“Seen Better Days”: Interpretive Postprocessing of Photos

I was going to call this collection “Dilapidation” until I got a deliciously evocative shot of an alleyway in a rundown town and I didn’t think “dilapidated” really described alleyways. Whereas my historic collection captures the Enduring–buildings such as at New Paltz’s Historic Huguenot Street or in nearby Hurley or the Kingston Stockade District that have been deliberately and lovingly preserved for their aesthetic and historic value–“Seen Better Days” rather preserves the Ephemeral–before the building gets demolished or renovated or succumbs to the ravages of the weather.

My “Seen Better Days” collection lends itself particularly well to black-and-white processing. This can be classic black-and-white, some version of sepia or another “antiquing” sort of look. Some photos can be processed in multiple ways, depending on the interpretation I want to give them. Here I’m going to show you one photo in three different interpretations.

The location of the building is best identified vaguely as “somewhere in the Catskills.” It was for sale and I understand that it has recently been purchased, so obviously I needed to do my work before the new owners do theirs. As I pointed out in my previous blog, if you shoot in color, before you can make a successful monochrome image you have to start with an acceptable color original. The color version here was processed first in Raw and then in Photoshop CS5: some cropping, straightening (it can be difficult to attend to such details during the actual capture when you and your tripod are standing in the middle of a road), enhancing the contrast (and, in Raw, always the clarity), vibrance, and saturation.

I wanted the first monochrome to be a starkly clinical black-and-white image. Starting with the color image here, I processed it with Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, choosing the Fine Art Process preset and increasing the structure to 72. Even though it’s “starkly clinical,” I consider that it nicely straddles the line between Fine Art and Documentary work. (I’d appreciate your comments on this!)

Then I wanted to “reproduce” an old, faded photograph that someone may have kept because they, or their family (parents? grandparents?), lived there a long time ago–during those “better days.” Again using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, I chose the Antique Plate preset, increased the brightness to 60 and decreased the structure to -4. (I’m obsessed with high structure these days and so it was an exercise in artistic discipline for me to see that I can occasionally live without it and still produce a satisfactory photo!) As a “crossover” I think this interpretation is also a candidate for my Fine Art “Modern Vintage” series.

I’ve sent the photos to some friends and have received different opinions on which ones people liked best. I’d like to hear from you: Which one is your favorite, and why?

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Processing Photos for Black and White

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The original unprocessed jpg

Two weekends in a row I was on field trips with other photographers and both times the light was such that I knew I was going to end up doing a lot of processing in black and white. It happens sometimes, especially on a very bright, contrasty day or on a day with dull, boring light (as distinct from the kind of overcast that, say, makes colors on flowers and trees pop).

The second of the weekends began at Sandy Hook in New Jersey. The historic Sandy Hook Lighthouse is the oldest in the country, and there I was, looking at it in the most boring light conditions imaginable. But this wasn’t going to stop me–I like to photograph lighthouses and I was determined to make something of it. Fortunately there was a pretty decent hint of clouds, not one of those pale, totally blank skies. OK. Let’s go for a composition that’s a bit different and that has the clouds surrounding the tower. After all, I had been to Sandy Hook twice before on bright, sunny, blue-sky days and taken the typical “postcard” compositions.

Another problem was that the lighthouse appeared to have acquired considerably more rust stains than I remembered from my last visit in January 2010. Those would have to go.

Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov, who was also a master orchestrator, said that you can’t orchestrate well what hasn’t been well composed. This observation has more than one application in photo processing. For one thing, you can’t take a poorly lit photo, add a B&W layer (or slide the saturation lever all the way down), and think, presto, problem solved. You need to do some optimizing of your original first, preferably starting in Raw. Increase the contrast, increase clarity, work with Levels. Only then can you begin to work with theB&W.

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The processed image

Sometimes when you decide to process a photo in B&W you may be open to anything, have no particular notion of what you want your end result to be, and so you try the presets in the B&W layer in Photoshop or (for the adventurous) the whole gamut of presets in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 until you find one that’s a good starting point, then you start tweaking various settings until you get a result you can live with. (I’m currently in a high-structure craze and sometimes deliberately force myself to try something “soft” just to remind myself that there are other ways of making my photo look.) Better yet, though, is when you start with an idea of how you want it to look, then try the presets until you find the one that corresponds to what you envision, then do the necessary tweaking.  That’s what happened with this lighthouse photo. I wanted that dark tone and contrast in the sky–then, as an experiment, decided to see how bright I could make the lighthouse (including giving it a digital “paint job”). The Red Filter did the trick. This was done with a B&W adjustment layer in Photoshop; I wasn’t envisioning anything as adventurous as what you can get with Silver Efex Pro–not just now, anyway.
If you want a great wealth of B&W tips from the really top pros, let me recommend two things. First, Harold Davis’s book Creative Black & White. Harold is a superb teacher. Check out his website too. Also, Rob Sheppard has been getting into a lot of B&W work of late, and he teaches an online course at BetterPhoto. Rob, too, is an excellent teacher, and this course has videos as well. Check it out, and check out Rob’s fine nature and photography blog.