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A Cinematic Approach to Digital Still Photography with Photoshop: The Unwitting Ally 2.0

In this chapter, you will go beyond exposure and apply the concepts of Extended Dynamic Range photography (ExDR) to focus, blur, and image structure by using image harvesting. You will apply this to the image editing process in order to support the aesthetic choices you make regarding light, shape, gesture, and color when you first take the picture.

Note: This excerpt does not include the lesson files. The lesson files are available with purchase of the book.

This chapter is from the book
  • Light, gesture, and color are the key components of any photograph. Light and color are obvious, but it is gesture that is the most important. There is gesture in everything. It's up to you to find the gesture that is most telling.
  • —Jay Maisel
  • In this chapter, you will go beyond exposure and apply the concepts of Extended Dynamic Range photography (ExDR) to focus, blur, and image structure by using image harvesting. You will apply this to the image editing process in order to support the aesthetic choices you make regarding light, shape, gesture, and color when you first take the picture. Picasso said, "Art is the lie that tells the truth." With that in mind, you will also apply techniques to create an aesthetically satisfying final image rather than a historically accurate one. Additionally, you will use the approach introduced in Chapter 1, and expanded on in Chapters 2 and 3, to guide the viewer's unconscious eye through the image. Finally, you will explore the changes in workflow that you need to make when working with large megapixel files. (The files for this lesson were captured with a Nikon D3x, which is a 24.5MP camera.)

The concepts behind this lesson are the outcome of conversations that I have had over the years with two great photographers: Jay Maisel, who has forgotten more than I will ever know about light, gesture, and color, and who first introduced me to those concepts; and my uncle, photographer CJ Elfont, who taught me photography and, most importantly, how the eye "sees." The writings and images of poet-photographer Ernst Haas have also strongly influenced me by teaching me how to allow the eye to see the feeling of the moments in my images; to be taken by the photograph rather than take the photograph. When you master this lesson, you will have grasped the heart of what I have discovered about how it all works. The real journey begins now.

On Light, Color, Shape, and Gesture

The late painter and designer Josef Albers said that "shape is the enemy of color." By that he meant that when shape is in the presence of color, we tend to remember the shape and not the color. But if you understand how to control color—regardless of whether the photograph is color or black and white—you will have complete mastery of the images you create. The key is to find a way to cause shape to become color's unwitting ally, and thereby make color a shape that the viewer will remember.

This is easier said than done, of course. What you need is a catalyst to make shape and color work in harmony. And this is where pattern comes in.

Patterns are shapes we tend to see in things, sometimes when they are not really there. Patterns tend to manifest themselves as shapes. Whether it is light coming through tree leaves, a paper bag in a subway trash can, or raindrops on a windshield, everything can form or be perceived as a pattern. Patterns are interesting, but a pattern interrupted is more interesting. If you interrupt a pattern, you are on the path to finding a way to use shape as the unwitting ally of color.

Jay Maisel says that light and color are obvious, but it is gesture that is most important. In the photograph of my niece, the gesture is obvious. The pattern we recognize first is her face, and the finger stuck in her nose interrupts that pattern (Figure 4.0.3).

Figure 4.0.3

Figure 4.0.3 A universal gesture

Here is an example of an image where gesture is not as plain as the nose on my niece's face. Look at the image of the flower and the leaves, then look away (Figure 4.0.4). Which color do you remember? Most people will say magenta or red. Even though 90% of the image is made up of greens, you tend to remember the part with the most shape. The shape has become an unwitting ally of the color. The color is further reinforced because the magenta/red flower's shape and circular pattern is interrupted by the linear pattern of the green blades. Further, the magenta flower appears to be moving away from the green blades, and this pattern holds the gesture that is most telling.

Figure 4.0.4

Figure 4.0.4 Do you see the green or the magenta?

Of light, gesture, and color, light is the most frequently taken for granted. You see it, it is there, end of story. But rather than merely accepting its presence, why not consider viewing it as an object? Treat it as if it were a solid and a part of the experience being expressed in the photograph.

Take, for example, these images from the original Seattle Sequence series (Figures 4.0.5, 4.0.6, 4.0.7, 4.0.8, 4.0.9, and 4.0.10). The light tells the story of the moment in each image, whether black and white or color. (If you can see something, it has color. The artist Matisse said, "Black is the queen of all colors.")

In each instance, no matter how brief, I perceived the image in its final form as I photographed it, and that perception determined how I harvested the images. In each capture, the light informed the image, made the patterns and interrupted them. In each instance, light was as physical and tangible a thing as the flowers, and for each I considered (no matter how momentarily) how I would use dark, intermediate, and light isolates.

Using Dark and Light Isolates

The Isolate Theory, conceived by CJ Elfont, is a way of looking at composition and explains the interrelationship of the elements (or isolates) in a photograph and how these can be used to evoke meaningful, emotional responses in viewers. (See the sidebar for a very brief overview of this theory.) This compositional theory formed the basis for how I see and remains one of the cornerstones of my vision today.

In the next image of Calla lilies, the primary isolates are the two flowers that are slightly to the right of center. The gesture that is most telling is the spiral that starts from the upper right in the dark isolate. This is the darkest area in which there are definable structures, and it continues to the center of the photograph, where the primary light isolates exist. This particular pattern occurred by happenstance, but I reinforced it (Figures 4.0.11, 4.0.12, and 4.0.13).

By using selective contrast and sharpness, I gradually created the dramatic effect of motion in a still image. I also interrupted the pattern of the background with the spiral of light-to-dark and, in this way, found the most telling gesture. All of this was already present in the image, but it had to be brought out; I had to remove from the file everything that was not my vision.

If gesture is the expression of the photograph, and light is its language, then colors are its words, and contrast, saturation, and sharpness are the alphabet. Without words and language, expression has no meaning. Without the alphabet, there are no words.

If the words of color are lost in a cacophony of shapes, the image will be less than it could be. The better you support color and its expression, the better your images will be appreciated. And just as in a street fight, the only rule is that there are no rules. Everything you do is in service of the print, which will always be in service of what is ultimately most important: your voice and vision.

Seattle Sequence Re-Sequenced

  • Stop taking pictures. Be taken by your pictures.
  • —Ernst Haas

In the first edition of this book, I used a series of images that I captured one morning at sunrise in Cades Cove (in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park). Without planning what I would shoot, I had gotten up extraordinarily early hoping to shoot in the fog at sunrise. I actually saw the field of flowers after all the fog had burned off and I was about to leave. I just found the images, or maybe they found me (Figure 4.0.14). With this set of images, I began to be aware of the difference between taking a picture and being taken by one.

Figure 4.0.14

Figure 4.0.14 Cades Cove flowers

As I crawled around on my hands and knees among the flowers in the dew, the light moved and changed. I tried to approach the light the same way I approached the flowers, as if it were a solid object. I made sure to get as many captures as I could using as many options as I could. Moments like those happen; you cannot make them re-happen.

If you look at the images that I shot, you can see the evolution of my vision as I experienced the flowers. It is in that journey that I discovered the destination.

For this rewriting of Welcome to Oz, I decided to change the image for this lesson so that I could go beyond using my first epiphany (or Eureka!) moment images in order to more deeply explore the concept of ExDR and how to manage the huge amounts of data and the large files that are generated when using high-megapixel DSLRs.

If you look at the images that I captured of the flowers that were randomly placed in buckets in a crowded market (Figure 4.0.15), once again, you can see the evolution of my vision as I experienced the flowers. Each was a part of the journey on which the flowers took me (Figures 4.0.16, 4.0.17 and 4.0.18).

Figure 4.0.15

Figure 4.0.15 Images captured of flowers in a bucket in a market

The lessons to be learned using the images that make up this lesson are not just about the bokeh of the lens, they are also about using sharpness and defined image structures to selectively extend the areas of focus in an image that is mostly about blur.

If you look at the image as some photographers might shoot it and call it a day (_VAV072122_SHRP.tif), it is boring, but historically accurate; something you might see on a seed packet. If you look at _VAV0722BASE_LITE.tif, it is a far more interesting image due to the bokeh or blur. Though more visually appealing, it still does not realize the vision that I had when it took me. To recreate that vision, I needed an expanded exposure range so that multiple areas, at different distances and at different levels of sharpness, were all in focus, while existing in a shallow DOF. As I discussed in the previous chapter, that cannot be achieved in one capture using a fixed optical/sensor plane system. To achieve the end that I had in mind for this image, I had to practice preemptive Photoshop and capture all of the image elements that I thought I might need to extend the dynamic range of each of them. Simply put: Real pixels are always preferable to computer-generated ones.

Up to this point, you have been working with images that were captured with cameras that were no larger than 5.5 megapixels. In this lesson, you will be working with images captured from a Nikon D3x, a 24.5 megapixel camera. You will see how to adapt your workflow to the needs of the file. A 24.5MP RAW file, when opened in 16-bit in the ProPhoto color space, is about 149 megabytes. This means that if you harvest four images, you will have a file that is almost 600 megabytes before you do anything.

Once you have chosen the images with which you want to work, you can begin making structural and aesthetic choices. (Because the fulfillment of your vision starts with the choices you make at the time of capture, you should let them guide you in choosing how and what to photograph. The more you get right in your captures, the better off you will be when you begin building the image in Photoshop.)

Here are some initial considerations:

  • You will need to align all the images, so that they will blend together as seamlessly as possible.
  • Because the lightness of the images differ, you must make aesthetic choices that you can accomplish without leaving chalk marks. More specifically, do not make choices that require technical adjustments that will be obvious to the viewer once your work on the image is complete.
  • Aesthetically, you want to support the image's yellows rather than its greens.
  • The gesture of this image is the way the top of the flower wraps around the stem and flows downward to the right before tapering to the center bottom where it attaches to the stem. However, you want the viewer's eye to travel in the opposite direction: from the lower right, up through the middle, to the flower embracing the stem, because it makes for a stronger visual journey and therefore a more successful image. This movement should be repeated as long as the viewer is looking at the image (hang time). You will use sharpness, contrast, saturation, and focus to cause the viewer's eye to travel through the image along a path you create, and you want to use blur to give the eye a place to which it can retreat.

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