Indy Afternoon – HDR

Downtown Indy from White River Park Walkway

Saturday was a bit cold and blustery in Indy…so I figured I might as well go shoot a little. The nice big puffy clouds were just too tempting for me to resist doing a little HDR (High Dynamic Range) image work, and besides…I’m in the middle of trying to wrap up some nifty photo compositing projects that I figure will make some good material for Indyshooter. If you aren’t familiar with HDR, just do a quick search for the term and you’ll come up with all kinds of sites. Trey Ratcliff is one of the more well-know HDR gurus….check him out at Stuck in Customs.

So, for the background (in more ways than one…) I’m working on team photos for the Indianapolis Junior Roller Girls. In mid-January I scheduled a team photo session where I took a number of individual and team photos. I’ve been working my way through making fun Indianapolis-themed backgrounds for the team shots. Once this is complete I’ll be posting a fun little tutorial describing the whole process, but for now this is a little sneak peek at one of the background shots and how I set up the camera to take the images used to create the final HDR image.

One of the challenges in shooting HDR is setting up to take multiple exposures of the same scene. You really need to use a tripod and make sure that nothing moves…you can notice the flags on top of the distant building to the left have some ghosting – this is one effect of the HDR process. anything that moves from one frame to the next shows up like a ghost image. For my purposes I wasn’t terribly concerned with the movement of these flags – it really isn’t going to be a big factor. I set my Camera to manual and took seven frames each a full stop apart…so if you consider the normal exposure as “0”, this gave me the following exposure sequence (in stops away from 0):  -3, -2, -1, 0, +1, +2, +3. The other main consideration here is to make sure the exposure changes are made by adjusting shutter speed and not the aperture.  Changing the aperture will create inconsistent depth-of-field between the different exposures which then leads to a strange fuzzy-focus issue in the final HDR image. Not cool. So when shooting for HDR I always either set my camera on manual and take multiple frames by adjusting the shutter speed, or set the camera to auto-bracket in aperture priority mode. The difference here is that I prefer to get at least seven bracketed frames for each image. It creates a smoother effect after processing. The auto-bracket function on my Canon 7D only takes three frames: the baseline exposure and then one over and one under-exposed frame. I tend to only use that option if I’m stuck shooting hand-held for some reason. I’ll switch into burst-mode and just hold as still as possible while letting the camera make the adjustments in exposure.

Photomatix by HDRsoft does a splendid job of combining your series of photos into a HDR image. You can load the images directly into the program or run them through a plug-in from Adobe Lightroom. This is how I tend to work because I like to catalogue everything in Lightroom. You select the photos you want to use and export them into Photomatix for processing and then the final image is pulled right back into Lightroom for a little final tweaking. I’ll be posting a more in-depth tutorial on that whole process in a few days.

Happy Shooting!

-David

Canon “pro-sumer” camera reviews

Shot with Canon 5D mkII and 100mm f2.8 Macro lens at ISO 12800

I’ve been approached by a few different photographers asking about recommendations for upgrading their cameras. Most of these inquiries have been from talented amateur photographers looking to “go pro” and get better shots. Usually, my first reaction is that it isn’t the gear that gets you the great shots…although it does help. Your skill in understanding how to use what you have is most important. That said, there are many reasons why upgrading from an entry-level DSLR camera makes sense.

More often than not photographers at this level have done some research and know about the technical details of the cameras, but are looking for a bit of first-hand user feedback. With that in mind I’m going to take a look at two of Canon’s “pro-sumer” cameras that have been on the market now for a couple of years, the 5D mkII and the 7D. In a follow-up article I will have a photographer friend of mine relate his experiences in shooting with various Nikon brand cameras in this same level.

Living with the 7D

I’ve owned my 7D now for about 2 years. This camera has been my sidekick on numerous fashion shoots, a good number of roller derby sports events, weddings, family gatherings, pestering my cat and countless random forays into other photographic realms. I can honestly say that I have never ceased to be impressed with how well this camera functions. I can get good sharp images while tracking a fast moving skater in fairly low light. The crop-sensor format gives you a nice close-up range when shooting with a 70-200mm lens. The 7D is also quite at home in a studio cranking out fantastically detailed portraits or macro work. Once you’re familiar with the control layout the camera is a breeze to set up for any shooting scenario you get involved with.

The image below shows a relative comparison of the zoom factor with the 7D’s crop sensor vs. the 5D mkII’s full frame. I shot the opposing camera body from the same location with the same lens at 6400 ISO.

Shot with 24-105 f4L at 105mm

Experiences with the 5D mkII

For the purposes of comparison, I borrowed a 5d mkII from a photographer buddy of mine, Marc Lebryk. He gave me a quick synopsis of his likes and dislikes of the camera and after spending a few weeks putting the camera through its paces I’m pretty much in agreement with him. It’s a great camera…but. Some things about it weren’t really updated when it came out. The auto focus system is an older design, unchanged from the original 5D. It just feels a little sluggish in comparison to the 7D. It doesn’t track moving subjects as well and shoots fewer frames per second…although still more than a Rebel. On the plus side, it’s a full frame camera that delivers absolutely stunning 21 megapixel images vs. the 7D’s 18. When I loaded the first few test frames onto my computer I just kept repeating…”Wow.”

High-ISO shooting

When the 5D mkII came out its high-ISO capabilities were big news. Now that the buzz has died down a little bit and even better high-ISO cameras have been developed, I think it’s worth mentioning that you might not be completely thrilled with the pictures you get in low-light conditions. They are certainly much improved over earlier camera models like a 40D (which is my back-up body). But if you’re expecting to get a studio quality shots at high ISO settings, you’ll be disappointed. For reference – the cat’s eye image at the beginning of this post was shot with ISO set to 12800. It’s certainly a nice image, but still too grainy to maintain fine detail when printing large format prints. (Still, I think it’s fantastic that I’m reflected in Shaggy’s eye…Meow?)

7D @ 6400 ISO

The 5D mkII’s low-light capabilities are marginally better than the 7D, but the exposures are more consistent with the 7D. What do I mean by that? Well, I set each camera at ISO setting of 6400 in manual mode using my 24-105 f4L lens with an aperture of f4.0 and 1/400th shutter speed. I set the cameras to burst and fired off as many consecutive images as each would handle in a RAW file format. The 7D stopped shooting at 18. The 5D mkII  stopped at 14. Comparing each exposure, there was slight variation in the images from the 5D mkII, but virtually none from the 7D. The noise level was fairly equal, but the 7D had a higher occurrence of hot pixels. Not much, but a noticeable difference. Does that exposure variation with the 5D mkII matter? Probably not for 99.9% of photographers. It was not much variation at all and was only noticeable doing a test like this. If you were to shoot a series of high-speed images to combine into a single stop-motion style composite image, you might notice a difference, but it would be a very simple fix to adjust that back in to match.

5D mkII @ 6400 ISO

Shooting video

I’ll be honest – I’m not the best person to ask about shooting video with these cameras. I’ve done it, and they both do capture full High-definition video quite well, but I use a dedicated video camera for my video work. Why?? Because these DSLR’s weren’t designed to shoot for an hour continuously. The sensors start to overheat after about 7-8 minutes and the camera stops recording until it cools off. Additionally, the audio capabilities are lacking in comparison to a full-fledged video camera. That said, they can produce some phenomenal video (The season Finale of House was shot using only 5D mkII’s). So if it’s something you’re going to consider, either one of these cameras can get good results.

Conclusion

So, between the two, as a generally great all-around entry into the big-leagues camera body the 7D is a very solid performer. It produces great images with excellent saturation and contrast, sufficient resolution for all but the most insane enlargements and has a great autofocus system. If you are going to be primarily concerned with the best image quality you can get for the money, the 5D mkII will serve you well. Its bigger sensor with more pixels gives you photos that are just breathtaking…when they’re in focus. Which, they will be if you primarily do one-shot focusing and aren’t trying to chase around a gaggle of children at a wedding reception. For a studio or landscape photographer who wants the bigger images and isn’t interested in rapid fire shooting, the 5D is a winner. If you like to shoot sports, the 7D’s crop-sensor (which effectively gives you a longer telephoto), high-speed shooting and autofocus systems will delight you. When I first unleashed the burst mode on mine in a sports-photography class the look on everyone’s face was priceless. You’d think I had just opened up on the scene with a machine gun! Certainly, there are faster cameras out there. The newly announced 1DX can belt out about 14 frames a second…and you could get four 7D’s for the same price.

Indianapolis – Center Stage

View from the White River Park walkway
View from the White River Park walkway

Indianapolis.

This city has been my home for all but a few years of my life. It is a fantastic city – peaceful yet bustling with activity. We have a world ranked women’s roller derby team – the Naptown Roller Girls. There is Massachusetts Avenue (Mass Ave.) – a delightfully intriguing mixture of arts and entertainment with such places as the Rathskeller and the Theater on the Square.

And then…there is the Super Bowl.

This year is really starting off with a bang. I’m not generally a huge football fan but I do enjoy watching the games. Ask me who won last year’s big game and you’ll just get a shrug of the shoulders and impish smile. I dunno…It’s just not something I follow that closely. Last night’s trivia night halftime question was to name the four NFL coaches who have had four Suber Bowl losses. Well, I can name a total of two coaches and they both no longer work for the Colts!

Anyway, with all the hoopla over the Big Game it’s brought me to the understanding that this is something I should experience – just to say that I did. I mean…there’s a zip-line strung up between buildings in the middle of the city! That just doesn’t happen every day around here. My friends and I are going to be wading into the crowds this afternoon, so I decided to do a brief drive-through just to get my bearings…and of course take a couple photos to share. I decided to get a view that most likely isn’t going to be played on all the network stations – they are all focused on the crowds and the stadium and the big trophy slapped on the side of the JW Marriott building. Well, I’ve included some of that…but from a distance, with a more serene and reflective view of the city…a view that even some locals aren’t familiar with.

This is an HDR exposure of the downtown skyline taken from the West side of the city along the White River Park walkway. The big square building in the center is the JW Marriott – the side opposite from the Super Bowl Village and the Vince Lombardi Trophy mural. The Lucas Oil Stadium is to the far right. This is one of my favorite views of Indianapolis. It’s close enough to feel like you are in the city, yet removed enough to still feel like you have your own space. You can sit quietly and contemplate while joggers huff by and gasp out a friendly hello. There is a little bit of traffic, but not so much that it becomes obnoxious.

So if you come to visit this crossroad city…by all means indulge in the hustle of the downtown activities. But if you want to get away for a breather…and some good photo ops…be assured that there are opportunities to do so readily available

~DVD

Indyshoooter’s Photo of the Year

This year has been an exciting year for me. I’ve had enough photography and video projects to keep my creativity revved up and with a good helping of encouragement and advice from some new online friends like Light Stalking and Prairie Light Images, I launched Indy Shooter with the theme of making Photoshop more approachable for photographers. There is certainly still work to be done, but I’m very grateful and beyond excited to see what the New Year brings!!

My personal photographic addiction is in the realm of fashion and portraiture. That doesn’t stop from shooting anything interesting I come across, but I’ve had the great honor of working with a wonderful Indianapolis-based Fashion magazine, Fashion Wrap Up. Their editorials are gorgeous themed spreads covering some great trends and they offer lots of entertainment and fashion news as well. I’ve had a number of fantastic photoshoots with FWU but took a break for most of this year to attend some classes and work on some other projects (video work for the fantastic Naptown Roller Girls among them!!). Then earlier this month FWU and I  got back together to do a Holiday themed shoot and the results of that effort are some of my favorite images to date.

That said, I am both proud and humbled to announce my personal Photo of the Year:

IndyShooter Photo of the Year (© Fashion Wrap Up)

Many thanks to everyone involved, but especially Christy Pastore – editor of Fashion Wrap Up, Melissa Ingersoll – Allure Salon, our model – Amanda Katherine and our location for the shoot – Cambria Suites in Noblesville, IN.

Putting together each of the looks was a huge undertaking by Melissa and her team from Allure and I would be remiss if I did not say that they did an absolutely amazing and professional job. As a photographer I cannot overstate how valuable good stylists and make-up artists are. Without their hard work none of these shots would be possible. Amanda and all out models for the day were total troopers putting up with all the fussing and posing and running from dressing room to set.

Details of this photo:

I’m fairly certain it was Christy who first had the thought to shoot this pose – looking out of the elevator as though she is searching for her significant other, but once that idea was struck it was a definite “Yes!!” moment. While Amanda was finishing with make-up I set up my lighting in the small hallway that served as the elevator landing. My main light is a 21-inch beauty dish/strobe combination set up just a few feet to camera left. There were two small speedlight flashes gelled to match the color temp of the main strobe. One of these was further down the hall to the left and another was inside the elevator with a small 4-inch dish reflector and grid to give Amanda’s hair and dress a nice back rim-light. These were all triggered with a Pocket Wizard Flex-TT5 system for Canon. I shoot primarily with a Canon 7D and 24-105 F4L lens.

Just rattling it off like that sounds so easy, but this location was quite a struggle for me to figure out how to light it. That’s one thing I love so much about portrait shooting on location – there’s always a new challenge!!  It took me a good half hour of jockeying lights and angles to decide what worked.

One entertaining tidbit…once we had everything set and were shooting, the elevator alarm started going off because of Amanda holding the doors open (she got a good workout from that too, by the way!). So there was extra pressure to work quickly since we didn’t want the hotel management to kick us out after our first set!

Post processing:

This image was a joy to work on because it just kept getting better and better. I tried a couple different approaches to editing the whole series, but here are the steps I went through to finish out this image:

  1. I used Lightroom to do initial exposure adjustments, boosting contrast and noise reduction, cropping and rotation and spot fixing a few spots and fingerprints on the metal surrounding the elevator.
  2. Once the image was imported to Photoshop, I ran a high-pass filter to smooth out the skin tones (see my post for a description of this technique).
  3. After that I used Topaz Adjust on the Strong Details setting to really make the dress and textures pop. Topaz is one of the few external plug-ins that I use.
  4. The result of that process was faded a bit to blend back into the original image
  5. A very slight darkening vignette was aplied around the edges of the image
  6. Finally I used the dodge and burn tools to selectively enhance shadows and highlights such as folds in the dress and details in her hair. A very small brush was used to burn the details around her eyes. 

Look for a future post describing more of these techniques in greater detail. 

See the entire editorial at Fashion Wrap Up. (All images are Copyright Vivid Oranje Consulting, LLC and Fashion Wrap Up magazine). For a behind the scene’s look at this shoot visit AK’s World, a blog written by another of our fantastic models, Adrian Kendrick. 

Hope everyone has a safe and wonderful Holiday Season and I’m looking forward to an exciting New Year!!!

Peace and Joy,

-David Van Deman

I Need More Sunbeam!!!

Final Image

Here’s a quickie but goodie – how to make realistic streaking sunbeams that “filter through” trees, clouds or other background scenery. This is a surprisingly simple technique with one little not-so-obvious selection technique. Load up the original image and let’s have at it!!!

Original Image
  1. To create this effect you want to pick the brightest part of your image – where the light is showing through your background. The quickest and easiest way to do this is by using the channels tab in your layers window to make a Luminosity selection.
    Select the Upper RGB Channel

    Seriously? Yep, if you select the upper RGB Composite channel while holding down Ctrl/Cmd, Photoshop automatically picks the brightest parts of your image. Pretty cool stuff!

  2. Now, this may work fine, but to really make the effect crisp you want to redo the same selection – basically refining the edges to limit the colors blending into the light rays and make them more “streaky”. Hold down Ctrl/Cmd + Alt/Opt + Shift and click the RGB Composite channel again. If you watch closely you will notice that this has tightened up the selection. Do that same step one more time to cut the selection even closer (experiment with how many times you do this – more or less may look better depending on your image). If you have any bright foreground objects that are selected and shouldn’t be quickly deselect those with the lasso while holding down Alt/Opt (I didn’t bother with it in this image, but if you have someone with bright highlights on their face in the image it might look a little strange to have rays streaking off their face!). Once your selection is done select the layers tab again

    Selection
  3. Now for the magic…hit Ctrl/Cmd + J to jump the selection onto another layer and then head up to Filters > Blur > Radial Blur. In this dialog select the Zoomoption and set it to 100%. In the target area move the center to approximately the location of where the sun should be in your image. Click OK to create your basic streaks. Once the filter runs check to see that your streaks are centered on your sun…you can either re-run the filter and move the center target or just select the move tool and shift your layer around until it’s centered.
    First run of Blur filter - notice the sunbeams look "short"

     

  4. Now that’s pretty cool…but look closely. Depending on the image you might want to run that same filter again. On the first run, the streaks were chopped short and didn’t quite look natural. You might also want to increase the intensity a bit by duplicating the layer a couple times (Ctrl/Cmd +J). Merge the light ray layers and then set your blending mode option to Screen.
  5. Create a layer mask (Here’s a tutorial on layer masks) on your finished light layer and using a large soft brush clean up any edges of the rays that look strange. I also reduced the opacity of the brush to around 60% and used that to reduce the strength of the rays below the horizon line.
  6. Once you’re happy with how that looks create the reflection in the pond by duplicating the layer (Ctrl/Cmd + J) and then flipping it vertically (Edit > Transform > Flip Vertical). Pick the move tool and center this on the reflected sun and then select the layer mask and brush around the pond with a large soft brush to keep the rays from going past the shoreline.
  7. Finally, reduce the opacity of your light layers until you like the way they look. I chose 75% for the main set of sunbeams and 50% for the reflected layer.
  8. Another consideration you might try in different images may include experimenting with the transform command (Edit > Transform) to scale the rays up so that they cover more of the image and seem to shine through on everything in the foreground, or if your image has the sun out of frame use scale and rotate until the streaks are coming across the image from the direction of the sun (like the before / after image of the trees below). Don’t forget to use layer masks to control any streaks that look out of place.

That’s all there is to it – lots of fantastic heavenly sunbeams. Now if only I were a cat…Meow?

Before and After sun beams from the side of image

Rabari – A New Photography Guide

Hey everyone!

I wanted to let you all know about Rabari – Encounters with the Nomadic Tribe, a fascinating new photography guide written by renowned travel photographer Mitchell Kanashkevich and recently published by our friends at Light Stalking.

I have to say that my first impression on a quick scan-through of this eBook was simply, “Wow!!” Not only has Mitchell given us a wonderful documentary of his project photographing a rural nomadic tribe in India, he has shared the experience in an instructional format providing a wealth of background information on his approach to “getting the shot”. For each of the ten excellent images in the book the reader is given insight into dealing with shooting in a foreign country and working with an interpreter,  reasoning and vision for the image, lighting diagrams and posing considerations, challenges in getting the shot and details on workflow and post-processing  in Lightroom and Photoshop.

When I finally got the chance to sit down and fully digest everything in the book I found it inspiring and easy to read. You really get a feel for what it was like to be on this project and how the author learned and interacted within the lives of these tribal people. Mitchell Describes everything in an easy, conversational text that feels like he’s teaching you one-on-one, detailing each shot and what the situation and his thoughts were before and after clicking the shutter. He gives you a breakdown of the gear he took (which was very minimal), how he dealt with transportation and finding a local guide and then goes through each image providing wonderful detail for photographers hungry to learn.

In short Rabari is a resource unlike any I’ve come across before and it should happily find a home in any photographer’s reference list. This is much more than just a “do this and do that” manual…it’s nearly 60 pages of Awesome. It gives you sense of what it is like to be a photographer on location in a desert shooting portraits of a people that don’t understand most of what you say. Add to that all the how-to details and you have a uniquely rich and satisfying edition. I have to give a heartfelt Thank You to Mitchell and Light Stalking for putting this together and I am certainly looking forward to more!

Click Here

…to head over to Light Stalking and get your own copy of Rabari. You’ll get a $5 discount through Christmas day!

Demystifying Levels, Curves, and the Histogram

Ok, so this tutorial is going to get a little more technical and theoretical, but I promise I’ll try to make it as easy as possible. To start with I’m going to describe what the Histogram is and why you should care about it (No really, it is your friend!!). Then we are going to dive into using Levels and Curves to adjust the tonal range in an image in order to enhance it. These are the very basics of image color and tonal adjustments.

The Histogram in Photoshop is essentially the same thing that is built into the interface of most DSLR cameras. You’ve probably seen it, but may have wondered what in the world this mountain range really meant. In its most simple form, any histogram represents the frequency of occurrence of some set of information. In photography…it shows us how many pixels in our image are black, white or any tone in between. Pure black is on the left and white is on the right. For a very basic example – say you have an image that is just four pixels – a simple square with one black, one white and two gray pixels. A simplified Histogram for this image would look like this: Image

In Photoshop the Histogram represents the tonal value of every pixel in the image, so what you’re actually looking at is millions of little bars stacked on top of each other – each mountain peak is indicating where a relatively larger number of pixels fall in the scale from black to white. If you have a massive mountain jammed all the way to right in your histogram, it is saying that your image is predominantly composed of white or near-white pixels…which may mean it’s over-exposed.

So is that bad? Well…it all depends really. Ultimately the idea of evening out the values across the histogram is just a suggestion and it’s up to you to decide what the image should look like, but understanding what the histogram is telling you can be a huge advantage in getting your images just right. High-key photos will be mostly leaning to the right while low-key images will have a greater proportion of dark pixels. The key is that you should still have a slight amount of information in the full range and the histogram will tell you if you are losing detail in any of the extremes.

So let’s make a simple image and start to learn how Levels and Curves affect the image and its Histogram. Start by creating a new image, and make it just 3 pixels by 3 pixels. You’ll get a teensy tiny square. Zoom in on this as far as possible (hit Ctrl/Cmd + 0). Now get your pencil tool and put one black pixel in the lower left corner of your square. Next, pick a dark gray and pencil that into one pixel above and to the right of the black one. Select a medium gray and put that in the upper left pixel, center pixel and lower right pixel. Finally, using a light gray fill in the top-center and right-center pixels, leaving the upper-right pixel white. You should have a rough gradient from black to white and a histogram that has a few bars in the middle and one all the way to the left and one to the right, like this:Image

The bars are telling you where in the range from black to white the pixels in your image fall.

Ok, now open up the Levels dialog and let’s start to do some adjusting. Make sure your histogram window is active (Window > Histogram) and then go to Image > Adjustments > Levels. You’ll get a window that pops up with the Histogram in it and a few sliders along the bottom called Input Levels. You’ll also see a gradient bar with two more sliders that is called Output Levels. There’s also a Channels drop box at the top that we aren’t going to worry about for now (this basically lets you work on one color “channel” at a time). Grab the black slider underneath the histogram and slowly move it to the right while watching your image. You’ll see the gray boxes gradually grow darker. As you cross the first bar in your histogram, the two pixels next to your original black pixel have now become black. Cross the center bar and the diagonal row of gray pixels turns completely black. Keep going and eventually you will be left with just one white upper right pixel and everything else is black. Slide that back all the way to the left and then move it back to white again while watching your histogram update in the other window. You should see the gray bars slowly marching their way toward black. Return that slider to the left side and now grab the white slider. As you move this to the left the opposite happens – your gray boxes start to turn white!! Return that to the right side and pick the gray slider in the middle. As you move this left or right the grays shift darker or lighter and your histogram bars will cluster to the right or left, but you still keep the pure white and black pixels the same.

So what’s that really doing? Well, those sliders tell Photoshop where to “map” black, white and middle gray in your image. If you open an image and it looks just mostly gray, you probably don’t have many black or white values, and pulling the sliders in essentially stretches the tonal range of the image to include more black and white (you’ll see this in the example image soon). Moving the gray slider will brighten or darken the image without destroying your shadows or highlights.

The output sliders at the bottom have a slightly different effect. If you experiment with them you will note that they actually reduce contrast and fade the black or white values. If you slide the black slider left, your image will be all very light grays and white. I honestly very rarely use the output sliders except for a few very particular cases. Finally, you will notice there are three little “eye-dropper” tools in the Levels window. These are useful for quickly picking in your image where the black, middle-gray and white points should be. Pick the white eye-dropper and click on the center middle-gray pixel. You will see that all the middle gray and lighter gray pixels are set to white. If you click back on your original white pixel in the upper-right everything returns to normal. Go ahead and experiment with the eye dropper tools noting the changes that occur when you pick different points.

Ok, cancel out of Levels and let’s try Curves. Go to Image > Adjustments > Curves. You’ll get another window with a diagonal line across it. This line is really just a graphical representation of the Levels you were just playing with. The output levels are your vertical axis and Input is the horizontal axis. White is the upper right point and black is in the lower left. You’ll also notice the same three eye-dropper tools. Make sure the Preview box is checked and then pick your white point and slide it to the left. You’ll see the same effect as when we moved the white slider in the Input section of Levels. Moving it down has the same effect as the Output Levels. Now pick a point in the middle and it creates a little box that you move around. Raise it up just slightly. This is the same as sliding the middle gray slider in Levels to the right – increasing the brightness of the image while retaining your white and black points.

When you’re through experimenting, try creating a simple “S” curve by slightly raising the highlights and decreasing the darker tones like this:

Image

You’ll see that the contrast in the mid-tones has increased while your black and white points remain the same. If you flip the curve by raising your dark tones and lowering the highlights the contrast will be decreased. Cool stuff…

So enough messing around with little gray pixels…let’s try it on a real image! Load up the pole-vaulter picture at the bottom of this tutorial and convert it to grayscale (Hint: use an adjustment layer! Pick the split circle icon at the bottom of your layers window, select Hue/Saturation and then slide the Hue slider all the way to the left). You’ll notice that the histogram has a large amount of darker tones, but there is no black or white…everything is some value of gray (it was a hazy, overcast day when I took this shot).

Let’s start with a Levels adjustment to expand the tonal range of the image (giving it full black and white values). Create another adjustment layer and select Levels. In the window pull your black slider to the right. As you go further to the right you’ll notice more and more of your image turning black until there’s nothing but the number card left. We really just want a hint of some black so leave it at a point where there are just a few pixels that have turned black (if you look at the number boxes I set mine at a value of 22). Now pick the white slider and bring it down until you just start to get some white pixels (I stopped at 233). Finally, you can use the middle gray slider to brighten or darken the image over-all. I tend to like darker images so I left it as-is. Click OK to accept the changes – Nice!! If you want to compare this to the original black-and-white image just click the little eyeball icon in the left column of your Levels adjustment layer. If you toggle this on and off you can see how the image has a fuller range of tone and the histogram also expands to fill the whole range.

Ok, now say you want to make this a little more contrasty…really simple. Create a third adjustment layer and pick Curves. Now just boost the highlights and pull down the dark tones creating the same “S” curve that we did in the earlier exercise. Presto! Feel free to experiment with the curves settings. You can add up to 15 points on the curve to adjust (I really can’t remember ever creating more than three or four…). When you’re used to how this works you can really do all the adjustments just within the Curves settings, but I wanted to show you how each tool could be used.

When you’re happy with the way it looks, just for grins turn off the Hue/Saturation layer to see what this did to the color image. Whoa!!! You will probably see some pretty extreme color changes like bright red-orange legs. Curves adjustments do have one little tricky point – they will cause some color shifting and the more extreme your changes the more noticeable this is. The nice thing about adjustment layers is that if you want to change your settings, just double click on the layer thumbnail (the “graph box” part, not the title) and you can make new adjustments. What may have looked good in black-and-white will probably be too extreme for a full-color photo.

Now that you have all these corrections done in adjustment layers, what if you wanted to do something like add a filter? You can’t really do this effectively to all these layers, so you need to “apply” this image to a new layer. Create a blank layer and then go up to Image > Apply Image (the keyboard shortcut for this is a little involved – Ctrl + Alt + Shift + E, or Cmd + Opt + Shift + E). This creates a new top layer with all your adjustments applied to it. You can then edit this the same way you would any regular image layer.

Alright! Hopefully you’ve got a good grasp of what the histogram is telling you about your images. One easy way to keep learning how this works is to load up some of your favorite pictures and see what their histograms look like. It doesn’t need to be a super high-quality image either…find some online that just have a good high or low-key look and see what their histograms reveal.

Original Pole-vault Image:

Image

6 Fast Photo Fixes Pros Use

If you spend much time at all reading photography how-to sites or taking classes or even just talking to photographers, you’ll probably hear the mantra “get it right in-camera”. I totally agree, but what do you do if it isn’t just right? I seriously doubt that any photographer out there gets card after card full off 100% perfectly exposed and balanced photos. We’re human after all, and personally I’m kind of glad I’m not perfect all the time (although it would cut down a lot of post-processing time!!!). So here are a handful of tricks that will help clear up some of the more common little imperfections in your pictures

  1. Measure – I don’t know what it is, but I seem to have a built-in left hook when I’m taking had-held shots. Surprisingly consistent too. A lot of my pictures look perfectly straight in my brain when I’m shooting only to find that they are tilted about 1.4 degrees when I get them loaded on the computer. If you’re like me, here’s the fast and easy way to fix ‘em. Use the Measure tool…it’s buried at the bottom of the pop-out menu under the eye-dropper. Draw a line that matches a good horizontal or vertical line in your image then go up to Image > Rotate Canvas > Arbitrary. The correct amount and direction of rotation will be automatically filled in so all you have to do is hit OK and then crop the edges of the image. To keep the same aspect ratio of your original image, select the entire canvas with your crop tool and then drag from the corner control boxes while holding down the shift key.
  2. Curves – Instead of using brightness and contrast adjustments, use curves to make image tone enhancements. Create an adjustment layer (the diagonally split circle at the bottom of the layers window) and select curves from the list.
    Curves adjustment to boost contrast

    Then create a slight “S” curve by dropping the shadow portion (the lower left side of the curve) and raising the highlights. Curves adjustments can work wonders on black and white photography too. Note: this S-curve adjustment generally works well in a number of “normally” exposed images. Different exposures will obviously require different adjustments. You can also get a funky cross-processed style effect by selecting the Blue channel and pulling the white point of the curve down and bringing the black point up…essentially “flattening” out the line just a little. Depending on the version of Photoshop you’re using you may have a range of presets available to quickly make some of these adjustments. I will have a fill tutorial on curves in the near future to dig deeper into using this tool.

  3. Raccoon Eyes – people with deep-set eyes often get dark shading in the eye-sockets…raccoon eyes. This tip will help brighten them up. Duplicate your original image layer (Ctrl/Cmd + J) and change its blending mode to Screen to brighten everything up. Add a layer mask and then mask off the whole layer by filling the mask with black. Using a soft edged brush, paint white in around the eye sockets, letting the lighter layer show through. Work with the layer mask and your opacity settings until the effect looks good with your image.
  4. Red Eye – This may not be a concern for pro photographers, but I’m often asked how to deal with it when I’m teaching a Photoshop class. I’ll admit that every now and again I’ll just take a snapshot for Facebook and my cat will have a set of freakishly glowing eyes, so for an easy fix select the pupil of the eye and then use refine edges or feather to ease soften the edges of the selection just a bit. Create a new layer and fill the selection with black. Create a new layer on top and using a small soft edged brush add the catchlight back in to make it look real. You can adjust the opacity of the layers to improve the effect. or use a layer mask on the black pupil layer to fade out any jagged edges
  5. Smooth skin – There’s a hidden filter that you may have played with and wondered what in the world anyone would ever use that for. In the filter menu under Other, you’ll find High-Pass. If you just run this filter you will get a funky grey image with some colored edges that just doesn’t look like it’s worth a knuckle hair, but the secret to getting something wonderful from this is to combine it with layer blending modes. Make sure you’re working on a copy of your original layer and then run the high-pass filter. Smaller settings create subtler effects…I usually use something around 3 to 6 pixels. Now go over to the layer blending mode and pick Overlay. Suddenly you will see the image is given a good sharpening effect. This is pretty cool and can be quite useful, but to get a smoothing effect you need to click on the layer icon and then go to Image > Adjustments > Invert. This will give you a nice soft-focus look, again just as-is this is pretty cool, but if you want the photo to still be sharp add a layer mask and fill it with black, then paint white back in over the skin areas with a soft-edged brush while avoiding the edges around eyes and other features. Use the opacity slider to reduce the effect to a good level where there is still some detail in the skin.
  6. Reducing the “RED” in skin tones. – Sometimes, even if the color balance seems to be good people just come out looking a little flushed. If your photos seem to be giving uncle Roger a bashful blush, there are some pretty easy ways to tone it down. My favorite is to use a selective color adjustment layer. If you’re not familiar with adjustment layers there’s a quick tutorial (here). Open your image and add an adjustment layer, picking the Selective Color option. You’ll see an adjustments window with a drop box for selecting the color you’re working with and then sliders for adjusting the relative hues. Pick Red in the drop box and then drag the Cyan slider to the right until you think you’ve got a good cut in the red tones. you may also want to adjust the Black slider a bit too (usually to the left). Then, if you don’t want the change to affect the rest of your photo use the mask to paint out the areas other than your skin tones. You can also fade the effect by adjusting your layer opacity.

Happy Photoshopping!!!

Custom Brushes – The Secret of Background Effects

 

Final Image

 

One very powerful feature in Photoshop is the countless ways you can create and modify brushes. Just about any design can be turned into a brush and then “painted” into your image to create all kinds of effects. This tutorial will serve as a simple introduction to working with custom brushes.

I was recently asked how to create a “bokeh lighting” effect in some images. Blurred little sparks of light in the background of some images can really be a neat effect. There are actually some plug-ins designed to create these lighting effects, but using a custom brush Photoshop will let you get a good effect without any extra plug-ins.

My basic picture is just a little wildflower with a nice blurry background. Load it up and I’ll show you an easy way to give it a little sparkle. (Original image is at the bottom of this post.)

  1. Start by selecting the flower and some of the stems and grass – I used the magic wand set with a tolerance of 50. This setting controls how picky the selection is. If you set this to zero only pixels that match the tone of what you click on will be selected. Also click the Contiguous check box – this makes it so that only pixels adjoining the one you choose are selected. Hold the shift key down while clicking on different spots in the flower until you have the whole thing selected. Zoom in close to double check and when you are happy with the selection, go up to Select > Modify > Feather and enter a value of .5 to soften the edges just a touch. Then hit Ctrl/Cmd + J to copy the selection to a new layer. If you turn off the background layer you should see something like this:
  2. To create a new brush shape, create a new layer and then pick the polygon tool (this is hiding in the pop-out set with the line tool). In the settings at the top enter 6 for the number of sides – you can play with this number…if you think about what creates “bokeh” it’s the shape of the aperture in your lens. The highlights we are creating will take on that shape. Now draw a little black hexagon somewhere in your picture. The size doesn’t really matter a whole lot – you can adjust this later in your brush settings. Depending on the version of Photoshop you’re using you may need to rasterize this shape to create a brush from it. Go to Layer > Rasterize > Shape and you’ll be set.
  3. Select this shape and then go to Edit > Define Brush Preset and name your brush. I called it Bokeh Light. Now select your brush tool (or just hit B on the keyboard). At the bottom of the brushes menu you’ll find a new brush with your hexagon shape. Pick that and let’s add some extra effects to it.
  4. In the Brusheswindow you will find a range of options for controlling how the brush acts when you use it. If you don’t see the Brushes window it may be one of the tabs hiding in the upper right, or just go up to the menu under Window and you’ll find it. Since we want a random scattering of hexagons with different brightness and opacity, there are a few options that need to be activated. Click on Brush Tip and slide the Spacing slider up to around 200%. Under Shape Dynamics set Size Jitter to 60% and Minimum Diameter to 20%. Under Scattering I ran the Scatter slider all the way to the right and checked the Both Axes box. Under Color Dynamics set Saturation Jitter and Brightness Jitter to 25%. Finally in Other Dynamics set Opacity Jitter and Flow Jitter to 30%. Whew!! That’s a lot of settings…and we barely even touched the possibilities in there!
  5. Ok, now pick a faint pale yellow color and on a new layer (you can really just erase the black hexagon you used to make the brush) paint a quick spattering of hexagons across the image. You can add to this as much as you want or undo it if you think there’s too much – feel free to play around with all the settings in the Brushes window too. Eventually you will have something like this:
  6. Ok, so now click and drag that layer behind (underneath) the layer with your flower cutout. To give it a nice blurry look go up to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Use a radius that makes it look good – mine was 5.4. The final adjustment is to take the layer’s opacity down a bit until you’re happy with the results. If you want to create more depth you can make a second layer and add another swipe of highlights and then use a different blur and opacity setting. It can be easy to over do this, but everyone has tehir own vision…

Really simple stuff, huh? There are countless ways you can use custom brushes in your images. My favorites are in creating textural backgrounds by creating a random shape, blurring the begeezus out of it and then mixing it in with layer blending modes. I’ve seen people use this same effect to create anything from heart-shaped lights for engagement photos to surreal atmospheric effects in composite fantasy images.

Original image:

Original Image

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