I think it’s Rick Sammon who says “you don’t take a picture, you make a picture” – or something to that effect. Those words are comforting to a hack like me who takes it as a license to work on an image until it looks something like I imagined it would when I pressed the silver button.
Now I must emphasise that I’m at the bottom of a very steep learning curve with Photoshop CS5. I’ve spent many countless hours on the adjustment sliders in Aperture, plug-ins from Nik Software, Topaz and OnOne, and more recently Snapseed, and the results often look more like something from a 1980s video game than an image I’d want to actually show people. However, through the application of cash and perseverance I’m able to acknowledge that I’m getting better at post-production techniques. So let me share a few examples of where I’ve tried to make a picture after going out to take a picture. I’ll conclude with some thoughts on whether this is photography, or graphic arts.
Let’s begin with the owl.
Nikon D300s, AF Nikkor 300mm f/4 IF-ED, 1/500 sec @ f.8 (-2/3ev), ISO 320 approx. 60% crop
This was taken at the lunch-time bird show at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo in January 2011. I was sitting on the other side of the arena with my kids when the owl handler sent the bird soaring above the heads of the crowd. I was testing a recently purchased but old Nikkor 300mm f.4, which is sharp, but by no means fast. The photo above is the result obtained after cropping and spending time in Apple Aperture and Nik’s Viveza 1.0. This is the image out of the camera:
Nikon D300s, AF Nikkor 300mm f/4 IF-ED, 1/500 sec @ f.8 (-2/3ev), ISO 320 – no post production
So you can see that I had a few things to work on to produce the final image. The original photo had captured the action fairly well, although the lens was clearly not long enough to isolate the main subject – the flying owl. The background is far too boring and distractacting, and the image is a little soft. The focus point was actually on the blue t-shirt just above the bird which might have been where the bird’s wing was when the camera focused, so I was fortunate that I had chosen f.8 to give me a relatively deep depth of field. (Thanks Moose Peterson.)
A lot of the adjustments will be obvious, but here’s a quick list: (1) cropped about 60% to get rid of the people in the background, while still keeping the bird’s handler in the frame; (2) desaturated the whole image, except the bird. I still had the problem of the boy’s pink armband just above the bird’s head, so I took as much colour out of that as I could without turning it grey – maybe not enough; (3) brightened and saturated the owl’s beautiful yellow eyes. This is probably more exaggerated than I would usually aim for but I think it suits the drama in the image to really focus the viewer’s attention on those eyes; (4) a pretty strong vignette around the edge of the frame, again to mute the background and focus attention on the bird; (5) and finally, some sharpening around the eyes (again, perhaps a little too much). I also put a black border around the edge which you can see in my Flickr page here.
I think the final image is a great improvement over the original photo. The adjustments were done just over a year ago, before I really started exploring Photoshop CS5 and various new plug-ins, so if I revisited the image today, I’d probably start by seeing what some of the Topaz plug-ins could achieve, and layer some of that into a few Photoshop tweaks. However, I’m pretty certain the basic treatment would be the same – crop, desaturate, brighten and sharpen the bird’s eyes, and apply a vignette. That would still get me to the image I had in my mind when I pressed the shutter button.
Now to the pussy-cat.
Ok, it’s a lion in another zoo. This time it’s Taronga Zoo’s country cousin, the Western Plains Zoo at Dubbo, which is about 6 hours drive west of Sydney. On the day of my visit the lion enclosure contained two lionesses and this big, lazy guy.
Nikon D300s, AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED & TC-17EII, 1/500th sec @ f.5.6 (-0.67ev), ISO 400 – unprocessed
You’ll agree that this is a pretty typical zoo shot, with the animal yawning behind a bunch of trees. Aside from being fairly boring, the photo had some obvious framing issues as well as a serious mix of light and shadow. But the wide open mouth was dramatic and I had captured the image as a Raw file, so it was worth seeing what I could do to make a photo out it. This time all adjustments were done in Aperture 3.0. Here’s the final result:
Nikon D300s, AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED & TC-17EII, 1/500th sec @ f.5.6 (-0.67ev), ISO 400
First, you’ll see that I didn’t try to remove the shadow running across the lion’s face. That would probably have been beyond my abilities anyway, but more importantly, the shadow was there, so while I was happy to reduce its impact, it seemed more natural to leave it. Moreover the final image is not drastically different from the original, except for some obvious cropping. But compare the “before” and “after” images more carefully and hopefully you’ll see the results of a fair bit of work.
Ok, so here’s a quick rundown of the adjustments, in the rough order I might have applied them: (1) straightened the horizon; (2) cropped to a square format to get rid of the trees (I’ll write more on cropping in another post, but square has been a favourite format of mine for a while, particularly for animals and birds); (3) increased exposure a tad; (4) applied some global definition and vibrancy; (5) a global S-curve; (6) painted in another S-curve to lift the shadows in the lion’s mouth; (7) painted in yet another S-curve to darken the shadows in the grass; (8) very minor recovery of the highlights and shadows; (9) a very small global levels adjustment to add some final contrast; (10) painted in some burning underneath the chin to darken the fur for balance; (11) a standard vignette; (12) global sharpening (not much); (13) a bit of local sharpening on the tongue and teeth; and finally (14) some localised noise-reduction on the teeth. As with the owl, I also added a black border for my Flickr page, which you can see here.
I’m almost 100% sure that I could do a better job now, in Photoshop and possibly with one or two plug-ins. But that’s not really the point of this post, which is to humbly show how I’ve tried to take Rick Sammon’s challenge to make the photo and turn two relatively ordinary images into photographs which I was happy to post into my Flickr account.
That leaves the question – is this photography or graphic design? Well, in both cases, I was there with my camera and a lens which could roughly do the job, I used settings which got me a decent basic exposure, and I released the shutter at a dramatic moment. So in both cases I applied my fairly limited skills to capturing the image which I saw in my mind. Unfortunately, in both cases I clearly failed to capture the actual image I wanted, so the next step was to see if I could finish the job in post-processing – which I did to a degree. And now, of course, I’m writing about it. That feels like photography to me. Now if someone wants to buy me a 600mm Nikkor, I’ll try to do better next time.
Thanks for reading this far, and please leave comments if you’re inclined to do so.