Archive for the ‘post processing’ Tag

Friday Foto Talk, Part V: Plug-ins   8 comments

First post!  Happy New Year!

First post! Happy New Year!

This post concludes a mini-series on post-processing.  Find parts I – IV here.  My intent is to summarize the approach I’ve found to be helpful for me.  It’s not to give specific instruction on how to edit your photographs on the computer.  You can find these tutorials in many different places both online and in print.  But be selective and only go with the most experienced teachers.  Much of the online instruction in particular can be a little misleading and not all that helpful.  Everybody is different and will approach specific editing tasks differently.  Only very experienced teachers factor this in to the right extent.

You should develop your own unique “workflow”, or general sequence of steps, while being flexible enough to take any given image in a different direction than the one you took the last image.  Editing is, in fact, just like capturing images.  The more you do it the more comfortable you become.  If you’re fairly new to digital photography, don’t expect to get to that post-processing comfort zone without some degree of frustration.  Don’t despair; it’s all part of the learning curve.  And so, on to plug-ins:

Last week I posted a winter Crater Lake.  This one is from late summer with smoke from distant fires turning the sky orange.

Last week I posted a winter Crater Lake. This one is from late summer with smoke from distant fires turning the sky orange.

PLUG-INS:  WHAT ARE THEY & HOW DO THEY WORK?

Plug-ins are software programs that work with Lightroom, Aperture, Photoshop CS and other programs to add functionality and ease of use.  They are the classic editing extra.  I’m talking only about those plug-ins which apply post-processing techniques to your images.  There are plugins that do all sorts of things – automatically publishing your pictures on websites, for example.

As the name says, these programs “plug in” to your main editor (Lightroom, Photoshop or Aperture).  When you install a plug-in, you link it to your main editing program.  Editing plug-ins are designed to, in effect, take your images on a round-trip from your main program to the plug-in (where you apply edits) and back again.

In Lightroom for example, you simply right-click on a picture and click “edit in”.  Then from the drop-down menu you choose one of the plug-ins you have installed and, from the box that pops up, select how you want to save it.  After you finish with the image and click save (or apply, or whatever the plug-in says), your photo is automatically sent back to Lightroom, thus creating another version of it in a non-RAW format (Jpeg, TIFF).  Once you’ve done it a few times, it’s a pretty simple procedure.

A bare winter tree

A bare winter tree

PUTTING PLUG-INS TO WORK

Although you can almost always do with Photoshop what any plug-in can do, these little programs can almost always do it quicker and easier.  By and large, a plug-in, like any editing extra, will impart a certain style to your picture.  Plug-ins can lend quite magical or painterly effects to your images.  Many of them do what filters did in the film era.  But they go far beyond simple filters.

The power of these little programs means it’s very easy to overdo things, resulting in an image with the wrong kind of impact.  But, at least with the better plug-ins, it also means you can exert a fair amount of subtlety and control.  This control is best applied by combining the judicious use of sliders and opacity.

Some of the more popular plug-ins for photography include Nik, onOne, Imagenomic and Topaz.  There are others.  These companies offer bundles, which are a good deal if you plan to use two or more of their products a lot.  For instance I use Nik’s Silver Effex & Color Effex quite a bit, so I bought the bundle and for nearly no extra money got their excellent Dfine for noise reduction and HDR Effex for HDR.

The charming town of Quetzaltenango (Xela for short) lies in Guatemala's western highlands.

The charming town of Quetzaltenango (Xela for short) lies in Guatemala’s western highlands.

As mentioned, most editing plug-ins are quite powerful, and thus they’re often used with Photoshop because you can easily apply them as a layer and then dampen the effect simply by changing layer opacity.  Also, you can apply layer masks in Photoshop, limiting the effects of the plugin to local areas of the image.  But even here the creators of these programs have figured out ways to allow their use without Photoshop.  .

With many plug-ins, you can adjust opacity while still inside the plug-in software itself.  And to take it a step further, in the better plug-ins you can adjust the effect in local areas of the image.  Some plug-ins have masking as their sole function, competing directly with Photoshop.

All this allows photographers like me to largely avoid Photoshop, using the plug-ins in conjunction with Lightroom (which doesn’t have layers or layer masking).  As described in Part IV, I use Photoshop itself as a plug-in, only occasionally taking photos from Lightroom to PS for specific tasks, then saving right back to my LR catalog.  If you plan to use plug-ins in conjunction with Lightroom instead of Photoshop, I recommend those that allow a lot of adjustment to the overall effect (opacity) as well as the effects of individual sliders.  All plug-in software offers free trials.

The roof in Carlsbad Cavern's Big Room is studded with thousands of stalactites.

The roof in Carlsbad Cavern’s Big Room is studded with thousands of stalactites.

USE PLUG-INS WISELY

Plug-ins have an effect you’ll see all over the internet, especially on social media.  Some of these looks become quite popular, and soon enough it seems like 9 out of 10 images you see have been edited by the same plug-in, with the same effect applied.  Of course this isn’t the plug-in’s fault.  It’s just our “ape” ancestry showing through.

But don’t let this stop you from trying the plug-in.  Just be thoughtful and you’ll be okay.  Your job as a photographer stays the same throughout the post-processing minefield, rife as it is with Facebook fads and 500 px rankings.  Edit your images so they express your particular vision, taking strong account of exactly what was happening at the time you pressed the shutter, and how you felt about it.  If that means using a look that happens to be popular at the moment, then so be it.  Don’t be shy!  If it means going with a look that gets 3 likes on Facebook, that’s fine too!  In other words, to beat a dead horse, just be yourself.

While rambling southern Africa, the call of the "go away" bird might make you feel just a bit unwelcome.

While rambling southern Africa, the call of the gray “go away” bird might make you feel just a bit unwelcome.

Canyon hiking in the Guadalupe Mountains, Texas.

Canyon hiking in the Guadalupe Mountains, Texas.

SUMMARY

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know I’m more into the capture part of photography.  I started out hating post-processing, but now I’m much more in tune with it.  In the end, it’s up to each of you to learn how you want to approach editing your images.  Just like it’s up to you to choose (and then learn how to use) the software you think will get your photography to where you want to take it.

You’ve likely noticed that I recommend basing things off Lightroom.  That’s because it does such a great job of organizing and editing both.  And boy do I need organizing!  Supplement with Photoshop (or Elements) if you’ll be doing a lot of cloning and/or composites (merging images).  Add a few plug-ins that you enjoy using and that jive with your needs and style.  If you take this approach, you’ll be doing the same thing most pro photographers do.

A long post, thanks for sticking with me!  Hope you got something out of it.  Good luck and have a fun fun fun 2015!

A recent sunset, Cimarron River.

A recent sunset on the Cimarron River.

Friday Foto Talk: Post-Processing – Part IV   10 comments

The aptly-named Blue Lake in Washington's North Cascade Mtns.

Aptly-named Blue Lake in Washington’s North Cascade Mtns.

This continues my mini-series on post-processing.  Check out Parts I through III here.  The goal is to get you started, not to give blow-by-blow instruction on specific post-processing techniques.  For one thing I don’t consider myself qualified to go into detail on any computer-based skill.  For another, I don’t think I’d like the way my blog would look with screen shots of software instead of pictures.

Once you’re more or less proficient in Lightroom, and have managed not to lose too many images (remember after importing any image into LR, never ever do anything with that image outside of LR!), you may want to explore extra software programs.  You don’t have to of course.  Lightroom is great as a start to finish solution.  But it can be a nice option for select shots.

I hesitate to recommend some of what I’m about to say.  There is, I think, entirely too much following going on in popular photography.  Has it always been this way or is it just the internet?  Choice of subject is only one way we ape one another (sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, for e.g.).  The way we edit our photos is a minefield as well.

A recent shot from Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico.

A recent shot from Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico.

I’m not saying you should avoid using a technique you picked up from a fellow photographer, one that is enjoying popularity at the moment.  But I am saying you should only use it if it helps the image reflect your own aims and style.  As with life in general, I think the easiest way to pursue your own style and not follow someone else’s is to keep things as simple as possible.

That said, for a few select images, you may want to…

TRY OTHER SOFTWARE

Depending on the image, you can try other editing techniques (let’s call them “extras”) to get the specific look you want.  All depends on the mood you want to create.  Oftentimes you’ll need to apply one or more extras just to get an image to look like what you saw and experienced.  With many images this can be accomplished with standard editing in Lightroom or Photoshop.  But with others extra treatment may be called for.

Many people think the more you work with an image the further from reality it gets.  That’s not necessarily true.  If you’re not careful and thoughtful about your approach, you can certainly “overcook” any image.  But you can do that with very little work as well.  Also, as mentioned in Part I of this series, images often come out of the camera looking more dull and flat than the scene appeared at the time.

I'm so pretty: impala in the Luangwa Valley, Zambia.

I’m so pretty: impala in the Luangwa Valley, Zambia.

And so editing is needed simply to bring life back into a digital image.  This applies much more with digital than with film, which is one reason some still think film yields a more natural look than digital.  But this doesn’t have to be true.  All it takes to avoid the lifeless and flat look of digital is to use a purposeful approach.  Lightroom can get you there in many cases.  But if you find yourself, at least with some shots, spending an inordinate amount of time in Lightroom’s Develop module, trying a variety of presets, banging your head against the wall, and still not getting the results you’re after, it’s time to look at other programs.

I thought I'd throw in a photo to prove it's not all about nature with me.  I call this one, "take that tough boy"

I thought I’d throw in a photo to prove it’s not all about nature with me. I call this one, “take that tough boy”

Close in to Tumalo Falls, Oregon.

Close in to Tumalo Falls, Oregon.

WHAT ROLE PHOTOSHOP?

I recommend taking an image into Photoshop (or Photoshop Elements to save $) if there is complex cloning to do: taking out people or power poles and lines, for example.  Also use Photoshop to merge two or more images into a composite.  A composite is when, for example, you take that great portrait you got and then move just the person into a beautiful natural scene you shot last summer.  Or when you want to add a dramatic sky to a more interesting foreground.

Photoshop can do a whole lot more than this of course.  But it takes real time to learn how to become both proficient and time-efficient with Photoshop.  By the way, if you’re wondering whether or not to go for Photoshop or PS Elements, it depends on how serious you are, especially about printing.  The full version of Photoshop CS works in 16 bit color while Elements is in 8 bit.

In other words when you go from Lightroom into Elements you are cutting the color depth of your image in half.  The fuller color depth can yield slightly smoother color transitions in some images, noticeable by discerning viewers on large, high quality prints.  But you almost certainly won’t see any differences, especially on digital displays.

A tree, by itself, that I liked.

A tree, by itself, that I liked.

There are other differences between PS CS and PS Elements, but you might be surprised at how many advanced functions are shared between the two programs.  One more factor to consider:  Elements is still available as a stand-alone program, whereas Photoshop CS is only available as a cloud-based program, where you pay monthly.

Only you can decide how deeply you want to get into Photoshop.  I will say that many (or most) pros have made the transition to Lightroom for the lion’s share of their post-processing.   A lot of people still love Photoshop, and it is certainly powerful.  But if you aren’t already proficient, and of course if you don’t want to become a graphic designer or digital artist, Photoshop is a bit like using a full complement of tractors, plows and other farming equipment to work your little backyard garden.

That’s it for now.  Next week (I promise!) we’ll go into the wonderful world of plug-ins.  Have a wonderful weekend, and keep up that holiday spirit!

 

Good night!

Good night!

 

Friday Foto Talk: Post Processing Part III   17 comments

Friday Foto Talk: Post-Processing, Part I   5 comments

The Grand Tetons appear  smaller than they really are in this wide view.  Often very wide-angle shots call for minimal processing.

The Grand Tetons appear smaller than they really are in this wide view. Often very wide-angle shots call for minimal processing.

Last Friday wrapped up the short series of posts on learning photography.  But I thought I’d follow up this week with one more thing you need to think about: post-processing.  This post will cover general considerations and decisions you’ll need to make.  Next time I’ll go into specific software choices.

When I first bought a digital camera, I was under the naive impression that the photos coming out of the camera were what they were.  I knew you could do fancy things with Photoshop, things like putting several pictures together to make a scene that looked like it belonged on a cover from a Yes album (a 70s era prog. rock band for all you millenials!).  Or even merging my face onto Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body (I never did that!).  But since I knew I didn’t want to get into any of that, I just didn’t see the need to buy software.

Although I was blissfully ignorant of the real situation, I was partly right.  I was shooting in Jpeg.  And when you shoot in Jpeg the camera edits pictures before it displays them on the LCD screen.  You can load those Jpegs into your computer and do a lot of extra editing of course.  But the whole idea of shooting in Jpeg is so that you can do a basic edit “in-camera” and get the pictures out without extra work.  Now we have things like Instagram, which does (often dramatic) extra work on pictures before they are shared on the internet.  And all of this without you spending any extra time.

Like the image above, this one from the Texas Panhandle is processed to maximize the details in the scene.  Above it's in the trees while here it's in the layered clouds.

Like the image above, this one from the Texas Panhandle is processed to maximize the details in the scene. Above it’s in the trees while here it’s in the layered clouds.

Through this entire series I’ve assumed you all are on the road toward excellence in photography, and that you want to optimize your time and money on that journey.  The bad news is that in order to fully control what your pictures look like you’ll need to learn to edit them using one or several computer programs.  And this takes even more time and money.  You can limit the damage for the latter by buying your software while taking a formal photography class (say, at a community college).  Student discounts on the most popular software by Adobe and others are very significant, often well over 50% off!  The time you spend learning is directly related to how quickly you pick up computer software.  My experience included a good amount of frustration, and I consider myself rather an ordinary image-editor.  You may have more success.  But however it turns out, if you embark on learning how to use photo software you will eventually become proficient.  So never mind the misplaced images and other screw-ups, the plateaus in learning.  Stick with it!

Fairly soft black and white processing is best for this simple image of fog and trees on the Sandy River delta in Oregon.

Fairly soft black and white processing is best for this simple image of fog and trees on the Sandy River delta in Oregon.

All I wanted to do with this flower shot from a recent trip to Grand Teton National Park was to highlight the blue.

All I wanted to do with this flower shot from a recent trip to Grand Teton National Park was to highlight the blue.

THE ILLUSION OF THE UNTOUCHED IMAGE

One more thing before I continue with recommendations.  You’ll occasionally see folks posting pictures on the web with a caption that seems to brag “straight out of camera”, or words to that effect.  I’m not sure why people do this.  Are they saying their photos are inherently so good that they don’t need any further enhancement on the computer?  Or are they building in an excuse for unedited images because they don’t think they measure up to their usual high standards?  Or are they just feeling guilty about being too lazy to edit?

Whatever it is, they are using flawed logic.  Digital photography is similar to film in a very fundamental way.  Just as with film, in order for a digital photo to be finished it has to be developed, or edited.  Whether you shoot in RAW or Jpeg, the picture that appears on your LCD has been edited on a computer – the computer inside your camera.  Often the editing is quite minimal, but depending on how advanced your camera is you can (automatically) do quite significant things to an image simply by adjusting camera settings.

I can understand if somebody wants to share a picture but they don’t have the time or inclination to edit it.  Just don’t pretend the image hasn’t been “sullied” by computer-based editing, and is thus somehow more pure than an edited shot.  In the film days I didn’t like to look at negatives; I wanted to see the finished product.  It’s the same with digital.  The image starts as a digital file – ones and zeroes – and then gets rendered by a computer (in camera or out) into an image we can all understand and appreciate.

Two wildlife shots are pretty rare for me in one post.  This is one of my favorite little animals in the world, the American pika.

Two wildlife shots in one post are pretty rare for me. This is one of my favorite little animals in the world, the American pika.

On a trip to Grand Tetons this past September I followed a creek up into the forest from where it entered a lake, and finally found this little waterfall.

On a trip to Grand Tetons this past September I followed a creek up into the forest from where it entered a lake, and finally found this little waterfall.

YOUR EDITING DECISION

The issue isn’t whether you want your images to look “photoshopped” or real.  The computer only makes images look unreal or unnatural if you tell it to.  No, the real issue is this:  do you want to invest the time and effort to learn software and take full control of the editing process?  Or would you rather just use the camera to edit your photos automatically?  Do you like the idea of an intermediate option, making quick choices using Instagram?  One final option is to hire one of the many outlets that’ll edit your photos for you?

I’m not here to convince you one way or the other.  It’s your time, your pictures.  And your choice on this doesn’t mark you as either serious or casual, pro or amateur.  Believe it or not, pros shoot Jpeg, using in-camera processing.  They’re sports photographers who need to get their photos of the game out to online outlets while the game goes on and they’re still shooting.  I made the choice to learn some software and do my own editing.  But I sometimes question that decision.  Sitting at the computer is not my favorite thing to do by a long shot!

What I’m saying is to think of using a computer to edit a digital image file just as you would using chemicals to transform a film negative into a beautiful color photograph.  How much you do to the file is up to you.  You can keep it as close as memory allows to the way the scene was as you squeezed the shutter button.  Or you can take off on a flight of fancy.  Or something in between.  Your approach will, of course, help to define your style.  But however you swing it, computer-based editing is an inseparable part of the image-making process.

The sun sets early these November days.  Good night!

The sun sets early these November days. Good night!

Friday Foto Talk: Color vs. Black and White in Your Landscape Photos   18 comments

Rainy weather descends on Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.

Rainy weather descends on Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.

I thought I’d briefly discuss this question that landscape photographers always face.  Digital is very nice in that it allows us to just shoot pictures and decide later what we want to convert to black and white.  Of course you need to be shooting in RAW to have that option.  But having that option can lead to a sort of laziness out in the field.  You still need to evaluate compositions for their value as a black and white.  Some images work well in both schemes.  But your vision for the image, its feel; that will be very different depending on which way you go.

I won’t go into a lot of detail on how to convert to black and white during post-processing.  But I will say that programs like Lightroom and Aperture make it quite easy to convert.  Start by using their B&W presets.  You just click one thing then do some tweaking to get the exact look you want.  It really is no different in practice than processing an image for color.  In fact its simpler since you really don’t worry much about color, more about tones.  If you’re really into black and white I recommend purchasing Nik’s Silver Effex 2.

A beautiful lake on the northern Olympic Peninsula in Washington, Lake Crescent is calm here under cloudy skies.

A beautiful lake on the northern Olympic Peninsula in Washington, Lake Crescent is calm here under cloudy skies.

So let’s get right on to some examples.  Below are two images and each are shown in color and black and white.  I’ll go into the thought process I had during capture then how I chose a look during post-processing, a look that matched my feel for the mood of the scene.

I love going into the mountains right after a dump of snow, as much for the skiing as for the photo opportunities.  The trees look great weighed down with snow. The photo below was taken about an hour and a half before sunset, so the light was pretty blue and things were contrasty.  The color version of this has a pretty cold color scheme.  The shadows help to increase depth in the image, and the snow-basted tree at left is an important foreground element.

Silver Star Mountain in Washington is basted with a heavy snow from a recent storm. 28 mm., 1/250 sec. @f/11, ISO 200.

I developed this shot with a warming tone using Topaz B&W plugin.  Now I would probably use Nik, but there would be little difference.

I developed this shot with a warming tone using Topaz B&W plugin. Now I would probably use Nik, but there would be little difference.

But while shooting I thought I might like it in black and white.  That’s because any time I’m shooting snowy scenes in bright light, I think of black and white.  From experience I know that often these types of shots will work better in black and white than color.  In this case, I think it works fairly well in color but better in black and white.  This is because there was a subtle golden quality to the light hitting the mountain, something that does not really show in the color rendering.  I could have warmed up the white balance but then I would have lost the deep blue of the sky.  I could have used a mask to only warm the snow and leave the sky cool-toned.  That may have worked, but it also may have looked unnatural.

So I converted the image to black and white.  I added a moderate warming tone, sort of a cross between sepia and pure warming.  I darkened the blue sky too, so that the face of the mountain would take center stage in terms of brightness.  This image definitely looks different than what I saw, but I think it better matches the feel I had for the scene at the time.  The color version is fine as a documentary portrait of this mountain in winter.  Which one do prefer?  Do you like black and white in general?

The second image was captured in Capital Reef National Park.  This is a famous barn in the park, part of the old Gifford homestead that predated creation of the park.  I hiked up a trail that ascends the slope opposite the barn in order to get a composition that included Capital Reef, the cliff that gives the park its name.  The color version really highlights the orange of the rocks and the rich tones of the barn.  The rest of the scene in my opinion is not helped by color, but the rock and barn probably make up for that.

It was an obvious vertical composition.   I did make a mistake here in not setting up my tripod, which made me use a higher ISO.  But it’s not so high that it degrades the image, and I used a fast-enough shutter speed to get good focus throughout.  So all is good.

A bit of the old west survives at the old Gifford homestead, now inside Capitol Reef National Park.  42 mm., 1/125 sec. @f/14, ISO 320.

A bit of the old west survives at the old Gifford homestead, now inside Capitol Reef National Park. 42 mm., 1/125 sec. @f/14, ISO 320.

I love this in color, but I thought briefly while shooting that it might be good in B&W too.  Just before this I had been shooting closer to the barn and I knew black and white might be best.  So my mind was already on black and white.  When I sat down at the computer right away I thought of giving it an old-time feel.

This look involves a lot of little things during post-processing, so I made the process quicker by going with a high contrast preset in Nik Silver Effex 2.  I then tweaked the brightness and contrast a bit to lessen the effect.  I also gave it a sepia tone and a vignette, both modest.  I like the look, but I wasn’t necessarily in an old-time type mood at the time.  So this is a case of changing the mood after the fact, something I don’t often do.  What do you think of it?

Processed with Nik Silver Effex 2.

Mild sepia tone processed with Nik Silver Effex 2.

I also processed it with a more standard black and white treatment.  This time I did not use a sepia tone; I simply upped contrast and clarity.  Which of the three do you like better: the color, sepia or straight B&W version?

Processed with Nik Silver Effex 2.

Processed with Nik Silver Effex 2.

Definitely try to think about scenes that might look good in black and white while you’re out there.  One thing NOT to do is use B&W as a sort of default go-to when the light is harsh.  That’s not a good plan.  Instead, separate quality of light from B&W in your thinking.  If you think about black and white during capture, you’ll be able to better determine the type of feel you want when it comes time to develop the image on the computer.

Note that all of these images are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission.  If you’re interested in purchase options (prints, downloads, etc.) simply click on the image and you’ll go to the high-res. version.  These here on the blog are not suitable for printing.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  Thanks for your interest and happy weekend!

Friday Foto Talk: Photographing the Crescent Moon   6 comments

Getting good shots of the crescent moon is a bit different than shooting the moon at any other time.  In this Friday Foto Talk we’ll discuss some of the considerations during capture, as well as the way I process the images.  The crescent is certainly a worthwhile subject.  Especially when the moon is very new and a thin crescent is illuminated, it can be a very delicate and beautiful feature of the evening or early morning sky.

A thin crescent moon over the Columbia River, Oregon. Composite of two images: Background - 110 mm., 30 sec. @ f/11, ISO 400; Moon - 200 mm., 3.2 sec @ f/4, ISO 400.

A thin crescent moon over the Columbia River, Oregon. Composite of two images: Background – 110 mm., 30 sec. @ f/11, ISO 400; Moon – 200 mm., 3.2 sec @ f/4, ISO 400.

Moon Phase & When to Shoot

First off, when can it be shot?  Well, assuming your goal is to capture it when it is very thin, you will be shooting just after sunset or just before sunrise.  This makes sense if you think about why only a thin crescent is illuminated.  To get a good idea of this concept, go get an orange, tennis ball, or any round object you can hold in your hand.  Hold it up between you and a bright light bulb (without a lampshade).  Move toward the light so that when you hold the ball at arm’s length it just covers the light bulb when you close one eye.  Move your arm so it’s held out to the side, forming a right angle between yourself and the light.  Look at the ball.  It’s half-lighted.  This is a half-full, a first or last quarter moon.  Now swing your arm slowly toward the light and concentrate on the lighted part of the ball.  It should approximate a crescent shape that gets smaller and smaller until it is a small crescent before it completely covers the light (representing a new moon).

Setting crescent shot at the beginning of Ramadan: Columbia River, Oregon

Setting crescent shot at the beginning of Ramadan: Columbia River, Oregon

Now you have an idea of the position of the crescent moon relative to the earth (your eyes) and the sun (the light).  When the ball/moon is moving toward the light/sun it is a waning crescent, visible in early morning  just before sunrise.  When it is moving away from the sun it is a waxing crescent, visible in the evening just after sunset.  In either case the moon will be near the horizon, and so it represents a good opportunity to make an image with a pretty landscape beneath the moon.  You will also have the opportunity to shoot it at so-called blue hour (the time when the sun is below the horizon but the sky has enough light to give it a deep blue color).  You will also not have as much contrast between the bright moon and the dimmer sky or landscape as you do when more of the moon is illuminated.

All of this is good news.  It makes your life easier as a photographer, specifically in terms of contrast, but also easier to get a more interesting composition.  If the moon is only a day or so old, for example, you will be shooting it at dusk during the waning stages of the sunset.  In this case the moon will be close to the horizon, which is good so long as you don’t have a huge mountain or building in the way.  Also there will be little contrast between the moon and the sky (a good thing).  On the other hand, the ultra-thin crescent is often very difficult to even see at this young stage.  If it is 2-3 days old, it will be easier to see, and you’ll see it in blue hour.  But if you wait for it to get close to the horizon, it will be very deep blue hour, which means more contrast between moon and sky/landscape

The crescent moon decorates the dusk sky behind a towering cirios (boojum) in the Baja California Desert, Mexico.

The crescent moon decorates the dusk sky behind a towering cirios (boojum) in the Baja California Desert, Mexico.

When & How to Capture the Crescent

(Note:  This discussion refers to the image at top.  The other images are just thrown in as a bonus)

Last night I shot the crescent moon at just under 2 days old.  Since I wanted it close to the horizon, it was the very end of blue hour.  So there was some contrast to deal with.  As with shooting the full moon, it helps to have a fairly bright or reflective landscape in front of the moon.  Deserts are good, but water is just as nice.  I had been shooting the sunset over the Gorge at popular Crown Point, and on the way home I drove right by the Columbia River.  I found a favorite spot of mine to shoot near the river, and quickly set up.  There was not much time.

Since I do not like to use high ISO when I am shooting low-light images like this, I let my exposure go up toward 30 seconds.  This was also necessary because of the fact I had foreground elements not far away, in the form of some pilings sticking up out of the river.  This made it necessary to use an aperture that gives good depth of field (i.e. f/11).  Even if I had raised ISO and dropped my aperture to f/5.6 or so, the darkness of the scene would have given me exposures on the order of at least 5 or 6 seconds.

A beautiful summer evening in Portland, Oregon features the crescent moon.

A beautiful summer evening in Portland, Oregon features the crescent moon.

And therein lies the challenge.  If you shoot the moon at a shutter speed of more than about 3 seconds, it will begin to blur.  This of course is because of the Earth’s rotation.  My shots at 30 seconds, which were perfect for the sky and river foreground, featured a moon that was completely smeared out.  Yuck!  My solution in this case was to shoot a frame where I zoomed in as much as my lens would allow (200 mm.).  I dropped my aperture to the maximum opening (f/4) for my lens.  I used Liveview to view the moon close-up while I focused it perfectly.  Then I shot it at an exposure of 3.2 seconds at f/4 with an ISO of 400.

When I’m shooting the moon, I always look for compositions that are effective (balanced, attractive, etc.) at longer focal lengths.  Of course sometimes the best composition is a wide-angle, but the moon will be small in those cases, very small.  Longer focal lengths make the moon bigger.  It is really a trade-off.  The image I finally decided on (I shot several) had a focal length of 110 mm. and included some nicely illuminated clouds along with the silhouetted pilings.

Now I had two images: one with a sharp, beautiful blue-hour rendering of the river and sky but with a badly smeared-out moon; and a second of the (sharp) crescent moon alone.  I knew I would be combining the two images in a composite during post-processing (explained below).  By the way, this image (top of post) shows almost unnaturally bright yellowish clouds.  They are that way mostly because of the reflection of nearby Portland’s street lights.

In this evening image from Zion National Park, a fat crescent forms a minor supporting element..

In this evening image from Zion National Park, a fat crescent forms a minor supporting element..

Post-Processing

I used Lightroom to make basic adjustments to both of these images.  I had to brighten things a bit, which is not ideal, since it increases noise.  Better would have been to capture the moon at an earlier stage.  The perfect stage for this moon, at least to shoot it at blue hour, occurred when it was just over one day old, which occurred during daylight hours.  Photographers on the other side of the world had it perfect!  I also did some sharpening and noise reduction in Lightroom.  You can also use Adobe Camera Raw, Aperture, GIMP or your camera manufacturer’s RAW processing software.

Then I took both images into Photoshop in order to composite (join) them.  In Lightroom right click and choose edit-in>Photoshop

      • Using the wider shot with the long exposure as the background layer, I copied that layer and then used the clone tool to remove the blurred moon.  I remembered its position using the ruler guides in Photoshop.
      • I then went to the shorter-exposure moon image and used the quick selection tool to select the moon.
      • I copied this (ctrl/cmd C) and went back to the background image, hitting ctrl/cmd V to paste it on.  This gives you two layers, the background and the moon.
      • Since I had zoomed in on that moon image, it looked too big.*  Hitting ctrl/cmd T to change its size and position, I dragged it’s corners to shrink back down to the original size.  Finally I dragged the moon to its correct position.
      • I adjusted this moon layer using Photoshop’s levels and hue/saturation controls (enhance menu) until it matched the background and looked similar to the way I remembered it.  I’ve found this step to be almost always necessary.  It takes some practice to get the moon to look like it belongs.  It will be easier if in Lightroom you adjust white balance identically for both of the images.
      • Lastly, I went around and checked the image for distracting sensor spots, bright lights and other distractions.  I left all of the artificial lights in the small community across the river from where I was standing, but I did remove the lights of a plane.

* Note: Some photographers will leave the moon bigger than its original size, or even use ctrl T to make it bigger.  You see these images all over the web, and I think they look FAKE! I recommend keeping the moon at the original size, or very close to it.  The human eye knows that a wide-angle scene with a big moon is not natural.  If you want a bigger moon, shoot with a longer focal length.

I hope you enjoyed this little tutorial.  Don’t worry if you are not yet comfortable with Photoshop.  I consider myself a novice with it, and the way I do these types of composites is fairly simple.  Don’t let it intimidate you.  There are undoubtedly other ways (perhaps simpler ways) to accomplish the same thing with Photoshop.  If you cannot afford Photoshop, consider Photoshop Elements, which is much much cheaper.  Elements will do all of the steps listed above, and do them just as well as the full version of Photoshop.  For the initial adjustments, you can use free programs like GIMP instead of Lightroom or Aperture.

A few last thoughts:  shooting long exposures after sundown is something I think every photographer will enjoy.  Including the moon can only add impact to your pictures.  Again, make sure it’s a sharp and natural-looking moon.  Click on the images for options to purchase larger high-res. options.  They are not available for free download, being copyrighted (these versions are much too small anyway).  Thanks for your interest, and thanks for reading!

Lost on a dirt road in central Nevada and the incredibly clear cold air makes it possible to photograph an extremely thin crescent.

Friday Foto Talk: Mixing White Balance   3 comments

Geese fly along Yellowstone National Park's Hayden Valley.

Geese fly along Yellowstone National Park’s Hayden Valley.

This week we talk about a fairly simple way to enhance your photograph in post-processing: mixing white balance.  I always use Lightroom 4 to bring my photos on to the computer and do the basic editing.  Normally this is the only program I use, but sometimes I will use Photoshop Elements or a plugin (Topaz, Nik, etc.) to perform a task that is difficult to do in Lightroom.  I shoot in RAW.  One big reason I do is because this is the only way you can change white balance after taking the picture.  If you shoot in Jpeg you need to choose your white balance before taking the shot, and then you can’t change it on the computer.

These photos you see, by the way, are quite small Jpeg versions created from the RAW photos.  They are small to make them not so good for downloading, which is illegal anyway since they’re copyrighted.  Click on an image for purchase options.

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What is white balance?  It’s simply a color scheme for your picture.  Take a look at a color wheel (google it).  Think of it as a sort of graph for color, where colors on the opposite side of the wheel represent extremes.  Sometimes colors out in the world will be relatively pure, but mostly they will be a mix of these extremes.  For example the color blue, as in a deep blue sky, is the opposite of the color yellow or orange (gold), as in a golden sunset.  But think of what you see (and what you photograph) as a mix, a balance between the extremes represented by the color wheel.

An example of a "blue-hour" shot of the iconic Crown Point over the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.

An example of a “blue-hour” shot of the iconic Crown Point over the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.

 In other words, each time you go outside and look around, you are seeing a particular white balance in the colors of each scene.  Sometimes when you face one direction you will see one color scheme, and then you turn around and see a different one.  The most dramatic differences in white balance come as the day moves along.  During pre-dawn and again during deep dusk hours you get a fairly cool lighting scheme, rich in deep blues.  That’s why this time is called by photographers the “blue hour”.  When the sun is very low and reflecting off of a scene (such as in the image below) you are in “golden hour”.  This is a time when the light is very warm and rich in yellows and reds.  In mid-day, depending on the weather conditions, a pale blue scheme can dominate.

(A disclaimer for scientifically-inclined readers: I know that the more blue a light, the warmer it is.  Red is cooler light than blue.  But we are talking artists here, and for these purposes blue is thought of in cool terms while red is considered warm.  So reverse your thinking.  I know – artists!)

Simple front light on this pronghorn antelope has a uniformly warm color scheme (white balance).

Simple front light on this pronghorn antelope has a uniformly warm color scheme (white balance).

Now take a look at your white balance adjustment in the software you use to edit your photos.  In Lightroom and most other software, it occupies a position near the top of your panel.  That’s because it is usually good to adjust your white balance before you do anything else.  But also notice that the adjustment includes two sliders.  In Lightroom they are labeled temperature and tint.  Temperature takes care of the balance between blues and yellows, while tint takes care of the green vs. magenta balance.

(Sorry I am just not going to put screenshots in this blog, at least not right now.  Bring up Lightroom or have a book or tutorial open if you want to follow along.  You will need to play with it yourself anyway to get the hang of it, and I don’t think a screenshot here will help you in the long run.)

 This post will not go over all the ins and outs of setting white balance in your camera and then again adjusting it (provided you shoot in RAW) once you are in front of your computer.  Instead I will (finally) jump into the main topic, that is how to incorporate different white balances into your photo.  I will use Lightroom 4 to explain, but programs like Aperture, GIMP, etc. are quite similar.  I’ll also assume you know how to use two tools in Lightroom: the graduated filter tool (shortcut M) and the brush tool (shortcut K).  Get a Lightroom book or go online for basic Lightroom tutorials to learn how to use these tools.

This is a back lighted scene, where the sun is low and the white balance is uniformly warm and golden.

This is a back lighted scene, where the sun is low and the white balance is uniformly warm and golden.

The photos above illustrate something about this subject that I think is very important.  It is a photo that naturally contains areas of different white balance, and it is these that I like to work on with mixed white-balance techniques.  In the image of the geese in Hayden Valley, the top and bottom of the photo are blue and cool while the middle has nice warm golden front light.  The other photos above have uniform white balances, and so changing white balance in part of the photos would result in unnatural effects.  The reason I think this is important is that I do not want to introduce strange color schemes into my photos, at least for 99% of them.  Although I do enhance things, I don’t like to see an image on my computer screen that is significantly different from the one I saw in the field.  Again, there are exceptions that prove this little rule of mine.

Back to this image from Yellowstone’s wonderful Hayden Valley.  In the river, the deep blue results from light back-scattering toward my shooting position.  I had my camera set to auto white balance for this image, and given the perfect front light I didn’t have to adjust the global white balance in order for me to retain the great warmth that was part of the original scene.  Water that is front-lit like this often has as deep a blue as you can possibly want, so I did not adjust the white balance in this part of the image.  The sky, which is blue because of back-scattering as well, originally had a paler blue color.  The second image from top, by the way, is the image before I did my selective white-balance adjustment.

Since I wanted the sky to match more closely (but not exactly) the blue of the water, I used Lightroom 4’s graduated filter tool.  This is located at top of Lightroom’s Develop panel, and is shaped like an upright rectangle with a graduated shading inside.  Clicking and dragging from top to bottom, I put the middle of the grad. filter at the contact between sky and land.  Once it was in place, I then adjusted the temperature slider to the left a modest amount (9 points).  I also bumped up clarity and contrast a bit, to bring out the clouds; and voila!  I had a deeper, bluer sky to better match the deep blue of the river.  Though this is a subtle difference, it certainly adds some pop to the image I think.

A full moon shines on the Goosenecks, a series of incised meanders on the San Juan River in SE Utah.

A full moon shines on the Goosenecks, a series of incised meanders on the San Juan River in SE Utah.

Sometimes I will decide to go with a fairly cool (blue) white balance globally, across the entire photo.  Then upon looking at it I decide that some part of the image needs more warmth.  That was the case above, with the image of the Goosenecks in Utah.  This time I dragged the graduated filter from bottom to top, made it very narrow and placed the center at the horizon.  I added back some of the warmth I took away, and then some, by sliding the temperature slider to the right 16 points.  Then I noticed the river below was not the way I wanted it, so I used the adjustment brush in Lightroom.  This is located at the top of the Develop panel, just right of the graduated filter tool.

My adjustment for the brush – temperature 12 points to the left – took away most of that warmth I had added with the graduated filter.  I also bumped exposure and saturation up a bit to make the river stand out a little better in its deep shadowy canyon.  Other than some normal contrast, clarity and sharpness/noise reduction adjustments, I did not do anything else to this photo.  Note that it was taken under a full moon, thus saturation in the rocks was there but subtle (thus my desire to make it a bit less subtle).

A canyon in Zion National Park is flooded with warm light even from a sunset that has not yet turned the sky to gold.

A canyon in Zion National Park is flooded with warm light even from a sunset that has not yet turned the sky to gold.

In the photo above, I used two graduated filters plus a couple adjustment brushes.  I began with the graduated filters.  One was for the top third of the photo, and involved sliding the temperature slider to the left (blue/cool).  I wanted to accentuate the blues that were still in the sky as the sunset had not really begun to peak yet.  This was despite the fact that the canyon’s red rocks were catching all of the warm colors.  The other graduated filter, therefore, was for the bottom third of the photo.  I slid the temperature slider to the left (orange/warm) this time to accentuate that warmth a bit.

I was trying to capture the early stages of a sunset in that interesting location.  I cleaned up the middle third by using a couple adjustment brushes: one with temp. warmed a bit (orange bias), the other with temp. cooled a bit (blue bias).  Where the sky transitioned between a warm white balance below and a cool one above, I painted the clouds with the warm brush and the sky with the cool brush, to accentuate that transition.  In addition, for the warming brush, I also slid the tint slider a bit to the right (magenta), because there was a subtle pinkish glow to the clouds that I wanted to bring out.

A rare desert rainstorm has left pools of water among the granite and saguaro of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

A rare desert rainstorm has left pools of water among the granite and saguaro of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

The photo above involves a combination of graduated filters and brushes as well, with subtle changes in white balance for each.  I included this one because it involved a challenge.  It’s not challenging because of the adjustments themselves, but because with the shadows and sharp (but beautiful) light transitions, it was difficult to retain a natural color cast.  What do you think?  Does the image look natural to you?  Does it have impact (does it “pop”) without looking like an HDR image?  Often even professional photographers get “too close” to an image.  Like a writer, they get too comfy in front of their work and as a result lose some objectivity.  It’s important to step away and come back to it after a day or so in order to see whether the color cast still looks natural.  Hey!  I just thought of another topic for Friday Foto Talk!

A pronghorn antelope rests in Yellowstone National Park's Lamar River Valley.

A pronghorn antelope rests in Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar River Valley.  A subtle decrease in white balance in the sky via graduated filter.  On the pronghorn, an adjustment brush with slightly increased exposure, temperature and saturation was used to help bring out the subject.  These changes bring out the contrasts already in the scene.

An example of a photo that has a natural difference in white balance between the landscape and sky.  You could elect to add a graduated filter to the sky and change its white balance, but it's easier to either increase vibrance or increase saturation of the blue channel in Lightroom.

An example of a photo that has a natural difference in white balance between the landscape and sky. You could elect to add a graduated filter to the sky and change its white balance, but it’s easier to either increase vibrance or increase saturation of the blue channel in Lightroom.

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