Lilies on Black Backgrounds: A Photo Project (1 of 10)

From More Than a Rock: Essays on Art, Creativity, Photography, Nature, and Life by Guy Tal:

“I’m actively working on a number of themes these days. Some involve a specific subject matter, others result from a fascination with specific locations… and some that at this time can only be described as abstract or immature concepts….

“I realized that I need a new word to describe these ongoing efforts and decided on ‘explorations.’ An exploration is sparked by a desire to understand something, to learn about it, to spend time with it, to tell its story (or mine) without defining a specific outcome in advance. Like a project, I know it will often result in something useful (images, portfolios, books, ideas, personal satisfaction, etc.), but until I know what it is, I find ample and sustained reward in merely being engaged in something that interests and fascinates me: a journey that is more important than any preconceived destination.”

From Lilies by Naomi Slade:

“With legions of yellow and orange lilies available, the dedicated lily lover might consider themselves well served by both plant and colour.”


Hello!

If you’ve come around here now and then, you’ve seen that I often use Lightroom brushes on my photos to paint the backgrounds black as a way of accentuating each image’s main subject. I usually do that as an after-thought; that is, when I’m working through my images in post-processing, I decide that the background is a distraction and opt to get rid of it — sometimes partially, most of the time entirely. There are, of course, different ways to create dark backgrounds when shooting; but many of them aren’t really suitable for outdoor photography using natural light… especially for a shooter like me who likes to take only one lens on each shoot, and leave my flash gear or other supplemental lighting at home.

While working on the white lily photos I featured in two previous posts (see White Lilies (1 of 2) and White Lilies (2 of 2), though, I started wondering if I would have taken the photos differently if I was shooting them with the intention of removing the backgrounds afterward in Lightroom. Would I, for example, use different camera settings? think of lighting in a different way? compose the subjects differently?

To produce pitch-black backgrounds in Lightroom, I reuse a brush preset I created with these settings…

… which will change all brushed areas in the image to their darkest possible values, with saturation and noise set as shown to blur and soften any blips of light or color that still want to peek through the darkened background elements. After completing a “first draft” on a set of photos — adjusting exposure and colors, removing spots, and sometimes cropping — I use a Lightroom brush to outline around the edges of the subject like this:

The outline brush is feathered — as you can see above from the soft edges of the fluorescent green masking — since the shape of the subject varies throughout and its boundaries consist of curved lines and contours. Think of this like painting a wall where there is floor molding of a different color: one of the first things you might do is pick a small brush of suitable size (and bristle density) to paint a thin line of the wall color just above the molding. If you use a brush that’s too large, you’ll likely slop paint onto the molding you’re trying to protect, and have to remove it. If I zoom into a section of the photo I’m working on, you can see something similar near the top of the bloom…

… where the green mask covers part of the petal. I remove that with Lightroom’s Erase brush, and zoom in along all the edges of the flower to remove the mask from any other areas where it’s bled onto the subject.

I then use the same sized brush but without feathering to outline the subject one more time…

… and finally use a larger brush — also without feathering — to paint the rest of the background, effectively converting it to all-black. Turning off the feathering for these last two steps is like using a wider paintbrush in our wall-painting metaphor: you can cover a larger area quickly with more paint and fewer strokes (or mouse movements!).

Here’s the transition through the three steps, first with the mask showing and then with the mask turned off. Turning the mask off and on repeatedly as I apply it lets me see my progress and make sure that I’ve covered everything behind the flower.

The most time-consuming part of this workflow is the first step — outlining the subject with the feathered brush — so I tackle that right off the bat and then finish the rest of the background like a guy slinging finger-paint on poster paper. I’ve experimented a little with doing the same thing in Photoshop instead of Lightroom; and while it’s sometimes easier to mask the subject then flip the background black in Photoshop — the most detailed masking in Photoshop or Lightroom seem to require about the same amount of effort. So I stick with Lightroom, and don’t have to add Photoshop to my workflow to get these results.

With all this in mind, I altered how I took the photos for this series of posts to allow for what I’ve learned about making it easier and more accurate to convert their backgrounds to all-black. Selecting and masking around the subject works best when it’s as in-focus as possible, with good contrast and sharpness between the foreground and background. Since the amount of light and color that reaches the camera’s sensor is determined by a combination of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings — the exposure triangle — I wanted to figure out if different exposure settings would improve my ability to remove the backgrounds.

So I started with an assumption that a higher ISO setting would give me more flexibility in choosing shutter speed and aperture, and experimented with ISOs in the range of 800 to 3200 to see what worked best. ISO 3200 introduced a bit too much grain into the photos; and while I could remove a lot of it in Lightroom, the images ended out softer than I wanted with porous edges around the subject that were difficult to mask. ISO 800 or 1600 provided a good balance between sharpness and grain, so I took about half of the photos at ISO 800 and half at ISO 1600. Either setting gave me what I wanted: a few extra stops of available light with an aperture setting that increased depth of field so that the flower blossoms were well-focused from front to back. Shutter speed settings didn’t matter that much; I only needed a high enough shutter speed to eliminate camera shake and stop the flowers from dancing in a light summer breeze. Any shutter speed greater than 100 worked good enough.

I took all of the photos with the same lens — a Sony 18-250mm zoom lens — whose great advantage is that (though it’s not technically a macro lens) I can get as close as 18 inches from a subject, and get decent focus even when zoomed to 250 millimeters. This lens works well at Oakland cemetery’s gardens since many of the planted areas are set two or three feet above ground level, or the flowers are blooming where I can’t get close enough to use a macro lens. Finally, since I was going to remove the backgrounds anyway, I could take the photographs from different angles, and could disregard random plants, trees, sticks, or stones that might distract from the subject.

There will be about 100 photos in this project, which is why this post is “1 of 10”. Over the past few weeks, I’ve tried to take a few pictures of ever lily variety I could find at the gardens and ended out with photos of a couple dozen different kinds — colors ranging from yellow to orange, pink to red, and magenta to purple. As I overheard someone telling her friends as they passed me hunched over a batch of lilies: “There’s so many flowers here! It’s like going to the botanical garden, but it’s free!”

🙂

If you read this far: bless you! Below are the first ten photos; more soon!





Found Flowers (Set 3 of 3): Captivating Canna

The gallery below contains photos of a canna lily from my garden, the last of three galleries of reprocessed images from my archives.

The first set in this series is here: Found Flowers (Set 1 of 3): Marvelous Mandevilla.

The second set is here: Found Flowers (Set 2 of 3): Luscious Lantana.

Here are links to earlier posts containing some of the other “found photos” I recently reprocessed:

Wordless Wednesday: Five Found Flower Photos
Before and After: Tiny Bubbles
Wordless Wednesday: Hibiscus, Hibiscus, Bug

Thanks for taking a look!

Found Flowers (Set 2 of 3): Luscious Lantana

Hello! The gallery below contains lantana photos, the second of three galleries of reprocessed images from my archives.

The first set in this series is here: Found Flowers (Set 1 of 3): Marvelous Mandevilla.

Here are links to earlier posts containing some of the other “found photos” I recently reprocessed:

Wordless Wednesday: Five Found Flower Photos
Before and After: Tiny Bubbles
Wordless Wednesday: Hibiscus, Hibiscus, Bug

Thanks for taking a look!

Found Flowers (Set 1 of 3): Marvelous Mandevilla

“Mandevilla” …. the word just rolls off your tongue, doesn’t it? I’ve previously posted pictures from a folder I recently found in my photo archives, of plants from my garden taken about ten years ago, resurrected and reprocessed with Lightroom and the Nik Collection. I’ve grouped the remaining photos into three galleries — this one, of mandevilla, that I’m posting today; and second and third galleries of a canna lily and additional lantana that I’ll post in the next few days.

This mandevilla variation was a Sun Parasol White Mandevilla, known for its giant blooms, large leaves, and rapidly growing vine. As you can see from the photos, the flower buds start out as mostly white with pink tint, then open to reveal a bright yellow center surrounded by white and a diminished pink frost. Mandevilla variants available to me locally are normally annual, so I buy at least a couple new ones each year, varying colors among white, pink, and red — the colors I typically find at garden centers nearby. Occasionally, if the winter months are warm enough, the mandevilla will return for one extra spring, a bonus I usually embrace by repotting the plant … and buying a couple more!

Here are links to the previous posts containing some of the “found photos” from my archives:

Wordless Wednesday: Five Found Flower Photos
Before and After: Tiny Bubbles
Wordless Wednesday: Hibiscus, Hibiscus, Bug

Thanks for taking a look!

Before and After: Tiny Bubbles

Every now and then I like to prowl around in my photo archives to see if there are some images I’ve forgotten about that capture my imagination, freshly. The photos I posted on Wordless Wednesday last week (Wordless Wednesday: Five Found Flower Photos) came from one of those prowling expeditions, when I discovered a folder containing about 200 photos that — despite all the photo rework I had done for my Flickr Reboot project — I had overlooked. They were all taken nearly a decade ago, one fine spring day, when many of the flowers were in bloom, and include bee balm, butterfly bushes, coneflowers, hibiscus, lantana, and mandevilla. I’m working through them all now, and will upload a few galleries throughout the week, but I finished this set of lantana blossoms that all had tiny bubbles in common, and decided to post them now.

I think these are photos of Mozelle Lantana — though I’m not entirely sure. I’ve grown many lantana varieties, some perennial, some annual, and some that were technically annual but came back for a couple of years anyway. If I could tell from the photos where on my property they were taken, I’d know for sure; but, as you can see, there is no defining background detail so I’m guessing the plant’s name based on the variety of colors in the blooms. I had just watered the garden, and when I noticed how the water droplets attached to the flowers as little glassy bubbles, I abandoned my gardening chores and brought out the camera instead.

The first gallery shows the final versions of these eleven images, after processing them through Adobe Lightroom and the Nik Collection. Select any image to see larger versions; and if you would like to read more about how the photos were processed, scroll down.

The second gallery shows the before-and-after versions of the eleven images above. I like to write these before-and-after posts (which are now assigned to their own category on this site) to help me think about what I’m doing with image processing and give me practice explaining it. One of the key things I’ve learned from all this practice, though, is this: subtle changes can improve a photo as much as drastic ones, but the cumulative effect of a set of subtle changes can be pretty dramatic.

Cropping and straightening are the first two things I do to every image in a set I’m working on, to set the images to 16×9 aspect ratio if I didn’t take them that way in the camera. Once that’s done, I use Lightroom’s automatic tone adjustments, letting Lightroom adjust exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks. I then apply the same level of sharpening and noise reduction to every photo.

These initial adjustments establish a starting point for the rest of my workflow in Lightroom and the Nik Collection. After completing them, I refine Lightroom’s automatic adjustments, typically reducing exposure slightly if it looks like Lightroom has over-exposed the images. With these photos, I also darkened both shadow levels and blacks, which emphasized color in the flowers without adding saturation or luminance.

Since it was High Pollen Season in Atlanta when I took these photos, the before images show a yellow cast from the pollen dust as well as artifacts that collected on the camera lens and the flowers — which present as dark dashes (if on the lens), black spots (if in the shadows) or white spots (tiny-bright “light catchers” from the sun). I removed some of the yellow color cast by adjusting white balance to a cooler (more blue) setting, then used spot removal to clean up the artifacts and dust. As a final step in Lightroom, I adjusted the sharpening mask, which has the effect of applying more sharpening to the image foreground and less to the background, reducing the appearance of background noise. In Lightroom, you can press the right-slash (/) key to compare the before and after versions of any photo you’re working on, so I used that to perform a quick visual check on each one, to make sure I hadn’t strayed too far from the original image with my adjustments. Then I selected each image for processing with Nik Collection’s Color Efex Pro.

From all my practice with Color Efex Pro, I’ve settled on a handful of filters that I apply to photos when I’m trying to enhance realism but not necessarily add creative effects. To make the process more efficient, I have a recipe set up in Color Efex Pro to apply the effects to each photo simultaneously, then work through them to adjust settings on individual photos:

  • White Neutralizer, which brightens whites without altering any of the other colors.
  • Brilliance/Warmth, which increases saturation and has a setting called “perceptual saturation” that enhances the three-dimensional or depth-perception character of the image.
  • Tonal Contrast, which I use to soften backgrounds if I want to further reduce background detail beyond Lightroom adjustments; or Pro Contrast, if I want contrast adjustments but want to retain background detail.
  • Darken/Lighten Center, which I use to shift visual focus to a specific area of the image and create additional background shadowing.
  • Remove Color Cast, to remove any color cast that has been created by the other adjustments — which, for these photos, consisted of ridding the photos of too much yellow or green shading.

That’s it! Thanks for reading and taking a look!