“Black-and-white film photography, its image qualities and processes, have a great deal to teach us…. What sets black and white apart from colour is that it is not the way we see the world, and it does not pretend to represent reality. It is a translation of a view into a special medium with very particular characteristics.”
On Wednesday, I posted a series of photos of a vintage camera, a No.1 Pocket Kodak. While working on the photos, I accidentally converted one to black and white in Lightroom, briefly thinking “Well, that’s kinda cool” but then flipped it back to color and continued processing the batch. I hardly ever work in black and white, you see, because I’m so colorful, but I still thought it might be fun to come back to this set of photos and give black and white a shot, especially since most of the color in the photos came from the background or from the slight blue cast emanating from the camera body. I also got a bit of inspiration from a Christmas gift a friend sent me…
… a series of books by photographer Michael Freeman — including the one I quoted above — that I’ve been reading from nearly every day since I got them.
I took the color photos with two of my favorite lenses: a Minolta 50mm f/1.7 lens that’s about 25 years old (that even has its own Wikipedia page) and a Sony 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens that I’ve had for a few years (that has no Wikipedia page but gets used for many of my closeups and macros). Both lenses do well in low light and even intentional under-exposure, so were ideal for the camera photos: taken on my dining room table lit by a single window, with supplemental lighting from a small LED flashlight (yes, you read that right) that I normally use for finding things in the depths of dark closets. I did use a high ISO when taking the photos — because I forgot to check my camera’s ISO setting before shooting (oops!) and it was set to 1600 — but Lightroom and the Nik Collection did a suitable job of ridding the photos of what little noise was captured.
So I made copies of the color images that I’d processed and posted — having done mostly saturation and contrast adjustments — and ran them through Nik’s Color Efex Pro, applying these filters:
Black and White Conversion, where I made brightness, shadow, highlight, and contrast adjustments;
Tonal Contrast, to soften the images slightly and create smoothness in the backgrounds;
Darken/Lighten Center, to accentuate lighting on the camera and shift the eye’s focus to the camera body;
Detail Extractor, to reveal the structure and texture of the camera’s bellows and leather case, recovering a bit of detail that was lost by the Tonal Contrast adjustment.
The first gallery below shows the black-and-white versions of Wednesday’s images. Personally I think they’re interesting, but what I really liked was experimenting with the same tools I’ve been using for color photos for a while now, in the world of black and white. I avoided special effects — like applying warming filters, converting them to sepia-tone, or adding grain for that aged look — and concentrated on how to make the primary subject appealing without color.
In the second gallery, I’ve set the black-and-white and color images side-by-side. You can select the first image and page through a slideshow to view them as before-and-after versions. Thanks for looking!
Note to Readers:
If you’re following this blog … first of all, thank you very much! Second … since I started blogging again in 2018, I’ve been posting the same content here and on my self-hosted site, DaleDucatte.com. By the end of January, I plan to simplify my workflow and stop duplicating posts here. I’ll migrate followers from this site to DaleDucatte.com, but you may want to anticipate that change and switch to following DaleDucatte.com, where you will see a “Subscribe by email” option and a “Follow on WordPress.com” button in the site’s right sidebar. Thank you!
A few days ago, I deleted 1,200 old photos from Flickr – as the last step in the Flickr Reboot project that I started back in July. I had originally thought I would reprocess and recreate 800 to 1,000 images, but ended out at 2,000 — building new Flickr albums that included many of the originals plus about 1,000 photos from my archives, to which I added photos taken this year that fit well in the albums.
I had expected this project to continue through the middle of 2019, but a couple of discoveries moved it along at a faster pace than I anticipated, enabling me to pour on some speed:
First, I figured out that by sorting the photos by capture time in Lightroom, I could often copy adjustments from one photo to a group where the original exposure characteristics were similar, then tweak settings on individual photos in that group, rather than starting from scratch. There were even some settings – sharpness and noise reduction, for example – that I was able to apply across dozens of photos simultaneously and achieve the results I was looking for. With those basic settings applied and tweaked, I could then focus on changes that required more time – such as spot removal, healing, and color adjustments like those I described here: Before and After: Exposing Hidden Autumn.
Second, I got in the habit of creating recipes in Nik Collection Color Efex – the Nik Collection tool I spent the most time with – for photos of similar subject matter, so I could then work on as many as twenty photos as a batch. Like copying settings in Lightroom, these recipes enabled me to apply changes more quickly to a group of photos, then focus on image-specific changes like adjusting colors, lighting, contrast, and any additional sharpening or detail enhancements. While I didn’t keep track of the time I spent overall, there were days I was able to get through as many as 100 photos and make a serious dent in producing results. It’s been a whole lot of work, and a whole lot of learning, but it’s also been the most fun I’ve had at a computer in ages.
Fun Finding Photos
When taking on a project like this, I always try to find ways to streamline parts of it, to “automate” some tasks to help eliminate the cognitive overload associated with task-starting and task-switching. The question I try to answer is this: which steps can I reduce to checklist items and just repeat them every time, without having to think about much more than execution. Other than the two time-savers I described above – that were only partly repeatable – organizing the work with a series of identical steps helped push things along.
A big hurdle I faced was this: how do I find the images from Flickr in my Lightroom catalog of 15,000 photos? I needed the original image files for this project, since the Flickr versions were smaller in size and had been created with Lightroom adjustments no longer in my catalog.
At first, I was simply displaying the Flickr albums in a browser, then typing the file names in Lightroom to search for the photos … very time consuming and, honestly, so mind-numbing I felt like I might abandon the whole project. But I figured out how to do this instead: I displayed the album on Flickr, copied the entire web page, then pasted the whole page into Microsoft Excel as plain text. By manipulating the rows of data a bit, I could extract the file names and create a string of names that I could then paste into Lightroom’s search box. Once I found the photos using this trick, I created a collection in Lightroom containing the photos from each Flickr album. This worked for all but one album – where I had renamed the photos before posting them on Flickr – and worked well enough that I took a couple weeks to find all the photos and put them in corresponding collections in Lightroom before moving forward with the project. The collections looked like this:
With the collections created, I went through all my photos and added related images to each one, images that I had never done anything with but were taken more recently and were of the same subjects. That’s how I ended out with 1,000 newer photos to process and upload to Flickr. I hadn’t intended to do that when defining the project, but I kept remembering that I had more recent images of some of the subjects; and it proved its worth to me in terms of building albums with a mix of older and newer photos in each one.
Fun Fixing Photos
And then … I started working through the photos, one collection at a time, repeating the steps for 2,000 iterations. It went something like this:
I cropped each photo to a 16:9 ratio. I had decided early on that I would do this because I now tend to take photographs with the camera set to 16:9, wanted to create a consistent look that would blend well with future photos, and found that using that crop factor typically created an image with better focus on the subject without losing key detail.
I processed each photo in Lightroom, straightening some images, adjusting exposure, enhancing colors, applying sharpening and a wee bit of noise reduction, and using spot removal or healing to eliminate distracting elements.
Once I was satisfied with the results in Lightroom, I moved on to the Nik Collection, where I first ran each photo through Dfine to remove any additional noise. The value of this step proved itself very quickly, especially with closeup and macro photos, where Dfine smoothed the appearance of soft backgrounds and improved the image for the next step.
I used Color Efex Pro to make substantial changes to each image, though generally those enhancements affected color saturation and intensity, contrast, and detail. For many images, I used one of the filters that lets you brighten the primary subject and darken the background to direct the viewers eye to the subject and also create a high-definition or 3D look for some of the photos.
The last step! Almost! I ran every photo through Nik’s Output Sharpener to put some subtle sharpening on each one or to enhance detail on parts of a subject. One of Nik’s powerful features – control points, available in all the tools – lets you choose a circular area of the image by color and apply effects very selectively – enabling, for example, increased sharpness on a portion of the main subject without adding sharpening throughout the entire image.
With Lightroom, of course, you export photos after developing them, so I created a folder structure on my computer that mirrored the collections I had built inside the application:
Because I was using some of the photos in my blog posts, and would ultimately upload them to Flickr, I exported the photos as 920 pixels on the short edge — one third of the maximum pixel dimensions for a full-sized image coming out of my camera — rather than full size. This resizing produced satisfactory detail for blog posts and Flickr without the additional storage space required for full size. I have an Office 365 subscription, and I exported the photos to OneDrive so I’d have an instant backup, and so that I could easily review the photos using a mobile device (an iPad), which in some cases helped me find flaws I just didn’t see on the computer monitor.
Fun Flinging Photos onto Flickr
I didn’t upload any of the photos to Flickr until I had completed them all. Before uploading, I changed the existing Flickr photos to private so they weren’t publicly visible and renamed all the old albums to keep them separate from the new ones. I hadn’t uploaded to Flickr in a long time and my ancient memories of the experience weren’t pleasant – but it worked better than I remembered, and over a couple of days loaded all the photos, put them in new albums (named to match my Lightroom collections and computer/OneDrive folders), and created three collections to group the albums.
So that, as they say, is that! With Flickr rebooted and the old photos deleted, I plan to continue using it and adding new photos – some featured here, some not – even if I build a portfolio site at some point. You will see more references and links to Flickr here also – there are still stories and histories to be told – and I like the slideshow/carousel function WordPress provides and will continue using that to display photos with my blog posts.
After spending so much time over the past six months experimenting with Lightroom and with the Nik Collection, here’s one thing I learned: what we call “post-processing” is both an extension of working with the camera and simultaneously a way of learning more about the camera and how to use it better – not just technically but also aesthetically. The continuum from taking a picture to working with the image is perhaps best understood from this starting point: There is no such thing as an unprocessed photo, and there never has been.
Even if you skip back over the most recent technological history of photography-as-digital to the film era – not so long ago! – it’s apparent that every photographer had plenty of choices at their disposal that would affect their photographic output, everything from choices of cameras and lenses to ISO ratings for films to variations in color and saturation produced by films from different manufacturers. Even the type of paper chosen when you developed film affected the final look of the images. In the digital era, it’s no coincidence that imaging software uses terms in their workflows that hark back to the previous eras’ choices, including the emulation of different types of film that used to be available, or terms like dodge and burn, or the imitation of techniques a photographer might use to introduce things like blur or motion into otherwise static images. The darkroom — along with many other technical and physical characteristics of photography — has been encapsulated in tools like Lightroom.
As important to me, though, has been the learning associated with developing workflows that blend technology with creativity, learning that I can expand on as I continue to use these tools. Back in July when I started this project, I was intimidated by all the choices available; I no longer feel intimidated and have a much better sense of which options to choose to obtain certain results. All of this also satisfies, for me, a restless learning and technological itch that I’ve always felt but can now use to produce images that let me play with cameras, lenses, composition, color, and light. And play, you know, is The Thing.
To wrap up….
Here’s a link to all my previous blog posts about the project:
“Photographs led me to cameras, and over the years the camera became an object I could think with. I could think about light and shadow, about composing the frame, and about what it meant to live in a certain way, to make decisions at many levels, and to document the world.” — from the essay “Salvaged Photographs” by Glorianna Davenport in Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, edited by Sherry Turkle
One of the reasons I’ve always liked photography – and why I’m often drawn to closeup or macro photography – is that viewing the world through a camera creates an opportunity to focus on sights that might otherwise remain unseen. Looking through the camera restricts my view to what fits within the frame, letting distractions fall away, and that remains true if I zoom in or out, or pan horizontally or vertically: what I see through the lens becomes what I choose to see at that moment, and most of what’s outside the frame slides from awareness as I make those choices. I might add to or subtract from that view by manipulating the camera or the lens; but when I take the photo, I’ve selected something that’s captured my interest, or struck me as aesthetically pleasing, or has frozen an instant of time that seems to matter subjectively.
After taking the shots, what I do with them now includes a set of additional (and for me, recently learned) choices that give me the chance to further refine the images toward this deceptively simple idea: this is what I saw and this is what I want to show you.
I assembled the gallery of images below from those I’ve been working on for my Flickr Reboot project; they were all taken at Point Au Roche Interpretive Center or near the city of Plattsburgh in northern New York. While I’ve been posting quite a few similar images (see Autumn Close Up: A Photo Gallery), I set these aside for a couple of reasons. First, as I was reviewing my archived photos, I had flagged every one of these (and quite a few others) to be deleted. Second, I didn’t actually delete any of them and decided to take another look once I got more experience with the tools I was learning, to see what I might do with them even though I originally thought they should be deleted. Other than being on the chopping block for a while, these images had something else in common: they were all hidden bits of autumn, subjects tucked away behind tree trunks, barely visible among shrubs, or nearly buried under fallen logs. Because they were all so hidden – and it was an overcast day as well – the exposures were pretty poor and most of the original images were very dark. I remember crawling on the ground at times to get some of these shots and was disappointed that they ended out being so badly exposed, but I kept them anyway from some vague notion that one day I would figure out what, if anything, to do with them.
With the help of new skills, I wanted to find out if I could recover each of these well enough to create an acceptable image, and simultaneously learn more about how to think about image post-processing. It can be quite a challenge to convey the thought process involved in work like this – words fail and the images help resolve the ambiguity – yet here are a few things, technically and otherwise, that I think I’ve learned:
There are limitations to what you can do with an image that is out of focus and most of the tools emphasize rather than reduce the out-of-focus condition. Yet still, if the composition and content of the image seem to matter, those tools that intentionally render the image with special effects (blur, softening, and grain, for example) may help you produce something that is creatively satisfying.
Digital cameras capture so much detail that even an under-exposed image may have embedded surprises hidden in the dark. One technique I use often is to over-adjust the image in Lightroom (setting exposure, contrast, highlights, and shadows to an upper or lower extreme) to get a look at what I might easily miss, then dial back the settings to something more subtle.
Composition and content rule. Spot removal helps eliminate distractions and shift a viewer’s focus to key elements of the image. And I’ve also seen how replacement of foreground elements (for example, removing a stray branch or stem of grass that seems to intrude on the frame) or blending colors in background elements to improve their consistency, both change the image to help direct the eye toward the intended subject. Changes like this also reduce the amount of information a viewer’s mind has to comprehend when looking at the image, something I think is especially appropriate for closeup or macro shots.
Knowing what options you will have in post-processing changes how you compose on a photo shoot. But that can be a double-edged sword and it’s a good idea to take the best image you can, regardless of what you might do with it later. It’s better, for me anyway, to think of post-processing as a way to enhance a vision or point-of-view on what I’m trying to convey, rather than assume I’ll be fixing things I did poorly while toting around the camera. This isn’t an argument against post-processing; it’s recognition that learning those techniques is as important as understanding the camera’s settings and buttons, and that the creative arc of photography extends through all the technology and tools you might use to produce your images.
The first gallery below includes my final versions of these seventeen images. The second gallery shows the before and after versions of each one, where hopefully you can see by comparison how I’ve used some of the ideas described above.
Other photos from the Garden are here: Atlanta Botanical Garden category. The work I’ve been doing to reprocess millions and billions of photos (possible exaggeration!) from my photography archives is documented here: Flickr Reboot.
Select the first image to begin a slideshow …. thanks!
I think it’s possible that flamingos may have lost some of their social standing over the years — in North America at least — as a result of their objectification as plastic lawn ornaments and even, occasionally, as Christmas decorations. Their presence at the entrance of many zoos — and their ubiquity as unnatural icons on many lawns (not mine!) — made me feel like they were sort of a zoo-cliche and that I might just discard their photos from my collection. But then I thought: ah, well, it’s not the birds’ fault, is it? — and decided to run a few pictures I had from Zoo Atlanta through my Lightroom and Nik Collection workflow to see how they came out. After a bit of trial and error to get the colors right, I ended out with a “look” to the photos that I liked: one that brought out the detail and thickness of their feathers, emphasized the contrasts between pink, orange, and red on their bodies, and rendered them almost as pretty as Fancy Beasts and Snakes on a Blog.
With one exception, Lightroom adjustments for these photos were pretty standard as I felt like I would want to do most of the color and contrast adjustments using the Nik Collection Color Efex filters. So other than basic exposure adjustments and sharpening, I decided to remove most of the shedded feathers scattered throughout the backgrounds or in the water as they were distracting to my eye, and I knew the filters would emphasize them and make them even more obvious. Lightroom spot removal to the rescue! Though I’d hate to calculate how much time I spent removing tiny clumps of feathers from each of these images, it was true that they acted like little light-catchers in the Color Efex filters — as I learned after missing some and having to continue the spot-removal effort even after I thought the photos were already done.
Among other things, the Nik Collection filters excel at enhancing colors, creating contrast improvements, and correcting color cast. In the Before and After gallery (scroll down a bit), the third picture in the second row shows a substantial color cast, where the yellow and brown from the background permeate the whole image, likely because of sunlight throwing a reflection across the scene. The fourth picture in that row shows how it looks after correction, where the yellow/brown is gone and the original colors of the bird and rocks have been restored. The filters I used to create a relatively consistent look across these photos were: White Neutralizer (which corrects some of the color cast and emphasizes whites); Brilliance/Warmth (which adds saturation to the colors and also helps separate background and foreground elements); and Pro Contrast (which completes the color cast correction and enhances contrast throughout the photo). For some of the photos, I also used Darken/Lighten Center to add brightness and create a focal point in the picture, to draw the viewer’s eye from the background to the main subject. The effects of this filter are most evident in the last four photos in the Before and After gallery below.
Here are the final versions of the twelve flamingo images; select the first one to see larger sizes.
If you would like to see how the images looked before and after the processing I described above, select the first image then page through the slideshow:
At the base of Whiteface Mountain in northern New York, on the road to Whiteface Mountain Ski Resort, just before you cross a bridge over the Ausable River and where your eyes widen to take in the size of the mountain close up … there is a large dirt and gravel parking lot. If you park your car and walk up the mountain road, you just might miss the forest opposite the lot: it’s hidden behind rows of birch trees and ferns that have gathered in the sunlight and grown right up to the left edge of the road.
After you step beyond the birch tree gateway and through the knee-high valley of ferns, your feet land in a blanket of soft needles discarded by pine trees that have been growing and shedding for decades. Your sense of hearing is instantly altered: the pine needles absorb and mute sound from the road and river nearby just as if you’d walked through a doorway and closed the door behind you. Your footsteps make no sound. Bird-call that you didn’t hear just a few minutes earlier is suddenly everywhere, accompanied by the rhythm of a breeze fluttering back and forth over the landscape.
Inside this forest, many of the birch trees that likely grew in before the pines took over have become degenerating deadfall, scattered across the forest floor or leaning against the rocks, and the rocks … well, they’re just enormous. You’d need a ladder to climb onto most of them; their surface textures range from smooth but finely pitted to rough like sandpaper to something that feels like it was spit from a volcano — but was more likely created by snow and ice and the slow roll of glaciers that molded the Adirondack Mountains. The rocks with flattened tops have given life to their own miniature forests, where ferns, small shrubs, and even tiny trees have taken root.
Some of the pine trees have grown so close to the rocks that the rock surface and the tree trunk are barely separated: you couldn’t fit your hand in the space between the two. That’s the case with this blue-green monster that blocks your view of the river, poised as it is just a few feet from the cliffs that dive about thirty feet almost straight down. It’s striking that rocks this large are so far above the river, that they remained on higher ground while the river carved and deepened its path.
You wonder about the tension between the rock and the tree if the rock shifts and as the tree continues to grow, then you walk around them both to the clifftop and views of the boulders in the river below. The first few steps feel pretty comfortable; the second ones get your legs a little rubbery as the speed of the water flow seems to increase; then you’re just glad you brought a zoom lens.
If you got this far, thanks for reading and taking a look! These photos are among the landscape images I’m reworking; more about that project here: Flickr Reboot. If you would like to see before and after versions of the images that I processed for this post (including two bonus boulders not shown above), select the first photo below to begin a slideshow.
There are two galleries below: the first includes a set of images from a woodland swamp in northern New York, and the second contains the before and after versions of the same images, showing the differences between the original and final versions processed with Lightroom and the Nik Collection.
For the first two images, I tried to emphasize the detail of the beaver cuts on the tree trunks, while still conveying the aged, worn smoothness of those cuts. My approach to the third image was to highlight the pair of trunks topped with moss by adding green saturation and increasing focus and lighting on the trunks to separate them from the background.
With the wider angle images of the swamp, I started by treating them as low-key photographs by significantly darkening the backgrounds. As you can probably imagine from looking at the before images in the second gallery, the gray in the backgrounds — once darkened — would give the scene a heavily shaded, foreboding appearance. Not a bad look overall, and I may still do a set like that. But then I thought it might be interesting to try something else: convert the images from scary-swamp to happy-swamp by intensifying the colors and creating high contrast between the water (and the thick, green algae on the water’s surface) and the twisted deadfall throughout the scenes. The result, I think, suggests a greater sense of standing at the edge of the swamp, with the eye tracking from the greens in each foreground to the depths of the swamp and the trees in the backgrounds. The intensified saturation and contrast also brings out many more colors present in the images that weren’t evident in the original photographs.
I included the last four images from the same area just because I liked them. What photographer can resist a colorful clump of fungus (with a big bug in the middle!), some bright red leaves, and an old Ford truck partly buried in the woods?
Select the first image below to begin a slideshow, then skip to the second gallery if you would like to compare the before and after images.
I figured out a slightly awkward way to extract file names from Flickr albums, put them in a document to create a text list, then copy and paste the list into Lightroom to filter my photo library. By doing that, I found all 1200 original images and have them organized in Lightroom Collections which I’m consolidating by subject, culling to remove images that I don’t want to rework, and adding some newer photos I took but never processed or posted anywhere. To keep the project interesting, I think I’ll take on subjects of a different kind: photos of Oakland Cemetery (because of the art and architecture of the site, the research I’ve done on its history, and the stories I can tell) or Zoo Atlanta (because … animals!), so I’m going to jazz up a couple dozen examples from these two subjects then decide which one to dive into. Stay Tuned!
Select the first image to begin a slideshow …. thanks!