​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

Gratuitous & Full Circle

Here we are, on the cusp of yet another Christmas Day—which also means the year is almost over as well. Captain Obvious here, offering invaluable insight to the masses since 2009...you’re quite welcome ;)

I want to say a quick thank you to all those who’ve already purchased the new 1EYE, ROAMING books—I’m very grateful and hope you’ll enjoy the journey. But beyond products: a huge thanks to all of you for being here, period. I’m well aware that this blog can veer into very personal territory at times, content that—while I try and inject knowledge here and there—isn’t necessarily educational. And admittedly, this year was a bit of a transition for me, moving away from difficult times in 2016 (on a personal level) and embracing new realities, new ways of working that impacted the time spent on the blog. I also went from a productivity-fueled Todoist workflow to an absolute repudiation of organization as a whole. Backlash. Now I’m back to a more balanced approach with Things; I might write about this in the New Year, we’ll see. Ideally, I’d like to come back to a more regular publishing schedule—but no, this is not a resolution. Resolutions are where goals go to die. It’s a psychological issue I’m sure.

I didn’t know how to end 2017, what note to strike on this last post. Then yesterday I started messing around in the studio and picked up my dusty old X100—the original one, no bloody S, T or F (I’m paraphrasing a Star Trek TNG reference here in case you’re not as geeky as I am). Anyway, this somehow made sense: shooting the little APS-C camera that started it all with its medium-format grandchild. It’s a bit like coming full circle if you think about it.

Alright, let’s go educational for a bit...if only to contradict what I just said. Here’s a shot of the setup:

That’s a Profoto A1 with Dome Diffuser on the C-stand, modelling light ON (just to check the shadows). The cable is a PC cord, dangling from a Godox X1T-F transmitter that’s currently acting as a manual trigger for the A1 (set to X-Sync). Obviously that’s plugged into the GFX 50S. The Deep Octa in the back isn't active and that's a white book leaning against a tape meter, to act as a bit of fill. Whatever works right?

I’m using the GF 120mm f/4 Macro R LM OIS WR lens (boy that’s a mouthful) with the camera set to 1/125s, f/4 at ISO 100. One last note: the image at the top was processed from a colour JPEG (Classic Chrome) to black and white in Capture One 11. But the ones below are straight out of camera. I don’t do this very often. A few shots in I switched to my Moriyama preset on the GFX—Acros with +3 shadows and +2 highlights—and that was it. When I opened the files in C1 they looked exactly the way I wanted them to. Sure, I could’ve tweaked a few details here and there...but I thought it would be fun (and certainly different for this site) to go straight from camera to blog. 

Is it superficial to end on tech and gear porn? Perhaps. But I’ve always believed there’s a poetry to these machines that’s part of our equation—part of the urge, the madness, this thrust to look and seize and possess the world. It all begins in glass and metal. In these objects that call us to action, through soft lines and whispers.

With this, I’m off for the holidays. Allow me to wish you and your families the very best. Have fun, be safe. Let’s refuel and get ready to rock the other side of this one.
2018 here we come.


Shot with the GFX 50S and GF 120mm f/4 Macro R LM OIS WR


Five & the Update Cornucopia

Man...We’re going to need an entire week just to get up to speed. I’ve rarely seen such an avalanche of releases back to back—new versions, new apps, firmware updates, the works. But before we take a look at all of it, I need to mention one little thing: KAGE is five years old.

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Hard to believe this project began in 2012 but here we are. We’ve seen ups and downs, lived through internal changes but what an adventure it’s been so far. I’m incredibly proud of every moment with current and past photographers. Our new issue is out today and I invite you to come hang out for a bit.

Right. On with the newness...

CAPTURE ONE 11

There’s a new version of Capture One every year. And every year the company raises the bar—with actually useful features. By that I mean stuff most of us will use on a daily basis. With recent releases, the contrast in philosophy between Lightroom and C1 has never been clearer: on one hand we have little more than a standstill, a trickle of improvements combined with, at best, a deeply confused message (don’t get me started again). On the other, an update that kicks serious $ss. I’ve gone all in with Capture One and I’m not turning back—not to Lightroom anyway. But the app’s speed was never it’s forte and it was one of those things I’d simply come to accept. Version 9 had promised improvements on this front, version 10 had renewed the claim…neither ever made much of a difference on my end. Capture One 11 however, changes everything. Browsing, editing, previewing and applying styles, switching views and workspaces, all operations are monumentally faster. Enough that it makes my iMac suddenly feel like a new machine. In Adobe land that would’ve been the big achievement—here it’s essentially a by-product of the upgrade.

There are tons of big and small improvements (a new colour engine for one), but the tent pole feature IMHO is an overhaul of local adjustments—which are now called layers. All editing tools can now be applied to layers, adding levels, colour balance and all the modes of the clarity and structure sliders. Not only that: styles can be applied to a layer AND all layers now include an opacity slider. Think about that for a second; yup, it’s huge. It means an entire set of adjustments can be throttled up or down in seconds. I definitely need to write a more in-depth look at this software.

If you’re already using Capture One check out the demo. I think it’s killer.

PIXELMATOR PRO

I moved away from Photoshop a few years ago—basically before I signed up for the CC photography plan. And when I did I chose Pixelmator as my replacement. Honestly, although it was much more powerful, moving back to Photoshop after that stint (had to justify the monthly expense) was painful. Not that the app couldn’t do the job—it obviously could—but the UI made me feel like I was going back 5 or 6 years in time.

The new Pixelmator Pro makes Photoshop look like Windows 98.

I wrote about this not so long ago but it still impresses me: what all these new, small companies have in common is a deep understanding of the API’s Apple has built into MacOS. They’re leveraging Metal 2 and machine learning and Coreeverything in ways that allow them to focus not only on features, but also on re-imagining how we interact with software. This is profoundly changing the landscape and the tools we now have at our disposal. Little guys can now hang with big guys. Take something like Adobe’s highly touted repair tools for instance (magic a few short years ago): initial repair tests with Pixelmator Pro were not only on par, in most cases they did a better job of it than Photoshop. That’s a serious leveraging of the playing field. Of course Photoshop is still a beast: if you’re working in CMYK or in need of any of its highly targeted tools, chances are this won’t work as a replacement. But in my case it does.

I’m not 100% sold on all the UI decisions in Pixelmator Pro but I have little doubt they’ve laid a foundation that holds a heck of a lot of promise.

FUJIFILM FIRMWARE UPDATES

These had been announced already so no surprise here. For most cameras we’re looking at compatibility with the new 80mm lens (update released on Nov 21). The Nov 30 updates feature support for third-party flashes (think Profoto and Elinchrom triggers), as well as the new Fujifilm X RAW Studio app. They also add functionalities on the X-T2 (new AF tracking algorithms) and the X-T20 (touch panel operation). If you have a GFX 50S the V2.00 also fixes an exposure compensation bug (it’s not listed but I can attest that the bug is gone). A similar X-Pro2 update is scheduled for mid-December. All of these are (or will be) available here.

FUJIFILM X RAW STUDIO

Which brings us to the brand new baby I just mentioned: Fujifilm X Raw Studio. This is an interesting and quite novel piece of software—I’m not aware of any other camera manufacturer doing anything similar. It’s basically a desktop version of Fujifilm’s raw conversion function found in both X-series and GFX cameras. For those who’ve never used it: this allows a raw file to be re-baked in-camera by using custom settings tools and film simulations. On the X-series it results in a new JPEG file; on the GFX there’s a choice of either JPEG or TIFF. The big deal here is that the app can do batch conversions (a much faster process) AND it uses the camera’s processor to do its thing: a camera needs to be tethered via USB in order for the software to work. Strange? Definitely. Quirky interface? Totally. But…I’ve fiddle with the app very briefly and I’ve already identified an important aspect to it: for anyone at all interested in creating in-camera custom settings, ladies and gents this is our new playground. I really wasn’t expecting it, but this is a great tool to understand how the Fuji processor works, how it affects the images we shoot. When using X Raw Studio we’re seeing the camera work in real time—we’re seeing the curves being applied, the effects of one simulation next to another, all of it. You can even compare Adobe RGB to SRGB in various scenarios, or see the effects of Lens Modulation, Colour Chrome Effect (on the GFX 50S) etc.

So while I doubt I’ll use this to convert images, what I intend to do is input all my custom settings into the app and experiment with various tweaks to see how it all reacts. As far as I’m concerned this is like a free course in X-processing.

As I said earlier: there’s a lot here to digest. If you share any of my geek tendencies however, it’s like an early Christmas. Speaking of which: it’s donut baking time this weekend. Let the season begin...

Have a great one :)

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.