But They’re Still Photos

by ralph

I was just thinking about those photo situations that are almost perfect but still have an annoying flaw. Nowadays we all think of Photoshop as one way out. Of course the result is a digital image – which some purists still stick their noses up at. Sure it’s possible to do zany and creative things with the image when you’re in your favorite image editing software. Sometimes that’s the way you want to go. In so many cases however, all we want is a cleaned up subject without its problems. There is a very legitimate need to simply bring those subjects to the state you wish they had been in when you took the picture.

In 1999 I made an extensive trip to shoot a large number of stock photos. Most were 35mm slides though there were a few 120 size and 4”x5” images. When I started out I had growing concerns about the impact that digital imaging was having on the field of Stock Photography. Since thousands of images might be generated on a big trip it would be financially ruinous to try to improve them all in fussy little ways like cleaning up street litter and I hoped that it still wasn’t considered necessary. When I started shooting, these questions receded into my subconscious and by the end of the trip the handling of specific image problems became clear.

It turned out that most of the slides were quite acceptable without further improvement, but there was a definite handful (about a dozen plus) that cried out for the helpful hand of Adobe to make sure they weren’t “the ones that got away”. Interestingly they all had different flaws and I was more or less aware, when I shot them, that they were destined to be improved in the computer. Some were obviously valuable enough to be worth the cost while others were just technical challenges that I thought I should master.

Two quite valuable ones shared a common problem. The increasing use of mesh fencing at most viewpoints meant that I couldn’t avoid getting a corner obscured (shooting through the fence) in skyline shots of both Dallas and Atlanta. They were scanned, brought into Photoshop, and proper corner details were regenerated by cloning (just carrying street and building lines into the corner).

Two others shared a quite different problem. I found excellent viewpoints for pictures of Austin, Texas and Huntsville, Ala. but heavy smog left the pictures dull and lifeless. Even the use of E100VS and a polarizing filter didn’t help a lot so, again I scanned each image and worked it over. This task was amazingly easy. Simply cranking up both the contrast and saturation in “image>adjust” did most of the job. Since smog kills more contrast in the shadows than the highlights, the final touch to the image was to use “curves” to move the contrast from the highlights back into the shadows. Well, of course, the increased contrast did exaggerate the grain a bit. Since it showed mostly in the sky, I selected the sky and gave it a bit of guassian blur to smooth it out. By the way, using the “contrast” control is a rather blunt instrument so it’s generally better to use Image>Adjust>levels to carefully trim away unwanted gray in the highlights and shadows.

Another case was classic. In a much needed view of Charlotte, NC there was a big set of utility wires in the sky and no angle could be found to avoid them. A few minutes of cloning in P’shop eliminated that eyesore. (Okay, I did pick up a little bit of the litter on the highway while I was at it).

A couple cases of manipulation were unintended at first, but were the happy result of shooting wide exposure brackets on a tripod. This meant the images could be registered. In an interior view of the capitol of South Carolina I hoped that the right exposure could hold detail in both the bright interior of the dome and the darkish bottom of the frame. No one exposure did the trick but the desired tonality was present in the darkest and lightest slides. The scanned images w
e put on layers in Photoshop and the dark densities of the darker slide (placed on top) were carefully swept away with a soft “eraser” brush at low opacity. That combined the rich toned highlights of the dark slide with the open shadows of the light one. The visually appealing image was then “flattened”.

Then there was that cowboy in Fort Worth. He was just ambling up and down the most picturesque street on his horse and I tried to get a shot of him with the saloon in the background. I had to wait for the brief moment when the beer delivery trucks were gone, but still I had a white Toyota sticking into the picture and anyway, it was backlit and underexposed. In pre – digital days it would have made a short trip to the “round file”. Still it was appealing so I gave it multiple treatments. First, in image>adjust>curves I lightened the dark areas, all the while holding the delicate tan of the cowboy’s shirt. Then heavy cloning was used to replace the white car with details from the building and street (and also to reconstruct a bit of the horses tail). Some cloning was also needed to wipe out reflections of traffic in various windows. I almost forgot to mention that the horses tail was almost out of the edge of the image so I remounted the slide in a full frame plastic mount (made by the Wess Co.), prior to scanning, to save the edge of the picture.

What to do with the beautifully improved images? If you need prints and have a large enough printer you have no problem. If you don’t have the printer you can take the image file, on a Zip disc or CD, to many photo labs and they can print directly from it. Check first since some adjusting of your color or density and file type (usually TIFF is preferred) may be needed. If like me, you want a slide, then you have to send the file to a lab that “writes” the image to film and can regenerate a slide for you. This is not cheap but an order of several slides can usually bring the unit price below $5.

Happy hunting for pictures – and now we have another way of producing the perfect slide.