SAN JUANS NOCTURNAL SCENE
This week I would like to discuss just three images that I discovered on yet another recent trip through my archives. These forays are usually an uncertain effort to save more images that I lose in rationalizing the organization of thousands of images from the past forty years. As they say in the Naked City, these are just a few of their stories.
The first image is a moody landscape across the cove taken from the extravagant porch of a vacation rental a few miles from Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. We stayed there for ten days, and I captured many versions of this scene. I had just purchased a new tripod, and spent many early evenings experimenting with capturing photographs that were essentially taken in the dark. The exposures allowed by the tripod allowed the camera lens to gather in so much light that the darkness of twilight could reveal shapes and colors hidden to the naked eye. In some ways these are mystery images since the photographer often does not even truly see what is in the frame, just a memory of what was there a half hour before. The tripod allows exposures of several seconds to several minutes, all of which would be impossible to hand-hold.
What is interesting is that because I didn't really see what I was "seeing", it allows for an even broader interpretation of the scene once the camera reveals what was "there." It's so hard to say what you really saw that it is hard to discount a subsequent interpretation as "unrealistic." The moon was certainly out, the sea was very calm, and the derelict fishing plant and pier were certainly reflected in the water. But while the overall blue tint of twilight was apparent to my naked eye, the richness of the blues and the gradations of purples were only caught by the camera.
This is the original scene caught by the sensor. The camera has already rendered the scene lighter than reality, as shown by the brightness of the moon, complete with its reflection, which was not perceived anywhere near as bright from off the balcony. There are no lights on in the building - the lights in the windows are caused by the same setting sun that is lighting the moon above.
The first thing to do is to crop the scene to a square to get rid of the boring sky above the moon. Fortunately the square crop still allows for both the moon and its reflection to stay in the frame. In order to maintain any degree of integrity as a landscape photographer, i then straightened the horizon by following the water line at the island opposite my location.
Any post-processing beyond these initial moves are a subjective matter of interpretation. One could certainly hold the opinion that I have overemphasized the blue and purple tones, except for the fact that they were all there in the original. Their power was revealed not by the saturation slider, but by merely raising the shadows to reveal more details in the ruins. I think I successfully resisted raising the exposure too much, a natural tendency which spoils the reality of how dark the scene really was - you don't want to replace night with day. In looking at the history of my post-processing, I actually subtly lowered the overall exposure, raised the shadows and the white point, and drastically lowered the highlights to keep the moon in check. Most of the blue shift was the result of correcting the overall white balance, which operator error had allowed to be "daylight" which it obviously wasn't at the time. I then raised the brightness values of the "blues" in the scene, which of course raised the exposure since the only color thaty wasn't mostly blue was black. Lightroom's new Dehaze filter increased detail by cutting through the haze which in this scene was mostly just darkness.
UPON FURTHER REFLECTION
I frequently tell my students to let things lie overnight so that you can look at your image with refreshed eyes and see where you might have gone too far. While writing this essay I decided to revisit the "after" image and to lessen the "realistic" blue tint in the one place that it bothered me - the fish house ruin. Using the masking tool, I adjusted the white balance, the exposure, and the saturation of just the warehouse to render it far closer to gray. It is still a cool gray to be sure, but it is not blue, and now looks more realistic to me, despite what the computer might think. I also added a little sharpness to the warehouse wall, which might not show up at this enlargement size. These are the only changes between the first image and the third. You can certainly disagree with my interpretation, but just remember that this image was captured essentially in the dark.
SPACE NEEDLE DETAIL
This next photo was much more straightforward. It is another example of my tendency to capture snippets of things rather than the whole. This certainly allows me to concentrate on the details that are important to me at the risk of losing so much context that a typical viewer might not know what they are looking at. Unless you are a resident of the Pacific Northwest, you would be forgiven if you didn't immediately realize that this was a portion of the Space Needle in Seattle.
ANAL SPACE NEEDLE DETAIL
You also might be forgiven if you are not bowled over by efforts to "improve" this image in post-processing, but remember that I am an anal retired architect, and that it is my image and not yours. It was important to me, and maybe to no one else to do a few subtle things to the image. I couldn't crop to a square as is my usual wo0nt, but I could crop to eliminate those pesky violations of my inner circle at the outer borders on the upper edge. I also straightened the verticals at the center of the tower and placed them in the exact center of the image. Big deal. More to the point, I raised the whites, lowered the blacks to make the initial grays black, and then darkened the remaining shadows to make the image more graphic than realistic. I resisted the urge to convert to black and white out of maybe an undo fascination with the orange lights in the center of the tower.
BLACK AND WHITE SPACE NEEDLE DETAIL
I know that I really do like orange, but I converted to black and white anyway. Black and white allowed me to further deepen the real blacks and to further darken the shadows to up the graphic nature of the image. I utilized Lightroom's new "Texture" tool to bring out the joints, dirt, and discolorations in the lighter portion of the tower to return a note of realism to the image.
A few years ago I attended an art exhibit at the Portland Art Museum that explored the art of classic auto design. While the vintage cars were certainly beautiful, the exhibit was really an excuse for auto enthusiasts and photographers to salivate over the possibility of capturing images of this incredibly sexy sheet metal. In addition to the usual classic car suspects, and the always embarrassing "forgotten years" of Mercedes models, there were cars exhibited that i had never even heard of, much less seen in the flesh.
Taking images of automobiles, classic or not is very hard. It is one of the subjects that separates artists like me from photographers who actually know what they are doing. Automobiles are such a specialty that certain photographers make an entire career of the subject, whether for advertisers or classic car owners who will pay really good money for a portrait of their automotive children. To say that a packed museum exhibition was not a good venue would be an understatement. The white balance of the museum lighting was so wrong that even a person who didn't even understand that light has "color" would realize that something was terribly wrong. It was very hard to take a photograph that didn't include other museum goers. The cars were so polished that it was even hard not to include your own reflections in the image. Overall views of any car were impossible unless you were in the market to show an image of the exhibit itself for the museum brochure. It is easy to see why there are special studios and lighting for automotive imaging, as well as trips to national parks and deserted roads for suitable backgrounds.
I tried to make the best of the situation, and this image was characteristic of what I achieved in the museum. I needed to straighten the image, crop it further to eliminate messy details at the edges of the frame, and to make some sense of the color balance - I swore the car was silver rather than the gold the camera rendered.
STRAIGHTEN UP AND FLY RIGHT
The "real" Graham is now revealed. I have never heard of Graham either. Yet you've got to love all of those vertical and horizontal vents on one small portion of a vintage nose, and while you might not agree, it certainly seems time to grab the old fedora and go for a drive with your gal. Cue up the score from Guys and Dolls!
I hope that you have enjoyed another short journey into the archives, and I encourage you to see if you can discover any forgotten gems in your own photo folder. You might be surprised at what you have overlooked and the images that can be coaxed out with your post-processing skills.