Mar 302012

I have labeled this image “HDR”, but technically that is wrong. It is a fusion of three bracketed exposures, aligned and merged with masks in Photoshop. Pretty much effort went into making this as naturally looking as was possible and, frankly, I think it turned out pretty well.

The challenge here is to maintain the blinding brightness of the sun, but without having to sacrifice detail. This is a matter of carefully blending the original exposures and of using localized “Exposure” layers and curves to smooth out the sky. Basically we want brightness to fade out from the sun’s center along something like a Gaussian Bell curve.

HDR tone mapping programs like Photomatix Pro are pretty good at that and I could have gone that route, but as I had also to eliminate some lens flares, I tackled it manually.

Cloning out the flares was challenging as well. They were of course in the central clouds and there was simply no material to clone from. You may know that problem: if you get the right texture and luminosity, the color is off and vice versa.

The solution is, to do it in separate steps. I use a blank, transparent layer in “Luminosity” blending mode and I just clone from parts with the right texture and luminosity. In order to better see what I do, I have a temporary desaturation layer on top, i.e. above the target layer of my cloning operation. This works, because in the “Sample” drop-down menu of the “Clone” tool bar, I always use “Current & Below”. Thus I can use layers above the current layer to amplify aspects of the image, but this amplification is not taken up by the clone brush. When I’m satisfied with smooth textures, I remove the desaturation layer.

At that moment color is completely and irritatingly off. That was the reason for working under a desaturation screen in the first place: colors, especially saturated ones tend to give an impression of changed luminosity.

The final step is a second blank layer, but this time in “Color” blending mode. Here you clone from places with matching color, regardless of luminosity. If you want to, you can even use a light- to mid-gray layer in “Luminosity” mode above as a screen. Doing so you see only colors, no texture. A strong “Saturation” layer may help as well. Put them in a group, and then you can quickly turn the screen on and off.

In pathological cases it would be possible to refine the method further by using separate clone layers in “Hue” and in “Saturation” blending more instead of one in “Color”. Normally it will not be worth the hassle though.

The Song of the Day is “In The Morning” from the 2004 Norah Jones album “Feels Like Home”. Hear it on YouTube.

Dec 292011

My image database has some keyboard shortcuts that I rarely use but sometimes inadvertently activate. It happened today, and the effect was, that I mirrored the image in the last post.

It really struck me. I had liked the image for its light, but nothing more. Somehow it was lifeless. It was just an image that I used for lack of something good, nothing I would have ever again thought about.

And then this mirrored image was suddenly completely different. I went back to Photoshop and reversed the number 30 in the traffic sign, the one obvious hint that the image had been manipulated. I guess I’d get away with everything else, the tiny number plates on the cars and the bus sign on the lane that’s heavily distorted and cut anyway.

For me this is an entirely different image and a much better one. This is obviously due to the fact that all action happens on the (now) left side and that I read the image from left to right.

Now the question is, is this connected to the fact that I read texts from left to right? Would an Arabian viewer prefer the original image? Or is it already impossible to find someone on the Internet who has not been so much exposed to the (supposedly) dominant left-right aesthetics of the West that he is not forever spoiled?

I have no answers. I am sure there is literature about it and I suppose there may be an answer. Any idea?

As this is an addendum to “1897 – Something Magic II“, the Song of the Day is still “Something Magic” by Procol Harum. Hear the original 1977 version for a difference.

1858 – Flags And Banners

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Nov 182011

On the train to Carinthia. 6 pm and outside it’s darkest night. Here are two Urban Dreams captured in the morning.

Both of these images wouldn’t have been possible with a small-sensor camera like the Panasonic LX5. The image on the left was of a reflection, taken at f1.4 and with the focus somewhere in the weird lines of the reflection. In post-processing I’ve equalized the tones (the left side was much darker), pushed colors and partially contrast, but nothing of that is regarded as particularly non-photographic.

The Image of the Day is almost completely a result of Photoshop work. I took an image of an advertising poster with extremely shallow DOF and played around with it, pretty aimless, until I had the idea with the stripes, and from there it became a flag, a turmoil, something burning, a window into a world of warring nations. In the end I liked the result better than the straight photograph, and this is how it ended up as Image of the Day.

The Song of the Day is “Flags And Banners” from the 1973 Faces album “Ooh La La”. Beautiful song. Hear it on YouTube.

Aug 012011

Here’s another attempt, and again gold didn’t really convince me. It looked much better than yesterday’s landscape, but this time I craved for more contrast. A B&W layer in “Overlay” mode did the trick, and apart from increasing contrast, it also shifted the colors towards amber. Not really bad, I think.

The Song of the Day is “Amber Waves” from the 2002 Tori Amos album “Scarlet’s Walk”. Hear it on YouTube.

Jul 312011

Do you remember the golden water in “1740 – Mining For Gold“? Well, I’ve tried the same procedure with some other images, some of them may turn up on days of need, but today I have something different.

Basically I have tried a few subjects to find out how they lend themselves to gilding. Of course I’ve tried a landscape as well, this landscape to be precise – and it didn’t work at all.

But then, I had already spent too much time with the image to give it up, and the first thing I did, adding a solid color layer in soft light mode and blending it into the dark tones, produced an interesting image. With some selective dodging and burning and with a selective blur I arrived at what you see, and what can I say, I like it! Here’s a full-size version without border. It makes for a nice wallpaper.

The Song of the Day is again “Mining For Gold“, either from the Cowboy Junkies’ original 1988 “The Trinity Session” album, or from the 2007 “Trinity Revisited”. Whatever you took as my recommendation last time, now it’s the other 😀

Hear the original version on YouTube.

Jul 272011

Here’s some more in that reckless spirit. In normal colors it didn’t do anything to me, but this is a sky like right out of Quake III Arena 🙂

The Song of the Day is the Soundgarden classic “Black Hole Sun“, today presented from Paul Anka’s 2005 album of mostly very good cover versions “Rock Swings”. YouTube has it.

Hell, even the album cover is a nice match 😀

Jul 252011

I guess you begin to see a pattern here: this is again no current image, again it was taken from the same bridge as the images in the last post and in “1731 – Dream River II“.

Straight from the camera the image did not do anything to me, but somehow I wanted to try what I can make of it in Photoshop. I think the result is pretty nice and although it does not at all look like what I saw, it feels like what it should have looked like 😀

As to the idea of coloring, that’s clearly the result of my exposure to Roland’s images. Glad he has a blog at last 🙂

The Song of the Day is “Mining For Gold“, either from the Cowboy Junkies’ original 1988 “The Trinity Session” album, or from the 2007 “Trinity Revisited”. Great music, introduced to me by my friend Bill Birtch. I’ve linked to “Trinity Revisited”, but honestly, you can’t go wrong with either of them. Hear the original version on YouTube.

May 082011

Paul Lester likes fog. So do I. Sometimes. Once or twice a year. I think fog is nice as long as it is a rare phenomenon, but if not, if it comes in September and does not leave before April, the sensation pretty soon wears off.

Here’s some fog that didn’t exist. I don’t know why, but when I processed this image, I suddenly asked myself whether some fog could probably improve the image. Well, I think it does.

The Song of the Day is “Make Believe Mambo” from David Byrne’s 1989 album “Rei Momo”. Hear it on YouTube.

Mar 282011

Let’s talk about the Panasonic DMC-LX5, my workflow, and what this means in terms of image quality.

All images apart from the biker in Vienna were taken yesterday, Saturday, the biker image is from Friday morning.

Image quality of the LX5 is lower than that of the D300, that’s clear and was expected, but now we need to look at how much lower it is, if it’s still high enough to make the images usable right from the camera, what can be gained by switching to RAW, and if it’s always necessary or not.

In terms of color, I think the LX5 does an excellent job. I have not yet played around with “Film Modes” (things like “Standard”, “Vibrant”, “Natural”, etc), but the standard colors really impress me. Of course my workflow influences colors as well, but all these images are near to what the camera delivered.

Just look at the red light of the semaphore in this image. Yes, I have boosted saturation a little, not much, but the interesting thing is, that on the D300, despite of the bright day, the red light would most likely not have been red, it would have burned out in the center. Not here. There is simply no highlight clipping in the red channel. Impressive.

In general I am not really pleased with the quality of the JPEG files. Even at base ISO 80 you see some grainy noise and artifacts of noise reduction.

No problem, I always use RAW, this camera can record RAW+JPEG, thus I have been using RAW right from the beginning.

I am still on Photoshop CS3 (and currently see no reason to change), thus I’m on Adobe Camera RAW 4.6, and ACR 4.6 does not support any camera considerably newer than my Nikon D300. The LX5 is definitely unsupported.

ACR 5 and ACR 6 don’t work with CS3, but fortunately Adobe’s free DNG converter is a stand-alone utility and it can produce DNG files readable by ACR 4.6. The only drawback is, that DNG is a huge format, even when you don’t embed the original RAW file. When the RAW file is around 10 MB per image, the DNG file is between 35 and 45 MB. Anyway. I convert without embedding the original, and then I throw the originals away.

Thus the first step for me is always to convert the Panasonic’s CR2 RAW files to DNG. Then I open the DNG files just like any other RAW file via ACR in Photoshop. In ACR I disable all sharpening and all noise reduction, even color noise. The first step in Photoshop is then to use Topaz Denoise 5. There I use the lowest value (preset “RAW lightest” for ISO 80) but increase color noise reduction considerably. For higher ISOs I may use a stronger preset, but in doubt I choose detail over smoothness.

PTLens already supports the LX5, so I may use that next, mostly for architecture, almost never for landscapes. If I need to correct perspective, straighten the image, etc, I might also do it in PTLens, or otherwise at least at that stage.

Whatever follows next is not different from what I might do with a D300 image. Even the last step, sharpening, is not different.

I use a copy-merged layer, put it in “Luminosity” mode, sharpen it with “Filters / Sharpen / Unsharp Mask” with extreme values of amount 500, radius 0.3 and threshold 0, then double click the layer to open its “Blending Options”. There I let the whites and the blacks of the sharpening layer fade out softly (hold Alt while clicking-dragging one half of the slider) and reduce the layer’s opacity. Finally I may select parts of the image (like the sky) apply a layer mask and immediately invert it, effectively masking what I have selected. Grainy skies look really bad while grainy walls or streets look perfectly OK.

If you look at the three details from the bike above, you see that the lens of the LX5 easily out-resolves the sensor. Look at the roof patterns in the first example. The in-camera JPEG gives you two featureless, gray roofs, while the RAW version shows a clear roof pattern on the right roof and a weaker and seemingly random pattern on the left roof. The texture on the left roof is obviously way beyond this sensor’s resolving power, and the only thing sharpening produces is sort of a noise pattern.

But look at the biker, his shoes and the asphalt, and also look at the construction lift in the background of the third example, and finally at the trees on the right side of the third example. There is clearly a lot of detail to be had from this camera.

Be careful though. This kind of over-sharpening works fine with architectural details, works with cars, generally on the street, even works well with twigs in front of a bright sky (like in the Image of the Day). Where it tends to fall apart is the kind of infinite detail that you see in nature. Distant forest (like in the background of the shopping center) consists of almost ONLY unresolvable detail, thus it is especially susceptible to random patterns, and the result may look weird. In general, this interference effect is called aliasing. Most digital cameras have a built-in blur filter to handle aliasing, and what we do by sharpening so strongly with such a small sub-pixel radius, is to cancel the effect of the anti-aliasing filter. Still, I prefer to mask away sharpening artifacts over smudging the whole image.

The next example shows our book shelves. The image was taken at 1/4s at f2 and ISO 800. This is the highest sensitivity that I can recommend. At ISO 1600 there is still a lot of detail, but the luminance noise is already unacceptable, and at ISO 3200 there is hardly any detail left at all. Look at the wood grain of the shelf. On the in-camera JPEG the grain is almost gone, on the RAW version it looks very good.

I have corrected white balance in the RAW version, and later, when I cooked up these comparison images, I have tried to use color filters in Photoshop to get the JPEG colors as near to the RAW version as possible. Look at the blotchy green/yellow spots that come up when I change colors in the JPEG. Of course the ability to freely set white balance is another big advantage of RAW.

For your reference you can download the whole original JPEG and my version from Photoshop. Not too bad for ISO 800 on a compact camera.

And that’s it. With the D300 I routinely go up to ISO 3200, with the LX5 I try to stick to ISO 80 and raise ISO up to 800 if I must. Everything above is unusable and worse than ISO 6400 on the D300.

I’d say the LX5 is at least 2.5, probably 3 stops worse than the D300, has much less dynamic range, considerable noise even at base ISO, but on the other hand, its lens is excellent, it is one full stop faster than my main lens on the D300, and due to the excellent stabilization, I gain at least one stop, likely even two, and at that point the D300 mostly shines due to its higher base image quality.

The Song of the Day is “The Flow” from the 1992 “Love Symbol” album by the artist most of the time known as Prince. I have tried to upload it to YouTube, but the brothers Warner insist on blocking it worldwide. Sorry for that.

Feb 202011

Here’s another image of yesterday’s. Today I have a meeting in a few minutes, and the weather is not worth going out anyway.

“Blinded By The Light” is maybe a little too strong a title for this image, it would have been a much better match for “1554 – Sun Zoom Spark“, but even this image illustrates all the problems of photographing into the sun.

Contrast in such scenes is always overwhelming, regardless of the camera you have. It was a bright, clear, sunny day (see yesterday’s post with the church), and at that time of the day (about quarter to three) at that time of the year, even when you don’t shoot into the sun, the 8 bit per color of a JPEG struggle to contain the scene’s contrast.

Take yesterday’s image. In the JPEG right out of the camera, the white of the wall did hardly hold any detail. The detail that you see, is from the RAW conversion and my manipulations in Photoshop.

Today’s image, actually taken minutes before yesterday’s, has a much higher contrast range. For instance, although there is certainly detail in the disc of the sun (sunspots, protuberances), it is not possible to get that detail back, not with any camera in the world, at least not if you want to see anything else in the scene. Thus we simply have to accept that the sun burns out. That’s OK.

Apart from that, today’s DSLR cameras do surprisingly well. This image is a composite of two versions from the same RAW, one for sun and sky, the other for the rest of the scene. I always use 14 bit RAW as opposed to 12 bit RAW. It slows my camera down to about 2 frames per second (not so the D300s, but I have the earlier D300), but it’s scenes like this, where I need all the reserves.

Basically I go into Adobe Camera RAW, correct for lateral CA (magenta/green and yellow/blue fringes), set the white balance, correct exposure and contrast for the sky and the sun, and take the result to Photoshop. Then I open the same RAW file once again and set the parameters for everything but the sky, letting the sky burn out. In many cases I use a warmer color temperature for this second variant. I take the second version into Photoshop as well, layer the two, and then I use a mask on the top layer.

Precise masks don’t work very well with those fuzzy subjects, but fortunately the eye is forgiving. Painting with a big, soft brush normally produces the best results.

Now that I have combined the two layers, I often copy/merge them into a new layer and use Topaz Adjust on that. This plugin is great for the rough stuff, forget it on a sky like this. But that’s OK as well. That’s what masks are for. Here I have used the preset “Spicify” on pretty much everything but the sky, and then I have dialed back opacity until I got the desired look.

Next I’ve used an action to add a group of three Hue / Saturation layers in different blending modes. This was too much, but I’ve adjusted the individual layers and lowered the opacity of the group, until it looked as I wanted.

What we want to do in such scenes is, to substitute global contrast that we can’t retain, by color contrast and local contrast, all the while being wary to not let it look gaudy.

This is difficult. I already had a version of this image up on my server, but then I found that it lacked punch.

What’s “punch” you say? Well, here it was local contrast. I’ve added some curves layers and applied them locally, again using masks.

One can always do better, and I suppose I could as well, but I think the result, as I have settled with, does not look unnatural, meaning it is not obvious that I used Photoshop. Well, it is when you think about it, but it feels pretty natural, and that suffices. There is no “truth” to be found in image like this. A JPEG of such a subject, right out of the camera, looks always horrid. You really have to go into Photoshop, and what you have to aim for is believability.

The Song of the Day is “Blinded By The Light” from Bruce Springsteen’s outstanding “Live In Dublin” album. See a video on DailyMotion.