Thursday, April 24, 2008

It's a Matter of Perspective...

We can't reasonably expect the people who view our pictures to put on those cardboard 3D glasses. While it would be very entertaining, it wouldn't do any good anyway.

But creating the sense of perspective is a fairly simple matter.

This jeep sits outside a WWII museum in New Orleans. Taking this picture with the end of the barrel in sharp focus and the rest of the gun progressively blurred was pretty simple.

I simply set my focus point to the right, locked in tight on the end of the barrel and adjusted the aperture properly and got the tip in sharp focus.

Sometimes, however, you can't take the picure with such a sharply defined focus. Here's where you can use Photoshop to your advantage.

What makes a subject "leap" off the image? It's accomplished by tricking the eye. It will focus on everything that is in focus, and immediately put everything else into a mental "background."

This angel guards a grave in a very small cemetary in Texas. She needed to be in the center of the graphic because I really wanted to create the idea that she was coming out of the picture.

The steps taken to finish this graphic are included in the upcoming "Perfect Portraits" course. But briefly, when taking the picture I wanted the background to be recognizable, I wanted to heighten contrast on the angel and I wanted to add a very strong perspective element to the photo.

The idea here is to use the "Quick Selection" tool in Photoshop CS3 to define the angel and her stand. I used the Selection options to build higher contrast on her, even as I "inverse" selected to blur and slightly desaturate the background. Then, with the background selected, I used Filter/Blur/Lens Blur to complete the effect.

This being done, the angel stands out on two fronts: she has a higher contrast and she is in sharp focus, as opposed to the background which features a lower contrast and has been uniformly blurred.

The "uniform" blur is important to the success of the picture, by the way. Remember that the camera would, in most cases, have a gradual blur. Since our intent is to create an angel in stark contrast to her background, the uniform strong blur makes her stand out even more strongly.

Think about using this perspective technology on another sort of picture. Think about how strong a product shot could become. Think about the specific focus on the bride even as you blur everything else. How about a child's eye? How about....???

Perspective is a great device to use on many graphics. It directs the viewer's eye to the specific aspect of the picture you have pre-chosen AND it makes them go "ooooooo."

And isn't that what it's all about?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Picturing Bits...Photographing Pieces

This house was amazing. It sits just outside the French Quarter and is definately owned by an individual. There are flags and wood carvings, inventive and wildly contrasting colors. My wife and I stood for a good two minutes or so (which is a very long time considering my limited attention span) and gawked at the house.

How do you make a good image of this kind of place?

The first thing you DON'T do is take a broad shot of the house, trying to include everything inside one picture. Sure, your viewer will get the sense that this was a really cool house, but unless you do some vast Photoshop work, that's the only impression they'll get. Let's face it: the Photoshop work you would do would result in the visual representation of one or two elements of the picture anyway.

Think of one of those Find Waldo puzzles, where you have to look for a long time at confusingly similar images to find the geek in the red and white striped shirt. You study it and finally he jumps out at you.

But if you take a second to look at the WHOLE picture, where does your eye go? It travels around, looking for something to focus on. Your brain is trying to make sense of the image, wondering what the picture us about.

My very interesting house picture would have had the same effect. So I made an image of the doorknocker. And I broadened the focus to include this great textured door as well. It's a great effect, finished by adding a raised bevel frame using a combination of onOne's Photo Frame Pro and the Layer Style (that fx logo at the bottom of the layers menu) options to complete the effect.

The point here isn't so much the frame as it is the image inside the frame. It's an odd rectangle with an odd and beautifully textured image in the center.

Did you know that Hollywood heavyweight Nicholas Cage owns what is reputed to be the most "haunted house" in New Orleans? It's true. His house is featured on every Ghost Walk tour the city does. The tour guide tells you about a wealthy woman who lived there and tortured, starved and abused her slaves in secret. Now you can hear the ghostly clanking of chains, see strange misty people and a bunch of other stuff that sounds a lot scarier in the dark.

Tourists lined up to get pictures of this house -- which is by anyone's account, a pretty ordinary looking house. Not an interesting image. It would be different, of course, if it were to have dramatic gables and a hunchbacked butler answering the door. But it doesn't. So I took two images from this house...each one is designed to allow me to tell the viewer the story about the hauntings. As with the Creepy Doorknocker above I focused on one or two elements.

This is an urn just inside the doorway to Nick's house. (Just try to tell me he's not playing up the whole "my house is haunted" thing...) and it was the most "obviously haunted looking thing" in the area.

Do you think this picture just might be more dramatic than a shot of a fairly ordinary New Orleans house?

The second pic I took here, by the way was of bright yellow flowers on the second floor balcony. The reasons for this, and the treatment of the picture is discussed in the upcoming "Perfect Portraits" course coming out in the fall.

If you've been following this blog, you know that my wife and I both like graveyards. The older the better. We hit the jackpot in New Orleans and Brownsville, Texas. There were some amazing pictures here.

Many postcards feature panoramic views of raised crypts. These are great -- but they don't say any one particular thing about the grave, the person in the grave, how people who have seen the grave responded -- they are just pics of generic graveyards.

This picture was taken in a little out of the way graveyard along a back Texas highway. From here you can spit into Mexico. The grave marker surprised me. It was visually interesting. It was elegant -- even though it depicted the most horrific death possible. Someone had gone to the trouble to hack the head off. It makes for an interesting picture.

First, I reduced the picture to a high contrast black and white, using both Desaturation and Alien Skin's Exposure filter set. I had pre-selected the flowers and dropped the contrast just a little bit so that it would retain color -- but not too much.

Think for a second about how this one cross would fail to stand out in a panorama shot, and how much more effective it is when shot by itself.

The upshot of this whole blog is that shooting bits of the "whole" picture can result in some very strong graphics indeed.

I am always interested in seeing "Bits" photos, by the way. If you've got something you'd like to share send it to us. We'd love to post it and allow others to comment on it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Streetscapes and Other Trendy Photography Stuff

There's usually one second ... maybe two ... when you can snap a shot of a street. If you're lucky and skillful, you can wind up with a shot that pulls a series of components together and results in a visual story. Sometimes the story centers around the subject of your photo, it's an "on the fly" portrait where you have captured someone you don't know doing something that is of interest.

One afternoon I decided to take up my camera and see what stories the streets of New Orleans might have to tell me.

This fellow is a Chess Grand Master. He sets up shop beside the French Market and for five bucks he'll play a game with you, and pass along some tips as he kicks the snot out of your chess pieces.

I framed the picture so the chess pieces are really only a small part of the overall shot. I wanted my streetscape to capture his intensity and his excitement as well as his passion about his subject matter. The picture was sharpened and the contrast turned up a little. When you look at the picture, do you get a sense of who this guy is?

Not far from here there was a place that offered Ghost Tours. (We took one of these and it was good fun.) The poster would be incomplete without the guy and the guy woud be incomplete without the poster.
They make a great duo, however. The contrast on the picture was tuned down a little, because I wanted it to be a little more grey to be consistent with the overall theme.
I really don't know if the guy runs the ghost tours or if he was just resting for a moment. But I DO know that the pair make for an interesting graphic that can leave a powerful impression in the eyes of the viewer.
Take a second to look also at the "crooked" nature of the doorway. it would have been simple enough to crop this out, because your eye sees there is something wrong with the balance. I did this deliberately. It's an off-center topic and an off center composition suited it well.
We wound up in a little jazz club on Frenchmen Street called "Ray's Boom Boom Room." The bartender, Marlon, told us there was a band playing that night that featured a couple of guys who'd been around the jazz scene for decades. We're talking Preservation Hall guys.
We had to stay. And I am glad we did because those fellas really kicked.
The toughest shot of the entire trip is right here. This guy is over seventy, rail thin, and he played a big drum. The shot was taken in a crowded club well after the sun went down. The subject of the photo is black. Really black and that made it difficult to tease any kind of detail out of the photo.
To further complicate matters, I was shooting with a telephoto (read WHY in my Deep Sea Fishing entry below) in a dark room, which meant shooting at an ISO of 1600.
We are talking the absolute worst conditions: a black man wearing a white shirt late at night, taking the shot with a telephoto. Geez.
An ISO that sensitive is going to result is lots of grain that needed to be removed. There was no detail in the eyes at all, so I used the Dodge tool to bring them out. The right lens of his glasses had a massive flash on it and that had to be mostly removed. Focus needed to be sharpened and the contrast needed to be pumped and brightened.
It's still not an award winning picture -- but it's close enough to remind me of the night I heard REAL jazz in New Orleans.
Here are the top Three Technicolor Tips I can offer for capturing Streetscapes:
1) You need to use a telephoto lens. You also have to take the time to know HOW to use a telephoto. Remember that you sacrifice a lot of light shooting with one. But there's no way you will get a decent shot of something happening across the street without one.
2) You need to be PRESENT wherever you are. By this I mean that you have to be constantly looking for the picture. I see the street in vertical and horizontal rectangles. You need to be alert for the little things, the elements of the story you want to tell and the precise second that the shot presents itself. But having said that, you should shoot and shoot and keep shooting. The shot you THINK is the one you want often isn't as good as the one you took "just in case."
3) Fill your shot with the story...not the background. Get in as tight as you can on your subject. Leave just a small border in case there's another element of the story you don't see at that exact moment. I guarantee that you'll be pleasantly surprised when you get back to the computer and start working on your photos.
Streetscapes are among the most pleasing shots to me. When they work, they are visual magic. But like every magic trick, you need to do your groundwork in order to make the shot work.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Haunted New Orleans

It's against the law to go to the Big Easy and not visit the legendary St. Louis Cemetary Number One. Okay. It's not exactly against the law. But it should be. If you've ever sat up at night paging through an Anne Rice novel or held the bedcovers just under your eyes as you watched a vampire creeping up on an unsuspecting (but very buxom) heroine, you need to see this place.

There's great history here -- and so many picture opportunities that choosing which one to go with first is a real challenge. Take that sweet-but-slightly-creepy girl in this picture. She's the highlight of the entire cemetary and you could spend hours trying to get the picture just right.

As I finished my work on this graphic, my wife pointed out that she (the creepy girl, not my wife) was on the cover of a "Ghost Tour" brochure. It is my wife's contention that this statue has probably been photographed thousands of times. Suddenly my carefully processed photo didn't look so good.

So today, let's take a look at several ways to take an apparently well known landmark and make it into an interesting picture. The basic pic is above. It's been cleaned up a little. The background, which is an office tower, has been blurred and darkened.

But it needs to have an antique treatment. For this you can use a combination of effects. Start off with Image> Adjustments> Black and White. The conversion in CS3 is vastly improved. (If you are a third party plug in junkie like me, you may want to use Alien Skin's Exposure.)

We need to create an really antiqued look. To do it quickly, I have used a combination of two effects. They are "Dreamy" from Auto FX's Dreamsuite series and Antique Photo from their Mystical Tint and Color collection. This results in a slightly blurred effect (hence the name "Dreamy") and the Antique Photo Collection injects a good combination of color and aging effects. You can achieve the same effect (with a little more work) using Filter> Blur> Lens Blur and Image> Adjustments> Photo Filter.

Here's an off the wall option. Transform the picture into a gothic looking painting. For this, you need to copy the layer so you can go a wee bit nuts with the photo. First, you can try doing some work with Filter> Brush Strokes.

However if you, like me, are counting down the seconds to the moment when you have to leave lovely New Orleans and go back to snow, try a short cut: Virtual Painter has an excellent vastly adjustable Gothic Oil Painting option. You'll wind up with something like this.

There are a ton of other ways the image can be transformed: try adding light and colors with Knoll's Light Factory, try Mosaic Tiles inside Filter> Textures> Mosaic Tiles or some of the other options.

The real key is to take a long hard look at your graphic and try to think of how it makes you feel, and how you want your viewer to feel when they look at it.

The final step is to figure out how exactly to communicate that concept to your viewer.

We go step by step through the image editing steps in our courses. But the intent of this blog is simply to show a couple of ideas for creating better images than they have on the Haunted Tours Brochure in New Orleans.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Longest Five Hours of My Life

Deep sea fishing in Texas! Could there be a better way to cap a week in Brownsville?

As I stood on the dock, smelling the sea air, I found myself thinking about Hemmingway and all those other mega-man types. Yup. We were going out in a boat to outsmart some fish.

The sailor guy, the one in the picture, appeared and began speaking with a very serious tone: "We are looking at six foot to eight foot waves out there. The captain wanted me to tell you all very clearly," (here he paused for effect and waited until the gathered tourists stopped their jolly chatting and gave him their complete attention.) "If anyone wants to go another day, that's okay."
All of us, particularly the men, looked at one another, seeing who would be the first to say "uncle." I had sea bands on. I had taken a Dramamine. I examined my fellow passengers, a slight sneer on my spirit, wondering who would be the first to puke.
"It doesn't matter how much Dramamine you've taken," said the sailor guy. Was he reading my mind? "Some of you ARE going to get sick. If you are going to puke don't puke in the bathroom. Don't puke in the cabin. Puke on the deck or over the rail. The fish don't mind the extra food."

A titter of slightly nervous laughter.

The sailor guy looked us over and asked one last time very seriously if anyone wanted to leave. No one did. So we got on.

The first thirty five seconds weren't too bad. My stomach felt fine. About three minutes into this five hour trip, I started to sweat. My jacket was too hot. I took it off. My beloved Tilley hat was choking me. I took it off. My stomach started feeling ominiously unhappy.

My wife sat in her seat, a bemused expression on her face, with one leg casually braced against a post. She was reading a newspaper and quietly putting the articles of clothing I was discarding away.

I exchanged glances with the other guys: some taking an extended Spring Break, they had boarded with loud talk and much manly backslapping. They were all looking decidedly green. And we weren't even on the big water yet.

The boat went up...way up...and then down....very fast. The boat seemed about the size of a canoe in the midst of an angry Pacific ocean. Up and down. Up and down. I checked my watch. About fifteen minutes had passed. The scent of diesel smoke came into the cabin. A woman groaned and lay down flat on the bench. I tried to think of something else I could take off without getting arrested. Did the cabin have to be so damn hot? The sailor guy was out back puffing on a cigarette as he cut up fish for bait. Both scents assailed me at the same time.

My wife continued to read her newspaper. I considered telling her that it probably wouldn't be a good thing for her to be looking down while the ship rocked back and forth and up and down and in several directions that have no name. But she didn't look like she needed any advice from me.

It felt like there was a fist in my stomach, clenching and unclenching. Sweat broke out on my forehead and as the boat rose and fell over and over again, I felt my stomach move in the opposite direction. I was afraid that I would lose in my "which guy is gonna puke first?" lottery.

I needed fresh air. I needed sea spray. I needed wind on my face. I had mostly convinced myself that if I could just make it outside, my abject misery would be ended. But a couple of other people had aleady tried getting down the aisle without much success. Think of the wildest carnival ride you've ever been on. How long did it last? Three mintues? This went on for five hours.

I made it outside and with the sea spray coating my glasses with a bunch of soapy filmy crap, I settled down onto a hard steel bench with the ship going up and down...up and down...up and...well you get the idea.

A guy beside me with a huge panther tattoo on his arm told me it was like riding a horse. I just had to go with the flow. "Flow" was the wrong word -- and I stood up by the railing. I looked back and saw the sailor guy cutting fish with gusto, hacking heads off while he puffed away on a cigarette.

I could feel the eyes of the other guys on me. They were all waiting to see who would cave first. So I leaned over the railing like I was examining something and fed the fish. It was the first of many times that I fed them. As time progressed, I really didn't care who saw me or heard me. It really didn't matter.
My wife was happily catching fish with complete indifference and a bemused expression on her face each time she looked at me. The panther tattoo guy was next on the railing (a thing that gave me perverse pleasure. I so wanted to tell him it was like riding a horse) and with loud abandon, he let fly.
This made me sick. Again. And again. I won't tell you about all the details. The set some bait at my feet. That made me sick. I had to go to the washroom...but it was so foul smelling in there that I put off the trip until I thought I could hold my breath for an unreasonably long time. (I was wrong.) Many things made me sick.
My wife asked me if I was going to take her picture with a fish she'd caught. I did. Here it is.
At first I was nonplussed by the complete insensitivty of the request. Couldn't she see I was in the seventh level of Hell?
But I tottered back to the cabin, got my camera and took the stupid picture.
Big deal. She caught a fish. Great.
She asked me if I was going to try. I did. I caught a fish. Big deal. I puked again.
I went to take my camera back to the safety of its bag when the boat hit an enormous wave. I watched in dull horror as the camera slipped from my nerveless fingers and crashed against the steel floor. Later I would find out that the auto focus function of that lens had been ruined.
This means that I will be hitting New Orleans with only my telephoto in a few days. Ah well...
When I got off the boat onto land, all I could do was thank God for delivering me once again. Yeah yeah...I know this post doesn't have anything to do with Photoshop or photography. But I thought I should warn each and every one of you that if you are contemplating going out on a wee itty bitty boat onto eight or nine foot windswept need to RUN in the opposite direction. Save yourself and your camera. Your dignity will hang in mangled moaning shreds around you before the freaking five hours are up.
Next stop, N'awlins.
With a telephoto.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Simon and Elvis

The great thing -- I mean the really great thing about travel -- is not so much the places you go, but the people you meet.

Take a good look at the guy in the picture.

What do you think of him?

Look hard at the picture and see what kinds of things you come up with. It's obvious we are looking at an Elvis fan, right? Now look at the position of his right hand...the way it's resting on the statue's shoulder. What opinions have you formulated about him?

"He" is Simon Vega. Vega served with the most successful singer of all time in the army and turned down the King's offer to come and work for him. Vega had just been married and he didn't want to leave his new bride, Teresa, for any longer than he absolutely had to. He still gets misty when he recalls the day he learned his friend, Elvis Presley, died.

Since that time, though, Vega has turned a portion of his house into a bona fide tourist attraction called "Little Graceland." He's copied the design of the gates from Presley's Memphis palace. He's built a miniature size replica of the home Presley was raised in. He's got cards, all 64 official Presley albums, one of Presley's uniforms, personal letters and much more. If you want to take his picture, he will put on his Elvis tour jacket (which I suspect fits a little more snugly than it used to) and obligingly poses.

He's not a nut. He's one of the nicest guys I've met. When we left, he hugged both of us.

Whenever anyone comes by the museum, he drops what he's doing and takes them on a personal tour. Okay. I can guess what you're thinking: what does this have to do with Photoshop or photography?

How do I tell you who Simon Vega us with just one or two pictures?
The first consideration is to put your subject into the proper context. You need to put them into a setting that helps you, as the artist, communicate something about them. Since most of you folks couldn't care less about who he is or what he's about, I need to create a picture with a 'hook,' something that will attract your attention and make you look for longer than two or three nanoseconds.

Hopefully the Elvis statue and Simon's posture do that.
Even before clicking the shutter, you need to have carefully composed the elements of your picture in your mind. Background is a key consideration. Should it be cluttered with interesting stuff? Should it be plain so as not to distract from the subject? Does the ambient background contribute or detract from the main subject?

How much of the subject needs to be in the frame? Some of the shots I took had Simon's full body in them. But I have to ask myself if a shot of his shoes helps make the picture stronger or weaker. Weaker. I wanted your attention fixed on just him and the statue.
What are the lines of the photograph? "Lines" is an admittedly jargonish way of saying "the path your eyes travel on." We will naturally look at a picture the same way we read: left to right. So I wanted your eyes to go to Elvis' face, see Simon's hand and then travel in a more or less straight line to Simon's face.
So does it work as a graphic? When you looked at the picture did you pause longer than a couple of seconds? Let me ask you to think again what thoughts you formulated about the subject.
How about the second picture? Simon obligingly posed with his arms draped over the gates. But it wasn't until he called my wife to come over and stand with him that I got the picture I wanted. He's active. He's doing something which is MUCH better than the "hands in the lap" portrait junk.
NOW think for a second about how these concepts might work for your next portrait. (You may even want to consider looking for our newest course "Perfect Portraits" due out by the end of the summer. Hint hint. If you'd like to be notified when it is released, email us at and we'll let you know.)
If you're ever in the tiny Texas town of Los Fresnos, drop by and see Simon Vega. Tell him David thanks him for sharing his afternoon with a "Houndog" like me.