23 November, 2014

Five Day B&W Challenge: Day 3

For day three, I decided to dig into my mostly-neglected set of images from the NASCAR Toyota/Save Mart 350, held at Sonoma Raceway back in June of this year. As far as conversions go, this time was all about controlling the viewer's visual attention — getting them to notice certain things, and to pay less or no attention to other things. Many of the the NASCAR teams feature incredibly bright, saturated colors which are designed to attract attention, and the grayscale conversion allowed me to work against that dynamic.

My treatment of this first image was mainly to diffuse the viewer's attention. In the original, the bright colors draw your attention to the crew member's uniform, and from there, to his face, to his hands, to the air hose on his gun, and to the fire extinguisher inside. As your eyes take in the image, it ends up being difficult for them to focus on other aspects of the scene — the tires and other pit-stop paraphernalia surrounding the main subject; the details of the mock hub mounted to the trailer; even the actual expression of concentration on his face that reinforces the dynamic pose of his body.
By contrast, the treatment of the second image was to make the distribution of viewer attention more focused. The bright colors everywhere cause the viewer's eye to bounce around the scene. Whereas in the monochrome version, all of the colors are relatively similar shades of gray, and the strong contrast of the brake components draws the viewer's eye into the wheel well.
This one didn't really work out; but not all experiments turn out how you hope they will. I wanted to focus attention on the different crew-member acts — hands poised to give the car a push start out of the pits; gas can chugging away; new windshield tearoff whipping in the wind; and something with the front-left wheel.

But it's all pretty muddled. The windshield tearoff pretty much disappears when I try to set the curves/contrast for the rest of the scene, and if I set things for the tearoff, the rest of the scene ends up with way too much contrast. The comromise that I'm publishing is really just the worst of both worlds. Oh well. Still more to learn :o)

21 November, 2014

Five Day B&W Challenge: Day 2

There were a bunch of options here that all looked reasonable, but in the spirit of pushing outside of my comfort zone, I decided to focus on nuance and subtlety. One of the things I learned (which I already had some idea of) is that my main editing monitor has very poor grayscale rendition at very low luminance levels. The really low blacks tend to go away completely, and the levels that it does display tend to have color casts. By comparison, when I look at the same image on my second monitor, the color rendition is completely neutral.

Even so, I tried to use a light touch with the Tone Curve module to bring out a little bit of shadow detail on the near side of L's face. It's hard to tell if it worked or if it didn't — one one monitor, you can _barely_ see the slightest hint of her large, shiny earring. On my other monitor, I can see the faint hint of the outline of her ear and her haircut, and you can see that she's wearing a pair of earrings. That's about what I was going for, so I'm going to call that a tentative success.

I also used the Monochrome module in an attempt to massage her phone reflection into the other reflections in the bowl. It's still there, but it doesn't draw your attention the same way that it does in the original.

Finally, I tried a bunch of things to pull down the translucent highlight from the edge of her thumb on the bowl, but I didn't find anything that worked. The main challenge was that I _really_ like the stark contrast of her backlit hair, and the levels in the hair are pretty similar to the levels on her thumb. Clearly something I need to keep in mind while shooting.

20 November, 2014

Five Day B&W Challenge: Day 1

Two friends tagged me for the Five Day B&W Challenge at about the same time. I'm going to participate, but it's going to be on my own rules.

The canonical rules for the Five Day B&W Challenge are that you post a B&W image every day for five days, and that with each post, you tag someone new to also participate. First and foremost, I have no idea what the original motivation for this challenge might have been, but I will use it as an opportunity for personal growth (see also, Ad Hoc Challenges and Personal Growth).

I will spend more time on each image than I typically do, and I will attempt images that I find difficult to deal with. Hopefully, I will learn new techniques to deal with some of the challenging images that I might otherwise pass over. At the same time, I will not necessarily post a images on consecutive days. If I haven't figured something out, I will invest the time to get as far as I can before posting the result.

Second, I will not tag or nominate anyone. It's not for me to decide who needs what kind of photographic growth. That said, I hope that this post inspires you to challenge yourself somehow. That challenge may be by working up images in B&W, or by working them up in color, or perhaps by not working them up at all — by aspiring to achieve a better image in the camera, and to do less of that work after the exposure has already been taken.
Finally, I will share the original image with each post, and I'll go through the retouching steps I used to produce the final image. So even if you don't choose to participate, hopefully you will still learn some of the same things that I'm learning.

Nearly all of my work is done in some combination of darktable and GIMP, and this series will be no exception. Also note that one of my personal ethical principles, given my coming-of-age in a journalistic environment, is that I don't make local adjustments. Everything I do applies to the entire frame. This means that I also don't dodge or burn, which processes many photojournalists consider to be okay.


First and foremost, when I noticed this moment, one of the things that drew me to it was the inherent symmetry of the chef sitting against the picnic table, with the creases in her jacket mirroring the gaps in the tabletop. I know that I'm no good at nailing the horizon, and I didn't want to miss the moment, so I specifically left some room around my desired composition so that I would be able to get the horizon perfect in post.

In darktable, I first tried converting to B&W with the Monochrome module, but I ended up switching the Color Correction module and just set Saturation to 0. At that point, I found that I had difficulty maintaining contrast _both_ between the chef's left arm and the bright background, as well as between their head/hat and the dark background there. That was the most challenging aspect of working this particular image.

The first half of the solution was to use Tone Curve to blow out the entire sunny area. I put a control point at the top, a little over halfway to the right. This forced all of the lightness values about 60% or so straight to 100%, and gave me some more room for contrast between the chef's jacket and the sunny area. Then I added a control point along the steep upslope (at about 30% input lightness) and tweaked it to adjust the contrast between the chef's head and the medium-brightness background. Et voila!

To finish, I pulled the image into GIMP, sharpened it with the Refocus plugin, added the watermark, and called it a day.

31 October, 2014

I'm irresistible, you fool

It's amazing how an interesting spectacle can bring people together. I went to an American Autocross event recently, and had the great pleasure of seeing a Lola T-70 Mk1 for the first (and, quite possibly, only) time. The car was built in 1965, and is owned and driven by David Pozzi who has a page on the car here.
The race cars of that era had a particularly distinctive styling, which makes them easy to remember. As I took the car in, a combined sense of recollection and discovery wafted across my mind. The car is a gorgeous relic of a somewhat bygone era, and even though faster, safer, more efficient cars have followed, there's still a sense of something lost.

I imagine that those feelings of wonderment and wistfulness are something all of the onlookers shared as we admired the #26 — seeing this example undoubtedly stoked the memories of anyone who had seen one in person, on television, in posters, or elsewhere.
In my own case, I grew up watching the "Speed Racer" cartoon, which featured the somewhat similarly-styled Mach 5. Of course, at the time, the world of the Mach 5 was a pure historical fantasy for me. It's funny how things change.

So in the short time that I had a physical manifestation in front of me, I reveled in the details that a cartoon glosses over. Giant tires, mid-mounted engine, rear transaxle and radiator. Plus what I assume is a hinge to flip up (or remove) the rear clam.
Having spent an inordinate amount of time working on Truckula, my '85 Nissan 720 pickup, the Weber carburetors immediately caught my eye. The 720 comes stock with a diabolically complicated Hitachi-manufactured carburetor, but Weber swaps are incredibly common for people looking for easier maintenance and more simplicity.

Sometimes, it's easy to miss how connected our lives become with the unrecalled events and experiences of the past.
Of course, if you're having a once-in-a-lifetime experience, why not make it even more special? According to other folks at the event, the Mk III Cobra in the foreground is the sole remaining Shelby Cobra that is still owned by the original owner.

I didn't get a chance to chat with the driver, Ken McCullough, but what I heard is that he worked for Ford at the time, bought it new, and has owned it since. That's pretty amazing if accurate. McCullough was pretty quick in the car regardless, placing 10th by time, and 21st by index, out of 142 drivers.

Correction [3 Nov 2014]: The original Cobra was actually the other one, the #18 owned and driven by Bruce Cambern. It appears that that car hit the tarmac only after I had departed. You can find more about it here: Bruce Cambern's 427 one owner Cobra.
Mary Pozzi, David's wife, answers questions about the car before the autocross session gets underway. Mary would go on to place first in her own class (and 46th overall, 35th by index) driving a Chevy Camaro.
No regrets.