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Obata’s Photoshop Filter

Friday, July 26th, 2013

One of the most noteworthy things about being a parent, for me, has been watching my son discover the world.  Now five years old, he began as basically a blank slate (although that isn’t entirely the case), and now is an incredibly independent and strong-willed little person.  Like all of us, his personality and his perception of reality is shaped by the world around him.  He has adopted little idiosyncrasies from both my wife and I, as well as his teachers and friends at school and other people in his life.  The way these pieces have combined make him uniquely…well, unique.

That makes him special.  Since we all went through something similar, this same principle makes us all special and unique.  When we talk about originality in art, it’s important to remember that the same processes are at play.  Every artist, regardless of the medium, draws inspiration from various sources, and their art is simply the result of the way in which these sources have combined to spit out something “original.”   I think the distinctiveness of someone’s art is probably a product of many factors, such as how courageous they are to seek inspiration in unlikely places, their experience, the amount of introspection they’ve done to clarify their own vision, etc.

On a recent backpacking trip, I was working my way up a mountain pass that overlooked an alpine tarn.  The blue-green water was shimmering as if it were full of diamonds, the blocky granite surrounding the small lake contrasted that delicacy well, and the sky had perfect puffy white clouds.  What a great scene.

I highlighted the words “blocky granite” in the paragraph above because that’s the aspect of the scene that stood out to me immediately.  I wanted an image of this scene, but how to portray it, such that the granite blocks–almost like cord wood–would be accentuated?  Immediately I thought of the woodblock prints of Chiura Obata, a Japanese-American artist who produced moving paintings of the Sierra Nevada, among other places, in the first part of the last century.

I’ve always had a particular affinity for Obata’s work in the Sierra (three of his pieces–postcards–hang above my desk right now) for many reasons, not the least of which is the incredible sense of place he felt there.  You can see it simply by looking at his work.  When Obata, like many other Japanese-Americans, was sent to internment camps during World War II, he made art there, and you can even feel the sense of place in that work.  It’s a rare quality, but his work has it.

Looking at this alpine tarn, I was inspired by Obata, made some images, and when I got home I did something radical: I attempted to manipulate the image so that it would resemble a woodblock print.

Alpine tarn, John Muir Wilderness

Please make sure to view this one big!

The effect is a bit difficult to see on the computer screen (I imagine this would need to be appreciated as a print), but here is a 100% of the above image to see the result:

Detail, Alpine Tarn

As I said above, I suspect this would make a nice print, but is difficult to appreciate here.  I don’t see myself making these sorts of images with any regularity, but I thought it was important to note my thought process in making this image, because it’s good for every artist to remember that inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places, and to remain open to that.  Additionally, it was an instructive exercise for me, because I got to dive back into Obata’s work, which always makes me very happy.

(Digital) Darkroom Confessions, part II

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

In my last blog post, I talked about my opinion regarding “rules” in photography.  In short, I believe it is okay to manipulate exposure or crop (for example) in order to take an image from visualization to the final product.  In this post, I would like to revisit the image I introduced last time and dissect it a bit.

Navajo Sandstone Cliffs

Sandstone & Clouds, March 2012

In the field

I am not normally a “grand landscape” sort of photographer; I tend to focus more on intimate scenes.  However, when I saw these cliffs, what initially struck me was the fact that the buttresses were receding away from me.  Although the mid-morning light had eliminated some of the shadows, I liked that each buttress was casting a bit of a shadow on the buttress behind it.  This alternation of light and dark creates a wonderful sense of depth in images, and was a compositional element I wanted to take advantage of here.

Another confession: guys like me do not normally score skies like this.  Cloudless blue skies are the story of my life.  However, on this particular day, I was loving these high clouds; they were constantly changing and they added a great geometric element to the scene.

For me, the decision of how to balance the composition was pretty easy, and despite the fact I like to think of myself as a rebel, I roughly divided the composition into thirds. I wanted the sky to be the star of the show, so I gave it 2/3 of the frame, and I let the cliffs occupy the remainder.  I like sagebrush, and wanted to leave some foreground in as well; this also gives a good visual “root” for the cliffs to sit on.

To expose the frame, I had a couple of choices.  To underexpose would have meant preserving the shadows that attracted me to the scene.  But, it would also introduce shadows to the foreground, which I did not really want to do.  The alternative I had was to overexpose to the point where the shadows were not as dark while maintaining detail in the rest of the frame.  You have probably heard the phrase, “expose to the right;” that is what I chose to do here.  Phil Colla has a concise and clear explanation of the technique here.

You can always darken a scene in post-processing, but to lighten it up risks introducing noise.

To get the exposure I wanted for the lower part of the image, I had trouble preserving detail in the bright white clouds, so I made two exposures, 1 stop apart from each other.

At home

I opened the RAW files together, and in Adobe Camera RAW I adjusted the images based on the vision I had in the field.  After opening the images in Photoshop, I continued this process.  First I blended the images using a technique I learned several years ago from Younes Bounhar.  You can read about it here.   After checking carefully to make sure the images had aligned properly and there were no artifacts, I made my initial adjustments largely using Nik’s software plug-ins.  The two I used here were the ‘Tonal Contrast’ filter (in Color Efex Pro), and then I used Silver Efex Pro to get the black and white conversion I wanted.

I do not have a lot to offer in terms of strategic choice on this (I did what looked best to my eye), but I only made subtle adjustments and I made careful choices based on my vision.  In choosing the black and white filter, I made sure to keep  the detail in the clouds, but also to make them stand out.  I also kept an eye on the tonal contrast between the sagebrush and the beginning of the cliffs.

I applied a global curves layer, and then used separate levels to mask the cliffs, and selectively darken the shadows.  I saved the TIFF file (with all of the layers), and then flattened, sharpened, and saved a JPEG for the web.

The beauty of image processing is that there is definitely more than one way to skin the proverbial cat.  When you start with a creative vision, you learn ways to arrive at the final product in post-processing.  As you gain experience, you build skills that will eventually become a tool kit that you can selectively choose from when you process more challenging images.

(Digital) Darkroom Confessions, part I

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

When I look in the mirror, I see a man with secrets.

You see, I have broken the rules.


Not only do I consider Alister Benn a good friend, I also consider him a mentor; if I have learned anything from Alister, it is to take control of the image-making process, from visualization to capture to processing in the digital darkroom.  The more I work to embrace this philosophy, the more I realize it involves breaking the rules.  But it also requires a strong understanding of my own vision, as well as the technical capabilities of my equipment.

I have heard the argument several times that photographers should “get the composition right in the camera,” or “get the exposure right in one frame.”   To some extent, I completely agree with the opinion that one should not make a frame with the intent of cropping out an annoying foreground element, or bracket haphazardly, without much thought–these behaviors are often regarded as laziness or a display of lack of knowledge.  As an analogy, this is similar to a student choosing every possible answer on an exam because, “one of them has to be correct.”

However, the other side of the coin dictates that a strict adherence to these “rules” (and others) severely limits the artist’s creative process.  For instance, the image I visualize in the field may not fit perfectly into a 3:4 or 4:5 aspect ratio, and exposing multiple frames for stitching later may not always be practical.  Similarly, if one understands the technical limitations of their camera in exposing for a scene with a high dynamic range, it should be perfectly acceptable to bracket exposures.

In other words, when breaking the rules is in line with vision and an understanding of what the scene demands, it should be encouraged.  Be rebellious.


So, how does an image evolve?  When I was recently in Zion National Park, I was driving along the road and saw a scene that jumped out at me.  Sometimes scenes really present themselves to you.

Navajo Sandstone cliffs

Navajo Sandstone & Clouds, March 2012

It was mid-morning, and I loved the way the clouds contrasted against the cliffs, and the way the buttresses in the rock created layers.  I wanted to emphasize this in the final image, but was presented with a few choices as to how to do it.

In my next post, I will go through my thoughts in the field and a few of the processing steps that led me to the final product.

Mood and creativity in image processing

Monday, December 12th, 2011

In February, I featured this image as my photo of the month; I took it in Buckskin Gulch, Utah on a cold, icy day.

Ice and sandstone in Buckskin Gulch, Utah

Original Ice Underneath, January 2011

The original scene stopped me because I liked the chilly feeling in the ice, and the way the light was reflecting off the walls of the canyon; the tafoni created an interesting pattern in the flowing rock wall.  In addition, I liked the sensuous line at the rock-ice interface.  However, mostly I liked the contrast between warm and cold tones.

While I was happy with the original edit of the image, I have recently revisited it in an effort to accentuate the feeling the original scene gave me.  With the current state of digital image processing, there are multiple ways to achieve my desired effect.  Guy Tal recently published a great article on understanding white balance; understanding that there can be more than one appropriate white balance within a scene has been immensely valuable to me as my own processing skills have developed.   Ultimately, I chose to use Nik’s Silver Efex Pro to give a slightly cooler color cast to the ice, thus conveying the contrast between warm and cool tones I originally envisioned when I was in the canyon on that cold January day.

Ice and sandstone tafoni in buckskin gulch, utah

Ice Underneath, rework, October 2011

While today’s cameras do an excellent job of capturing the “information” in a scene, there is still work to be done in bringing out the full potential in a scene during post-processing.  What are some of your favorite techniques in doing this?

Incidentally, my friend Guy Tal does have an excellent and in-depth e-book devoted to this subject; you can read more about it at this link.  Note that I’m not a member of his affiliate program, so I get nothing more than good karma if you purchase the e-book.

Dumpster Diving

Friday, February 18th, 2011

/dump’-ster di:’-ving/ -n 1. The practice of searching through dumpsters for discarded, but still usable, goods such as food or clothes.  2.  The practice of searching through one’s hard drive for RAW files that have not been processed before.

Its raining today, and I’ve got a 3-year-old in tow.  Definitely not a day that’s conducive to be outside for serious photography.  We’ve all been in this position before, when we’re dying to get out, but life just seems to get in the way.  What to do?  One thing I like to do is “dumpster dive”–go through my hard drive and revisit images that did not quite seem to make the cut before.

There are multiple reasons to dig through the rubbish of past shoots.  Perhaps your post-processing skills have improved since you captured the RAW file, or you have new inspiration of how to process the image.  Or simply, your tastes have changed, and something that didn’t appeal before is suddenly more attractive.

I processed this image a while ago, from a visit to the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve in December.  I loved the scene of sun peeking out from behind this oak tree, but never could quite get the processing right.  After coming back to the image a couple of months later, I was able to shed some new light on the processing problem.  Now, its one of my favorites from this lovely wilderness area.

Do you have images that benefitted from an initial cast-off and subsequent revisiting?  Please share links in the comments section!

Oak tree and sunburst at the Santa Rosa Plateau ecological reserve near temecula california

Sunburst, December 2010

Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park

Monday, April 12th, 2010

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit Channel Islands National Park, located off the southern California coast.  The park consists of five islands–Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, San Miguel, and Santa Rosa–each one with a different ecology and endemic species.  For my first trip out there, I chose to visit Anacapa Island, as it is the most accessible from the mainland, and it has a very unique ecology from the other islands (its geologic origins are different from the other islands too).

Coreopsis blooms on Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park, California

Coreopsis blooms on Anacapa Island, April 2010

We almost didn’t arrive on the island, as landing is difficult on Anacapa, and the presence of a large swell almost prevented them from dropping us off.  Luckily, the ocean smoothed out by the time we arrived in the landing cove, so we were able to get off and walk up all 153 stairs to the island.  As I had hoped, the Coreopsis, or tree sunflower, blooms were going strong (the only place you find these flowers is on Anacapa Island and a small patch of land on the mainland).  However, joining us in our relative solitude were ~50,000 nesting Western Gulls.  Have you ever shared a small space with that many gulls?  If you haven’t, its…ummm…noisy.  🙂

Western Gulls and coreopsis

Western Gulls on Anacapa, April 2010

With only 1.5 miles of hiking trails, Anacapa is an easy island to scope out for potential photo compositions.  I spent the afternoon looking for intimate compositions on the island before the sun went down.  With gulls everywhere, it was only natural to include them in my shots.

About 1 hour before sunset, the wind started blowing.  While not bad at first, by the time we walked to Inspiration Point for sunset, it was a full-blown gale.  With wind gusts at nearly 50 miles per hour, how do you keep your tripod in place?  Make a friend anchor it, of course!

How to anchor a tripod in the wind

By the time the sun went down, and we arrived back at camp, the wind was blowing significantly harder: I’d guess it was sustained around 45-50 miles per hour, and gusts were nearly 65 mph (it bent and broke some of our tent poles).  We used guy lines to better secure our tents and went to bed.  It is difficult to sleep when your tent is continually hitting you in the face and chest.  After a few sleepless hours, I got up to a beautiful, windless sunrise over the Pacific.

morning on Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park, California

Anacapa morning, April 2010

The photo above shows the water house and the light house on Anacapa (along with a whole bunch of our “friends”).

After packing up and hauling our gear down to the dock, it was time to head home.  Despite the smell and constant sound of the nesting gulls, and the hurricane-force winds, it was a very rewarding visit to Anacapa Island, and I look forward to visiting the rest of the Channel Islands in the near future.

To see all my photos from Anacapa Island, click here.

Blending exposures for greater depth of field

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

I recently blogged about my winter project of shooting agaves locally.  In prepping for this shoot, I wanted to make sure the entire plant was in focus, and I knew using my depth of field table, that it was essentially impossible using my 24-105/4 lens:

  • The example I’ll use in this post was shot from a distance of ~2 feet at a focal length of 47mm and aperture of f/10; using my Canon 30D, my total depth of field is 0.2 feet.  That isn’t nearly enough to get the entire agave in focus.

To circumvent this problem, I wanted to take multiple exposures at different planes of focus then blend them in Photoshop to produce an image that is entirely in focus.  The problem I was having is that by doing it manually, I couldn’t find a self-feathering method to make the blend look “clean”.  Fortunately Photoshop CS4 has an image blending feature that mostly automates the process for you.  I’ll describe my experience using one of my agaves as an example.

The first step was to take the shots.  I composed the shot like I normally would, and took one or two tests to make sure the amount of fill flash looked about right.  To get the proper diffusion, I taped a piece of white printer paper to my 430EX and underexposed by ~ -1.5 stops EV.  After the shot looked “right”, I took three exposures, each one at a different plane of focus:

While these three images do not look much different, you can see subtle differences; by looking at the main floret protuding from the plant, you can see that it is increasingly out of focus as you scroll through the images.

Once I got home, I converted the RAW files in a way that looked good to my eye; when you are working with multiple exposures, make sure to ‘synchronize’ all of your adjustments so all your shots look the same!  This is easy to do in ACR.  Then, I opened the files in Photoshop CS4.  The first step is to load the files into a stack and align them.  You can do this by going to File–>Scripts–>Load Files into Stack

Select the option “Add Open Files”, and check the box that says, “Attempt to Automatically Align Source Images”.  This will load your base images into the script, and will align the images, because even if you shot from a tripod (using mirror lock-up) there will be some slight differences between the images.

Once the script runs, you will want to select all three layers on the layers palette and go to Edit–>Auto-Blend Layers…

Select the option to stack the images and make sure the “Seamless Tones and Colors” box is checked.  This will produce a perfectly feathered and mostly blended image using your base images.  At this point, I suggest you inspect the image at 100% to make sure it is indeed perfectly blended.  On some images, the script has done a great job, and on others I’ve had to reload some images as separate layers and mask off the “in focus” part.

Even if it doesn’t work perfectly, this method will get you most of the way there.  If you like the result, you can flatten the image and edit as you normally would.

Agave attenuata, blended and converted to black and white

Agave attenuata, blended and converted to black and white

There are times you may not necessarily need to use this method; for instance, sometimes simply stopping down to f/16 or f/22 may get you the depth of field you need, but remember, as you stop down, you are losing resolution.  Thus, shooting at a wider aperture and blending exposures can be beneficial if you plan on printing the image.

Abstract Wild Animal Park photos

Monday, April 5th, 2010

A few posts ago, I talked about a great day at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park.  Its a fantastic place to visit, but with large crowds and harsh midday light, photographing animals can be difficult.  Maybe I’m just in an abstract mood lately, but I found a lot of interesting patterns in bird feathers, etc.  One particular shot I liked was of a Chilean Flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis), which I’ve honestly never found to be a photogenic bird (at least not in captivity).

By underexposing the image by 1 2/3 stops, I was able to largely blacken the background, and introduce some contrast to the contours of the feathers.  That allowed me to boost the vibrance and saturation a bit, giving an eye-popping splash of color to the Flamingo I’ve always struggled with.

Flamingo feathers, detail

Chilean Flamingo, detail

Not only have I been in an abstract mood lately, I’ve also been in a black and white mood.  Thus, I converted this to black and white as well, really cranking the red channel up to make it contrasty.

Flamingo feathers, detail black and white

Black and White

I like both of these a lot, for different reasons?  Do you have a favorite?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Winter personal project: Agave

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

Over the past couple of years, I’ve taken some of what I consider to be “personal projects”.  The assignments I give myself aren’t difficult; they may have been to focus on a particular area to show it in a unique way, or to learn new techniques, or to push myself out of my box a little bit.  Many of the projects are ongoing, but I find they are a great way for me to inspire my own creativity.  So it was with my winter project; I wanted to take on a project that pushed me outside of my box.

As a group, one of my favorite plants are Agave.  They have beautifully symmetric, radiating leaves.  Their lines are smooth, easy, even sensuous, and their colors are–to me–calming.  They come in many shapes and sizes.  And, of course, they are the source of tequila (doesn’t a margarita sound good right now?).

Despite my admiration for these plants, until this winter I had only given a half-hearted attempt to photograph them.  Because we were lucky to have many overcast days this winter with soft, diffuse light, I decided to take on the project of creating a set of intimate portraits of Agave.  To make the set more “uniform” I chose to convert each image to monochrome, and although you’ll see uniformity may be left up to the viewer, I did stick with that as my theme.

intimate black and white portrait of an agave attenuata

Agave attenuata, January 2010

In addition to getting to know a new group of plants, I was able to learn about black and white conversions, as well as receive some lessons in extending my depth of field.  To achieve the highest resolution, I wanted to stay at an aperture of about f/8, but shooting this close with my 24-105/4, there was no way the entire plant would be in focus.  What I did was take multiple frames of each image, each one at a different plane of focus.  I then used the auto-align and auto-merge features in Photoshop CS4 to produce a single image with extended depth of field; I hope to write  blog post on this procedure in the future.

wide angle portrait of an agave; uc riverside botanical garden

Wide angle, February 2010

I’ll share one or more of my Agave shots in the next few days; if you simply cannot wait, you can see them all (so far) here.  Its good to remember that by taking on a personal project, you can often find inspiration very near to (if not in) your own backyard.  Have you taken on a personal project?  Share it in the comments section!

Enjoy…

Gear Review: Kinesis Journeyman Pack

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

I’ve been a huge fan of Kinesis Photo Gear for quite some time.  Almost since I began taking photographs, I’ve used their belt system, with several interchangeable bags to carry my camera body, lenses, and binoculars.  However, I find myself facing two problems.  The first is that I am hiking further and further to get photos, and the second is that I simply don’t have room on that belt to fit my ever-growing stash of loot.  In an effort to not have to buy all new bags, I looked to see what Richard Stum had cooked up over at Kinesis.

What I found was the Journeyman Pack.  I ended up getting it as a Christmas present last year, and since I have had 2 months to put it through its paces, I wanted to share some thoughts.

Kinesis Journeyman Pack, exterior view

Kinesis Journeyman Pack

Making the transition from the belt system to the backpack was very easy.  First of all, my hip belt became the belt for this backpack.   To use your belt with the pack, you will need an adapter, but they provide this free when you order the backpack.  Inside of the backpack, there are plenty of loops and webbing–and you can purchase elevator adapters–to use existing Kinesis pouches inside of the pack itself.  I went ahead and bought a front-loading module to provide a padded space for all my expensive equipment, saving my less padded pouches for filters, batteries, etc.

Interior of Kinesis Journeyman Pack

Interior of my Journeyman Pack

close up of front loading module

This pack is very well built, and is ready to take on the most rigorous of backcountry hikes.  It has heavy-duty YKK zippers (things I always blow out on gear) and is made of heavy-duty Cordura nylon.  The harness system is also very comfortable.  The pack rides very well, and it moves with you almost seamlessly.  I tend to hike fairly quickly, so that’s an important feature for me.  I’m also a klutz, so its double important!  Seriously, after having worn countless backpacks over the years, I’d even say this pack is the best fitting one I’ve worn.  It really is that good.

Harness of Kinesis Journeyman Pack

Harness of the Journeyman Pack

I’m not receiving any kickbacks from Kinesis for writing this review, nor did they solicit me to write it, but yeah, this pack really is that good.  Despite my raves, I do have a few small nits.

The first isn’t really a nit of the pack itself, more about the convenience of a backpack in general.  Even though I love the pack, I very much miss the hipbelt when I’m in the field.  This isn’t so much a problem if I’m shooting in one spot, or even in an area, as I can put the pack down and wander around, coming back to get a filter or switch lenses if I need to.  However, there are times when its not convenient to put the pack down, such as shooting on sand dunes, or when you’re standing in 2 inches of water at Badwater Basin.  For those times, I wish I had the hipbelt system.  That said, I came up with a fix for the problem.  I also bought a tripod pouch (which I’ll talk about below) so I can hang my tripod off the back for hiking long distances.  What I did recently was after I set up my tripod, I moved the pouch around to the front of the hipbelt, and hung it from the loops that are still available.  I filled the pouch with another lens and some filters, thus allowing me to change lenses or filters without having to put my backpack down in the sand.  I just had to keep sand out of the tripod pouch!

I may pick up another pouch just for that purpose.

As I mentioned I bought a padded tripod pouch, and I really like it.  By putting the head in the pouch, it keeps my center of gravity low, which for klutzes like me, is absolutely essential.  It works very well, but I notice I get a lot less bounce when I have a jacket or something in the top part of the pack to help fill up the empty space.

I think I’m off for a hike.  If you’re in the market for a new backpack, I hope you found this review helpful.