Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Variations on a Theme

Today's image processing engines provide the photographer with surprising creative latitude.  Ordinarily I apply the tools to create a final image that resembles the scene as it was in front of my lens.  Increasingly I utilize post-processing tools to introduce enhancements infusing the image with elements that help tell a story, communicate my experience at the time or evoke emotional reactions in viewers.

In this post I decided to share multiple approaches I took to process the same original image, flexing the creative muscles I've been tuning in the digital processing gym.  These variations on a theme serve to underscore how 'subjectivity' can easily supplant the 'objectivity' once considered by some to be photography's supreme virtue and and by others to be its major artistic limitation.

I was out shooting on a cold winter afternoon and became intrigued by the complex pattern of interwoven oak branches seen against the flat, blue-gray sky.  My original intent in capturing this image was to create a very graphic image highlighting the rich network of irregular pattern of the branches. My intent was to create an abstract more than an image of tree branches per se. I am a sucker for patterns.

This first image represents the image directly out of the camera, without the benefit of any processing adjustments.

1. Directly from camera
After cropping the frame, opening up the shadows a bit and converting the image to black and white I pretty much had the very graphic image I had originally envisioned (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 'Pre-visioned' graphic image 
As is often the case, the 'prevision' version missed the mark a bit. So I decided to process another image with the intent of creating a more accurate reproduction of the scene that would convey the 'cold feel' of the scene (Fig. 3). In this case a cool blue tone added to the highlights and shadows made a cooler feel; giving the smaller branches a 'frosted' look.

Fig. 3 Cold and frosty
Emboldened by the latitude available to me I decided to try a few other variations on the theme.  I really wanted to try a graphic image that offerd a 'pencil sketch' look and came up with Figure 4. A pretty reasonable success if you ask me.

Fig. 4  Pencil sketch
Emboldened by what I considered to be the success of these variants I decided to try to push the envelop further.  In this case I decided to create a bold, colorful variant of the my pre-visioned graphic original. Although any number of other variants worked to some extent, the version depicted in Figure 5 really spoke to me.  This is no way that this image could be considered an accurate reproduction of what I saw at the time. It is clearly a 'creative' version satisfying a personal aesthetic.

Fig. 4 Fanciful interpretation
Since I was able to create an obvious 'unreal' version I decided to try to create a convincing "real' version that was a completely fraudulent rendition. How about a night shoot illuminated by moon light (Fig. 5)?

Fig. 5 Moonlight

I liked how the moonlight mood worked with the otherwise flat, uninteresting sky of the original.  How about making it interesting by substituting a sunset fell (Fig. 6)?

Fig. 6  Colorful sunset

Interesting, no? How about reaching for the stars (Fig. 7)?

Fig. 7  Milky Way

So there you have it. Seven variations on a theme.  

As photographers we have a responsibility to exercise our craft creatively, yet responsibly.  As viewers of photography we all have a responsibility to appreciate the intent of the artist but also need to recognize the latitude available in the artist's palette and to not blindly acquiesce to any photographic 'reality'.

More on this in future posts.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Just Flush It

Every photographer I know captures images that qualify as "stinkers'.  By virtue of poor concept, poor composition, poor craftsmanship or any combination of the three some images are just crap.  I know that I contribute more than my proportional share to the digital methane burning a hole in the ozone layer of the photographic ecosystem.

Original 'stinker' - I so wanted this one!

'Flushed' version - after hours of 'polishing'

You might think that serious photographers would be discriminating enough to just flush these losers down the digital porcelain throne. But for reasons of pride, lack of self-criticism, unrealistic hope, grand delusion or desperation we often try to make winners of these losers.  We spend hours tweeking the sliders of our processing software hoping that we can buff a great image from a flawed capture.  One leading photographer referred (indelicately, but appropriately) to this process as “polishing turds’.

Even fully aware of the futility of such questionable heroics I find myself having difficulty fighting the urge to “save” marginal images. To compound matters, many popular photography mentors, educators and vendors have developed bundles of presets - ‘development’ recipes - designed to squelch the ‘stink’ of photo ‘bombs’, magically replacing them with usable imagery. These bundles might be considered ‘digital imagery air fresheners.’

To their credit, these gurus caution us that their digital solutions aren’t intended to rescue bad digital captures, nor will they compensate for poor imagery. But these vendors underestimate (or perhaps they know all to well) how delusional we can become with our images and the lengths to which we will go to pull a miracle out of the toilet, so to speak. If truth be told, when used appropriately these ‘extreme’ preset solutions really do come in handy in some tough situations. When it comes to misuse ‘we’ rather than ‘they’ are the problem.

So, what’s my advice? Next time you have an image swirling around the proverbial bowl - just flush it. Rather than wasting time polishing a doomed image use the time saved to go out and capture new, better, ‘stink-free’ images.

Now, if only I can follow my own advice.