Thursday, March 29, 2018

Mean Streets Meets Edward Hopper

The whole notion of color photography was something that came late to me. For most of my early film days recording the world was all about using Tri-x or Plus-x to capture all those grainy shades of grey. Mostly the reasons had to do with simple economics; film has a cost per click that's no longer an issue in digital but it was also about control. Even as a struggling college student, I could develop and print b&w on my own. Dodge, burn, crop and expose by the red light of my safe light and walk out with images that I could say were a cut above just simple recordings. Shooting color on the other hand, meant surrendering your photos to a lab and having to pay for every edit of every image.

Fast forward to the next century and I've got thousands of negatives from an historical New York that now mostly exists in documentaries and Martin Scorsese movies. Of course, all in glorious black and white. Not that those limitations were a bad thing. B&W isn't simply the absence of color it's also a medium in its own right. Stipped down to the bare essential shades of grey, you're forced to pay attention to details, composition and expression. And as time has moved on, it's also become an historical marker that gives images a context for time and place as well.

But now, a century later and armed with Photoshop, Lightroom, personal printers and the fact that nearly all images are now viewed on monitors I'm more than happy to shoot color. There's no lack of inspirational photographers (Joe McNally, Mark Seliger, Erik Almas to name a few) and I finally feel that I have enough control that I can build on my prior experiences and deliver my own perspective. But what to do with all those funky b&w shots collecting dust in my archives?

The shot below was a quick snapshot from a Sunday afternoon. Early 70s, somewhere in Chelsea. Brilliant blue sky with the odd skywriting framed in by the brownstones. Honestly, in black and white, it's not much to write home about. I stuck it back in the archives and forgot about it. A few years later on my wife was persistent enough to drag me to the Museum of Modern Art. I like New York museums about as much as I like department stores which is to say between parking, crowds and waiting in lines, not much at all. On this day though, the art gods smiled on me and I got to see Edward Hopper's "Early Sunday Morning" live and up close. It was almost enough to make the crowds disappear for a while. That row of brownstones... the warm colors, that feeling of a singular time and place.

Where had I seen that before?

A walk in the park with some friends, a few joints and a trek to my friends apartment in Chelsea. Odd skywriting against a brilliant blue sky. Warm tones of late afternoon Sun starting to light up the brownstones. Scanning the negative let Photoshop kill the grain at the expense of some sharpness but in monochrome it was still just a faded memory.

Thirty years on, I'd learned enough Photoshop to let me paint in the colors over the b&w original. Depending on the blend mode (e.g. color, overlay, soft light, etc), each color can present with different levels of saturation. Keeping each color on it's own layer let's you fine tune but early on, my painting skills were pretty rudimentary.

Discovering "Match Color" buried a few menu layers deep made me think I might possibly borrow a palette to improve the rendering. In the back of my mind, I'd always been inspired by Edward Hopper's "Early Sunday Morning" so the choice of which color palette to test was a no brainer.

This is where the magic happens. You'll need two files... a source, the file that you want to pull the colors from and a target (the destination image) which is the photo that you want to apply the colors to. The resolution, composition and size of the source doesn't really matter at all. You're only grabbing the colors so even a low res file will do just fine. Open the target image, then go to Image -> Adjustments -> Match Colors to get the following dialog box.

The destination will already be prefilled at the top. Click on the drop down menu labelled Source to navigate and select your file. If there's more than one layer in it, there's an additional option to select the one you want.

It's worth noting that you don't even have to open the "source" file... it's enough for it to be accessible by Photoshop. Clicking the source button and navigating to it makes the color palette accessible to the target file.

The initial rendering is almost always too dark. Tweaking the sliders is enough to bring the tonality in range. This will vary for every set of images.

Hmmm. Look at me, making aesthetic judgements.

The sliders in "Match Color" brought the colors into range. A few final tweaks in levels got me here.

So the result is a fusion between my humble snapshot and Hopper's remarkable color palette. In a million years I'd never be able to match his eye for color but I'm happy to have the means to access them in my own way. If I could look at a Rembrandt and be inspired to copy his lighting is this any less legitimate?

For a blue collar kid who was challenged to draw anything better than stick figures and never went to art school I'm feeling pretty smug. One more technique that I can use to set my work apart and of course if this process inspires your own vision, no one would be happier than me.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Have I Got a Deal for You!

Let me start out by saying I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into Adobe's subscription model for software payment. Something about being on the hook for money going out every month regardless of whether I was rich or poor really grated on my inner miser.

Over time I was won over by the fact that the costs were reasonable (at least for the Photographer's package of Lightroom and Photoshop) and that the regular updates made a qualitative difference in my workflow. Not bad for what was just a bit more than the cost of a latte and croissant.

Updating was reduced to clicking on a button and spending a few minutes of quality time with my dog while the software installed itself. Painless and one less thing that required my undivided attention staring at a screen. Surprisingly,  I'm now on board. It seems to be win/win for everyone.

So it was with an open mind that I watched a Terry White tutorial about Adobe Stock. Among all the YouTube literati, Terry is particularly knowledgeable, succinct and enlightening about all of the topics he covers. In a few clicks, he was able to demonstrate how Adobe built in the sharing mechanism right into Lightroom so all you had to do was upload your assets, supplement Adobe's automatic image recognition software with some custom tags and wait for the money to roll in.

Terry even put it in terms a cheapskate like me could understand.... "I really like making money while I'm sleeping".

Once you've made a sale Adobe will let your profits accumulate and then issue a payout at intervals of $50. What could be better than another income stream for work that I'd already done? I didn't think I'd be financing a beach house with the profits but something made me think I could possibly offset the fees charged by Adobe software licensing in some kind of symbiotic feedback loop.

Sadly the reality didn't quite live up to the hype.

As advertised, the upload process is a breeze but the image vetting that goes on is surprisingly strict and seemingly arbitrary. For various reasons, most of the images I uploaded were rejected outright. Lack of aesthetic interest, grain/noise problem, intellectual property violation were the usual reasons cited. I've developed a pretty thick skin over the years so my reaction to rejection is to just take it as a learning point. Obviously if I'm missing something basic I should really pay attention and learn so I don't do it again has been my main takeaway. The image below for example, was turned away for an intellectual property violation.

Hmmm... where? If you blow it up on screen, way off at the end of the block is a store sign. Really, is that it? The church, the street sign, maybe the barely legible license plate on the Cinque Cento?

Now understand, this isn't sour grapes. Aesthetic judgements can fall all over the spectrum and I'm perfectly fine with others not sharing my own, sometimes peculiar outlook but I'm at a loss to discern the disqualifying characteristics here because absent that bit of knowledge, I'm likely to do it again. As much as I love making money in my sleep, I really hate making the same mistake twice.

Ultimately, some of my files were accepted and in a short while I was actually making sales!

Twenty five cents? If the grammar police were watching, they should be fined for illegal use of exclamation points.

There's a semi Italian word that I still fall back on with alarming regularity. Acita.

Basically anything that gives you anxiety, concern or disappointment may give you acita... heartburn, upset stomach, nausea. And there are some things in life that you can't dodge. Quarterly tax payments. Late fees. Cancelled flights and missed meetings. Acita.  But there are also things that are difficult and still eminently worthwhile to endure. The reward can justify the sweat and late nights and time spent not doing things you love. But with apologies to Adobe, this just isn't one of them.

It was interesting to see that under Adobe's standard image license, that photo is resold at nearly $10. Cheap for image rights but still 40 times what they're paying me for it. And adding insult to injury, they get to hold on to that money, mine and everyone else participating, until it reaches a critical mass. It's like giving them the photos and a loan at the same time. For my account to reach $50, I'd have to spend days, weeks even months editing, submitting and tagging files. Or at the rates they're paying, wait about ten years. That's a long wait for so much acita.

Friday, January 26, 2018

A Cool Way to Save Ten Minutes

What can you do with an extra 10 minutes? Walk around the block? Get a cup of coffee? Catch up with yesterday's sports scores?

Adobe just released version 19.1.0 of Photoshop, now with a magical, one button option to automatically select the subject in a photo. If their marketing department was on the ball, they might have named it the "Get Your 10 Free Minutes Here" button.

It works like this. If you imagine that most images with people can be broken down into a subject and a background, one of the most time consuming production tasks has always been to find a easy way to separate the two.

Photoshop already has a lot of tools with dozens of options to do this cleanly but until recently, significant amounts of skill, technique and practice were needed to get results that looked convincing. The prior release introduced the "Select and Mask" feature which was a huge step forward in simplifying the process, particularly in the always challenging task of masking hair or anything that has fine, wispy edges. That upgrade has already saved me countless hours and improved my results dramatically. Now, with the help of some AI, Photoshop is smart enough to assess a photo and make reasonably accurate decisions about what constitutes a subject.

Choosing the Quick Selection Tool now brings up the "Select Subject" button (highlighted in green). In photos with clear subjects and simple backgrounds, this works particularly well.

As advertised, one click of the button and the subject is magically selected.

So it's fast and relatively accurate but most images with hair or complex edges are still going to need some finessing with Refine Edge Brush Tool found in Select and Mask.

In previous versions I might have used the Quick Select, Magnetic Lasso or Pen Tool and invested 5 to 10 minutes to get to the same stage. I don't doubt that for images with noisy, complicated backgrounds I'm still going to have to fall back to those tried and true methods but for images with clear delineations between subjects and background (as in most studio shots) that one click should buy me enough time to skip out for a coffee and be back in time to pick up where I would have been before "Select Subject" was available.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Half a Ghost Story

Way back when I was was just a pain in the ass kid with a camera, my next door neighbor noticed that photography was something that I seemed to be obsessed with and was thoughtful enough to gift me all of her late husband's camera gear. This was in the seventies. Her husband had passed away sometime in the late 50s/early 60s so the equipment she gave me was just bordering on vintage, in mint condition and with the last roll of film half exposed and still in camera.

Everything was mechanical, gun metal grey and bakelite. There were lots of widgets who's function I could only guess at, a deadly serious looking Wesson exposure meter and maybe most interesting of all, an Olympus 35mm half frame camera. "Half frame" means that each exposure is exactly 50% smaller that a regular image. Instead of a horizontal 36x24 mm negative, you get two vertical images squeezed into the same space. This magically doubles the number of photos on a roll of film from 36 to 72 but of course, has the drawback that with the smaller size, each photo is limited to half the resolution of a regular image.
A bit worse for the wear, my Olympus half frame.
And the whole thing was entirely mechanical, not a battery, power switch or circuit to be found. The 22.5mm lens gave it a wide angle field of view with a correspondingly vast depth of field. You could set the focus to 5 feet and expect that everything from that distance to infinity would be razor sharp. I didn't appreciate it at the time but the lack of a dslr mirror meant it was as quiet as a Leica. Combine that with it's small size, ridiculously sharp range of focus and whisper quiet operation, and you had something close to a perfect street or travel camera.

The half frame format doubled the number of exposures per roll of film to 72. Handy when shooting a bunch of fidgety twins and grandparents.

Notably absent was any kind of flash equipment. Flashbulbs were still state of the art at the time and electronic flash reserved for pros with the budgets to afford them. More about this later.

I was just getting familiar with the camera, when the back unexpectedly popped off and exposed what was left of the film. I had made a mental note to have the film processed and as a token of gratitude, give the prints to my neighbor. It upset me to realize that all the images that had been patiently waiting there for all those years were now gone forever. This was I thought, bad karma.

Later that weekend we headed upstate to a friends country house. At one point, there were a few people sitting around a table, busily making short work of some donuts and apple cider. I was a few feet away, my eye glued to the viewfinder as I tried to frame them in and get familiar with the camera controls.

It was as I was looking through the viewfinder, that I saw a brilliant flash of light reflecting off all the walls in the room.

No noise... just pure, white light. I've fired off hundreds of thousands of flashes in my life and each one is accompanied by an audible pop as the capacitor discharges. This was conspicuous by its quiet. Just brilliant, room filling light and then, nothing.

My first thought was that someone had fired a flash from behind me but as I swiveled my head around I was surprised to not find anyone there. Maybe a car headlight was my next thought but again, there were no windows or doors where that angle would have made sense.

My girlfriend, sitting at the table with everyone else looked at me quizzically... "I thought you said there wasn't a flash on that camera?"

Of course, no. There wasn't. Still, everyone sitting around the table had the same description of a ball of light coming from the camera at the same moment I saw the corresponding reflections bouncing off the walls.

These frames were taken a few seconds apart. Sometime in between, everyone witnessed the ball of light. The expressions are basically, "you're kidding, right?".

Now this might be a good time to interject that I'm a devout agnostic, not the least bit superstitious and have zero tolerance for psychic mumbo jumbo. Still, something really odd and inexplicable happened that night and witnessed by a group of people who years later, still recall all the details as if it happened yesterday.

So the ghost part of the story ends there. I know... maybe not a full blown ghost story but this is after all, a photography blog. And no, that ball of light thing? It never, ever happened again.

We did spend the rest of the weekend trying to come up with plausible interpretations of what happened... blown out light bulbs, power surges, drug related hallucinations (it was the 70s after all) but nothing ever came close to a satisfactory explanation. If there are any mystics or physicists out there, I'd welcome your interest.

But I Really Liked the Camera

Paranormal phenomenon aside, it did turn out to be a really great little camera. In retrospect, it's limitations forced me to learn more about photography than I would have with any conventional camera. Not having an built in meter made me pretty savvy at estimating exposures. The small size made it easy to keep stashed away in my jacket pocket. Having 72 frames to to play with meant I could afford to shoot and experiment as much as I wanted without going broke. The small negative size forced me to actually pay attention to what was in the viewfinder and intentionally crop tight... I didn't have the luxury of a lot of pixels to waste. Decades before smartphones gave people the possibility of always having a camera with them, this gave me the tools to do the same.

Driving around New York late one night I even put it through its landscape paces. The cross shaped highlights on the lights are from the minimal number of blades on the diaphragm. I've printed them out at 11x14 and still found the grain and sharpness to be not only acceptable but to have a kind of filmy character not easily reproduced in digital.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Lightroom: Classic vs. CC

It's been a few months since Adobe released its latest Lightroom update. The fact that they've chosen to bundle several different versions into one release has been a source of confusion for many users. Both Lightroom Classic and CC are available with the subscription plan. If you're on the plan and currently using LR, you now have access to the full version CC as well with an initial online storage allotment of 20gb.

Here's a quick summary of updates and features to help you sort things out.

Lightroom Classic

This is exactly what Lightroom has been all along with a few improvements sprinkled in. As of this release, Adobe will only be updating their subscription version. The shrink wrapped edition may still be sold for a limited time but will no longer receive additional updates.

  • Now noticeably faster than previous versions
  • Some additional selection options in retouching tools
  • Updated support for new cameras
  • Interface is as complex as ever (more of a challenge for new users)
  • Photos, catalogs and edits are tied to a single computer (Mac or PC)
  • Organization requires some substantial planning and attention for maintaining catalog integrity and backups.

Lightroom CC

This is a ground up, nuts and bolts reimagining of Lightroom. Both the Classic and CC versions endeavor to do the same things but other than sharing a common name, they look and feel like different programs.

  • Cloud based storage. This means that your photos are available everywhere on any device Assuming a decent Internet connection, you can edit on your smartphone, iPad or laptop from your beach chair, cafe table or even your train commute home. They've even eliminated the requirement to actually have the app, you can use your web browser for nearly the same set of features. 
  • Enhanced searching. Adobe has adapted their Sensei search engine, the same one used in their Adobe Stock library, for use in your personal catalogs. The software is smart enough that if you search for cars, women, children, airplane, etc. the results will mostly contain what you looked for. It does this passably well with occasionally unexpected (and sometimes amusing) results. Even though it's just one step up from a parlor trick it's reasonable to expect that as the algorithms are improved, so will the results.
  • Shareable content. Leveraging the fact that your content is stored in the cloud, Adobe has made sharing it a one click process. Once your images are in a gallery, just right click on it to get a URL that seamlessly publishes your images.
  • Streamlined interface. The user experience looks like a clean, modern web app as opposed to a ten year old computer based application
  • As of version 1.0, Lightroom CC only has a subset of the features available in Classic. It's a decent image editor but doesn't have the full range of editing tools you may take for granted.
  • No tethering for image capture. This may be a deal breaker for many pros who rely on real time image capture and display as part of their process. While Classic did a mediocre job of tethering, CC doesn't do it all. 
  • Some of the "modules" available in Classic are still available as features in CC but addressed in different ways. You can for example, still generate a slideshow and publish content to the web (with fewer bells and whistles) but notably absent are the map, book and print modules. Facial recognition, compare and survey views are also not available.

Lightroom Classic has had web synchronization for some time now. That feature will now sync your photographs to your Lightroom CC catalog but only uploads the jpeg version (direct import to CC gives you access to the raw version as well) and critically, omits any keywords you may have assigned. That's regrettable as LR Classic does do an excellent job of keywording and metadata manipulation. Adobe may be missing an opportunity here to bridge some of the best features of both.

In introducing CC, Adobe has created some intriguing new possibilities. Access to a specific catalog is still based on user credentials so for any large institution, it's not possible to share a master catalog to groups of users without running afoul of Adobe's licensing restrictions. On the other hand, for users in a smaller work environment it's not clear that they'd be subject to the same limitations. That opens up the possibility of a robust DAM solution for a fraction of what it would cost to implement a traditional software package. I'd guess, and this is purely speculation on my part, that a formal multi user version may be a few upgrades away.

Finally, Adobe quite intentionally labelled this as version 1.0. If you're upset that they released a software package that in some ways may seem limited, you may be missing the point that it also opens the door to a new range of possibilities as well.

Lightroom CC apparently has a sense of humor. When I searched for "lab" it returned what I thought was a pretty good collection of lab photos. And one of my old dog Moose. Who was part lab.

Mean Streets Meets Edward Hopper

The whole notion of color photography was something that came late to me. For most of my early film days recording the world was all about u...