What to Do with Historic Churches

Some of my favorite trips are those on which I start out with an idea, somewhere on a continuum of quite definite to rather vague, of where I’m going to drive and what I expect (or hope) to see and photograph. If the trip is to the Northern Catskills of Greene County, so much the better, because there is a wealth of historic buildings (including ruins) to preserve with my camera.

Maybe it’s because I’m a church historian by training, but fate often leads me past  wonderful old churches, some of which are more than two hundred years old. In some cases I knew of the church and deliberately set out to photograph it. This was the case with St. Mary of the Mountain Catholic Church in Hunter; I wanted to alert people to the efforts of those concerned citizens who are engaged in raising funds to preserve it. Other times, however, I have a vague idea of where a church may be (Carolyn Bennett of the Catskill Mountain Foundation in Hunter put me on to an excellent old book filled with all kinds of historical goodies, including illustrations), and I drive what I suspect are the correct country roads until, sure enough, I find a church. Such was the case with the Presbyterian Church in Jewett, which is about as rural as you can get.  I love places like that.

DSC0076 sThe Jewett Presbyterian Church dates from 1799 and lies in an idyllic pastoral setting in Greene County. The weather was favorable the day I was there and I made many images. The challenge was deciding which ones to process. Here are two that I chose. In the close-up I was interested in accentuating the lines interacting with one another vertically and horizontally, but I thought it deserved a spot of color, and so I selected the flowers, inverted the selection, did the conversion using a B&W layer in Photoshop CS5, and still had my red flowers, in which I increased the saturation slightly to ensure that they stood out.

DSC0086 sThe environmental image is evidence (if you wanted any) that in processing my historical images I choose the method that I judge to be the best for each picture (or one of the best: sometimes I make two or more very different versions): I don’t impose some overall consistency as an end in itself. As I said above, the Jewett church is in a pastoral setting and I wanted to bring that out and make the image look somewhat like a print that someone might have hung on the wall of their farmhouse. After my usual preliminary processing in Camera Raw and then in CS5, I brought the image into Topaz Adjust (which is now my absolute favorite plug-in for postprocessing), used the Detail Medium preset which I adjusted slightly, and then, once back in Photoshop, decreased the brightness by -12 to give it a subdued look.

Ed IMG_1092 Top sThen there are times when I drive by a church I knew nothing about beforehand. A complete and pleasant surprise. On the same day as i found the Jewett church, I then drove north to the Windham road. Whatever I was looking for in Ashland, I didn’t find it, but suddenly there was Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, which is on the National Register of Historic Places as well as on a similar list for Greene County. The postprocessing? This may seem a weird choice for a church, but after the usual Raw adjustments and prelim adjustments in CS5 I took the image into Topaz Adjust and used the Grunge Me preset. This brought out the definition of the church but kept the clouds at bay; I wanted them there, but too much and they’d have overwhelmed the church.

None of these pictures made it into my book Historic Hudson Valley — the book was already in press by the time I took the pictures — but still, there’s lots of great stuff in the book by both Anton and myself. Check it out here!

By the way, if you’re a photographer and don’t have Topaz Adjust 5 — and if you read this in time — they have a 50% off sale until September 30, 2013. I highly recommend it. Here’s the link: http://www.topazlabs.com/705.html.

Light Touch on Catskill Spring

My son Anton (who is arguably a better photographer than I, though we agree that he’s the “landscape master” and I’m the “buildings master”) refers to spring as the “pre-fall” season, meaning that it’s equally rich in color, though colors of a more subtle kind. This year we actually had a spring in the Northeast — as opposed to a winter that stubbornly drags on and then suddenly, and shockingly, morphs into the unbearable heat of summer — which enabled me to get up to the Catskills several times, drive around, and get some good images.
OK, so I’m the reputed “buildings master” and will share those pictures with you in due course, but for now I want to share three landscape images that I made on Mother’s Day, in the Northern Catskills region they call the “mountain top.” I wasn’t looking for these specific sites — just driving around until I saw something that attracted me. The point I want to make is that in each case I used a light touch in the postprocessing. Even if I used several layers or filters, the values were tweaked very little, if at all, beyond the presets. I have no patience with overprocessed, especially oversaturated images of nature; it’s one thing to use one’s processing tools to coax that Raw image into displaying what one actually saw in that scene, quite another to “improve” on nature as if God had a bad eye for color.
Enough preaching! Here’s the first image:

DSC0224  levels 236 sThe first thing you’ll notice is that the original image has been cropped. The sky lent nothing to the overall effect. In Nik Efex Color Pro 4 I made very subtle use of Pro Contrast, Brilliance/Warmth, and Tonal Contrast, and then finished it off with Unsharp Mask at 25 %.

DSC0226 sThe second image (above) isn’t a different crop of the first — it’s a totally different picture in which I had zoomed in more. Here, in CEP 4’s Brilliance Warmth I used 20 % Warmth and then, in Tonal Contrast, set each value, including Saturation, at only 15 %. Once again, Unsharp Mask at 25 %.

DSC0228 sFinally, the above scene caught my eye as I was driving along one of the main east-west roads up there. Perhaps it’s not spectacular, but the red of the house set into nature’s spring colors made for an attractive, typically Catskill pastoral scene. The horizon needed some straightening, and I did a small amount of cropping on the sides. Then I used some Warmth/Saturation in CEP 4 and, again, 25 % Unsharp Mask.

In all cases these are in addition to the basic Raw processing before bringing the image into CS5.

There you have some views of the Catskills in May. If you’d like to comment, I’d be curious about which of the first two pictures you prefer — the wider-angle or closer view of the trees and mountain.

Favorite Photos of 2012

I’ve just compiled a list of my twelve–that’s right, an even dozen–favorite images that I made during 2012. Can I say they’re by far the best? Well, that’s always very subjective, and a photographer isn’t always the best judge of her/his own work. But IMHO they are certainly among the best, and I’ve chosen them to include representative images from my favorite places and subjects.

Here I’m posting a sample for you to see. Click on any of them, or on this link, to go to my website to view this entire gallery of twelve images. The entire gallery–each of the twelve images–is my Print of the Month for January 2013. That means not one but twelve pictures offered for purchase at the special Print of the Month prices. That’s my New Year’s gift to all my friends and followers. May you have a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year!

C DSC0031 s DSC0007 s DSC0024 BW2 crop s DSC0280 s - Whisperly

A Photogenic Diner

Diners are fun to photograph. I mean the ones with real local character, not those that tend all to look as if cut from the current trendy cloth for diner looks.

I had my eye on Selena’s Diner in the Catskill village of Haines Falls, New York for a while, and a few weeks ago, after leaving a reception for the Twilight Park Artists Show, where I had pictures on exhibit, I pulled in there quite on impulse to grab a light bite before the long drive through Kaaterskill Clove and down the Thruway. The timing couldn’t have been better; nor could the place where I chose to sit, because I was at one end of the oblong little building and the early evening sun was forming these long streaks of light that led my eye from my seat into and through the length of the diner. I had my discreet little Canon Powershot S95 with me and got several images. As I left, of course, I photographed the outside as well. Here is a selection of the images and how I processed them.

I began with Raw processing, as always, and here was fairly generous with the Contrast and Clarity sliders because I wanted to accentuate those sunshine-painted patterns.

In Photoshop I continued the processing with Nik Efex Pro’s ProContrast at 40%. I aimed to keep a reasonable unity of processing styles for this little series and was intending to use the Nik Tonal Contrast for them all, but it didn’t work for this one; this image needed a smoother look. Note how I deliberately included the placemat at the bottom of the picture to establish where this was!

Tonal Contrast from Nik Efex Pro brought out the different textures in this picture. I used Highlights 24, Midtones 30, Shadows 60 (excellent for defining the areas that otherwise might literally remain “in the dark,” and Saturation 20.

This one uses Nik Efex Pro’s Tonal Contrast with Highlights at 40, Midtones 50, and Shadow 62. Saturation 20. I never overdue saturation since I rather abhor that exaggerated eye-candy look so beloved of some.

Just Do It. Now.

Back in May I wrote a blog post about my “Seen Better Days” series of photographs and the interpretive post-processing of this sort of image. Here is one more extremely important piece of advice for any of you who may be interested in pursuing the Ephemeral, the old, somewhat dilapidated building, with your camera:

If you find yourself passing a building like that on a regular basis and thinking each time, “I really need to plan to take my camera along and just get out and start shooting”–

Just do it. Don’t keep thinking about it. Do it. Sooner rather than later.

In mid-June on a brief weekend trip to the Catskills I discovered that not one but two of my “Seen Better Days” places had been changed–one of them irrevocably and unrecognizably. One was the red wooden building featured in my post in May, in which I showed different ways of processing the photo. In mid-June the door was swinging wide open and there was a huge “For Rent” sign in the window. But the other–the really heartbreaking one–was the Arkville Country Store. Words aren’t needed. Here are the “before” and “after” images.  Which reminds me–that gloriously dilapidated, weed-overgrown house I’ve been eying on Route 17 for months….

Before

After

Ansel Adams the Greatest Teacher

If you live within 500 miles of Salem, Massachusetts, absolutely do not miss the Ansel Adams exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum. Entitled At the Water’s Edge, it showcases more than 100 original photos by Adams, ranging from the iconic Reflections at Mono Lake to images never before seen in public. As someone who loves New England and photographs there often, I was amazed to see a close-up of barnacles at Cape Cod. 

As the title suggests, all the images on display have something to do with the theme of water–whether waves, snow, tides, the Old Faithful Geyser, even the Golden Gate before the Bridge image that hung over Adams’s desk. One thing I found very striking (as someone who enjoys photographing water myself) was his preference for crisp, sharp images that freeze a very brief instant of time and that thus produce, say, a very detailed shot of a wave breaking. This was after a brief period in which he was influenced by the Pictorialists, who preferred soft rather than crisp images and long shutter speeds to produce a silky water effect.

The latter sort of image is very popular today, especially among those who like to shoot waterfalls. Reflecting on Adams’s “defection” from the Pictorialist to the Modern school, I thought of my own recent journey of discovery with shutter speeds and water. In spring 2011 I was fortunate to be on the Rhode Island coast during the spring full moon. The tides were amazing and the wind was, well, this was Rhode Island!  Then came the icing on the cake as the full moon rose over Rhode Island Sound as I was shooting. Here are two images I shot that evening.  The first one shouldn’t have been made with that slow shutter speed; it doesn’t look right, you want to capture the incredible power of the waves and you need to freeze the action in order to do this. In the next shot the slow shutter speed works better, because it captures the water, after the wave has broken, washing over the rocks.

 

The day after seeing the Ansel Adams exhibition at PEM I was out early in the morning in that same spot–the Sachuest National Wildlife Refuge. I found one of my favorite rocks, the light was right, and the waves were breaking. I ramped up the ISO to 640 and shot at f14, 1/500 second. And those who read this blog regularly will know that I like to do black-and-white conversions, and this image was a perfect candidate–it’s the breaking wave frozen in time against the contrast of the rock and water that was important, and so I converted the image to B&W.

Another thing that struck me was how Adams wasn’t afraid to have almost solid patches of black in his images. Nowadays we tend to feel we should open up the shadows. Clearly, the solid black patches depend on contrast for their effectiveness; they’re not going to work if they’re situated in an otherwise dark picture. Here is the interpretive journey of another of my images. It was taken at sunrise last December at a lake in the Catskills of New York. (The blue colorcast is natural, not a result of processing.) A friend suggested that I might want to try opening up the dark clump of trees on the right side, which I did. You see the result here. Then after seeing the Ansel Adams show I wondered how I could process this image differently. So I went back to the saved psd file and, after trying a few different presets in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, decided on Full Dynamic (harsh). The Contrast was already at 34, which worked for me. I increased the Brightness to 12 and the Structure to 4, because contrast in texture can also be important in B&W processing.

Different ways of interpreting a scene and of interpreting one Raw image. Tell me which you like. And tell me what you think after you see this awesome Ansel Adams exhibition at the PEM.

Margaretville and Hurricane Irene

I’ve just watched a sickening video of the beautiful town of Margaretville being destroyed by Hurricane Irene.  Margaretville is in Delaware County, the Western Catskills.  I’ve visited there twice and walked through the town with my Canon G11, enjoying photographing the buildings. One of my “signatures” is to photograph a window so that the result is a combination of what’s in the window and what’s being reflected from across the street–two for the price of one, you might say. Anyhow, enough for words at a time lke this; on with the pictures. Below are three of my favorites from my first trip to Margaretville in May of this year.

Shop window, Margaretville Continue reading