Sunday, August 09, 2015

The "Twirl" and Macro and other fun mid-summer stuff!

What's the deal with all these presets?

Lately I'm reading about all kinds of "Presets for Lightroom" and "Actions for Photoshop". "Get 300 new presets here" or "One-click editing"...

Have I ever used presets? Sure, on occasion, but usually they're ones I developed myself. In fact I use them all the time: every time I import RAW files into Lightroom I save them the same way, I sharpen them, I set the saturation and clarity... all with an import preset that I created. Ditto export presets: I format pictures for the purpose they're being used for (forgive the bad grammar!). I even obtained some presets for processing star images because it does it better than I can, and that's my point: I'll NEVER learn how to do it myself if all I do is click a button.

And what's the difference between these presets and plug-in programs like the ones from Topaz or Nik? Let's see if I can explain it better.

So what's a preset? In Lightroom, you invoke a preset and it moves some of the sliders to pre-determined positions. For example, the preset would choose a certain exposure value, white balance, clarity setting, black and white conversion, etc. Or where to save exported images and what sizes they are.

Seems to me that using presets bears a close relationship to shooting your camera on the dreaded "AUTO" setting. Now maybe I'm just a dinosaur, but it's always been my approach to understand why you do things and basically how it works. If you're a wedding photographer and you need to present a consistent look for hundreds or thousands of images under time pressure, I get it. But I like to work on my images one at a time and put some of my own magic and love into each one. Of course there's a time and a place for them: let's say you made a mistake and overexposed a whole series of pictures: wouldn't it be appropriate to fix one and then sync your adjustment to all the others?

How is that different from using, say, Nik HDR Efex Pro or Topaz Impression? It's a matter of degree. Those programs can accomplish in seconds what it might take you hours or maybe days to do, if you could ever figure out how! Although the presets do the same thing, they're more about applying a consistent look (as decided by the designer) to an image or a bunch of them.

I don't know if I'm making sense here. My argument against presets is the same as the one against using "AUTO" on your camera: the software engineer who developed the camera or the preset is making all the decisions for you.

Don't get me wrong: it's good to have a consistent look and feel in your body of work (if that's what you want!).  People who have decided what they want to be when they grow up have done that. Good for them: but they should do it themselves instead of having someone else do it for them.

Bottom line? "Give a man a fish...". Design your own presets. Understand WHY. It's easy to do and then you put your own fingerprint on your pictures.

That said, "The Twirl"!

Now trending on Facebook: "The Twirl"! It's a relatively simple Photoshop trick that turns this:

into this:

In fairness, the original image isn't a simple one. But when you "Twirl" you can use just about ANY picture! This one was a composite – two images focus-stacked, and I used Topaz Glow on the puffball, but I didn't need to! I chose it because it was 'there'! 

So this was exactly what I said NOT to do in the top article. Except that I'm studying HOW it works so that I can add my own personal touch to it.

Now the argument is that this takes no skill. It's a routine where you more-or-less just push buttons, just like shooting on Auto! And because it was a fad, it took over the Photoshop and Lightroom group for a day or two, some people got disgusted by the overwhelming number of images. Let me say a couple of things (with which you may or may not agree)
  • It's kinda cool
  • It's easy to do if you can follow instructions. Therefore it gets people, who are afraid of Photoshop, to actually try it and experiment
  • You can add your own 'flavour' to it by adjusting some of the parameters and then you can do artistic things like blending in some of the original picture!

Here's a couple of examples.

I simply added the original image as a layer on top, then masked everything except the two seeds. 

I made this from the picture below using exactly the same technique, I painted a mask on the original image after placing it on top of the stack. 

By the way, the Highland Yard was last weekend and I was really NOT happy with my pictures. For one thing, the lighting was horrible with the start/finish in the shade and the rest of the world in bright sunlight.  

So for those of you who would like to know how to do this and give it a try, here are the instructions. Note: you need to have Photoshop. Not Elements, Photoshop. I think the tools were there in earlier versions but I'm not sure since they've been deleted from my computer and I couldn't look and see. I'm using Photoshop CC 2015. Here are the steps:
  1. Open any photo.
  2. Duplicate the background layer (so you have the original for later if you want it). Ctrl-J (Cmd-J on a Mac).
  3. Work on the duplicate layer. Filter → Pixelate → Mezzotint → Medium Lines
  4. Filter → Blur → Radial Blur (set the slider to 100, blur method to 'zoom', quality to 'best')
  5. You can repeat this step a few times if you want. I find it smooths things out. A quick way to repeat it is to hit Ctrl-F (Cmd-F) which runs the same filter you just ran, again.
  6. Duplicate this layer (Ctrl/Cmd-J)
  7. Turn off the duplicate layer and work on the one you duplicated from. Filter → Distort → Twirl (set the angle to 80 as a starting point. You can play with this).
  8. Now turn on the duplicate layer and work on that one. Do exactly the same thing except this time set the angle to the negative of the one you used: "-80°" for example.
  9. Set the blending mode of this layer to "lighten".
  10. Sit back and admire your handiwork.
Like I said, you can now take the original layer and put it on top, then add a layer mask and paint it in (black brush on the mask) or play to your heart's content.

One more example, from an ugly raspberry picture:

PS: I read a GREAT suggestion (I would attribute it if I knew who came up with it). Take a picture of your living room or bedroom. This picture will have a colour palette that exactly matches the room. Now create a 'twirl' image from this picture. Print it HUGE on canvas and hang it over the couch as a colour coordinated piece of art! Brilliant idea that I'm going to try. This might even be a salable concept!

PanAm Games

As many of you know, I shot the PanAm Games Canoe and Kayak Slalom event at the Minden Whitewater Preserve. Lots and lots of pictures! I put them up on my SmugMug site rather than posting them here, so go to to see them. 

Now I was not able to get permission to sell prints for commercial purposes (long story). But several people have asked for pictures including (a) the Canadian Team, (b) the US team, (c) locals whose kids were 'forerunners' – testing the course before the PanAm races (no list exists cross-referencing bib numbers and names. If you are in this group, email me with the bib number and I'll check and see what pictures I got), (d) the parents of Canadian/US team members and (e) people who just liked one or more of my pictures.

If you want a digital download, you're welcome to it at no charge. Just send me an email with the filename off the SmugMug site above. If you want a print, I'll set it up so you can order through my artist website hosted by Fine Art America, but again you have to contact me. The prices just cover costs so it's non-commercial. And FAA will ship worldwide. By the way, you can buy my other fine art images there too: even throw pillows and iPhone cases if you want!

The Macro World

Wow. A whole other set of possibilities. Here's the deal: I ordered, and finally received, a set of extension tubes which convert my lenses into macro lenses. They move the lens away from the camera body so you can focus closer. I bought the ones that have electrical connections so that you can use autofocus and through the lens metering. They cost me all of $40 (US) and came from the Far East, via eBay. Good news and bad news... but first, here's a sample image:

This is my favourite one so far. It's a "hoverfly" or "flower fly" and it's about the same size as an ant, less in length than your fingernail. This IS cropped and yes, I did do some Photoshop enhancement (primarily with Topaz Clarity). I shot this with a 36mm extension tube on my 70-200 lens. Lighting was provided by Mr. Sun, up there in the sky, but I gave it a little help with my ringlight, another inexpensive eBay Chinese purchase.

So now the bad news. You do 'get what you pay for'... there are 3 tubes in the set: 12mm, 20mm and 36mm. They're made of plastic, not metal. The 12mm works fine. The electrical connections on the 20mm don't work so when you look through the lens it's dark if you've stopped down, and autofocus doesn't work (autofocus sucks for macro anyway. You have to focus manually). When I mounted the 36mm/70-200 combo on my tripod, the connection to the camera isn't rock steady so the electrics go in and out. Handheld it's OK and on a lighter lens it's also OK. I wrote to the supplier, I could get a refund but would have to ship it back to get it and the postage cost would be horrendous, so they credited me half my cost (and had the nerve to ask me to give them positive feedback...). So in the end I have usable tubes for $20 or so.

Also: with the extension tube mounted, you can ONLY shoot macro. You can't focus to infinity. But it's so much fun that I decided to bite the bullet and I've arranged to get a REAL macro lens, the Nikon 105mm f/2.8 VR which I should pick up next week. Stay tuned!

In the meantime here are some more macro shots for your enjoyment!

I LOVE wild raspberries. I have a million of them on my property and a couple of quarts frozen in my freezer for mid-winter! 

Here's another fly I shot the first day I got the tubes 

...and a flower I treated with Topaz Impression. Unfortunately I didn't record which preset I used, probably Degas if I remember. 

A black-and-white conversion of a daisy, following the technique that I wrote about a few months ago. 

And finally, a shy grasshopper behind my house. I say 'shy' because he moved away every time I got in range! Got him finally, though. 

Stay tuned for more macro's: they are really a lot of fun. I haven't taken out my light tent yet!

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