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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Fun with Photoshop, Part I

Sally and Doug fishing

I realized recently that I really do like working on digital pictures in Photoshop. It's just fun. In fact, it seems suspiciously like more fun that it should be.

One holdover I carry with me from film is a prejudice against "working" too much on prints, or, in digital terms, picture files. My principle was always that if I concentrated on making good negatives, the prints would take care of themselves, and my prejudice was that the more I had to work on something, the worse it was going to end up looking. I'd always do whatever work needed doing, of course, but I'd get progressively more grumpy and fatalistic about success as the job proceeded. The best negatives are easy to print, which is why I'd always start out my Photo 101 classes by having kids make prints from "perfect" negatives.

Florian out after bluegill. This pretty much just opened up this way. So I left it alone. Hey, why make extra work for myself?

This doesn't seem to hold true with digital files, though. As long as you don't just butcher them, there's really not a "right" and a "wrong" amount of manipulation they can take. I do tend to spend more time on files that need help—naturally—but sometimes it's just fun to see what can be done with what. I'll open an underexposed file just to see what I can do with it, or just play with different filters and see what happens. I hesitate to admit this in public, but sometimes I download other peoples' pictures from the web and futz with them, too, because I want to see how they'll look when I do 'em the way I'd want 'em.

Cleaning the catch

Bluegill filets

So nice you can correct it twice

Often, what I'll do is to open up a file in ACR with normal color corrections, then just start to fiddle and diddle. Try one thing, try another, back up and start again, try this'n'that to see how it works. Then when I'm all done I'll close out that file, reopen another copy of the raw file, and do it all over again.

It's funny, but it often looks better the second time around—it must be easier to get somewhere when you know where you're going.

Before (above) and after (below). I pretty much did with this just what I would have done with the same picture in B&W.

Another of my peculiar habits is that even with color pictures, I'll sometimes convert them to black-and-white just to see whether they still work that way—even when I intend to make the final version color. Maybe it's just me, but I find that pictures that would have worked in B&W work better in color, too. And sometimes, too, solving the picture's problems in B&W makes it more evident what the color version needs, too.

Blue sundown. It made me unhappy to leave so much blue in this, but that's the way it looked. And that peachy/pinky color above the trees on the right looked like that, too.

One thing I've pretty much promised myself is that if I have to work in color, dang it, then I'm at least going to use the minimal amount of saturation I can get away with. (In my opinion, the digital world has been Velvia'd to death—98% of amateur digital pictures are oversaturated, making the photographed world brighter and happier than the real thing by far.) If you refrain from oversaturating, the subtleties start to emerge.

Room for one more? The normal impulse would be to open up the shadows—except this is how the scene actually looked. Think of the color palette of naturalist painters from Rembrandt to the Hudson River School, Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins....

It has always been helpful to me to try to remember what the original light looked like, and not overcorrect based on assumptions. It's awfully easy to look as a scene and think, "Hmm, too green," and correct the green away, without remembering that the light at the original scene was greenish, too.

Another thing I've had to get used to is that there's nothing at all sacrosanct about the camera's decisions. A negative "wants" to print a certain way—if you force it to look too different from what it wants to look like, the results can be unhappy. But with digital, there's nothing like that. So I don't tweak. I just grab those sliders and slam those buggers back and forth from one extreme to the other, and narrow down on what looks right. I don't care if it's 10% or 90% from what the camera thought it should be. What does it know?

Gina, on the right, made 19 funny faces for the camera. This was the 20th. Patience!

The hardest part is not knowing how, but knowing what. Some pictures just don't require Velvia saturation, or a standard range of tones, or white-light colors. With Photoshop (or LightZone, or Paintshop Pro, or or whatever program you choose), you can try everything, and just pick what works. So why not?

Sally and Doug by candlelight

Here's one last picture for those people who were lecturing me on my resistance to the march of progress in the form of Fuji's face-recognition technology—as if I just want it to be 1940 again. This was taken at 1/3rd of a second by the light of two candles, made possible by in-camera Anti-Shake, probably my personal favorite new camera technology since AE. What, me, a Luddite? What works is what works, I say.



Blogger chas3stix said...

Thanks for the mini essay about life in the mid-west. It really brings back memories of my childhood. It's nice to see folks just living....taking it easy without the hustle and bustle of "big city" life. Deep fried bluegills....YUM!

3:30 PM  
Blogger Albano Garcia said...

Hi Mike,
It's funny to see how do you need to find a rational, technical reason to post an excellent mini-collection of family snaps. Why don't post them right-away? It's fair enough, it's your blog after all, and the pics are worth looking by themselves...

6:21 PM  
Blogger eolake said...

"Here's one last picture for those people who were lecturing me on my resistance to the march of progress in the form of Fuji's face-recognition technology—as if I just want it to be 1940 again."

As the ringleader of those I say: I never thought you are a luddite. I just did not see what, in principle, is so radically different between face recog focus and technologies we admit are helpful, like AE, AF, and anti-shake.
And in neither of your two essays on it did that get clear to me.

Not that it matters all that much. Half of it was just playing Devil's advocate. :)

6:47 PM  
Blogger Andy Smith said...

Nice writing and photos, Mike. Well said.

"sometimes it's just fun to see what can be done with what."

And it should be fun! This part of the process can be a creative outlet, and just as editing can make or break a film, post processing (in the darkroom or Photoshop) can make or break a photo, and the story it tries to tell.

Thanks for the enjoyable post.


7:42 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Not that it matters all that much. Half of it was just playing Devil's advocate. :)"

It's funny, isn't it, how we get pushed into more extreme positions by arguing. We take a side, others take the other said, so we must defend our position--and the more strenuously the other side argues, the more strident our own position becomes. "Face recognition" sounds like nonsense to me, but of course I don't really know. After all, I've never used it, and anyway it wouldn't be fair to judge the whole technology based on its first implementation. So even though I THINK it will be useless nonsense, I know enough to keep an open mind. It wouldn't be the first time I've been wrong.


8:20 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Why don't post them right-away? It's fair enough, it's your blog after all, and the pics are worth looking by themselves..."

Nah, nobody wants to look at my little snaps...except the people who are in them. (g)


8:22 PM  
Blogger tienvijftien said...

Nice piece on the essence - there is too much focus on the technical aspects of photography (what kind of lens, what kind of widget, what kind of whatever). The feel of the pictures is so much more important - aside technical quality.

Is does not really matter whether you are Luddite or not (thanx Google :-)):in parallel with my transgression into Digital Photography (KM7D with AS rules BTW), I started to take analogue B&W pictures with my grandfather's Voigtlaender Vitomatic. An ancient rangefinder that provides me with other pleasures than the - excellent - digital counterpart. No direct feedback, archaic methods of working, involvement in the "actual" photgraphic process - I can recommend vintage photography to anyone - especially those nagging on about "lack of DoF", "exposure balancing" and "movement unsharpness" on all this review-flickr groups.

4:25 AM  
Blogger eolake said...

"It's funny, isn't it, how we get pushed into more extreme positions by arguing."

No kidding.
Sort of similar to your excellent observation about how, the closer a contest is, the more important it seems. There are not a lot of comparisons and arguments about a Casio Exilim and a Phase One back... but there *is* about the Nikon D200 and the Canon 5D.

5:53 AM  
Blogger Max said...

This is so true. Digital image manipulation added a whole new artistic dimention to the photographic process. All this subtle adjustments are of utmost importance in producing the exact impression we want.
I'll add another a minor thing that for me is very important too: the ability to adjust picture texture. Working with blurring and sharpening filters on color and luminance channels in lab color mode is transporting for me.
Blurring the color channel only enough to break the color noise while retaining or sharpenning the luminance noise produces very pleasant images, depending on the subject (i feel color noise can really break an image apart, a lot more than luminance noise). And even more if you intend to make channel mixer conversions to BW. In that kind of conversions, the color noise contrast is increased, which results in coarse images. Breaking down the color noise before channel mixing produces much more "mellow" tones. It works for digital images, it's great for scanned film. I know most noise filters do exactly that, but I understand the mechanic of changing the texture of channels a lot better. It's kind of intuitive to me.
And when you hit it right (as tarantino would say), the right saturation level, the right texture, it's special. It has some kind of volume, that absolutely noise free images don't have.
And I do have fun looking at the different outcomes possible and refining that look.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Ricko G. said...

I particularly like your shots under dim light, like the one in this post. In fact, the prompt that made me take the plunge into DSRL photography was the fabulous photo published in your article "The tale told by two pictures" in The Luminous Landscape. And, of course, I opted for Anty Shake, at the time only available in one brand (deceased now). I find that night or dimly-lit scenes are perfect for shy photographers, like me. So, keep taking those kind of pictures, they are pleasant to see.

3:23 PM  
Blogger the blind spot said...

max: can you direct me to some tutorials or info relating to you comments about "the ability to adjust picture texture"? Its sounds like something I'd like to understand better. Thanks.

3:08 AM  
Blogger Dave Hodgkinson said...

Very interesting commentary. Some of the things you rail against, I've been guilty of doing recently. It's certainly provoked me into thinking again.

I'm certainly uncomfortable with "working" on specific parts of a picture, aside from removing the occasional blemish (the perils of having a teenage daughter). If I do something, I'll do it on the whole picture.

All things return though. Come the grey dark winter, you'll be aching for some rich colour :)

5:31 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Blind Spot: I came to think of images of scanned film as a double layered image for interpretation purposes. One is the photographed image, and the other is texture and color of the film itself, which usually is seen as noise (but is analog to the threads of the canvas in a painting).
Instead, perfect digital pictures would theoretically be only one layer, the photographed image (cause that's what we all understand as "perfect", I think). Continuous change in color, no dots or grain of any kind that wasn't in the subject in the first place. The truth is in most cameras it's not like that, noise is always present, especially at high ISO or cheap cameras.
But noise or general texture for me has a special characteristic; it works like an "anchor" for the eye, some kind of a reference map. This is subjective, but may be others could say if they have such a perception or something similar.
The thing is, when you work with sharpening tools, etc, you also affect this second layer, and sometimes the outcome sucks and you don't know why.
I made a BW print of a scanned Velvia 6x9 shot. It came out gritty. It was a torture to look at. It was not right, for such a huge transparency of fine grain film.
The thing is, Velvia has a lot of well defined red dots, and when you use channel mixing to turn an image into BW increasing contrast between red and blue, for example, all this grain comes out ugly. Much worse if you sharpened the whole thing before converting to BW. And with digital files with some noise it's similar. If you have color noise, it’s always better to do the sharpening only in the luminance channel, for example.
I can't point you to a source for this, because I got to it through trial and error, and never saw it explained. But the main thing is sharpening and blurring at near grain radius separately on luminance and color levels in lab mode produces very different looking images, although the difference is perceived almost at a subliminal level when the adjustment is subtle. One version is a cloud of grain, another is a nicely textured image. But side by side you really can’t tell what’s different, it’s really an interesting Gestalt effect.
This is very helpful for making pleasant big prints from low res high noise sources.
And as I said, most noise reducing programs do this, I just like this way better.
Sorry for the long post, but I hope there's some interest to it.

8:36 AM  
Blogger dyathink said...

Max, i have been following your comments about editing texture in Lab mode with much interest. i first read this technique in a Nikon forum thread by Larry Bloch. i tried it on photos from a recent ballet shoot and the results were sublime. Here's how he explained it:

"Lab mode deals with lightness and colour independently. If one sharpens in RGB mode-in camera or in PS- it tends to put bright desaturated haloes around detail and the picture looks "sharpened" rather than sharp. Film accutance is defined as edge contrast-it is what makes film look sharp far more than high resolution. This [sharpening in the luminance channel of lab mode] closely resembles the look of accutance and makes the image look sharp, not sharpened. Since you sharpen ONLY the lightness channel, the colour channels retain their colour and saturation.

I realize you know how to do all this but for others who might not:

Go into lab Mode [Image>Mode>Lab Color]
Select the Lightness channel either from the Channel Palette or by hitting [Ctrl+1]. You should see a BW image.

Select the Unsharp Mask filter [Filter>Sharpen>Unsharp Mask] and set the threshold to zero, the radius to 0.25 (yes, sub-pixel level) and the amount to make the image look sharp. This is generally between 100 and 500 depending (on the image), Use the least that will do the job. Return to all channels either through the palette or [Ctrl+~].

Thanks to Larry Bloch and my apologies if this is considered off topic :)

12:02 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Dyathink, it's interesting to see somebody else got to it, it really works then, not just a figment of my imagination. But I'd add the gaussian blur on the color channels as an equally useful complement. Once in lab mode, if you select only the two color layers, you can clearly see color grain if you zoom in. So you should try applying a gaussian blur that is only enough to break the color grain structure. It should not be strong enough to loose detail of the image itself, only of the film color grain. trying with different radius back and forth gives you an idea of what you can get. That will make for a color structure that is closer to the photograph, and when all the layers are reselected you can perceive an increased smoothness without loosing grain, which is preserved (or improved by the sharpening) in the luminance channel.

7:45 AM  
Blogger dyathink said...

Max, blurring the color channels in ADDITION to sharpening the luminance channel was what fascinated me about your post (other than your very expressive way of explaining WHY you appreciate this technique). If the blur/sharp combo works i will be able to shoot ballet at higher ISO's. The flushed faces of tiny ballerinas should be pink with exertion, not with colored noise artifacts. i also SO get your thoughts on volume. There's mystery and depth in the right kind of digital noise that is utterly missing in the soulless perfection of noiseless digital images. I am so glad you contributed your thoughts to this thread. You have found a like mind in me :))

10:00 AM  

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