day 326: shades of green
Almost a year ago I started this 365 pictures in 365 days project. After 326 days my blog now has 301 followers and it has had 44,000 views. If I hadn’t taken a break from daily posting while I wrote my novel, it probably would even be more by now. Although it’s too early to give you a real overview over the last year, I can already tell you that starting this projects was one of my brighter ideas.
I have learned so much during this project! Before I started I didn’t know my camera at all. I knew nothing about cameras in general or about lenses and filters. Even before I started the project I had times when I took many pictures, but to be honest it was all glorified point-and-shoot, mostly with dedicated point-and-shoot cameras. Such cameras nowadays do a very good job in taking the skill out of photography. People who just pick up a camera and take some holiday shots can easily say “This camera takes nice pictures” (a statement that proper photographers hate), since all they do is maybe to compose the shot. I’m always surprised when I see tourists with a bulky DSLR around their neck taking pictures in automatic mode. Most point-and-shoot cameras do a good enough job for holiday photos and are not that heavy. I guess it’s because a point-and-shoot with an almost comparable image quality costs just as much as a beginner DSLR.
I personally shoot in manual mode now. Sometimes it makes you slow, especially when you move from an area with lots of light to an area with low light (or the other way round), but the added control really makes a difference. On my 450D there is a silly way to control the aperture in manual mode. Since there is only one dial that is normally used for the shutter speed, you have to press a button when you turn the dial to change the aperture. I can never find the right button unless I look at it. This is annoying and usually lets me stick to similar apertures, but I still can quickly change it if I need to, without losing control over the shutter speed. I’m too blind to focus manually with my DSLR (the viewfinder is just too small), but in low light I sometimes still try when the autofocus stops working.
How to use my camera properly is not the only thing I learned though. No, I also learned that with digital cameras you often have to do a lot of post-processing to get a good picture. I shoot in RAW, so that I can change things around and have control even after I took the picture. Sometimes, especially when shooting quickly after changed lighting conditions, I still get slightly under- or overexposed pictures. Then a little tweaking in Photoshop can often still save the picture.
So, my processing workflow currently works like this:
1. Initial adjustments: I open the RAW file in Camera Raw, crop and straighten the picture and adjust the white balance by selecting Auto and correcting with the sliders. I also make sure as little detail as possible is lost by adjusting the fill light and recovery sliders. After this I adjust the rest of the sliders a little depending on the picture. For street photos I normally add some Blacks, up the clarity and contrast. For portraits I usually take the clarity and contrast down a notch to smoothen the skin a little (without making it look fake). Then I take it into Photoshop itself.
2. Copyright: The first thing I do in Photoshop is to add copyright information to the picture. I don’t watermark my pictures, and since I never upload pictures that are large enough to print, this is not actually to prevent people from “stealing” my pictures. If someone wants to do that they will do it anyway. They just crop the watermark out and strip the exif data, so I don’t see the point in even trying. It’s a reality of the internet culture. I only add the copyright information in case someone wants to contact me. For this step I only have to press F1 on my keyboard, since I defined a keyboard shortcut for an Action.
3. Sharpening: Depending on the picture I sharpen by using Filter -> Sharpen -> Unsharp Mask. Especially with pictures I plan to convert to black and white I push the slider up a lot, because this adds some grain. I’m definitely a fan of grain in black and white pictures. I still need to find out a bit more about Sharpening methods actually, but this part is simple and enough for pictures to be posted on the web.
4. Pop: The next step is to adjust the Levels to make the picture “pop”. Some people prefer doing this adjustment with curves, but I do it with levels. I used to do this in a more sophisticated way by selecting black, white and middle grey points, but actually this is not necessary if you are already sure about your white balance settings. Since I adjust the white balance beforehand I now just adjust the sliders. To tighten the histogram I pull the left and the right slider as close to histogram as possible (usually this only involves the right one). To give the picture more pop I push the middle or left slider a notch to the right, selecting the slider depending on which one lets me lose less detail.
5. Colours: For a colour picture I’d now make final touches to the colour with either a Hue and Saturation adjustment layer or a Color Balance layer. This is not always necessary, but it helps if you couldn’t quite get the white balance right in Camera Raw. For converting to black and white I normally use just a black and white layer, adjusting the sliders so that the picture still keeps a good dynamic range. Some pictures are more difficult than others, for example if some areas of the picture need different color casts then others. Sometimes you get a spot in the picture where you end up with hair the same shade of grey as the wall behind, because this specific setting makes a sign pop in another part of the picture. If I run into this problem, I use a channel mixer layer underneath the black and white layer, possibly with a layer mask attached that limits this adjustment to certain parts of the picture. With this I usually manage to separate the colours well. For black and white pictures I usually also add another contrast and brightness layer and increase the contrast, since black and white means black and white and not dark grey and light grey.
After almost a year of post-processing I now know quite a bit about Photoshop and I’m still learning new things every day. I actually knew quite a bit from before, but I used it more for design purposes, which involves quite a different subset of features. It’s such powerful software and even if you heavily process your pictures, you will probably still never encounter all of its features. And then there are even more features to explore in plugins. These days I stumbled over Alien Skin Exposure and realised that it has a stunning number of great colour and black and white presets. These can simulate the colour cast, contrasts and grain of different analog film types, which makes nice effects available without much fiddling. I’m not a big fan of the textures in the plugin, since it only includes a very limited selection and I also prefer to tweak texture blending myself.
The picture above, which I took on Sunday, was made with a combination of two textures and layer blending. It was quite a complicated and long process that involved blurring some layers and not others, different layer blending modes and some more Photoshop kungfu. I like the outcome very much. The original picture might not have been taken yesterday, but since the outcome is very different from the original I can say that I *made* this yesterday. I guess I’ll ease up a little on the daily picture taking, since sometimes I’m just not inspired to go out and point my camera at things. Instead when I’m in that mood I’ll just look through my (by now extensive) archives and select a picture that I can turn into something completely different. Probably the results will also be more interesting than my pointing-camera-at-random-things-in-the-flat pictures.