Friday, 5 June 2009

Why we need to post-process

The Hut

You don't see the image that hits your retina. Neurons in the eye start processing light (or rather, light's effects on the 'sensor': millions of rods and cones in the retina) into data well before that data reaches the brain and is processed even more into the information the brain uses to construct the image of what's in front of you. And it's that constructed image that the brain sees rather than the real world. And, as I shall be talking about a lot more in future articles, the difference between what you see and what's really there is often quite dramatic. So much so that I'm tempted to put quotes around the words 'what's really there'.

I was very much aware of this as I was walking with a friend through a small village in Surrey, on the way to dinner at my all-time favourite pub. My Canon 40D with its 10.2 megapixel sensor and Digic III processor are far, far more primitive than the human eyes, nervous system and brain. What appears to me as a rich, complex environment of light, shade and colour is transformed by my camera into a small, flat, lifeless pastiche of the original. This is why we post-process our photos just as the brain post-processes the data collected by our eyes.

And this is why the camera doesn't try to second-guess how our individual brains work by doing too much post-processing. Rather it does the absolute minimum: giving us the data as the sensor has produced it if we are shooting RAW, or tweaking the saturation, contrast, colour balance and sharpness to suit our tastes if we're shooting JPEGs.

Of course, we're trained from a very early age to interpret photographs and to decide whether or not a photo accords more or less with 'reality' which, translated, means 'what my brain thinks that it remembers of the way it was back then'. This is why some photographers insist that their small, flat, lifeless images are 'realistic'. It's not that they see the world in that way - I'm sure that, to a large degree, their world is as rich, complex and colourful as mine. It's just that they've learned to interpret photos in that particular way.

So as we walked up the lane to the pub, I knew that my camera couldn't do justice to the scene I saw by the roadside: a simple wooden hut by a field, with the background lit by the glow of the evening sun. But then the camera never can. So I raised it to my eye, metered, composed, and pressed the shutter release, knowing that I could at least tweak it into something that might remind me of what my brain thinks it remembers of what I saw back then.

Imported version

The image above is as it appeared when first imported into Lightroom. Quite a difference, don't you think? Of course, the finished image at the top of this article isn't any more realistic than the starting-point image above; but I have to admit that I like it a lot more.

My first job was to get the lighting the way I wanted it. I tweaked the Exposure, Fill Light and Contrast several times until I got it right. The end result of this stage was: Exposure -1.24, Fill +100, Contrast +100. I usually take care of cropping and straightening right up-front but I forgot this time, so that was my next job and the result of all of this first stage is below.

After exposure, fill, cropping

I'd brought out the detail in the hut quite well and the sunlight on the fences and field in the background was now starting to look good but the sky wasn't as good as I remembered it, so I added a graduated filter with the Brightness set to -75.

Graduated filter added at the top

I often use graduated filters to produce the depth cues of light and shade that can really give a feeling of depth to a photo. With a picture like this one, with a fairly-well-defined horizon line, you can achieve this with graduated filters from the top to the horizon line, and from the bottom to the horizon line. I added a second filter at the bottom with -85 Brightness, -100 Clarity and -100 Sharpness. This has the subtle effect of making detail at the bottom edge less important than the detail at the horizon line.

It was looking a lot better but the overall light wasn't quite right. I went to the Tone Curve and upped the Highlight Tones to +93, the Light Tones to +43 and the Dark Tones to +17, leaving the Shadows untouched at zero. With a smidge of sharpening and a light post-crop vignette, it was almost finished.

Almost done

I could have left it here but, while I'd pulled back a lot of the detail and depth, and balanced the light a lot better, it was still looking a little ordinary. The final touch was to go to Lightroom's Camera Profile section and select the Camera Landscape profile. That really brought out the late-evening blue of the sky and rich warmth of the orange sunlight. The end result is at the top of this post. Quite a bit better than the start image, don't you think?

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Last Chance Harvey

Back in May of 2008 I was lucky enough to walk into a fim set on London's South Bank where the production company were filming a new ending to Last Chance Harvey. Not only that but I was lucky enough to find a balcony from which I was able to get some good shots of the stars, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson.
Dustin Hoffman

Emma Thompson

Last night I was lucky enough to find out that the gala premiere of Last Chance Harvey was being held at the Odeon Leicester Square just as I was on my way into central London. Problem was, the only lenses I had on me were my Tamron 28-300mm f3.5-6.3 and my Canon 50mm f1.8. A problem because the Tamron has the reach but doesn't have vibration control (the Tamron equivalent of Canon's image stabilisation) and, while the 50mm is a great portrait lens, the red carpet was so far away that the resulting pictures would have to be cropped to zoom in so far that there would be almost nothing left of them. And, of course, the 50mm doesn't have IS either. If you've ever taken pictures in a jostling crowd, with everyone surging forward just as your subject gets into view, you'll know how important image stabilisation is.

As I've said before, I don't normally go chasing celebrities but I couldn't pass up a great opportunity to cap my previous achievement by getting some close-ups of the stars. I was lucky to get a position near the rail looking along the red carpet to where the cars would be pulling up. I metered off of a couple of security people and realised that I'd have to shoot at ISO 1600 to have any chance of avoiding motion blur and/or camera blur. That's OK, though, the 40D can handle that - as long as the shots are crisp enough.

Trusting that the reach of my 300mm lens would be long enough for the job, I tested it on the crowd of waiting fans, many clutching their autograph gear.

Fans Await

Not a brilliant result but I knew I'd have plenty of chances to get it right. My 40D was Already in Av mode, so I switched it to burst mode to up the chances of getting some in focus. This method is sometimes known as spray-and-pray. If you're one of the paparazzi in their special enclosure, you've got a good chance of getting the shots you want. If you're just a bozo in the crowd being pushed from all sides, you've got to use whatever methods you can.

Emma Thompson's car was the first to arrive. She worked half of the autograph hunters then disappeared for a while. Then another car drew up. I'd guessed it was probably Dustin Hoffman's and was proved right when Emma stepped in front of kt, waving her arms to try and get it to go back, as if she wanted all the adulation to herself. Quite a crowd-pleasing scene.

Go Back

Dustin emerged from the car and he and Emma spent some time chatting.

Dustin Emerges

It was possibly the first time they'd met in over a year.

Good To See You

If any of the other stars of the film arrived after that, I wasn't aware of it as I'm not a film buff and wouldn't recognise them. It seems that most of the crowd were in the same position. The only names you could hear called out were "Dustin!" and "Emma!" and each time one of them came near to the crowd, the fans would call out even louder, waving their autograph books.

Clamouring Fans

Both Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman allowed some of the fans to take photos of fan and star together.

Photo With A Fan

And they both made sure that plenty of fans were chatted to and autographs were signed.

Emma Signing

Emma's long-suffering husband Greg Wise not only followed her around, he was even gracious enough to take the fans' cameras for a shot of the fan with his or her arm around Emma.

Greg Wise

Some of the fans had been there for over three hours and both stars made sure that the wait was worth it, signing autographs and posing for photos.

Dustin Signing

In fact, Dustin Hoffman came back out of the cinema later to make sure he visited the fans he'd missed the first time round. One of the cinema staff had to come and fetch him just as the film was about to start.

Dustin's Well-Known Smile

I got around 120 pictures and 92 of them were worth keeping. I think a 76% keep rate is pretty good considering the conditions I was shooting under: having to shoot at 300mm most of the time, using a lens with no image stabilisation, having to shoot at ISO 1600, and being shoved around by the crowd. Not only did I come away as a satisfied amateur photographer, I had a good time; the guy next to me who amused us all by shouting out to the security staff to stop blocking our view, and who said he was taking pictures to prove to his wife where he'd been; and the woman with the American accent who'd perfected her "DUSTIN!" shriek by years of practice on rock concerts - a big 'hi' to both of you and thanks for helping make it such a great evening.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Post-processing: Sam Gandalf

I promised I'd run through how I processed my photo Sam Gandalf, and in particular how I achieved that brown old-photo look of the main characters overlaid against the colourful background of Rochester and its inhabitants. In fact, I want to talk about selective colouring in Lightroom in general so in this post I'll go through the post-processing workflow with this picture and in the next post on this topic I'll cover the subject in more detail, and in particular that type of selective colouring known as 'spot colour', and I'll show how I extended that idea in processing my photo On Piccadilly Circus.

Achieving the kind of selective colouring you see in Sam Gandalf is fairly easy but very time-consuming in Lightroom; it's a job for which Photoshop and Elements are far more suitable. Lightroom gives you quite a bit of control over colours in a picture, giving you the ability to change the hue, the saturation, and the luminosity separately. But it only allows you this degree of control over the entire picture. The only way to change the colour of selected parts of a picture is by using the Adjustment Brush which is limited to altering the saturation of the selected part and the mixing in of one user-specified colour. Also, the only way of selecting which part of the picture to alter in Lightroom is, again, by using the Adjustment Brush. While you can do a fairly good job with this brush, it can be time-consuming and you can cut out a lot of the work by doing the job in PS or PSE instead, using their far more capable selection tools.

What you see above is a version of Sam Gandalf with minimal processing. I can't say "as it came out of the camera" because I shot RAW, and RAW doesn't look like anything until you process it. I simply imported it and Lightroom 2.3 automatically applied a few default settings designed to counter to a small degree the 'flatness' inherent in the way the camera sensor works. These settings increase the blacks level and the brightness, and do a small amount of sharpening. These may not seem like the kind of changes one might make to a photo in the initial stages of post-processing but then that isn't the way Lightroom works. In fact, the changes you make in Lightroom aren't necessarily applied to the picture in the order in which you move the sliders. In any case, the picture you see above was my starting point in post-processing.

I usually start out by cropping and straightening if necessary. Then I go through some of my presets to see if I can speed up the process, just as any practised lazy photographer would. I'm not going to go into the details of what my presets do to the picture as my purpose isn't to teach you how to post-process this particular picture; I'm simply recounting what I did so that you can achieve similar results with your own photos. My strategy was to get the picture the way I wanted it in terms of levels and colours, then to start in on the selective colouring.

My initial intention was to show Rochester as it was on the day of the Sweeps' Festival: lively and colourful. Quite noisy, too, at times, but that's not easy to demonstrate in a photo. Well, not literally, anyway. I wanted to show that not only were the people taking part in the parade lively, colourful and noisy, but so were the onlookers. And while the Festival harks back to the time when chimney sweeps were a common sight, the onlookers were for the most part dressed in bright, modern clothes. So I brought out this colourfulness in post-processing in such a way as to produce the perfect backdrop for the main characters - Gandalf and his boy - a couple of living ghosts in a post-Dickensian town.

So I upped the contrast quite a bit as well as the vibrance. It seems to me that Lightroom understands vibrance to mean "increase the saturation of most of the colours except skin tones, and saturate the blues to a ridiculous degree." So, as I invariably have to when working with vibrance, I decreased the blue saturation as much as the vibrance slider had increased the other colours. The result is as you see below.
I'd previously noticed that the brightness of the sun on that day had blown out some detail on the white shirts. Bringing up the recovery slider had gone some way toward retrieving it, but I wanted to see if I could get more. So I used the Adjustment brush to alter the brightness, contrast, clarity and saturation of both shirts and ended up with this result:
So at this point my subjects were looking good and their context - the colourful streets and people of Rochester - was also looking good. This is the point at which I could have stopped, content in knowing that I'd reproduced what I'd orignally intended to capture, at least as near as is possible given the combination of me plus camera plus Lightroom. But I like to bring out the essence of my subject as I recall seeing it at the time. And while in one way the picture above is what I recall seeing, in another way it isn't. I've described my thinking and feelings as I saw those two coming down the street towards me in a previous article, Anatomy of a picture: Sam Gandalf. What I wanted to bring out was that feeling of the two characters as being Dickensian ghosts from an earlier time, freshly stepped out of some time machine into the modern world. What I wanted to express was that out-of-time-and-placeness.

My next thought was to simply desaturate the main characters and their cart. A black and white Gandalf and boy on a coloured background. I've heard some people describe black and white photography as "timeless" but, for me, it's just about the precise opposite of that. For me, black and white photography is forever fixed in time, in an era before the modern age, before technology had advanced enough to allow us to try to reproduce the colours we were seeing, before we could even afford modern cameras with modern sensors. To me, black and white photography always was, is, and always will be old-fashioned. (Go on, call me a philistine. I can take it.)

But old-fashioned isn't what I was after. The fact that the characters are wearing old-fashioned clothes is all but irrelevant. I needed something extra that would bring to life (for me, and hopefully for other viewers) that out-of-time-and-placeness that I was witness to in those few minutes as they passed by. I've explained my thinking about the brownness of the photos in my nan's biscuit tins in the earlier post. What I wanted was to see if Lightroom could duplicate the feeling of that post-Victorian era.

I called up the Adjustment Brush and began to fill in Gandalf, the boy, and the cart. Firstly with a large-sized brush A with no feathering, no masking, and 100% flow, with zoom set at about 2:1 so that I could see enough of the subjects and cover the maximum area without going over the edges (which was a topic of some importance when I was playing with colouring books many years ago). Then I switched to brush B which was set to a fairly small size with feathering set to about 20% of the brush size, with masking on and 100% flow, with zoom set to 1:1 so that I was seeing the actual pixels. I had pressed the 'O' key so that I could see which areas I was painting onto but had the brush set to 100% desaturation with all other settings at zero.
This is the halfway point and below is how it looked when I'd finished this part of the job. As you may be able to tell, it wasn't quite what I was after. But it was almost there. I wanted to tweak a few more things before changing the hue of the main subjects.
I upped the sharpening quite a bit and laid down a couple of graduated filters. I should do a slight detour here and tell you that for me graduated filters aren't just bits of coloured glass you put in front of the camera to ensure that your sky isn't blown out. Lightroom's graduated filters are another tool you can use to enhance your pictures in any way you choose. I like to vignette any picture that has a strong, well-defined subject, so that the eye isn't just drawn to it but finds it difficult to look elsewhere; but the built-in vignetting sometimes isn't enough for my purposes so I use graduated filters to the same end. And in many cases I use them with a graduated change in clarity, contrast or saturation, rather than brightness.
All that was left then was to go back to my brush work with the main subjects and overlay my brown colour on it. I clicked the adjustment brush and moved the pointer over the pins until I found the one that I'd used to desaturate the subjects, then clicked the colour swatch (see above). A minute or so of dragging the pointer around the colour palette and I had my brown. And the result is as you see it at the top of this article.

Done and dusted.

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