Sunday, August 21, 2011

When Color Matters

I don’t profess to be an expert on color rendering.  You can stop reading now if you are hoping to delve into the science of how colors are captured on your camera’s sensor, differences between RGB and sRGB, monitor calibration, and the like… Much has been written about all of these topics, so I’d encourage you to seek out those technical resources if interested.

I had an “aha” moment recently when a friend of mine came to me with a request to shoot images of a fabric sample (more on the “aha” later).  My friend is in the business of providing natural fur products from the shearings of Angora goats for mohair and Alpacas.  The sheerings are then woven into a 100% cotton backing and then custom die provides for the variety of products their customers desire.  My friend’s challenge was having photographs on their website that looked like their actual products.

How na├»ve I was when I started… “Sure”, I said…this should be easy.  I’ll just shoot a few frames in the sun, and shoot a few in the shade—they can pick the one they want and voila, project done.  The problem was that when I got my images back into Lightroom, they all looked a bit different from each other—and when I compared the images to the sample in my hand, there were difference there too.  How could this be??

I know, white balance…you’re already ahead of me.  I knew this going into the shoots.  What I didn’t really appreciate is that the color of an object is different under different lighting, nevermind the photographic side of that discussion…just looking at the fabric in sun was different that looking at it in shade.  A red apple though will always look red to you…your brain will just tell you that the apple is red, regardless of the warmth or coolness of the lighting.  But which red is red?   Reminds me of the old joke of the accountant on an interview, who when posed with the question of what 2+2 was, responded, “what do you want it to be”?  THIS was the “aha” moment!  I realized that color perception is in the eye of the beholder, and that your brain adjusts to perceive things the way it EXPECTS to see them. 

So I took my photographic project to the next level and borrowed an 18% gray card from a friend.  Again, much could be written about this, but suffice it to say that I used the card to more accurately adjust the color temperature of my images when shot in sunlight and in shade with the hope of minimizing the ambiguity.  The adjustments I could make based on the gray card were a big help.  Instead of just going with my camera’s assessment that the “daylight” color temperature I shot in was 4650 degrees Kelvin, or guessing that it should be slightly warmer or cooler, the gray card helped me calibrate it more precisely.  My end results were quite good—by the definition of looking the same on screen as the sample in my hand.

For 99.9% of my photography, the preciseness of the color temperature rendering has not been important.  I’ve made adjustments and enhancements to my images when capturing, or in post production, and the results have been quite pleasing, and to my viewers, quite satisfactory.  It’s near impossible to you (or me) to look at one of my sunset images and determine if the shade or orange or pink in the sky is exactly what it was if standing there…and quite frankly, it doesn’t matter that much, because I’m not trying to convey that scientific precision…I’m trying to convey a story or an emotion through the art of photography.

But with my friend’s fabric, there is no story to be told…they want to show the color of their product that will show up on your doorstep.  My only question for you…is your doorstep typically in the sun or in the shade???

(photo metadata:  1/250 sec @ f/8, ISO 200, focal length 52mm)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

HDR--Just Because You Can?

My wife and one of her friends just returned from the Sawdust Festival in Laguna Beach. Although I’ve never been there, I understand it’s an extremely popular annual arts and crafts event that features among other things a photographic exhibit. When my wife came come, she reported that she had seen quite a number of “HDRs”. That comment struck a chord with me that I wanted to share with you.
First of all, can you imagine a friend coming back from an art exhibit and telling you that they saw a bunch of watercolors? Or a bunch of pen-and-inks? Or how about a bunch of frescos? To all three of these questions, I think the answer would be “yes”.  The friend has only told you about the art’s medium, not the art itself. So because my wife and her friend said they saw a bunch of HDRs, what does that mean?
HDR is a medium for photographic expression, just as is B&W--it's another medium, or technique. In fact, like painting, photography has a myriad of different techniques and mediums through which photographers express their emotion and point of view. And depending on whether the photographer is working in the realm of photojournalism, or documentary, or landscape, or portraiture, or macro, or sports, etc…the techniques used can involve elaborate capture setups and/or elaborate post-production efforts. HDR is simply a tool, or technique, or medium that can be utilized in some or all those various realms.
Now let's look at when someone might or might not want to use HDR as part of their image creation process. Just as saying “watercolor” describes a broad range of end-result styles, HDR is a term that describes a broad range of results, from the radically process extremes sometimes referred to as “grunge”, to the more sedentary balancing and evening out of wide tonal ranges in a scene (like my HDR image in this posting). Unfortunately, HDR has come to carry with it a connotation that many photographers associate with unpleasing results, when in fact, some of the most awe inspiring images are HDRs—and were created in the darkroom years before there were computers and software designed to deal with high dynamic range…ah yes, the days of dodging and burning…you remember them, right? That was “HDR”.
I heard a good friend once say “that’s a hammer looking for a nail”, and another friend told me that "if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail"… Both statement conveying the same singular mindset.  In photography, if you’re starting out with intent to create an HDR, then you are a bit like that hammer. Keep the hammer in your toolbox until you’ve decided what story you’re trying to tell with your imagery. What did you see, how did you decide to compose it, what camera settings were most appropriate to capture the essence of motion, color, depth, contrast, and finally, what post-processing techniques will help you complete the story telling--maybe HDR is the tool/technique you need, maybe not.  Don't use HDR just because you can...

(photo metadata:  1/60 sec @ f/3.5, ISO 1000, focal length 18mm)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Visualizing the Post-Processed Result

Twice in the last week, I took photographs that in and of themselves were not creative or inspiring captures. Instead, they were shots where I saw potential only through post processing. I felt a little guilty because this approach is counter to most things you read about photography, particularly the emphasis (which I agree with) to capture as much of your desired end result “in camera” instead of in the digital darkroom.
Let me describe both situations.

I was walking through my neighborhood to complete an errand and came upon an old-model Ford pickup truck. Because I also agree with the advice that you should try to have a camera with you at all times, I was carrying my point-and-shoot camera for that “just in case” opportunity. The problem was that the truck was parked such that I couldn't get a clean shot without a lot of clutter behind it. I could have uses my f/1.8 lens to throw the background out of focus, however, like I indicated, I didn’t have my Nikon with me, and second, putting the background out of focus would have also meant having some of the truck also out of focus.
Therefore, I opted to take my shot, knowing that I’d deal with the background in post-production. I didn’t labor hours, but rather did a simple selection and applied a Gaussian blur as well as a slight de-saturation coupled with a decrease in exposure. These adjustments made the truck the star of the image, in spite of a background I had no control over.  (email me if you'd like to see how this came out)
The other situation where post production was part of my image capture strategy was during my visit to the Getty Center this weekend with some of my family, including one of my sons and his girlfriend. There was a point where they were walking ahead of me, hand-in-hand, and the way they were holding hands caught my attention.  As you can imagine, with them walking, and me walking, it would not have been possible to accomplish “in camera” the end result I was visualizing (refer to the photograph to see my final result).
My plan quite simply was to kick up the shutter speed and make a sharp capture in shutter priority mode, and then deal with completing the concept in post production. A tight crop and a bit of vignetting gave me the final result I was after.

So next time you’re out with your camera, open your own “aperture” a bit more and consider captures where post-production is central to your photographic visioning and story telling.

(photo metadata:  1/750 sec @ f/6.7, ISO 200, focal length 62mm)