Forward | Sadness. Excitement. Moving on.

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Back in January I told you my New Year’s resolution would be More and Better. On some levels I think I’m on my way to accomplishing or at least approaching the goal I set for myself. Although the road ahead is often longer than we initially anticipate.

I’ve made some very important decisions about what I want to be doing with my photography, the gear I want to use and the overarching philosophy behind it all. I’m writing tons of stuff down, trying to define how I see things to force myself into applying those principles in my work. I’ve come to realize that sometimes, to get ahead, you need to look reality in the eye and not be afraid to cut cords. And so with a fair amount of sadness I’ve made a profound decision that will probably surprise most of you: I’m moving to Lightroom.

Yes. For real this time.

In fact, I’m already settled. Everything you’ve seen here for the past three weeks (starting with the Feather post) was edited in Lightroom 4.1. And while I initially thought of keeping Aperture as my DAM using the workflow I’d described a few months ago, I quickly came to the conclusion that this would be more hassle than it was worth. So all new shoots are now being ingested directly into Lightroom. Is it as elegant as Aperture? No. But I’m adjusting and actually finding things I enjoy. Publish Services for one. The linear Modules approach goes against my natural way of thinking but cleaning the default UI and learning some shortcuts has made it somewhat less painful. I only wish we could customize the keyboard commands to make the transition easier.

So why the move? The first and most important reason: I can honestly get a lot more out of my images. Noise reduction and sharpening are essential tools that have never been more than an afterthought in Aperture and I’m sick of waiting around for a solution. I’m also sick of creating TIFFs when I need something better. Same goes for lens correction. I’ve always said I found these tools very impressive in Lightroom and after using them more thoroughly, I’m even more impressed.

The second reason: raw support for the X-Pro1. There’s a lot of talk about the quality of Adobe’s raw decoding for the X-Trans sensor and in some cases the artifacting is indeed a little strange. I think landscape photography, especially featuring a lot of foliage, is most affected by this problem. But in most cases it’s really not that bad. Don’t get me wrong: I want it to get a lot better. But being able to use the full amount of headroom provided by this sensor is fantastic in itself. I’d say it’s probably this ability to fully access what the X-Pro1 can deliver that’s been the clincher.

Third reason: I don’t know what the f$@% is going on with Aperture. I know I said before that I didn’t mind, that Apple was Apple and secrecy wasn’t synonymous with a lack of engagement on their part. But there has to be limit. The latest Aperture updates have mostly focused on tighter integration with Photo Stream and iPhoto. The H&S tool has been dumbed down and the old one deprecated. These aren’t signs pointing to a renewed emphasis on the pro sector. And I simply cannot rely on hope any longer. This is the foundation of everything I do: it needs to give me the best results possible and it needs to be something I can count on. Period. Meat and potatoes.

This wasn’t an easy decision to make. But as much as it pains me to let go, I’m actually excited to see the results I’m getting with Lightroom’s tools. I guess I must’ve been unconsciously internalizing their use all these years because this time, it just clicked. I spent an entire week replicating the processing of key pictures to see if I could achieve a similar look in Lightroom — I can. I was even able to re-create a few presets based on my VSCO Film Aperture mods by analyzing their curves and colour adjustments.

One thing that was a tremendous help was finally figuring out that LR4 now had an RGB curve option, with access to individual channels. Had to go online for that one. Leave it to Adobe to hide something this important behind a tiny little button. I actually clicked on it a couple of times without even realizing the RGB option had appeared: I thought it was just collapsing the sliders! I kept thinking “wow, this is useless”. UI is so damn important.

I still wish Lightroom incorporated Aperture’s approach of “brush anything”. I find myself at times reaching for a brush menu when using Tonal Curve, Split Toning or Effects. Yet I’ve learned to adapt and have a newfound appreciation for, amongst other things, the amazing graduated filter. I can work using the same layered approach, albeit differently.

I started using Aperture at version 1.5 and I’ve had an ongoing love affair with this application ever since. This parting of ways is incredibly bittersweet.

But all things must pass.

P.S The picture below wouldn’t exist without Lightroom. I shot this in raw+jpeg yesterday because I knew I could edit the raw version natively if needed and wanted to do some comparisons. I was also using my monochrome preset so this gave me a colour backup. I’d just shot something else entirely moments before when I turned and saw this man walking towards me. I knew instantly it was an image worth capturing but I couldn’t fiddle around with the camera controls without missing the moment. So I lifted, focused, hit the shutter and hoped for the best. It all happened in seconds. The picture that appeared in the viewfinder was totally blown out and the jpeg would’ve headed straight to the trash. But when I got home, I lowered the exposure slider on the raw file and it suddenly came alive, revealing the picture I’d had in mind. Every single detail was there, waiting to be released.

I’m not looking back.

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MagCloud | self-publishing service.

Short one today: I just received my order from MagCloud, a self-publishing platform from HP. I first heard about these guys when I purchased Zack Arias’ DEDPXL last year (was it?). I wanted to test it out myself for a future project I’m working on and I have to say I’m extremely pleased with the results.

I created a print version of the EDITIONS blog and used the Standard 8.25” x 10.75” perfect-bound format. The final magazine came in at 84 pages. It looks really, really good. In fact, I have a recent issue of a new fashion magazine lying around and mine looks and feels better: slightly glossier and a heavier paper weight.

They offer the usual Adobe and MS templates but — and this was a nice surprise — they also offer templates for Pages and… Aperture! Yay!

Once installed, their templates appear under Custom Sizes in Aperture 3’s book theme dialog box. I was able to create the entire magazine in Aperture and export as a PDF using their very well-written instructions. Super simple.

What’s even more impressive about this service are the prices AND the fact that there are no minimum orders. This is huge. It opens up tons of possibilities.

You can also sell the resulting publications on the MagCloud site, either in print or as an iPad version using their free iPad app (or in both formats). As I said, tons of possibilities.

They don’t offer every print product under the sun and there are limitations depending on what you create (for instance, landscape oriented publications can’t be bound the same way or use the same paper stock) but if they have what you’re looking for, I say go for it. I for one will be trying out a few more of their products in the very near future. Btw: I have no affiliation with these guys.

Anyway, some pictures below.

Later

Tone down. Step up | a quick look at targeting brushes in Aperture 3.

Artists go through phases. It stems from always wanting more, pushing ourselves to learn, all with the absolute goal to better express our viewpoint, streamline some sort of vision. And yes, I did use the “A” word. When you suffer day in and day out with an eternal hunger to express something (anything), when you do so without thought to the consequences and when you spend half the time crippled with either delusions of grandeur or a bottomless pit of despair at the sight of your work… You’re an artist. Congrats and welcome to the roller coaster.

Doesn’t mean we’re any good at it btw. It’s just who we are, for better or for worse.

What was I saying again? Ah yes: phases. I’m going through a toned down phase. Muted colours, muted contrast, low key lighting… And I thought I’d share something about Aperture brushes along the way.

Down and down we go

The first and most natural reflex when sitting down to process images is to pump things up, especially with raw files which need it desperately: punch the exposure, S-curve for contrast and saturation etc. It’s a very normal and expected starting point. But sometimes going the other way can produce equally powerful results. 

The great thing with raw is the added headroom it provides in post-production. When you lower the exposure slider on a raw file you’re actually accessing additional data captured by your camera’s sensor, replicating something you would’ve achieved in-camera had you chosen different settings when you shot the frame. This headroom is equally available for white balance, black point and highlights but will of course depend on how you exposed the shot in the first place - if the data isn’t there, it just isn’t there. But in normal circumstances there’s quite a bit of information to work with.

Now, this can either be used to boost or to lower values after the fact. Let’s head into the dark territories shall we?

Here’s little old me, posing like a prima donna:

This is raw, out of camera with a very slight adjustment to exposure and WB. A common way to go would be an S-Curve, slight vignetting and desat to give a slight edgy look. We get this:

Done, right? Could be. Nothing fantastically wrong with it. But let’s try something else. Same adjustments but scrap the curve and bring the Exposure way down to –1.52:

This is our new baseline. I’m going to apply some toning and adjust the overall exposure a bit with a few Curves:

Right. Now for the pop.

Brushes: targeted mode.

As we all know, in Aperture 3 most brick adjustments can be brushed in or out, essentially allowing the creation of mask overlays. With multiple brick instances you get multiple masks. Good stuff.

But you can also target those brush strokes to a specific tonal range. In the brush HUD click on the cog icon at top right: under Brush Range you’ll find All, Shadows, Midtones and Highlights. If you choose anything besides All, you’ll be brushing whichever adjustment you’ve selected on that specific tonal range.

In this case, I’m going to use this feature on a new curve to add the dimension I’m looking for. Basically, bring the exposure back up on certain parts of the picture. I know that what I’m trying to boost falls into the midtones (face, hair, the lighter folds in the hoodie). What I usually do when I’m preparing to use a brush is first create the effect I’m after and apply it to the entire image. I then imagine the parts I’m going to be brushing in and alter the effect accordingly. When I’m satisfied (this is a ballpark anyway) I select Brush Curves in (or whichever brick is being applied) and paint in the regions I’m looking to alter. Here we go:

Here’s the result:

But… what’s the whole deal with targeting the midtones you say? Here’s the same curve applied at the same opacity but with All selected as the Brush Range:

Pretty different. Targeting the right tonal range is a quick way to apply masks in a much more effective way and will often limit the number of adjustments needed to achieve a similar result.

One tip though: be sure to use the Feathering brush on the edges after brushing in a targeted mode. Since the pixels affected are based on Aperture’s interpretation of the image, you can easily get weird jaggies or artifacts if you’re not careful.

Finish off with a tiny bit of targeted definition on the hands, camera and glasses:

So there you go. My word of the day: tone down. Ok, two words. You know what I mean… A few examples of this subdued phase posted below.
Later.

P.S I would MUCH prefer being able to brush Exposure back in instead of using curves to boost back what’s missing. A whole other ball game. Aperture 4 maybe?

I was really tired and added definition to make it look even worse. Honest. 

Native & Beautiful | A review of VSCO Film 01 for Aperture 3

I first heard of VSCO from John Keatley via Twitter. He mentioned being impressed by a film emulation preset package he’d received. I thought: Keatley and presets? Ok. Then I heard it only worked with Lightroom and that was that. But it did pique my curiosity.

Since then, VSCO Film Packs have received rave reviews from photographers all over the map. And yesterday they released the long awaited Aperture version.

Everything old is new again

It may seem odd in this digital age to be so fascinated with emulating the look of various film stocks but really, it’s simply about giving images character. For me the power of digital lies in practicalities, both in shooting and post-production. Not in personality. Which is why post is an essential part of any photographer’s workflow: it’s where we mould the images into what we envisioned. It’s the darkroom.

When trying to emulate specific film looks, the usual route typically involves plugins or a trip to photoshop, but I’ve long been advocating Aperture 3’s built-in tools to achieve similar results. In fact, I hardly ever use plugins anymore. As I’ve written in a few articles, the trick is to use Aperture’s ability to create several instances of most of its adjustment bricks. It’s a powerful feature that’s much too often overlooked and can completely transform your workflow. Aperture can do much more than what it’s usually given credit for.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the much talked about VSCO Film Pack was not only being released for Aperture 3, but was doing something pretty original to achieve its goal: using Aperture’s built-in tools.

I guess I wasn’t totally off ;)

X100 | Kodak Portra 160

X100 | Fuji 800Z

No chrome, no disruption.

Plugins imply two very important things: another level of UI and a disruption of the non-destructive workflow. By using presets that take full advantage of Aperture 3, VSCO not only keep everything native, they also avoid creating large, monolithic TIFF or PSD files. Which means versions galore without the overhead and infinitely changeable — That’s a whole lot of plus in my book.

But… Presets?

I know. I’ve said before that I’m not a huge fan of presets, mainly because they will, by their very nature, provide wildly varying results from one file to another. From what I understand the ACR/LR versions of VSCO use specific camera profiles to at least take some of those variations into account. The Aperture version can’t do that because… Well, because Aperture doesn’t have any camera profiles, at least not in the same way LR does.

But the VSCO team has done a phenomenal job here: these are presets taken to a whole other level of intricacy. They’ve used every single tool Aperture has to offer in order to approach not only the luminance curves of included film stocks, but also their sensitivity to various colours, their tones and specific contrast ratios. It’s very well done.

They’ve also included an entire library they call the Toolkit which allows modifications of many parameters, sorted by adjustment brick for more versatility - for instance, you can tweak contrast using overlay, curves or levels. There’s a ton of stuff to play with.

The sands of time

For me though, one of the biggest assets of VSCO Film is the addition of grain capabilities to a non-destructive Aperture workflow. Let me repeat that: you can add and control grain without creating a TIFF file. Good god. That alone is worth the price as far as I’m concerned. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this feature added to an eventual Aperture 4 or X (no info btw, just a hunch) but for the time being, this gives me joy beyond words.

The way they’ve implemented it is a little convoluted, using a well-known hack to insert grain textures in brush masks. The result is that grain is controlled by both a Dodge and a Burn brick that need to be set at the same level. But it works. And they’ve used actual film grain scans that certainly look the part.

X100 | My Tri-X preset with VSCO grain

Into the Workflow

VSCO have created something that completely fits into the Aperture workflow. These are Aperture bricks being used. Which means it all integrates into my usual post-production tricks since it’s all based on the same stuff I do every day. For example: I was eager to compare the VSCO version of Tri-X to my own recipe, just for kicks. Theirs is much more precise but it turns out I was actually pretty close. Well, now I can use my preset as a starting point and then add the VSCO Film Tri-X grain to the mix. In the same way, I can tweak any provided presets just as easily as my own, add other elements I’m used to adding, change things up.

And if you’re not super comfortable with Aperture’s bricks, the provided Toolkit will easily help you achieve the look you’re after.

X100 | My Tri-X preset with VSCO grainX100 | VSCO Film Tri-X preset: the channels are blended differently.X100 | Kodak Portra 160 - again.

Double duty

Which brings me to my last point: beyond the advertised ability to emulate various film looks, the great thing about VSCO Film 01 for Aperture 3 is it’s double duty as a learning tool. Examining and understanding presets can be a very effective way to learn: you can turn things on and off, see how various settings affect the image, change anything you want. In fact, if you’re the type of person who learns by tinkering I’d say this can probably replace a lot of books and online courses.

Not bad for the price of admission.

Certain idiosyncrasies in the film pack are due to the very nature of Aperture itself: presets can’t control everything and this will sometimes create odd behaviours (switching from a BW to a colour film preset is one of those). But I have to say I’m quite impressed by the way VSCO have “retro-fitted” film emulation so directly into the software. It is an absolute boon to have all of this within the confines of Aperture’s non-destructive workflow.

Will this give you one-click image utopia and transform your photography in a single bound? No. You’ll stilll need to tweak. Now this may very well be due to a lesser degree of control when compared to the ACR/LR version, I don’t know. Still, there’s no magic bullet — presets remain starting points in my book and while these are very well implemented, they’re still just that. Every picture is different and will benefit from individual scrutiny. But as starting points go… VSCO Film is pretty killer. 

VSCO Film 01 for Aperture 3 is $79. It’s available as a digital download from VSCO.

Update: a few more pics from around the house today (our little one is at home with a cold… In unseasonably warm weather)