Before and After: Yellow and Green (and Lightroom Radial Filters)

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).

The red shading shows the area that will be affected — the mask — and can be turned on or off or set to a different color from the Tools menu. The level of feathering, described earlier, determines to what extent the mask softens as it approaches the area that will not be affected by my adjustments.

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.

After duplicating and inverting the radial filter I used for the background, I slid the new one to the left slightly so it would be easier to switch from the foreground filter to the background filter. Lightroom automatically defined the area the new filter would cover when I duplicated it, though I could still adjust it by mouse-grabbing the edges of the filter.

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.

Thanks for looking … and reading!

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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….

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Wordless Wednesday: Soft Steel

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Wordless Wednesday: Summer Canopy

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