I’m still playing with Color Efex Pro from the Nik suite. It’s fun, and it’s giving me ideas, but I have some mixed feelings about it that I’ve been trying to sort out. On the one hand it’s allowing me to get the look that I want a lot more of the time, but on the other there’s something that bothers me about it.
I’ve never been a purist about post-processing. While I would always want to get as much as possible right in-camera, and I hate to see a fundamentally poor shot being tarted up with special effects in an attempt to make it acceptable, what seems most important to me is the resulting image and not whatever means were used to achieve it. I’m not going to go into all the tired old arguments about this but it’s a fact that, even in the days of film, extensive work and adjustments were done in the dark room post-shooting and it’s neither here nor there that this is now done digitally instead.
I’ve also never been interested in straight representational photography – most of it simply doesn’t appeal to me greatly and doesn’t hold my interest for long. I find it boring to do, and technical perfection – while I do admire the skill involved – can sometimes seem rather chillingly intellectual. I’m far more interested in attempting to express a mood, a feeling, an emotion, or a story. Most of the time, I like my pictures soft, often blurred, with some mystery and ambiguity present.
But how far do you go to do that? The image at the top of the post has been dramatically altered using Color Efex Pro, and is now the way I’d like it to look and the way that the place felt to me while I was there on that day – dazzling light and soft colours. However, the original image looks significantly different. To let you see the change, I’ve put the before and after together, below.
I’m happy with the changes here, and I could no doubt have got the same result using Elements/Photoshop, although I’m not sure I would have known just how to get that to happen. But the great thing about Color Efex Pro is that you can apply and remove the changes with one click, and you can stack and unstack several effects at once, making it really easy to compare and see what works and what doesn’t. This shot had three effects applied to it – Neutral White, which sorts the colours out quickly and easily, Polaroid transfer, which smoothed out the too-obvious movement lines caused by the ICM process, and Film Fade, which gave it a high-key, faded, dream-like look. Although the colours are more intense and the light is brighter and stronger than in the original, this is how it felt to me to be there on that day. The in-camera image didn’t give me that feeling.
Playing with another of my ICM shots, I discovered the Indian Summer effect. Now I like this effect a lot, and it makes a lot of images look really good, but I do have a problem with it. But first, let me show you what it does (you can see the original here).
Basically it gives every image you use it on an early autumn effect. I do love these colours, and this take on the original, so what’s my problem? – well simply, it’s not how it felt to me at the time. Had I been there in late summer/early autumn, then it might have helped capture the essence of my experience, but as it is it feels removed from my experience and only satisfying on a decorative level. Doesn’t stop me liking it, but it doesn’t embody what I’m trying to do and I don’t feel it expresses anything of myself.
However, the opposite is true for the image below. While out walking, we came across this little tree protectively surrounded by mature trees, and lit up by a band of sunlight. I took quite a few shots, but none of them showed what I saw at the time. I tried, using Elements, to bring out the contrast between the sunlit baby tree and the darker trees around it, and I got a bit closer to what I wanted but it still wasn’t there. So I popped it into Color Efex Pro and finally managed to get it to look much more like how I’d envisaged it. It’s still not totally there, but lots better.
One thing that helps is that Color Efex goes further than I often have the courage to go. I had already tried applying a vignette effect to the original using Elements, and it had helped a bit, but my mistake was that I didn’t take it far enough. There’s surely a lesson for me here, but it took Color Efex to get that through to me. The vignette it applied was much darker and stronger – and more effective – than my more tentative efforts, and there was also an option – which I took – to lighten the centre of the shot. You can see the comparison between the original post-processed shot below, and the same shot after using Color Efex – the change is subtle but effective and pushes attention towards the small tree, which is what I wanted.
My conclusion is that Color Efex Pro makes it much easier for me to get to where I want to be with a shot, but that it would be too easy to rely on its effects to cover up a poor image, or to seriously overdo them and move towards the ‘gimmicky’. I have a certain fear that I’m going to get carried away with it, like I did (and many other beginner photographers do) with the Hue/Saturation slider when I first discovered it, leading to images that will make me wince and wonder what on earth I was thinking when I look back on them in the future. On the other hand, it does encourage me to play, in ways that I never would otherwise, and that surely can’t be a bad thing. And if we never make any mistakes, we cease to grow and learn.