This is a “before and after” of the Jim Bridger Power Plant that I created recently.
The before does not differ a great deal from the after, but there are a few differences. Can you spot them?
Hint: the first change is abbreviated b&w.
I like to use the word “create” rather than “capture” when talking about my images.
Because a “capture” implies that the image is an accurate representation of reality, as the scene appeared to the camera and eye.
I like “create” because it suggests that the image is not accurate, but rather it has been created through my Vision into something new and different.
And when did the “Vision” for this image occur?
When I first saw this power plant from I-80 from several miles away. As soon as I saw it, the Vision of the final image appeared in my head and guided how I shot it, how I exposed it and how I processed it.
Vision was the driving force.
Why am I always mentioning Vision? Because it breaks my heart to see people chasing equipment, technique and gadgets…thinking that these things are key to creating a great image. Those things can certainly be “elements” of a great image, but not key and not even always necessary.
So please, focus on your Vision! I spent most of my photographic life pursuing the wrong things and was lucky to have a mentor who was even more bull-headed than I am, and argued that I did not need document, but rather I could create.
Thank you Vered.
(Plate of Leaves)
It was a rainy day up in the Colorado mountains and I decided to shoot indoors. I collected some seeds and leaves and placed them on this great wooden plate that I had purchased for such an occasion. I was shooting on the kitchen table using available light, which was the kitchen ceiling lamp.
So how did the image look to my camera?
(click on the image to enlarge and compare)
I think the color image is rather boring and unremarkable. At first glance and without Vision, you might be tempted to throw it out. But I had a Vision of what it was to be.
A lot of this image’s “look” was obtained in the black and white conversion process, where I play with the color sliders to bring out or hide details. Click on the image above and look at the leaf just left of center, see how the veins have been brought out? The green slider had a lot of affect on this image.
For me, the step of converting the image to black and white is a critical part of fulfilling my Vision. That’s why I never accept the default b&w conversion or simply desaturate the image. I know what I want the image to look like, Photoshop does not.
Then after I had done as much as I could with the b&w conversion, I dodged and burned to bring out the contrast and highlights. I worked with a very small brush and worked every leaf, seed and nut individually. Sometimes it’s tempting to use a global tool such as the contrast adjuster, but that affects everything in the image equally and it rarely can produce a look equal to good dodging and burning.
The challenge was to take that boring color image and transform it into the black and white image that’s in my head.
For me, a black and white image is so much more interesting than a color one!
P.S. There’s something else interesting about the before and after image…it’s the sharpness. Did you notice that the b&w version seems so much sharper than the color image? It’s what I call “apparent sharpness” and it comes from contrast. This image has not been sharpened.
Monolith No. 78 – Before
I’ve had a number of people ask if I’d do some more “before and after” shots. So here are five from my recent Oregon trip.
I had my eye on this Monolith by Cape Blanco for several years, but I had never found an easy way to get down to the beach. On this trip I found one.
At the hour I get there (never early!) the monolith is backlit and so it’s a difficult shot. I was fortunate to have these great delicate clouds that streak well with a long exposure and I envisioned them becoming an important part of the image, if I could deal with the backlight.
The sun was in the upper left corner and it was washing out the clouds and giving me a big flare. I used my hand as a sunshade for the 30 second exposure, properly placing it by watching where my hand’s shadow fell on the lens. I knew that later in Photoshop I’d have to even out the sky, because it was bright on the left and darker on the right.
Then there was the debris on the beach from the last few days of big storms and high tides, but I knew that I could deal with that in post processing.
Monolith No. 78 – After
To deal with the debris I cloned out the tree stump and burned down the foreground to remove the rest. I don’t like anything that distracts from the main subject.
For the sky I burned down the upper left corner to bring out detail in the clouds, then I dodged up the right to balance the sky out. I also used a very small dodging brush to follow the cloud streaks to bring them out more. Adding contrast also helped the clouds stand out against the sky.
The backlighting didn’t hurt me as much as I feared it would. There’s not much shadow detail in the Monolith, but I generally don’t prefer a lot anyway.
Monolith No. 77 – Before
This is one of my favorite images from this trip. I envisioned this Monolith framed by the very dark hills on the sides, the rocks below and the clouds above.
This was a pretty simple image and an easy one…I thought…until I got home and found out that my Vari-ND was doing the dark pattern thing on me. It’s one of the quirks of all variable ND filters, sometimes at wide angles and when the sun angle is just right, you get these weird dark patterns across the image. And here’s a heads up: the cheaper the variable ND filter the more it will do this. That’s why I use the Singh-Ray Vari-ND, it happens much less frequently and when it does, there are a couple of workarounds.
If I had noticed the patterning in the field I could have switched lens and probably have avoided it. This was shot with my 24-105 at 24 mm, which is where the problem can happen, when you’re shooting at the wide end of your lens. If I had switched to the 16-35 and used 24 mm the pattern probably would have gone away, because 24 mm is mid focal length for that lens. And of course another option would have been to simply switch to a fixed ND filter for this shot.
This image also had some vignetting in the corners and I didn’t like how the clouds were thin on the right side of the image.
You might notice that I underexpose my images, usually by about 1 stop. I do this for a couple of reasons. First, I like the look of a dark image with pronounced highlights. Second, it makes it easier to deal with the wide dynamic range in these types of scenes where the sky is important to the image. If I had opened up another stop, that sky would have easily washed out and I’d have lost the cloud detail. Shadow detail is not very important to my images, so underexposing works for me.
Monolith No. 77 – After
I fixed the dark pattern in the sky with vey some careful and slow dodging (it’s easy for a sky to look blotchy if you use a small or hard brush or you work too quickly) I’m typically dodging and burning between 1-3% strength and for skies I’m generally using 1%. I used the clone tool to fix the vignetting and I also cloned in some clouds from the left to the right for a more balanced look.
I also used dodging and burning to bring out the water detail. I call it local contrast enhancement when I go back and forth between burning and dodging to increase the contrast in just one area.
I was happy with how this image turned out, especially after finding out about the dark pattern in the sky.
Something I noticed in the image above: there’s a thin highlight separating the sky from the monolith. I went back to the original TIFF and it’s not there, but it appears when I convert it to a JPEG for the web. I’ll have to do some work to figure out what that is and how to fix it.
Cape Blanco – Before
People are naturally drawn to lighthouses, as are photographers. But the lighthouse shot is soooooo overdone that I almost didn’t create this one. But I thought I’d see if I could put my twist on it. I love to put the subject small in a large frame and then added a long exposure for a bit of movement. I underexposed and used a polarizer because I wanted black skies.
Cape Blanco – After
In the final image, I further isolated the lighthouse by burning down the foreground and the sky. Looking at this image now, a few weeks after I last worked on it, I think I’ll remove those trees on the far right because I find them distracting.
This illustrates how I work to refine an image. I’ll let it sit for a few weeks and then look at it with fresher eyes. I’ll then perhaps modify it again and then put it to bed for a few weeks more before I look at it again.
Now that I’ve removed those trees, I’ll come back in a week to see if I want to keep this change or not.
Isolated No. 7 – Before
I was driving on the road to Cape Blanco when this tree just jumped out at me! I love centered images and struggled if I should center the tree where it hits the ground or the upright of the tree. Centering the upright portion of the tree looked more centered and that’s what I went with.
It was a windy and hazy day which made the shot a little challenging. I took about 20 long exposures trying to get the clouds just right and ended up using this one. I didn’t underexpose as I usually do, because I didn’t want to lose the tree detail. It was still a processing challenge and I started over 4 times before I got it right.
Isolated No. 7 – After
Again, I did a lot of dodging and burning on this image. Many people feel that they can do this with a mouse, but I certain cannot! I use a pen and tablet and the control is so much better than with a mouse. I never like to be adamant, but you cannot do what I do with a mouse. Period.
I got rid of the shadow of the tree, that bothered me for some reason, and left a highlight around the tree. I darkened the sky and left it bright behind the tree. As I look at the image today, I think that I may go back and open up the trees a bit on the right side.
As I make decisions about my images, it reminds me of how I’ve seen some others make those decisions. They will show the image to someone and say: What do you think I should do to this image? I am very opposed to that approach, I think one should have a Vision and not adulterate it with someone else’s opinion.
Isolated No. 6 – After
I was lucky on this trip to have constantly changing weather conditions. Some days it was raining hard, others were sunny and others were constantly changing as on this day. The sun was coming and going and what I was trying to get was the sun hitting the island and the land left and right bits of land in shadow.
I was here for several hours trying to get the clouds and lighting just right. Sometimes the clouds were perfect, but not the foreground. At other times I’d get the shadowing how I wanted it but the clouds were no good.
I didn’t get exactly what I wanted in the shot, but I was confident that I’d be able to create the effect I was looking for in post processing.
Isolated No. 6 – After
I burned the land down on the left and right to put the focus on the island. Then I dodged up the island to make it brighter. Then I went to work on the clouds, lightening the upper ones and darkening the smaller ones just above the island. Then I darkened the foreground to hide the detail and to bring the eye to the island.
So after seeing these “before and after” shots, I hope that you’ll not conclude that you need to learn more about Photoshop. It is not my intent to focus on post processing as the key to an image because that is exactly what I don’t believe.
Instead my approach is to have a Vision of the image and then let that drive the processing. When you have Vision, your processing then has purpose: to bring the image into compliance with your Vision.
And armed with that Vision, you don’t need to ask others what to do with your image, you already know how it’s going to look in your head!
Utah Hills, Created with the Singh-Ray 15 Stop Fixed ND Filter
After years of experimentation and trying various ND filter combinations, I have assembled what I believe to be the worlds perfect ND kit. It consists of the following:
- 5 stop fixed ND filter in 82mm
- 10 stop fixed ND filter in 82mm
- 15 stop fixed ND filter in 82mm
- 20 stop fixed ND filter in 82mm
- Singh-Ray Vari-ND in 82mm
- Step up rings on each of my lenses so they all can use 82mm filters
Those of you who are shooting long daytime exposures will appreciate what this means. I can now shoot with 5, 10, 15 or 20 stops of ND without stacking two filters together or vignetting!
I am in pig heaven. Seriously.
But my perfect kit would not be complete without a Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter. This is a variable filter that gives you between 3 and 8 stops of neutral density and it works just like a polarizer: turning it one way gives you more ND and turning it the other way gives you less.
It is critically important for me to have this variable filter because it allows me to photograph dynamic subjects (eg: people or other moving objects) quickly without removing the filter to compose the image.
With fixed filters the viewfinder is so dark that I cannot compose without removing the filter. And taking filters on and off takes precious time (which I may not have when photographing people) and sometimes I accidently change the zoom or focus settings, which ruins the shot.
With the Vari-ND I can dial the filter open, compose, and then close the filter down to shoot. I can do this very quickly which is critical.
The Vari-ND filter is the one piece of equipment that allowed me to photograph the ghosts at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
If had I visited the camps armed only with my fixed ND filters, I could not have created these images.
Now some of you looking at this list of filters might be thinking: everyone has heard of a 5 and 10 stop…but a 15 and 20???
Yes! Singh-Ray offers a 5, 10 and 15 stop filter and then they built a 20 stop filter for me (which I think they’ll be offering to the public before long).
Why would I want a 20 stop filter? Because it allows me to get an 8 and 16 minute exposure in bright daylight, and now I don’t have to stack to get it! Stacking creates some serious vignetting when shooting wide, here’s a before-and-after of a two stacked filter shot to illustrate:
Being able to go from 5 to 20 stops without stacking is a huge deal for me.
I hope this doesn’t sound like a commercial for Singh-Ray because it’s not, but it is an honest plug. I’ve long depended on Singh-Ray’s filters, they are top quality and the customer service is unbeatable.
So if you’re wondering what ND filters to buy, here is the perfect combination of filters to aspire to.
P.S. Just to balance out all this technical talk, here is a favorite story of mine that puts equipment into perspective:
“A photographer went to a socialite party in New York. As he entered the front door, the host said ‘I love your pictures – they’re wonderful; you must have a fantastic camera.’
He said nothing until dinner was finished, then:
‘That was a wonderful dinner; you must have a terrific Stove.’”
Harbinger No. 1
Several summers ago my son Jem and I were taking a road trip through the western states, it was meant to be both a photography trip as well as a father and son trip. We were in Utah and it was about 150 degrees (or so it felt) when I spied these great mud hills off to the north.
Sensing a good image, we hiked to a vantage point where I could photograph this set of wonderfully symmetric hills. I loved the dark mud and the deep blue sky, but the image was lacking something. I wanted to stay longer to see if I could solve this photographic riddle, but my son had other ideas.
Photographing with a child is a real challenge for me. I go into “working mode” which means that I withdraw into my own world and want to be left alone. My son on the other hand goes into “bored child mode” which means he repeats the following, interspersed with loud sighs:
- It’s hot.
- How much longer?
- Can we go now?
- You said 5 minutes…5 minutes ago!
- Can I go back to the car and watch a movie?
- Are you done?
Given the mediocrity of the image, the oppressive heat and my son chipping away at my stamina…I gave up, packed up and headed back to the truck.
But once back I spied this single cloud moving very fast across the horizon. I could see by its trajectory that in about a minute it would pass right over those mud hills that I had just been photographing.
This was a beautiful little cloud that was heading towards a wonderful setting…when suddenly I realized that this could be my “Moonrise, Hernandez” moment!
I told my son that I was going back for one more shot (he let out a loud and exaggerated groan) and I ran just as fast as I could. I quickly set up my gear and was able to get a single shot with the cloud perfectly situated above those mud hills. And that is the image above.
As I looked at the image on the camera’s screen, the name Harbinger immediately popped into my head and that is what I named the image.
When I would show this new image to people, they would ask “are you going to do a series of them?” I honestly didn’t think I’d ever find another solitary cloud like this one and would say that while I would love to, I doubted that it would be possible.
But over the next couple of years something interesting happened. Being sensitized to this concept, I started to find other Harbinger opportunities until I had a small collection of them:
I love this series for its mysterious simplicity, and I love the artist statement for its brevity and ambiguity:
Harbinger: \?här-b?n-j?r\ noun
1. one that goes ahead and makes known the approach of another; herald.
2. anything that foreshadows a future event; omen; sign.
Unlike my Auschwitz-Birkenau series that took just under two hours to create, I expect Harbinger to take many years to complete.
But that’s okay, I’m in no hurry.
I was recently in Saint Petersburg, Russia visiting Peterhof Palace, which is Peter the Great’s summer home.
While walking around the grounds I saw this line of trees that caught my attention. They were still bare from winter and had been neatly trimmed to look like giant lollipops. They caught my fancy and I took about an hour to photograph them from every conceivable angle and composition…except one.
As I was leaving I took one shot on my iPhone to email family and to put in our scrapbook. This iPhone shot was different from the other images I took with my Canon, it was a wide angle shot of all the trees.
When I got home and reviewed the images, I was disappointed because there wasn’t a single one that I liked. But then I remembered the iPhone image…
This is the original iPhone color shot and as you can see, the trees are just a small part of the image. I never imagined that an iPhone image, and one with the subject this small, could ever be made into a decent image. But just for the fun of it, I opened it in Photoshop and processed it.
First I converted to a 16 bit image and into black and white.
Then using curves, I adjusted the image to appear as a silhouette.
I cropped it into a pano.
And removed the people from the scene (it just felt better without them).
Finally I burned down the sky for this resulting simple image.
Because the image was created with a relatively low resolution iPhone, I was worried how it would look when printed. But because it looked good on the screen, I made a 15 inch wide test print and it looked great! I was very impressed with how good an iPhone image could look at this size.
Here are a few thoughts I had about this experience:
It reinforced my belief that you don’t need the best equipment to create great images. Sure, we’d all prefer to have the best equipment, but there are other ingredients that are much more important.
When you find a great shot, shoot every conceivable angle, composition and exposure. I know some people that believe you should take your time, carefully consider the composition and then take only one shot…but I personally don’t want to travel halfway around the world only to discover that my one shot missed the mark! My approach is to take many shots and reduce the chance of coming home empty handed.
Vision works best when it directs the shot and the processing. However in this case my vision missed the shot but was able to make up for it later during processing. Vision, no matter when it occurs, is a good thing.
While I’m not planning on pursuing iPhoneography, I sure am grateful that I had this one iPhone shot!
This is “Time No. 2” that I created at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, perhaps the most photographed spot in the entire park. This image was created just before the sun went down and it’s amazing how Zabriskie Point can look so differently as the light changes from morning, to noon and to late afternoon.
Today I wanted to show a “before and after” so you could see what the original image looked and how your vision can change it. Sometimes vision takes place as you’re shooting and sometimes it occurs when you’re processing the image. And sometimes your vision changes over time and so you go back and change the image repeatedly (you should see how the The Angel Gabriel has evolved over time).
This original image is quite flat and muted, and so to make this a “Cole Thompson” image, I had to improve the contrast and separate the colors. I do this by adjusting the color channels in the black and white conversion tool of Photoshop CS5. By sliding each color’s adjustors in both directions, you can see how it will affect the contrast and separation. With the colors I had in this image, I was able to change the b&w version quite a bit by adjusting the color channels; the Red and Yellow channels brought out highlights, the Blue channels darkened certain parts of the image, and the green had no effect. When adjusting the channels, be careful not to go so far that you introduce unacceptable amounts of noise, particularly in the blue channels.
I then dodge and burn the image with my tablet to further enhance the contrast. In this image I used a very small brush to individually work each piece of the image so that I brought out the striations that separated each set of hills. I particularly paid attention to the ridge tops and brought out the highlighted edges.
One of the most important steps in my conversion process is to use the “Histogram” to check the blacks and white and then to adjust them using “Levels” if necessary (it’s almost always necessary). After you have established a good black and white, you can use “Levels” to adjust the midtones and really change the mood of your image, for my images I generally am pushing the midtones darker.
Once the image looks great on screen, I then use the global contrast adjustment to push the contrast even further so that it will print with the same “pop” that it has on screen. Remember that a monitor uses transmitted light and that always makes things look better than it will on a print. The reason for this is that a print uses reflected light which is quite dull and flat by comparison. By pushing the contrast further than you think you should, it will help ensure the printed piece looks good.
For me, the appeal of this image is it’s simplicity, it’s detailed contrasts and the compressed perspective. Death valley is really a spectacular place, especially in the winter. I go each January and just revel in the timeless solitude.
P.S. What I don’t like about side by side comparisons is when someone always writes and says “I like the color image better!” I’m just kidding of course, we all have our individual tastes and mine just runs to the black and white.
I often receive requests to show some “before and after” images to help people understand how much of my work is done in camera and how much is done in Photoshop. I’d say it’s generally about 50/50 but that can vary by image with some images almost ready right out of the camera and many requiring extensive processing in Photoshop.
Lone Man No. 20 is a good example of a 50/50 image. As you can see, the image I started with and the final image are both quite similar and yet quite different. The original shot has all of the important elements; the composition, the long exposure of the water, the clouds and the lone man, but it doesn’t have the dramatic effect of the final image.
Probably the first change you’ll notice in the final image is that the severe vignetting has been repaired. I was shooting with an extremely wide angle lens and I had two stacked neutral density filters on my lens, as a result a great deal of the filter was included in the photograph. To repair this I first cropped the image and then I used the clone tool to fill in the missing corners.
Next you’ll notice that the sky in the original image has very low contrast and is quite bland. To bring out the sky detail I split the image into two halves, upper and lower, and converted them to b&w differently. In each conversion I used Photoshop’s “Channel Mixer” but in the upper half I used some blue channel to improve the contrast and detail in of the sky. Next I used some pretty aggressive dodging and burning to bring out the definition and detail in the clouds, this information was in the image but it was almost hidden to the eye. As a rule you can generally recover image detail as long as you have not over-exposed the image to the point that you have blown out the highlights.
Note: one of the side-effects of using blue channel in the conversion and dodging and burning is that the image can get very grainy. When using this technique you must carefully balance the good-effects with side-effects.
Next I converted the lower half of the image to b&w, darkened the image and greatly enhanced the contrast. This dark and contrasty approach is the look that I like and it often has the effect of making daytime look like night time. The March/April issue of Photo Technique Magazine featured an article on my work and they used the phrase “Darkness at Noon” to describe this look.
All of this produced a basic final image, but it still didn’t have the dramatic impact I was seeking and that I had pre-visualized before I captured the image. So my final step was to dodge and burn to bring out the highlights and selectively darken blacks to locally enhance contrast. As I did this I carefully monitored the histogram below:
This histogram shows that I have a good black and a good white, something your eye cannot always discern when looking at the image on the screen. Monitors are often out of adjustment and our eyes can be fooled, but the histogram never lies. People often complain to me that what looked good to them on screen, often prints flat and muddy. Generally the problem is revealed in their histogram; they lack a “true” black and good contrast.
As you can see from my final image, it does not represent reality. Reality is not my goal but instead I strive create images that reflect how I see the scene through my vision. That is why I advocate that photographers work just as hard on developing their vision, as they do on their technical skills and equipment. The image begins and ends in your mind’s eye.