Monday, 28 March 2011

Revisiting my image processing workflow

As I've mentioned before, I was kindly given a new camera for a big birthday I had in January and have spent some time since getting to know it. Despite being a very long term photographer with a lot of experience of different cameras, it's been rather a steep learning curve with this particular one.

I've had to work on how to get the best of it when actually taking photographs - and that's something I still haven't settled on yet - every time I think I've mastered what's required, a series of photographs disproves my earlier conclusions and it's back to the drawing board. I've never had a dilemma quite like this before with any camera.

Please click on any of the photographs for a larger view, they tend to look rather dark here on the page.

A recent image with the new camera taken on a very cold and grey day - which didn't quite work when I took it, but some extra saturation and a different sharpening technique brought much more out of it.

Some of the problem stems from the fact that I like to work with RAW format images, that is, the camera records the data of the photograph without finally processing it into an actual image - you download the file to the computer, then use software to make that final conversion. The idea being that your computer, coupled with your own knowledge and hopes for the photograph, combined with the luxury of time and sophisticated software, can do a better job of it than the camera can in the milliseconds it has to process the image for you.

I was tinkering with my 720mm equivalent lens on my lunchtime walk and this chap thought I needed investigating and came over for a closer look - at the time he was the other side of the field.

The camera itself is restricted to the recipe of image processing algorithms that are preset between the camera manufacturers taste and the settings you chose in the camera - like saturation level, in-camera sharpening etc. That becomes a sort of one-shot deal - once the moment has passed, that image has been recorded within those constraints and whilst you can post-process it later to quite a large degree, some aspects of it may be beyond retrieval.

The daffodils outside the house are at their most perfect at the moment and the patch of them gets the last dying rays of the sun as it sets behind buildings opposite and gives them a lovely evening glow.

So working with a RAW format gives you a second chance to wrangle a better image from the data you recorded when not constrained by the camera processing. It also gives you an opportunity to develop more than one version of an image and merge the best from each - this is a practice I especially like to do, predominantly with landscapes, which have a lot of contrast in the scene - if you get dark areas under trees well exposed for example, this might leave the sky too pale and you might blow the highlights of white clouds or reflections from water. In the past you might have done this with bracketed exposures taken at the same time, but this needs a tripod and still conditions to work well.

This image could not have been achieved, as it looks here, from a single in-camera JPEG - I developed two versions from the RAW file - one to expose for the distant hillside in full sun and another for the dark foreground areas in deep shadow. I manually blended them to get the best from each exposure.

You can blend separately developed images from the RAW file for colour as well as exposure - in this interior I did for a client recently, the grey tiles under the cupboard had a different colour cast from the rest of the room and were over exposed too due to the proximity of the lights - but I could blend the best of two versions of the image to get a natural looking result, more in line with what your eye and brain are capable of interpreting at the time.

You do of course see an image in the camera as you work with RAW files, as usually a small format JPEG is recorded at the same time as the RAW file is saved and embedded within it, otherwise you couldn't view your photos back in the camera or preview and identify them on your computer.

An image that I never did get to look quite how I wanted and in line with how the scene was, but some work on it retrospectively gave the result I had been after. Sometimes revisiting such images later with fresh eyes gives better results.

With my DSLRs I've always chosen to work with a RAW format and had a good workflow for doing so - I thought any extra time that process took (and I'm not convinced that it actually did) was more than repaid in better results. I got into good habits early on and didn't actually find the process tiresome, as many often cite as a reason for NOT shooting RAW. I preview my photographs (i.e looking at the embedded JPEGs just mentioned) in image viewing software and choose the ones I want to look at in more detail, then move to the RAW development software and only work on the ones I've already shortlisted - I certainly don't develop all of the images I take in a RAW format and often, the embedded JPEG is good enough for many uses.

What's not to love about sleepy piggies - another older image revisited with the revised workflow which gives a result more like what I saw and wanted from it.

And this is where my difficulties stem from with this camera. It has the ability to shoot RAW which was a big tick in the plus column when initially choosing the model. But, the particular file format is not well supported by many of the main RAW development softwares and those that do, won't work on my now old and insufficiently specced computer or they cost lots of pennies - and still won't work on my old computer. It does of course come bundled with a suitable application - but it's very much a stripped down 'lite' version without many of the functions I would consider essential - although they tantalisingly leave them visible but greyed out to add to the frustration. It's also very slow and a resource hog on my poor tired old computer. Plus, I simply don't like it very much. I really like the application I use with my DSLR images and that has spoiled me somewhat.

The scene at the top of the hill on one of my lunchtime walk routes. By the time I reach this point I tend to be gasping and panting and happy to just stop a moment and enjoy this scene.

So I'm currently having a battle between short term ease of use at the moment and better potential image quality - complicated by the likelihood that I will hopefully get a new computer in the not-too-distant and then I would be able to revisit images I've already taken more easily. So, for today at least, I'm just shooting JPEGs and as soon as I take an image that needs something more than I recorded, regret not having a RAW image to tweak. I'll certainly change my mind again next week; I'm already on 'Plan J'.

This is an image I've no doubt posted before, but as it's typical of the type of scene I can't resist, it was important to me to hone a methodology for both taking images like this and for post-processing them, to get results I liked. I finally got this one to look how I envisaged it.

But all this contemplation has caused me to revisit my image workflow too - perhaps a task that was long overdue. With the need to produce jewellery images very quickly and efficiently, I developed a workflow for them specifically and set up scripts for functions like sharpening, that gave decent quick and dirty results. These worked well enough for the web based jewellery images, so I got into lazy habits and started using the same workflow for all of my images. But this didn't seem to work quite as well with images from my new camera, so I decided to go back to basics and work through my original more thorough workflow for my 'leisure images' and see if I could hone a new workflow that could be made just as efficient and hopefully give better results.

I can't resist the abstract shapes and colours of fungi and this was taken on one of my favourite walks in the Lake District that in autumn has a diverse range of fungi growing amongst the trees.

I always used to enjoy tinkering with images to get the best possible result from them, but the need to bang out jewellery photos in volume as efficiently as possible had somewhat spoiled that process for me, but looking at it more carefully again, the bug re-bit me and I think I've now settled on a processing routine that will work well with my new camera images, but can also be applied to all of my other images too as I've honed some scripts that use the best of both workflows.

I'd forgotten about this particular version of my woodland chum - I'd taken it from down the hill, but with a long focal length to give that feeling of a low perspective and him slithering between the trees. Imagine if you bumped into that in the dark without knowing it was there.

So armed with my re-awakened enthusiasm, I picked some older photos at random and re-worked them, just to see if my new ideas had merit across a range of images from different cameras, some of which are posted above.
This was taken on a damp drizzly and cold August day and I wanted to try and re-capture that misty glow that the scene had with all the moisture in the air.

Time to grab my camera and head out for some fresh air whilst it's nice - now what settings was I supposed to be trying today . . . ?

Friday, 18 March 2011

Mother Nature knows how to cheer us up

I apologise for yet another blog lacking in worthy literary content. I have been working and concentrating on other things recently and need to get back to my usual routine and thought processes and get some of the draft tutorials I have in the works actually finished. So in the short term, I'm going to fob you off with some photographs and hope it serves as a suitable distraction from the lack of actual information.

Please click on any of the photographs for a larger view.

There is a dense patch of tiny tete-a-tete daffodils in the corner of the park - how could that fail to lift your spirits.

I've always had the idea that Mother Nature knows everyone is a bit fed up after winter and in need of something cheering and she came up with daffodils. Isn't she clever?

It was a totally gorgeous spring day today - wall to wall sunshine (well, almost; the scant clouds always seem to know just when I've got myself into a preposterous position to take a photograph), deep blue sky and whilst the air was decidedly nippy and the breeze quite brisk, the sun was warm and I could hardly wait today to finish some tasks I needed to, so I could grab my hiking boots and head out for my lunchtime walk.

One thing leads to another - I stepped towards the railings along the river to see if there were any nice views to be had and as I looked carefully where I was standing to prevent me crushing any plants coming through the leaf litter, I saw a little cluster of small brown fungi - the structure of the gills is quite beautiful and clearly arranged in patterns of ascending size - you needed to get low to appreciate the structure, the photograph was taken on the ground. It was only around 25mm (1") in diameter and the same sort of height. Whilst I'm bending down taking photos, I spotted my gnarled root photo prop.

I believe this fungi to be a Winter Twiglet - Tubaria hiemalis - apparently there are few traditional mushroom shaped fungi this early in the year and it certainly has the gill patterns which would identify the species.

That makes it sound like I scaled some strenuous peak, where in reality I walked a loop to the next village, tickled a cat, threw sticks for a gorgeous auburn coloured boxer dog, caught up on the family gossip with an old friend out tending her horse, took some photos and found a fabulous bit of dried gnarled root for a photo prop. As previously mentioned, I always have a tie handle bag in my pocket for the collection of such treasures. Dangling from my camera bag it must make passers-by wonder where I lost my dog, but I care not.

The house that faces this view is currently up for sale. I've looked at it a couple of times when it's changed hands over the years, but I don't think my pockets are anything like deep enough.

As I headed back, I got the flashing red icon to indicate that my camera batteries were going. I had spares with me, but didn't want to bother trying to change them with cold fingers and without my glasses to see which way in they go. I managed to squeak a couple more out of these primroses.

I really should have made more progress on my to do list, but tickling cats, talking to boxers and old friends and sharing my day with pretty fungi, daffodils and primroses was far more agreeable. I can work when it's dark.

What on earth are they doing?

Maybe you can help to educate me - I saw these chickens at a farm shop recently and was perplexed by their actions. There was a dusty hollow in some dry earth in the shadow of a wall and the chickens were taking it in turns to 'bathe' in the dust. That much I can comprehend, but after some fluttering action, they would lie perfectly still for a while as though in total ecstasy, with their heads on their side. Then jump up and saunter off, like the white one who was clearly 'done'.

I was tickled that the white chicken standing has markings on its side like a boot print. I sincerely hope that is is just patterns on the feathers.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Fresh air, peace and quiet - just how we like it!

As regular readers will know, I am totally besotted with the English Lake District and spend as much time there as bank balances and work schedules will allow. We weren't expecting to spend any time there until our regular Easter holiday but a lovely opportunity to do some photography work up there, as a return favour I owed someone, came out of the blue and at short notice, but it didn't take much effort for me to be persuaded.

Between the work I had to do we did manage some quality time in some of our favourite places and that was a real bonus. The weather was decent enough for February too, so we managed a couple of nice walks and to gawp into our favourite patches of trees. It was incredibly quiet - just how we like it - and we haven't had a winter break up there for some time and it was different to see it with bare trees, we saw all sorts of things normally obscured by foliage that we've not spotted before. I've had a run of health issues recently and the fresh air, peace and exercise did me a world of good and despite the work I still need to do finishing the project, was very well worth doing.

I'll just leave you with the odd assortment of distinctly average photos I took over the weekend. If anyone sees my photography mojo, will they please pop a stamp on it and drop it in a letterbox back to me - I'd really rather like it back. I'm not even sure where I had it last.

Please click on any of the photographs for a larger view.

One of our favourite walks along Windermere starts along the lake side. There was a sailing race taking place at the time - I couldn't fathom what was going on - it looked incredibly confusing, but looked like a perfect day for it with the colourful spinnakers billowing.

I hope that they know where they're going!

Once the race had finished it went very quiet on the lake. All you could hear was birds and the occasional creaking tree in the breeze. I always kick through the leaf and timber detritus at the water edge and this is where I get most of my driftwood pieces as photography props and I picked up a beauty. I always carry a tie handle plastic bag with me for collecting such 'treasures'.

It's a relatively recent practice in managed woodlands to allow fallen trees to stay where they fall (unless there is a safety hazard) and for the natural ecology of the woodland to take over. I love to see how many things take up residence on logs like this. It becomes a fascinating little world all of its own.

I love the abstract design and textures of fungi, mosses and lichens, they're worth getting a close look at them, they're often complex and fascinating structures.

It was a bit muddy underfoot, but with the peace, sunlight through the trees, lack of people and abundant fresh air, it was just about perfect.

This photograph was somewhat about 'the one that got away' - it had been preceded a few minutes earlier by a passing over of the incredibly fast, loud and flying vertically on its wing-tips, Typhoon Euro-fighter - I've seen them in this spot over Thirlmere many times, but by the time you hear them, they're almost out of sight. It was so loud Mr Boo actually swerved the car and we both ducked, although I have no idea why instinct should make you think that would help in the circumstances. Thankfully, this transport helicopter a few minutes later was going at a slightly more sedate pace. What a fabulous way to visit the Lakes. I stuck out my thumb but they weren't for stopping. Note the heat from the exhausts blurring the trees behind.

The last dying colours as the sun sets behind Thirlmere

I love the colours of beech woodland; at any time of year.

We woke on Tuesday to a perfect clear deep blue sky and deep frost. As some of the work I had to do included exterior shots, I got out early to do them while the sky was so perfect and the undisturbed foliage where the sun hadn't yet reached was dusted with delicate ice crystals - even the hairs on the stalks are frosty.


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