Category Archives: Discussion

Comments and critique of our photographs

PSA Competition Discussion #4

These are the judges comments for Mary’s photograph “Dance Behind Bars.” Log in to the TMCC website to see each of the PSA competition photographs reviewed to date, and contribute to the discussion with your own thoughts about each one.

Picture as submitted…

Edited for discussion….

My comments:

In the very first paragraph of the introduction of Paulo Coelho’s book “Eleven Minutes,” the author writes: “On 29th May 2002, just hours before I put the finishing touches to this book, I visited the Grotto in Lourdes, France, to fill a few bottles with miraculous water from the spring. Inside the Basilica, a gentleman in his seventies said to me: ‘You know, you look just like Paulo Coelho.’ I said that I was Paulo Coelho. The man embraced me and introduced me to his wife and granddaughter. He spoke of the importance of my books in his life, concluding: ‘They make me dream.’ I have often heard those words before, and they always please me greatly.”

I’ve read several of Coelho’s books recently. They’re short novels; he’s best known for “The Alchemist.” I liked “The Hippie” the most of his books that I’ve read so far. If they don’t make you dream, they’ll at least make you think. Really… can we even define what a hippie is, beyond stereotypes and physical appearances? But I’m getting off track.

In 2012, just as I was getting serious about photography and searching for opportunities to sell my work, I went to visit Camille, Director of the Western Colorado Art Museum. I laid out several landscape photographs on a long table as she looked carefully at each one. I was always proud of the work I did, but as the moments passed by I had an uneasy feeling that something was wrong. Finally, she said something to the effect that the prints would go well in some sort of gift shop on Main Street. “So you don’t like them,” I interpreted, thinking they should be exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; not Alida’s on Main Street in Grand Junction. When I pressed her further on what sort of art she did like, she said, “art that makes me dream.” So began my quest to make images that would make a more profound impression on the art world than a poster in a gift shop.

Well, I don’t know about the idea of invading another person’s dreams with my photography, but one thing I do know for sure… which is that a good photograph takes us somewhere. Just like a good book or song that we get immersed in, and takes us to another time or place, a good photograph can do the same thing. That’s what I like about Mary’s photograph. I can imagine strolling through a gritty back alley of Paris or Casablanca. I would give this picture high marks just for being different, and as one judge described: “mysterious.” I appreciate a creative eye… an eye which looks for interesting things in not so obvious places. The picture causes me to look twice, and holds my attention.

The third judge speaks of removing a few elements from the image. I suppose one’s response to that would depend on whether the photographer considers herself a photojournalist or a fine-art photographer. I am definitely the latter at this point in my life, although my roots in photography date back to the infancy of Photoshop when I worked producing real estate brochures showcasing some of the fanciest homes in Aspen and Vail. The rule was that if it was a permanent fixture, I could not clone it out using Photoshop. If the photographer forgot to move a trash can from the front of the home, I could do that in Photoshop. But I couldn’t remove a power line. I’m glad to be free from that type of work, and can go about creating whatever I care to imagine.

If we’re looking at this picture from a fine art perspective, what about that recessed shelf and light fixture overhead? If you were a painter starting with a blank canvas, would you introduce those elements into the scene? I think not… so I took the liberty of cloning them out to see if it improves the picture. I darkened the top of the picture with a slight vignette which helps push the eye toward the primary center of interest. I also introduced a bit more texture into the wall – I love texture and will photograph something for that reason alone, especially something that I’ll want to print on paper. Of course when it gets to print, I want as much sharpness and detail as I can squeeze out of the image capture and post-processing. The gritty texture here is a big part of the story. The picture brings me to a place that I’ll probably never visit in real life. Thank goodness for photography.

Ed Kunzelman

PSA Competition Discussion #3

These are the judges comments for Derrick’s photograph “Outlet Falls”…

Picture as submitted…

Edited for discussion….

My comments:

I agree… it is a beautiful scene, and a wonderful long exposure that gives motion to the water. I wouldn’t argue a bit with the composition. There are inherent challenges with shooting canyons on sunny days, whether it’s this scene or our own Colorado National Monument, the contrast between shadows and highlights can adversely impact detail and color balance. Detail can easily get washed out in the bright areas, or plugged in the dark areas. Color of the rocks in shaded areas leans toward blue, while bright light in canyon walls looks more yellow. Some photographers resort to shooting multiple exposures and blending them together in an HDR application. Other photographers hope for a better day or time when a few clouds assist with diffusing some of that harsh light, and serve to naturally balance the exposure. If I had a chance to return to this location, I’d love to shoot it on a rainy day. The foliage would be dripping with color and the contrast would be held in check.

This picture obviously got a push in post-processing. The green is electric. I’m really sort of surprised that none of the judges objected to that. The closest any comment came to the color balance was a mention of chartreuse green. Well, I honestly didn’t know what shade of green is meant by chartreuse so I had to look it up. I don’t think I like it for a landscape picture. But the worst of it is that the color contaminates the entire scene.

Now, remember one really important thing… the photographer may have created the colors in this picture in the fashion of what he likes best. Maybe he hates red, or loves neon green. That’s his prerogative. Color saturation is the most subjective component, and dare say, most contentious part of photography. Nothing lights up a debate like HDR, and the surreal effects that it can have on color. Some professional photographers insist that highly saturated pictures are the only thing that sell.

That said, I look at this picture from my perspective… which is that I want my colors to be rich and, well, colorful, but reasonably natural. It boils down to this: green’s two major components are blue and yellow. The rocks in the sunny side of the canyon of this picture are tinted yellowish-green, while the rocks in the shade on the left are bluish-green. Try to look at those colors isolated from the rest of the picture and you’ll see the color cast. The vegetation is loaded with pure green. The waterfall is tinted cyan, and the foreground water is really blue. All in all, there isn’t much red in the picture which is what that third judge is seeing in “similar values.”

Correcting color balance is almost always an exercise in working in different ways in different parts of the picture… like making the sky bluer and the rocks of a canyon less blue in most of our Monument pictures. However this is a case where the whole picture could be improved by a single step. And Photoshop makes it easy. By the way, all of my edits are in Photoshop but I’m pretty sure there are parallels in Lightroom. I just don’t use it at all, so can’t speak to techniques in that application. But the concept is the same. Once you understand what you’re looking at and trying to accomplish, the solution can be easy enough to execute in about any photo editing software. The hard part is seeing the problem.

Anyway, back to my one step solution for this image. It’s in Photoshop, using the “Levels” adjustment. On the right side of the dialog box, there are three eyedroppers. Select the one in the middle… it’s the one that resets the point at which you apply it in the picture to neutral gray. The theory is that if something in the picture is supposed to be gray, and actually is, then the other colors will be correct. So click on that tool and move the pointer to an area of the picture that should be gray… like the dark rocks in the shade on the left. Click on a few different places and see what happens. You’ll get quite a variation of color for results (some of which are too extreme), but the one thing that will be consistent is that the picture will turn more red. That’s because it was overall dominated by green to begin with and needed red to balance properly. It’s not that the computer likes red better, it’s just working by the numbers to balance color.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for your interest in this discussion. I suspect we’re all trying to make better pictures, whatever that might mean. I don’t claim to be “right” or “better”… I just like to stir the pot with ideas and a different way of looking at things. I hope everyone posts a thought of their own here as well.

Ed Kunzelman

PSA Competition Discussion #2

These are the judges comments for Debbie’s photograph “The Eyes of Innocence.”

Agree? Disagree? Without a TMCC meeting this month, this is a great opportunity to connect with other club members. Share your comments and keep the discussion going!

Picture as submitted…

Edited for discussion….

My comments:

Consensus among the judges is that the picture could be cropped from the left. I agree – I like a square crop in pictures like this. I also agree that the eyes have kind of a hypnotic effect… which makes me wonder if they shouldn’t be a little brighter? The colors of the whole picture are muted. Maybe that was the photographer’s intent… kind of gives a pastel or watercolor feel to the image. But let’s look at another option.

In the edited version, I’ve increased the saturation and contrast in the eyes. Overall saturation is an easy edit. For the eyes, in Photoshop I made a selection using the lasso tool. The lasso tool probably dates to the first version of Photoshop, but I still use it for a selection technique more than any other. In this case, I drew a freehand circle, just beyond the whites in the black circle around their eyes, feathered the selection one pixel, and then lightened the eyes. In Photoshop Levels, I scooted the highlight slider on the right from 255 to about 190. That lightens the brighter areas of the selection without changing the darker areas…. effectively increasing contrast. It’s important to do that just within the selection area containing the eyes though, otherwise brightening the background has an adverse effect on the picture. In fact, learning to work selectively on individual colors, elements or tonal ranges is a key ingredient of image editing.

Ed Kunzelman

 

PSA Competition Discussion #1

These are the judges comments for Angela’s photograph “Grand Mesa Fall”…

Picture as submitted…

Edited for discussion….

My comments:

It’s interesting that one judge suggests cropping from the top which eliminates part of the background desert landscape, while the other judge suggests the opposite by including more sky. I can see Angela’s thought in the matter… if the sky lacks any sort of drama, take it out of the picture. That’s well and fine, except in this case it throws off the balance of the picture. It feels pinched at the top. I agree that it should go one way or another, but cropping off the top makes it feel even more pinched, and eliminates much of what likely attracted the photographer to the scene in the first place…. which is the contrast of warm fall colors on the Mesa with the cool desert colors in the background. The background makes the picture a little different than most fall colors images, so I vote for giving the top a little more breathing room.

Now, if you think doctoring a boring sky in the computer is an inexcusable distortion of truth, close your eyes for a minute. But before I begin messing with the sky, remember that you almost always have an opportunity to improve the picture by going back under different conditions. Most really good landscape photographers scout the composition for a picture, but might return to the scene several times before light and atmospheric conditions produce the best picture. The rest of us take what we get no matter the light, forget about it, and go on to the next shot. Maybe wait awhile – after all, clouds in the mountains change by the minute. Or return to the scene (if you can) the next day. I can hear Angela screaming that she needs to go to work the next day. Of course, that’s the way it is, but the best landscape photographs are typically created out of either sheer luck for being in the right place at the right time when all of the elements manifest perfectly, or persistence.

On the other hand, we’re living in a Photoshop world, so consider helping nature along the path to a better picture. Keep in mind that not all clouds suitable for the purpose are created equal. In this case, I think a sky with really bright blue and contrasty white clouds would compete with the Bookcliffs. Something that blends with the mountains in the background and just opens up the space, but maintains the tranquility of the scene would be good. I keep a vast library of cloud pictures for just this reason. But before you condemn this as Photoshop cheating and think we are the first in history to fake it, consider the fact that photographers from the 19th century blended a couple of pictures together in the darkroom to address the limitations of film’s limited tonal range of that era. The fact that sky and clouds were used from a different day was never, to my knowledge, a big issue.

Regarding the judges “improvements,” I have never understood the criticism that there’s “no real center of interest,” or “mountains draw eye away from fall colors” as they’ve expressed here toward Angela’s picture. I think it’s a ridiculous comment. Would they prefer a huge oil rig rising out of the scene? We can’t look at two things in one viewing? I think the human brain can handle slightly more complex images… a nice landscape photo invites the viewer to wander throughout the scene without getting stuck on a single element. Again, the background mountains and fall colors create such an interesting dichotomy that to eliminate one or the other defeats the purpose of the picture.

Regarding any perceived softness that one judge sees, the solution simply lies in a slight bit of additional sharpening in post-processing…. not changing the aperture. A quick glance at this picture’s metadata indicates the picture was shot at F/9, which is within the range of maximum sharpness that about any lens will provide.

I don’t see this scene as “late” fall. I see it as peak color season. The confusion arises possibly from the aspens on the left that are in the shade. Those look a little muddy, although lightening the image overall isn’t gonna really change that. Think about it like this…. If you take black and lighten it, all you get is gray. It doesn’t change the color or add detail. In this case, lightening the trees in the shade isn’t gonna give the picture any more pop to the color. Try this instead… in Photoshop, draw a loose selection of the trees in the shade with the lasso tool, and feather the edge 100 pixels or so, so that the changes don’t produce a hard edge. Then go into “Levels” and scoot the mid-tone slider to the left in the red channel, and the mid-tone slider to the right in the blue channel. Doesn’t need to be much. That step effectively reduces blue and adds yellow, making that area of trees look more orange and less muddy… as they naturally appear in the shade during the time of day in this picture. Keep in mind… there are probably a hundred ways to accomplish the same thing in post-processing. Increasing saturation typically does the same thing by increasing the dominant colors and lowering the minor color. Using levels or curves just gives more precise control over the changes. The picture could benefit from just a slight increase of overall saturation… without getting too surreal in color.

Anyway, these are the changes that I think improve the picture. By all means, reply with a rebuttal or another opinion. That’s what I always found to be the most valuable part of club competitions… not that one picture is better than another, or that doing this or that even improves a picture, but that the discussion becomes the process by which all of us learn to become better photographers.

Ed Kunzelman

email: ed@edwardkunzelman.com