​The Process: Toning for Mood

FullSizeRender.jpg

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.

IMG_0536.JPEG

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.

IMG_0533.JPEG

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

IMG_0534.JPEG

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.

IMG_0520.JPEG

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.

IMG_0521.JPEG

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

Other Tools: An Inspiration Journal...+1, +2

Boy, the week just flew by. I’m sitting at a table, surrounded by toys and colouring books. I’ve managed to dig myself a hole in the playroom, enough to drop my writing kit in: iPad and iPhone, notebook, a cup of black tea. It’s not my usual working spot but I get to gaze out into our backyard and feel the light streaming in. It’s sunny right now—a rare occurrence these past months. And I can look up at the trees. I like trees.

The blog is more journal than ressource these days, which might be turning some of you off...I don’t know. Maybe not. I’m beginning to believe this might be a transitional year—there are shifts occurring, some deliberate and some at the edge of what I can perceive. I can’t even articulate most of it yet. But this small personal corner of the web I still inhabit, where I’m free to gaze into the void and wax poetic about anything and everything...it can only reflect a world in flux.

I’ve often described photography as a way to make sense of my life but that’s not entirely accurate: it’s the camera at work and at home sure, but it’s also this blog; it’s music, writing, searching...the entire journey from top to bottom. God that sounds cliché. But you know what I mean.

This flux—or whatever it is—has resulted in a very strong compulsion to ingest. Ideas, knowledge, art...as if I suddenly need to feed much more than I need to express. I’m essentially ravenous for outside stimulation in any form. It’s almost vampiric. I briefly touched on this topic about a month ago:

diCorcia but also Crewdson...I’m on a rampage. It’s a new ritual, making a point of searching for images, seeing the work of others—photographers or painters or sculptors. Forcing it as an essential part of my day. Feeding, really. I keep a running screenshot scrapbook in Bear—I started this a long time ago but I’m now trying to add content to it daily. It’s a vicarious stratagem...to get behind someone else’s eyes and understand their impulse. A deconstruction of intent. Ultimately I’m creating a lookbook based on my own personal triggers, without direction or afterthought.

I think a lot of this stems from an impression that I’ve plateaued and must find a path to jump again. Further. Higher. But regardless: about that scrapbook/lookbook...I’ve doubled-down on the concept and thought I’d share the “technical” developments with you guys. It's geeky stuff...but that's always fun right? Or maybe that's just me? Oh well...here goes.

Before Bear I’d been using the Notes app, which had the advantage of providing a grid view of all images. But all images meant...everything in Notes. Not just the curation. So I rarely used it. I switched to Bear due to Notes instabilities in iOS 11 (which are apparently fixed in the latest beta) but mainly because it did a better job at exporting a book-like PDF of the work saved—something I found invaluable in order to actually browse the material and not just accumulate. Recently however, I had to split this curation across several notes: too many images in a single file would crash Bear on iOS during export. So I did. Not the end of the world but it made for more clutter than I would've liked.

And then I realized I’d gotten the metaphor completely wrong: it shouldn’t be notes at all—it should be a journal.

Inspiration Journal

I won’t dive into the benefits of journaling—I’ll leave that to self-help gurus. Let’s just say I do it, until I don’t; until I take it up again. These days it’s part of my daily workflow, in multiple forms. It informs the present but it’s also quite fascinating to read about past struggles or anxieties and realize just how unimportant most of these became. How we always overcome in the end, one way or another. But I digress. The idea of an inspiration journal isn’t at all about writing down “deep-thoughts” or reflecting on life, the universe and everything. It’s basically the same scrapbook I’d been keeping except the tool has changed: I’m using Day One, a bona fide journaling app. This means I get a timeline of the images I save, as opposed to either a flat container or a mess of hundreds and hundreds of notes. I can export to PDF without a hitch, according to date range or tags (if I choose to use them). And I also get the benefit of Day One’s image view—which is much more convenient than the one in Notes and a great way to browse through the collection.

It’ll be interesting to see if there’s an evolution of the curation over time, periods that favour a certain style or colour. At the very least it’ll provide insight into what triggers a reaction, which might be a way to understand my own work. I think we can all benefit from this sort of awareness.

Day One is now subscription-based but the free tier—while limited—should work fine for this sort of scenario (unless you need syncing and more than one journal). Of course there are probably a host of other options out there, I’m just mentioning the tool I’ve chosen. Funny how I’ve owned and used the app for years but never even thought of it for this type of project until a couple of weeks ago. Now it just seems so obvious.

Ok, two additional tidbits for you on this Friday morning...

+1

I gave an interview to the very nice Stephanie Baxter of Fujilove and it’s available right here.

IMG_0495.JPEG

+2

We managed to pull together and bring a new issue of KAGE Collective online. This time we focused on music, using song lyrics as a starting point for our essays. Check it out at our usual digs here.

IMG_0496.JPG

That’s it for now folks.
Hope you all have a wonderful weekend :)

A Wider Palette

My KAGE colleague Jonas Rask posted about his Hasselblad X-Pan experimentations over the weekend (beautiful shots if you have a few minutes). It’s interesting how panoramic formats immediately feel cinematic, because it’s really nothing more than a cultural by-product: we’ve simply been conditioned to associate those thinner/wider ratios with moviemaking. Years ago—before HD—we’d add black bars to SD video content to make the content feel “bigger”...by actually making it smaller. Chalk this one up to the ever-fascinating psychology of visual storytelling.

The X-series have long included a 16:9 aspect ratio but I’ve rarely used it, mostly out of an ingrained reflex to conserve as many pixels as possible. When your images are going out to clients, the job is to provide the highest quality possible and technically, this includes resolution. In French we call this déformation professionnelle. It’s the reason why I’ve always focused on composition in-camera as opposed to dramatic cropping in post. This mindset has carried over to the way I shoot with the GFX 50S, even though the resolution argument all but flies out the window. Between the lenses’ resolving power, the camera’s sensor and the size of the files themselves, there’s really no reason not to experiment with different aspect ratios. At this point I’m like the people who lived through the depression and spent their lives in fear of spending money.

I still believe in the importance of framing in the field, because this speaks to our ability to see in the moment. That reflex is our foundation. But learning to compose an image with other aspect ratios really only expands on that concept. The weekend pictures below use a 65:24 ratio—one amongst an expanded set of options available on Fuji’s medium-format camera—and the resolution is still a tad higher than my X-Pro2. Part of me still cringes at “throwing away” pixels...but boy, I think I need to lighten up.

More tools, more possibilities...

P.S All images (except #4 below) were shot at ISO 6400.


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


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

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

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.

Easy

There's this point I always reach when I exercise regularly: my body feels great, my thoughts are clearer, my mood brighter...and then for some reason, I stop. Like I've earned a break. I skip one day—just one. And then another. I'm still at the top of that hill so it doesn't matter, it's all good. But the slide begins. And the danger lies in the softness of the slope, in not realizing I'm creeping downwards. A frog, unaware the water will eventually boil.

I've recently followed a similar path with photography. Sure, I've been busy—that age-old excuse—but it's never stopped me before. I've let life run by without aiming my lens to it; or not often enough anyway. Maybe because the kids are getting older...maybe out of fatigue. 

I spent last week away from home on a commercial gig, really cool stuff I'll share when I can. I bought a new strobe—a Godox AD600BM—that I'll review in a bit. But I didn't take a single picture over the weekend and for me, that's a danger zone: the eye is a muscle and seeing needs to be fine tuned, exercised constantly, over and over and over again. My friend Kevin Mullins wrote the following in his new KAGE essay (we're back to monthly issues btw—and Jonas Rask has joined the project):

I’m living in an industry where the next big thing is always around the corner. Yet, to me at least, the next best thing is the next picture I print.
— Kevin Mullins

through a hotel window...

It doesn't need to be about prints—what's important is the mindset this creates. The chronicling of days and months and years; the personal feeding the commercial, filling the gaps and making us better at what we do. We need to breathe and swallow images, always. We need to dissect our world, always.

This morning I picked up my X100F at breakfast. Very little light…didn’t matter. It’s all grainy and soft but I was breaking the ice. Then I took the GFX 50S outside, remembering how to speak the words again.

I’m incredibly blessed on many levels.
I can't waste it. I have no right.