When Your Photography Surprises You

Have you ever ventured out, armed not only with your camera but also with some preconceived notions of the images you want to make? It happens to me on week-long visits to New England as well as on half- or full-day trips closer to home. And does it then also sometimes happen that you end up with images radically different from what you thought you were setting out to take — perhaps because the lighting wasn’t what you expected or that tree wasn’t there anymore or etc., etc., etc.? Sometimes that’s a fun part of the game.

And then there are times I go out with no specific ideas for images but just respond to what’s around me. Again, I like the element of surprise.

Here I want to share two images from my recent trip to the northern New England coast, both of places I’d been and things I’d photographed before.  Each had its own unique element of surprise.

The Sunday I decided to drive along the Maine coast toward Ogunquit was sunny and quite windy. After stopping along the coastal road (Rt 1A) to photograph buildings that took my fancy, I ended up, as I knew I would, at the famous Nubble Light. Nubble is probably the most photographed lighthouse in the USA (if not possibly the world, though I wonder whether Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia might be a competitor) because it’s so accessible — you just walk up to it. No boats, no sneaking onto private property, no long hikes on soft sand — just drive up, park, and get out your gear.

As you well know, ease of access doesn’t guarantee ease of getting a great photograph. For one thing, it was midday, usually not the optimum time to chalk up any photographic masterpieces. Also, on a Sunday afternoon in early spring chances are quite good of getting people wandering into your otherwise perfect composition.

DSC-5979 Nik Viv and TC s

Well, out of the several images I took, here’s the one I think was best.  What made it work? (1) The clouds. Thank you, Mother Nature. As famed New England foliage expert Jeff Folger observed when he saw it, it looks as if the clouds are emanating from the lighthouse. So, yes, while I did get closer-up images, this with the clouds was “the” image. (2) No people. There was a person off to the left, but I was cropping that side of the image anyway since it had too much superfluous “stuff.”

Photoshop processing, after my usual preliminary moves with the Raw file in Lightroom, was relatively minimal.  I took the image into Nik Viveza, moderately cranked up the Brightness and Structure, and brushed these settings onto the lighthouse and the foreground rocks to make them stand out from the blue water and sky. Back in Photoshop, a very slight degree of opening the shadows in the Shadows and Highlights. And there you have it: my surprise that any of the images taken under less than optimum conditions would be successful.

The second one contained a surprise of a different kind. This is a well-known tree on the New Hampshire coast at Great Island Common (a.k.a. New Castle Common) near Portsmouth.  I first shot it a year ago while out with New England photographer Jeff Sinon, and that time we had the sweet evening light in our favor. This time I was there midday because it took me a good while to find the place due to the weird location of the sign. Actually, I considered this trip a “study” for, hopefully, a revisit later in the day under better lighting conditions, and I used my Olympus SH-1 instead of my Nikon DSLR.

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First, here’s the original. A nicely composed image of this venerable tree, but what boring light! What could be done?

On my way to and from this New England trip I stopped for lunch at the same restaurant. Each time I was seated in a different section, and each of those sections had old oil landscape paintings on the walls in which the colors were not natural but nor were they monochrome. They were sort of a tint. I stared at them and thought there must be a way to recreate this effect in appropriate photographs. Information tucked away in my brain for later use.

Screenshot 2016-04-09

With a completely open mind I decided to take the image into Nik Color Efex Pro 4 and see what the different presets would do. (Remember my post about letting limitations work for you? My current limitation is that my Topaz plug-ins aren’t saving correctly and so I’m making the best of the Nik Suite.) The first preset I clicked (they’re listed in alphabetical order) was Bi-Color Effects.  As you can see from the screenshot, there’s an extensive selection of color combos, and each of those can be tweaked still further.  I tried them until I came to Moss 4. That was it. And — not that I was consciously looking for this — it somehow approximates that effect of hovering between not-quite-natural and not-quite-unnatural that I had observed on those oil paintings.

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Please — let me know what you think! I appreciate your comments. Click here or here if you would like to order a print or other product.

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Postprocessing Those Historic Buildings: A Lesson Learned

BL DSC-1707 Top Hvy pop grunge

Recently I posted about my experiences in shooting and postprocessing images of some historic buildings in Rhode Island, choosing images of two different sites for examples. One building, the Bradford Soap Factory, is still in use for its original purpose; the other, the Royal Mills, has been converted from its previous industrial use to a block of residential apartments. What they have in common, however, is that both are in essentially urban settings and are still in use. This enabled me to be quite consistent in my postprocessing; in each case it was the same preset in Topaz Adjust 5 and Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 that I could use with effect for color and monochrome versions respectively.

That changed when I went to process two other sets of images. One was from the same Rhode Island shoot — the “decrepit” (to use the Providence Journal‘s word) Hope Mill in Scituate — and the other from one of my frequent and recent trips to the Northern Catskills, home of many hotels and resorts that went bust — this time a resort called Villa Maria that occupies an extensive property in Haines Falls. These two sites also have two things in common: they’re not in urban settings and they’ve not been kept up. This means an awful lot of overgrowth with grass, greenery, and, in the case of the Haines Falls site, plenty of goldenrod.

BL DSC -1710 Top Hvy Pop SmoothSo, when I tried to process the Hope Mill images, I quickly realized that the same Topaz Adjust preset wasn’t going to work for the color: the greenery — and there was plenty of it — was undersaturated and the results were rather lifeless. I used different presets (again in Topaz Adjust) that worked for the Hope Mill images, and for the monochrome could continue with the same preset in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2. The one at the top of this post was done with Heavy Pop Grunge; the greenery isn’t that overwhelming and the preset brings out the detail in the building nicely.  For the image at the left, however, it had to be Heavy Pop Smooth — thus, similar but without the level of detail that would have caused the greenery to overwhelm the building. In both cases, the Heavy Pop brightened up the grass and the sky.

Villa Maria was a different story. For one thing, this isn’t one building but a variety of buildings. Also, there was quite a bit more overgrowth. Here’s the problem: I often like to show a lot of detail — structure — in these photographs, on the buildings themselves. But use a high-structure preset where there’s lots of grass and weeds overgrowth and the pictures looks too messy, too busy.

What to do? Basically, I separated these images into two types — the ones in which the building prevailed and those in which the overgrowth prevailed — and processed accordingly, again using Topaz Adjust presets (as yet I haven’t processed these in monochrome). Here are some results. Oh, and before I forget: This post could end up being another in my “Do It Now” series: My friend Bill Patenaude sent me an article from the Providence Journal reporting on a Connecticut developer who wants to take over the Hope Mill and give it a similar sort of treatment to the Royal Mills. And I understand (this is anecdotal from someone local in Haines Falls, I have no written source) that someone has bought the Villa Maria site. So, photograph these places while you have the chance … you never know when they’ll change, or even disappear.

Close-up of bjuilding. minimal greenery, thus a more detailed treatment was possible.

Close-up of building. minimal greenery, thus a more detailed treatment was possible.

In a sense, this image breaks the rules I've just established. The grass, weeds, and trees really are the main subject, more than the building, so I let in some detail to highlight this.

In a sense, this image breaks the rules I’ve just established. The grass, weeds, and trees really are the main subject, more than the building, so I let in some detail to highlight this.

Villa Maria. Too much detail in all that shruibbery would have overwhelmed the building. I went with a somewhat softer look in which the color prevails. This somehow shows a harmony between the building and the green.

Villa Maria. Too much detail in all that shrubbery would have overwhelmed the building. I went with a somewhat softer look in which the color prevails. This somehow shows a harmony between the building and the green.

Paying Photographic Homage to a Catskill Ruin

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Abandoned buildings get a lot of attention from me and my cameras, and the Cold Spring Resort in Tannersville, NY is one I’ve returned to again and again. It’s one of the few still remaining from the heyday of the Catskills resort industry. On Saturday I visited for the fourth time—or was it the fifth? In any case, the poor building is in such condition that I never know when a visit will be my last before the place finally gives up the ghost.

Speaking of ghosts, if there are any of those occupying the Cold Spring Resort’s many empty rooms, they are friendly ones. The place has a palpable, positive energy about it that I attribute to the countless people who vacationed here back in the day.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese are photos from the latest trip. When working on a unified project (which this visit was in aid of) it’s best to process all pictures in a fairly uniform way, but I had to make one exception here with the monochrome image; it was taken with a point and shoot, which produced a color cast that, try as I might, I couldn’t get rid of except by completely desaturating it. (Even without the persistent color cast the image fairly screamed monochrome – there was no color to speak of except for that bit of greenery that, well, isn’t all that green.) I finished it off with Nik Silver Efex Pro.

The other images—made with the Nikon D7100—were subjected toNancy_6_9 rather minimal postprocessing, by which I mean that I did the usual basics in Lightroom and then finished the enhancements in Photoshop – but no plugins, despite my array of Nik and Topaz products. The day was overcast with a sky almost (fortunately only almost) verging on blah washed-out monotone, and in order to help the building and surrounding flora to emerge from the murky grayness I selected the sky, used Brightness/Contrast to darken it and increase the contrast where necessary, then inverted the selection and increased the brightness and the vibrance to make the building pop—not only the building but also whatever greenery, foliage, and flowers were present. Nancy_6_4It was important to me to make enough images showing the building (or parts of it) among the vegetation that’s slowly taking it over; a contrast between the dying building and the lively-colored vegetation that, ironically, in its autumn colors represents the dying of the year. At least for some it does; my favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote that “Nothing is so beautiful as spring,” but then Fr. Hopkins had never experienced the stunning colors of autumn in the Northeastern USA.

I owe the idea for the postprocessing approach to renowned photographer and teacher Rob Sheppard, who is an unfailing source of wisdom as well as technical insights, though, as they say at the end of the Foreword to every academic book, “Any imperfections are strictly mine.”

 

Recording Rhode Island’s Industrial History

My friend Bill Patenaude is the Chief Environmental Engineer for the State of Rhode Island and a prolific and challenging blogger on environmental issues and ecotheology. He’s also a lifelong resident of an area of the state that’s rich in industrial history and has the buildings to prove it. Some of those buildings are still used for their original purposes; others have been creatively repurposed; and others are, alas, in ruins. In June Bill took me on a tour of this area, and after a summer of preparing for my exhibits, talks, etc. I’m finally getting back to what I love best next to the photography itself: postprocessing the “keepers.”

Thus far I’ve produced a total of six postprocessed images from our June tour: three original images, each of which I’ve processed in two ways, all using Nik software: first, the Bleach Bypass preset in Nik Color Efex Pro, which I find interesting for the way the saturation can be creatively tweaked; and then the Wet Rocks preset in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, to which, in each case, I added just a hint of tint.  (As you can see, I was going for some consistency here.)

Our first stop was the Original Bradford Soap Works in West Warwick. Bradford was founded in 1876 and named after Bradford, England, which was the center of the textile industry there just as Rhode Island was in the New World. The company moved to its present premises in West Warwick in 1931. I’ve processed two of my photos of  the Bradford Soap Works, and here I’m showing you the two versions of one of them.

Bradford Soap Works - Bleach Bypass processing

Bradford Soap Works – Bleach Bypass processing

 

 

Bradford Soap Works - Silver Efex Pro

Bradford Soap Works – Silver Efex Pro

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Royal Mills is the site of a historic textile mill on the banks of the Pawtuxet River. While textile manufacturing here goes back to 1809. the present structure dates from 1921. When the textile industry suffered, the site was virtually abandoned until it was taken over in 2004 and converted to an apartment rental complex. In that same year Royal Mills was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Here is the one photo of the Royal Mills I’ve processed thus far, again in its two versions.

Royal Mills - Bleach Bypass Processing

Royal Mills – Bleach Bypass Processing

Royal Mills - Silver Efex Pro 2

Royal Mills – Silver Efex Pro 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now here’s where I invite you to participate: For each of the two pairs of images, which version do you prefer? (If you prefer a different version for each of the pairs, that’s OK.)  Please state your preference(s) in a Comment. And now for the prize: If I get at least five replies, those who commented will be entered in a drawing to receive a 5 x 7 print of one of these images — the image of their choice. I will choose not one but two winners at random. Your replies will help me decide which of the images to offer for sale on my website. You must reply by September 15. I thank you in advance!

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 You are invited to my exhibition — “Natural and Historical Landscapes” — at the Cottage Place Gallery, 113 Cottage Place, Ridgewood, New Jersey. The reception is on Sunday September 14 from 2 to 5 pm.  Hope to see you there, if you’re in the neighborhood!

 

 

 

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.

Omaha’s History in Its Buildings

Downtown Omaha is an amazing treasure of buildings that speak eloquently of the city’s history. Pick up a brochure on the Old Market area and you’ll find a collection of historic photographs of old buildings along with descriptions of what they used to be, their current use, and their exact location. It seems that Omaha is into recycling, rather than demolishing, in a big way. The result is a Midwestern city with considerable character and charm.

Armed with the Old Market brochure from the Omaha tourist office and my Canon Powershot S95 (all I could afford to take on this all-too-brief, fly-very-lightly trip), I set out on many walks to locate and shoot some of the downtown sites. The early mornings offered quiet and space for reflection; in the evenings the place was bustling with people out to enjoy the pubs and restaurants, especially those that offer covered outdoor seating (as most of them do in the Old Market). Here is a selection of my photos.

Ed IMG_1534 sThe lettering that rings the upper stories tells the tale of this impressive building’s former life. The ground floor now houses the Spaghetti Works — a favorite Omaha restaurant, especially for families with children — and shops to attract visitors and residents alike. I processed this image in a straightforward way with Nik Color Efex Pro 4’s Tonal Contrast.

From this angle the plethora of signs tells of a variety of incarnations this building has enjoyed.Ed IMG_1543 s Turn the corner around to the front of the building and see the modern businesses it now houses. This picture was taken early morning after it had rained the previous night and I deliberately chose an angle to include the reflection in the puddle in the foreground.  Like the above photo, processed with a simple Tonal Contrast adjustment in Nik Color Efex Pro.

Ed IMG_1537 Top sThis was a complete surprise–I turned the corner off one of the busy Old Market thoroughfares and here it was — a diner, simply called The Diner! I just laughed in sheer delight. I love diners and only regretted that my program for this visit to Omaha didn’t allow me the opportunity to enjoy a breakfast or lunch here. For this image I used Topaz Adjust, tried two different Detail Strong presets and decided on this one, Detail Strong 2, because it’s far more vibrant. I altered the Details settings from the original preset, one reason being that I wanted to show that the splotch of sunlight on the building wall above the diner was left there deliberately–the different colorations show it to be a work of art in its own right.

Finally, this image is quite different from the rest; unlike the previous three, this building isn’tEd IMG_1479 s enjoying a present life. I struggled with how to interpret this image. I felt sorry for the building and for the fact that it had once housed a cooperative of artists who undoubtedly must have worked together, encouraged and supported one another, shared in other members’ successes and failures. And so I didn’t want to give it one of my grunge looks where every little detail is accentuated so that all you see is a somewhat disorganized network of lines more than the building as a whole. After several experiments I decided on this preset, which I found almost by accident — the Color Stylizer in Nik Color Efex Pro 4, with contrast and saturation adjusted and the tint slightly tweaked. I think it’s reasonably gentle on the poor building. Please, won’t you leave a comment and tell me what you think?

GREAT NEWS: Our book Historic Hudson Valley: A Photographic Tour has just been published! Click the book’s title to view the feature on the website of our publisher, Schiffer Publishing and to purchase your copy.