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The Perfect Time To Learn
While I do go out to shoot during the winter months, I’m sure I’m not alone when it comes to being cursed with limited tolerance to cold weather. I definitely spend more time indoors at this time of year due to the drop in temperature and shorter daylight hours. With that said, some might think that my photography skills might stagnate or diminish during the winter months. Quite the opposite actually.
I see winter as the time to turn my cold weather weakness into a photographic strength. There’s always a way to turn what some may consider a negative into a positive. I use the winter months to learn more about my craft so that I can expand my knowledge, continue to improve my skills, and ultimately take my images to the next level.
Best of all, I can do it all from within the comfort of my nice warm home studio.
So what’s my game plan? Here are some areas that I focus on to achieve my winter learning goals. Perhaps they’ll work for you too.
Know Your Camera
Do you really know all of your camera’s functions and control combinations? Winter is a great time to dig out your camera’s manual and give it a good skim. I bet you’ll come across a control or feature that you didn’t know (or totally forgot) your camera has. If you want to know more about it, but reading the manual makes your eyes glaze over and your brain feel like it’s left your head, don’t quit. Just Google your camera’s make and model, along with the name of the control or feature that’s piqued your interest, and check out the related videos that pop up in the search list. Then bookmark the ones you find most helpful and place them into their own bookmark folder for quick reference.
Tip! For easy, on-the-go reference, save the bookmarks to your cellphone as well. Doing so gives you the info at your fingertips without taking up much usage space on your phone.
Line Up Your Lenses
Take a look at the lenses in your arsenal and ask yourself when was the last time you used each of them? If you have to really search your memory, chances are you might be overlooking a lens that really could add some value to your portfolio of images, or you’re holding on to something that you could sell and apply the funds to another desired piece of gear.
I’m the first to admit that my Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 lens spends far too much time in my camera bag — which is totally my fault and not that of the lens (it’s excellent!).
That lens is now on my “To Shoot With Next List.” I realize I’ve been short-changing myself by not taking advantage of it lately. Best of all, I can certainly use it indoors where it’s warm and toasty. My furry foursome make great portrait subjects.
Odds are more than likely that you already have shots sitting in your archives that have never been touched or are from photo shoots long forgotten. Winter is a great time to start mining your archives for images that somehow got overlooked. I know I’ve stumbled across more than a few gems. Fellow NEPG member Jeff Sinon wrote quite eloquently about this very subject not too long ago.
Tip! While perusing your archives, I suggest multitasking and adding any missing keywords at the same time. You’ll thank yourself down the road, especially if you are a Lightroom user.
Post Production Tools
One of the items on my winter “To Learn List” is how to program and most proficiently use my new Wacom Intuos Pro Tablet.
The main reason I purchased my Wacom tablet is for digital painting, incorporating textures into my work, and retouching in general. I want to create and edit with as much accuracy and pressure sensitive control as possible. The Wacom tablet will allow me to do just that.
Wacom has many great free tutorials online. I also purchased a great webinar by Dave Cross specifically on how to set up and use a Wacom tablet. It’s nice to always have his videos on hand for quick reference, especially if I want to reconfigure my controls down the road as my skills improve.
I find winter to be the perfect time to experiment with new software, or commit to learning more about my existing software (i.e. Photoshop Content Aware feature).
Topaz Labs released both Topaz Impression and Topaz Glow this past year, and even offered the entire Topaz Photography Collection for a great discount during Black Friday weekend. The recent arctic air blasts from Canada have been a great motivator to stay indoors and learn more about these great programs, and have allowed me to experiment to my heart’s content. Each product within the collection is available as a free trial download.
During the past year, I purchased two digital painting workshops by Melissa Gallo (“Painting With Photoshop,” and “Painting 2015 for Photographers”), as well as several online photography-based webinars from CreativeLive. All include downloadable videos that allow me to view the entire workshop/webinar at my leisure.
I always consider winter to be that leisure time for me. I have a dual monitor setup that allows me to view the videos on one monitor while I follow along and practice in real time on my primary monitor in the relevant program (i.e. Corel Painter 2015).
My dual monitor setup also allows me to conveniently watch online tutorials of the new features of software program upgrades (i.e. Photoshop CC and Lightroom) while having the same program open on my primary monitor. I love not having to shrink windows to cram everything onto one monitor.
Those are just a few of examples of what’s on my winter “To Learn List.” We all have our own favorite time of year to get out and shoot. Just remember that what you choose to do on non-shooting days can also improve your photography. After all, knowledge is power.
So let winter empower you. See what you can add to your “To Learn List” and consider sharing your ideas with your fellow photographers. We all might learn something new.
~ Liz Mackney
A few months ago a fan of the New England Photography Guild Facebook page asked if I would explain how I created this image of Winnekenni Castle in Haverhill, Massachusetts. I promised her I would, so here’s the story behind the shot.
I began by bracketing 3 shots (-1, 0, +1 EV) of the castle. Using my Nikon D300 and Tokina 11-16mm lens, I deliberately shot wider than needed to capture the total essence of the entire subject area. (I knew I would later do my final cropping in post production to best showcase the castle and visually draw the eye of the viewer into the scene.)
Photomatix Pro 5
I always do some additional tweaking to my images from within Photoshop. For this tonemapped HDR image, I opened it in Photoshop CS4. (This was done prior to my upgrading to Photoshop CC.)
From within CS4 I made some post-production adjustments to such things as levels, shadows & highlights, etc., as well as cloned out any distractions. I also did my final cropping to the image at this stage.
The end result was this final HDR image.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in recent years about photography it’s that nothing is ever really “final.” Post production software and post production techniques continually evolve, and thus so can your “final” images. Such was the case with the above “Final” Cropped Tonemapped HDR image when I discovered Topaz Labs Simplify 4 plug-in filter. In my mind’s eye I suddenly envisioned my final HDR image evolved into a more painterly version. I now knew how I could make that artistic evolution happen.
Topaz Labs Simplify 4
While HDR initially brought out all of the detail and tonal contrast in the image, I knew that the Topaz Simplify 4 BuzSim Preset would be the perfect filter to compliment that detail by softening it a bit — as if with an artist’s brush — without losing the detail itself.
Selective use of the BuzSim preset’s Global Adjustment sliders led to my “Evolved” image shown above. While I could go through each and every slider and tell you the exact settings I chose to create the image, I feel that would be a disservice. Art is subjective. I feel that you should always work to make your images a true reflection of your own personal vision.
Topaz Simplify is a great software plug-in. The best thing you can do is simply explore its features and play with the different presets and their accompanying adjustment sliders. Helpful Tip! Hovering over the control button on each adjustment slider will open a window that explains exactly what that slider does.
There are also plenty of free tutorials available online, many provided by Topaz Labs directly. Simply do a Google search for “Topaz Simplify Tutorials.” As of this writing, the latest version of the program is Topaz Simplify 4. For a complete introduction to this version of the software, click here for a comprehensive video overview from Topaz Labs.
With fall foliage season soon peaking in Massachusetts, a visit to Winnekenni Castle might be a great destination to consider shooting. (Check out those trees in the background!) You can then try out Topaz Simplify for yourself. It’s available here for a free trial download!
~ Liz Mackney
About The Unsharp Mask Filter…
Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask Filter is the most common sharpening tool used by photographers during post production. Although its name sounds like an oxymoron when the goal is to actually sharpen an image, it definitely does exactly that — sharpen. Well, sort of. Applying the Unsharp Mask Filter actually results in the illusion of sharpening, where the human eye is tricked.
Too Much Of A Good Thing
Most photographers new to Photoshop have a tendency to do a bit of overkill when first learning the program and experimenting with its filters. I know I was certainly guilty of that in my early days with the program and my entry into the world of digital post production.
Use of the Unsharp Mask Filter is certainly one area where lack of experience — or limited understanding of the filter’s slider controls (Amount, Radius, and Threshold) — visibly shows its hand.
The sharpening error that most often appears in the details of certain images is called “halos.” However, halos are not always due to inexperience and overkill. There are times when halos are just a byproduct of a perfectly legitimate use of the Unsharp Mask Filter.
Regardless of whether due to inexperience or a legitimate byproduct, halos are ugly and distracting.
What Exactly Are Halos?
Halos are those white (sometimes dark) lines that appear between highly contrasted areas. View your images on-screen at 100% and really check the edges of your subject matter. While halos might not be that visible in a small size print, they will be exponentially more visible in larger print sizes. Definitely not a good thing!
Let’s Take A Look
Here’s an example where I deliberately oversharpened my image. At first glance the overkill might not look too obvious. Don’t be fooled. Halos are indeed there.
Now Let’s Take A CLOSER Look
When we zoom in to take a closer look, you can clearly see that oversharpening produced very noticeable halos along the edges of the lighthouse (as well as along the railing, rocks, and horizon in the full image above). Can you imagine just how obvious and distracting that would be in a nicely framed large size print? Ugh! That’s why it’s important to always check the details in your images on-screen at 100%.
Now if I noticed the halos during my initial post production of this image, I could immediately correct the flaw by making some adjustments to the Unsharp Mask Filter control sliders. But what if I only discovered the halos after the fact?
Don’t panic. It’s never too late to correct the problem.
To start, find your current “final” image file and open it in Photoshop.
How to Fix Halos In Your Images
As with most things in Photoshop, there are several different methods on how to do something. This includes fixing halos. Most techniques for fixing halos have one thing in common — selecting the Darken (or sometimes Lighten) layer blend mode.
Here are a few different video tutorials to show you how to remove halos in greater detail. Try the different techniques and decide which method works best for you and your image.
Unsharp Mask Tutorial
Let’s go back to basics for a moment. For those of you new to Photoshop or those of you simply in need of a quick refresher on the Unsharp Mask control sliders, Adobe’s Principal Digital Imaging Evangelist, Julieanne Kost, has a great video tutorial on the very subject.
In A Nutshell
Before you have prints made from your files, do yourself a favor — check for halos first. You’ll be glad you did.
~ Liz Mackney
Winter In New England
It’s been an interesting winter here in New England thus far. We’ve certainly seen an extreme range of temperatures, not to mention some “wicked” ice storms and a recent Nor’easter blizzard.
During this time of year, many of my fellow photographer friends love to grab their camera equipment and venture out to face the elements head on. I wish I could say that I was one of those adventurous photographers, but alas my thin blood and extremely low tolerance to the cold has me instead living vicariously through them.
While I’ve added many new “To Buy” items to my “Winter Photography Clothing Gear List,” in reality I spend most cold winter days indoors staying warm and exploring my creative side through a variety of post-production filters and techniques. I will touch on a few of my favorite post-production filters here today.
I Know I’m Not Alone…
I suspect I’m not the only photographer who tends to avoid the possibility of frozen fingers — and exposing my equipment to ice, snow, and sub-zero temps. So for those of you with simpatico minds — and I know there are more than just a few of us — this article might give you a few new ideas on how to reinvent an existing image, or perhaps take your post-production process in a new direction altogether.
So let’s get to some of those favorite post-production filters of mine…
Photoshop comes equipped with several built-in filters. Poster Edges is one of them. You can easily access it from the Filter pull-down menu at the top of your screen. (Filter > Artistic > Poster Edges). The filter’s image adjustment sliders then let you alter such things as Edge Thickness, Edge Intensity, and Posterization to your preference for that image.
For this image, I took a macro shot of a coneflower. I then added a texture layer for a fine art effect. For a final step, I applied the Poster Edges filter to give the image a contemporary look.
Oil Paint Filter
Another favorite Photoshop filter of mine is the Oil Paint Filter. This filter comes packaged with Photoshop CS6 and Photoshop CC. The Oil Paint effect also shipped as a free Pixel Bender Gallery plugin for Photoshop CS5.
Note: Variations of an oil paint effect are also available as third-party PS plugins from software makers such as Topaz Labs.
“Less Is More”
To what degree one applies the Oil Paint Filter to an image very much depends on personal taste. I’m a big proponent of “less is more” when it comes to using this filter. Being conservative with the adjustment sliders gives the image a far more realistic oil painting look in my opinion. However, there are no “rules” to creativity. Surrealism certainly has its place, so by all means feel free to experiment and turn reality into something as abstract as your imagination envisions.
Flaming Pear Flood Filter
I love the Flood Filter by Flaming Pear. You can use it to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, or to give added dimension to a visual story.
In this shot, I used it to add a dramatic — and somewhat surreal — effect to one of my HDR Battleship Cove images taken in Fall River, Massachusetts. The adjustment sliders for this filter give you great latitude for “flood placement” and water detail manipulation.
Topaz Star Effects
Who doesn’t like adding a little pizzazz to images that already feature an illuminated light? I certainly thought this sunrise shot of Maine’s Portland Head Light deserved such a treatment — and Topaz Star Effects made it possible. Again, I believe in the “less is more” approach. The “blue hour” of morning was beautiful in and of itself. Adding a subtle star effect to the beacon seemed like a nature fit to accentuate the beauty of the moment.
So there you have it. Several examples of the different type of post-production filters you can play with on a cold winter’s day.
As you know, it’s only mid January. We still have a couple of months of this New England winter to go. Since we can’t change it, I say let’s embrace the opportunities it offers.
For some that means bundling up and dazzling the rest of us with spectacular winter images. For the rest of us, it means having fun — and staying warm — at our computers while we enjoy some post-production experimentation.
However you choose to survive this winter’s cold weather, enjoy!
~ Liz Mackney