MY INITIAL INTERPRETATION - MAYBE A BIT MOODY? OR JUST DARK?
This week I would like to take you through a short round of post-processing of one individual image. This exercise might let you explore the method to my madness, and see how you too can explore alternatives of your own images. There is nothing extraordinary involved, no secret tips or diabolical methods - just a standard set of responses to one landscape image. There is no guarantee that you will agree with my "workflow", the unromantic name photographers apply to their usual method of working with images. I prefer a more exploratory "a little of this, a little of that" which seems to better capture the spirit of fun that should accompany an artistic pursuit. When combined with the "Goldilocks Theory" that one seeks a happy medium after exploring the extremes, these post-processing journeys can yield some fascinating results. Yet there is no guarantee that you, or even I, will see an unalterable progression to the "best" rendition of an image. Art is a very subjective matter, and we can have different opinions, and even change our minds from day to day. I often follow the advice that you should sleep on the "final" image because the next day will find you realizing that you went too far. On the other hand, when I show Fran the last two versions of my latest photographic search for truth, and she declares confidently that there is no discernible difference between the two versions, maybe it is time to call it a day. Even though I know that the last one is the best, I have reached a point of diminishing returns. Until tomorrow.
THAT CERTAINLY BRIGHTENED THINGS UP - BUT WHAT THAT THING ABOVE THE WATERFALL?
It is interesting to me that this is one of the few photographs in my archives that i have so misplaced that I have no idea where and when it was first captured. It is a waterfall, it is most likely in the Pacific Northwest, but the rest of the story is a mystery. In some ways this makes this "alternative exercise" easier, since it's hard to have an emotional prejudice about the direction an image should go if you have no memory of it beyond that you must have taken it because it is in your disorganized archive. Thus the emotional desire to "get it right" is naturally very low, and I can be more open to experimentation since the stakes are not very high.
THE DARK FOREST
The first image is my initial take on the capture. I of course have lost the original file, so you'll have to take my word for it that I haven't eliminated any mass murders or surface parking lots just to the left of the image. I cropped just to eliminate some white to the right due to imprecise scanning of the original, but the basic 2/3 ratio0 has been kept. I warmed up the white balance a bit to adjust to the overwhelmingly green Northwest forest. As usual I deepened the blacks, and opened up the whites to achieve some more contrast. In order to control the bright waterfall I lowered the overall exposure. After the usual sharpening, I made a few more subtle moves to get to a pretty dark woodland interpretation that would emphasize the waterfall, the obvious subject.
NOT NEARLY AS SCARY , BUT THEN YOU SEE THAT THING ABOVE THE WATERFALL
So far so good, but upon further reflection I immediately started to lighten things up. I went for a more neutral stance that would seek to grab much more detail at maybe the expense of mood. I needed to protect those highlights in the water, but I found that I could open up the shadows considerably without either ruining the waterfall or lightening up the scene so much that I would just get to "blah." There was a lot of detail hidden in those woods, which was great, but opening up the exposure also revealed some problems that had been nicely hidden in the murk, as well as some opportunities. The two skinny birches on the left now called for some extra attention since I could finally see that they had something to offer. But the large area of leaves on the right was now bright enough that you could see they were not really in focus, and needed much more sharpening. Worst was a large artifact resembling a huge fish that seemed to hover over the waterfall now that that area was not just black. Once you make some initial moves you frequently have to deal with unexpected results that are now revealed, and usually require a little more finicky post-processing.
THANK GOD HE'S GONE, AND THE BIRCHES AND THE LEAVES ARE SHARPER
This was pretty successful, but I then decided that maybe that entire mass of green on the right was best corrected by just cropping it out. Sometimes the best solution is to just to get rid of the problem, since one of the most powerful superpowers photographer possess is that we get to frame reality. The waterfall is now larger, but maybe it is too close to the center. I now experimented with a square crop, which my "coaster overlord" always at least suggests, but I found that I liked the longer run of the river allowed by the vertical orientation. I also liked the view up the gorge, which showed a touch of sky without competing with the waterfall. So I stayed away from the square.
BUT MAYBE THE SOLUTION ON THE RIGHT IS TO JUST ELIMINATE THE RIGHT!
It was now time to try black and white. Woodland images are largely monochromatic anyway, with green substituting for gray, so it is a natural progression for photographers to see what black and white will reveal. This is usually a hell of a lot of detail and texture and subtlety of tones once color is stripped away. Since this scene does have a lot of detail, it responded very well to a black and white rendition. I think that my initial take most closely resembles a pen and ink drawing, since the lines are much more present than the tonal areas.
BLACK AND WHITE REVEALS DETAIL AS IT ELIMINATES COLOR
The move to black and white also allowed me to ignore the upper gorge since its warm color was gone, and brought more unwanted attention to the unsharp leaves in the foreground. The square crop thus reasserted itself, and the two birches on the left became even more important to me.
THE COASTER REVEALS ITSELF IN BLACK AND WHITE
Finally, and I say that loosely, the ability of black and white to render more extreme highs and lows in exposure while appearing more realistic than color images moved me back towards a darker interpretation. Since I could allow the waterfall, the birches, and especially the river to get brighter without losing all of the details, I could conversely allow the woods to darken up again. The image is now really about the bright stream in the dark woods.
BACK TO THE FUTURE WITH A MOODIER BLACK AND WHITE
You could say that maybe this journey has been a circular one back to square one, but I for one have gained a lot of insight into the scene and feel that my later interpretations reveal more about my feelings about this woodland, stream and waterfall than my initial stabs at the subject. I hope that I have shown you that landscape photography is much more about interpretation than documentation. I happened upon a scene, went "wow!" , and it is now my job and hope that I can somehow communicate that "wow" and maybe make you feel it too.
MY FAVORITE, BUT YOUR MILEAGE MIGHT VARY, AND THAT'S A GOOD THING