When the Light Isn’t Cooperating

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It happens. From your window very early in the morning you see a glint of red beginning in the sky, and you grab your gear and hurry out to your favorite place to make some photos. Maybe you’ll finally get that moonset you’ve been trying for, or catch the sweet light glinting off the top of that mountain.

So you get there and that glint of light is gone, leaving you with nothing but overcast. A rather dull overcast, at that. What to do?

This happened to me on the day after Christmas at Cooper Lake. Sometimes I’ll simply chalk it up to the luck of the draw and look at the positive side: at least I’m out where I can enjoy a nice walk, even if I don’t have any pictures to show for it.

But on this occasion there were several other factors in my favor, too good to be passed up. First, despite the late-December date, there had yet to be snow or a freeze, so that reflections were visible in the lake and not the sheet of white that one expects at this time of year. Second, those reflections were perfect and undisturbed due to the wind being absolutely still. Third, there was great composition potential, especially now that my favorite tree was completely bare of leaves and made a striking foreground element for the lake scene. And related to this, the lack of strong light revealed some compositional ideas I might otherwise not have seen.

And so the camera came out of the bag, the tripod was set up, and I set to work. Except for the less-than-good light, I was pleased with the results.  But what to do about the boring light?

I began experimenting with some of the plug-ins in my processing software. And I mean experimenting. In some cases I ended up with two or three different results that I’ve saved. In some cases I added filter layers, deleted them again, modified the images in other ways. The end results, with which I’m pleased, are what I prefer to call “photo art.”

I want to stress that my idea of photo art is not the same thing as “improving” a boring photograph by bumping up the saturation and other sliders so that the end result is simply an oversaturated, overprocessed image that screams “phony.” Rather, to make photo art a photograph — a good photograph — is my starting point, but the end-point image, while respecting the integrity of the original, doesn’t necessarily look like a photograph — perhaps not at all. (Some viewers of such an image I made a couple of weeks ago on a foggy day thought it looked like a Japanese painting; OK; but I don’t make such claims for myself. Judge for yourself — it’s the image at the top of this blog post.)

Here are two images from last week’s visit to Cooper Lake, one of the images in two different versions.

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Here you see the above-mentioned tree. When it’s covered with leaves you have to somehow work around it so that it doesn’t obliterate some interesting parts of the mountains, but when it’s bare like this, it’s perfect. On this occasion it even helped to fill in some of the “empty” sky space that didn’t have clouds. In this version I used Topaz Adjust’s Medium Pop Grunge preset in the HDR Collection. (In all cases this “finishing touch” is preceded by basic processing in Lightroom and then usually some further processing in Photoshop, especially increasing the contrast and often the details or structure. Nik Viveza is an especially powerful tool for this.)

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Same image again, this time processed with the Cerulean Tea Rose preset in Topaz BW Effects Cyanotype Collection. Here I went into the Creative Effects and increased the Feature Boost, since I wanted more detail than what the preset on its own was giving me. Then, back in Photoshop, I lightened the shadows very slightly.

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I always knew that something could be made of those branches sticking up out of the water, and ironically, the poor light this day facilitated that. I played around quite extensively with this image and came up with three similar versions, the chief difference being the amount of pink tint, ranging from none at all to more pronounced. This is the middle one on that spectrum, and I think it’s my favorite of the three. It took two layers of Viveza plus a layer from the Topaz BW Effects palette. I especially like Viveza for the ability to select  adjustments and then brush them on to only certain parts of the image, and I often use this to accentuate something in the image to which I wish to draw attention, such as the Brightness and Structure in the two trees here.

Which version of the wide-angle image do you prefer? Please leave a note in your comments; I’d like to hear from you.

All images in this post are for sale. Please visit my new Photo Art Gallery at my FAA website.