“[Trees] do not dwell only in the present. They remember the past, and they anticipate the future.
“How trees remember, I do not know: I have not been able to find out. But they do. At least, what they do now may depend very much on what happened to them in the past. Thus if you shake a tree, it will subsequently grow thicker and sturdier. They ‘remember’ that they were shaken in the past. Wind is the natural shaker, and plants grown outdoors grow thicker than those in greenhouses, even in the same amount of light….
“Most trees, like most plants of all kinds, are also aware of the passing seasons: what time of year it is and — crucially — what is soon to follow. Deciduous trees lose their leaves as winter approaches (or, in the seasonal tropics, as the dry season approaches) and enter a state of dormancy. This is not a simple shutting down. Dormancy takes weeks of preparation. Before trees shed their leaves they withdraw much of the nutrient that’s within them, including the protein of the chlorophyll, leaving some of the other pigments behind to provide at least some of the glorious autumn colors; and they stop up the vessel ends that service the leaves with cork, to conserve water.
“How do the temperate trees of the north know that winter is approaching? How can they tell, when it is still high summer? There are many clues to season, including temperature and rainfall. But shifts in temperature and rain are capricious; they are not the kind of reliable signal to run your life by….
“The one invariable, at any particular latitude on any particular date, is the length of the day. So at least in high latitudes, where day length varies enormously from season to season, plants in general take this as their principal guide to action — while allowing themselves to be fine-tuned by other cues, including temperature. So temperate trees invariably produce their leaves and/or flowers in the spring, marching to the rigid drum of solar astronomy; but they adjust their exact date of blossoming to the local weather. This phenomenon — judging time of year by length of day — is called ‘photoperiodism.'”
“Deciduous trees… have evolved to deal with surviving cold months. In winter, the energy that a tree’s leaves are able to generate during short daylight hours is less than the energy required to maintain cell function in the leaves. In addition, the loss of water through transpiration exceeds the amount that the roots are able to absorb when groundwater is locked up in ice. So, in autumn, deciduous trees cut their losses. First, thanks to hormonal signals, they drain the sucrose from their leaves and send it to their roots and branches for storage. Then they seal off the leaves at their bases with a corky substance. Without water and nutrients, the leaves’ cells die. In the spring, the trees send stored sugar dissolved in water up the xylem to fuel the growth of new leaves and branches.”
One must have a mind of winter To regard the frost and the boughs Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time To behold the junipers shagged with ice, The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think Of any misery in the sound of the wind, In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land Full of the same wind That is blowing in the same bare place….
January is a great month for hunting down those natural shapes of things that are most apparent only in the winter. For this post (and the next one) I scoured the trees for shreds of Japanese Maple leaves, those that still clung on and held an interesting form despite many days of rain, wind, and cold. Their tenaciousness is admirable — don’t you think?
Even though it was a cloudy day, there was enough sunlight breaking through so that some of the leaves — all but those in the last three images — got touched with a bit of backlighting, just enough so that they looked like the were glowing against the blue-gray skies.
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.