Digital and B&W: Made for each other

October 28, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Take a look at the two interpretations of the following photo, taken at Oregon's Painted Hills in the John Day National Monument. Which one is the more dramatic? 

Painted Hills b&w To most of us, the black and white image has more drama. The absence of color directs your eye to the structure of the tree, which was what led me to take the photo. The greater contrast between light and dark portions of the b&w version capture the attention, direct the eye along the lines, and make the clouds seem foreboding. This is a good example of why I so often turn color images into black and white interpretations.

Digital capture gives us great tools for working in black and white. Before digital, we had to select specific films for different types of shooting situations and then mount color filters to properly render certain subjects -- red for dramatic skies, orange for portraits, green for vegetation, etc. But if you failed to properly assess how those filters would interpret a scene, you were in trouble, stuck with a black sky against white foliage or a head of red hair that turned out flat as you filtered for freckles.

With digital photography, you select ISO to match the situation and introduce grain and adjust contrast in the editing process. Best of all, the color filters are in the color image. Because you capture all the color information in the red, green, and blue channels, you can adjust them to your heart's content to create just the mood you want.

In Lightroom, I begin by adjusting exposure, highlights, shadows, contrast, etc. to the original image in the Develop module. When satisfied that I have the best color image possible, I create a virtual copy by pressing Command/Control-' (the single quote key). This allows me to leave the original intact while I process a copy as a black and white image. Converting to monochrome is as simple as pressing "V" on the keyboard, but the resulting version usually represents a compromise. 

I turn to the color sliders in the black and white dialogue in the HSL/Color/B&W panel. As shown below, the eight sliders allow you to adjust not just the red, green and blue channels, but combinations that represent mixtures of the three. The settings show the work I've done to separate a magenta flower from the red rocks of Sedona.  

LR Black and White Mixer

The same filtering principles used during the days of negative film apply here, but you don't have to know them. You can play with the eight sliders until you get the look you want, even making new virtual copies to create additional interpretations. If you like a particular look, you can save it as a Lightroom preset so that you can apply the recipe to similar images with one click. 

When satisfied with the results, I return to the exposure panel and make overall tweaks to the exposure and contrast before a final sharpening. Now I can print the photo or upload to my website.

There are several third-party plug-ins that offer one even greater control, including Nik Silver Effects, Topaz Labs B&W Effects, and OnOne Perfect Photo Suite, soon to become simply OnOne Photo. In future posts, I'll take a look at some of them. For now, find an image whose structure suggests it might be a good candidate for a monochrome interpretation and play with it. 

New tools brighten old images

October 27, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

The past few years have brought impressive new digital editing tools. Tasks that were once laborious or even impossible can now be accomplished with little more than a click. While these tools bring out the best in what we're shooting today, they often bring new life to images we shot years ago and then forgot.

I took this image of Bellagio on Lake Como on a hazy, overcast afternoon in 2002. Rain clouds were forming, and the colors were flat. Nevertheless, the view from the water was so impressive I decided to give it a try.

The image on the left was the best I could do with it years ago. The one on the right represents an up-to-date interpretation done entirely in Adobe Lightroom CC. 

The difference was Lightroom's haze filter, which I first applied to the overall image and then built up in the hills behind Bellagio, and the clarity slider, which I applied to the entire image, then built up on the water. I added contrast and exposure adjustments to the sky, adding detail that is not apparent in the small reproduction here. The entire process took five minutes, and the result is something that, with a more dramatic sky added in Photoshop or OnOne Photo Suite, could be a very interesting photograph. While much more could be done here, I've limited these changes that would not have been possible just a few years ago. 

The release of OnOne's Photo 10 in the next few days is going to extend the toolkit and will, as each new advance has in the past, send me searching through my digital shoebox to discover what might be hiding there, just waiting for the right combination of polish and brushes to make it shine. What's in your shoebox? 


Topaz Restyle gives life to humdrum images

August 08, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Plug-ins for Photoshop, Lightroom, and Aperture fall into two main categories. Some allow you to do things that you don't know how to do. Others, more intriguingly, make it easy to do things you wouldn't have thought of doing. Topaz Software has always been a leader in the latter category. It was the first to popularize the crunchy, semi-posterized feel that characterized early HDR images, even though the source files were straightforward 8- or 16-bit images. It made it easy to make images look like cartoons, pastel drawings, and oil paintings. There are now about a dozen plug-ins that ease your way into everything from black and white photography to masking. 

The metaphor for all Topaz plug-ins is the same. You open your image in the software, preview what it might look like in a variety of presets (to which you can add), then go to work customizing it ... or not. The output is a TIFF file that you can further tweak in the editing program of your choice ... or not.

The latest Topaz entry into its suite of imaging play toys is Restyle. It brings together some of the tools available in other modules, but specializes in targeted color manipulation. Rather than simply offering a range of global color shifts, Topaz analyzes the image when you launch it and divides it into five primary shades. Those familiar with the Adobe Kuler palette generator will feel right at home.

I'll get to how you use this tool in a moment, but first, the easy, fun part. Along the left are what are promised to be 1,000 presets divided into nine collections that manipulate various parts of the color spectrum. As you mouse down them, a small thumbnail gives you a preview of what the final version will look like. For this image of Yaquina Head Lighthouse taken during a typically overcast summer day on the Oregon Coast, I picked a Landscape preset called Midday Hay Field. It made the foreground vegetation pop. 

After clicking on the preset, I went to work on controls on the right side of Restyle. (In fact, I might have started there, without using a preset at all.) For each of the five color palettes selected, I could tweak the color, saturation, and luminance. I could also add texture, increase the detail level, and adjust the white, black and mid-tone levels, important since some of the presets will darken areas of the image in unintended ways. Finally, the content-aware brush tool allowed me to brush in or brush out the effect from areas of the image. Here, I painted out the lighthouse to tone down the blue look that crept into the lighthouse. 

Back in Lightoom, I raised the exposure a bit. This raised the saturation considerably, so I toned it down a bit. Topaz Restyle fills a flat photo taken on a cloudy day with vibrant color, makes the lighthouse come alive, and frames both it and the foreground against a sky that seems a bit more foreboding. This is only one of hundreds of looks I could have applied to this image, some further emphasizing the grayness, others creating a moody nighttime feel (which was not right given that there was no light coming from the beacon), and many other variations on the theme.

Here's one taken on the same trip, attempting to deal with some of the same issues. Here, Restyle has allowed me to suggest more sun coming through the thin layer of clouds than existed and to make the figure of the little girl stand out a bit more. There were no tweaks to this image. This was straight out of a Restyle plug-in. 

Any of this could have been done in Photoshop, but the point is that it wouldn't have been. I simply wouldn't have thought of it. That's the magic of Restyle in particular and Topaz plug-ins in general. The ability to preview presets suggests new ways of thinking about your image, and the controls on the effects allow you to turn that idea into an individualized personal creation. It helps you turn ordinary images into something special and eye-catching. 

For special pricing on Topaz Restyle, please visit my website or go directly to the Topaz website. And have fun!

Photoshop introduces powerful new shake reduction tool

July 15, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Adobe recently moved from individual releases of updated Creative Suite products to a rolling update through what it calls Creative Cloud. CC products are not available as individual releases (e.g., "Adobe Photoshop CS6"), but only as a subscription-based service that is constantly updated. While you can subscribe to individual products in the suite (e.g., a Photoshop-only subscription), Adobe hopes you will pay a flat rate for access to all its products. If you only use Photoshop, this may not be such a great deal, but if you use other Adobe products, it can provide substantial savings.

The first iteration of Photoshop under the Creative Cloud subscription program includes new sharpening technology called the Shake Reduction filter. When our daughter sent us a somewhat blurred Iphone image of our grandson, I took this new filter for a test run.

I have previously used a product called Focus Magic that provides some tools for recovering pics that are either out of focus or suffering from motion blurring. I have found it to be marginally effective, depending on the conditions under which the image was shot, amount of contrast, etc. In this entry, I compare the new Photoshop tool to both modes in Focus Magic, motion blur, which I refer to as "FM Shake Reduction" in the examples to distinguish it from Photoshop's version, and out of focus blur, "FM OOF."

In keeping with my normal workflow, I opened the image in Lightroom and provided some initial adjustments in the develop module — the lens adjustment for the Iphone, lowered highlights and blacks, a slight increase in contrast, and a small sharpening adjustment. I opened the resulting image in Photoshop , created three duplicate layers, ran the Focus Magic filters on the first two of these layers, and opened Photoshop's Filter>Sharpen>Shake Reduction on the third. Photoshop shows you the area it is sampling (enlarged in this example for effect) and presents you with some options on the right of the screen.

Keeping the preview button on will redraw the screen, but it can really slow things down fora big file. I was able to leave it checked for this Iphone image. If the preview exhibits too much noise, as this did, adjust the blur trace setting. The smoothing and artifact suppression sliders help reduce artifacts and other unwanted effects. In the actual test, I increased both settings to about 37. 

The following image compares full frame versions of the original, the two Focus Magic settings, and Photoshop's Shake Reduction filter.

Even in this small sample image, it us clear that the new Photoshop filter outperforms either of the two Focus Magic settings. The differences between the original and the PS Shake Reduction filter, however, are startling. These differences become even more dramatic on this cropped image of Caeden's face.

I'm hard pressed to see much difference between the original and Focus Magic's motion blur setting ("FM Shake Reduction"), but there is some improvement when using its out of focus setting. The Photoshop Shake Reduction filter is clearly the best of the lot, however. It's not a home run. I'm not sure you can get that from the original, but since the goal of this image was to give his grandmother another acceptable 4x6 to show her friends, it gets the job done quite handily. 

This filter alone does not justify the move from a standalone Photoshop upgrade to a monthly subscription, but if it's any indication of the level of technology Adobe will be bringing us, it's worth waiting around for. 

Simple black and white conversion in Lightroom

August 16, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Here's a simple technique for producing striking black and white images in Lightroom. Make a virtual copy of your color image, convert to black and white using the one-click setting under the Basic tab of the Develop module, and ... here's the magic ... play with the color temperature sliders, both TEMP and TINT. These sliders change the underlying color mix of your image and, in so doing, the contribution the three color channels make to the black and white version. 

Some adjustments will darken or lighten the overall image, and you can then play with the exposure and contrast sliders. Finally, of course, you can use the B&W tab to further tune the filtration. But if you've moved one of the color temperature sliders radically, you may find that moving the black and white mix has little effect. (If your color temperature is far to the warm side, moving the blue slider will have little effect, since there's so little of the blue channel in the image.) 

This may or may not work on a particular image, but remember that Lightroom adjustments are non-destructive, so you can always move back through your history tab to find a state that worked ... or start from scratch. The following image of rapids along the Mackenzie River in Oregon is one that used this technique, plus a small boost of exposure in the foliage at upper left using the adjustment brush. 

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