Friday, May 14, 2010

Playing with Photoshop CS-5

It's like being back at school. JUST like being back at school. Oh, wait — I AM back at school! Well, sort of. I'm staying in Residence at Humber College and I'm in a typical college dorm room.

Here's the thing. I was looking for a way to stay overnight in Toronto when I was teaching the motorcycle course at Humber College (I'm not just another pretty face! I ARE a motorsickle instruktor, even tho I can't spel it). Humber rents out residence rooms like hotel rooms during the summer, except at half the price! I thought I'd give it a shot. Reasonably comfortable, very convenient to where I teach, obviously and I was going to say it brings back a lot of memories except I'd be lying because I went to McGill University and we lived in Montreal so I never actually lived in residence. Over the years I've stayed in res a number of times on training courses and whatever, though. The difference is, I seem to be the only one around — it's pretty quiet. Cheap, though.

There's 24/7 security here, no way to sneak someone in if I were of a mind to. Oh, well. What do you want for $30/night? Anyway I'm here for a couple of days, then except for a couple of breaks, for the next two weeks. I miss having coffee and my own bathroom but...

So some interesting stuff. I loaded Photoshop CS5 onto the desktop computer (still running CS4 on this laptop, I haven't had a chance to install it yet) and as soon as I had it up and running, I loaded an image into it to test it, and played with one of its new features: Context-Aware Cloning and Fill. Since I'm not an RTFM kind of person, ("Read the F(*^'in Manual), I looked up enough to find out how to find it, then gave it a shot. What I did was to make a loose selection of an area, then hit shift-f5 and Enter.

Amazing. How the program knows what you want to remove, I don't know, but it does! Here's my first test — I removed the climbers and the plants growing on the canyon wall in under a minute.

This image was taken at a waterfall just off the Blue Ridge Parkway down in North Carolina. I can't remember the name of the place, except that it was just South of Grandfather Mountain and was just a short hike off the road. Click on the pictures to blow them up to see what I did.
Fast forward to yesterday, when I shot a couple of photos in my light tent, to update some images on my First Aid website. I needed a cover picture for my "Consumer Products" section so I gathered a variety of kits and threw them haphazardly in the light tent, fired up the strobes and banged off a few shots. Sure I did. Try, "I made what I thought was a pleasing arrangement", then I fiddled with the camera and flashes until it worked — it didn't right away, something to do with the setting of the flash function in the camera, but I finally got it.

So the intent was to create a floating product shot and since all the other shots on the site are on a blue mottled background, I thought I'd create one. I close-cut the kits, used the "render clouds" filter, colourized the background, threw in a drop shadow and voila!

OK, now don't ask me what I was trying to do next. I have no idea. I think I had just installed Topaz Adjust 4 or at least linked to it in CS5 and wanted to play with it, or I wanted to do something with the background, I don't remember. What I did was to select the products in the image, then selected inverse (so everything else was selected) but I think I had the product selection copied to the clipboard, and I hit shift-f5 and Enter. Holy Water, Batman! Look what happened! I added a couple of Topaz-layers (making sure it worked in CS5) and here's the result!

I liked this image so much that I used it as the cover shot for my Promotional Items section on the website, just the way it is. You have to admit it's cool. OK, you don't have to admit it, but *I* like it. So there.

A couple of days ago, I was watching the birds at the feeder and was amazed at the variety of species that were visiting. The Robins were fighting with the squirrels (amazing how mean they are when they're probably defending a nest), there were chickadees, American Goldfinches, white-breasted nuthatches, a couple of downy woodpeckers and a pair of hairy woodpeckers, white-crowned sparrows, a pair of rose-breasted grosbeaks, some blue jays and common grackles, among others. OK, I'm not all that knowledgeable, I bought a picture book of bird species and when in doubt, visited and posted pictures when I couldn't identify something. I still don't know if it was a Wood Thrush or a Brown Thrasher. The grackles are mean. They infested the area in a swarm (everyone knows that it's a "gaggle" of geese but did you know it's a "murder" of crows? Cool, eh?). So I don't know if it's a swarm of grackles but an "infestation" sounds good. They viciously attacked all the other birds and kept them away from the feeder when they wanted to gorge themselves. Fortunately they were easy to scare off, I just had to open the door and they were gone.

So this is what a grackle looks like, although the head and neck colour is more of an irridescent blue and the body is darker than the picture shows. The white flecks in the image are snowflakes. In May. Go figure. 

And this is a female grackle. In the animal kingdom, the males are the vividly coloured, showy ones!
The nuthatches kind of hang upside down to feed. Here's one on the Scotch Pine. OK picture except for the twig across the bird.

CS5-time. Let's try the new context-aware healing tool. I kid you not. This edit took a total of 5 seconds. I'm suitably impressed.

So that's my first exposure to CS5. I wonder what other magic it has to offer?
Have you ever had trouble getting access to an event or a scene to get pictures?

When I got that shot of the perp being arrested for the jewellery store robbery, i shot from far away with the 200mm lens, although the police let me nearer than I would have thought. The professional looking equipment helped. I was at the scene of an accident a while later -- I threw on a green reflective vest and the cops assumed I belonged there. In fact they shooed away some other sightseers and let me right into the scene. So the secret is, look like, and act like you belong there! It works.

Last summer I wanted to shoot the kayakers at the Canadian Whitewater championships and I was worried that I wouldn't be able to get in, or get close. So I made up a "press" badge. I made a new one this year. Look official?

You can get a bar code off the internet. This one says "photographer". Oh, and when I'm asked who I work for, I say I'm a "Freelancer" but since I've had some pictures published, I add, "the Toronto Star", the "Toronto Sun", "CTV", "Global TV", etc. I'm not lying! They've all bought pictures from me! OK "A picture". LOL

I'd best get to bed. I have to be up at 5:45am to get to a meeting and it's already 2:00. Bye for now!

Friday, May 07, 2010

I've been busy!

Doing what? I'm not really sure. I just know that when I sit down on the couch, I'm more than likely to fall asleep instantaneously, probably because (a) basketball season is over for the Raptors (which means it's actually 11:00pm not 7:00!), (b) because I've seen that episode of Two and a Half Men a couple of times before and (c) because my days are full and getting fuller... I'm good at procrastinating too — I've been seriously considering where I'd like to go for a couple of weeks at the end of June, with Newfoundland and Lake Superior the top two on the list, but I haven't gotten around to committing yet. Soon...

Speaking of "Lists", is this an age-related thing? I find myself making lists. Mostly "To-Do" lists. Today's list has 8 items on it, one of which is "get stuff organized for Toronto trips". I'm going to be spending something like 18 nights in Toronto in the second half of May and beginning of June, and stuff like making sure I have enough socks and underwear weighs heavily on my mind. OK, not heavily... But seriously, did your mother ever say to you, "if your head wasn't screwed on your neck, you'd probably forget that too!" If you were like that when you were a kid, how much worse is it now? By the way, if you're reading this and it's not May 10th yet, you're in luck! Pick up that phone and wish your mom "Happy Mother's Day". If it's already past, then call her and say, "you know, I was thinking about you all day on Sunday but I couldn't get to a phone. Remember when you used to say, if my head wasn't screwed on..." but I digress. (No, I'm not starting that again!).

So what have I been so busy with? Go back and read the first paragraph...

Well I sold my motorcycle and got a new one. My old bike was a long distance touring bike but it is unsuited to riding on dirt and gravel roads, something we have lots of up here in the Haliburton Highlands (technically, I'm in Carnarvon which is just North of Minden which is just West of the village of Haliburton. But nobody's ever heard of Carnarvon or they think it's in England, and this Minden isn't in Germany, so when people ask where I live, I take the easy route and say "Haliburton". If you're from Ontario or most parts of Canada, you've heard of Haliburton. If not... well that's what Google is for!).

My new bike (new to me – it's a 2006) is a Kawasaki KLR 650 which is a dual sport bike which means it's designed for those back roads but you can ride it on the highway as well. Sort of – my butt gets sore after about 100 km, it's not designed for long distance travel. Here's what it looks like:

Notice how this photo was taken from a low angle and that the horizon is not level. That was done on purpose to add a dynamic feeling to the image. Loaded with my camera gear as I go off in search of Trilliums!
which segues me into my first topic: perspective.

Shooting from a different perspective

I've been doing this anyway, but the concept of shooting from a different perspective was brought to the front of my mind as I've been reading and re-reading Scott Kelby's Digital Photography Library (see below). He says it so many times in his books that it was bound to sink in eventually: your photos will be better if you shoot them from a different perspective. If you hold up your camera to your face while you're standing there looking at someone or some thing, your picture will look exactly like what that subject ALWAYS looks like. You always see kids from above. You always see flowers from above. You look straight across at that building (or if it's tall, you look up), or that lake or ocean view. Ho-hum. Boring.

So Kelby says, get down on your knees. Crawl in the mud like a snake. Climb up on a hill or shoot down from a staircase. Remember Dr. Ron's shot of the Humber Instructors from a couple of weeks ago? Always shoot level with or up at flowers and at kids. OK, well there's another rule I want to break from time to time, but do you get the picture? here's a Trillium shot from level with it, and a Hostas shot from down below. Oh, and above is a motorcycle shot from knee level. All better than what they would have been had I shot from standing.

Lighting this shot was a challenge. The sun kept going in and out of the clouds, so I got the flash out, set it to remote and held it in various positions while I shot a bunch of pictures. In the end? The best shot was with no flash, just partial sunlight.

There are other ways of achieving different perspectives. Yessss. You got it before I said it: focal length! In the third book in the series, Kelby says to use your long zoom lens when shooting portraits in the studio! Use that ultra-wide-angle on flowers, but you need to get one really really close to the camera! Now the motorcycle was shot with my point-and-shoot camera, zoomed as wide as it could get which isn't very wide, it's like a 35mm lens on a 35mm camera (or 24mm on my DSLR). The Hostas was shot with my 200mm lens zoomed to about 150mm because I cropped it out of a bigger image and I wasn't re which part of the flower would look best when I shot it.

Another thing: the flower shot was 1/10 sec at f/11. I chose f/11 because it's about the sharpest point on this lens, and because I wanted more depth of field (the smaller the f/stop – the larger the number – the more stuff is in focus in your shot, but you knew that already, right?) and I cranked the ISO down to 100 for minimum noise (or "grain"), which resulted in a slow shutter speed. If you look REALLY closely at the image, you can see some ghosting where the wind moved a flower while the shutter was open. Did I tell you that you have to put the camera on a tripod? Did I have to? Or to use the self-timer or a shutter release cable to avoid shaking the camera? Go back a couple of posts and read about maximizing sharpness. Anyway, I don't have a macro lens, but you can get pretty close to macro using a long lens from further away.

So when you go out shooting pictures, do something different. Richard Martin, I've been told, goes around entering local photo club competitions and his goal is to get the LOWEST possible score. Richard makes great pictures, and he takes great pride in breaking all the rules. Club competitions are about following the rules. If it's a landscape, everything has to be in focus from front to back. There has to be a foreground, middle ground and background. The horizon shall be exactly horizontal and never in the middle. The centre of interest shall be off-centre, following the "rule of thirds". By all means, join a club, enter competitions, strive for great scores, and learn what the rules are. In my mind, you're not an artist if you blindly follow them but you have to know what they are if you want to break them! Make sense? I don't consider myself an artist but I'm trying, and I want to become one. (Feel free to send me stacks of email telling me that I really am one, and a fine one at that, and that I should have more confidence in myself and my abilities and don't stop, and by the way can you buy a signed original print of one of my images or would I care to spend some time for which you will pay to coach you into becoming a better photographer than you are and...)
Let me talk about the Kelby books. And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, direct you to this site to join NAPP if you want to buy something at a discount or actually learn something. [An aside. The Kelby Photoshop CS5 seminar will be in Toronto on June 10th and you should go if you can. I wish I could go, but I’m teaching that day. I’ve been to two Kelby seminars, one great, one not so great. The one that was not wonderful was directed more at graphic designers than photographers so that was more my fault... It’s pretty cheap for a full day of expert training. $79 if you’re a NAPP member, $99 if you’re not. For info on the seminar,].

So back to the books. I bought the Digital Photography Library — it's 3 slim books in a slipcase for $50 or $60 — around Christmas time and deliberately took this long to read them. As Scott himself says, when you read his books, it's more like he's sitting there beside you when you're shooting pictures saying "hey, try this!" He has a conversational writing style and gets his point across on a very basic level. If fact, this book series states somewhere, "for beginners". OK, then I guess I'm a beginner. Because I've gotten lots and lots of stuff out of these books. On the downside, Scott, if you're reading this or Larry, if you would pass this on to Scott, we don't all have extensive disposable incomes! I know you make the point in the first couple of books that there are various levels of equipment prices addressed, but the third book drops the pretense and tells us that we must have a Grid Spot or a triflector or a 78" scrim (which is ONLY $350 without the stands). I get that your third book shows the equipment that you yourself use, but unless we're all pro's getting paid big bucks to shoot pictures or are independently wealthy, how many of us can afford to have not one, but 2 or 3 Nikon SB-900 flashes for almost $500 EACH? Someone should write a book that says, "here's what the pro's use, here's what they use them for (or why), and here's how you can come close if you're on a budget".

Anyway, the books give you lots of GREAT ideas and you should all go out and buy them. If you're a NAPP member, go here... If not, go here, but it's more expensive there.
High Dynamic Range Photography, or HDR's.

I wrote last time that I was hooked on shooting HDR's and I implied that everyone kind of knows what HDR's are. A couple of emails and at least one phone call tells me that not all of you do. So bear with me a couple of paragraphs while I try to explain it, what it is, why you might want to try it, and how.

If you take a picture of something with a bright sky behind it, what should you expose for? Normally, the subject of the picture, which would make the sky badly overexposed, basically pure white. If you exposed for the sky, to show those fluffy white clouds on a blue background, the object in the foreground would be dark and underexposed. How come, when you look at this scene, you can see both the foreground object and the sky? Because the human eye is a wonderful thing. If you compare the brightness of light to a piano keyboard, the human eye can distinguish 7 octaves, but the camera (whether it is digital or film), only 4. So how do you get a picture with both the sky and the foreground visible? By combining multiple exposures. You sandwich a picture of the foreground, properly exposed with a picture of the sky, properly exposed. It's a tedious process in Photoshop, deciding which things should come from which picture, but you can eventually do it. The HDR process is a software solution that automates that process.

Essentially, HDR compresses that range of 7 octaves of light into 4. Things that would normally be blown out, like bright skies, still show their details and the same is true at the other end, the dark end of the spectrum.

Here's an example.

Photoshop itself has some built-in routines for generating HDR images. But, it is acknowledged, there are better programs out there, and the de facto standard is a program called Photomatix Pro. Once you combine the images, you can change some parameters and completely vary the look and feel of teh resulting combined image.

You can take the resulting image into Photoshop and do some more magic on it. I use a program someone recently introduced me to, called "Topaz Adjust" which lets you do wild and crazy things.

Strictly speaking, this isn't from the same 2 images above: it was made from 5 images, all exposed differently, one stop apart. Topaz works magic with textures and painted surfaces.
Here are a couple more HDR images to show you what they can do.

Now technically, if you shoot in RAW, you can adjust two copies of the same photo to expose details in the light and dark ends of the spectrum, then combine them into an HDR image. Sometimes that works. If you're shooting something with motion in it (people, for instance), that might be your only solution.

Well, that's all for today. It's raining and cold-ish out right now, so I'll likely stay indoors this evening. I want to try to shoot some First Aid Kits in the studio tomorrow, we'll see how they turn out. If the weather turns reasonable, I'll get out on my new bike and see if we can't explore some new roads. I'll be sure to take at least one camera with me!

See y'all later.