"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

Iris Domestica, the Leopard Flower or Blackberry Lily (3 of 3)

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.”

From “The Act of Expression” in Art as Experience by John Dewey:

“[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!

Dogwoods with White Blooms (2 of 2)

From Self-Portrait with Dogwood by Christopher Merrill:

“The dogwood’s etymology is murky….

“One theory holds that the name descends from the Old English word for dagger, the wood being hard enough to fashion into goads and arrows as well as skewers and spindles. It furnished shuttles for the textile industry, which flourished in our village until the Civil War, when, as Kelby Ouchley notes in Flora and Fauna of the Civil War, the wood was used for ‘charcoal, engraving, mallets, tool handles, wedges, plane stock, harrow teeth, hames [the curved pieces of a harness], horse collars, ox yokes, wheel hubs, barrel hoops, machinery bearings, and cogs in various types of gears.’ Also gunpowder and toothpicks….

“There was no connection to dogs in the origin of the name, the canine element emerging only with a change in the language, when the a in dag became an o. Dog-tree, Dog-berry, Dog-timber, Houndberry — these names were coined, possibly because the bark was said to make ‘an excellent wash for mangy dogs,’ or because of the barking sound created by branches rubbing together in the wind.”

From “The Dogwoods” in Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems: 1968-1998 by Linda Pastan:

I remember, in the week
of the dogwoods, why sometimes
we give up everything
for beauty, lose our sense
and our senses, as we do now
for these blossoms, sprinkled
like salt through the dark woods.


This is the second of two posts featuring dogwood trees blooming early this spring. The first post is Dogwoods with White Blooms (1 of 2).

At the end of this post, I’ve included before-and-after versions of four of these photos. Photographing large, bloom-filled trees can be an interesting challenge: there are often so many flowers in both the foreground and background that you end out with no apparent focal point for the images. I often address that by zooming in on individual branches and their flowers; but sometimes I want to include larger sections of the tree with multiple branches and blooms. Doing that, though, causes the camera to further merge foreground and background elements together, especially since I will likely use a higher f-stop, and that tends to flatten the appearance of the image and reduce any sense of three-dimensional depth. I may see certain branches and flowers as the photograph’s subject, but the camera thinks differently: it includes, at least partially in focus, all the elements of the tree that are within the range of the f-stop I selected.

So to give the image a better focal point — which you will perceive as the image’s subject — I use Lightroom’s masking tool to first select the background, a task it does with remarkable accuracy as long as some elements are in focus and they contrast well with the foreground. I then soften and smooth out the background by reducing texture, sharpness, and noise; followed by adjustments to highlights, brightness, and shadows to darken it just enough to create greater differentiation from the foreground. Since I’m effectively pushing the background farther away from you, I may also reduce saturation, because objects that are farther away from our eyes tend to be perceived as containing less color.

Before proceeding, I’ll turn the mask off and on a few times and verify that I’ve included all the background elements I want, and that unmasked areas represent what I will want in the foreground as the subject. For the last photo of the four, then, the masked background looks like this:

I want this background mask as precise as possible, and may adjust it with a brush if it’s included or excluded unwanted elements. I then duplicate and invert the mask (that’s why I wanted it to be so precise), which flips it from a background mask to a foreground (or subject) mask, to look like this:

I can now adjust the appearance of the image’s subject, which — in the case of these dogwoods — typically consists of decreasing shadows and blacks to subtly brighten the flowers, without making them excessively bright. I am generally doing the opposite of what I did to the background, including adding texture (instead of removing it) to give the flowers some additional detail. And since white flowers tend to reflect colors from their surroundings — typically, yellow and green from nearby tree trunks, branches, and leaves; or blue from the sky — I’ll reduce yellow, green, and/or blue from the image overall to whiten the flowers.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Summer Daylilies (1 of 3): Burgundy and Yellow

From “Hemerocallis” in Garden Flora: The Natural and Cultural History of the Plants In Your Garden by Noel Kingsbury:

“The name is from the Greek for ‘day’ and ‘beauty’ — a distinguishing mark of the genus is that the flowers open for only a day (hence, daylilies). The 18 species are found across Eurasia, with most in the Far East. The relationship of the Hemerocallidaceae to other formerly ‘lily family’ plants has been much disputed; current thinking puts Hemerocallis in its own family….

Hemerocallis species can be found in a wide range of habitats, including mountain meadow and coastal situations; the common factor is sun or light shade, with moderately high levels of moisture and fertility. These are clonal perennials, forming dense, competitive, persistent clumps and often surviving in abandoned gardens…. Although they are cold hardy, daylilies thrive particularly well in climates with hot, humid summers. They are listed as potentially invasive in some U.S. states. Hybridisation has resulted in a plethora of cultivars, which are divided into a variety of sections, based largely on flower form — trumpet, flat, flaring, star, spider, ruffled, etc.”


This is the first of three posts featuring photos I took of daylilies at Oakland Cemetery’s Gardens earlier this summer.

These are the same daylilies as those in one of my posts from last year (see Lilies on Black Backgrounds (4 of 10)), but this year’s colors were really intense — with burgundy, especially, much more saturated than it was in the earlier photos. Coincidentally, burgundy and yellow are two of the trim colors on my house; the third color — you may have guessed it — is green! Scroll toward the bottom if you’d like to read about how I created these images.

With this series of daylily photos (as well as some other daylily and lily-lily photos I’m still working on) I decided in advance of my shoots that I’d likely remove the backgrounds behind the flowers in post-processing. With that in mind, I knew I’d want to get as close-in as possible but also capture as much front-to-back flower detail as I could. So I used narrow apertures — that is, high aperture numbers like f/19 and f/27 — along with a high ISO (ISO 1600!) to get the results I wanted for the original image.

While it’s certainly true that such high ISOs introduce noise, it’s also true that tools like Adobe Lightroom do a decent job of removing that noise while retaining an acceptable level of detail. And, as a bit of a contrarian, every time I see and article describing some element of photography that you should avoid — like using high ISOs — I want to try it and see what happens. I’ve written about this previously: see Lilies on Black Backgrounds: A Photo Project (1 of 10), where I describe how I use this approach to manage color and detail when taking photographs in outdoor, natural light — especially when it’s overcast or I’m working in a tree-covered area (which both help minimize shadowy contrasts).

Below you can see the three photos from the last gallery above, and their transition from the original RAW image in the first column; to the second column where I’ve finished color, contrast, and tone adjustments; to the last column where I removed the background by “painting” it black.

Because I used such narrow aperture settings, the images initially contained a lot of extra behind-the-flower detail, most of which looks pretty messy but gave me the option, in this case, of including some of the better-looking daylily’s leaves in each final image. It took a good bit of patience — and a few hours of eyeball-straining mouse-poking — to reveal some of the leaves in these photos. Lightroom’s automatic subject-selection (see Lightroom’s Masking Tool for an overview) correctly treated the flowers as the primary subject, so the leaves require manual brushing to remove the black overlay. Despite the effort required, though, it was a lot of fun to figure out what parts of the background to include — and these leaves added some shapely flourishes to the images.

Select the first image below if you would like to slide through the transitions.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

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