Essentials, Part 1

Bear with me here, and don’t be judgemental.

I understand people go through all kinds of circumstances, both good and bad throughout their lives. That is just part of life, part of “the human experience” as we say. Woody Allen is quoted, “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.” Ain’t it the truth?

We know people who have lost jobs, lost fortunes, lost health, lost their lives, and lost their loved ones, all compressed within the past four months of this virus from hell, which is an infinitesimally short period of time. I hardly recall Christmas and New Years Day. I don’t recall specific days of the week now, but groups of days and weeks. It all runs together as we “shelter in place.” I call it the The Wuhan Hunker Down Syndrome.

However, I have to say, in spite of all the woe in the world, this has been one of the most pleasant spring seasons I remember. I almost feel guilty for enjoying it. Almost. I don’t share the the guilt of being happy that some relish out of misplaced, ill defined doctrines of fairness and perpetual victimhood. “Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof,” Jesus says, in King James 1620 English. There’s enough evil to go around for each of us to endure in our own time, and enough good as well.

This year, the air around Atlanta is clearer and the sky more blue, definitely a collateral benefit of a virtually dead economy, with little automobile traffic for eight weeks. Isn’t it amazing how quickly the earth recovers.

The trees seem greener, the birds happier, the hardwood forest in which I live more fragrant. I may with gratitude be living in a bubble only for a moment, but I intend to enjoy it.

So that brings me to this. In my shelter in place, I’ve been photographing things very close by; flowers, things in my house, close-ups and details. There’s nothing more happy than flowers. There are many photographers much better at this kind of work, who can get to the essence of things and present them graphically. There are photographers way better than I am at Lightroom. I am a blogging dweeb in comparison to many. That doesn’t mean I won’t give it a try and then try to explain what I did. We’re all searching for the essence aren’t we?

So take a look at this photograph of a bouquet that one of my daughters gave my wife for Mothers Day. I’ll explain how I got to this one.

Here’s the back story. I converted from film to digital in 2002 with the Nikon D100. The studio I worked for converted to digital and the owner told me I had a choice to convert or I would get no work. So guess what I did.

The D100 cost a whopping $2000.00. The salesman at the old Wolf Camera on 14th Street, told me I was the #5 customer in Atlanta who had ordered a D100 from them. Great. I was on the bleeding edge of the digital revolution down South, but two grand was expensive to me. I had to cost justify it, expense it, use it, and produce something with it. Today, expect to pay between two and ten grand for a professionally capable, full frame, DSLR or mirrorless camera body.

I converted rather than die professionally. My workflow completely changed as did my love of photography.

I had my personal darkroom for my own black and white processing and printing. I sometimes rented a darkroom for custom color printing. I loved the smell of developer at 5 AM. Film and silver paper have their own aroma. It’s part of the mystique.

It was fun to struggle over print contrast, the Zone System – that whole Ansel Adams and Fred Picker thing. I was immersed in silver based, analog media. I learned a lot of ancient technology. (It’s come back in style too; Lomography.)

However in 2002, I could not easily transfer much of what I learned about film exposure and printing to the new tools. I felt that I had lost control of the medium and I fell out of love of photography. It had lost a lot of its mystery and magic. I could make money and be somewhat creative, it was certainly much faster and convenient, but it just was not the same. I regret deeply I sold my Leica during my transition. They are way too expensive to replace.

I moved into Adobe Photoshop, then simplified to Photoshop Elements and some of the fun came back. I could play with curves and levels directly in ways Ansel Adams never dreamed of. I also had layers and filters to help manage shadows and highlights. I could do contrast masking.

Some of the the magic returned, but it was still hit or miss to me. Much of the time my processing was inconsistent and one of a kind.

Finally Adobe Lightroom arrived and a lot of the magic is back, and I have been able to resurrect much of my analog printing experience and apply it through Lightroom. I still miss the darkroom mystique and even the stinky smells, but Lightroom is a joy. And it is much less stinky.

After playing with Lr for about a year, the epiphany came. I read a blog and something said about one of the controls connected my old skills to the new tools.

I am able to transfer my analog film and darkroom skills and controls to Lightroom very easily if I start by photographing in digital RAW format in camera. I produce what is called the “digital negative.” This is not something new. Photographers have talked about it for years.

I may be late but I like my personal application of the tools: A RAW file contains all the information I originally recorded on the camera sensor, without applying digital sharpening and jpeg conversion artifacts. If my exposure is correct then I have everything necessary to produce a beautiful photograph. RAW allows me to make decisions if I want to.

Caveat: The camera and Adobe software may be much faster than I am at producing a final usable jpeg image. Exposures are spot on usually. There is a big difference between that and producing my ideal, “visualization”, of what I saw, which may be very different from a evenly distributed range of color and contrast.

Below is the original, a jpeg converted from the original Raw. Yep, I shot it originally as a vertical. You may ask, “Why didn’t you just make a horizontal shot to begin with?” I don’t know. This one worked better after the fact than the horizontals I originally did.

Nikon RAW format file extension is NEF. What you got is what you see. Photoshop has a very nice RAW editor which accepts RAW files from many cameras including iPhone and Android smartphones. I can crop, sharpen, apply contrast, filter out “noise” etc. However, I usually just open the file, convert it to an unmodified jpeg and then go to work in Lightroom, especially when I have many photographs to process. So I use the RAW editor and Photoshop to quickly produce a jpeg that I import to Lr.

Why don’t I just create a jpeg in camera and then go directly to Lr? I shoot with Nikon, Sony, and Canon. Each camera produces its own jpeg and its own set of artifacts. If I shoot RAW I can remove some of the camera variables, and standardize on Adobe’s jpeg artifacts. It is a choice I make.

I cropped it, after deciding I liked the horizontal rendition. I then applied Lightroom (Lr) controls. The one-step conversion RAW to jpeg actually looks okay, and would probably be acceptable to many people. I’m persnickety.

So… crop!

There are automatic controls, color and B&W buttons at the top of the editing window. I can go full automatic if I like. You can choose various Adobe color profiles like standard, portrait, or landscape. You can import different profiles. They will vary the contrast and color intensity. They work very well and I’ll use them if I just need to “git ‘er done.”

What is most like my darkroom, analog days is applying what I learned in Ansel Adams’ Zone System and Fred Picker’s Zone 6 Workshop. I can do very similar things using Lr Edit control sliders under “Light”; that is, Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks.

Here goes. I slide the Exposure control slider to the left until I arrive where I want shadow detail to appear. I like low key images with colors or highlights that pop and have detail. I end up with a lot of dark tones. Sometimes I let the shadow detail drop out. You’ll notice in the lower right side of the image the dark green leaves in the shadows. I adjust overall exposure down (move the slider to the left) until I barely can see the leaves.

Then I adjust Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks. That is what I love. I set the shadows and adjust the highlights through the use of the Lr control sliders. This, my friends, is essentially Ansel Adams’ Zone System! Much has been written about the Digital Zone System, but Lr makes it simple. (There are alternatives to Lightroom. I read good things about Luminar.)

Instead of going through calibration after calibration of cameras and different films and different paper contrasts, and even different lenses, I can visually fine tune an image and interpret it multiple ways all within a few minutes each. I miss the darkroom, but I don’t miss the drudgery of it. What used to take me hours or days, now takes me minutes.

Lr also has built in camera and lens profiles. It knows what to apply because the information is transmitted via the EXIF data in the image. It will automatically correct lens aberrations, barreling and pin cushion, color fringing, and other annoyances. The downside of that is Adobe applies its own imaging standards. So you may lose the Nikon look, or Canon look, or the Leica look or a specific lens look.

Notice the settings. In this case, they are not extreme.

Now for texture and detail. I like the Texture and Vignette controls under Effects, in the Edit tools. I use texture instead of sharpening. It appears to introduce fewer digital artifacts. If I use sharpening, then I almost always have to apply the noise reduction controls. They soften the image and may nullify the sharpening.

Here are three image snips that show the effect of texture versus sharpening; the original, then with texture and no sharpening applied, and then with sharpening no texture applied.

Original without texture or sharpening
Texture applied
Sharpening applied

The differences are subtle. Use the magnifying tool in Lr to see effect. What I notice with the Sharpen control is more noise. I obtain more “detail” without noise using the Texture control… I think. Shutterstock will not tolerate any noise or other digital artifacts, common in jpegs, in your submissions.

I finally apply just a little dark vignette. It has a similar effect to burning in edges of a print. If judiciously applied, it will draw attention to the subject. Too much isn’t attractive to me. Now I could do such fine adjustments in Photoshop or Elements with the Burn and Dodge tools, but if all I want are the edges darkened a bit, then the Vignette control well.

Below is the final image, in full color. In Part 2, I’ll discuss how I arrived at the muted and antique colors in the image at the top.

Bouquet

Selah

~ by Bill on May 16, 2020.

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