Friday, July 11, 2008

What did it FEEL like to be there?

I am standing in the French Quarter on a hot summer afternoon. There are puffy blue clouds in the sky and not a hint of rain. I can smell good food coming from the open (and very inviting) door to a restaurant. I can hear hot jazz coming from a bar down the street. There's a lazy, contented feel to my world. It's full of things I could do and places I could go. But at this exact second, I am content to stand there and let NOLA seep into my spirit.

How do you summarize what a moment felt like in a single image? It's impossible. Take New Orleans, for example. The city is still recovering from Katrina -- but the jazz is hot, the food is good and the people are smiling. It's a place that never settles into sleep. There's always something going on. There's always somewhere wonderful to go. You can tour the devastated outskirts of the Big Easy or hang out on Frenchman Street -- where the locals go to avoid all the nasty business that goes on at Bourbon Street.

There's just so much life rising out of the ashes. There's magic on the streets, in the music and the food. It really feels like New Orleans, as an entity, accepted the devastation from Katrina, shrugged, smiled and picked up a trumpet to lay down some great jazz.

So my plan was to try to convey that feeling to you with this image.

This isn't a blog about technique. (On the off chance you care: The graphic is a composite of two photos. The primary photo is a statue of Al Hirt -- the New Orleans trumpet virtuoso. The glow comes from a deliberately ragged extraction, inner glow and drop shadow from the Layer Style menu and a touch of white corona from Alien Skin. The cemetary shot has been changed into a "painterly" effect with the Artistic Tools as well as Virtual Painter.)

This blog is about relaxing and BEING where you're going so you can convey that feeling to others via your graphic design.

If you find yourself in a new city and are intent only on getting where you are going you're going to miss what it really feels like to be somewhere exotic. Let's face it: most tourist places look the same.

But how does the place feel?

On each trip, let me urge you to take a few minutes to just stand or sit. Let me urge you to let the cells of your spirit open up and enter into the stream of where you are. On the heels of that potentially deadly artsy observation, let me make a few suggestions for how to construct a graphic that "says it all."

1) Make Notes. My wife excels at this. She'll plop herself down on a sidewalk, grab a pen and start writing. I have really tried this -- but it doesn't work for me very well since I am pretty old and have a tendency to put stuff down and forget about it. But in any case, as you sit and start your project, keep all those sensory things in the front of your mind. It will help you stay on track.

2) Start Designing your Graphic as you Take the Picture. I will often have a rough idea in mind for how I am going to Photoshop the photograph. Sometimes I will already have a project in mind before I get on the airplane. This makes things much easier since I am actively looking for things that will fit the project I have in mind.

3) Don't be afraid to Ignore Point #2. If you are sitting down with your images, don't be so married to your original design that you ignore options that will make your design stronger. We've all had "happy accidents" which occur as you format the design. Push things around on the screen. Relax. The "Undo" command is a much better invention than sliced bread.

As you start work try to remember how your image smells. Is there food cooking? Flowers? Is the the scent of hot sun on asphalt? Try to remember the sounds: music, conversation, laughter. Try to imprint every possible thing on your memory and you will find designing a graphic much easier.

I am guilty of rushing from place to destination and not seeing much except the street signs. But every so often I manage to slow down. After's not so much about the destination as it is about the journey, right?

Building Atmosphere into a Travel Picture

Jimmy Durante, that great philosopher, once said "When you know, you know."

If you've ever pressed the shutter button and absolutely known exactly what you are going to do with a photo, you understand what he meant. In each one of the pictures in this blog I knew exactly what I was going to do with them...which is unusual for me since my usual graphic design system is to push things around on the screen until they pretty much look okay.

Part of the graphic artist's job is to create images that tell a story or create a sense of atmosphere. There are a lot of ways to do that.

The image here, a man walking on the beach in Coney Island in NYC, is still one of my favorites. It really shouldn't be -- partially because it breaks a lot of rules. He's not exactly on a dynamic point in the Rule of Thirds. Neither is the gull. But there's something about this image that really speaks to me. It whispers things about solitude and reflection. It's got some of the all time great symbols: a man, small against a vast ocean, a cane, a bird. This is one of those images I can look at for a long time.

There are several things to consider in creating a graphic:

1) Is this a picture better suited to black and white? B&W is a great medium, enjoying a powerful renaissance with the advent of great digital editing tools like Alien Skin's Exposure and Photoshop. If you want a picture to look lonely -- and go directly to the heart, consider Black and White.

2) Would a PASTEL treatment be better? This is easier to do than you might think. Start by making a copy of your main photo (on the PC it's Control J) and work on the copy. Make the copy black and white or use one of the wonderful tools under Image> Adjustments. You might be able to get away with something as basic as "Photo Filter."

Once you have a treatment you like on your copied layer, go to the OPACITY setting on your copied layer and play around with the percentage. You will see the background layer bleeding through and giving you a very pleasing muted color. That's what I did with the Staten Island lifeguard picture here. You'll see some color seeping in on the bottom. If the picture was of higher resolution, you'd also see tinges of color in the umbrella. I added grain to this photo as well to make it more powerful. I used Exposure from Alien Skin to create the grain texture.

3) Think hard about every element in your graphic. It's very simple to take elements out with the Clone tool. You don't want any distractions: you just want to see the main elements. Distractions weaken the impact of your visual -- and can throw off the balance. If it doesn't fit -- cut it out.

4) Maybe it needs to be a painting? This actor played Ben Franklin. It was a very crisp photograph that was going nowhere fast. Ben just didn't look right in a photo, so I used a number of the Artistic Brush treatments, added a Canvas Texture -- and finished the whole thing off by using my Virtual Painter plug-in ( to complete the effect. I use VP a LOT. For my money (and I am very protective of my money) it's the best digital art plug in out there. You can get a fully functioning free trial.

5) Crop Cleverly! A lot of people zip right past the crop. I can't for the life of me figure out why. Good cropping is critical for an image that works. You must consider all the distractions that detract from the power of the image. You need to really consider the Rule of Thirds. If you pay the proper amount of attention to the crop, you will reach that "AHA!" moment when you know the picture is perfect.

Because as Durante said: "When you know, you know."