Friday, March 16, 2012

Plugins vs. Photoshop

I've used Adobe's Lightroom for my raw processing ever since the first version. There are other processors and catalog programs that are just as capable, and devoted users of each swear by their favorite. Because of the limited development capabilities in that first version I needed to take the plunge into the deep intricacies of Photoshop. Because there was so much functionality available, I had to decide to do what I needed and forgot about the rest. As Lightroom improved with each successive generation I tried to rely less and less on Photoshop, but there were many things that were not possible in Lightroom.

I watched demonstrations by the various developers at photo shows of how the plugins they were marketing worked. I wasn't impressed because I thought I could do the same thing in Photoshop, if I could learn the proper technique. That's a big 'if'. The manipulations that each plugin could do, if done in Photoshop, would require hours of learning and practice, and then, if I could do the manipulation, lots of time at the computer to do the procedures. 

At one point I threw up my hands. I often shoot in low light situations - at concerts, in warmup rooms, in churches and synagogues, in deep shadows on there street - and had to push my ISO to the limit. I needed some kind of processing that would perform adequate noise reduction, better than what Lightroom was  offering in version 1. I tried a number of plugins and felt most comfortable with the intuitive interface of Nik Software's Dfine. It really did the trick for me, but the downside was, as with all noise reduction software, the image was softened slightly. So, I tried Nik's Sharpener Pro. The interface was very similar to Dfine, and again, was very intuitive.

I began my photography odyssey as a b/w film shooter and wet darkroom developer. Having tried quite a number of different procedures for converting my RAW color images into b/w, and not being satisfied with any of them, I gave Nik's SIlver Efex Pro a run. I was mightily impressed. I could do anything with that software that I could have done in my wet darkroom. No odors (except mine). I could walk away from the computer, come back hours later, and pick up where I left off. I was so impressed with the software that I went for the whole enchilada and bought Viveza and Color Efex Pro. The technology behind the software saved me many hours of work on my images. Then, along came VIveza 2, Silver Efex Pro 2, Color Efex Pro 4, and HDR Efex Pro (I'm not a big fan of HDR, but enjoy playing with it for a diversion). The possibilities that the new software opened up were mind boggling. 

To be fair, I must also say that I played with plugins from OnOne Software and Topaz Software. There are two that I use on just about every image I process: OnOne's Focal Point and Perfect Resize. Whenever I used their processing plugins - Photo Tools and Photo Tune - I always found myself thinking ' ..... if I could just drop a control point there ......' (not to get too deep into this, but a control point is a tool developed by Nik's software engineers to create a very specific local adjustment).

I mention all this because a few days ago I had the pleasure of attending a class given by Nik's senior manager, Tony Corbell. Nik's commitment to providing education to it's users through daily live webinars is unmatched by any other software developer. It's a smart way to market software - to get people interested in the products, and to let them know that after they purchase the products there is a deep commitment to educating them on how to use it. Kudos to Tony and the whole Nik team.

Now for the fun stuff. I'm going way out on a limb here. I shot this photo on Fifth Avenue, on a bright sunny day. The moment happened right in front of me, and I knew it would only last a few seconds. No time to play with the camera settings, no time to find the ideal shooting position. Just the normal everyday street shooting situation. I'm saying this right up front, this first image is the RAW exposure right out of the camera. It's a rare street shot for me in that, since her back was to me, I had a split second to pick the camera up to my eye and zoom to get the right composition. The exposure is very much to the right, and the contrast is quite lacking. But in digital, as opposed to film, exposure to the right is not so terrible. Having familiarity with what my software would be able to do, I was able to visualize the final shot with the subject looking at the objects of her affection, and the reflections in the window.

The ISO was 200 so I knew noise would not be an issue. I did my usual basic adjustments in the Lightroom (version 4) develop module by adjusting the white and black points, bringing down the highlights to a reasonable level, opening the shadows a little, and giving the image some pop with the clarity adjustment. The processing took about two minutes, and this was the result:

The image could probably stand by itself just like this. But I saw it as a b/w when I shot it, so I took it further. I put it through Dfine to reduce what little noise was present ( even the best digital shot has some noise). Knowing how Silver Efex Pro 2 will render the various colors in the conversion, enabled me to create separation in those tones using Viveza 2 so that it wasn't an issue when I switch over. My standard operating procedure in creating b/w images is to optimize the photograph as much as possible in color - especially contrast - before converting. I do this most often with my 'go to' filters in Color Efex Pro 4: Pro Contrast and Tonal Contrast. After flipping the image in SEP2, the processing becomes unique to each situation, but I almost always finish off by burning down the edges and adding some warming to the 'silver' tones. Here's the final image which I titled Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend:


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Decisive Moment

Henri Cartier Bresson - the name resonates in the history of photography. He was first and foremost an artist - and he just happened to take pictures. After his first few years in the field, he never worked in a darkroom (digital equivalent of processing an image), and late in life he abandoned photography completely to return to his artistic roots. He has been quoted as saying '....I'm not all that interested in the subject of photography. Once the picture is in the box, I'm not all that interested in what happens next. Hunters, after all, aren't cooks.' Information about him abounds on the internet, this link should suffice. 

But what exactly is that decisive moment that HCB was so renown for epitomizing? This (another of his quotes) pretty well sums it up: '.... to me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms that give that event its proper expression.'

I don't for a moment mean to intimate that I've mastered this concept and technique, but it's the most important guiding principle that I follow in my street work. In the first photo I was standing to one side of this attractive girl on a subway platform. She knew I was there and holding my camera at chest level aimed towards her, and tried to look nonchalant and un-self-concious. I wanted to get the shot, but it just didn't sing to me, until the gentleman in the background, looking at the girl from the other direction completed the image. Without him there the picture just disappears into the dark subway tunnel, the viewer's eye guided by the line of overhead lights and the line of the platform edge. With him present, the image continues past him, giving the dimension of depth, but his presence stops the viewer's wandering eye and brings it back to the main subject, caught between me, the photographer, and the man in the background. And she is leaning up against the steel upright as though it might offer some kind of protection from us or support.

Later that same afternoon I was walking on Bleeker Street in New York's Greenwich Village, and saw this gentleman relaxing on a bench outside a store, probably waiting for his wife to finish her shopping. He looked wonderfully relaxed as I approached  from his right. I started firing off shots as I approached him, but suspected that profile shots were not going to make the image for me. I had one chance to grab the 'money' shot as I walked past him. I think he was drawn out of his reverie by the sound of the shutter clicking exactly when I was standing directly in front of him and he looked right into the lens. The images of the moment before and after just didn't have any magic.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Photosharing, Trolls, and Such ....

For the past few years I've involved myself in the photo sharing experience on the internet. I started with Flickr - joined several established groups - and submitted work quite regularly. At about the same time I established a portfolio on the NAPP (National Association of Photoshop Professionals) website to which I posted about once a week. I was disappointed with the interactions on the NAPP website. It seemed to me that there were very few people looking at the work and commenting on it, and those few that did spent a great deal of time doing nothing but going through the entire submissions every day and making comments to everyone. Nice people to do that, but kind of meaningless to read 'great shot' or 'nice job' every day from the same people.

Same kind of thing happened on Flickr. I became discouraged after a while, and then I heard about, so I thought I'd give it a try. At the start it was fun because it was new. I developed a very large following rather quickly, and enjoyed the interaction and feedback from the limited number of people who actually put some thought into their comments. I made a point to post an image every day.

Members of are given the option to make an image a 'favorite' and to anonymously vote 'like' or 'dislike' for an image. The total number of votes for, against, and 'faving' an image over the course of hours determined by an arcane algorithm known only to the administration (or so they say) the score of that image. And the score of the image determined what position it would hold in the viewing queue. So the higher the score, the more views an image was likely to receive. And after all is said and done, why do we post images on the internet if not for others to see the work.

Surprising as it may seem, this system fostered the development of quite a number of individuals who made it a practice to 'dislike' the work of those contributors just ahead of them for no reason other than to devalue that work and elevate their own. Nasty business it turned out to be. This whole process engendered a tribal mentality. Voting cliques developed and rancor abounded. In a short time it turned out to no longer be fun for anyone but the trolls who trashed others' work. So I searched for another forum to participate in.

I found This was a small group of (seemingly) friendly people who shared their photos and commented on them with the option to score those photos on a scale from one to ten. This format totaled the scores of an image and that score determined the 'pecking' order of images and the overall score of photographers. The only difference here to the 500px model was that there was an actual numeric value placed on the voting which turned out to be even more stupid because people got insulted if they received low votes on an image. Why offer the option to vote over that range if the fear of retribution from others would keep a voter from lowballing another's work?

Submitters migrated from 500px, being disgusted with the system and the poor response from the site administration. Trolls included. And they found ways to abuse the point scoring system on 72dpi. The administration of 72dpi, in their effort to foster the growth of a young photo sharing site and capitalize on the discontent of 500px contributors has been trying mightily to put together 'fair' procedures so that everyone will be happy campers.That's just not humanly possible. And their response to fixing the existent system and patching together a workable solution is turning out to be like Hans Brinker trying to use ten fingers to plug 40 holes in a leaky dike.

The simple facts of life are that there are many unhappy, sad, lonely people who have no other way to draw attention to themselves except to shout, stomp their feet, and behave badly. They seek out opportunities to be heard, and these photo forums are ripe for their abuse. To my mind, the optimal site would permit viewers to comment at the submitter's invitation and allow for acknowledgement of the submitter's work with a 'like' pat on the back. If a viewer doesn't care for an image, fine. He/she can just move along to another image. No need to have someone say 'I don't like your image and you need to know it'. Their silence will be deafening.

I've seen the disruption these people cause and on which they thrive. Other bloggers have also written about it. Erik Kim of EricKimPhotography recently wrote a blog entry on how to deal with haters on the internet. It's sad that a column such as this is even necessary. To avoid abuse I've had to chose to moderate the comments on this blog. I didn't at first, but I don't' like being the butt of antisemitism, or any other type of abuse. I still get many comments from trolls who don't realize that I moderate the comments. And once they do realize, I get comments from them about my limiting their right to free speech. Yah, right. When I suggested to one such person that he start his own blog so that he could say anything he wanted, his response to me was 'but nobody would read it!'  Duh.....

The conundrum is what to do. I want people to see my work. One of the greatest pleasures I derived from showing my work on 500px and 72dpi was having people tell me they were inspired to try new things as a result of seeing my images. That feedback was the impetus for resurrecting this blog. The other wonderful outcome of sharing my work on the internet has been coming to know and interact with people all over the world from different cultures. I've participated, if only minimally so far, on Google+. I plan to explore that further in the coming days. If you have any ideas about that, or any other photo sharing site, please let me know in the comments (be nice!).

Just for being so nice and putting up with my rant, I'm posting two images. I strongly suspect they are participants at 500px. I happened to see the initials, embroidered on his scarf (CB), of the person in the first image. I call them Mr. Grumpy 1 & 2.

Victoria's Secret Gold Mine

As a followup to my post of a few days ago which you can read here, I was walking across 57th street and walked passed the Victoria's Secret store front where the first of the photos of that post were taken.

After I passed this time, I realized that I had thought 'I've shot that already .....' That's a red flag for me. I stopped, turned around, and this couple was emerging from the store with the expressions of glee on their faces. I was about 30 feet from the storefront and my lens was set to 24mm, so the image required some cropping. But as I've written here before, that is not against my photographic principles. So shoot me, purists.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

New York City's Street Shows

As the weather warms and draws New Yorkers from their winter cocoons out into the streets, the city becomes a festival of street shows. Anything imaginable (and mostly legal) is possible and even likely to happen. 

I was taking a photo walk through Greewich Village (the west village) and wandered into the SoHo District (South of Houston Street), which becomes a shopping mall on weekends. The abundance of people roaming the streets is a clarion call to street performers. I wandered past several jazz ensembles, a juggler, and three a cappella groups of doo wop singers, and stopped at the third because they sounded the best. There was quite a crowd listening to them, and as I enjoyed the music and watched their faces and expressions something about one of the performers seemed very familiar to me. I chatted with them after one of their tunes and mandatory sales pitch for their cds. And as it turns out, several members of the group, which by the way is called Spank (email told me stories of having been singing on the streets of SoHo for many years. I realized I knew one performer from photos I shot of his group in 1990 (at that time the group was called Solo). He's the singer on the far left in the first image and the far right on the second and third images.

This first image is the current group Spank, shot digitally, processed digitally. I gave it my standard slightly warm tone treatment.

The second and third images are of the initial group from 1990, Solo. They were both shot on Fuji Neopan 400 film and scanned into my computer with a Nikon film scanner. The first of these shots was scanned some years ago, so I added it as it was when I processed it at that time.

After I got home from the photo walk I dug through my film archives and found the rolls of images. I scanned another of them and processed the shot using my current technique - which includes adding the warmer tone to the image.