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Pushing the Envelope

Barns in Winter
(original color image)
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

Some months back, I mentioned “winter doldrums” in my photography. There are, I suppose, all kinds of excuses I could call doldrums (boredom, sameness, lack of ability to travel to “new” places, etc.).  But in my particular part of Michigan, as I have oft mentioned, we are already in perhaps one of the flattest, brownest places in the U.S.  Add dreary, cold, sometimes grimy snow cover (or worse yet, no snow, but otherwise grey, winter conditions) and the motivation to get out and shoot gets sketchy, at best.  My good friend, Al Utzig, suggested that this period was a good time to “experiment” with my images and software.

The Photoshop “glow” image was made from my B&W Composite which was two layers, to brush in the red colored barns and tank into a B&W rendering.  I think the “glow” is really more photographic than graphic.

Barns in Winter
(Photoshop “glow”)
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

This year, I took his challenge and began to explore not only Photoshop, but some other software, including the popular plug in software, the Nik Collection, the up and coming ON1 software, and the scaled down version of Paintshop; Painter Essentials.  I started out trying to learn  a bit about B&W conversion of digital images.  I have had some fun with it and learned some rudimentary things. The B&W foray motivated me to purchase ON1 Photo Raw 2018.  I had some fun with this software, and I think it would have been a nice edition (at a reasonable cost) to my tool kit.  Alas, for reasons I note below, I was unable to continue using it.

Barns in Winter
(Painter Essentials Detailed Painting)
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

These Painter Essentials images were made using the “autopaint” feature in the software.  The first is its “detailed painting” preset.  I hand “brushed” some of it to make it a bit more refined.  I am not sure it is distinguishable from a photographic rendering (you have to click on the individual image to see the larger version to really see the effect of these renderings).  The second is the “color pencil drawing” preset.

Barns in Winter
(Painter Essentials Colored Pencil)
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

That pushed me into experimenting with “painting.”  Again, I may have scratched the surface on this area a bit, but still have a way to go.  I am (I know this shocks my friends 🙂 ) “old school” when it comes to learning.  One of my big disappointments is that as we move away from the “print” world, to the “digital” world, there is more and more, a complete lack of printed documentation for new software.  Likewise, I find printed “how to” books, less and less common.  I know there are economics involved, but it is still disappointing.  So, for the ON1 software (in fairness, there is a pdf documentation for the ON1 suite – but it is lacking in useful detail), and the Painter Essentials software, you have to learn basically by internet research and U-Tube videos.  And there is really no single, organized source and there are literally thousands of U-tube and other “how to” pieces out there.  I am looking for a book (ala, the Martin Evening Photoshop Series books) for Painter Essentials that would help me “get under the hood.”

I have played around with the filter gallery in Photoshop before, but never to the degree I did in this image.  Here are 3 “painterly” renditions of the image that I liked (there are many more options in the software, but these seemed to work best for me).  I created these on layers and in some cases, adjusted the opacity of the layer a bit.  I did not play around with blending modes, which opens another whole area of experimentation.  I like the first one the best.

Barns in Winter
(PS Brushstrokes1)
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Barns in Winter
(Photoshop Brushstrokes2)
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Barns in Winter (PS Brushstrokes 3) Copryight Andy Richards 2018

But what has this all got to do with the “envelope” I allude to in the title?  I have known for some time that there was pretty much the capability to accomplish all the results I got from the supplemental software programs mentioned above.  But not without some work and experimentation.  And some experiential learning.  Or, what maybe in my case I better called “playing.”  In doing so, I have been able to pick up on some fundamental things.  One of them is that there is a certain type of photographic image that just works better with the graphic/art rendering of an image.  It seems to work best with an image that has strong graphics, including shape and size and color contrasts.  Like the image I used in last week’s blog of Barns in Winter in Frankenmuth.  This time, I used the estimable “filter gallery” in Photoshop and began to experiment with some of its many image rendering choices.

For this image I used the filter gallery preset called “cutout.” It feels like the Japanes anime art form to me.  I have clicked on this a few times in the past and never really liked the result.  Until this one.  I could see this one being used as an illustration, or on a notecard.

Barns in Winter
(Photoshop “cutout”)
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Nothing I have shown here is “new.”  Much of the capability has been with Photoshop since its emergence back in 1988.  And it has all be “done before.”  So, as I have said before, my work here may be, to many observers, nothing more (and perhaps less) than sophomoric.  But is is “new” to me, and I hope it has broadened my approach to the art of photography.  The last image really kind of pushes it.  I would not ordinarily like something like this, but if the owner liked purple, I could see this as a night image.

Barns in Winter
(Photoshop “neon” filter)
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

I hope at least some readers enjoy it. 🙂

[A NOTE ABOUT MY EXPERIENCE WITH ON1 PHOTO RAW 2018.  I don’t want to officially “review” this software.  It has so much promise as a “Photoshop-alternative” photo-editing program.  But it didn’t work for me for technical reasons.  If it did, my review would likely be very favorable.  I was initially intrigued by ON1’s ability to render B&W images, and equally by its layer and local adjustments capability.  Touted as a “complete” image editing program, it appears to be a deserving competitor to the Adobe Suite (Bridge, Lightroom and Photoshop) in an all-in-one package.  I really wanted to like (and learn) this software.  It is stand alone, as opposed to the Adobe Cloud approach and that has some attraction.  I did occasionally find myself “needing” (perhaps a function of learning curve) to take an image into Photoshop to make additional adjustments however.  And alas, ON1 ultimately did not work for me. It had a glitch that would randomly, but more and more frequently, fail to render any image on screen and would, instead, give me an opaque rectangle.  I have 2 computers I work with, one is a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and the other is an HP desktop.  Both have integrated Intel graphics processors.  Neither would work with the ON1 program.  I found their tech support – though always courteous – not very responsive and not very helpful.  Their answer was to upgrade my drivers.  I tried that, both through Intel and my computer manufacturers.  They (ON1) even sent me a link to driver update (which ultimately gave me the message that it was unable to install).  Ultimately, I was informed that my drivers were up to date and there were no new updates applicable.  While both computers are now about 3 years old, I have not had a single issue – ever – with graphics drivers, on any other photo editing or graphics software.  While I know there are logical fallacies out there, my deductive reasoning is that this is an ON1 issue.  They have refunded my purchase.  Again, I think they have a lot of promise and I may return later.  But right now, it is a no go for me.]



Out Like A Lion

Copyright 2011 Andy Richards

I think the appropriate saying is, “In like a Lion; out like a Lamb.” It doesn’t happen that often here in Michigan. More often, just when we start seeing and hearing Robins, Red Winged Blackbirds, and the pale green shoots of Crocuses and Daffodils popping through the soil, Winter reminds us that its not done with us yet. Oh, well, it is Michigan.

Winter reminds us that its not done with us yet

I like hackneyed sayings. Another favorite of mine is “make lemonade from lemons.” So, while I am certainly ready for Spring, I have also been lamenting all Winter how difficult it is to get motivated to get out and shoot, and how seldom I find worth subjects near home.

Our recent Winter storm created the perfect conditions for snow photography in my view. Recent temperatures had reached the low 60’s and the Winter weather system was preceded by rain, coating everything with a base that made it very receptive to the snow storm that came through, bringing much lower temperatures (eventually in the ‘teens). We ended up with a fresh, white, thick coating on virtually every surface, which lasted a couple days before the sun finally burned things off.  I decided to get my unmotivated backside out and try to shoot.

As I noted in my previous blog, for artists, snow can be a wonderful “treatment” to cure many problems with scenes. While it often creates a monochromatic look, it also covers clutter and otherwise unsightly foreground elements and “busy” details that are undesirable in photographs. At the same time it can add texture, color and interest to otherwise plain elements in a photograph (perhaps most notably, bare tree branches). And, sometimes, the very texture of snow, itself, can add interest to an image.

I am also often intrigued by the shadow play on the plain white surface, which probably wouldn’t be seen on a less reflective or less bright surface. Sadly, I work for a living :-), though a friend recently asked me if “being a lawyer was just a hobby.” Wouldn’t that be nice? But because I work, and because people expect me to be there during the week, and because nature doesn’t seem to have the courtesy to check my calendar, I cannot always get out when conditions are right.

Copyright 2011 Andy Richards

With these photos, I broke my number 2 rule of photography: Always shoot from a tripod. But at least I followed my number 1 rule: Always carry a camera and when a shot presents itself, use the best equipment you have with you (the great irony here is that I more often break my first rule than my second :-(). Dressed in coat and tie and dress shoes, I wasn’t really in a position to climb around in 4 in deep snow, so I did the next best thing, bracing my camera on the car window sill and using my VR at faster shutter speeds. Would like to have had the time to set up and work these scenes properly.

Maybe there will be a day when the law “hobby” isn’t so demanding.

Early Spring Surprise

Barns, Frankenmuth, Michigan

There is a saying in Michigan: “if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute—it will change.” I grew up in Northern lower Michigan, and one of the things I have hated, since I was a kid, was the way Spring would “tease” us and then, just when we thought maybe it was finally here, we would get hammered with a Winter storm.

I drive past this scene 2-3 times a week, and for the past several years, I have been thinking about it as a photograph. It has drawn my attention each time, as the two smaller red barns contrast against the weathered wood of the larger barn. But I have never found time to “work” the scene to find the best perspective. My drive-bys are always at mid-day. The scene faces north, and it seemed to me that the best light was probably going to be early morning sun. Another challenge was that the ground around the barns, as well as the foreground, is kind of cluttered. When I would visualize the scene, I struggled to isolate the elements that drew me to the photograph and could never really imagine the vision.

The morning of this storm, I went to another barn I thought would look great in the fresh snow, and then decided to have a look. The resulting image is one that I really like. The fresh snow is a “great equalizer.” It hides many imperfections in the details around a photograph, and often gives it a nice, simple, clean look. I think that happened here. I like the image despite the plain grey sky, because the white snow, red barn and tree details and weathered wood on the big barn creates enough interest and contrast to counter the negative space created by the gray sky.

Barns, Frankenmuth, Michigan

The next morning dawned clear and blue, and on the way to work, I drove by again and took this image. I like the first one better.

Winter; Love it or Hate it!

Winter sucks!  There.  I said it (I have been thinking it for the last month).  I have often, tongue-in-cheek, described my home in Saginaw, Michigan as “flat, brown and boring, unless you like power lines.”  But in winter, it actually changes from brown  to white (and then back to off-white or grey).  And here, Winter lasts for as long as 5 months, followed by about a
month of the brown “mud” season.  Maybe I am being
unfair to Saginaw.  I have certainly found a successful photographic image or two during the 25 years I have lived here.

Thinking back, I haven’t made a “successful” winter or snow image in years.  But I wonder if that isn’t my own fault?  Actually, to quote Jimmy Buffet, it is “my own damn fault.”  Winter–and snow–present some wonderful photographic opportunities.  Light, texture, color and shapes are all elements readily available in snow.  Water and ice are also prevalent and can create dynamic compositional elements and wonderful, contrasty, “black and white” or monochromatic images.

Snow images present challenges.  As a new photographer, I remember finding a bright yellow barn with a silver metal roof on a bright, snowy, sunny day.  I enthusiastically shot it, following the suggested setting on the “match-needle” metering on my new Canon SLR camera.  Afterward, I anxiously awaited the return of my mail-in slides, only to be crestfallen when the photographs came back severely underexposed!  How could that happen?  My “intuition” told me that if anything, that all that bright sunlight with white background and foreground would, if anything, cause my photo to be overexposed.  In reality, my meter did exactly what it was supposed to do (turn my beautiful white snow grey–hey, come to think of it, if I have been in Saginaw, I could have metered directly off that “neutral grey” snow).  In my view, bright conditions which provide high contrast in a monochromatic context are perhaps the most difficult of photographs.  Detail in the snow and other brightly reflected elements require attention exposure.  And with modern digital cameras, getting proper white balance (so we don’t get blue snow) is also an important consideration (although I tend to deal with that afterward in my RAW converter–you just had to know I couldn’t stay away some from “gear-based” technical discussion).

So, why have I not made any successful “Winter” images?  Its cold.  Its dark.  I am more comfortable sitting on the couch in front of my laptop.  I don’t have time.  Winter does that to me.  I really have no excuse.

I am posting this more than a week after I wrote the original text.  As I sat there thinking about blog topics that Sunday morning, it occurred to me that maybe I should have gone out and found a Winter photograph.  My personal challenge/commitment then and there was to get out and get at least one “successful” Winter photograph (I plan to
write a post in the future about my idea of a “successful” photograph) for illustration before I published this post.  On Saturday, I traveled to the Northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan and found a small stream (The “Rapid River” — there is another “Rapid River” in the U.P.) and actually made some winter photographs.  The day was dull and grey; not the best light for photography.  But it was still a more fulfilling experience to be out in it than to sit on the couch and write about it!

Thanks for reading . . . . .