more on color efex pro

Impression, early summer, New Forest

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.

Before and after diptych

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).

ICM, New Forest, Indian Summer Color Efex filter

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.

Little tree in sunlight, New Forest

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.

Little tree diptychYes, I could have done it myself in Elements/Photoshop, but I didn’t.  And the one-click nature of Color Efex made it very easy for me to see what was needed and what did and didn’t work.

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.

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52 trees – week forty-three

London Eye, with trees

In the end, there wasn’t much opportunity for photography while I was in London.  Most of my time was taken up with meeting friends and a fair bit of eating and drinking, none of which I’m complaining about at all.  I did intend to use my first day there – which I had on my own – to do some photography, but on pulling my camera out of my bag once I got there, I saw that it was switched on and the battery was completely flat.  Somehow the switch must have moved as I packed it, and the battery had been draining ever since.  No matter – I went to see the Georgia O’Keefe exhibition at the Tate Modern instead, and had a wonderful time there.

However, the next day the friend I was meeting was held up for a while, and so I got an hour or so to take some pictures. There’s nowhere like London for visual stimulation and I’d really have liked to be without time pressure – having to keep checking my watch stopped me from switching off and wasn’t ideal for encouraging those creative moments. I tend to fall back on the obvious shots in this kind of situation, and there can’t be anything more obvious to photograph in that area than the London Eye. There are so many pictures of it around that it’s difficult to think of a different way of shooting it but I found a couple of less obvious shots, one of which didn’t involve trees, and this one that did.

It was still early in the morning and there was a slight, and very welcome coolness in the air as I wandered along the South Bank.  It was one of those perfect summer mornings that you wish could last the whole day, without the relentless heat and humidity that inevitably develops by lunchtime. In the words of ee cummings there was ‘a true, blue, dream of a sky’ and looking up to the sky through the trees I caught this glimpse of the Eye framed by the branches. For me, it epitomised a summer day in the city.

 

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52 trees – week forty-two

Tree shadow on road

I’m not ‘here’ this week, so have pre-posted this week’s tree.  My trip to Canterbury fell through in the end because of accommodation problems, but I decided instead to join Geoff down in Surrey for a few days.  He’s working, but I’ll see him in the evenings and I’ll travel into London most days to meet up with friends, see an exhibition or two, and hopefully do some photography.  I’ve left one of my trusted Airbnb guests in charge of the pets and the house, in exchange for free accommodation for the week, so a win-win situation all round.

Continuing the tree shadow theme, this magnificent shadow covered the whole road and I had to keep one eye on the viewfinder and one on the approaching traffic to avoid joining it and marring its lovely perfection.  I find I’m quite drawn to the intersection between the natural and the man-made, so this satisfies that inclination quite nicely.

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52 trees – week forty-one

 Tree shadow on wood

I have to admit I’m getting a bit tired of this project and finding it harder and harder to come up with the goods.  Feeling a little desperate, I went out for my usual walk today not expecting to see anything other than the kinds of thing I’ve done so many times before  But then I spotted this tree shadow, projected onto a wooden fence and I knew this was the one.  I love the way that the wood grain shows through the projected shadow, the whole thing combining both the outside and the inside of the tree at once.

Incidentally, I spent some time the other day putting together a gallery of all the tree pictures to date.  You can find it here if you want to see them all in one place..

 

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52 trees – week forty

New Forest, intentional camera movement

I’ve just upgraded to Photoshop Elements 14, and at the same time have installed a suite of plug-ins called Nik Efex I’ve wanted these for quite a while, but till fairly recently you had to buy the whole suite of seven plug-ins even if you only wanted one of them, and the price wasn’t low.  However, Google are now offering the whole Nik Efex suite completely free, so I jumped at the chance to get it.

Some of the plug-ins cover specific things like sharpening or HDR, but the two that interest me most are Silver Efex Pro and Color Efex Pro – the first does black and white conversions, and the second enables you to play with various different effects on your colour images.  The choice is quite bewildering – almost off-putting – but there are loads that I’d be unlikely to use and you can narrow down the choices and place the ones you like in a Favorites folder so that you don’t have to trawl through the entire list every time to find the ones you want.

Around the same time that I downloaded these, I subscribed to KelbyOne, Scott Kelby’s training site for photography and software.  There was a series of lessons on how to use Nik Efex that proved worth the subscription money all by itself and helped me a lot in learning how best to use the plug-ins.  What I discovered is that you can remove the effect from parts of the images, intensify or reduce the effect, stack several different effects together, and generally fully customise how they’re applied.

Something in me objects to the idea of simply clicking on a thumbnail and having a ready-made effect applied – it feels like cheating, somehow, and too ‘Instagram’ in style – so gaining back this kind of control makes me feel that the final result is of my own making rather than something someone else has come up with.  I can see there’s huge potential here to achieve the kind of results I’ve always wanted, but I can also see it’s going to take some time to familiarise myself with the software.

The image above is one of my New Forest, intentional camera movement shots, and I’ve applied two effects to it.  One is Neutral Color Balance, which shifted the colour balance in a slightly brighter, fresher, direction, and the other is Color Contrast, which helped intensify and bring out the individual colours, particularly the pink in the foreground.  Although I liked this overall, I took the effect off the more dominant tree trunks to bring the contrast down a bit there.  The change is quite subtle, but definite – underneath I’ve shown the before (top) and after (bottom).  You can see how the software has ‘cleaned up’ the colours quite nicely, giving the image a fresher and more summery look.

You can make much more dramatic conversions than this, and I’m playing with that at the moment, but there’s a danger of it becoming clumsy and too over-the-top, so I’m taking it slowly.  It’s nothing that couldn’t be done in Photoshop, of course, but first off you’d have to know how to achieve what you want – which I often don’t – and even if you do this is a much easier way of achieving it.

Color Efex comparison diptych

 

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52 trees – week thirty-nine

Circular ripples with tree reflection

I’m struggling with the tree project at the moment, hence the lack of a post last week.  I feel as if I’m stuck, and not coming up with anything new and I’m not sure how I’m going to break free from that.  I’ve got lots of shots I could use, but nothing with which I feel particularly happy and I don’t like posting something that ‘will do’ – I want to feel pleased with it.  On the other hand, if I don’t post something this week I’ll lose my momentum and probably end up not coming back to it at all and I don’t want that to happen either.

I guess we all suffer from creative block at times, and we just have to persevere, keep pressing the shutter, and wait for inspiration to come back – it always does, eventually. I’m planning a little trip to Canterbury (where I lived for many years) in the near future and I think that might just spark off some new Ideas.  At the very least, it will give me some welcome new subject matter.

This is my favourite shot of the week, although there are aspects of it I’m not happy with.  I think the empty area at the right makes it feel slightly unbalanced, and I think there was probably a better composition to be had.  I’d also like to be using more colour in my shots, but the weather just hasn’t been conducive to this.  This is actually a colour shot, even though it looks black and white – it was taken on one of the grey, overcast days we seem to be having so many of at the moment.  But I do like the circular ripple, and the contrast it makes with the softer reflection of the tree foliage.

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52 trees – week thirty-eight

Another shot from Sconce and Devon park.  Obviously, it’s a reflection, but I’ve turned it topsy-turvy to give it a slightly disconcerting, slightly surreal, feel.  I never can resist a good reflection and I never get tired of them – I doubt I ever will.

This set me wondering why so many of us like water reflections so much.  I did a bit of Googling, with the first result being an academic paper which came to the conclusion that people like reflections in water better than they do in glass, and they like reflective water better than they do clear water, and so it’s probably a good idea to incorporate ponds into garden design.  That really didn’t help much.

Maybe I wasn’t using the best search terms, but I couldn’t find anything much on this topic at all.  There was quite a lot on mirrors and their symbolism, and lots of stuff on the symbolism of water, but nothing on the psychology of why we’re drawn to reflections in water.  Even John Suler’s online book Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche, which is my go-to place for this sort of thing, had very little to say on the subject.  However, he did point out that reflections in water span the boundaries between what our brain recognises as real or unreal – perhaps there’s some kind of attraction in that liminal space: a dreaminess, an other-worldliness.  It seems strange to me that so little is known about something so widespread.

 

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Embracing the shake

Just after I posted about using limitations to enhance creativity, I came across this TED talk from Phil Hansen, called ‘Embrace the Shake’.  He thought his art career was over when he developed a tremor in his hands, but it turned out to be the start of something much bigger and better – but only once he’d accepted and embraced his limitations.  It’s well worth ten minutes of your time.

 

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52 trees – week thirty-seven

River Devon reflection, Newark

Over the other side of Newark, there’s a park called the Sconce and Devon Park.  Its main feature is the Queen’s Sconce, a large and impressive earthwork defence used during the Civil War, but off to the side there’s a riverside trail with natural meadows.  The river is called the Devon – pronounced Dee-von – and in spite of the distant but obvious sound of traffic on the A46, it’s quite idyllic down there. I went there on one of the few warm and sunny days we’ve had this year, and this scene reminded me of Monet-style waterlilies, with its soft tones and mixture of sharp and soft.

 

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creative manifesto – restrict choices

Reflected spire, Church of St Mary Magdalen, Newark onTrent

As time goes on I’m building myself a kind of creative manifesto: a set of fundamental principles that work to enhance my creativity.  I think these principles are helpful to everyone, not just to me, and the idea came to me to bring them together in this space and explore them one by one.  The first in this series was about cultivating boredom.

There’s a certain overlap between ‘restrict choices’ and ‘cultivate boredom’, but enough significant differences to make it a separate item.  We’re inclined to think that it’s great to have lots of choices, and it does feel good, but in fact it works against our creativity.  Too much choice can freeze us like a rabbit in the headlights, or perhaps more accurately, like Buridan’s Ass.  Buridan’s Ass was hungry and was placed midway between two bales of hay, each of them equally tempting.  He couldn’t decide which one to go for, as there was no obvious better choice, so he stood there in indecision until he eventually starved to death.  I can relate to this.

Choice, in photography and other parts of life, is reasonably easy when one choice stands out as being better than the others.  However, when faced with a number of choices that are equally appealing, it’s so much harder to decide and you can easily end up doing nothing, or trying to do it all.  Which location should you visit, which lens should you use, which camera body should you take, which filters, which bag should you put it all into?  Setting restrictions – ie, reducing choices – can eliminate a lot of the decision-making and release our creative spirit.

Not sure?  How about this quote from Stephen Sondheim:

‘If you told me to write a love song tonight, I’d have a lot of trouble. But if you tell me to write a love song about a girl with a red dress who goes into a bar and is on her fifth martini and is falling off her chair, that’s a lot easier, and it makes me free to say anything I want.’ (Stephen Sondheim)

Paradoxically, less choice can actually make you more free.  It gives you a starting place, a foundation on which to build, and then sets you free to do whatever you like with that.  If I said to you ‘go and make a great photograph of anything you like’, you’d probably feel confused and lost.  If I said ‘use a 50mm lens to take a great black and white photo of a tree’ you’d be far more likely to come up with the goods.  And because these restrictions would be quite limiting, you’d end up looking for ways in which you could make it more interesting, and thereby get a lot more creative.

Red reflection in puddle

I’ve been lucky enough – and I do use that word deliberately – to have had a lot of restrictions enforced on me.  Chronic financial problems have meant that for the past eight years I’ve had one camera body and one zoom lens, plus a Lensbaby.  I haven’t had the money to travel to exotic places, or even anywhere different, and so I’ve mostly been restricted to what’s on my doorstep.  I may have felt intensely frustrated by this at times, but I’ve come to realise that it’s worked in my favour. It’s forced me to really look at my surroundings and see them differently, and to use what equipment I have to its full capacity, and that’s been a real gift.

Many wonderful images and some new techniques have arisen out of limitations.  Ernst Haas is known for being a forerunner in the area of intentional camera movement – see some of his ICM work here – but this happened because of the limitations of colour photography at that time.  It was impossible to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action, so instead of railing against this, or giving up on the idea, he went with it and explored the possibilities.  The resulting pictures were radically different and original for their time.

Civil War figure, outside library, Newark on Trent

Andre Kertesz, another hero of mine, was confined most of the time by age and infirmity to his New York flat.  His wife had died and he was heartbroken, lonely, and had given up photography.  One day he bought a little glass bust that reminded him of his wife, and that coincided with the gift of a Polaroid camera from a friend.  He began to photograph the bust on the window-ledge of his room and this ultimately led to a collection of small and very beautiful gem-like images which were later collected into the book Andre Kertesz: The Polaroids.  Although he later introduced other elements into these images, he started with only three things: a Polaroid camera, a glass bust, and a window-ledge.  And just to remind us of the therapeutic power of photography, this is what he had to say about it:

‘I began shooting slowly, slowly, slowly.  But soon, going crazy.  I worked mornings and late afternoons.  With the morning light, the sky is nice, and in the later afternoon full of variations.  I would come out in the morning and begin shooting, shooting, shooting; no time to eat.  I discover the time has gone, and no breakfast.  The same in the afternoon….I forget my medicine.  Suddenly I’m losing myself, losing pain, losing hunger, and yes, losing the sadness.’

Kertesz continued to photograph until his death, six years later, leaving behind this one last powerful body of work, which I was lucky enough to see in person at the Royal Academy a few years ago.

Many years ago I read an article about photographers with physical disabilities, including one who had Parkinson’s and valiantly struggled to hold his camera still enough to get a sharp shot.  The article was very touching, but I wondered at the time why he didn’t exploit the shakiness, which would have resulted in something original, instead of fighting it so that he could produce the same sort of thing as everybody else.  Some limitations are thrust on us, and some we choose.  Either way, it can be a very positive thing.

Accepting and working with limitations that you haven’t chosen yourself is very much in the ethos of contemplative photography.  Accept them, open yourself to the possibilities, and wait for them to give you their gift – there will be one.  Imposing limitations deliberately is a more calculated approach, but equally effective and perhaps a bit easier on the acceptance front – if it doesn’t work out for you you can always try something else and, whatever else, the experience will be valuable.

Rainy car window with tree

Exercises

External limitations

  • Exploit your natural limitations – where do you see yourself as lacking in your photographic practice?  Is there some way in which you can work with this and make something of it?  Personally I’m not good at sharpness, so I’ve gone down the route of softness and blur – something I tend to prefer, anyway.  On the other hand, I have a photographer friend whom I’ve always envied because her images are so beautifully sharp and clear, only to find out that she felt unable to produce the kind of blurry stuff that comes easily to me.  I’m also hopeless at getting horizons straight – no matter how hard I try it rarely works out – so I often leave them out and concentrate on more intimate shots.
  • Exploit your lack of gear – only got one lens?  or an ancient camera?  Push it to its limits and find out what you can do with it.  There’s a reason why many people love Holgas and other ‘toy’ cameras – they’re among the worst and most technically limited cameras you can buy but they can also be the most fun and the most creative.
  • Exploit your neighbourhood – if you’re stuck where you are, look at where you live as if you’re a visitor to the area.  How does that change the way you see it?  For inspiration, read Alexandra Horowitz’ book, On Seeing, in which she takes a look at her own neighbourhood through the eyes of some very different people and begins to see things she never saw before.  A simple exercise is to try various physical perspectives – what does it look like from a very low, or a high, viewpoint?  How does it look driving through it?  Or cycling?  How would it look to a dog, a Martian, a baby in a pram, someone from another continent?  What would they notice that you don’t?
  • Work with the weather and light – instead of waiting for what’s normally regarded as good light, work with whatever light you have and whatever weather happens.  Rain, and grey flat light? – go out anyway and see what rain does to colours and surfaces.  Harsh bright sunlight? – look at shadows, intentional lens flare, sparkles and bokeh.  Wind? – try to capture the movement.  The key is to accept whatever weather or light you’re presented with, and figure out how you can work with it.

Self-imposed limitations

  • Explore one subject or theme – this is my favourite sort of restriction.  It’s too easy to get a great shot of something and then pass onto the next thing.  Sticking with one theme forces you to explore, to stretch yourself, and to produce more creative work.  It has to be something that interests you enough to keep you persevering, and it has to offer a lot of different options and ways of interpreting it.  My 52 Trees project is one example of this.
  • Restrict your equipment – choose just one lens and keep it on your camera for a month.  What happens when you have to take all your shots with it?  If you have a zoom lens, pick a focal length and tape the lens so that it can’t be moved from that, and take every shot with that focal length.  Rather than adapt the camera/lens to what you want to do, adapt yourself to what it’s able to do at that focal length.  You could also choose just one camera – perhaps something you wouldn’t normally use, like a point-and-shoot compact, or a phone camera, and see what you can do with that.  Something else that works for some people is to restrict the number of shots they can take – inserting a small memory card with limited space on it might make you think harder about what you choose to shoot, and work more slowly.  I have to admit this one doesn’t work for me – I end up taking nothing at all because I’m so anxious about using up my limited space – but it might be different for you.
  • Stick to one area – it’s up to you how big or small you make it, but the biggest rewards often come from the biggest restrictions.  You could choose a park, a small area of countryside, a river, the street your home is on, your garden, a city block, a building, a bridge, or anything else that takes your fancy.  Having just come up with it, I rather like the idea of a bridge – so many possibilities, like the bridge itself, whatever runs underneath, the people and vehicles that use it, how it appears at different times of day, and so on.  Another idea is to photograph out of one window – I’ve done this many times and found it surprisingly rewarding. If you really want to stretch yourself with a limited location, Freeman Patterson uses an exercise where he gets his workshop participants to throw a hoop at random, then photograph only what can be found within the hoop.

The images in this post were taken either while it was raining or shortly afterwards, in a small area in and around the market square in Newark.

Other Resources

The Psychology of Limitations: how and why constraints can make you more creative – a great article with lots of examples in different fields of where limitations created greater creativity

Does Creativity Require Constraints? – a more scholarly article on the same theme

How to Harness the Power of Limitation Creativity in Your Photography

Limits and Creativity

The Paradox of Choice: why more is less – book by Barry Schwarz on why we’re less creative and less effective the more choices we have.

Andre Kertesz and The Polaroids – my own article about Kertesz.

How to increase your creativity in 9 easy steps – a more general article that goes beyond the idea of imposing creative limitations.