May 05, 2023  •  Leave a Comment


This week I would like to illustrate the power of post-processing by journeying back twenty-five years(!) to my last visit to Crater Lake. I can't believe it has been that long, and I have never felt that the photos I took there were any good at all. It's one of the few subjects that even I concede probably requires a wide-angle lens, which I didn't own then and don't own now - it just doesn't match the way I view the world. But another recent dip into my archives found that while I certainly didn't take any world-shattering images, there were a few that weren't half-bad, especially after I used some of my hard-earned Lightroom skills to bring out there hidden potential.

Fran and I have been watching a lot of basketball lately during the Playoffs, and by my estimation the most demoralizing play during a game has to be yet another offensive rebound. The soul-crushing "second-chance shot" seems to be worth much more than another two points, since by all that is good and holy it shouldn't have occurred in the first place! But my second-chance photographic shots, like the several that I will show here, occupy a much more optimistic realm. The power of digital photography allows a photographer like me, and you, the chance to improve on an effort, even twenty years after the fact. Advancements in technology, and more important, our skills in using it, allow us to get closer to our original artistic visions that fell victim to the one-hour photo booth of yesteryear. In this essay I will show you my original shots, something I rarely do out of shear embarrassment. I do that here to illustrate the difference between a snapshot and an image. Try not to be depressed by your initial effort. While making every effort to improve your output in camera, it is important to realize that most images only emerge after some work after-the-fact in the computer, or in the old days, in the darkroom. Anyone who says different is probably lying, works for the New York Times where such efforts are verbotten, or is just too ignorant to realize how they might improve their images in post-production.


The original snapshot is not horrible, but it certainly is very flat. I was actually shocked that I had achieved my minimum standard for what I consider in a Crater Lake shot, having literally seen thousands of them over the years. I hadn't remembered that I had climbed high enough on the rim to achieve the critical separation between Wizard Island and the rim of the crater beyond. Congratulating myself on my composition, I then began to deal with exposure throughout and within the image. I lowered the exposure both in the background and in the foreground rim of the trail, which had been much too  bright in the original. A viewer's eyes go directly to the lightest part of an image, and clearly that masonry isn't the most important part of this scene. While I might regret that I didn't include a little more sky, I knew that I had to darken the rear to stop your eyes from escaping from the image beyond the lake. While some might conclude that I over-saturated the final image, anyone who has actually been to Crater Lake knows that I am still way within the realistic blue hue of this natural wonder.


If you don't believe me, you might appreciate the black and white version, which achieves verisimilitude by avoiding color entirely. While working on this image I realized that the actual overwhelming blue of the lake  sets up a weird blue color cast on everything else. Lightroom tells me that the green trees on Wizard Island are in fact blue-green at best, which makes it hard to achieve a separate tone from the water. Black and white avoids this dilemma.


This alternate image errs to much on sky side of the equation. While I could "invent" more foreground water in Photoshop, that goes beyond my personal limits, as does bringing in a more "interesting" sky. To each his own. But I have no qualms about cropping to a wider panoramic aspect ratio to eliminate most of the boring sky. I struggled straightening the image, since even a portion of the lake is so wide that the curvature of the lens and the actual earth starts to distort a level line from one end of the shoreline to another - you know in your heart that the water is "level", but my corrections made it worse. I finally settled on the compromise of just leveling the water "horizon" around Wizard Island - and then realized that the right end of the island was further away than the left end, so that it would appear higher in any event.


Raising the shadows significantly brought out most of the detail on the island, while raising the overall exposure revealed the glare of the giant mirror that is Crater Lake under a cloudy sky. The blue is apparent here only in the shadows.

            BLACK AND WHITE 

The black and white version is still a little flat for me in this case. I nicely toned down the sky to give some definition to the upper edge. A subtle vignette also helped in black and white while standing out too much in color. But the contrast required everywhere else obscured all of the detail on the island. I remain flummoxed.


As I looked through my images I realized that even at Crater Lake my particular way of seeing the world encouraged an "intimate landscape", even in such an epic environment. Suddenly it didn't seem as important to show the whole lake, especially since any Oregonian probably knows what they are looking at with just a hint of blue. I loved this shot, and just tried to make it better, to bring out wonderful cliff face of the caldera.


Sharpening the digital file helped a lot. I lowered the exposure in both the background and foreground to focus attention on the cliff. Then the crags were intensified by judicious dodging and burning, where I painted in about 10% lightening on the bright parts and a corresponding darkening of the dark areas. This is so subtle that you don't really see what you are doing  while you are doing it, requiring a little faith during the process. It is only after you view the "before and after" that you realize how much co9ntrast and"pop" you've added to the image.



Well if it's texture you want you can always go to black and white. You can add even more texture and exposure gradients that would not look realistic in color once you allow yourself the abstraction of seeing the world in shades of gray.

                                                             MINIMAL CRATER LAKE : ORIGINAL SNAPSHOT

At the risk of starring into the abyss of "minimalism", this image was clearly about as "Rich" I could get more than twenty five years ago. It attempts to say "Crater Lake" with as little context as possible, and in some other parts of the world this could be a cliff over the sea. This image didn't need much help at all, only discovery. I cropped it only a tiny bit to get rid of some indeterminate weird stuff at the top edge, and lowered the exposure again in a gradient from the far expanse of the lake and from the overly bright earth in the foreground.

                                                             MINIMAL IMPROVEMENTS

These minor changes did it for me. While I like the image I use for a coaster a little better, which shows more of the curve of the shore, this is not bad aa all. When I tried black and white I missed that blue too much so I created another coaster by eliminating most of the duller gray lake in the background.


                                  BLACK AND WHITE RENDITION

This would do just fine in a portfolio of black and white images, even though I personally like that glorious blue.  It's been fun showing you how you can convert snapshots into photographs with just a minimum of artistic intent - take a look at some of your old snapshots and see what you can find hidden there in plain sight.