A Photograph’s Unexpected Odyssey

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In late June Anton de Flon (check out his site — he is “the” Catskill Dude) and I went out to North-South Lake for a short hike. When we came to the point where the trail ascends these rocks, I decided to stop and take in the spirit of Hudson River painter Asher B. Durand, whose presence I sensed nearby. Asher loved to paint studies of rocks.DSC4400 original s

Here is the original of the first picture I took. I wanted a vertical. Yes, it’s a bit far off, but that’s me — I like to begin zoomed out and then gradually move in closer. Same way I like to get to know people.

After some very basic processing in Lightroom, I took it into Photoshop to do the main work. One of the first things I did was to zoom in to clone out one of those blue round trail markers. Then I looked at the zoomed-in picture and it struck me — Hey! I rather like that!  Yes, I wanted a vertical, but I have at least three other verticals from that day, better compositions all of them, so … I cropped the image down to exactly what i saw on the screen, then lopped a tiny slice more off the bottom.  It’s the one at the top of this post..

OK, what to do with it now?  I had been thinking of a monochrome with lots of the detail DSC4400 Nik 028 sshowing. So, into Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2 we went.  And I realized it wasn’t working, at least not with the detail I had envisioned.  But among the presets I tried was this — and I liked it a lot. Very atmospheric.  I think Asher would have approved of it — as a sketch, anyway.  (I also tried a sepia preset that made it look like something you’d find at the bottom of a drawer in the archives of the Adirondack Museum. Can you see the headline now?  “Obscure 19th-century Print in ADK Museum Collection Now Discovered to Depict the Catskills.” I did not save this version.)

OK, but then what? Well, let’s see what Topaz Adjust 5 has to offer. Click, click, click on various presets — and then came the revelation. This one — called “French Countryside” — the problem was that leaving in all the details was making for too confused an image, and what it really needed was to be smoothed out. This one worked best for the purpose.

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What do you think?

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Postprocessing Those Historic Buildings: A Lesson Learned

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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.

Topaz Great Plug-In for B&W

A few weeks ago I visited an antiques store in the Catskills region known as the Mountain Top. The store, at the junction of Routes 23A and 296 in Hunter, New York, is run by Cindy Smith, and contains both “Old Treasured Belongings” — the gently used items of all kinds — and “Handmade by Cindy” — a stunning array of handbags and other products made by Cindy herself. If you want to read more details, and to see my full-color versions of the photos below, please check the December 5 post on my Hudson Valley and Catskills blog.

But in this post I want to show you just a small part of the capabilities of Topaz’s B & W Effects. This is a powerful tool for expanding your creative postprocessing options, and given my propensity for photographing historic and other interesting buildings, both inside and out, I purchased and downloaded it to see how it could enhance what I call my “Modern Vintage” work. 

Since my objective is that you enjoy the old-fashioned warmth and coziness of  Cindy’s store as mediated by my interpretations, rather than to give you a detailed photo tutorial, I’m going to post the four pictures with just a brief word of explanation about how Topaz B&W Effects was applied in each image.

Ed Img 2034 Top BW sThe presets in Topaz B&W Effects are grouped into collections with such headings as Traditional, Albumen, Cyanotype, Stylized, Opalotype, and others. Each collection then has a number of different presets, which you can preview in a grid if you want and then select from the grid the one you want to work with. This photo was processed using Warm Tone White with Border from the Traditional collection. I increased the Brightness slightly to give it a hint of a faded look.

I’m not a fan of unusual effects for their own sake, but in this case it seemed to Ed Img 2040 Top BW sfit the subject of the image, as if the room were emerging like a benign spirit from a pleasant past. (No, no, I’m not channeling Dickens — at least, I don’t think so!) It’s the Milky White preset from the Opalotype collection. I’ve found that Opalotype presets have good potential for these “old-fashioned” interpretations; I’ve used another in a slightly different context, the interior of a rural diner.

Ed IMG 2036 Top BW sBoth in Topaz B&W Effects and in Topaz Adjust 5 I’ve found the Stylized collections to be great places to mine for processing ideas, and so the next two images were both processed with Stylized presets. This one used the Painterly Color preset; it seemed to be a good way both to make sense of the busyness of the room and to contrast with my interpretation of the first photo above that has similar content.

A word of warning: Topaz B&W Effects is like rich food; you can only eat so Ed IMG Top BW 2044 smuch rich food at one sitting, and in my experience I found myself saying “enough!” by the time I got to the fourth picture, again in one sitting.  A lot of trial-and-error went on here as I found it difficult to settle on an interpretation I could live with. My aim, after all, was to make workable, artistic interpretations in their own right rather than to offer demonstrations of Topaz B&W Effects as ends in themselves. For this last one I again chose from the Stylized collection, this time the Detailed Grunge preset. I gave it a very slight tint. Looking back on the entire process, I found it interesting that my “Modern Vintage” interpretations lend themselves to the two extremes, either a grungy, detailed, structured look or a soft look with vignetting or other “fading” effects toward the edges.

There you have it — my brief intro to Topaz B&W Effects. If you visit their website you can download a free trial before deciding to buy.  I get no commission here, just wanted to share my enthusiasm for this great plug-in in case it helps you. The photos are for sale on my website.

Read about my book Historic Hudson Valley

Interpreting Poughkeepsie

With all my travels up and down the Hudson Valley for our book Historic Hudson Valley, I never sufficiently explored Poughkeepsie, a historic city in Dutchess County.  Yesterday I thought it was about time to put that right, especially since I’m doing a talk and book signing at the Mid Hudson Heritage Center on Thursday October 24.

Poughkeepsie has several historic districts, including this one on Main Street. Here are two versions of one of the photos I took, both processed in Photoshop CS 5 with Topaz Adjust 5.  (The building on the right houses the Mid Hudson Heritage Center.)

Each version expresses a different side of the character of the Main Street district. The first has a hint of the gritty look I associate with this kind of area. For this I used, from the Topaz Adjust Vibrant collection, Detail Strong – II, in which I increased the number of color regions to five and boosted the saturation to 1.30.Ed IMG_1978 Top Detail Strong s

For the second version I used the Faded Glory (the name itself says it all) with the original presets.

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Please leave a comment as I’m interested in knowing which version you prefer.  And don’t forget — my talk/book signing at the Mid Hudson Heritage Center on Thursday October 24. I’d love to see you there!

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.

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.

Leaving Well Enough Alone in Photography

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Sometimes the problem with having an array of editing software and plug-ins on one’s computer is that one can fall into the trap of thinking that one has to use it. Don’t get me wrong–I love my Photoshop, Nik software, Topaz Adjust and all, but the danger of overprocessing is always present; these toys are always screaming out to be used!

Here are two photos I made on my latest visit to the Adirondacks, just after Thanksgiving. It’s of the High Peaks from one of my favorite vantage points, where the Adirondak Loj Road intersects with Route 73. I always shoot in Raw and jpg, and when I uploaded and looked at these particular images in jpg, I loved them just as they came “out of the box.” OK, possibly I cropped the bottoms slightly, but otherwise my first reaction was that they looked just as Asher B. Durand would have painted the scene.

I opened the Raw file of one of the images to try to process it but gave it up as unnecessary–why “improve” on what I already liked as it was? Am I concerned that people won’t think me sufficiently “professional” if I can’t offer an impressive description of my postprocessing?

Interestingly, I included one of these images on one of my 2013 calendars with the theme A Certain Beauty (thank you to the friend who suggested this theme), and when a lady who had bought one of the calendars leafed through it and came to this picture, she commented, “It looks just like an oil painting.”

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