​Adobe: Gone.

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UPDATE: Right. So as John helpfully points out in the comments, this is still May. Not June. May. Boy...this probably has to do with the fact that my brain is focused on nothing but June these days. So Adobe did in fact give me a month's notice and my indignation is..err...less than rightful? But: it doesn't change the fact that I was first told point blank I couldn't cancel my membership. And it actually makes it even stranger, given I was well within the window to do so. Mea Culpa...but I'm still fine with the decision.

...

I’ve made no secret of my distaste for Adobe. Lightroom served me quite well for several years (following Aperture’s demise) but the company itself...I was never a fan. So after a few fits and starts, I finally moved to Capture One and had every intention of canceling my Photography Plan, once its time was up. Then of course I got this one job where I turned to Lightroom—because it was there. And I thought oh well...may as well keep this around just in case...it’s a business expense yada yada yada.

Long story short: my renewal was due this morning, June 18th, and I’d decided to basically stay put. Until I received an email—this morning, June 18th—informing me that my “...annual membership will renew automatically on 18-June-2018 (PT). The terms are outlined below...”. Oh and it included a price hike as well. With every other service I subscribe to (and there are many), a renewal notice will come days or even weeks ahead of a deadline, as a courtesy. As a way of saying hey, we hope you’ll stick around but here’s a heads up before we take your money, in case you’ve changed your mind . Not so here. At the very least Adobe could’ve respected my intelligence and sent an email informing me that my membership had ALREADY been renewed. Which was...you know...the actual reality. I read the message and I thought: ok...enough.

 

...

So I log into my account, go to my Plans, click on Manage Plans (as it says on their help page), look for the Cancel button (as it says on their help page)...but it isn’t there. I’m on my iPad so I figure it might be an issue with mobile, so off I go to my Mac—same deal. Then I notice my CC info isn’t up to date (I switched cards recently) so I update the info just in case...and I get a thank you for your payment! message. Great. Time to chat with support. Here’s how it goes:

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Did you get that last paragraph? I’ve hidden the agent’s name because this is clearly company policy at work and I don’t fault her/him at all. But needless to say I’m a little taken aback at this point. Here’s the rest of our exchange:

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Offering discounts when a customer wants to walk away probably dates back to Babylonian times. Every company/seller does it. Perfectly fine. But telling me I CANNOT cancel? Telling me I HAVE to buy their product when I don’t want it? Obviously the company didn’t have a leg to stand on and the agent knew this. But the tactic says a lot about Adobe and how much they care about their customers. It’s called bullying and you know what? There’s enough of that going around these days.

Good. Riddance.
Now Phase One: can you just bite the bullet and support my GFX already? Pretty please?

...

Happier news: we’re heading into a long weekend in Canada—sort of the official kickoff to “summer”. Héloïse has 3 ballet recitals lined up so we’ll be busy. And if you’re looking for inspiration/reading: our new KAGE issue is out.

Have a great one all :)

​The Process: Toning for Mood

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Colour is tough. When processing black and white images, contrast and density make up the bulk of our vocabulary; with colour the dictionary explodes. And where a monochrome process will automatically unify a series of photographs without much effort, colour can easily make an awful mess of things. Over saturation, unnatural tones, unwanted colour casts...all these elements—unless intentional and part of the narrative—can diminish the strength of what we’re attempting to communicate.

I tend to believe in a less is more approach but this doesn’t mean we can’t experiment and push boundaries: as always, we just need to build on what already exists in the photograph. Extending as opposed to imposing. Simply put, it’s always about making sense. With this in mind, let’s take a look at colour not as the main focus but as a “mood enhancer”.

We feel colour before we see it. It’s a physical response based on how we decode, based on our environment and the spectrum of the world around us—night and day, summer and winter, hot and cold. Movie posters use this extensively to very quickly communicate a film’s “personality”: if it’s blue/green and slightly desaturated, chances are we won’t be expecting a romantic comedy. At the subconscious level we know what certain colours represent, regardless of cultural differences.

Cornucopia: Curves, Levels, Wheels and Split Toning

Boy that’s a lot of options. When it comes to manipulating colour, there’s no dearth of tools at our disposal these days. And although each requires its own approach, they‘re all based on the same concept: targeting a colour channel along an exposure axis, from shadows to highlights. So let’s first look at the most common and visual one of all: the humble RGB curve. In Adobe parlance this would be the Tone Curve but set to RGB mode, not the default sliders. The great thing about this tool is its ubiquity: most apps offer a version in one shape or another. Which means all of the following tips can be applied regardless of the software we’re using—it’s the fishing rod as opposed to the free bucket of fish. Here’s how it looks in three well-known desktop apps (Lightroom, Capture One and Luminar 2018):

And mobile apps (Snapseed and Adobe Lightroom CC Classic Mobile):

In each case the principle is the same: the top of the curve represents the highlights, the bottom represents the shadows. Points can be added anywhere along the line to manipulate all values in-between by raising or lowering each point. In full RGB mode this will affect contrast because we’re processing all colour channels at once—I’ve previously written about this here if you’re interested. But if we switch to an individual channel—red for instance—then any control point will now affect the amount of this very specific colour...in the shadows, highlights or everything in-between. The curve still represents the same thing but we’re manipulating colour instead of contrast/exposure. Let’s look at example to make this a bit clearer. In the following image I’ve selected the blue channel but there’s no curve applied yet.

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Now, let’s say we wish to affect only the deep shadows in the image. To accomplish this we add two points to our blue channel curve. Why two? Because with the top and bottom points this gives us an equal distribution across the curve. Think of each point as a lock in this case: we’re making sure our curve will remain linear everywhere except in those shadows we’re targeting.

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Right, so let’s raise the lower point and see what happens.

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By raising the blue channel in the lowest portion of the curve, we’ve added a blue tint to the shadows of the image.

Now, from this point on anything is possible: the same principle can be applied to any colour channel and any point on the curve.

If we look at levels in C1 for instance (no such thing in LR), the concept is similar but instead of an infinite number of possible control points we get three main controls across the histogram: shadows, midtones and highlights.

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The difficulty with curves or levels however, is that affecting only a single channel at a time (red, blue or green)—while precise—can sometimes make it awfully hard to achieve a specific overall tone: lower the red and blue gets punched up, raise green and you now have magenta...it’s a whack-a-mole three-way balancing act, with each value immediately impacting the others. It’s often more complex than what we really need. In most cases, I turn to Colour Balance (C1) or Split Toning (LR).

Subtleties

I wrote about colour wheels way back in the Aperture days so switching to Capture One and its Colour Balance tool really felt like coming home. The big difference with wheels, compared to the tools we just discussed, lies in how colour is affected: as a whole as opposed to per channel. So for instance, pushing midtones towards green doesn’t push the green channel—it actually makes midtones green. Period. The mathematics are different. It’s more like applying a tint. Capture One offers three wheels: All, Shadows, Midtones and Highlights. I use this tool enough that I’ve created a tab in my workspace where I can see each individual wheel at a glance.

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With colour wheels we can very quickly add or subtract warmth, tint the shadows or highlights, all individually. Capture One also provides individual sliders for saturation and brightness making it very easy to pinpoint the intended effect. It’s extremely powerful.

Lightroom doesn’t offer anything close. But Split Toning—a tool usually reserved for emulating tinting processes in monochrome—can provide surprising results when looking to simply tweak the mood of a colour image. Try experimenting with very subtle values using the shadow slider (tinted highlights tend to be less natural and more obvious to the eye).

Shaping colour this way, altering or skewing the tones, can be a very effective way of creating visual continuity across a series of pictures. The following essay from May 2017 is a good example of this: tinting was used to intensify the feeling of heat and warmth that was already present in the images but not as obvious out of camera.

 Two versions: processed and unprocessed (note: I used my Soft Classic Chrome in-camera preset + warm white balance as a starting point). 

Two versions: processed and unprocessed (note: I used my Soft Classic Chrome in-camera preset + warm white balance as a starting point). 

 The colour balance settings.

The colour balance settings.

In my March 2018 KAGE essay the approach is similar but the effect is diametrically opposed: less saturation and much colder tones result in a very different mood. Yes, I know lighting and subject are part of it as well...don’t get smart with me guys. You understand the point I’m trying to make here ;)

 Again, colour balance settings. Really subtle but still visible.

Again, colour balance settings. Really subtle but still visible.

Conclusion

I love the power and intensity of black and white images. I love how immuable they are, how timeless. Colour photography will always be a challenge because it moves with the times in a way monochrome never will; probably because the latter is not actually part of our reality—our only frame of reference for monochromatic images is photography itself. As I said, colour is tough. But beyond purely naturalistic renditions, the prize is a second, third and fourth layer to play with.

The trick is in finding the right mix...and convey the proper message.

P.S If you’re interested in continuing the analysis, I touched on several of these points (using a “real-world” situation) in the following post: All the Green We Wanted | A technical Follow-Up

Forward | No Sadness.

I’ve cried wolf before, I know. Except this time it’s really over: I’ve left Lightroom for Capture One.

To be fair I went through the same on again/off again period before switching from Aperture to Lightroom, so it’s pretty much par for the course. The truth is, these moves are incredibly hard in terms of logistics, the amount of time involved etc. You need a strategy that makes sense, you need to figure out the best workflow for the new setup, get a handle on the software...it’s just a huge undertaking.

I already had a foot in the door thanks to the master catalog solution I wrote about last year, so all I needed was a final nudge...and Adobe obliged with Lightroom CC Classic.

Are you f#&@ kidding me???

I’m ok with subscriptions. I don’t love them and it does force me to take a long hard look at any piece of software that chooses this route...but I’m not opposed to the basic principle of it. When Ulysses announced their switch to a subscription model, I experienced about four seconds of doubt before hitting purchase—even though I was given a loyalty grace period. That’s because Ulysses is an app that 1) delights me on a daily basis and 2) makes my work so much easier that it unquestionably pays for itself. And as far as I’m concerned they’ve already fulfilled their promise of ongoing development with a couple of absolutely stellar updates in a short amount of time. Seriously, the last update for iOS 11 is a game changer for me. When Adobe introduced CC they also touted how the change would allow this non-stop flurry of continuous improvements. We would win. So much winning. I bought into it, eventually.
What a load of BS.

Instead of innovation that matters, we got zilch, missteps and bugs. Now, adding insult to injury, we have Lightroom CC. No, not that Lightroom CC, a brand NEW one. Ooohhh...it has machine learning...but no curves. Who needs curves right? Photographers? Pfff. And then we have Lightroom CC Mobile...which a) used to just be known as Lightroom Mobile, b) is the exact same app as before and c) has none of the machine learning stuff. Adobe just likes labeling anything CC. Lightroom CC is now of course Lightroom CC Classic—because that makes total sense and because classic is such a historically great moniker for ANY product: right off the bat it inspires confidence and positively screams FUTURE!

Seriously, what crazy intern was promoted to head of marketing on this one?

And to top it all off, Lightroom CC (the new one, not the old one) sends all our files to Adobe servers. Not a culled selection mind you but all of ‘em, no opting out. Storage space you say? Bah...don’t you worry your purty little head now darlin’. We’ll make you a deal. Don’t sweat it....it’s all goooood.

Right. I know this is all old news by now—but for me it was the final straw. I was in a blur of magazine editing, finalizing a conference on the side but I looked up from the fog that morning and thought: nope. I never liked Adobe and now I absolutely do not trust them one. single. bit. The fact that Lightroom Classic actually IS way faster...well, that’s almost an insult in my book. Because they could’ve done it before but didn’t. Because they’d much rather figure out a way to eek out more money from users. Because who the hell calls a supposedly active product Classic??? Call it Desktop for god’s sake. Ceding the official app name to a glorified version of Photos is telling. I don’t care how they spin it.

Whatever.

The technology landscape is thriving. We’re seeing small companies blowing away what huge behemoths barely manage to accomplish—Affinity Photo on iOS (I haven’t tried the Mac version) puts Adobe to shame. I’m waiting with bated breath for the upcoming Pixelmator Pro—its UI alone makes Photoshop look like a Model T (and if features work as advertised...wow). All These new companies are leveraging built-in APIs Adobe doesn’t even appear to be aware of—and it shows. Luminar 2018...OnOne Photo Raw...the barbarians are at the gates and it’s exciting.

What now?

I’ve exported all my edited images and moved all work to C1. I was already comfortable with the app but I watched a bunch of webinars, learned some new tricks, took some notes and revisited my entire environment to fine-tune any outstanding issues. I’ll be purchasing Pixelmator Pro when it’s released on November 29 to replace Photoshop (I’ve done it before and actually miss it); if I’m not satisfied Affinity is another option. Because that’s the takeaway: we have options.

Will these moves simplify my workflow? Not really. It’s actually making everything slightly more complex—GFX files alone require a measure of voodoo magic for C1. The truth is I could keep on using Lightroom without a hitch...I just don’t want to anymore. Simple as that.

Five years ago I wrote an official “I’m leaving Aperture for Lightroom” post entitled Forward | Sadness. Excitement. Moving On. Today I do it again.
Minus the sadness.

All the green we wanted | a technical follow-up

This won’t be an extensive technical dissertation, but I thought I’d revisit the last essay I posted and look at the processing behind the images. Because this topic remains at the forefront of most questions I get. In this case, there were a couple of questions regarding the very prominent greens in the series—namely if they’d been altered through some sort of secret incantation.

The first point I need to reiterate is that nothing I post is SOOC (straight out of camera). Ever. Unless I’m trying to make a point about a certain simulation (which I’ve done on a few occasions) every single image I output has gone through some level of post-processing. Not because the cameras I use can’t produce satisfactory results—they can in fact be quite jaw-dropping, especially when settings are customized—but because I believe the processing portion of the workflow allows for three very important stages:

1. Personalization of tone—which leads to subtle shifts in the overall character of an image.

2. Localized adjustments—which alters or corrects the balance of various areas and how they’ll impact the viewer.

3. Distance from the moment.

This last one should actually be #1 because, in my book, it is by far the most important aspect of post-processing work: the ability to step back and see an image as a standalone object, on its own or within the context of a connected series. This is the moment of reflection where we give meaning to whatever impulse triggered an image’s capture—what Ansel Adams famously called the "performance" to the negative’s "score". But I’d go even further: with the tools at our disposal today, that initial photograph isn’t even a score anymore—hell, it’s not even a negative is it? Because a score implies a slow, painstaking amount of mostly abstract work, which was part of Adams’ reality but isn’t at all true for us in the digital age. Ours is a symbiotic relationship, part reactive and part deliberate but always a partnership with machines that have been highly perfected to assist us in every way. We’re guides now, much more than engineers, pushing our cameras in this or that way...and the speed at which it all happens would’ve made Ansel Adam’s head spin.

Today’s negative—the file—is much more of a jazz improvisation than a score. In most cases—even with photographic work that’s extremely cerebral and prepared—our tools bring us way beyond musical notation. We’re hearing the sounds and reacting in real time.

For me the file is the jam, the output is the album. What stands in between is mixing and mastering—which is all about the careful positioning of every element to make the whole stronger and more effective. Sometimes it’s just about EQ and reverb.

Exposure and its effect on colour

When we think about colour, about modifying it in some way, the reflex is to hit the Saturation or Vibrancy sliders or White Balance or...various dedicated colour tools. But colour reacts very dramatically to exposure and contrast. Namely, any S-curve applied to RGB channels (as opposed to Luminance which is also available in Capture One*) will immediately push saturation like crazy, usually forcing to compensate the other way. So my very first step with any image is to define exposure: meaning everything in Lightroom’s Basic panel. In the following before and after example, you can see the effect of this panel has already changed the overall look of the image.

The second step—the Tone Curve, which I’ve written about here—is a very personal choice that I apply, with variations, on all my images:

Only now—with global density and contrast adjusted—can colour be tweaked and refined as needed. I’ll often adjust Vibrancy as a less extreme way of pushing or pulling saturation. In this case, both colour sliders were mostly left untouched. You'll notice I've adjusted contrast using a combination of the Exposure and White sliders as opposed to the actual Contrast slider: that’s because Contrast affects both black and white points simultaneously, which is not always the best way to go. Lowering Exposure creates a certain gloom while pushing White acts almost as a brightness control that brings back some "air". It’s important to note that all of these choices are due to the very dull and gray light of that day—had it been sunny, the colour and tones in the files would’ve been vastly different, asking for another approach at the processing stage. Nothing is ever the same.

A couple more before and after shots...

Toning for uniformity

When working with series of images it’s important to keep in mind how each one flows in relation to the next. Visual uniformity helps create a sense of continuity that, in turn, affects a story’s narrative. Remaining aware of this is important as images are being processed but I always like to look at selects side by side before exporting final versions. I’ll often find small variations in tone and colour that merit fine-tuning. One of the not so obvious tools I use to do this (in Lightroom*) is the Split-Toning panel. Adding a tiny bit of tone to the shadows—more or less depending on each individual image—can be a surprisingly effective way to pull a series together. In this case, I used a small amount of warmth but: a global copy/paste won’t necessarily work. One image may need more green while another may lean to red or yellow. Uniformity doesn’t mean using the same settings on all images, it means using settings that push each one in the right direction.

All of these were shot with the GFX 50S...and they’re JPEG files. So all this processing has been accomplished not on RAFs but on in-camera JPEGs, shot with the Classic Chrome film simulation. Would raw files have allowed for more extensive manipulations? Of course. A JPEG is a limited object. But it also contains an initial personality we can quickly build on if we’ve exposed correctly (read: correct for a particular image*). And let me say this again in case someone is visiting for the first time: yes, I do shoot raw as well. But personal work is probably close to 98% JPEG with all Fuji cameras...processed similarly.

I hope this has been useful. Hit me in the comments or email if you have any questions.
Later

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1. Maybe in 2025 Adobe? Sheesh.

2. Anyone using Capture One will know its colour wheels, levels and curves run circles around Lightroom’s options. Yes, RGB curves exist in Lightroom and they do offer added possibilities which I’ll write about at some point. This still pales in contrast with the C1 tools. But apparently Adobe is running a survey because they’ve just noticed Lightroom has speed issues...good god. </snark.

3. There is no such thing as a good or bad histogram that applies to every situation. Burnt highlights or blocked shadows can be highly effective if that’s what an image needs. The camera always steers towards the middle...it’s our job to tell it where to go.

The Process: a film curve

No matter how advanced our cameras, no matter how high the resolution or how sharp the results, many of us still consider film images to possess a certain quality that's often missing from an out of camera digital picture. There's something "natural" about film that comes from a complex combination of elements and how they react together. Needless to say we could devote entire chapters on the subject but basically, it comes down to character: every film stock had a specific curve, grain and sensitivity that resulted in a baseline look and a very specific visual rendering.

If you're a Lightroom user, there are preset packages available that do a terrific job of replicating the classic looks of film with very little effort. VSCO Film is the most well-known and pretty much the standard out there. It's also the one I'm most familiar with, having been a beta tester on some of their offerings. But there are other products as well, each with their own takes on the same idea—Totally Rad's Replichrome for instance or RNI's film packages that are also highly praised. All interesting in their own right.

As great as these are however, presets should always be treated as starting points. Because every image is unique and requires different manipulations that will usually go beyond the one size fits-all approach. Understanding the fundamentals of image processing, what goes on behind the scenes of the film emulations, will only allow us to more fully control the final results, regardless of tools, and eventually perhaps create our own personal signature.

With Fujifilm X-series cameras, we've seen a rather successful attempt at bringing film character back through JPEG-based film simulations. But even when I'm shooting Classic Chrome or Acros, I still apply the same approach that I would with raw files—the difference being in the level and amount of adjustments that will be needed.

In my workflow, processing includes two main components:

  1. Tonality and density, which basically translates to shaping the visual character of the image through contrast, curves etc. This is done through general adjustments (meaning we're affecting the entire image).
  2. Assessing the various elements in the frame and intensifying their value. This will be done through localized adjustments (brush, graduated or radial filters).

A few eons ago I mentioned a film curve, a basic element I apply to all my images in one form or another, regardless of the software I'm using. I've probably received more emails about this than anything I've ever talked about on this blog—which I completely understand. The idea of some sort of goto setup for any image is obviously appealing. The truth however, is that there's really no miracle or super-secret weapon: this is essentially just a mild toning adjustment that I happen to apply to pretty much any image as a starting point. It's not the end-game, just one small part of the equation.

But here's the important takeaway: we can do this in any application that offers a Curves module. Which means it's an entirely portable workflow that doesn't rely on plugins or app-specific tricks. When I briefly flirted with Capture One Pro, I was able to quickly recreate most of my "looks" simply through the app's Curves module—at least their basic building blocks. Once that was done, it simply became a question of tweaking the new presets using COP's other built-in tools. All apps are different and usually require slightly different manipulations to achieve the same look. But it always begins with this simple curve. So here it is in all its mundane glory:

Yup, it's an S-curve. A bit anticlimactic isn't it? But that's all there is to it. There are four points by default and each one serves a specific purpose (from lowest to highest):

  1. Fade black point. This is often referred to as a matte look.
  2. Add shadow contrast.
  3. Add highlight contrast.
  4. Fade white point.

Points 1 and 4 are important because they're placing limits at each ends of the spectrum, compressing tonal values into a smaller space as we shift them up or down. Now, it may seem counterintuitive to trash ANY visual information in this age of ever expanding dynamic range. But in the end it's all about how an image looks—not how much data it displays. What a photographer decides at this point is entirely personal in my opinion. Here's an image I've quickly processed that incorporates this curve (plus some basic and local adjustments):

So what do I mean by compression? Let's look at an extreme example to make this a little clearer. First, that same image SOOC (straight out of camera):

If I push the exposure slider in Lightroom's Basic panel I get the following response (this is a JPEG btw but a raw file will eventually react more or less the same way):

The entire image is getting pushed towards a white point currently set at 100%. Now let's reset and do something similar with the Black slider, dropping it all the way down.

Same deal: image values are pushed towards 0%. Ok. Let's set that film curve again, but this time let's also compress black and white points (points 1 and 4) much further to see what happens. Here's the curve I'll be using:

Now if I push that same exposure slider, here's what happens:

Quite a difference right? That's because the highlights are no longer at 100% but somewhere around 74%. The curve we've set is restricting the tone range. If I reset exposure and drop the black slider:

Our black point is now around 15%, so the black is no longer black. Again, what the Tone Curve is doing is establishing limits for the Basic panel, which will now work solely within the values we've set. We've essentially created walls at each end of the spectrum and there's no way to go beyond. We can push like crazy but we can't jump over them. Obviously, we'll rarely use anything this extreme but hopefully this helps you understand how certain looks can be achieved. The image below is an example of this method incorporated in a personal preset I call BW-MANN (as a nod to Sally Mann). 

LAROQUE-curve-MANN-01.jpg

So that's it. This is the premise of what I call the film curve—just a slight compression that will then work in conjunction with tweaks in the Basic panel and everything that follows. No voodoo and no earth shattering revelation. But as simple as it looks, it can actually be quite powerful and I suggest you experiment with various images to get a feel for the way certain scenes will be affected. The great thing about our apps today is that nothing is ever destructive; so go crazy.

There's much more that can be done in the Tone Curve panel; this is really just the tip of the iceberg.
We'll examine more in future posts.


This post is part of The Process, an ongoing series on the craft and art of photography. Find more articles here.