March 04, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

                            EASTSIDE ESPLANADE : FINAL VERSION

This week I'd like to take a deep dive into post-processing one image. I hope to show how important it is to take your time with an image in an effort to improve your out-of-camera results. I have no doubt that almost every image you or I take can be improved immensely in just a few steps with some attention in post-processing. And this can go double for those images which you might have ignored in their original form. In my latest foray into my archives, I discovered this image I snapped Pre-Covid on a walk on the Eastside Esplanade, a highfalutin name we have for a walking path on the East Bank of the Willamette, stuck on a tiny sliver of land between the river and a freeway. Despite its location, it somehow works as part of a three-mile loop downtown, albeit a noisy one. This image shows the most romantic part of the journey, a boardwalk that juts into the river to avoid some train tracks (!) that had first claim on this portion of the river bank. The row of pre-rusted Corten steel piers show how far the floating boardwalk can rise or fall depending on the height of the river.


Here is the original overlooked snapshot from 2019. The crop is all wrong, as is the color balance and the exposure. But as I looked through the very small icons of the dozens of shots I took that day, I was intrigued by the several loops of curves that floated through the image. It is very useful to view your images at very small sizes, both to divorce them from their "subjects" and to see if any more important compositional aspects can grab your attention. I know photographers who make a pass through images after first de-saturating them, or even viewing them upside down, so that they are just looking at lines, or shapes, or tones, or negative spaces. If something grabs you at a very small size, there is a good chance that you can find something compelling at full size.

                            EASTSIDE ESPLANADE : FIRST SQUARE CROP

So I noticed those three or four or five curves floating through the image, and realized how much stronger they would appear without the wasted space to the left and right. The curves included the boardwalk rail on the right, the boardwalk itself,  and the line of piers, especially their tops. Secondary curves included the two segments of freeway above and to the right, and the roof of the Rose Garden Arena beyond the river. The question became where the square should be placed. I had to include the tops of the piers, but how many were necessary?

                           EASTSIDE ESPLANADE :  PIVOT RIGHT

I first tried to pivot right, to ignore the Rose Garden andto include more of the lower freeway curve on the right. But there is clearly not enough breathing room on the left, so I then pivoted left to lose what I thought was the distraction of the Convention Center tower on the right.

                            GOLDILOCKS : FINAL SQUARE CROP

You have got to learn to look closely at the edges of your frame, even if you didn't look closely enough in-camera. My final decision was based on losing all of the right freeway curve to include all of the Rose Garden roof, and more importantly not to cut the boardwalk bench on the left. Just like portraits, where you have got to pay attention to amputating limbs, landscape photographers must pay attention to disconcerting distractions at the edge of the frame.

                            WHITE BALANCE REVISIONS

Light has color, which our brain subtly understands and interprets so that we can exist in the world and not get eaten by the saber-tooth tiger. Our cameras, although technological miracles, are still not as smart as our brains. The digital sensor, like film before it, is much too literal for the real world. It actually pays attention to the exact color temperature of the scene, or more frequently doesn't show the same latitude as our brains in adjusting to changing light. The image has now been "corrected" for color, and the auto setting, frequently a disaster, has not done too bad a job here. While the result might be a little too warm for Portland reality, it is clearly much closer to the truth than the original which was way too blue - notice the top of the piers, which are now white. The clouds are now white as well, even though the sky has reverted to grey instead of its false blue overtones.

                            BLACK POINT

Things will start to get more subtle from here on in. In many ways the most important thing about post-processing is to manipulate your image, and improve it, without letting your viewers in on the secret. Like a magician, viewers want to be amazed, even deceived, as long as they don't notice the sleight of hand. Here I have lowered the black point, which forces more of the darker tones toward pure black. Viewers perceive this as a richer image. They think you've made it more saturated, even though you haven't touched the saturation slider. While the deeper tones have shifted, the mid-tones and lighter tones have not been touched. In general, the more you move away from "global" changes which affect the entire image towards more and more selective changes, the more you can change while keeping the illusion of subtlety.

                           LIGHTEN THE SHADOWS

Sometimes you can even feel that you are at cross-purposes in the pursuit of Goldilocks. I've just darkened some potions of the image. and now I lighten it back up. But I've lightened the shadows, which are different than the darkest part of the image down at the black point. Obviously everything overlaps to some extent, and the boardwalk has clearly gotten lighter. More importantly, the piers have now emerged more strongly as several shades of orange rather than dull brown.                             GRADUATED FILTER

Landscape photographers, even of the urban variety like myself, frequently have to deal with problems in the sky. Skies, even in Portland, are much brighter than the rest of the world around us. Our brains adjust, but our cameras don't. Thus the sky is frequently much too light in comparison with our subjects below it, and the image is out of balance. In the past, photographers would place graduated filters over their camera lenses, kind of like bifocal sunglasses which would gradually go from dark at the top to clear at the bottom. We can do the same thing now on the computer. Here I've lowered the exposure in the sky by one full stop, so there is now much more detail in the clouds. Again it's subtle, because if I went too far you would notice and not believe.

                           ADD A VIGNETTE

We are now almost finished, at least for today. As I've said before, a good strategy sometimes is to present two versions to a bystander to see if they can see the result of your incredible efforts. If a sane person like Fran is confounded by her confrontation with two images which "are exactly the same!", then maybe you've reached a point of diminishing returns. Here I've added a "vignette", a hopefully subtle darkening of the edges of the photograph. You can see it in the bottom of the boardwalk and the top of the sky. What is funny is that vignetting is frequently cited as a fault of less-than-stellar camera lenses, but that photographers will gladly do it themselves, thank you. The theory is that the viewer will be attracted most by the lightest part of a scene. Thus if you can subtley  darken the edges, the viewer's attention will now be drawn to the comparitive brightness at the center where you wanted them to look! Oh, the webs we weave. Of course, if one goes too far, the viewer will wonder if you took the photo through a periscope on a submarine.

                            EASTSIDE ESPLANADE : B&W FINAL VERSION

Now we reach for the abstraction of black and white. What can we achieve by eliminating color entirely from the equation? Remember, I was really concerned with those flying curves, not the color of the boardwalk, or the trees, or the river. While I didn't really care about the colors, I do miss the orange piers, but I really like orange. The green trees, and especially the green highway signs, which I now hate so much that I want to get rid of them from the color version as "distractions", are not missed at all. My curves are still there, and I do like the sky, but the tops of the piers have lost a certain amount of contrast with the rest of the piers. It is clearly a matter of taste.

You will have to trust me that this final black and white version is also a lot better than the original conversion to grayscale. While I am getting better with the On One software, I still can't figure out how to save steps to show the process. I started off with the "Paparazzi" preset, which is even funnier than its name. These presets, unlike Instagram filters, are just a starting point, because all the changes are revealed in the usual sliders, and you can change them and reduce the settings to your heart's content, which is usually a very good thing. "Paparazzi" applied a red filter, darkening the blues, but less so than my usual choices like "Machinist" or "Ansel in the Valley". Don't ask. In any case I added four more filters to varying degrees. Dynamic Contrast is a very good algorithm that just heightens mid-tone contrast while leaving everything else alone. The "Sunshine" filter adds a little glow of missing Portland sunshine to the scene. Sharpening and Vignette supply the finishing touches. A very important control that On One adds to its software is that you can select which parts of the photo will be affected by these filters with tools that can work much faster and more exactly than any brush you might wield yourself. The 'luminosity' control allowed me to use these filters just on the darkest portions of the image, so that the sky and the river were not affected at all. Controls like these allow for much more control in the digital darkroom, without that bitter chemical aftertaste.

I hope that you have enjoyed seeing how this photographer "makes" a photograph as well as "takes" a shot. It might not be important considering the news of the day, but we must do our best to at least keep us sane in this crazy world.