Thursday, March 22, 2012

Lessons from the Project, Pt. 1

As some of you know, I've been working on a project since September wherein I take at least one photo every day for a year. It's called the 366 Photos project, and we're currently at day 198. However, I thought I'd share a few of the lessons learned so far. There are a dozen that I've recorded, and and will share more over time, but we'll start with the first three. All the example photos are B&W, but that's just the way it worked out.

1. You won't become a good photographer on the weekends.
Photography requires lots of practice for many reasons: to learn how to use your camera without having to think about it; to learn what constitutes good composition; to understand exposure and how to bend it to your will; to develop your own style; to discover what photographs move you so you can create more of them. To this end, you need to do as much of it as possible, so make sure you make the time to create photographs on the weekdays, not just the weekends. I'm proof that it's possible, having done it for every day for over half a year. It's hard for myself to fathom how much I've improved my skills so far on this project. You'll find your own improvement amazing, too.

This photo was taken on a Wednesday evening. You really can get good photos on weekdays :)

2. You can take photos more than once a day.

When the project first started (and still, on some of my busier days), I would complete my required photograph for the day, then feeling relieved that it was done and I could relax a bit. However, this can sometimes lead to missed opportunities if you then turn off the photographic part of your brain. When I realized this, I started keeping my eyes open for photos all the time, even after I had completed the photo for the day. As a result, I have been out to shoot photographs up to 3 different times during the same day. I now tend to think of the day as a continuum of opportunity, rather than planning a single outing or photo session. I've caught some excellent photos the second or third time I was out during a given day that I would have otherwise missed.

This was taken during a second photo session for the day.

3. A photograph starts with a concept, but its success or failure lies in the details.
During the project, I've had many ideas for interesting photographs. I get all enthusiastic about them, and excited to create the image based on the concept. During the early days of the project, I'd take some of those photos, and find myself disappointed in the result. It didn't take long after some analysis to realize that there were some details that would have made the photograph more successful had I paid more attention. Make sure the composition is just how you want it, pay careful attention to the lighting, double-check that you're getting the depth of field that you want, make sure your shutter speed is high enough to create the level of sharpness you want, select the correct lens for the effect you want (wide angle for intentional distortion or interesting closeup effects, telephoto to flatten the apparent depth, etc.). I've found that, where possible, it's extremely helpful to review the photos you've taken on the computer before you complete your session. When I do this, I often spot some flaws, like a lack of depth of field, or too much dust, or slightly incorrect lighting, or a stray element that distracts from the composition. This allows me to re-shoot those compositions, correcting the problems before I'm done. So make sure that once your concept is in place, that the details support your concept and bring it to life. It can make a huge difference.

Several versions of this photo were taken, reviewed, and then re-shot because guitar and musician positions were not quite right, and the lighting was not quite centered properly. The result is a significantly better photo.

Thanks for reading. Three new lessons on the next posting. Feel free to share your thoughts and favorite lessons that you've learned.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Basic Photo Processing

Hi everyone. Recently I've been asked questions like, "How do you get your pictures so clear and sharp?" So I thought I'd answer it. Mind you, it's a question with a long answer, but hopefully useful. It assumes the use of Photoshop, though you can use equivalent tools in other software.

To start with, let's select a photo as-shot, with no processing, either in our out of the camera. This means that the image was shot in the raw format, instead of JPG. This is the first step. It is not possible to do much processing on JPG images, as the format has already discarded a lot of the information we need to improve the photo. Here is our example image we'll start with in the raw format right out of the camera:

So what's wrong with it? A lot, actually:

  • Too light: it may be a little overexposed
  • Looks flat: there is very little contrast
  • Lifeless colors: not very bright are they?
  • A little on the dull side: it needs sharpening

We can take care of a lot of the contrast and color range problems with the Curves adjustments in Photoshop. Take a look at the photo above and notice that the blacks in there aren't very black. The whites are fine, they're nice and bright, though the clouds seem to lack detail (the detail is still there - we just need to bring it out). We will use the Curves dialog to tell Photoshop to make the darkest parts of the image black, which will also darken the rest of the image proportionally as well. Here's what the Curves dialog looks like before any adjustments (access the dialog using Ctrl+M):

The histogram in the middle of the box (the gray chart) represents color information in the image. Darkest colors are on the left, and lightest on the right. Notice along the bottom a large gap between the left edge, representing black, and the start of the color data. This means that black isn't really black. The same would hold true for the right side: if there was a gap between the data and the right side of the graph, it means the whites aren't really white. Our photo does not have that problem: The color information goes all they way to the right edge.

So what do we do about it? See the little black triangle under the chart at the bottom left corner? Use your mouse to drag it over to the point where the color information begins on the left. You're telling Photoshop to change the value it sees as black, and making it the same as the actual darkest point on the photo.

In addition, you'll notice the diagonal line through the histogram. You can use this to adjust colors. You can click anywhere on the line to create a new point that you can move around. For example if you click in the middle of the line you can adjust the midtones in the photo. If you drag the point up, it makes the midtones lighter. Drag it down, it makes them darker.

Click a point on the line about half an inch down and right from the upper-left corner and leave it there. We're doing this because we don't want the bright colors to change, and this point will keep the line in place. Now click another point about half an inch up and right from the lower-left corner. We're going to drag this point down just a little bit so we can darken the shadows in the photo. This is what it should look like when you're done:

The resulting photos should now look something like this:

We've already vastly improved the photo! Our shadows are darker, there's more contrast, and our colors are better (less washed out). So why bother with anything else? What else is there to do? Well, we're going to brighten our colors just a tiny bit more. Many people use the Saturation setting, but this can very easily over-saturate the colors in your photo.

The Photoshop Vibrance adjustment is what we want. It's more subtle, and works primarily on the midtones of the photo, instead of the whole thing. It's a simple slider. Access the Vibrance option from the Images/Adjustments menu. I set it to about +35, and got the following result (there's not a lot of difference, but it does add a subtle edge to it):

Lastly, we need to sharpen up the photo. Should we use the Sharpen filter? No! This filter is almost always too harsh, and gives you no control over the process. We'll use the unfortunately named Unsharp Mask filter. It actually does sharpening, and gives us more control over how much and what gets sharpened. Open the dialog by selecting the Unsharp Mask option from the Filter/Sharpen menu. It looks like this:

There are 3 settings to work with here: Amount, Radius, and Threshold. Start with Amount since it's the most obvious. The larger the number, the more sharpening that is applied. It works by looking for edges in the photos and sharpening them up. Drag the slider back and forth, watching the preview until it shows the amount of sharpening you want. This will vary from photo to photo.

The next setting is Radius. The higher the number, the more it sharpens around the edges the filter looks for in your photo, and the more obvious the sharpening looks. Usually a value between 1 and 2 is good, but drag the slider back and forth to see how it looks. Larger numbers make a more obvious sharpening effect.

The Threshold value tells Photoshop what defines an edge in your photo. Lower numbers mean that Photoshop will find more edges in your photo, and treat smaller variations from pixel to pixel as an edge. In effect, smaller numbers cause more sharpening. A value of 0 means sharpen every pixel in the photo. I usually don't use a value lower than 1, and often use higher values to prevent over-sharpening. As with the other settings, drag the slider back and forth to see what looks good for your particular photo.

I used the following values:

  • Amount: 75
  • Radius: 1.2
  • Threshold: 2

My biggest single recommendation with sharpening: don't overdo it. It will be tempting to sharpen a lot, but don't, or it will look over-processed and unnatural. Here's how our photo looks now, and it's pretty much done:

And lastly, let's take a look at what we started with and what we ended up with. Here's a version of the photo with the after version superimposed on the before version:

Now that we're done, let's have a little more fun and make a black and white version of this photo. There are plenty of ways to do this, but we'll use my favorite: the Photoshop Black and White adjustment. Access this feature by pressing Ctrl+Alt+Shift+B (a crazy shortcut, but there it is). It's also on the Image/Adjustments menu. The dialog looks like this:

They way this dialog works is that it lets you lighten or darken selected parts of your image, based on the colors that were there before it was black and white. For example, dragging the Blues slider to the right with lighten anything in the image that was originally blue, and dragging it to the left will darken anything that used to be blue. Same for the other color sliders. Here's what the photo looks like before making any adjustments:

I darkened the blues, cyans, and greens to darken the sky, and lightened the reds and yellows to brighten up the rock. The result looks very different from the original:

Note that the conversion to black and white is a very subjective process, and this is just one of many interpretations for this photo.

So you've seen some of the standard processing steps I tend to use for most photos. Over time you learn what works and what doesn't, and you get a good feel for when to use a step and exactly how to adjust it to meet your needs. As a final bit of advice, I recommend playing around a lot and see what all your options are and how the various Photoshop adjustments work. The more you do, the more you understand your available options.

Good luck and good night :)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Just Because

Not all your photography has to be planned, preconceived, thought-out, loaded with irony, angst-laden, or created as a commentary on the socio-political landscape. While these photos certainly have their place, you can also create images that are simply there because they're pretty. If you see something you like, capture it!

Photos like this can be highly liberating - they're easier to create because you're doing something you like, and because you're responding to something that strikes you emotionally. Example: I was wandering around a local park, and the sky was gorgeous - full of dramatic clouds and excellent light. I stopped and took about 50 photos in a matter of 20 minutes. It didn't take any planning, only enough experience and skill to be able to create a decent photograph from a beautiful scene. I caught myself smiling through the whole process.

As Bryan Peterson once told me, appreciate not only simplicity in a photo, but also the sometimes simple act of creating it.

So go take some pretty pictures. It will feel like vacation :)

From my afternoon at the park:

Nikon D300s, Tamron 10-20mm f/4, 1/1000 sec, f/16, ISO 200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, curves, vibrance

Nikon D300s, Tamron 10-20mm f/4, 1/320 sec, f/16, ISO 200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, curves, vibrance

Friday, September 23, 2011

Creative Photography

The 366 Photos project is starting to have an effect. I've used up a lot of my old photography tricks, and am now being forced to think outside them, looking elsewhere for inspiration.

I started thinking about an issue many photographers talk about: is is right or ethical to stage a photo? People do it all the time, but how far can you go? I believe most of their objections lie in the area of trying to pass off a staged or edited photo as an un-retouched or natural image, and where the line should be drawn.

My personal belief lies in the area of intent. If you are trying to fool someone into thinking something false is true, this is the same as a lie. However, people stage photos all the time with no nefarious intent. Most portraits are staged, for example. The photographer is not trying to make you think it wasn't. Some portraits are staged, yet made to look more natural or candid. The photographer is often leaving the interpretation open to the viewer. Candid? Not? You decide.

In the end, photographers are almost always just trying to create compelling imagery. Their intent is rarely to deceive for immoral reasons (outside the areas of questionable journalism, anyway). When you approach photography in this way, you get into the realm of Creative Photography, which I'm just discovering can be a lot of fun. It takes a little while to open your brain to more possibilities, but when it gets there, you can create some fun and absorbing photographs.

I created the following image yesterday as part of my daily effort to stick to the 366 Photos project. I decided to think more along the lines of creative photography, rather than just capturing something that I saw. Yes, I staged the photo. But it is just a photo. There was no compositing or crazy editing in Photoshop. So it is still all photography. And it was a great deal of fun to create. Watch for more photographs from me in this vein - I'm hooked.

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, 1/5 sec, f/3.5, ISO 200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, curves

Sunday, September 18, 2011

More from the 366 Photos Project

How many ways will I be able to say "another photo from the 366 Photos Project"? We're on day 12, and still have 354 days to go. I'll have to get creative.

I rather like how this one turned out. One thing I'm realizing is that you can get a lot of good photos, and become a better photographer, really quite quickly if you stick with it for an extended period of time. Hope this trend keeps up!

Nikon D300s, Tamron 90mm Macro f/2.8, 1/60 sec, f/3.8, ISO 200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Photography = Happiness

I was having a discussion with one of my photographer friends recently, and he had shown me some photos he shot on vacation, from which he had just returned. He showed me a few, which were all excellent. Then he got to another photograph, and while also an outstanding image, he said it actually made him happy.

This photograph made him happy to look at, happy to have created it, and happy to share with others. Sometimes we create images that stand out so much, for any number of reasons, that they actually have the power to make you happy, more so than others of equal quality. You look at these photos, and for you, the photographer that created it, really hit home. They make the endorphins fire faster and more freely than other photographs.

The reason this is important, beyond the fact that happiness is good, is that these are the photographs we should pay the most attention to, think more carefully about why we like them. If you have a good grasp of how to make more photos like these, we can create more of them, drastically improve the enjoyment of our photography, and overall, achieve a lot more happiness.

And it's quite possible that our happiness can be infectious. If you love these photographs so much, then perhaps other viewers will also love them. So pay attention to those photographs that make you especially happy.

I was in downtown Washington, D.C. yesterday for most of the day, and came home with this shot, which like the one my pal shot, made me quite happy. When I saw it, I actually smiled outright for several minutes. So pick up your camera and make some happiness :)

Nikon D300s, Nikon 50mm f/1.4, 1/4000 sec, f/3.2, ISO 200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, curves, b&w

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Another day in the 366 Photos project

We're up to day 7 in the "at least one photo each day for a year" project. Here's the photo I came up with today after coming home from work.

I kinda like it.

Nikon D300s, Nikon 50mm f/1.4, 0.3 sec, f/4.5, ISO 200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, curves, b&w

Saturday, September 10, 2011

It's been a while...

...but here's the latest project.

On Sept. 7, I started a project with some friends whereby we all take at least one photo a day for a year. Insane? Impossible? No idea, so we're going to try it and see. But why? Why put ourselves through this?

The purpose of the project is multi-fold:

  • Keep the activity of photography in our minds all the time, so we can stay focused on it.
  • Force ourselves to do something creative each day; help keep the creative edge sharp. Already discovered a new technique for outdoor B&W.
  • End up with lots of photos. It's already working.

It's called the 366 Photos project. Here's a sample of what's been done so far. I'll occasionally post samples from the project here. You can see the whole pile, what's been done so far and what will be done in the future, at my Flickr account:

Tony Martin Photography Flickr Photostream

I would like to take a moment to encourage everyone to engage in a project like this. There are many variations on a project like this that you can make up for yourself, such as doing a year of self-portraits. And get some friends involved. It's much easier to complete a project like this with support.

From the 366 Photos project:

Nikon D300s, Nikon 18-200mm VR f/3.5-5.6, 1/160 sec, f/18.0, ISO 200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, curves, b&w

Sunday, March 7, 2010

photo of the day no. 37

A few nice colors for a Nice Day. And while you're at it, check out the song Nice Day by Persphone's Bees.

Nikon D300s, Nikon 18-200mm VR f/3.5-5.6, 1/25 sec, f/9.0, ISO200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, curves

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Winter Wonderland

OK, I will admit it. After today, I dislike the snow and winter a little bit less. Went out into the woods to create photographs with a good friend, and we had a great time! Got a bunch of good photos, too. I don't usually post this many photos at once, but it was a good day :)

Nikon D300s, Nikon 18-200mm VR, 1/200 sec, f/9, ISO200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, curves

Nikon D300s, Nikon 18-200mm VR, 1/2000 sec, f/8, ISO200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, curves

Nikon D300s, Nikon 18-200mm VR, 1/200 sec, f/9, ISO200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, curves

Nikon D300s, Nikon 18-200mm VR, 1/400 sec, f/6.3, ISO200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, curves

Nikon D300s, Nikon 18-200mm VR, 1/250 sec, f/9, ISO200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, curves

Nikon D300s, Nikon 18-200mm VR, 1/320 sec, f/9, ISO200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, levels

Nikon D300s, Nikon 18-200mm VR, 1/200 sec, f/9, ISO200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, curves

Nikon D300s, Nikon 18-200mm VR, 1/200 sec, f/9, ISO200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, curves

Nikon D300s, Nikon 18-200mm VR, 1/320 sec, f/9, ISO200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, curves

Nikon D300s, Nikon 18-200mm VR, 1/250 sec, f/9, ISO200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, curves

Nikon D300s, Nikon 18-200mm VR, 1/1250 sec, f/8, ISO200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, curves

Nikon D300s, Nikon 18-200mm VR, 1/100 sec, f/9, ISO200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, curves

Nikon D300s, Nikon 18-200mm VR, 1/160 sec, f/9, ISO200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, curves

Nikon D300s, Nikon 18-200mm VR, 1/500 sec, f/5.6, ISO200
Adjustments: size, unsharp mask, curves