sets in this series:
The gallery below features another fifteen images of new blooms on three Blue Billow hydrangeas that I previously wrote about here.
I aimed for precise focus on the green bud at the center of each of these blooms, with only partial success. Holding a spring breeze responsible for the slight softness seems like a good strategy; though in reality I would have probably had better results by pulling back a foot or so then cropping half of the extra content out of each one. The tiny center bud is only about the size of a pencil eraser, so getting it in focus with the camera hand-held was a challenge. When working with a macro lens, also, I often find this to be true: subjects like these blooms will come out at least as good, and often much better, If I step back rather than lean in, and will still “fill the frame” appropriately once I get a look at them in Lightroom rather than basing the composition on what I see using the camera’s viewfinder or LED screen.
That’s actually the approach I took in the fourth gallery — of Bluebird Hydrangeas, which I’ll post soon — and it worked out a lot better. In my ideal version of the photos below, both the center and most of the adjacent petals would be tack-sharp. I liked the compositions so worked these photos using typical Lightroom adjustments and Nik Collection filters anyway; hopefully what they lack in focus in some cases becomes less significant if the compositions and lighting are technically decent.
These blooms are more open than those in the previous set, and most (but not all) of the green tint that I described there has faded into white or pale blue. The last photo is just weird — like a landscape from the distant planet Hydrangea — so weird I couldn’t bear to part with it and posted it just for fun.
If you use Lightroom and were interested in the B&H EventSpace webinars I described in that first post, you might want to check their June and July offerings, where several new Lightroom webinars have been scheduled, along with a couple new post-processing sessions.