Software/post processing

A persistent abstraction

Sometimes when the mood strikes me and the brook is cooperative, I’ll spend some time shooting water over rocks and the patterns it makes. Ice is a bonus.

This little vignette was the one I started on first – that chunk of ice split the water in such a great way, it’s the ice just below it on the rock that makes it stand out I think – and it’s a good thing I did because in a few minutes it was gone, leaving the rock bare. The afternoon light was gorgeous and fleeting, too, so I worked fast from the bank of the creek, breaking off dead branches that were in my way and holding live ones out of the way of the lens. That little scrim of direct sunlight just makes this shot for me. It’s my favorite of the series. I always feel lucky to be able to work with it even though it doesn’t last. Maybe that’s why.

I also like doing this because I have to work with what I get to a large degree. I can’t move everything or sometimes anything in the scene (like I can with microscapes or macro) and need to create compositions and arrangements within those constraints. This first scene for example, there is another big rock just up and to the left of this, but it was pretty distracting so I had to try to position myself so I could isolate this one formation. All before the ice melts! No pressure.

A Moment’s notice

This next boulder had a much bigger sheath of ice that reminds me of a monster, rising to the surface to scope its prey. Could be that I just watched Predator again though. I love imagining how the ice forms in that peculiar, rounded way, and that some of it so clear that you can see the moss and lichen underneath.

Wounded, old and treacherous

Both of these images are processed similarly; close to how they appear to the eye. In post I bumped the magenta tint a bit to bring up the blue and purple slightly, but preserving the brown color of the water which is very tannic.

Rather than just go with a straight up realism approach, these kinds of subjects let me play with mood and style. I’m not one to go very extreme with processing, but sometimes it helps bring out what I had in mind when I shot the picture. That is some whirling space object; like a galaxy or a gaseous planet, alone in the void.


The shot above is done with the split toning feature in Lightroom, the one below with a preset (I think it was polar or cold tone) and a few tweaks by me.

Velvet green

Compare with this realistic version of the same ice formation –

At last, forever

And of course monochrome works really well for this.

Black satin dancer

So while I wait for the color and energy of spring, I will keep playing and finding beauty even in the stark Wisconsin winter.

The Color Purple and the Digital Camera

By now most of you have caught on that this isn’t a technical photography blog, but that I’m not above putting out a little know-how if I think it could be useful.  With wildflower season approaching, I think you flower shooters will like this one – purple flowers looking blue and how to fix it!  This drives me crazy and I’ve actually gotten into arguments with people about it, with them usually insisting the flower actually was blue.  Uh, no folks it wasn’t – they’re called violets, not blues ok?  That’s a different topic though – what we’re going to tackle now is a wicked easy way to color correct your flower pictures.

Now, without getting all techy on you a hell of a lot goes into managing color in digital photography and I’m not going to get all preachy about it.  Let’s assume you have calibrated your monitor to the best of your ability.  Let’s take it as read that you’ve selected the proper white balance when you were shooting.  Still have blue flowers?  It’s not your fault.  It’s the sensor.  In a nutshell, digital sensors have a difficult time seeing, rendering and processing purple and often put out pure blue instead.  If you want the techy reasons Google is your friend and there is no shortage of articles about it.  Even film had trouble reproducing purple accurately.  Mostly it has to do with the color purple itself being made up of red and blue, two colors on opposite ends of the color spectrum and digital sensors, even very modern ones, have trouble.  It’s been a thorn in our collective sides for years.  A quick Google search pulls up a ton of people asking why their purple flowers look blue.

I find it’s most obvious when shooting in the shade, which, let’s face it, is where a lot of us prefer to shoot wildflowers.  Harsh sunlight is not our friend.  Shots in sunlight are more accurate, but often can be a bit off, too.  Some people also report that using an IR or UV filter makes the problem more extreme, so if you’re using one on your camera, remove it when photographing purple wildflowers.

I’m going to use this shot of chicory to illustrate my process.  I was shooting in the shade of a tree on a sunny day, I have made some changes like contrast, sharpening and cropping and kept those all the same, only varying the adjustment I want to highlight in each example.  Here’s the starting shot –

A lot of people will tell you that all you need to do is adjust your white balance and you’ll be all set.  Well, yes and no. If your purple flower is basically purple, just a little cool, changing the WB will probably work a treat.  If your flower looks really blue like the shot up there, adjusting ONLY white balance may get to a color approaching what you saw in your purple flower, but it won’t be exact.   And just look what it does to the rest of the shot –

The quick and easy fix for this lies in your HSL panel (I’m using Lightroom, but many other robust editors also have this functionality, you just need to find it). Each color has a control with the cool end of the the range to the left and warm to the right.  To make blue purple we need to increase the amount of red which means sliding to the right (warm). How far you drag your slider depends on how off your color is.  You could also use the targeted selection tool (that little bullseye under Hue) and put your mouse right on the blue color and then use the arrow keys to make the adjustment, but it’s not necessary for most shots where the color you want to change is clearly differentiated.

Here’s the finished shot with the color dialed in as close as I can come to what it was IRL (and I kept the flower handy to compare which is great if you can do it). Remember, all other factors are equal; overall saturation, white balance, sharpening, contrast, all of it the same.  Only the color slider is changed –

You eagle-eyed folks will have spotted some chromatic aberration where the purple and the green meet.  I’ve found this occurs fairly often with this combination even with lenses that don’t throw color aberration at any other time.  Yep, there’s a wicked techy explanation for it, but I won’t give it to you here (Google is your friend if you want to know why).  Using LR 3 I could probably correct this, but Adobe in their wisdom decided to make this correction tied to lens profiles only in LR 4 and they can’t be bothered to include a single piece of Olympus hardware in their application.  Thanks guys.  I love being given short shrift.  But anyway, you folks with mainstream cameras can probably fix this easily.

Here’s one more comparo for you and it really shows why they’re called Violets and not Blues (and how even in bright sun digital sensors can be confused by purple). All  I did was adjust the hue and luminance values with the blue and purple sliders and although that makes it seem like I adjusted the green channel, I didn’t.  Scout’s Honor.

That wasn’t so bad, was it?  Easy peasy.  Use the technique with that other bane of the digital sensor – magenta and dark pink.  It never looks right out of the camera and it’s always HSL panel to the rescue!

Smoke On the Water

Often when I post photos of moving water looking all smooth, silky or smoky I get comments asking how I achieve that result.  So I decided to write this post using my latest batch of images to illustrate things (and give you a couple of Lightroom tips in the bargain).  Don’t say I never gave you anything.

First you’ll need a tripod.  If you don’t have one buy one.  If you don’t have money, borrow one and save up.  It’s a necessity not just for this, but for a lot of other types of pictures, too.  I’m not a wicked tripod snob, for these shots I used a small Slik model that only weighs a couple of pounds.  It is plenty stable for my camera and lens.  Sometimes I drag my ancient Bogen with me because it’s taller and more robust, but if I’m hiking I take the little Slik.  For some helpful ideas on buying a tripod, check out Marko’s latest podcast on

Second stay out of the direct sun.  Get up before it does or go on an overcast day.  Chance the rain.  It’s the only way to get light that is even enough to keep you from blowing the highlights while keeping detail in the darker areas.  There’s enough dynamic range in fast flowing water as it is, don’t make it worse by going in bright sun.  Yes, recently I caught some sunlight in a waterfall, but it was early sun and angled very low to the ground so it worked.  Overhead sunlight is a real pain, so avoid if you can.  I walk away from waterfalls on a hike if it’s sunny; I know the results will be crap, so I don’t even bother.

Third use filters – a polarizer at least and a neutral density filter if you have one.  A polarizer filter helps to cut the glare and reflections on the water, but also on vegetation which really makes the colors pop (especially useful if the leaves are wet, which brings up the color, but also reflections).  A neutral density filter is like sunglasses for your camera.  It cuts the available light and allows for longer shutter speeds which is exactly what you need to give the water that smooth, silky look.  They come in different densities that reduce the exposure by a set number of stops.  I think I’ve got a 4 or 5 stop.  Combined with a polarizer it gets me good results.  A polarizer will generally cut 1-1 1/2 stops by itself.

Now, a lot of people think you need a long time, say 30 seconds or even more for shots like this, but I don’t go nearly that long.  I stay anywhere from 1 to 5 seconds generally at ISOs 100 and 200.  Here’s one from yesterday that’s 1.3 seconds at f10.

Lower Purgatory Falls

The big secret is to expose for the highlights!  It is REALLY easy to blow the whites in a waterfall.  That and the wrong white balance are my biggest pet peeves because both are easily avoided.  Watch your histogram or the high/low blinkies in your LCD screen…a little clipping is manageable, but a huge area is not.  Don’t worry that the rest of the shot is dark, you can correct for that in post processing.  Use spot metering if you have it and put it on the white water.

Another reason I don’t use very long exposure times is that I like being able to see the bottom of the stream and that often floating bubbles and debris will leave long trails in the photo as they pass by.  This shot was only 1.6 seconds at f9 and I love that you can see the rocks in the stream bed.  If I’d let it go longer, there’d be more distracting streaks.

Purgatory Brook and Mountain Laurel

As it is you get a sense of motion and of stillness.  I twisted the polarizer to full on to cut the glare on the leaves and bring up the richness of the green.  Ditto for the reflection of the sky in the water – it’s gone!

If you do blow more highlights than you intended, don’t worry too much.  You can use the adjustment brush in Lightroom (or similarly robust editing package) to correct those areas and bring the exposure down.  Providing you have some detail left and didn’t clip the water entirely, this can work and help give a more even exposure appearance.  I did that with this next shot because try as I might I just couldn’t get it right since the sun was almost overhead.

Looking down Purgatory brook

Just like I described in Black and White Photography 201, I used it here to bring down the exposure just a little.  For most of my work I turn the auto mask on so that it doesn’t leak the adjustment area out of the highlighted pass I make with the mouse.  Use an appropriate brush size (I always make mine a little on the large side) with a good amount of feather zone, flow and density.  It took me a lot of practice (do-overs) to get a feel for the tool, but now I use it a lot to manage the light and dark areas of my images.

Lastly, try to match your white balance to the scene.  If you go on an overcast day choose the cloudy or shade setting, they usually match pretty close (or a custom white balance if you’re feeling super techy) .  I’ve found that leaving it on auto often renders things much too cool and makes the water blue.  I hate that.  Sorry if you like it, that’s just me.  I’m kind of a realist when it comes to my nature photography and unless the water really was blue, it shouldn’t look like that in a picture.  Fix it in post if you don’t get it right in the camera.

Here’s a quick summary –

  1. Use a tripod
  2. No direct sun
  3. Use filters – polarizer and/or neutral density
  4. Expose for the highlights (spot metering helps)
  5. Use the adjustment brush or similar tool in post processing
  6. Use an appropriate white balance (no blue water!)

So that’s it.  After a while it becomes second nature, but at first you’ll probably have to practice a bit. Believe me, my first waterfall pictures are AWFUL.  I like to think I’ve improved.  At least a little.

Organization Resolution

Recently a thread about 2010 photography resolutions was resurrected on a board I post to on occasion.  Scrolling through the replies I found mine.  One of the 3 points on my list was to have better organization when it came to my picture files.  While it wasn’t a complete fail, it also wasn’t a complete success.

I’ve never been terribly organized when it comes to pictures.  I’ve got film negatives, prints and slides in basically a few places, but there is no overall structure to anything and I’ve got to poke through envelopes and binders to find what I want.  This is only part of the mess –

When I made the switch to digital I did about as well.  At first I tried renaming all the pictures to something I could easily remember.  Ha!  Talk about time consuming.  So then I just named the folder something I could identify and that worked a bit better.  But the folders themselves didn’t have any hierarchical structure and those started to get out of hand.  Too many files, too many names, too many things just floating out there.  And too much time needed to actually make it better.

Lightroom is my photo processor of choice and luckily for me it shines as a database and file organization engine.  Unluckily for me, I didn’t really use it consistently or intelligently last year.  I found myself repeating the same tasks over and over again with every shot that I processed, every group of pictures that I imported.  Uh, hello…Lightroom can be automated in almost every way you can think of.  Duh.  I really need to think about what I do repetitively and write a preset for it.

Ok, so the first thing I’ve done is set up a top level folder for that year.  Really?  Pretty basic, huh?  The thing is I didn’t do that before, instead trying to shove subject, location and date information into the folder name itself.  No sub-folders, no nothing.  Honestly though, I never shot like I did in 2010 though, and the sheer volume made things substantially worse.  Just look at part of it!  I has a dumb.

Better folder structure means I can find stuff.  Look at how many folder names have multiple subjects…and they’re still all in one folder.  Doh!  No more.  Next year will be different.

  • 2011
    • Month
      • Subject/event/place

If there is different content in the same import batch I will immediately separate them into individual folders even if they are imported into one at first.  Really time saving over the long haul and should only take seconds to do.

The next thing I’ve done is set up an import preset.  I learned about this at the Adobe channel on youtube and I’m so glad I found it.  It will automate a lot of the things I do including modify metadata.

I already use keywords extensively, so I don’t really need to improve there, but I do with ratings.  I don’t always rate every file I work on.  Generally if I work on a file I publish it to either flickr or smugmug or both.  Now that I’m at year end and choosing my best work, it’s a chore to have to go back and rate shots I should have done at the time.  Lightroom has collections based on star ratings and so it’s easy to find them once I’ve rated them.  I’ve also got collections based on color labels and keywords.  Smart collections, too, so things get added to them automatically.

Automatically.  What a wonderful word.  Another thing that LR does is publish photos to popular websites like flickr.  So far I haven’t used this feature, but will be doing so in 2011.  No need to clog up my hard drive with extraneous jpeg files.

I didn’t intend for this to be a how-to exactly, there are plenty of better tutorial sites out there, but just to illustrate my pain and some of the things I’m going to do about it next year.  If anyone reading is a LR3 user who wants to share something that helps you stay organized and on top of things, I’d love to hear it.  LR is such a huge application that I know I haven’t poked into all its dark corners yet.