Before and After: Exposing Hidden Autumn


“Photographs led me to cameras, and over the years the camera became an object I could think with. I could think about light and shadow, about composing the frame, and about what it meant to live in a certain way, to make decisions at many levels, and to document the world.” — from the essay “Salvaged Photographs” by Glorianna Davenport in Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, edited by Sherry Turkle

“Nobody can commit photography alone.” — from Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man by Marshall McLuhan


One of the reasons I’ve always liked photography – and why I’m often drawn to closeup or macro photography – is that viewing the world through a camera creates an opportunity to focus on sights that might otherwise remain unseen. Looking through the camera restricts my view to what fits within the frame, letting distractions fall away, and that remains true if I zoom in or out, or pan horizontally or vertically: what I see through the lens becomes what I choose to see at that moment, and most of what’s outside the frame slides from awareness as I make those choices. I might add to or subtract from that view by manipulating the camera or the lens; but when I take the photo, I’ve selected something that’s captured my interest, or struck me as aesthetically pleasing, or has frozen an instant of time that seems to matter subjectively.

After taking the shots, what I do with them now includes a set of additional (and for me, recently learned) choices that give me the chance to further refine the images toward this deceptively simple idea: this is what I saw and this is what I want to show you.

I assembled the gallery of images below from those I’ve been working on for my Flickr Reboot project; they were all taken at Point Au Roche Interpretive Center or near the city of Plattsburgh in northern New York. While I’ve been posting quite a few similar images (see Autumn Close Up: A Photo Gallery), I set these aside for a couple of reasons. First, as I was reviewing my archived photos, I had flagged every one of these (and quite a few others) to be deleted. Second, I didn’t actually delete any of them and decided to take another look once I got more experience with the tools I was learning, to see what I might do with them even though I originally thought they should be deleted. Other than being on the chopping block for a while, these images had something else in common: they were all hidden bits of autumn, subjects tucked away behind tree trunks, barely visible among shrubs, or nearly buried under fallen logs. Because they were all so hidden – and it was an overcast day as well – the exposures were pretty poor and most of the original images were very dark. I remember crawling on the ground at times to get some of these shots and was disappointed that they ended out being so badly exposed, but I kept them anyway from some vague notion that one day I would figure out what, if anything, to do with them.

With the help of new skills, I wanted to find out if I could recover each of these well enough to create an acceptable image, and simultaneously learn more about how to think about image post-processing. It can be quite a challenge to convey the thought process involved in work like this – words fail and the images help resolve the ambiguity – yet here are a few things, technically and otherwise, that I think I’ve learned:

  • There are limitations to what you can do with an image that is out of focus and most of the tools emphasize rather than reduce the out-of-focus condition. Yet still, if the composition and content of the image seem to matter, those tools that intentionally render the image with special effects (blur, softening, and grain, for example) may help you produce something that is creatively satisfying.
  • Digital cameras capture so much detail that even an under-exposed image may have embedded surprises hidden in the dark. One technique I use often is to over-adjust the image in Lightroom (setting exposure, contrast, highlights, and shadows to an upper or lower extreme) to get a look at what I might easily miss, then dial back the settings to something more subtle.
  • Composition and content rule. Spot removal helps eliminate distractions and shift a viewer’s focus to key elements of the image. And I’ve also seen how replacement of foreground elements (for example, removing a stray branch or stem of grass that seems to intrude on the frame) or blending colors in background elements to improve their consistency, both change the image to help direct the eye toward the intended subject. Changes like this also reduce the amount of information a viewer’s mind has to comprehend when looking at the image, something I think is especially appropriate for closeup or macro shots.
  • Knowing what options you will have in post-processing changes how you compose on a photo shoot. But that can be a double-edged sword and it’s a good idea to take the best image you can, regardless of what you might do with it later. It’s better, for me anyway, to think of post-processing as a way to enhance a vision or point-of-view on what I’m trying to convey, rather than assume I’ll be fixing things I did poorly while toting around the camera. This isn’t an argument against post-processing; it’s recognition that learning those techniques is as important as understanding the camera’s settings and buttons, and that the creative arc of photography extends through all the technology and tools you might use to produce your images.
  • The first gallery below includes my final versions of these seventeen images. The second gallery shows the before and after versions of each one, where hopefully you can see by comparison how I’ve used some of the ideas described above.

    More soon; thanks for reading and taking a look!



    Autumn Close Up: A Photo Gallery

    Over the past few weeks, I’ve posted a series of photos that I called “Single Frames: Autumn Close Up” — individual fall images paired with some reasonably relevant quotations, including a few “gothic” quotes as the days got shorter and darker and closed in on Halloween. I had originally picked out several dozen photos for this series, but I decided to stop at twenty and use the remaining photos a little differently in an upcoming blog post.

    I’m working on that new post now; it will include additional autumn photos and some notes on reprocessing those photos with Lightroom and the Nik Collection. It will take me a few days to wrap that post up and prep the photos that go with it, so I thought in the meantime I’d assemble the “Single Frames: Autumn Close Up” images in a single gallery, which you can see below. I had started including all the quotes with the photos, but couldn’t find a good way to do that without creating a 20-foot long blog post.

    If you’d like to see the original photos in this series with their quotations, I’ve tagged all twenty posts so they can be viewed together, here: Single Frames: Autumn Close Up.

    They look kinda nice as a group like this; select the first image in the gallery to begin a slideshow.

    Thanks for reading and taking a look!

    Single Frame: Autumn Close Up #20

    From John Muir Ultimate Collection: Travel Memoirs, Wilderness Essays, Environmental Studies and Letters by John Muir:

    “Most of the plants have gone to seed; berries are ripe; autumn tints begin to kindle and burn over meadow and grove, and a soft mellow haze in the morning sunbeams heralds the approach of Indian summer.”

    Single Frame: Autumn Close Up #19

    From John Muir Ultimate Collection: Travel Memoirs, Wilderness Essays, Environmental Studies and Letters by John Muir:

    “The grand color glow — the autumnal jubilee of ripe leaves — was past prime, but, freshened by the rain, was still making a fine show….”

    Single Frame: Autumn Close Up #16

    From the (very dark, extra-super-creepy, not for the squeamish, perfectly chilling for the day before Halloween but best not read at night) novel Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates:

    “My name is Q__ P__ & I am thirty-one years old, three months. Height five feet ten, weight one hundred forty-seven pounds…. Distinguishing features: none….”

    “I see my probation officer Mr. T__ alternate Thursdays 10 A.M., downtown Mt. Vernon. My therapist Dr. E__ Mondays 4 P.M., University Medical Center. Group therapy with Dr. B__ is Tuesdays 7 P.M. I am not doing well, I think…. I know they are writing reports. But I am not allowed to see. If one of these was a woman I would do better, I feel. They believe you, they are not always watching you. EYE CONTACT HAS BEEN MY DOWNFALL….”

    “Mon. 4:00 P.M.-4:50 P.M. Mt. Vernon Medical Center on the other side of the campus, in good weather I walk & in bad weather drive…. Dr. E__ says ‘Well, Quentin. This brisk autumn air is a tonic isn’t it. After our long hot summer.’ There is a double meaning in this I know…. [It] is awkward in Dr. E__’s office. I sit across from his desk & stare at the floor. Or at my hands I have scrubbed. RAISINEYES’ wristwatch on my left arm & its bronze face secret where I watch the tiny numerals flashing bronze. & around my right wrist my solitary memento of SQUIRREL. Dr. E__ asks do I have any dreams to speak of today. There is a flurry of leaves against the window behind him & the sky is darkening so early….”

    Single Frame: Autumn Close Up #11

    From John Muir Ultimate Collection: Travel Memoirs, Wilderness Essays, Environmental Studies and Letters by John Muir:

    “In the autumn berries of every color and flavor abound, enough for birds, bears, and everybody, particularly about the stream-sides and meadows where sunshine reaches the ground: huckleberries, red, blue, and black, some growing close to the ground others on bushes ten feet high; gaultheria berries, called ‘sal-al’ by the Indians; salmon berries, an inch in diameter, growing in dense prickly tangles, the flowers, like wild roses, still more beautiful than the fruit; raspberries, gooseberries, currants, blackberries, and strawberries. The underbrush and meadow fringes are in great part made up of these berry bushes and vines….”

    Single Frame: Autumn Close Up #9

    From October, or Autumnal Tints by Henry David Thoreau:

    “It is remarkable that the latest bright color … should be this deep, dark scarlet and red, the intensest of colors. The ripest fruit of the year; like the cheek of a hard, glossy, red apple…. This late forest-flower surpasses all that spring or summer could do. Their colors were but rare and dainty specks comparatively … and made no impression on a distant eye…. It is like a little red paint ground on a saucer, and held up against the sunset sky.”

    Single Frame: Autumn Close Up #5

    From John Muir Ultimate Collection: Travel Memoirs, Wilderness Essays, Environmental Studies and Letters by John Muir:

    “Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer…. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but Nature’s sources never fail.”

    Single Frame: Autumn Close Up #4

    From Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by John R. Stilgoe:

    “Autumn leaves, no matter how brilliantly colored, fall to the ground dead, but the tree lives….”

    Autumn in New York (Set 3 of 3)

    The gallery below contains the third of three sets of photos showing the transition to autumn in northern New York.

    These photos were taken near Peru, Saranac, and Plattsburgh, New York, and are now part of my Flickr Reboot project.

    My other photos from New York are here: New York state category.

    The first set of photos in this series is here: Autumn in New York (Set 1 of 3), and the second set is here: Autumn in New York (Set 2 of 3).

    Select any image to begin a slideshow. Thanks for taking a look!