TTT – Analysis of a Photo

Cabbage anyone?

In this Tuesday Technique Topic, rather than covering a wider range of technical topic, I’d like to do an analysis of a single image.  Please let me know, if this is something that you would like to see done on other images.

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Ornamental Cabbage

This image is rather simple, isn’t it?  At first glance, you see a rather colorful ornamental cabbage.  As you look closer, you’ll notice that the cabbage is sharp in its bright purple center, but that the edges are blurring, as we go away from center.  This is not something that was added in Photoshop, but, rather, a conscious decision at the time that I photographed this lovely Autumn vegetable.

The sharp center and blurred edges have the effect of allowing the eye to leave the center, but always drawing it back in; this makes the image a bit mesmerizing in, I hope, a good way.

The advantage of most DSLRs is that they have a variety of settings that allow the photographer to control the final result of the image.  As the depth of field was the critical aspect, I shot this image in aperture priority, so that I set the aperture to f/5.6, which for a focal length of 105mm produces a rather shallow depth of field; at the distance of just under 5 feet, the focal plane is about an inch on either side of the focus point, providing the effect you see here.

What other questions might you have about this image?  If I have any insight into what you may be curious about, I will be happy to share it with you.

Post-processing

My post-processing routine is pretty straightforward, as I am by no means a Photoshop expert.  On this image, the layers used were (in order):

  1. Base image
  2. Unsharp mask
  3. Overlay at 41% opacity
  4. Levels to increase the pop of the colors
  5. A slight bit of contrast increase
  6. A little extra saturation

Nothing overly dramatic, as you see.

I hope this is of interest to you.  I’d love to hear feedback both positive and negative!  Thank you, as always, for reading!!

TTT – Looking down

Always look in every direction..

This week’s tip is a rather simple one, but one that has resulted in some interesting photographs for me and, I hope, may result in some cool shots for you as well:

Look Down.

Pondscape
During those moments when we look for the grand landscape to capture, it may lie at our feet.

How often have you run into this scenario: you are all set to come up with a fantastic landscape shot, but nothing you see through your viewfinder strikes you as ‘the shot’.  What you do next will determine whether you come up with an interesting image from this location or nothing at all.

You could shake your head and walk off to find another great vista, or… you could look down and examine what lies around you and, possibly, find something rather nifty to photograph.

The choice is yours!  Each of the images on this page is the result of my looking down and noticing something that is worth photographing.

Your mission, should you accept it, is to find something to photograph over the next week by looking down.  Feel free to link it to this post, so that I can see what you came up with, as I’m very much looking forward to seeing your creations!

TTT – Creating composite images – pt 2

Some simple tricks to get us there

In last week’s post about Creating composite images (pt 1), I went over visualization, development of a story, planning the shoot and capturing the images needed to create a composite image.  This post will address some of the post-processing steps to achieve a final result, such as this:

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Searching for Answers

Creating the background image

The first step is to put together the background image from the variety of shots that were taken to to get the entire scene, as shown in the prior post.  Depending on the amount of real estate that is covered in these images, there may have to be a bit of fancy processing to be done in your favorite image editing software; I use Photoshop, but there are many other capable software packages available.

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Master Image
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Image Layers

You see the finished background image here, but it is actually made up of components of a number of shots, as can see in the screen grab of the Image Layers.  The base image is opened to show the 7 different shots that were used to create the background.

Additionally, I did a bit of warping on some components of the base image to get them to stitch together more perfectly, and you can see that I use masks to control what is visible from each image.

Of course, if I had used a wider angle lens than the 85mm f/1.2L, it would have been easier, but then I would have to deal with not getting the benefit of a telephoto, which gives more of a sense of looking into the scene than a wider angle lens would (if it were possible, I would have shot from a larger distance, but I was already in a corner of the library).

In later shoots, I have often been able to get the entire background image in a single shot, trusting the pixel quality of my camera.

After the background or master image is complete, it is time to put our model into the image and have her float ethereally in front of the bookshelves.

The Main Subject

Our wonderful model will now make entrance into the image.

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Steph on the ladder

It is rather straightforward to get Steph into the image while she stands on the ladder.

We simply add the image of Steph on the ladder as a layer and, voila, she is there!

Note how this image also changed the breezy curtains to Steph’s left, as the moved curtain was not in her main image.  It is layered on top of the master image, so we need to make some corrections.

You guessed it!  It’s time for another layer mask, which is your friend in Photoshop.

Masking out the Steps shows each of the components that create the overall look coming together with their individual layer masks.

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Masking out the steps

A quick note on masking and selections in general.  A common mistake that many people make when first starting with masks and selections is that they try to be very precise, which leads to artificially sharp boundaries. When our eyes see those sharp edges, our brain immediately screams: Photoshop!

In order to avoid this, you’ll want to feather your edges by a couple of pixels.  This causes the foreground and background image to blend rather than delineate sharply.  Too much feathering looks fuzzy, but a couple of pixels usually will get the look that you want to achieve.

So let’s take a look at what we have created in the image thus far.

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Steph is floating

Final touches

We’ve got a pretty good image, but there were a couple of details that I wanted to address:

  • The book – it became too translucent, when I reduced the opacity of our ethereal being to give her some translucence.  My fix for this was to put another copy of the book on top, which obscured her right thumb, which I then put on top of the new book.  Part of the reason for taking this extra step is that I wanted to throw some additional light on the book, so that the eye would go there naturally.
  • The floor – it’s just way too bright, which draws the eye to it, for which I used a curves adjustment with a mask.

At that point, I was pretty happy with my first truly composite image.  Over time, I have found flaws in it, which I will edit at some point.  Part of the issue is that I have learned more over the past couple of years, which has made my eye more observant and thus critical of earlier work.  Regardless, I’m still pretty happy with it.

I’m looking forward to hearing from those of you who have taken on similar projects or are thinking about them, and I hope that you enjoyed these posts.

TTT – Creating composite images – pt 1

Revealing the magic…

In this past Sunday’s Shot of the Week blog post, I floated the idea of putting together a post or two on the technical elements that go into creating an image along the lines of ‘Searching for Answers‘.

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Searching for Answers

Visualization

The first step in the process should focus on visualizing the image that you are trying to create.

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The Library

When I walked into this mansion’s classically adorned library, it was rather brightly lit through the magnificent windows off to the left in this image.  After taking a look around there were a couple of items that stood out to me about this scene:

  • Red curtains
  • Old books
  • Classic woodwork

This gave me a couple of mental and visual cues to start the process of putting together a storyline for the image.

A Story for the Image

As this type of image is all about telling a story, it is critical to start with the story.  Having a library full of books, the first thing that came to my mind was that the books might contain answers to questions that may have troubled someone in their life.  What if they never had access to these books during their lifetime?  Could they come to visit the library as an ethereal presence, so that they could search for answers to those questions?

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A Base Image

As you can tell, the imagination quickly adds some details to put context together for the shoot.  A quick check of the available wardrobe confirmed that we had a flowing red dress available, so that the color red could be used as a thematic cue.

Planning the Shoot

When creating a composite image, the most important thing is to have a plan.  Ideally, you shoot all the components for the image at the same time, so that lighting is consistent, which will make the final image much more believable.

At the very least, create a mental checklist that ensures all the bases are covered to put the final image together in post processing, particularly when shooting a square composition.  Here are some things to keep in mind:

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Positioning
  • Make sure that you shoot extra width and height for the image; other than the obvious reason, you may decide later to adjust the exact positioning of your subject
  • Make sure that you have a complete base image for the entire scene (you can see the central portion of the base image above)
  • Give yourself options by playing with some of the elements in the shot, such as the curtains or books, even when you’re not sure you will need them; you might end up throwing some shots away, or end up using one of them in a way you just didn’t expect.

Equipment Notes

Although there are many ways that good shots can be achieved, here are a couple of equipment notes that will make the process a little easier:

  • Always have your camera on a tripod; if you have a tripod that allows for smooth rotation that is ideal for aligning for additional width to your shot.
  • A fixed focal length, prime lens is ideal, but a zoom lens is workable.
  • A remote trigger for your camera makes your shoot a lot easier (see ‘Positioning’ image)
  • Use manual settings on your camera, including manual focus.

Shooting the Key Element(s)

The most important element of this image is the ethereal presence floating in front of the bookshelves, in search of answers in the many volumes stored there.  The next image gives away some of the magic, as you see the model, Steph, standing on a ladder rather than being suspended through unseen forces of levitation.

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Ethereal Presence

Keen observers will also note that that is my thumb holding her dress in a more floating position.  Even keener observers might see that her head position doesn’t match that of the image at the beginning of this post; you are correct, as I used her upper body from one of the other images.

Next week, we’ll go over the details and the process of editing in your favorite image manipulation program, which is not quite as difficult, as you might think.  I’ll leave you with some of the other shots that went into creating the resultant image, as a bit of a behind the scenes view.

I hope you enjoyed this brief introduction.

How did you learn photography? (part 3)

Photographing agility competitions allowed me to hone my camera skills

Building more skills

Photographing agility competitions allowed me to hone my camera skills, exposure and scene understanding and quick decision making to get just about any shot in an instant.  Add to that an understanding of just about any breed of dog and how they jump, so that I could just about guarantee that I’d catch them in their best look, and I was in demand for dog sport photography.

The one missing element was the personal satisfaction that I was stretching myself creatively to a level that I felt I could.  I had joined a camera club and enjoyed the interaction with other photographers, and this did help me determine to some degree what I wanted to do as a next step.

My true desire was to be able to produce images of the quality that one would expect from a professional photographer; the kind of image that you see in a magazine or in advertising or in a gallery.

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Macaroni and Cheese

So I made a list of the skills that I needed:

  • Lighting a subject under various circumstances
  • A well-developed artistic eye
  • Ability to pose subjects for a pleasing result
  • Knowledge of tools to produce the final image

A pretty basic list, which can take thousands of hours to master.  Time to get serious about learning!

Learning approaches

In addition to the books that I already gathered, I started taking some workshops and seminars and participating in group shoots.  Each of these approaches had their merits and helped me learn in different ways.

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Solitude

On-line courses were great in terms of fitting into a hectic work week, and getting a lot of well-prepared technical or artistic information in written form for later reference; each course required me to submit assignment shots by a certain time, which were then critiqued by the instructor(s).  I took classes ranging from flash skills, conceptual photography (Solitude) and food photography (Macaroni and Cheese).  Food is definitely one area of commercial photography that I enjoy; after all, who doesn’t like food?

Workshops were fantastic opportunities to learn skills within a day or two and often get lots of hands-on work.  I worked with some great instructors, who are truly inspiring.  Rick Friedman’s workshops on Location Lighting taught me how to use Speedlights to light just about any situation creatively and for the effect that you want.  Bobbi Lane’s Portrait Photography workshops added a lot of portrait lighting for effect skill to my bag of tricks, as well as posing models.

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The Lady has Charm

Working with models was also crucial to my development as a photographer; even though most of my artistic work is landscape and abstract, working with models taught me to recognize the importance of managing lines in any shot.

What have I learnt?

Clearly, I have developed as a photographer over the past 10-12 years, and I have received recognition for a number of my images.  During that time, I have learned a lot of technical skills and unlocked some of my artistic ability, but more than anything I have achieved a level of confidence that allows me to take on just about any situation and come up with a solution for getting the shot that I want.

In the next part, I’ll go over some of the strategies that I use to get these images and what I see as the continuing journey of acquiring knowledge, skill and enjoyment from photography.

Hope to see you for that one!

How did you learn photography? (part 2)

After a number of years without much photographic activity, the bug slowly started coming back during the mid to late 1990s

Early Renaissance

After a number of years without much photographic activity, the bug slowly started coming back during the mid to late 1990s.  The advent of the digital camera era got my curiosity aroused, but the high price of the cameras kept me off the playing field.  That is until Kodak came out with a reasonably priced 1MP camera, the DC20, which retailed for $299.  Yes, times have changed!

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Halloween 2000

The DC20 was capable of taking either 8 shots at full resolution or 16 at half resolution and had a fixed focal length lens.  To get the images off the camera required attaching it to a serial port and waiting for the bits to flow!  It was fun for experimenting and some very basic shots, but produced horrible artifacts.

The Olympus C960 (IIRC) came next in 2000 and it allowed me to start doing some actual photography with a digital camera, such as the Halloween shot of my daughter Teegan (left) and her friend.

During this time, the volume of my shooting went up dramatically, as the results were a bit more controllable and pleasing to the eye.  My education in photography was getting back on track, as I started paying closer attention to composition and light conditions; a lot of this was still trial and error, but if I look back at my images over these couple of years, there is a progression.

In 2003, I needed a camera upgrade and found the Minolta Dimage 7i, which was a big step up at 5 MP and much more control.  The improvement in image quality and the added control with the optical zoom enabled me to start exercising more control over the final look of the image.  This accelerated my learning and provided the stepping stone to the next level.

Going to the dogs

In 2004, my wife, Kris, started competing in agility with on of our Cardigan Welsh Corgis, Darwin.  Going with Kris to these competitions, I brought my trusty Minolta with me to get some shots of Darwin in action.  Of course, I would get in a couple of practice shots of other dogs, so that I had an idea what I could expect and where to get the best possible shot of Darwin.  And, because during these competitions most of your time is spent waiting for the next time Darwin gets to run the course, I got bored and started photographing other dogs’ runs.

Pretty soon, people started asking me, if I would consider selling the pictures I took of their dogs to them.  I wasn’t ready for that yet, particularly since my camera had a slight problem: shutter lag.  If you’re familiar with the Minolta Dimage 7i, you might know that there is about 1/3 second between pressing the shutter and image capture; not bad for photographing a posed group, but tricky when you try to get running dogs at just the right time.

You get the idea: upgrade time to my first Digital SLR, the Canon 10D.  This immediately solved the shutter lag problem and gave me full control over all the functions of the camera.  Now the learning had to go into high gear, as my plan was to pay for this camera with photo sales from agility competitions.  I convinced a couple of clubs to let me photograph their agility trials and found something out very quickly: people love photos of their dogs in action.

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Buford, Superdog

Looking back at the images from the first couple of trials, I have to admit that they were pretty rough.  The first step was to learn what the limits of my camera and lens were in terms of the exposure triangle.  Stopping motion of a dog in mid-flight requires a reasonably fast shutter speed.  And with this camera, I couldn’t push the ISO too high, as color cast would appear due to the graininess.

By early 2005, I had a decent handle on my camera and was able to produce shots, such as this Basset Hound doing a superdog flight over the final jump (there is a story behind this shot…).  The key learning piece was all about learning to master the equipment, so that to a casual observer it would simply look like all these shots required was a simple press of the shutter.  I learned to estimate exposure values, adjust for the difference in reflected light off different colors, compensate exposure depending on the color of the dog, and anticipate what the dog would do.

During this time, I did start buying photography books to accelerate my learning.  One of the books that I found invaluable is Brian Peterson’s Understanding Exposure, which covers much more than just exposure, as he spends quite a bit of time on composition as well.

What’s Next?

In terms of learning, photographing action was an excellent school, as the goal is to not miss any great shot and be prepared for anything.  I learned to shoot with both eyes open, as my non-dominant left eye can pick up on what is outside the right eye’s field of view through the lens.  I studied a tremendous amount about exposure, and learned how to look at a location to quickly analyze where the good vantage points are.

What was lacking from the dog-sport and other action photography was a sense of artistic expression.  The next step was to expand my range of photography and skills, so that I could take on new challenges.

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Rose Particle

In the next part, we’ll go over the range of skills and artistic expansion exercises that have led me to where I am today.  Hope you’re enjoying this little journey along my photographic path.

How did you learn photography? (part 1)

As a photographer, there are a number of questions that come up with some frequency.

Common Questions

As a photographer, there are a number of questions that come up with some frequency.  Some of these questions are rather mundane, such as ‘Your camera must be really good.  What model is it?’, while others are interesting, but not always answered in the short amount of time that is available in today’s busy lifestyle.

From my perspective, the interesting questions tend to center around the following areas:

  • Artistic choices made in shooting, editing, printing, etc.
  • Learning the technique and art of photography

Certainly, there are other topics that are fun to discuss, but these areas are the main ones.

As I tend to focus on artistic choice questions as they relate to specific images, I will defer that topic set to those posts, which focus on a single image or a set of them.

In this post, I’ll start the exploration of the approach that I have taken, both consciously and unconsciously.

First Steps

As is the case for many photographers, my first interest in photography was kindled by a family member; in my case, it was my stepfather who was an occasional photographer on vacations.  But the real mystery that intrigued me came from a set of photo developing and printing supplies that I found in our apartment’s storage locker; the unusual apparatus made me wonder what that was all about.

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Kodak Pocket Instamatic

I got my first camera around age 16 or 17.  It was a Kodak Pocket Instamatic, such as the one in this image.  It took C110 film and the flash cube that old photographers can tell you about.

Despite the diminutive size, it took reasonable photos, including a bunch that I took in the British Museum, much to the amusement of the guards, who wouldn’t believe that such a little camera could work; now, if I only still had the prints from that era!  It traveled everywhere with me and even came to college with me.

These first steps were very much about exploration, and, in all honesty, I don’t think that I learned much on a conscious level, as I didn’t give much thought to composition or the exposure triangle.  Unconsciously, this did start the process of learning to see what I liked in a photo, which is a start.

The Next Level

Leaving the Netherlands to go to college, I arrived in the United States and travelled to Granville, Ohio, the site of Denison University.  As an incoming freshman, I was assigned an academic advisor in the Physics department (I knew what my major was going to be before I arrived); as luck would have it, Dr. Grant, my advisor, was an avid photographer and an Olympus OM-1 shooter.

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Plan C – Rotterdam

I distinctly remember examining the prints of his work that hung in his office, which were mostly of flowers; there was something that struck me about the quality of the composition of several of them, as I noticed that I was drawn to those images again and again.

After saving up for a while, I did acquire my first SLR, an Olympus OM-1, which I still have, and switch to shooting slides; the color saturation and the ability to see the positive image were what pulled me away from print film.  Additionally, slides are much more portable than prints.

During this period of my photography, I was very interested in examining structure, form, color, light and shadow; thus, a lot of my photos (technically, slides) from that period show architecture, such as the image here of a housing development in Rotterdam, which are usually referred to as ‘Cube Houses’.

When I look back to the images from this period, there is a slow maturation of my vision, but it was not at a level where I could explain why I shot an image in a particular manner.  As I didn’t pick up an instructional guide or take any course, that wasn’t surprising.  My learning methodology was purely trial, error and slow improvement.

The Dark Ages

After college, my photography activities diminished slowly until they were usually practiced only during vacations.  There was no real attempt on my part to improve my skills or acquire a better understanding of what I was doing to create either good or mediocre images.

Of course, we know from history that after the dark ages there will be a Renaissance period; this is where the learning and skills expansion gets serious.  More about that in the  next post in this series.

Learning Style