Archive for the ‘Tutorials / Learning’ Category

In the Port of Ilwaco, WA.

Barbed wire waves, St. Elmo’s fire glowing electric in the rigging, the stain of neglect on her bow; run aground on reefs of time: there she sits, high and dry.

My son said, half-jokingly, that he’d like to live on her and fix her up. If only :-)

I suggest viewing this in original size.

Making the Photo:

We were visiting the Port on a Sunday morning, strolling down the unusually quiet quay with my wife, son and his girlfriend, when these day-glow orange floats across the street from the docks snuck into my peripheral vision. They were piled up against a fence next to a holding area filled with boats in various stages of repair or decay. I left the group and walked a bit closer, then spotted the Jeanie O and this composition just jumped into the viewfinder. I spot-metered on the boat’s window under the vertical topaz-colored mast and made this single shot.

Because the contrast ratios were high, I really wanted to shoot this as HDR, but opted not to try it hand-held. So I then walked a few hundred yards back to our car, got my tripod, returned to the scene and set up. Problem was, by the time I went to the car and back, the family had caught up with me and we’d started gabbing, and the “moment” was lost; guess I just broke my concentration. What I got was ok, but I knew I hadn’t duplicated this exact composition again (in the bright light of the location, the camera’s LCD screen was pretty much useless for critical viewing).

Back at the computer, after deciding to go with this, I processed the RAW file as a pseudo-HDR in Photomatix.  The purpose was to “process the digital negative” to reduce the contrast, particularly to pull the highlights away from being blown. Next the shot was processed for sharpness and noise reduction. Great noise reduction software is a must when processing most pseudo-HDRs; the darker regions tend to get noisy really fast. Then I used Topaz Adjust for post-processing, and the first result was this:


This is a nice “straight” representation of the scene. But when I shot this, what got me about the composition was the sense that the ship was riding up, over the obstacles in front, like a ship rises over waves in the sea. Sitting there looking at the screen, the title phrase “The Wreck of the Jeanie O” sprang into mind… and the clear-cut desire to present this as a dramatic scene – reminiscent of a wreck at sea – swept over me, well, like a wave. So back into Topaz Adjust for post processing (to match my “post visualization”).  The result was this:


I still have some difficulty with “expressive” photography. I was trained to accomplish, and strived to achieve photo realism; non-interpretive rendering. But just as I’ve learned to let the urge to shoot a subject take over (when the urge to shoot hits, I shoot) so I’m learning to let myself alter a photo to tell a tale. The key word is “let”. The urge to go with a bit of “ghost ship” on this was strong, and came straight out of the right brain; it wasn’t planned or considered; I didn’t stop and think about what to do; “maybe I should try this…” No, the right brain had the thought, knew what to do, and did it. I, the left brain, had to shut up and stay out of the way.  After the processing, part of me wanted to start quibbling; “Oh, what about this? And What about that?” And the right brain had to say “Shush. It’s ok… just relax and enjoy it.”

Subject note:

A wreck the Jeanie O is, but she didn’t run aground on the rocks surrounding Cape Disappointment (I love the names Lewis and Clark gave to places on this coast. “Dismal Notch” may be my favorite…). She’d run aground on reefs of neglect, spurred on by the economics of making and keeping her sea worthy.  But the world of “people who go down to the sea in ships” is not a consumer-driven use-it-and-throw-it-away culture. So it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that someone actually plans to restore the Jeanie O and take her home to the sea. If the hull is sound, the rest can be fixed.


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I ran into yet another in my long list of “Doh!” moments after a shoot at the beach last weekend.

Reviewing the shots later, on the computer, I noticed that a whole series of shots were badly lacking in contrast and saturation. The post-storm light on the beach was very bright and flat to begin with, but these shots were much flatter and colorless than I would have expected. Initially, I just wrote it off to the particular combination of camera, subject, and settings.  Turned out I was wrong.

I’m not at all obsessive about cleaning my equipment – but generally, if I use a filter I clean it before putting it away at the end of the day so it’s ready next time. Now, for part of this shoot I’d pulled out a tele-zoom lens I use infrequently, and to cut through glare, attached its matching circular polarizer (which I use even less often).

Later, when getting ready to clean the filter before putting it away I noticed that one side of the filter was covered edge-to-edge with an even grey film – like fog on the inside of a car window! Just looking through it with the naked eye, I realized that this awful haze was why the particular shots appeared so lifeless – I was shooting through self-inflicted “heavy fog!”

Of course I cleaned the filter thoroughly, but I was also a bit confused – the filter was clean when I put it away…. Well, a bit of investigation showed that the filter’s case had a Styrofoam pad in the bottom to keep the filter from banging around inside and cushion it. Best I can figure is that the Styrofoam out-gassed (released tiny amounts of chemical gasses as part of its aging process) and those gasses had deposited themselves all over one side of the filter!

So, a few points emerge:

  • Yeah, I really should have checked the filter before I attached it – assuming it was clean after 6 months in storage turned out to be a bad idea.
  • I checked a couple of other filters and one of those had also been hazed-up!

Considering this further; having Styrofoam as a cushion may be a “good idea” on the face of it – certainly cheap and easy for the manufacturers. But it would be better to replace these with a layer or two of microfiber cloth in each filter box. That would:

  1. Immobilize and cushion the filter;
  2. Reduce or eliminate the risk of outgassing, and;
  3. Provide a convenient way to touch up a filter in the field when you need to get or keep it clean.

Sounds like a perfect rainy winter night mini-project…

Tip: bags of nice microfiber cloths are available cheap in Target’s automotive section.

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NJ Farmland – Redux

Originally uploaded by chris_rutkowski

I uploaded the contrast corrected version of the original then decided to experiment with the B&W a bit as Jeff suggested. Found that a medium-strong Rose filter effect supports the composition without getting overly dramatic. Yellow filter makes this sci-fi… This version "reads" right; that is the perceived brightnesses are similar between the two versions. This has a nice dimensional effect, which a touch of trapezoidal edge burning enhanced.


Comment Thread from Flickr

Other very minor thread topics have been excised for clarity.

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Jeff Engelhardt   says:

define "overly dramatic" . . . . ?

Not looking for black skies? :). I suppose they do have their place. I do like this as black and white, definitely, but surprised you didn’t push it a little bit further . . for example, I see no "true blacks" here – which a normal levels adjustment is used to accomplish. I’m guessing, perhaps, the intent was more of a "light" feel?

I’m curious along this line, because the clouds in the sky hint at drama, and often good skyscapes over farmland tend to be dramatic (but that’s just how "everybody" tends to do it) – can you talk more about your intent with the picture? Curious the inner workings of your mind (I love to unpack the photographic process) . . . please discourse, and I’ll return soon to see . .

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chris_rutkowski   says:

Actually you hit the nail pretty much upside the head: the intent was indeed more of a "light" feel. Specifically, this is New Jersey. New Jersey has a very different sky than the West: lower, brighter, glarier… (not smog for the sarcastic wits out there. Well, not always). That “very-bright but low-contrast” feel is the NJ I grew up in: this is the early fall when the muggy air of summer has not yet been fully vanquished by the crisp cool air masses that will spill down out of Canada in the coming weeks.

One problem is “scale effect”. What looks good small may not look so good large, and vice-versa. In this case, in smaller versions the tiny amount of black is rapidly lost. If you look at the original size you can about see small black areas of shade in the tree-line and around the house. They are very small. But in a 16×24 print – they’d be pointillist pepper to spice things up and make the tree-line look real.

This rose filter choice was done viewing side-by-side with the color version and homing in on a translation that felt “the same”.

It was in that context that “overly dramatic” came to mind. Effects that would turn the sky black would come by and I’d be saying “no, no, no, no, no…” Definitely not for this piece of New Jersey I’m showing in this shot.

I also admit to a bit of deliberate avoidance. Black skies can be (are?) a cliché – a visual crutch, so I sometimes set up rules for myself like “no black skies” just to make it more interesting. I also sometimes avoid certain places: while on a trip to NM this time last year: no photos of either the St. Francis church or the Taos Pueblo. No Yosemite. No Brice canyon. But a piece of flat land in NJ… sure. At least I can say with some certainty that this is the best photo ever made of this spot :-)

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chris_rutkowski   says:

Mental ruminations:

Subject: Overly Dramatic:

Postulate: All perception is a result of contrast.

Hypothesis: Contrast exists within and/or between 4 visual domains (brightness, shape, color, texture) and 2 emotional domains (content, context).

Dramatic = Strong contrasts among and/or between domains.

Overly = Strong contrast for the sake of strong contrast – any effect for the sake of the effect. Specifically as it relates to the intent of the shot.

Appropriately: No effect is inherently wrong. Even an "effect for the sake of an effect" if that’s the point.

This is based on a "making and viewing photos" rubric I’ve been working on – thinking about – for a while. Initial thoughts on the model?

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chris_rutkowski   says:

This version adds that bit of contrast – Photoshop curves layer with Black input set to 8 and white input set to 249. Crisper, brighter. but it didn’t feel like what I had in mind.

Is this a left over trace of "straight photographer" principles, or a cop out? Giving up before the best possible picture – the strongest visual statement – is achieved? Is it valid to use a single shot to produce multiple visual images which tell a different tale? My brain says yes, but my heart achieves "maybe" at best.

In the spirit of stepping out of my comfort zone (my favorite admonition to others) a "black sky" version will be forthcoming

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Originally uploaded by chris_rutkowski

This is Dennis. Dennis is reading a book, waiting while his wife rides her horse around the wildlife preserve surrounding this lake in central NJ.

I rode my bicycle within a half mile of this spot a hundred times when I lived in NJ and never even knew the lake was there. I found it while driving my mom around, just to get out and see some country, buy some tomatoes and corn at a roadside stand, etc. Off far to the right of this shot, near the opposite shore, a large flock of swans was doing what swans do. Several fishing boats were working the shoreline. It was, as you can see, beautiful. Then across the parking lot I saw Dennis (I didn’t know his name at the time) walk into the parking lot from the road, chair in hand, then out onto the pier, and sit. And I knew I wanted this shot.

I walked over and struck up a conversation, and learned that he comes here often: he parks the truck and horse trailer out on the road, his wife rides, and he comes here to read. By and by I asked if I could take his photograph to which he readily agreed and asked "What do you want me to do?" I said "Nothing. Just read your book." He smiled and said "That I can do." This is the result.

Making the Photo:

In non-public communications a "Straight photographer" lambasted this shot, lured in at first by me mentioning that this photo was done 5 shot HDR, hand-held. His first response was accusatory; "no one in the world can do 5 shot HDR handheld." Then, observing overlap images in the water and pixel-sized doubling in the trees, chastised me for using HDR at all on water or trees, as well as for wasting my time doing it handheld when a single shot would do, yada, yada, yada…

To quote Peewee Herman, "I meant to do that."

One of the curious and basic techniques in photography is that shutter speed can be used to freeze or enhance motion at the whim of the photographer. What constitutes an "instant" in life is variable. The mind accepts this because that’s the way the mind works; by integrating individual data elements into a set containing more detail than any one original perceptive moment. HDR achieves a similar effect by providing different images in which the motion is recorded in a strobe-like stop -motion effect. Get it? Think of "stop motion" as an effect rather than as a problem and it makes a lot more sense. And as with any other effect the question becomes "is the effect being used properly" rather than "is it good or bad".

In the case of moving water – or moving anything for that matter – if the motion is linear (as in a moving river or stream, a wave coming in to shore, etc.) the stop-motion effect can be plainly visible and hard for the mind to reconcile. There are ways to fix and alter some of those doublings that certainly don’t rule out the technique, but it is not straight forward. However if the motion has a more random characteristic – such as wavelets breaking the surface of a lake, then the doublings appear as just more randomness, which the eye gratefully accepts. In fact, by increasing the “random” in some parts of a scene you can create greater contrast with parts that are motionless. Get it? That’s the same “kind” of effect you get by blurring things with longer exposures.

Ghosts of Champions Past (aka Neglected Ski Jump - Cloquet, MN)

For another example of how stop-motion can accentuate a feeling of motion and power in a shot, take a look at this photo from my Flickr site. The trees are blowing around – and it feels right. The eye happily integrates the doubling of the trees into “one which is moving”.

The point here is not whether these are good photos or not – it is that there is a distinct “effect” here that can be used to advantage. When you have lemons, make lemonade.

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I posted a B/W (monochrome) shot on Flickr a few weeks back and mentioned that I’d used a particular B&W color filter effect to get it right.  Later, it occurred to me that not everybody might know what I meant by that; how it works. So, while I’m no big expert filters, I kind of like explaining stuff… and that was the tipping point which motivated starting this blog. Here, then is what I wanted to mention about filters:VoicesFromThePast

This is the photo I put up on Flickr.

The sun illuminated the scene very strongly from the left, while the sky overhead was intense dark-blue (dawn blue), casting the scene in shade. Now notice that I said “casting … in shade”. Most of us think of shade as the absence of sunlight, forgetting that something is reflecting light onto the scene otherwise it would be inky blank. That reflected light is what we call “shade”. And shade has color. Actually, it has lots of colors from all the many things reflecting – casting – their light where the sun don’t shine. Shade is both complex and diffuse; that’s where the action is.

In contrast, sunlight comes from a point light source and is unvarying in its spectral makeup; along with being intense, it is consistent and concentrated. In the realm of B&W photography, sunlight is very, very bright and very white; everything else down to jet black is diffused and some shade of gray. Because the shade of gray you see is based on it’s color, colored filters can be used to alter the relative brightnesses among objects or areas in a scene.

AColor This is the original color exposure, straight out of the camera. It was beautiful, but to me, color really didn’t capture the mood – what I felt – standing there. Then it hit me; color was actually obscuring the the quality of the light!

The overall contrast is very high, but large areas are very soft; in the back, where the grey pilings meet the yellowish tan grass, the brightness of the grasses and pilings are quite similar, but the colors are different, and color differences can be converted to brightness differences with filters.


The Color Wheel

The color wheel is your friend. It unlocks the “secret” of filters, which is this:

01 Red A filter of a color on one side of the wheel reduces the apparent brightness of the color on the other side.

Get that? Reduces the color on the other side.

Take a look at that wheel on the right.

There’s a little ‘pip’ on the right where it’s red, marking this as being a “red” filter. Now, notice that right across from red on the other side of the color wheel is what? Sky Blue (cyan actually). So, in B&W photography, what does a red filter do? It reduces the brightness of the sky colors. It can turn the sky black (as in Ansel Adams’ famous shot of Half Dome).

So, look around the edge of the color wheel at the various colors and imagine those colors in nature. You see; blue sky, green foliage, orange sunsets, skin tones, etc. You can adjust the relative brightness of these in a B&W photo by using a filter of the color on the opposite side of the wheel.

That’s pretty much all you need to know


When thinking about filter colors, in the field on on a computer screen in processing, you have to start by considering the color – the visual color, the actual color of the things in the scene. As I’m sure you know, something which is pure white in bright sunlight appears orange-ish in a room lit by incandescent bulbs. That’s why we set the white balance in camera; so that a “white” thing appears “white” when the image is viewed. The color you see is the color of the light source, less the colors the object absorbs (rather than reflecting). So, different color source, different color seen.

Outside in daylight there are two primary light sources (neglecting things like fill flash): sunlight, and sunlight reflected off of something else. The something elses absorb some of the colors from the sun and reflect the rest. Hence “blue sky” (aka shade) is a common second light source. 

Here’s a blown up insert from the shot above. What do you see? The bright foreground highlights on the grasses are illuminated by the sun; the parts in shade are illuminated largely by the sky. The colors in the shade are mostly pale yellows (the grasses), greens (foliage and younger grass, and dark chocolate browns. But the pilings have a distinct bluish cast.

NB: the filters shots below often appear quite grainy; this can be used for effect, or easily cleaned up.


No Filter
00 Neutral
Note the pip is dead center in the color wheel – no color filter.
This is the B&W direct conversion of the color shot.
Note that the separation of the pilings from the background is minimal, just as it appears in the color image.
BW4-00 B&W

Red Filter
01 Red

A red filter reduces levels of cyan, so now the slightly bluish pilings stand out well from the grasses. Also, the grasses in the front are brighter. More dramatically, the bright grasses at the upper left – almost invisible in the color shot, are now much more distinct.


Orange Filter
02 Orange
An orange filter darkens “azure” blue; the pilings are darker still, and the chocolate shaded foreground is actually a bit lighter – a bit more detail has been revealed.
Yellow Filter  
03 Yellow
Good grief! The yellow filter removes BLUE, period. So a strong Yellow filter like this turns things predominantly blue BLACK. Note the background in the shrubs above the grasses; textures are revealed.
Chartreuse Filter  
04 Chartreuse
Chartreuse? Yeah….
Violet is reduced – some blue has come back, but anything green in the color shot is deepening in tone. Note particularly the greenish patch in the bright clump of grasses in the lower left quadrant; its shadowed area is rather detailed now.
Green Filter  
05 Green
Anything magenta goes to black; separation of the pilings from the grasses remains high. Qualitatively, compare this with the red filter; the foreground is now much darker and the overall contrast is much higher.
Aqua Filter  
06 Aqua
Aqua removes rose-colored light – more red than blue. So the pilings (bluish) are darkened, but the grasses (reddish) are darkened even more. Overall this is nice, but those bright grasses in the upper left quadrant are more subdued now. is that what you’d want (decisions, decisions…)?
Cyan Filter  
07 Cyan
Say goodbye to red… the pilings have jumped in brightness and now blend with the background grasses again; but the texture in the shrubbery at the back has increased. Anything blue or bluish is now accentuated.
Azure Filter  
08 Azure
Azure removes orange. Look at the background grasses; the contrast in the foliage is enhanced far beyond what the color or B&W shot reveal. The ground is now heavily textured.
Blue Filter
09 Blue
One of the classics, a blue filter reduces the yellow components of the scene; the background grasses are now textured heavily, while the shadowed area of the bright clump of grass in the lower left foreground is nearly black.
Violet Filter
10 Violet
Violet reduces chartreuse. Look back at the color image; there is a substantial chartreuse – “limey green” – component in much of the shot. The matted grassy areas between the pilings and the background tend to dominate the scene. 
Magenta Filter
11 Magenta
Magenta reduces green. Anything green has darkened as much as possible – what’s left are the reds a blues. As a result, the separation between the pilings and grass in the back are gone.
Rose Filter  
12 Rose
Rose reduces Aqua. Notice in particular how the contrasts in the foliage in the back have dropped dramatically compared to the magenta filter, just 30 degrees away on the color wheel. The effect is softer than the red filter and is subtly different from “no” filter, but with dramatically better separation of pilings in the rear.


As you can see, filters give you enormous control over the relative brightnesses in a scene. Results vary from subtle to dramatic. Which to use? Depends on your intent. More subtle effects heighten realism – accentuate what was seen and/or felt while remaining true to “reality”. Other filters can be used to explore the hidden world – the relationships we never see in “reality”; shade can become more dramatic than the brightly lit portions of the original scene.

NOTE: The color wheel shots are screen captures from Lightzone, a photo processing tool I use frequently. You can grab and drag that little “pip” on the color wheel to any part of the wheel and see the results instantly; download the free trial and try this out on your own photos.

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