Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Power of Color in Black and White Photos

Black and white photography can produce some captivating and artistic photos. By removing color from the image you emphasize the tonality, geometric shapes, and composition of the photo. Of course, not all images work in black and white. A brilliant sunset loses its a beauty when all the color is removed. I find converting an image to black and white to be a fun creative challenge that can result in an image to be proud of.

Most digital cameras and even some cell phones can take photos in black and white. If you let your camera do the conversion to black and white it will store the image without the color information. You have now limited your ability to adjust the image later.  My suggestion is to always capture your images in color and convert to black and white in post processing.  Here's why.

The best way to explain what I am talking about is by showing an example.  The video below shows how powerful the color information is behind a black and white photo.


I hope that video is helpful.  Making videos is new for me and was a little intimidating.  I think I need some practice.

Here are some more examples of converting a color photo to black and white.

Sample Number One - Street Portrait

I made this photo of Carrington Kay at the Music On The Square in Jonesborough TN. I wasn't in a great position to make photos and was more interested in enjoying the music anyway. The musicians were in the shade but the background building was still in the sun. I edited the color version to deemphasize the background and focus on the two individuals, however, the red brick still grabs your attention more than I wanted it to.
I used Lightroom to convert the image to black and white using the color sliders like I did in the video. The red brick wall no longer grabs the viewers attention allowing the musicians to be what your eye sees first.

Converted to BW in Lightroom
Click on the first image to zoom in then use the right and left arrow keys to flip through the different versions to see the differences in each.

Sample Number Two - Dull Sunrise

I said earlier that sunrises or sunsets are not typically what I would convert to black and white. In the example below the sunrise colors were very muted.  In fact, there is very little color in this image.
Fuji Provia Profile
When you shoot color in RAW format you can apply camera profiles later in Lightroom. In this example, I used a profile that simulates the Fuji Acros B&W film.  Applying this profile also changes the contrast and introduces simulated grain to make the digital image appear as if it was shot on Fuji Acros B&W film.

Fuji Acros Profile
By converting this image to B&W I removed the color distractions and emphasized the repeating patterns and composition. The surface of the water was blurred by using a 9-second exposure.

I really like the Acros profile and it's easy to apply in Lightroom.  If I don't like the result, it is easy to switch back to the default Provia color profile.

Sample Number Three- Timeless Scene

One more example of converting a color image to black and white.  In this case, the crisp color image appeared too new for the subject, which looked like it was set in the 1950s.  
Produce Stand in Color
 By converting to B&W the resulting image fits better with the subject.
Converted to BW in Lightroom
There are a number of ways to convert a color image to black and white.  I have shown you two ways in Lightroom. Other tools I use are Silver Efex Pro 2 from Google (Nik) and On1 Photo RAW.

Converted to BW in Silver Efex Pro 2 High Structure (Harsh) preset.

Converted to BW in On1 Photo RAW 2017 - Black & White Rugged Preset
These are just a few tools available for converting to B&W. There is an infinite number of ways to adjust an image when converting.  How you convert your photos is up to you. Use your creativity to express yourself and tell a story with your photos. Just make sure you capture the image in your camera, in color, preferably in RAW format.

Do you find these blog posts worth the time it takes to read them? Is there something you would like to see on the blog? Send me a note and give me some feedback.  I really do appreciate the feedback.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Working A Scene

One of my favorite waterfalls can be found in Western North Carolina near Rosman. It's not in a National Park, National Forest or even a State Park. In fact, it's not on public lands at all.  It is in the back yard of a private residence! The owners are nice enough to allow, and even encourage, visitors to their own private waterfall on Shoal Creek.

After parking behind the house and walking about 200 yards the trail climbs a very short distance and then descends a set of stairs to the base of the falls. This is the first view of the falls taken next to the small pool below the 60-foot falls.

1/2 sec at f/16

I've been here twice and neither time was there a lot of water flowing over the falls. I think this level of water is just about perfect. It allows individuals streams to separate when falling over the rocky bluff. There is a lot of interesting details and patterns in these falls. While you can easily see the entire waterfall from this vantage point, there is much more to see and photograph.

Landscape photographers need to move around and "work the scene".  Avoid the temptation to place your tripod in the first place you find.  Move closer or farther back.  Use your zoom lens, which can give a different view from moving closer.  Get lower.  If possible, get higher and shoot down. We didn't stay long enough because standing in water with thunder storms near by is not a good way to live long and prosper.

1/2 sec at f/16

Hoping across the rocks to the center of the stream gives you a slightly different perspective with the rocks in the foreground. The first and second shots include the lush green foliage and thick moss on the sides of the waterfall. It was an overcast day and the soft indirect light really made these greens pop.
1.8 sec at f/16

The pool below the falls is not very interesting and does not add much to the composition. Wading through the pool I got closer to the falls and made the shot above, cropping out most of the pool and the gray skies. You'll notice I also cropped off the top of the falls. I did this to emphasize the shapes and patterns in the lower falls, which I found to be very interesting.

2.0 sec at f/16

I think the triangular shape of the bottom of the falls with the water flowing down the stair step to makes an interesting composition. I was able to include just enough of the water flowing in from the left and the greens in the upper right.  

Tall waterfalls like this typically work best as vertical portrait orientation shots. However, the horizontal ledges in the falls made an interesting landscape orientation composition when I zoomed in closer.

0.9 sec at f/16
I zoomed in closer to emphasize the hard geometric lines and shapes of the rocks and the soft flowing water. I always like green plants or moss showing through behind a waterfall.  
4.3 sec at f/16
All these photos were shot at ISO 200 and f/16. The shutter speed varied due to the changing light conditions. By the time I made this last photo the skies had turned dark from the returning thunderstorms. It was time to head for the safety of the car again.

Making Photos With Flowing Water

To make photos with the soft flowing water you should start with a shutter speed of 1/2 second and vary it to get different effects. You might need to adjust your exposure compensation or use manual mode to not let the white water become over exposed in the long exposures. Of course, your camera must be steady through the long exposure so a tripod is pretty much essential to keep the rocks solid and sharp. If you place your tripod in a stream be aware that the water will introduce some movement and potentially blur your long exposure photos. I  place my hand on the tripod and press down during the shot to control as much of the movement as possible.

The other thing I find to be essential for these shots is a polarizer filter. This will reduce the glare off the wet rocks and foliage.  Be sure to turn the filter to adjust how much glare you want to remove.

Finally, if you have read this far you probably want to know where these falls are so you can visit them yourself.  These are Eastatoe Falls near Roseman North Carolina.

Directions to Eastatoe Falls:

  1. From Rosman NC, drive south on U.S. 178 for approximately 3.4 miles to a private drive on the right.
  2. There is a sign for Mountain Meadow here, and the driveway leads back to a house, and what used to be a craftshop on the left.
  3. The home owners have made a small parking area behind the house labeled with "Park Here" signs. The trail leads across the lawn into the woods and to the falls.
Please be courteous and respectful when visiting these falls. There are many beautiful falls on private property, but very few of them are accessible to the public because the land owners do not allow access.  

Friday, July 14, 2017

An Easy Photoshop Trick for Blending Exposures

Our eyes are amazing creations and in most cases, far superior to a film or digital camera.  Our eyes are able to look around a scene and dynamically adjust based on subject matter. This trait accounts for many of our commonly understood advantages over cameras. For example, our eyes can compensate as we focus on regions of varying brightness, can look around to encompass a broader angle of view, or can alternately focus on objects at a variety of distances.

Cameras capture a single still image.  Some adjustment to the image can be done after capture with photo editing software, but that is limited by the camera technology.  If areas of our photo are too bright (blown out) or too dark then no information will be available in those areas, no matter how much we try to fix the image.

Our eyes are more akin to a video camera — not a still camera.  Our eyes and brain work together to compile relevant snapshots to form a mental image. What we really see is our mind's reconstruction of objects based on input provided by the eyes — not the actual light received by our eyes. As a result, we can see into dark and light areas of a scene at the same time.

There are techniques for overcoming the limitations of our digital cameras to try and simulate what our eyes see.  One of the most popular is High Dynamic Range or HDR.  Even our cell phones can do HDR now.  However, the result can look unrealistic or even cartoonish.  Recently I have been using image masking in Photoshop that can produce more realistic results.

Warning - this works in Photoshop.  If you don't have Photoshop you may not be interested.  If you are, please read on.

1. Make a series of photos using exposure bracketing.  You want the darkest shot to have no blown highlights and the brightest shot to have no underexposed areas.   I set my camera up to take 5 exposures at - 2 2/3, -1 1/3, 0, +1 1/3, and +2 2/3 EV.  Most DSLRs support bracketing. You may have to find and read your manual to make this work.  You should have your camera on a steady tripod to make sure the images line up.

-2 2/3 EV

-1 1./3 EV

0 EV

+1 1/3 EV

+2 2/3 EV

2. Load the five images into Lightroom.  You can use other photo editing tools.  Lightroom is what I use.

3. Pick enough of the bracketed shots to cover the dynamic range by looking at the histograms. The histogram on the darkest one should not be touching the right side.  The histogram on the brightest should not be touching the left side. 

First Shot

Third Shot

Use control-click in Lightroom to select those images and any in between.

4. In Lightroom, choose the Photo menu, Edit in and Open As Layers In Photoshop...  This will launch Photoshop and bring the images in as individual layers.

5. Drag the layers around to put the brightest on top and the darkest on the bottom.

6. Click the eye icon to the left of the layer to turn off all but the bottom two layers.  In this example, I only have 3 layers.

7. Click the second to the bottom layer, then click the Add Layer Mask icon.


8. With the layer mask on the second to the bottom layer selected, go to the Image menu and select Apply Image.
A dialog box will appear.  Click the Invert box and click OK.

Photoshop will create a layer mask for you that masks out the brightest parts of the top image. You can click the eye icon on the second to the last layer to turn in on/off to see the effect.

9. Turn on the next layer up by clicking on the eye icon and then repeating steps 7 and 8.  Do this for each layer.

I will sometimes paint in some additional masking on some layers to brighten or darken areas of the photo.

The resulting image will be low contrast and will appear flat and uninteresting.  You'll fix this in Lightroom.

10. You can save the image as is with the layers or flatten the layers before saving.  I flatten the layers this to make the files a little smaller and save space.  Close the file in Photoshop.  It will appear in Lightroom along with the originals.

11. Use Lightroom Tone sliders to darken the backs, lighten the whites and add some contrast.   Be careful to not reintroduce blown highlights or dark shadows. At this point, you can do what ever additional edits you want.  In this example I used the Vertical Transform slider to correct some of the perspective distortion, and added a little clarity.

This example does not have extreme contrast to deal with.  I have used this technique in some extreme situations, such as the sunset example below.

Exposed for the sunset sky

A little brighter

Exposed for the flowers in the foreground

End Result

I hope this is helpful for a few people who use Photoshop.  There are other techniques, such as Luminosity Masking, which are even more powerful but are much too complicated to explain here.  I have found I can use Image Masking in most cases.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Landscape Photography Tips - When to get the best light.

Last Thursday I did a little program on Landscape Photography for the Eastman Camera Club.   We had a good turn out, but some people were not able to make it.   I've been asked for copies of my slides and I saw a few people taking pictures of the slides, which is a fine way to take notes.  Rather than sharing my entire presentation without notes, I'm going to give some tips from that program here. This is the first of what I think will be a few posts over the next week or two.

The program was divided into the following five sections from most to least important:
  1. Light
  2. Subject
  3. Composition
  4. Techniques
  5. Gear
Note that gear is listed last.  In my opinion, a high-quality professional camera, lens, and accessories in the hands of someone who doesn't understand the first four points may be a waste of money.  A skilled photographer can make quality photos with a variety of gear.  Some professionals even make and sell photos with their cell phone!  Don't get me wrong - quality camera gear is important, but it is more important to focus on the first four points.

All you really have to have to make great landscape photos is:
  • A camera or lens that lets you shoot wide angles.   I like something that starts around 17mm on a full frame camera or 13mm on a cropped sensor camera.
  • A camera or lens that lets you zoom in and isolate a subject.  A lens that lets you zoom out to somewhere between 200mm and 300mm (full frame equivalent) will meet most of your needs.
  • A tripod.  See my earlier post on tripods.
You will find lenses with focal lengths between the wide angle and telephoto useful. There are a number of other accessories that are useful, but not required.  I'll post about those another day. To quote Forest Gump - That's all I'm going to say about that! (for now).

In my experience, light is the most important factor that goes into making great landscape photos. Unlike photographers who work primarily indoors, a landscape photographer can't control the light. What we can control is when and where we make our photos.

  • Time of day and direction of sunlight
  • Season
  • Cloudy or clear skies
  • Wind
Each of these four factors impact the quality of landscape photos.

Best Time of Day

Golden Hour

The best time of day for landscape photography is the golden hour - the hours after sunrise and before sunset.   At this time of day, the sunlight will be soft, warm and low.  Add some clouds and the golden hour can also be very dramatic. In the photo above, the sun was behind me and lighting up the clouds with a warm orange color. The orange clouds also provided some nice color contrast with the blue sky. This warm cloud color reflected down on the sand, making it appear warmer.  The low angle of the sunlight also emphasized the ripples in the sand adding an interesting foreground element.

Now imagine if you will what this photo would have looked like around mid-day. The sun would have been high overhead and the ripples in the sand would have been almost impossible to see in the photo. Here's a photo made nearby in the early afternoon.
Because the angle of the sunlight is high it's difficult to discern the layers in the dunes and mountains. This makes the photo appear flat and less interesting.  The color does not have that warm pleasing look like the previous photo. The second photo does have a desolate feel to it.  If your shooting a cover for "A Horse With No Name" this may be exactly the right photo to tell that story.

Below is a great example of how the quality of the mid-day and late afternoon sunlight can make all the difference in a photo. The photo on the left was taken at mid-day when the sun was shining down on a creek in a small canyon in Glacier National Park. The light is direct and harsh and the highlights are too bright. The second photo was taken a few hours later on the same day. The light in the second photo was indirect, soft and the tonality is balanced. A few hours makes the difference between a photo destined for the bit bucket and a keeper.  

Besides the golden hour light, there is another reason to shoot around sunrise and sunset. Those are the times when the wind is typically the calmest. If you want to make a photo with a mirror like reflection in a water surface or no movement in vegetation you should try to be there around sunrise. The early morning winds will usually be calmer than those around sunset.
Early Morning Reflections
Don't pack up and leave after the sun sets.  Just before the morning golden hour and after the evening golden hour is what's called the blue hour when the sun is significantly below the horizon.  During the blue hour, the sky will take on a beautiful blue shade.

Blue Hour
As landscape photographers, we can't control the light, but we can control when we make our photographs.  This may involve getting up hours before sunrise and staying out hours after sunset. The middle of the day is reserved for taking naps!

The material in my presentation to the Eastman Camera Club and this post come from my Basic Photography Class.  The class is four two-hour sessions plus a local field trip to practice.  I will be scheduling another class later this year after summer vacation times.  If you would like to be notified when the class is scheduled, send a note to rcsiggins@gmail.com.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Exploring Our Backyard - Phipps Bend

If you've read my blog before you might remember that I am participating in a photography challenge to take at least one photo each week that meets a weekly challenge.  This week's challenge is to make a photo in your own back yard.  I did that, taking a photo of some potted plants.  On Thursday I took the challenge a little further and expanded my "back yard" to Hawkins County Tennessee and the Phipps Bend Wildlife Preserve.

Those who have lived in this area since the late seventies and early eighties will remember Phipps Bend as the site of a TVA nuclear power plant that was never completed.  The project was 40% complete when it was abandoned in 1981, leaving the skeleton of cooling tower base and a few buildings.
Abandoned Cooling Tower Base
Since then, the Phipps Bend Industrial Park has grown up next to the TVA site and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has also created a wildlife preserve between the old site and the Holston River.  A 3-mile out and back hiking trail/gravel road snakes along parallel to the Phipps Bend in the Holston River.  This easy level hike passes by beautiful ponds, wetlands, wide grassy fields, and the river.  We were there to see and hopefully photograph some wild birds.

What we found was a beautiful area full of wildlife, flowers, and yes, some colorful birds.
Yellow Flag "Batman"  Iris

Oxeye Daisy
 With the exception of one hiker and two equestrians on horseback, we didn't see any other people.  We did see more than a dozen white-tailed deer in the tall grass and one large snapping turtle on the trail.
Can you see me?

Indigo Bunting

Orchard Oriole 
These are just a few of the photos I made on this trip.  My bird photography skills need some work and we have plans to go back next week to try again.  I am more happy with some of the other photos from this trip.  I am trying something new to share these photos.  I have made a 2:40 slide show that shows my 27 favorites from that day that tell a story.  I hope this works and you enjoy the show.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

A Fun Little Experiment With Lady Slippers

That catchy little title is meant to get your attention. No, I'm not wearing June's house slippers. This experiment involves photographing the Lady Slipper flower on Buffalo Mountain in Johnson City, Tennessee.

June and I went hiking on the Lady Slipper Loop Trail with our friends Dina and Peter. We had great conditions for close-up flower photography.  It was late in the afternoon, the skies were overcast, and there was no breeze at all. Best of all, these rare wild orchids were abundant along the trail. Thanks to Dina and Peter for guiding us right to the flowers.

This time I brought along my flash and two remote triggers. I don't normally bring these along on hikes but I wanted to try a little experiment with the flash and flowers.  I placed one remote trigger on my Fuji camera and the other on my old Canon flash.  I was using both camera and flash in manual mode so it didn't matter that I was mixing brands. Using the remotes allowed me to hold the flash and point it at the flowers from any direction or distance.  I also used a Rogue Flash Bender on my flash to soften the light.

Here are two examples from my little experiment.

No flash, 1/40 sec, f/2.4

With flash, 1/250 sec, f/2.4
The two photos illustrate how the flash can emphasize the flower while letting the background go dark. The faster shutter speed in the second shot made anything lit only by the ambient light darker. I tried to position the flash to light the flowers without lighting the background.

The problem with this technique is the light from the flash can create harsh shadows on the subject, in this case, the flowers. Here's a series of shots that show what happens when the flash is in different positions.

If you click the first image then use the keyboard arrow keys you can flip through each one to easily see the differences.

The camera and flash settings were the same in each photo. Notice the shadows?  There are bright and dark spots in each photo due to the different position of the flash. I want to have more even light to make a more pleasing flower photo.   

Here's the really cool part of the experiment.  Remember I said there was no breeze?  Because the camera was on a tripod and the flower was not moving I was able to blend these five shots into one using the HDR tool in Adobe Lightroom.

Blended Image
I used the Lightroom HDR tool because it tends to create a more realistic result. In this case, the shadows and bright spots are smoothed out to a more pleasing image.  The problem is, it also made the background brighter, which I didn't want.  I used one of the darker original images and manually blended it's background into the image using Photoshop.  Turning the image a little made the stem come from one corner and the petal point to the opposite corner for a better composition.

Final Result
This all sounds much more complicated than it really was.  It's actually pretty easy with some basic Lightroom and Photoshop skills.

I learned how to manually control remote flashes while working on my real estate photography skills. It's interesting how skills learned in one area help in a completely different application. There are good reasons to learn new photography skills, even in areas that might not be you favorite.