Lego Stormtrooper patrol on Hoth

I first thought of the idea for this photo over two years ago but you know how it goes. Other images take precedence (especially ones that don’t require as much time to set up!), you temporarily forget about it, life in general etc.  However, I found myself at a loose end one evening last week & I thought “Hey! Let’s give it a go!”

I began by taping 6 sheets of white, A4 paper together & placing them on a table. This was to create a basic white base (if you had a larger piece of paper or white foam board then obviously this would work just as well). At the back I stood two pieces of black, A4 card on their end to help create a dark backdrop (the cereal boxes were just a handy aid seeing as I was in the kitchen!) I arranged the stormtroopers on the base & stuck each of them down with a tiny piece of blu tack to prevent them from falling over mid shot. A quick scout on the internet had brought up baking powder as the most popular material to use as snow in this type of scaled down imaged. As you can see from below, you don’t need to cover the entire base. Keep checking the live view on your camera to see any bare sections that require attention. For future reference, this was two 170g packets of baking powder. A useful tip when applying the baking powder is to roughly sprinkle it into hills & shapes first, then sieve some additional powder over the top to create a fine top layer which looks more realistic.

Stormtrooopers on Hoth set up.
Set up for Stormtrooper patrol on Hoth image.

For the planet/moon (“That’s no moon!”) I took a piece of kitchen foil & loosely crumpled it into a ball before carefully unfolding it & wrapping it around a small, plastic, side plate. As I knew the top of the planet wasn’t going to be in shot I merely held it with one hand while shining a small, LED pocket torch at it with the other. This was the only light source used (the room being completely dark) although I also had a white reflector just below the camera to bounce some of the light back onto the front of the mini figures. As for camera settings, the camera was in Aperture Priority mode in order for me to choose the depth of field I wanted & the resulting exposure was 1.3 seconds. It goes without saying the camera was on a tripod. I also set the shutter release to a 10 second delay seeing as both hands were occupied operating the torch & holding the moon.

Post production was fairly brief. A slight white balance adjustment to create a cooler look. A hue/saturation tweak to the blue channel and a brightness & contrast adjustment. Finally a little sharpening to finish it all off.

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Sharpening using the High Pass Filter

To sharpen an image in Photoshop Elements I usually turn to “Unsharp Mask” (I had previously used “Adjust Sharpness”). However, I recently discovered an alternative method using the High Pass Filter. Now I have to confess I’m not sure if one is better than the other or whether they are merely three different ways of obtaining the same result. Having said that, from what I can gather the “High Pass” option appears to be primarily used on examples of highly textured images such as, animal fur.

The whole sharpening process works by the software increasing the contrast along the edges of objects within an image. Of course, Elements can’t recognise individual objects so it looks for areas where there is a sudden change in brightness or colour between neighbouring pixels. Our brains interpret this increased contrast as being “sharper”.

There are several methods on the internet of how to use the high pass filter. Some convert the image to a “smart object” first, others head straight for the filter menu. The one described below uses the latter. (As usual, sharpening should occur after you’ve completed all your other processes).

Duplicate the layer “Ctrl+J”. At this stage opinions seem to differ. One method desaturates the image “Shift +Ctrl +U” first. Filter>Other>High Pass. Set the “Radius” to somewhere between 0.5 – 5.0 pixels. Not too much or you will end up with additional noise in the image (if you see any white on the grey screen you’ve gone too far & will get halos). Click “OK”. Change the blend mode to “Overlay” although “Soft Light” (slightly less) & “Hard Light” (slightly harsher) are also viable options. The second method doesn’t bother to desaturate the image & sets the blend mode at the start. This way you can view how the image changes as you increase the radius size.

Once complete, if you feel the effect is too strong, lower the opacity. Alternatively, you can duplicate this layer to increase the effect. If you find the image looks good in some areas but not others use layer masks to apply the sharpening more selectively.

Colour grading – Natural light effect

This is a 4 step process to achieve a natural light, colour grading effect on your images.

  1. Hue/Saturation adjustment layer. Take the saturation down. Not too much unless you’re looking for a really dramatic effect (which is fine for some studio portraits but not for a “natural” look). About -15 to -20 is a good range.
  2. Curves. We’re going to colour the image using the individual red, green & blue curves. Being subtle is the key here. Maybe bring out the red in the highlights & slight ‘S’ curves in the green & blue but it can vary according to ones individual opinion.
  3. Levels. On the blue channel draw in the triangular markers slightly to bring back some blue in the shadows & reduce it in the highlights to bring back some warmth.
  4. Colour fill layer. Add a new solid colour fill layer & choose a gold colour (eg. d0a702). Change the blend mode to “hard light” & bring the opacity down to about 8%.

As ever, the final step is to sharpen the image using whatever sharpening method you prefer (unsharp mask, adjust sharpness, high pass filter etc.) The above image displays the before & after photographs.

Faking snow in Photoshop Elements

To superimpose falling snow on a scene in Photoshop Elements is fairly straight forward. However, I don’t think the effect works equally well on all images. Ones that include highlight & shadow areas appear to be the best but a little trial & error is probably recommended.

First, we need to resize the image (this is important for the snowflake size later). Image>Resize>Image Size & set the resolution to 72ppi. Make sure the “Constrain Proportions” & “Resample Image” boxes are ticked.

Create a new layer (Layer>New>Layer or the “New layer” button) then Edit>Fill Layer & set the “Contents” to black with 100% opacity.

Filter>Noise>Add Noise tick “Gaussian” at 100% & make sure “Monochromatic” is ticked also.

Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur & set the radius to 1.0 pixels.

Enhance>Adjust Lighting>Levels set the slider input levels to 140 low & 142 high.

Change the blend mode to “Screen” & adjust the opacity to make the effect look convincing.

Now copy that layer (Ctrl + J) & put the blend mode back to “Normal”. Image>Transform>Free Transform, grab the bottom circle & rotate the whole image 180 degrees. Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur & set the radius to 0.5 pixels. Change the blending mode back to “Screen” & reduce the opacity. Make sure the opacity of this layer is lower than the previous one. This will add some depth to the snow effect. You could repeat this previous step again (reducing the pixel radius further & lowering the opacity) as many times as you wish. It all depends upon the look you’re trying to replicate (blizzard white out or casual snow fall).

Depending on the original image you may need to alter the opacity of the two snow layers accordingly to make the effect realistic. The end result may also benefit from adjusting the “Hue/Saturation” of the original image after you’ve resized it to give it more of a winter feel (eg. lowering the hue & saturation, slightly increasing the lightness etc.) but this will vary from one project to the next.

snow-effect-harbour-original
Original image.
snow-effect-harbour2
Photoshop snow effect

 

Early attempt at ICM

There are lots of things I’m not sure about with this ICM (intentional camera movement) image. For instance, I’m not sure I panned quickly enough when taking it. I’m not sure taking it handheld as opposed to using a tripod is the correct technique to follow. I’m not even sure I like the effect when I’ve viewed similar photographs taken by professionals! But it’s always good to experiment with new techniques & try different photographic styles.

Settings: f/25, 0.30 sec, ISO 100, 30mm focal length

Christmas with a Lensbaby

Snow White ornament, Lensbaby, bokeh, Christmas

I have always been a fan of the selective focus images created by a Lensbaby. However, even the cheaper Edge model is a little out of my price range for what is essentially a creative lens & not one I would necessarily use everyday. I purchased the Spark a year ago but have found it somewhat awkward to operate & certainly tricky to achieve consistent results. Consequently, I recently bought a second hand Composer (it’s the model with the interchangeable, magnetic aperture rings) & have been experimenting with it ever since.

Now I realise you can achieve the effect generated by these lenses through Photoshop or other similar post production software & believe me, I’m not one of those photographers who obsesses about getting everything right “in camera”. Don’t get me wrong, when it comes to composition I put a lot of thought into getting it right before I press the shutter but once I download the results, I’d only be fooling myself if I said they didn’t benefit from a little curves adjustment, hue/saturation layer tweaking & a touch of sharpening before being finished. However, there is something much more creative & certainly enjoyable watching the focus point change on the back of the camera before pressing the shutter as opposed to doing it later.

The festive photograph above seemed to lend itself well to a Lensbaby. Focusing on Snow’s face while having Father Christmas blurred yet still distinguishable in the background seemed to add to the festive spirit.

Painting bananas

Painted banana, selective colour, fun, fruit, monochrome

Apparently, according to various internet sources I’ve read, selective colour images are one of the most hated photo editing techniques known to man. They’re tacky. They’re a cliche. They’re amateurish & not something “real” photographers would stoop to. Who cares! Rules are made to be broken & although I know posting this is probably going to polarize both my readers, people’s opinions are just that, opinions. So why not give it a go yourself?

This was a very simple shot to set up. However, I did give a little thought to the types of fruit I was going to include in the bowl. Knowing the majority of the image would be in black & white I wanted to include some texture, hence the avocado & kiwi. Even the citrus fruits were placed on top with the smoother skinned apples at the bottom.

1 beer bottle, 5 flash positions

Golden Sheep Ale, beer, Black Sheep brewery

There are numerous tutorials on the internet explaining how to photograph bottles of beer, wine, vodka (insert tipple of your choice). However, they all consist of multiple light set-ups, many of which would be very expensive to replicate in your own home. I decided to see if I could recreate a similar image using a single Yongnuo speedlight. Here is how I did it.

Because I was going to have to re-position the speedlight several times during the shoot I locked the camera onto a tripod. I was attempting this in my lounge, mid-afternoon so I dialed in settings similar to those used to create low key images (ie. shutter speed 1/200 & aperture f/16 to give a completely black image). After focusing on the bottle I switched to manual to stop the camera hunting between images. I also had the 10 second shutter delay function active as I didn’t have my remote switch handy.

I placed the speedlight as follows:

  1. Directly behind the bottle (power 1/128). This would give the glow inside.
  2. Facing down onto the bottle with the pop down diffuser on the flash.
  3. From the side & slightly behind the bottle (power 1/32), still diffused. This would highlight the edges (see below). Repeat for the other side.
  4. In front of the bottle, angled 45 degrees downwards (1/2 power), diffused. This is to illuminate the label.

Side lit beer bottle

Once I had my images it was simply a case of uploading them to Photoshop Elements, dragging each one in turn onto one another, checking their alignment (very important just in case the camera had moved slightly), adding a layer mask Alt + Add Layer Mask & revealing the parts of that image I required using a soft edged brush.

 

Daytime low key photographs

My previous attempts at low key images had either been taken on a darkened theatre stage or, long after the sun had dipped below the horizon. Both situations providing an almost pitch black environment making it relatively easy for me to create the desired lighting effect. This time I was shooting around 1 o’clock on a bright summer’s day & so I needed to re-think my methods.

I selected ISO 100 & set the shutter speed to 1/200 which is my maximum flash sync speed. With the speedlight turned off (mounted on a stand & firing through a white flash umbrella), I took a shot with aperture f/11. However, the resulting image wasn’t completely black. I couldn’t increase my shutter speed to make the image darker because I was already at my maximum sync speed, so I would have to reduce the aperture size (f/16 did the trick). Now I could take shots knowing the only thing illuminating the object, in this case a cymbal, was the light from my flash.

Once I had the the image loaded onto my computer the only things to do were a black & white conversion, apply minimal sharpening & that was it. Well, that was going to be it but as I continued to play around with the image I discovered I really liked this pin hole camera style effect achieved by adding a vignette.