Jul 192009

It’s already Sunday and I’m so much behind. Sorry for that, I ran pretty out of time. That’s for quiet weekends 🙂

This image was taken Friday morning on my way to work. I actually thought all the time I would take another image, one of the current mirror series, but when it turned out worse than expected, I instead found that I really like this one for a certain quietude in it and for its composition in general.

The Song of the Day is “Morning Glory” from the 1967 Blood, Sweat & Tears debut album “Child Is Father to the Man”. Hear it on Deezer.

Jun 062009

Yes, I have finished SoFoBoMo some days ago, but this time I want to go the whole way. I want my book printed, and the company that I try at the moment is Blurb.

You may remember that I had trouble with my InDesign template, because when importing the PDFs into Photoshop, in order to save them as PNG files that can then be imported as full bleed images in BookSmart, the backgrounds came out transparent, and Photoshop’s import default of “Crop to Bounding Box” produced different sizes for different pages.

You may also remember, that I had trouble setting the color of the spine and the flaps of the dust jacket in BookSmart.

Well, in the meantime I have solved all these problems. Here are some notes that may be helpful to others:

PDFs exported from InDesign have a transparent background. A PDF reader will not show the problem, because it has an implicit white background, but you are affected when you import the PDF into Photoshop. I found that the problem can easily be solved in the most elementary master page in the template.

InDesign has a concept of basing pages on “Master Pages”, thus when you change a master page, all pages based on it, get the change as well. But it goes further, because master pages can be based on other master pages. In my SoFoBoMo template I have an empty spread as the most basic master. Based on that, I have added a master spread with page numbers, based on that master spreads with text, master spreads with text and images, and so on. Thus, the only thing to do, is to insert a full page white rectangle on one of the pages in the empty spread, copy it to the other page, and you’re done. All other pages are based either directly or indirectly on these empty masters.

For the PDF and for Issuu this makes no visible difference, but in Photoshop, the PDF pages are now imported correctly as a flat image with white background, and they are of course all of the correct size.

The problem with the colors on spine and flaps of the book was also solved easily. First you have to know the correct color. Open the book in InDesign (or whatever you use), sample the background color of the cover and write the RGB values down. This is necessary, because in BookSmart you can’t sample color values from an image.

Now open BookSmart and go to the cover. In the toolbar, there is a button named “Backgrounds”. Don’t take one of the preset colors, but instead choose “More Options”, and in the color selector that appears, simply enter the RGB values that you have written down before.

This sets a background color for the whole cover, but only spine and flaps will be affected. The front and the back are full bleed images from your PDF anyway.

Problem solved, but this just opened another problem: How to replace the book, that’s already on Blurb.com, with the new version? I didn’t find anything in the menus, neither in BookSmart (which uploads books, but other than that is not concerned with anything on their website), nor in the menus of my account page or the detail page of my book. I couldn’t even change the old book to “private”. Bummer! If I uploaded the new version, I would have two identical books, with the only difference that one has a faulty dust jacket!

Some research in their forums revealed that there is no way to replace a book on Blurb.com. You just have to delete it and then upload the new version.

OK, this left me none wiser. There was no way to delete a book. I figured that this must be, because I have an order running, but then, how do you update a successful book? One, that has always some orders running?

It turned out that I was wrong and the problem lay elsewhere. While I tried all the menus on their site, I found a menu entry “Announce”. This is meant to make Blurb send emails to addresses you specify, but in order to use that service, your own email address must be verified. Mine was not, thus I went to “My Account / Account Info” and requested verification. They sent me an email, I clicked the link in the email, my address was verified and … suddenly I could remove my book!!

Thus, remember: When you set up an account on Blurb.com, you are not prompted to verify your email address, but without verification, you can’t administer your own books.

As regards the Image of the Day, well, we had a somewhat rainy day 🙂

It’s been shot from under an umbrella, using the new Tokina 11-16/2.8 at 11mm, f4.5, 1/15s and ISO 200, handheld and with a polarizer. In post-processing I used PhotoLift to strongly push local contrasts, some selective blur, a host of curves and levels adjustments, some local with masks, a vignette, some photo filter layers, various Hue/Saturation layers in different blending modes, and I guess this was it 🙂

The Song of the Day is “The Rain Song” by Led Zeppelin. I have it on the 4CD box “Remasters” and on their original fifth album “Houses of the Holy”. YouTube has a version from from the soundtrack to the concert film “The Song Remains the Same”.

Apr 242009

No censorship today. Promised 🙂

Instead I want to talk about a thing that I just did in Photoshop and that may be of interest to you. I probably should make a proper tutorial with screenshots and step-by-step images of it, but I am too tired. My day was rather hectic, I am on the train to Carinthia now and I will stay there for a week, and just like always before I go on vacation, things get really awry. In fact I fixed the last bug 15 minutes before I left. Let’s hopethat was it 🙂

Enough of work. Let’s look at the Image of the Day now. I shot it this morning against extreme backlight. To the left is the original out of the camera. Quite dark, huh? You should really click both to appreciate the difference.

Honestly, I didn’t think that I would be able to fix it. In that extreme contrasty light, there could not possibly be any detail left in the shadows, could it? Well, turned out it could. Obviously under these conditions, shooting in 14bit RAW is a real life saver.

I converted the image to a very flat file, just to make sure that I get every bit of detail that I can. Then I copied the layer, treated it with Noise Ninja, and changed the “Blend If” sliders to 0% in the highlights and 100% in the shadows, essentially giving me noise reduction with probably a little loss of texture in the shadows, while keeping the highlights crisp.

Eventually I intended to push saturation and put contrast back in, but before that, I wanted to heavily push local contrast. There are multiple ways to do that. One is, to use the tone mapping algorithms of some HDR tool like Photomatix Pro or Essential HDR, the other is, to use a specialized tool like PhotoLift, and finally one could even employ the good old unsharp mask filter to enhance local contrast with a high radius and a low amount (HIRALOAM, as Dan Margulis calls it). In this case I used PhotoLift, and I used it on a merged copy of the layers below, specifying a very high amount of local contrast (160 on their scale) and -90% global contrast. Thisyielded a ridiculous image, just like an HDR completely overdone, almost local contrast only. Then I changed the blending mode to “Soft Light”, and – voilà – back were contrast and quite some saturation.

At that point I recognized, that I would not get away with this image without further tricks. I had steepened contrast in the low tones so enormously, that there was now a red halo along most high-contrast edges. It’s not the lens, the Sigma 70/2.8 has almost no chromatic aberrations, neither lateral nor longitudinal, and of course not at f8, no, this must have been a sensor artifact due to the incredibly high contrast. Of course it was negligible in the original, but after so much amplification, it was clearly an issue.

What I did, was to create an edge mask. I have an action for that, because I use edge masks often to restrict sharpening to edges only. Basically it involves Photoshop’s “Find Edges” filter, desaturating, inverting and slightly blurring the result, and then manually applying levels, to find the right balance between edges and background.

I created such a mask, but only this time I did not apply it to a sharpening layer, but instead to a “Hue/Saturation” adjustment layer, and in that layer, I desaturated the reds to -80%. The result was striking. All the halo artifacts were gone.

Without any danger, I could now further increase saturation by a combination of “Hue/Saturation” layers in different blending modes and with different “Blend If” options. For more on that, please see my tutorial in “683- Welcome To The Republic“.

Finally I used my currently favorite sharpening method, involving a copy/merged layer, setting it to “Luminosity” mode, sharpening with 180/0.5/0, adjusting the “Blend If” sliders by splitting the darks and pulling them up to 63, splitting the lights and pulling them down to 128. In this case I even lowered opacity to 70%. The result was a very crisp sharpening in the mid-tones, completely without any sharpening artifacts laike halos. Ask me if this was too quick, I may explain it in a tutorial of it own.

EDIT: I normally don’t do that, but only at home did I recognize how laptop display and reason had failed me: The laptop can’t display real, deep blacks, and I had not payed attention to the histogram. The image as displayed yesterday evening was much too timid in the dark tones. I salvaged that by creating a CMYK image from a merged copy, taking the black channel, and multiplying it into the low half tones, with full blending in the blacks and no blending from medium gray upward.

Sorry. From here on it’s again the original text of the post.

The second image did not have any problem like #1. In fact I have shot it in flat, even light in a shadowy street. It did have a small amount of purple fringing though. Not much, but at f4, a certain amount of purple fringing is not uncommon along contrast edges on chrome parts. It may happen even with very good lenses like this Sigma 70/2.8 Macro lens.

Honestly, it wouldn’t have been necessary at all, but as I already was at it, I did the same trick again, this time to fight purple fringes. I added an edge mask to a “Hue/Saturation” layer, and with that layer I desaturated magenta and blue to -90%. If I had had those colors anywhere else in the image, I could have painted in the mask, to restrict the effect to the chrome areas, but in this caseit was not necessary.

Well, that’s it for today. I’m amazed that I managed to write that much 🙂

The Song of the Day is “Seein’ Red” by jazz clarinetist Edmond Hall. I have it on disc 31 of “The Ultimate Jazz Archive”, that wonder weapon in all musical fights, but as this 168 CD collection may be a tad expensive in the US (did I ever mention it cost me 99€ only), I have also found the album “Profoundly Blue” for you. It contains the song as well as another album that you can hear at Deezer. Enjoy.

Dec 142008

Well, I shouldn’t promise things that I can’t deliver. These are images of yesterday afternoon, and when I posted the lens index, I had all of them already taken but none post-processed. Doing so took me until mid-afternoon today, but I guess it was worth not rushing things, and there are even lessons to be learned.

Weather in Carinthia is crazy at the moment. Villach has about a foot of snow, Klagenfurt has none. They are 40km apart with a height difference of 50 meters. There is only a lake in between, no mountain range, no nothing. For all practical reasons they should have the same weather. It’s only they don’t. This was the third weekend in a row, that I arrived in Villach during snowfall. The only reason that the snow does not pile up higher, is that we are too low. Half of the snow does not make it down to us and ends up as rain.

Unfortunately rain makes the snow quickly fall down from the trees, and somehow this looks bleak and sad. I wanted to have real snow, freshly fallen or at least looking like that, and so I took the car and drove the street up Mount Dobratsch. You know it by now, it’s that mountain that broke apart during an earthquake in 1348, the year when the Great Plague arrived in Europe. As if the plague wouldn’t have been fun enough.

From 700 meters on the road was solid snow, but I had no problem driving all the way up to 1750 meters. From there I could have gone up to the summit, but as I had entered dense fog at 1600 meters, I was not sure if it would be a good idea to go any higher. I took some images up there, made some wrong steps and was suddenly in deep snow up to my chest, in short: it did not look promising. Not winter wonderland, only winter, fog and no view. And here comes one of the lessons:

Every now and then someone posts about how RAW is inconvenient, how they don’t see a difference, how much less hassle JPEG is, while it provides superior or at least comparable image quality, and so on and so forth. Ken Rockwell is famous for it (and for all other sorts of interesting viewpoints, some remarkably lucid and some simply ridiculous), but even David Ziser did it for some length of time (Lightroom had him converted), and my friend Paul Lester does it still.

Actually there is nothing wrong with that, as long as it works for you. It certainly did for David as a highly successful wedding pro, and it obviously does for Paul. For me it does not.

JPEG is much too restrictive for me. I like to do extensive post-processing, enjoying the work in Photoshop almost as much as the actual shooting, but that is not my point today. The point is that without a RAW file, a good RAW converter and an arsenal of tricks in Photoshop, some images would not be possible at all. This is one of those images.

Take your time, click on the two versions, the second, the pale one being what the camera saw (and I as well, to be honest), and the first one what I did in DxO and Photoshop. Can you do that with a JPEG? No, you can’t. You would have to stretch the image so far beyond its capacity, that half of it would suffice to render it a mess.

Look at the JPEG from the camera: there is no contrast at all, no texture in the snow, and from that image alone, you’d get no idea of what it looks like up there. Sure, sure, I said I didn’t see much more than the camera, so why would I want to make an image that would not be true to reality? But that is the wrong question.

If I only had the JPEG, I wouldn’t need to bother showing it at all. This gray mess, what it is about? Well, not much more than bland grayness. You can’t really tell how the snow covers these barns, you can’t see how it smoothes out any jagged form, the picture is a complete waste of storage. As a JPEG shooter you’d have to throw it away.

So, obviously there is a reality of soft, ondulating forms up there on the mountain, and shooting JPEG, the true-to-reality plain JPEG, you can’t show it. Well, in RAW you can.

When I work on such an image, I always try to get the best RAW conversion possible. I know I’ll have to stretch the image contrast beyond believe, and I know that all flaws in the RAW conversion software, all flaws in my own technique will be amplified and thus revealed. Knowing that, I always begin as solid as possible, and since almost two months this means to convert the RAW in DxO Optics Pro. I have already written a lot about that program, I am still satisfied with it, and at the moment I use it for all high ISO and for all snow images.

Why for snow, you ask? Well, the reason is, that I need to stretch contrast, and often also to dramatically increase saturation. RAW conversion artifacts and lens flaws like chromatic aberrations would become dominant in such an image. I have experienced that once with a conversion done in Adobe Camera RAW (I believe it was this image), and when I then tried the same process based on a conversion by DxO, it was dramatically better.

DxO reaches that level of precision by doing much of its work before de-mosaicing. One good example is noise. In all these images I begin with a straight conversion in DxO, using one of the presets. I use the Photoshop import plugin to pull it as base layer into Photoshop. Then I duplicate that layer, push local contrast using Photo Lift, multiply this layer with reduced opacity and normally also a mask, often apply a photo filter adjustment layer to fine-tune colors, strongly saturate with “Hue/Saturation” layers in various blending modes, apply levels and a contrast curve globally, may add further local contrast with a masked curves layer, and finally apply a vignette.

All that of course increases noise, even if the original image was taken at base ISO (which is true for all these images), and in case of the barns covered in snow, I even had to apply a surface blur to the Photo Lift layer, but still, when you amplify so much, some noise is inevitable, and then it is of utmost importa
nce how this noise looks like. The noise that remains in images converted by DxO looks … crystalline. Not like digital noise at all. It does not harm any image, but it actually enhances snow images.

Most of these images were made using the Sigma 10-20, a fine ultra-wide lens for DX format sensors, the one exception is the barn image, for that I used the Nikon 18-200 VR. Have you ever changed lenses standing up to your chest in snow and not knowing how to best get out of it? Funny, I can tell you 🙂

The Image of the Day was taken on the way up, at a height of about 1100 meters, at the same place where I shot the last of the series, on my way down, like all other images.

There is another lesson though. Just look one more time at these images. They all look slightly different, don’t they? Just rightly so, I’d say, given that they were taken in different places and over the time of about two hours. And still, they make no proper series. Remember my SoFoBoMo book? There I had shot all images in an afternoon, but it has taken me weeks to post-process them in a way that they had the same look.

All the images on this page look fine individually, but were I to make them a true series, for example a book, I would have to invest much more in visual coherence, probably giving up individual “truth” for the flow of the series.

The Song of the Day is “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” from the 1992 Manhattan Transfer “Christmas Album”. Hear it on YouTube.

Nov 302008

When I posted “771 – And Winter Came” a week ago, I was met with mild mockery. I admit, there was not much snow to be seen 🙂

These two images are from Saturday, the first one from the morning. It had snowed from Friday afternoon all through the night, and when I went fetching breakfast in the morning, I made this shot, using the Nikon 70-300 VR at 300mm.

The image out of the camera had almost no contrast and definition at all. It was shot at ISO 200, the Nikon D300’s normal ISO, and it was exposed more or less “to the right”, thus I saw no reason to favor the precision of DxO Optics Pro over the convenience of Adobe Camera RAW, especially as I wanted to take the image to Photoshop anyway, but this turned out to be an error.

Mind you, this is a color image, but of course there was no color at all. Trying to push local and global contrast, I quickly found out that Adobe Camera RAW had introduced all sorts of tiny color artifacts, and pushing contrast greatly amplified them. Of course simply working with layers in “Luminance” mode would have hidden that, but wanting to fix it at the root, I re-developed the image in DxO Optics Pro, and, boy, did that make a difference. This is one of those areas where DxO shines: precision. There was a lot of fuzziness, that is to be expected when one looks through 500 meters of dense snowfall with an effective focal length of 450mm, but there were no color artifacts at all. Impressive. Read more about DxO in my ongoing series of posts that document my experiences with it.

The second image, the Image of the Day, was shot in the afternoon when something almost like the sun began to shine through the clouds.

This image is a rule-breaker. One of the things that Craig Tanner constantly preaches, is that in photography, two is an odd number, and that so often when one has the choice to use one, two or three of a kind of subjects, either one or three are preferable to two. The reason is, that two subjects of the same kind tend to look boring and symmetric, redundant in a way.

Well, here it works. We have two trees, symmetrically arranged, but everything else is asymmetric on multiple layers.

The other thing normally not to do is to have a fence or something like that in the foreground, running across the frame. It makes the image inaccessible, keeps the viewer out. Here we have something similar, in fact the edge of a pond, and although it works like a wall in front of us, the two trees provide a mighty and powerful door frame, leading the eye through and into the winter wonderland behind.

I took this image to DxO as well, trying different presets until I found one that would work as a good start. Then, in Photoshop, I copied the layer, applied Photolift (more about this useful plugin here) for a strong push in local contrast and put the result in “Multiply” mode with reduced opacity, added some curves layers with masks for local contrast adjustments, and strongly pushed saturation. A levels adjustment, a curves layer for global contrast, some vignetting, some sharpening, and that’s it. With the exception of saturation adjustments, this was a similar procedure to the one used on the snowfall image, only more subtle in the contrasts.

Update – Monday: I don’t do this normally, but last night I have processed another image of this series. I would have normally displayed it together with today’s post, but it really belongs here, to the other images of one marvelous winter day in Carinthia. Here it is.

The Song of the Day, “My! My! Time Flies!“, is another one from Enya’s new winter album “And Winter Came”. See a video on metacafe.

May 092008

This is an image that I shot on Tuesday. I couldn’t post it that day, because my ISP had severe DNS problems. I could resolve most websites, but www.blogger.com was not one of them. Bad luck. The next two days I had no time at all, now it’s Friday afternoon, I sit on the train again and try to catch up.

While post-processing this image of an old Volvo, I thought that the method is very simple, takes hardly any time and is so versatile, that I should probably make another tutorial. Here we go:

This time we look at the incredible power of a frequently underused feature – blending modes. What is a blending mode anyway? Well, that’s basically the method Photoshop uses when displaying a layer that is on top of other layers. The most frequently used blending mode (and the default) is “Normal”. Basically that means that the top layer hides the layers below. Pretty as you would expect it. Think of it as a stack of playing cards. You can see the top card, but nothing below.

Even in “Normal” mode we can make some interesting things. We can attach a mask to the top layer, and by painting on the mask with black, we can hide the layer partially (mask it). It’s a bit like cutting away parts of the top card in the stack. We can also lower the opacity of the top layer from 100% to, say, 50%. Now you can see through the top layer like through a colored plastic foil.

Both of these techniques, masking and opacity, will be used, but we will use it on layers of more exotic blending modes.

Let’s first begin with a look at the original Volvo as the camera has recorded it. I always shoot “Large RAW + JPEG Fine”, which on my D300 means to use the full 12 megapixel, record the sensor data as a RAW file and to additionally produce a JPEG file of the same size and the best possible quality.

This image, the JPEG from the camera, is obviously meant to be about the headlight. I have used my Sigma 10-20 at f4, went very near and focused on the glass. With a lens this wide and with a maximum aperture of f4 (note: maximum aperture = minimum f-number), you have always a big depth of field, but when you focus near enough, you’ll still get some background blur. That’s what I was after.

As regards exposure, the camera has done what cameras set to matrix metering tend to do. The exposure is pretty leveled out. There is clearly detail almost everywhere in the car, only the reflexes in the headlight are partially burnt out, but that still looks pretty good to me. The house in the background is perfectly exposed but ugly, and although the sky is much too light, it seems to hold detail as well.

I want this to be about the light. As the image originally was, the light was in an awkward position, neither centered nor on a third. I wouldn’t want to center it anyway, so let’s put it on a third. The Rule of Thirds is no hard rule at all, but here it does well. In Camera RAW I crop in from the left and a little from below, a tiny bit from the right, and at the same time I make the image boring and flat. I do this by using a linear tone curve (medium contrast is the default) and letting the automatics set exposure, contrast, etc.

I don’t always crop in Camera RAW. Normally I do it in Photoshop, and sometimes even at the very end of processing. In Photoshop I also choose the option to hide the cropped area instead of deleting it. Then I can always go back with “Image / Reveal All”, and that without reverting the other steps made in between. Here cropping in Camera RAW is OK, as I exactly know what I want.

For the next steps I want to have another layer, basically the same, but with even less overall contrast and instead much increased local contrast. This is the layer that I want to use for blending. In order to get such a thing, I duplicate the background layer and use the PhotoLift plugin on it. See “492 – Roughly About Sundown” for more about that. Alternatively you could also use a curves layer to lower the contrast, and then unsharp mask with a high radius and a low amount (well, to get this effect you’d need more of a medium amount). This is not as convenient as PhotoLift and takes some experimenting, but it works quite well. See how we get detail in the sky now. The look of this layer is almost like many HDR images are, unnatural and comic-like. As it is, this layer is still in “Normal” blending mode.

Next we set the blending mode (that’s at the top of the “Layers” palette, left of “Opacity”) to “Multiply”. Eeek! That’s much too dark! On the other hand, the sky is nice, the ugly house is mercifully lost in the shadows, and maybe the darkness would do nicely as a vignette.

Let’s add a mask now, and then let’s paint with a big, soft brush and the color black on the mask. Where it’s black, the layer with the mask is hidden. Let’s do that on and around the headlight. Ahhh! Much better. The problem is only, that what we have revealed, is still the boringly flat original background.

What do we need now? Basically we want our contrast back, and along the way we want some more colors as well. We don’t want it everywhere, we only want it on the headlight, or in other words, we want it where we have painted with black on the mask. I simply duplicate the top layer, change the blending mode to “Soft Light”, and then invert the mask. Voilà! A little sharpening with an edge mask, and that’s the Image of the Day. Here is a shot of the layers palette.

What have we done? We have set a strong focus in the image. This is now really about the headlight, nothing else.

Of course the same result could have been reached in a number of ways. There is always more than one way to do things in Photoshop, but I think two layers, that’s not too shabby. The point is, that it really pays to know about blending modes and what you can do with them.

This is the image that inspired me to write about blending modes, but compared to the original image, the effects are still subtle. Let’s look at something really dramatically bad, and let’s try to chang
e it into something usable.

Today I’ve asked my friend Erich to sit for a really bad portrait. I wanted something terribly lit, an image with a light background (a window), the face looking into the room, being fully in shadow. This is a worst case scenario, something that I would normally avoid under all circumstances, and if I couldn’t avoid it, I would use a flash. Still, sometimes such an image is all that we get. It has either been taken by someone else who didn’t care, or we had the choice to take it or get no image at all. The first image is straight from the camera. We have extremely harsh contrasts, the background is partially gone and we still don’t see details in the face.

The first step is again to convert it in Camera RAW into something flat. The real reason behind this is to incorporate all detail that we can get. The result is even less attractive. Now let’s do some blending.

We begin with “Multiply” again. But, wait, what do we blend? For the last image we have used a pixel bearing layer with increased local contrast, but this is not always necessary. You can blend any layer, even adjustment layers. Thus we add a curves adjustment layer, don’t bend the curve at all, and only set the blending mode to “Multiply”. This has the same effect as duplicating the background and setting the result to “Multiply”, only the curves layer takes much less space in the resulting file. But this is not only more efficient, we could even manipulate the curve to fine-tune the effect. No need to do it here, but it’s good to know that we can. The effect on the background is OK, but of course we want to paint in the mask to reveal the face. This is what the image to the right shows.

Let’s add another curves layer to lighten up the face. I duplicate the “Multiply” layer, change the blending mode to “Screen” (which strongly lightens up) and again invert the mask. Now that’s dramatic! For the first time we see the face.

That’s positively the right direction, but I want more light. One way would be to duplicate the screen layer, but doing so still does not give enough light, and even worse, the contrast in the face is deteriorating. Let’s try another blending mode.

Basically there are three groups of blending modes that work well in such situations. One group darkens the image. “Multiply” is the most frequently used mode of them, “Color Burn” and “Linear Burn” are also useful. A white layer in one of these modes is neutral and does not change the image.

The second group lightens the image. We have already seen “Screen”, “Color Dodge” and “Linear Dodge” are others. A black layer in one of these modes is neutral and does not change the image.

Finally there are modes that increase contrast. Light portions of the upper layer lighten the image, dark portions darken it. “Soft Light”, “Overlay” and “Hard Light” are the most useful modes in this kind of post-processing. A mid-gray layer in one of these modes is neutral.

What we need here is first some more light, and trying the lightening group shows that “Linear Dodge” does quite well, although we need to dial back opacity to 80%. The first attempt at a mask was a copy of the mask for the screen layer, but then I decided to use a strongly blurred version of that. Furthermore I have painted in the mask to tone down some highlights that would otherwise have burned out. “Linear Dodge” preserves more contrast than “Screen”, but it also tends to be aggressive to extreme highlights, so be careful.

The next step is to increase contrast. We don’t need much, but some contrast we do need. The most gentle mode to increase contrast is “Soft Light”. “Overlay” and “Hard Light” would be next, but for this particular case, “Soft Light” at an opacity of 50% is OK.

Originally the face was in complete shadow and we had no clue what a correct white balance would be. Now though we see that the face is too yellow. The camera was on automatic white balance, and in that insane mix of background daylight and muted interior neon light it actually did quite well. Still, it’s too yellow and we’ll need to correct that.

There are many ways to correct color, and while I have extensively used Lab color mode last year, my current tool is the “Photo Filter” adjustment layer. We need some cooling here, and the cooling filter of choice for this image is “Cooling (LBB)” at the default strength of 25% and an opacity of 30%. Of the three cooling filters, LBB is the one that has a slightly reddish cast, and that looks good here.

Now that colors and tones are about right, it is a good time to clone out some blemishes of the skin. Remember, this is not about altering the image, it is about removing distractions that are not part of the personality of your model. Everybody has some red spots at times, but nobody considers those spots essential for recognizing the person. They are alway in different positions, it’s only the photographic image that would lock them in place. By removing them, we only reveal the archetype the sits below. Good riddance.

We could stop here, but a little beauty blur is always nice in a portrait, and even more so when the image quality is already stressed by an attempt to pull detail out of deep shadows. I call this my “neutral blur”, and I have an action for that. Basically it goes like this:

Select the whole image, “Copy merged” and paste into a new layer. Duplicate this layer. Set the first one to “Screen” mode and Gaussian blur it with a radius of 30 pixels. Let Opacity at 100%. Then set the other one to “Multiply”, blur it with a radius of 5 and set the opacity to 60%. Group the two layers and set the opacity of the group to what looks good. Here I have used 70%.

For women we would probably leave it at that, but Erich is a man and here we want a tad more definition. I could have used a PhotoLift layer, but instead I “Copy Merged” again and use unsharp mask with an amount of 60 and a radius of 60 pixels on the result. An opacity of 50% is ideal in this case.

Impressive? Certainly. It’s not that I did this in zero time, not at all. Especially the mask of the “Linear Light” layer took me some time, but I guess the result clearly recommends having a look at blending modes.

One note though: Don’t expect such extreme manipulations to work with JPEGs taken with a point-and-shoot camera. Photoshop can’t do wonders. Noise and JPEG artifacts will frequently restrict how far you can go. For maximum malleability you need RAW files and a DSLR.

The Song of the Day is again “Them There Eyes“, but this time it’s not Louis Armstrong, this time it’s Anita O’Day and her 1957 collaboration with the Oscar Peterson Trio “Anita Sings the Most”.

Apr 082008

Welcome to the second edition of “Fine Art Explained“.

Every once in a while I write a Photoshop tutorial, and that can be for one of three reasons: I could have found an interesting technique that I like to share (“448 – Down In The Hole” is such a case), I could have found an interesting tool or plugin (in “492 – Roughly About Sundown” it’s PhotoLift), or I feel that I have found an interesting solution for an originally unspectacular image, something that I am proud of. In the latter case I simply show how I develop an image from ground up. That’s “Fine Art Explained“, and “511 – Gasoline Alley” was the first example.

Yesterday was a drab, cold day, and I left work early, heading not west, towards home, but east into the city’s center, the first district, the part that was walled from medieval times until the walls were torn down under Napoleon Bonaparte.

Near the northern border, near the channel that comes in from river Danube, is a gothic church, “Maria am Gestade” (Saint Mary by the Waters), and from its western facade there are stairs down to a small place called “Am Gestade“. This is our stage. Here I took an image of a man walking down the stairs, here I made a series of photos, trying to capture the spirit of the place.

I had to wait some time until the place was empty, but I used the time nevertheless, making image after image, looking for something that would work. I finally settled with this image: Nikon 18-200 VR at 18mm, 1/100s and ISO 280. Much of the stairs in the foreground, a door and the yellow lines, in the background the curving row of houses that leads into the unknown. No sky. This image and the image of the man walking down are JPEGs straight from the camera.

Whenever I am at that point, I ask myself: “What’s wrong with this image? What is too much, what is missing?”. Here the answer was clear: the expanse of the place lacked contrast and most of all a focal point, a center of interest. OK, I thought, maybe I can use the man.

I opened up the image of the empty place in Adobe Camera RAW, applied some basic adjustments there, and then loaded the second image, the image of the man, converted with the same parameters, into another layer. There was a gully to the left of the man, and I used that to rotate, resize and skew the top layer. This was easiest when I set the opacity of the top layer to 50%, so that I could see the gully on both layers. Moving, rotating and skewing took its time, and, as you can see, the result is not perfect.

The reason is, that the images were taken with different focal lengths and different perspectives, but after I had applied a black mask and by painting with white on the mask revealed only the man, it did not matter at all. The man had neither hard edges, nor did he have to have a certain alignment to any edges in the image. Organic forms are very forgiving in that regard.

You see, I have combined two images, and one of them has been scaled to less than half its size. The result of this scaling is most certainly an increased relative sharpness of the scaled-down image. In this case it was not so pronounced, but had it been, then I would have had to slightly blur the man now.

The next image shows a small but important step. I have cleaned up the image and removed unimportant but distracting details. The most obvious is the glaring puddle in the background, near the right edge. It’s extremely high contrast, and the eye is naturally attracted to high contrast. Some smaller specks of litter on the stairs and some near white points in the far background also had to go, because they were in positions where I absolutely did not want to lead the eye. Basically the idea was to make the man the single most important focal point, and everything else, even the door included, his arena.

There is not much difference in the next image. I have selected the yellow of the stripes (Select / Select Color Range) with a narrow range (fuzziness set to around 50), and then added a “Hue/Saturation” adjustment layer, automatically taking the mask from the selection. Here I added a healthy dose of saturation to the yellows, making them pop. In another “Hue/Saturation” layer I have desaturated some already very saturated reds in the far background. I did this, knowing that I would add global saturation later, and I wanted a level ground for all colors.

Compared to the JPEG from the camera, I had already increased mid-tone contrasts a bit in the RAW converter, but I really wanted strongly increased local contrasts, making the textures come forward. At the moment my tool of choice is PhotoLift, a plugin that allows a broad range of manipulations of local and global contrast. See more about it in “492 – Roughly About Sundown“. I used +80% local contrast, -20% global contrast, -10% brightness and +20% saturation, and the resulting layer has an opacity of 50%. Basically this is experimentation. Use what looks best.

The tonal foundation was better now, with the bulk of the i
mage shifted more down into the mid-range, and with a healthier distribution. Next I added some standard adjustment layers: a levels layer for setting black and white point, a curves layer for mid-tone contrasts, both in luminosity mode. Then I pushed saturation quite a bit. The result looks punchier, less muddy. You see it best in the wall textures, but I admit that the effect is subtle.

Such forceful contrast manipulations tend to make the image look unnaturally sharp and grainy, and in many cases I add something that I call a “Neutral Blur”. This is an Orton-like effect, but without the glow. You get it by copy-merging the stack onto a new layer, duplicating that layer, setting one to mode “Multiply” and 60% opacity, the other to “Screen” and 100%, and then blurring the multiply layer with radius 5 and the screen layer with radius 30. Group them and set the group’s opacity to 50%.

This “Neutral Blur” is exactly that: neutral. It does not change overall tonality and it does not affect colors, but it gives the image an aura of substance. It’s hard to explain and in these screen shots it’s certainly hard to see as well, but when you try it for yourself, you will immediately recognize it.

Of course the image has again lost punch now, and here I normally apply some high pass sharpening with a radius between 1 and 2, here like most of the time 1.5. This again brings back the punch without looking unnatural or sacrificing the “substance” gained through the blur.

Remember my warning concerning compositing and that one may have to blur a strongly shrunk layer? Well, something similar had happened in the meantime. The increased local contrast of the PhotoLift layer, together with the high pass sharpening, had produced a trace of a halo around the man. Thus I copied the high pass layer, inverted it, masked it with black and painted in the mask with a small white brush along the man’s contours. Perfect. The halo was gone. If this wouldn’t have sufficed, I could have clipped a levels adjustment layer into the inverse sharpening, thereby increasing its effect.

Now we’re almost there. I added a vignette to accentuate the focus and finally sharpened the image in Lab and with an edge mask. A vignette is something that you see in many if not most of my images. It helps to direct the eye and it adds drama to the scene. Depending on the scene and the strength of the vignette, this can be quite some drama 🙂

So far the workflow was very reasonable and now comes the sin: I was not really impressed with the image, and I decided to remove the gully. Eeek! A pixel-bearing cleanup layer on top of all these adjustments! Ugly. But … I did it. I was too lazy to redo sharpening, blurring and high pass sharpening. It was late and it was only meant as an experiment, just to see how it would look like.

Well, it made a world of a difference. Suddenly the man perfectly worked as a focal point. I had not recognized it all the time but, as useful as the gully had been while compositing, as distracting it was now.

For your reference, this is the whole layer stack again, only the group with the neutral blur not expanded.

The title of this image is a line from the Song of the Day, “Take A Bow“, from Madonna’s 1994 album “Bedtime Stories”. Maybe that’s only me, but I can’t remember ever having seen a better music video. A marvelous piece of art. See it on YouTube.

Oh yes, two more things: I have done what I normally don’t ever do, I have changed an Image of the Day. I had been very unsatisfied with “539 – Heading For the Light“. Head over and compare for yourself.

The other thing is this image. I made it shortly before the Image of the Day, not far away, and it is another 16 layer job, but that would be a different story.

Feb 182008

It’s Tuesday morning now and I’m finally back again with the long-overdue entry for Sunday. This is an odd assortment of images, and most of them have not even been taken on Sunday at all. The reason is …

I have a new tool. It’s Pixel Vistas PhotoLift, a Photoshop filter costing 40 US dollars. I found it by chance, browsing ads on The Online Photographer. PhotoLift is a tool to manipulate local contrast in an image. Using Photoshop’s “Unsharp Mask” filter with a high radius and a low amount (termed HIRALOAM by Dan Margulis, see also here) can be used to achieve a similar effect, but with much less direct control and not with the same accuracy as PhotoLift. PhotoLift is available on Windows for Photoshop up from CS, and on the Mac for CS3 on Intel processors only.

Let’s begin with this image of a house in a small village in Carinthia. It is about the balance of two windows, a piece of roof and a piece of ground, but it is also about texture. In this first image I have used a layer created with PhotoLift, set it to blending mode “Multiply” and a reduced opacity of 50%, this way burning the texture into the wall. The original was not overexposed, but the wall was very light, thus the mode “Multiply”.

The user interface of PhotoLift is rather simple and lacks finesse. You can set the strength of the effect with a “Local Contrast” slider and the type of effect with a drop-down “Texture”. Texture can be set between “Coarse” and “Very Fine”, basically determining the “locality” of the effect.

Applying this effect can clip highlights and/or shadows, therefore you have the usual red and blue clipping indicators. They can be switched on/off with two buttons at the bottom, but you really want them on. If you see clipping, you can decrease global contrast with the “Global Contrast” slider, and in case the clipping is only on one side (highlight or shadow), you can shift brightness, to bring the image back into the middle of the tonal range.

The effect can be applied with two “Tools”, a paint bucket that fills the whole image, and a brush that you can use to paint the effect into the image. There is an eraser as well, and finally you can set an opacity for the effect.

In practice I found the brush much too slow. I always use the paint bucket, and instead of applying the effect partially inside of the plugin, I use a Photoshop mask on the resulting layer. That’s much easier.

Here we can see the dramatic difference between the image with and without the effect. It’s striking.

There are two more issues with the plugin, the first being only a slight annoyance: It lacks a “Reset” button but it remembers values between invocations. I hate that. This effect has to be set individually for each image, and without a “Reset” button, I have to manually reset everything upon startup.

The other issue is due to the interactive nature of the plugin, i.e. due to the ability to use a brush and an eraser, and that are more or less unusable anyway. As it is, this plugin can’t be a parametric filter, and therefore it can’t be used as “Smart Filter”, and in actions it will always pop up. This is an unfortunate design decision that I would strongly suggest to reconsider. I would drop the concept of “Tools” at all, make the filter parametric and of course add a “Reset” button 🙂

Now the question is: is this filter for you? When would you apply it and for what types of images? Let’s look at some examples.

The first one is rather obvious again. This is the promised image of the way that I went up the mountain Dobratsch late afternoon on Saturday. I was on the shadow side of the mountain, the tonal range goes from very light sky near the horizon over dark sky in the zenith to almost black patches of ground coming through the snow. In the final image, reduced to 8 bits, there is not much tonal range left for the texture in the snow. It looks flat.

And now the same image, but with PhotoLift applied to the snow area. What a difference again! Suddenly we can see texture.

I have not tried to apply this effect to 8 bit images and, frankly, I wouldn’t, because although there is enough tonal reserve in the RAW file, that is hardly true for a JPEG. On the other hand, I always shoot RAW+JPEG and never manipulate JPEGs at all, so that’s not a problem.

I leave you with three more subtle applications of the effect. This image of a farm house in our village in Carinthia was flat in the concrete areas to the left. I have partially applied the effect to those areas, in “Normal” blending mode and with decreased opacity. That’s a pattern in general: I tend to make the effect rather strong, and then reduce opacity. This often leads to more control, and I can always revise my decisions later.

This image of a damaged mural on a church in Carinthia had the effect applied to the damaged areas only. I would do that to put emphasis on the fact that it’s damaged.

The final image is a B&W image of a bridge, and here I have subtly increased local contrast on the underside, making the concrete texture and the shimmering light from the reflections of the water more tangible.

And what about the Image of the Day? The only image beside the mural, that was actually shot on Sunday? It has the
effect as well. Here I have used it in “Screen” mode with reduced opacity on the wall of the church. It brightens the main subject and at the same time makes it rough. This image is of course an HDR image made from multiple exposures, tone mapped in Photomatix Pro and brought to life in Photoshop.

The Image of the Day and the way up the mountain were shot with the Sigma 10-20 at 10mm, all others with the Sigma 70/2.8 Macro, as usual on my Nikon D300.

The Song of the Day is the Gershwin standard “Treat Me Rough“, interpreted by Ella Fitzgerald. If you don’t have them, why not get all of the “Song Books“?