THE SAILBOAT : FINAL VERSION
I'd like you to bear with me this week as I take a deep dive into the creation of just one photograph. The news is so depressing that I have taken refuge in my art, and want to show you, in a limited way, what goes on between pushing the shutter and pushing an image out into the world. I would encourage all of you to try escaping into a hobby, a game, a book, or your own art, in order to cope with the real world outside your head. I realize that many of you have never actually tried to improve a photograph in this way, thinking it is just too hard, or too expensive, or not worth the effort. I want to assure you that all of that is not true, as is the belief that images should come straight out of camera. They never did, and all of the digital techniques I am going to show you had their direct predecessors in the darkroom. The only difference is the lack of toxic chemicals, and the substitution of a computer program cleverly called Lightroom.
I will try to show you some of the steps that led to the final version above. Although some of this might seem pretty anal, I can assure you that I left out many of the steps. In the real world, a lot of art is composed of steps that go back and forth, or even in futile paths that contradict each other, all in the Goldilocks dream of getting it "just right." And some of the usual procedures photographers go through would not register at all at the small scale of these images, so I will mention them while skipping showing those particular stages.
My procedure, or "workflow" for the initiated, is just the way I do it - and anyone who tells you that there is a "right" way to do things is both arrogant and wrong. Everyone develops a different way of doing things, and one of the virtues of both software and art is that there is multiple ways of getting to multiple ends, none of which is wrong, only your choice. In fact, you can always change your mind, so when I label something the "final version" I'm just giving myself an excuse to move on to something else. I frequently decide enough is enough when I show Fran two different versions of an image, she gives them a good looking over, and then rolls her eyes and declares that they are exactly the same. While I "know" the last version is obviously superior, I also know that it is time to stop.
OUT OF CAMERA, ON THE FERRY
This is the original image out-of-camera, taken on the ferry back from the San Juan Islands. I'm kind of kidding myself standing outside on the deck, but not as much as the sailors, and it is a nice day since it's not yet raining. We are heading back to Seattle, and that white mountain on the right that looks no bigger that the hill to the left is in fact Mt. Baker, more than ten times as big and over sixty miles away. I hope you guys are thinking what an ordinary shot, because it is, and can only achieve some higher level with some artistic coaxing.
The first step is to improve the composition through cropping the photograph. I don't take photos for the Times, and I'm not cropping out yet another victim of Kremlin skullduggery. The original vertical framing leaves way too much sky and water, for no apparent reason - the subject is the sailboat. And I have coasters to sell, so a square crop it is.
LEVEL THAT HORIZON, SAILOR!
The next change is to achieve the first goal for almost every landscape image, a level horizon. Unless you want to prove how drunk you were when you took the photo. If the horizon is not level, it better be so out-of-whack that it can show how avant-garde you are, and you will still make your viewers uncomfortable if not queasy.
The next correction is to adjust the white balance of your image. Our eyes and brains are a lot smarter than your camera's, no matter what you might think, so you need to correct the camera's rendition of the light temperature, which might be completely wrong. If you really blow it by leaving it on automatic, you will let your camera ruin every sunset by "correcting" that awful orange glow that attracted you in the first place. And even though we are so used to seeing our interior lighting as warm that we don't notice it, you will probably be better off removing some warmth even after you reacted to the "correct" setting by wondering if everyone was pale from fever. In this case, the overwhelming blue actually fooled the camera into removing some blue, so we put it back - and the white boat and sail is now a little whiter, although they are still too dark.
LIGHTEN THE EXPOSURE
We adjust the exposure, just a little, to brighten things up.
OK , now we are entering subtle territory. I've increased just the highlights in the image, trying to lighten up just the boat, the sail, and the bright portion of the sky. Yes it is subtle, and later you will see how it can be more dramatic in black and white. I've left out some other moves, like making the dark parts of the image darker (this only affected the mast and the crew) and all of the various ways that photographers use to sharpen the photo, which are absolutely necessary for almost every image, but just won't show up at this scale.
Here is a move that works to highlight the subject in a way that is somewhat counter intuitive, like a lot of these adjustments. Photographers have always used filters to affect their images in camera, by placing filters over their lenses to reduce the light, or affect the colors, or with graduated filters to balance the exposure. In landscapes the sky is frequently so much lighter than the land that it is impossible to balance the exposure. Expose to get some detail in the sky like those pretty clouds, and the foreground will be much too dark. Conversely, expose for the land and you will "blow out" the sky. Your photo will now look like a Nineteenth Century shot with a blank white sky because early black and white film stocks couldn't render blue. We pull a dark veil over the upper part of the image - the graduated filters that faded to clear have now been replaced with software exposure adjustments that gradually disapeare in different parts of the image. By making the upper portion of the sky darker, we have"lightened" the light portions of the image and hopefully brought the viewer's attentions back to the boat.
THE SAILBOAT : FINAL VERSION, UNTIL JUST NOW!
Now it might be tempting to further whiten up the boat and the sail, but the problem would be that a color photo can only take so much manipulation before it starts looking a little too "cooked" for my tastes. That is the problem with HDR images, where in the effort to reveal more detail and color in darker parts of a scene, the image becomes unrealistic since we "know" that the world is not lit that way. This is not a wedding photograph, where that dress better be white or the photographer might not get paid. The overall scene is so "blue", that it seems natural that there is an overall blue tint. A whiter boat and sail might look weird.
THE SAILBOAT : FINAL VERSION
Or maybe not. I just changed it again. Subtle, but not as blue, and hopefully realistic. What do you think?
Now we move into black and white imagery, whose original abstraction of the real world seems to allow for far more manipulation.
ORIGINAL BLACK AND WHITE CONVERSION
When you hit the black and white conversion button in Lightroom this is what you get. It's a lot better than just desaturating the color original, because the original color information is still lurking in the black and white. This allows you to manipulate the relationship between the gray tones by only adjusting the exposure of the individual original colors, even if they are now hidden. Black and whites can just look "muddy" or "flat" because the colorful scene we remember has now been rendered into very similar grey tones. The struggle is to get back the abstract contrast in any way you can, since black and whites need contrast to shine. While you might love that blue water, you have got to admit that in some ways the original image was pretty monochromatic, almost all blue. This might actually hinder the conversion to black and white, but let's see. Right now the image is pretty flat and disappointing.
Since, everything was so "blue", adding the software equivalent of a glass blue-colored filter over the lens really doesn't help much. In fact, the lightest and bluest parts of the image have even gotten muddier. Let's regroup.
The most important part of this image will be making sure that our white is white. We manipulate the lighter parts of the image by making them as white as we can without actually blowing out the highlights and losing any detail. We have now achieved a white boat, sail and sky without raising up the exposure in the darker portions of the image. But of course we have, so we now lower the black point, in search of a true black. This will make the photo pop.
You might think it's subtle, but notice how the waves are back, and the trees, the mast and the crew are more defined. The whites are still white.
LOWER THE EXPOSURE
Now we begin to try to highlight the whites by lowering the overall exposure. We might have gone too far, but there's other ways to get some light back in the places we really want it. We are now going to use another kind of graduated filter, whose radial shape can range from a circle to a very oblong oval. Since it is again graduated down to zero, it can be a lot less exact than actually using a "brush" to lighten only parts of the image, but it might come to that. The problem of using a brush is not that is so artistic as to require real technique, but that it must be very subtle and built up slowly so as to avoid detection. The whole point of all of these techniques is to improve the photo without letting anyone else see what you've done.
What I've tried to do here is to raise the exposure of Mt. Baker, the boat, and the sail to further highlight them. I want you to see that white boat, and try to make the sail glow. I have gone too far, but if I lower the overall exposure again, it might all blend together.
NOT AS MUCH "GLOW"
I think I'm getting there. Not so much leakage of the glow around the sail and the boat. The mountain is still too bright.
THE SAILBOAT B&W : FINAL IMAGE
I do believe I've got it, or at least as close as I'm going to get today. The mountain has been calmed down, and I still like the sail and the boat, at least at this size. Obviously, this is all to taste, and feel free to disagree. I always think it is a good idea to go back the next day or the next week and to see if you have perhaps gone too far, since we obviously get very involved with the process. Color versus black and white is also a matter of taste. I think it is clear that the real value of black and white is that it does allow for more manipulation than color, while emphasizing shape and detail and mood. It's colder, choppier and more dramatic, which is what I felt that day on the ferry deck, much less on that little sailboat. And I think that I've come along way from that dull sailboat tossed on crooked sea.