Contrast Masks: An Initial Foray

The more I photograph the more I become aware of what I want to achieve with a particular photograph. Often when a photograph fails to wow me it’s not because I didn’t get the composition right but rather it is because it doesn’t leap of the page in the way that I think it should. My big struggle has been that I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the problem is it not sharp enough, not saturated enough not enough contrast. What?

I’ve never been much of a student of history but I do enjoy understanding how other people work and what tools they use. Watching the Christopher Burkett video I posted recently there was the mention of his use of contrast masks and the impact these have on his images. So why not give that a go?

Using ‘The Google’ I found this tutorial on the use of digital contrast masks on the luminous landscape website. Just following the tutorial as described I was able to take the image from last week from this:

to this:

Which with some final tweaks becomes this:


What do you think? Seems like an improvement to me.

If something’s worth doing it’s worth doing to excess. I’ve subsequently tried this technique out on 20 or so images with varying degrees of success. The contrast mask, not too surprisingly, reduces contrast which may not be the appropriate fix for all of my images. I’m starting to have a sense of where this technique will work for my photographs, generally for images that I take within 10 – 15 mins of sunrise and will try this out before I do any heavy lifting in photoshop. Try it out for yourself and let me know how things turn out.

iPhone Lomography – My Current Workflow

As I’ve mentioned before here, I’m having a blast working with the camera on my iPhone, largely pushing into territory I had previously thought was not for me. One of the presets that gives an effect that I like is ‘Lomo’ in the app Phototoaster. Not being a student of history it took me a while to realise that ‘Lomo’ actually refers to a camera, the Lomo LC-A, that has somewhat of a cult following. Characteristic photos from the Lomo LC-A have effects caused by light leaks, strong vignettes and rich, saturated colors. Often lomographers will shoot with slide film and cross-process to give strong color shifts. Take a dip into the Lomography photostream here.

While I mull over the purchase of an LC-A+ I’m going to continue playing with my iPhone. Read on to see how easy it is with the iPhone.

I am typically using Camera+ rather than the camera app that comes with the iPhone. Here is the image as shot. Lots of problems with this, my biggest criticism is that I should have been closer to crop out the sky and the trailer. You can zoom with Camera+ but be aware that it is a digital zoom – in effect you’re just using less of the sensor. If I have to crop I’d prefer to do it in software after the fact. I’ll admit that I think cropping is not a big deal particularly with my DLSR but is an issue with the small files that come from the iPhone, so try to get it right in ‘iPhone’ as it were.

The first step is to bring the file into PhotoForge and do some preliminary editing. Photoforge is a great app with lots of capabilities, curves, sharpening, cropping, textures, frames and effects and is one that I highly recommend. One of the neat things is that Photoforge has layers so you can work in a layer based manner if that is something that you’re used to. I generally am not using layers but I’m also just doing very simple edits. I will generally look at the levels panel and tweak there if I think the image needs it. In this case it didn’t a levels adjustment and so I moved on to add a bit of contrast using the curves function. I didn’t like any of the other tweaks that I might usually add and so I saved the file back to the photolibrary and jumped into Phototoaster.

I’m almost exclusively using Phototoaster now to add the Lomo effect. There is a Lomo effect in PhotoForge but it feels a bit washed out for my taste. I cropped the image to a square to remove the distractions and applied the Lomo effect which can be found …

I like the square but also wanted to see what else I could do. Here I didn’t lock the crop to a particular ratio and came up with this crop that I particularly liked and as before then added the Lomo effect.

Paying Attention to What Has Your Attention

“If you don’t pay appropriate attention to what has your attention, it will take more of your attention than it deserves.”

David AllenGetting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

I love the quote above from David Allen, the productivity guru most well known for Getting Things Done or the ‘GTD System’. It’s so right, on so many levels. Ignore the things that you should be doing and they will demand your attention, even if only to stop you from sleeping because you’re thinking about those issues as you try to nod off.

It was this David Allen quote that I was mindful of when I was away in Martha’s Vineyard a week or so ago but really in a very different way.  I do find it difficult to photograph if I’m not fully present and this can take some time to get to if there’s all kinds of other stuff unrelated to the scene in front of me that I’m thinking about.  Fortunately I have no problem quieting everything else to focus on what’s in front of me, although it can take 15 – 20 mins and a couple of hundred frames to get into the zone.

What I am aware of though, is that I can be so intently focused on the scene that I have framed that I frequently ignore the moments when my intuition tells me there’s a great photograph to be had. This could be paying attention to some stuff that I would consider to be a little weird – such as the image of the shells and seaweed above – and would normally walk by, simply reframing from the position that I’m already in or could involve a bit of a wander to get to a place where the light is doing interesting things.

How clear what the photograph is also varies – it can be crystal clear or could take a bit of work to get there. The work usually typically involves simplifying the image so that it has just the elements critical for whatever caught my eye, whether it was interesting light, a vivid color or something odd happening such as how the waves came together in the image below.

I feel that some of my better photographs have been in response to listening to my intuition and so, as is the case in many aspects of life, paying attention to what has your attention is equally applicable to photography and is a work in progress for me.

Wide Angle Distortion – Does this Lens Make me Look Fat?

Over Labor Day weekend I spent some time playing with my regular lens walk around lens, Canon’s 24-104, but using it at the wide angle setting. I know that wide angle lenses can cause distortion and have particularly noticed curved horizons as the a byproduct of working with the wide angle. Converging verticals and keystoning are also other hallmarks of a wide angle lens.

I’ve read all this in books but hadn’t really internalized it until I made this image:

Sort of annoying because I wanted to include a big open sky.

Keeping the sensor parrallel to the lighthouse resulted in this:

A little better. When I got this home I used the function within lightroom to correct for the lens used and got this image:

I looked at this for a while but couldn’t put my finger on what was the problem with it. Then it dawned on me. Correcting for lens distortion made the lighthouse ‘chunkier’ than it actually seems in real life. There’s a lesson for all of us in that – be careful with automatic settings. They work great the majority of the time but not always.

I finally decided on how I wanted the image to look and came up with this:

Tons of fun and some good lessons.

Book Comment: Outdoor Photography Masterclass – Niall Benvie

I’ve been trying to understand the key elements of ‘Intimate Landscapes’ – I’m still a long way from them making even vague sense to me – but I am looking at as many photographs as I can in this style and reading as much as I can too.  Niall Benvie‘s article in Outdoor Photography about ‘Deconstructed landscapes’.  You can find a version of the article on his blog here, certainly worth a read.

I enjoyed the article enough to look up his books and came across Outdoor Photography Masterclass.  Against my better judgement, since I’m trying to ween myself off ‘how to’ books,  I ordered it and spent last weekend flipping through it.  The book is broken up as though it were a 3 day workshop.  I haven’t gotten deeply into the specifics of workflow, basic processing etc., – it seems like the usual affair, generally solid advice, perhaps a little dated.  A minor quibble for instance – I’m using 8 GB memory cards, shooting raw I get about 280 images per card.  I generally delete the out of focus stuff and keep the rest.  It’s quite possible for me to have at least 8 GB of images from a morning or evening shoot more than will fit onto the DVD recommended for archiving purposes.

What I really liked were the more thought provoking short essays at the end of each chapter, covering topics such as ‘How Should we Critique Outdoor Photography’ and ‘Creativity, Style & Vision’.  I would have been happy to have a book full of these and I’m happy to have bought Outdoor Photography Masterclass for these writings if nothing else.

To find more of Niall’s writings, and I recommend that you do!, a great place to begin with is the blog ‘Images from the Edge‘ that Niall collaborates on with Clay Bolt, Paul Harcourt Davies & Andrew Parkinson.  Niall is also a regular contributor to the UK magazine Outdoor Photography.  This can be hard to find in the US but is available as an iPad app and well worth having a look.  Lots of good stuff to dig into.

Are you on the Okay Plateau?

I am curious about how people learn, particularly why some people excel and whether they have an innate talent or is there something that they do that pushes them achieve more.

I was intrigued when I came across the video below from Joshua Foer in which he describes what he refers to as the ‘the okay plateau’ and suggests that avoiding this plateau is essential if you are to reach a level of mastery.

What is the okay plateau?

Foer describes the model developed by Paul Fitts and Michael that describes three phases of learning:

Cognitive – Identification and learning of the component parts of the skill being learned
Associative – practicing the skill and using feedback to improve performance
Autonomous – skill is developed and becomes second nature.

Once you reach the autonomous phase you run the risk of feeling that you are good enough, slowing any further improvement.

With photography it’s quite easy to reach the autonomous phase, to become fluent enough with the technical aspects of photography to make competent photographs. To move beyond this stage to make great photographs involves staying in the associative phase for as long as possible.

So how do you keep in the associative phase?

Engage deeply – spend time really looking at the images that you make, what you were trying to make and figure out how to close the gap. Spend time reviewing the work of the masters to make sure that you are familiar with the history of your field. Find a circle of trusted advisors that will give you sound feedback and push you further.

I’m coming to realize that while I may create my photographs alone being part of a community is important to keep me moving forward. If you don’t have a circle of friends to give you feedback how will you build one? I’d be interested in hearing you thoughts.

Finding your Focus

One of the ideas that I’ve been kicking around recently is whether it’s better to invest time in developing areas of weakness or to put those same hours into enhancing strengths.

I’m increasingly of the opinion that most people can learn to do most things if they are willing to commit the time and energy. Granted, some people may have more of an aptitude for one thing over another (languages aren’t it for me!) and so may not have to work as hard or as long to achieve a basic level of proficiency as someone who doesn’t have the same aptitude.

To get beyond that initial level of proficiency, to achieve mastery, requires a more significant investment of time and energy.

Mastery = time + commitment

It’s been said that mastery of a skill requires approximately 10,000 hours.  This is the equivalent of about 5 years working 40 hour weeks.  It sounds about right to me.  It’s about the length of a traditional apprenticeship or the number of hours that you would be expected to put in during a typical PhD, or MD training program.

So where to invest your 10,000 hours?  In some regards as an ‘amateur’ photographer I’m in a luxurious position in that I can spend time working on what appeals to me rather than developing a skill set that is going to meet the needs of ‘the client’.  In turn this means that I have developed a very lop-sided skill set, as I have focused on the things that appeal to me.  That’s not to say that I’ve been successful with all the subjects that appeal to me.  In fact one of the things that has helped, and continues to help, push me forward are portfolio review sessions with people that want to see me improve and will give me solid frank feedback.  These review sessions have helped me steer away from those subjects that regardless of how hard I try I end up making ‘record shots’, to allow me to focus on those subjects that truly resonate.  It’s taking some time and effort but I’m finding my focus.