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A complex contour mask – made one minute.

Digital imaging offers the ability to define complex contours efficiently and precisely, enabling users to affect an image in very specific areas. What was once extremely tedious and challenging is now quick and easy. Once you learn a few essential selection and masking techniques, few contours will elude your grasp.

Before I continue, let me caution you against always defining contours precisely. Remember, contours in continuous tone images are often quite soft. What’s more, many times, photographers simply need to define broad areas to work in with smooth transitions into surrounding areas. Just because you can define contours precisely, doesn’t mean you should. But it’s highly advantageous to have the option of doing so when you need to.

Besides defining an area by hand, either with a selection or brush tool, there are a number of more efficient and precise ways to isolate contours; the Magic Wand Tool, the Magnetic Lasso Tool, the Color Range feature, and deriving a contour mask from a contrast mask. Try these first.

Keep in mind that all of these techniques use contrast within an image to isolate a contour. Contrast in any one component of color can be used – luminosity (light and dark), hue (warm and cool), or saturation (intense or desaturated). If contrast helps define a contour then you can accentuate the contrast of any one component of color within an image to make it easier to define a contour, using an adjustment layer. Once the contour has been defined, you can throw away the adjustment layer that was only intended to be used to make selection easier.

The Magic Wand, found in the Tool Bar, is ideal for selections of broad areas of color. Two check boxes give you control over how the Magic Wand tool behaves; Tolerance (which defines the range of related values away from the sampled color that will be included in the selection – based on 256 levels) and Contiguous (which limits a selection to areas of similar color that abut one another). In the same location in Tools, the Quick Selection Tool offers fewer controls but does an even more intelligent job. Try it before you move on to other options. Many times it does a surprisingly quick good job with little or no fuss.

The Magnetic Lasso, also found in the Tool Bar, tool can be used for slightly more difficult contours. Using it, you can add an extra degree of discrimination manually. The tool will define the majority of the contour for you, if there is adequate contrast between it and surrounding areas. While the default settings often provide excellent results, Width (the distance from the path drawn where contours will be detected), Edge Contrast (the amount of contrast required for a contour to be detected), and Frequency (the number of points placed while defining the contour) can be used to modify the sensitivity of the tool. Drawing a contour too quickly will reduce the accuracy of the tool. While defining the contour, if points are placed that are undesirable you can hit the Delete key to eliminate previously placed points, one at a time. When using Lasso and Marquee tools, practice drawing selections in closed loops. If you define only part of a contour and then let go, a straight line will snap between your start and finish points. All selection tools can be used multiple times to define a selection and can be used in combination with one another; hold the Shift key to add to and the Option/Alt key to subtract from an existing selection.

The Color Range feature, found under the Select menu, is very useful for defining complex contours involving multiple areas. Color Range has predefined settings to automatically detect Reds, Greens, Blues, Cyans, Magentas, Yellows, Highlights, Midtones, and Shadows. In addition, it has a Sampled Colors feature that can be used to define a custom range of colors that can be increased or decreased by using the Add to Sample (+) and Subtract from Sample (-) droppers. Selections can be expanded and contracted using the Fuzziness and Range sliders for Sampled Colors, Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights but not predefined hues.  The selections Color Range makes are often more sophisticated than the previous tools mentioned, defining areas not just with black and white but also shades of gray.

Contrast masks can be turned into contrast masks, for the most challenging selections with very fine detail and/or transparency. Based on the luminance values of individual channels (R,G, or B), a contrast mask can be used to define a contour by accentuating it’s contrast so dramatically that all shades of gray are eliminated leaving only black and white values. Duplicate the channel with the best contrast in the area you wish to isolate. Or, load it as a selection by dragging it to the selection icon in the Channels palette and then create a layer mask. Then, accentuate the contrast of the alphachannel or layer mask, using Curves. When accentuating contrast, pay particular attention to using increased contrast to define the contour you are concerned with. Avoid the temptation to use contrast to drive broad areas to white or black, if doing so will adversely affect defining the contour precisely. On occasion, you may want to select a specific area of an alphachannel or layer mask to accentuate contrast locally. Where unwanted values remain, select and fill or use a brush to paint an area with the appropriate value (black or white).

Using these tools and strategies few contours will elude your definition. You’ll be able to define very complex contours efficiently and precisely.

Read more about masking here.

View more in my DVD Drawing With Light.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Top12_2012

View my Top Images Of 2012 here.

Photographer Paul Strand said, “Your photography is a record of your living for anyone who really sees.” How do you see your photography? Where? How often? What ways? Why?

Performing an annual review of your images is one way to see your photography over and through time. When you do this, it’s useful to make a record of your observations. Consider both the selection of images and the observations you make about your selection a journal. It’s one of many different kinds of journals I keep. Like a journal, to get the maximum benefit, you need to make multiple entries at different times. The frequency with which you do this is up to you. I find I get the most out of this exercise when I do it annually.

An annual review or your images is useful in so many ways. It brings you more clarity. It helps you see what you accomplished. It shows you what is missing or left undone. It reveals new possibilities. It gives you more choices. It helps you set goals for the future. It increases productivity. It leads to greater fulfillment. While it takes discipline and effort to do, the results it produces feel great.

Annual reviews are not a waste of time. Quite the opposite, annual reviews help you spend the limited time you have before you more effectively. Annual reviews can even drive you to greater productivity. Knowing that you’ve got one coming up you may start working earlier, chart your progress over time towards a goal, and/or make a last minute sprint to the finish line to achieve your vision of success.

Record Your Observations In The Right Form

What’s the right form to record your observations in? The one you’ll use the most often. You could use someone else’s system or come up with a complex system of your own, but if it’s not practical and meaningful you won’t use it, so you might as well not have it. Remember what Albert Einstein said, “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

You could keep this process as simple as making a selection of images. Create a collection in Lightroom for fast access and flexible updating. And/or print out thumbnails for durable record that can be displayed for as long as you like. If you want to share your selection with others consider making a blog post, an ebook, or a print on demand book. Giving these types of activities a social dimension can encourage us to maintain them. Sometimes we get valuable feedback when other people see our selections. When, where, and how much you share is entirely up to you.

This process becomes even more valuable when you use words to state the reasons for your selections (inclusion and exclusion) and your observations about your new collections on their own and in comparison to past collections. In this way, what starts intuitively becomes clearer and more actionable, something you can use not just feel.

There are many ways you can record your observations video, audio, and writing. It might be fascinating to look back at and hear your younger self at some future date. Still, for quick retrieval of information, I find nothing beats text, especially when it’s flexible digital text. You can even use the search function to find an item quickly or to find connections between different items.

After you make your selections of and comments about new images, look back at your past selections and comments. The comparisons and contrasts you make between years can be very revealing. Doing this can reveal much more than a personal history of events. Looking back at past successes can reveal changes in level of skill, consistency of results, frequency of experimentation, clarity of vision, development of style, changes in subject matter and theme, shifts in goals and your definition of success, new opportunities, and so much more. In short, it can show you how your vision has developed, where you are now, and where you are most likely to go next.

Missed a few years? While your current perspective will never be the same as your past perspective, it’s never to late to create these kinds of collections. You may find that you will want to revise past selections and make new comments. Keep your old selections and comments for comparison at a later date, either in the same or in a separate location.

Find The Right Images 

Select only your best images. What’s best? That depends on what you’re trying to do with your images. While it can be useful to select images based on what gets a strong reaction from other people, that’s only one kind of selection that offers specific kinds of insights. There are many others. Make time and space for yourself. Define what success means to you before you start your selection process. How you define success will change your results. Remember. It’s your process. They’re your images. You’re doing this review for yourself.

The collections you create from annual reviews are often very different than the collections of images you make to develop a project. When performing annual reviews the images you select tends to be more varied and divergent, share fewer similarities, and contain little or no flow between them. You see core qualities but lose the narrative arc that drives your story forward or the connective tissue that makes it hang together. Subtler, more complex, sometimes contradictory or not fully resolved elements are often eliminated. Often, significant details are lost in this mix. The bigger picture may become clearer.

Select The Right Number Of Images

A very different kind of benefit is gained by looking at all of your images simultaneously. When you become more selective, you cut right to what’s essential. Limitations become useful. I recommend you select your top image (The apex is the bottom.), your top two or three images (Create a generative tension.), and your top twelve images (Confirm your vision and style.). (Read more about this in The Benefits Of Selecting Your Top Images.) There’s nothing special about the number twelve. With fewer than twelve images it becomes more challenging to fully see both the variety and the connections within images. If you choose more than twelve images make sure you don’t set the number so high that you can no longer see the larger patterns at work in your images.

Ask The Right Questions

They say that ninety percent of a solution lies in asking the right questions in the right ways. Not sure where to start? Get the ball rolling with these questions. Are there frequent technical deficiencies you’d like to correct? Are there past technical deficiencies you have corrected? Of all the new skills you’d like to acquire, which would be the most beneficial to invest your time in now? What kinds of images were produced? What common qualities do they share? What would you like to do more of? What project(s) would benefit from more sustained attention? What’s the easiest project to complete? What’s the most important project to complete? What haven’t you done yet? What missing? From these images, how many directions could you go in? How would you rate your overall progress? How would you rate your overall progress technically, compositionally, narratively, emotionally, and conceptually?

While there are some classic questions that we would all benefit from answering, only you can determine what the most useful questions are because only you know your true goals. It’s a healthy sign when you find that you need to ask other questions that are unique to you and your images. Engage the process of asking useful questions fully and repeatedly you will be guaranteed to make important discoveries.

When it comes to answering the questions you ask, remember that in this arena your audience is you. Use the language that you think the most fluidly in and the words that mean the most to you. Do challenge yourself to go deeper and achieve greater clarity. (Exactly what does that mean – to me?) Don’t censor yourself and don’t change your answers to please someone else. How much you choose to share with others in completely up to you. Do it if it’s useful. Don’t do it if it’s not.

Conclusion

Things change over time. So do we. And, so do our images. Nothing else records the change itself like a journal. Records of how our images change (and don’t change) can offer us (and others) valuable insights into both our creative lives and ourselves. Most importantly, we can learn from our past to make our future more like the life we want to live.

Read more on Creative Planning here.

Learn more in my creativity and digital photography workshops.

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View My Top 12 Images Of 2011 here.

When asked, “How many good images do you make in a year?”, Ansel Adams replied, “Twelve good images in a year is a good crop.” Imogene Cunningham responded, “One in a lifetime.” Both perspectives are useful.

We all make a lot of photographs. Selecting the few that are worth developing and sharing is an essential skill. Choosing what to show and what not to show, we train our eye, connect with what’s most important to us, and develop our visual voice.

We edit our images with increasing degrees of focus; generally for all the images we make, more specifically for certain spans of time, and even more particularly for a few chosen subjects or themes. From the thousands (sometimes tens or even hundreds of thousands) of images we make, we select hundreds and finally dozens to focus our attention on.

Reviewing what we have created offers us an opportunity to revisit the events of the past and see them from a new perspective, savoring all they have to offer us and possibly what we missed. Selecting only a chosen few of our creations to collect, highlight, and often share, offers us opportunities to reflect upon and interpret our experiences and gain the strength that comes from the discipline of courageously committing to our vision.

To gain the maximum benefits from this process of selection, we can choose to be even more selective and identify even fewer of our most important images. To do this, we must ask ourselves vital questions, which become rich wellsprings of personal insight.

Take it to an extreme. Identify your top one image, two images, and twelve images. Do this for a lifetime, each year, and specific projects. Make this a habit; revisit it annually.

While the order you answer these questions and the time period you give yourself to answer them will influence your outcome, ultimately it doesn’t matter in what order you do this or how long you take, as long as you arrive at your personal answers. The vast majority of people never ask these questions, much less answer them. Be exceptional. Ask these essential questions and find your answers. In time, you will find that you will get better and more fulfilling results from all of your creative efforts.

Identify Your Best Image

Identify your best image – the one image that you feel is most successful at achieving what you want to achieve with your images. When you have finally selected this one most important image, ask yourself, “Why this image?” and, “Why not that one?” Doing this will help you identify your key core values and desired outcomes. There’s usually so much richness in this one image that it’s likely that you will need to ask this question many times over a significant span of time. Once you have begun to find your answers (Feedback from others can be helpful, just remember your answers count most.), ask a few follow up questions, “How many things can I do to make more images like this?” and “How many things can I do to make even better work?”

Finding this one image can be important for other people as well as yourself. When discussing the work of artists, people often ask “When you think of this artist, what one image do you think of?” Ask yourself, “What one image do you want to be remembered for?” “Which image is that now?” “What image would you like that to be in the future?” “If you were to create a new image that you would be most known for, what would you like that image to be?”

Your single best image for your lifetime is a guiding light that not only reveals your highest accomplishments but also coalesces core qualities that become the keys to unlocking your future successes and ultimate fulfillment.

Your single best image for a year is a touchstone that can be used to compare and contrast current successes with past successes and identify future directions.

Your single best image for a project communicates your vision and style most successfully. Often, it is used as the lead for a post, a cover for a book, and a card or poster for an exhibit.

Find Your Two Best Images

If you were to select a second image to go with your one best image, which image would that be? How is it similar? How is it different? Both the comparisons (reinforcement or confirmation) and contrasts are important. The comparisons are useful because they help you identify core qualities. There are so many things that can be said about one image and only a few of them are truly significant. When you see what two highly successful images share you can quickly cut through the noise and find what’s essential. This provides both confirmation and reinforcement. The contrasts are useful because the unresolved tension it created can become generative. It can lead you to more ideas. How many images could connect the two? How many ways can you connect the two? What kinds of images could be created by combining their different qualities? If the two images you select are so similar that no generative tension is created, you may want to select a third that creates it.

Your best two images for a lifetime create a synergy where all that is implied between the similarities and differences becomes a fertile field of possibilities.

Your best two images for a year can display multiple directions – whether subject, theme, or style – whose tension can become generative. Caution, if the tension is never reconcile, either in whole or in part, it often produces confusion rather than richness and depth.

Your best two images for a project can show how both are multi-dimensional, telling more than one side of a story.

Select Your Twelve Best Images

Twelve images are more than enough to tell a complete story. If they’re your images, the story your images tell is not only the story of the subject and themes you select, the story they tell is also your story. The curation you perform to create collections of your work speaks (and sometimes creates) volumes.

If your top twelve images display entirely different subjects, themes, and styles it’s likely that you love your craft but have not developed significant depth in your vision. Jacks of all trades master none. Commitment is the key ingredient to achieving depth – the greater the commitment, the greater the depth. It’s not that you can’t do different things; variety can be energizing. It is that if you have a way of doing things that is your own and it informs everything you do then you are on your path. You may wander but you are not wandering aimlessly.

Ask a few key questions will help guide you on your journey of discovery. How are the insights you gain from looking at individual images different than the insights you gain from looking at groups of images? How does your perspective shift when you create different groups from the same material? Remember that outliers can be both revealing and generative.

For professional artists, a majority of the income from the sales of their works tends to come from their top twelve images. But be careful not to use sales as the criteria for selection here; to live the most fulfilling creative life determine what success means to you.

Your best twelve images for a lifetime confirm that you’re much more than a one hit wonder and have a depth of vision that is supported by a well-crafted style.

Your best twelve images for a year can reveal many directions, potential projects, and overall levels of performance commenting usefully on growth both present and future. Look carefully for milestones, breakthroughs, and outliers.

Your best twelve images for a project provide a strong framework that supports and guides all the other images that are added to it serving as enticing introductions, setting and maintaining a course, and creating compelling conclusions.

If you can’t see the benefits of selecting your best works by now, then trust me and just try it. Nothing teaches you more than direct experience. If you can, just do it. Talking about it will actually reveal much, but doing it will reveal more.

Read more on Creative Planning here.

Learn more in my creativity and digital photography workshops.

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After

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Before

Color to black and white conversions are radical transformations of an image. They establish the tonal foundations of a neutral image, creating tonal relationships by determining which areas of an image become light and which are dark. While this process can generate some localized effects (all blues become darker or lighter), this is quite different than selectively lightening and darkening an image to accentuate existing tonal relationships (only select blue areas become darker or lighter). Selectively enhance a tonal structure after conversion, rather than before. Selective enhancement may yield dramatic results.

Here are two ways.

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Method 1

Create a new layer set to a blend mode of Overlay. Use an appropriately-sized soft-edged brush. Paint with black to darken and white to lighten. Vary the opacity of the brush to control the intensity of the effect – lower is less, higher is more. If you’re not sure what percentage to use, it’s very rare that you will be when you first begin enhancing an image, take this approach.

Paint areas with a single broad stroke and use the Fade command (Edit: Fade or Shift: Command/Control: F) to modify Opacity. (Ignore the option to change Blend Mode; this is rarely helpful and far too complex.) This allows you to determine opacity visually with a dynamic preview and generates a smoother effect. Additionally, opacity can be reduced to 0% to eliminate the effect. Note that you can only Fade the last stroke made, so until you determine a precise opacity, fade each stroke after making it. Once you know the opacity desired for a given area you can set the brush to that opacity and continue painting without fading.

If you find you’d like to reduce the effect use a soft-edged eraser, at any percentage. This way you can selectively reduce or eliminate the effect.

Use the opacity of the Brush and Eraser tools to control the opacity of the effect. If you use the Opacity of the layer to limit one part of the effect you’ll limit the effect of all areas and won’t be able to generate a stronger effect.

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Method 2

Selectively lightening and darkening with an Overlay layer generates stronger or weaker variations of a simple contrast response. If you’d like to generate a more specific contrast response, use another method. Roughly select an area; create a Curves adjustment layer that generates a specific contrast response; blur the layer mask; refine the mask with a soft-edged brush. This will allow you to precisely modify brightness and contrast. Just as the effect can become more complex, so can your layer stack when you use this method. It will generate multiple adjustment layers. (File them in a Group.) For instance, you cannot lighten and darken with a single layer and you’ll need two adjustment layers for different types of contrast. That said, no other method delivers the same precision.

Use the first method for basic moves (and industrial strength problems in dark shadows and bright highlights). Use the second method for very precise moves.

Periodically turn off these effect layers to monitor your progress. You’ll be amazed at how quickly and dramatically you can enhance an image.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Learn more in my Black & White Mastery workshop.

Read more about black & white photography here.

How to Sequence and Design Your Next Book Like a Pro from Blurb Books on Vimeo.

“Mat Thorne, pro photographer and design whiz, shares his secrets for great book design. Mat was the Art Director at the prestigious Maine Media Workshops and has designed books for some notable figures in contemporary photography. In this webinar, he walks you through book design and layout essentials and touches upon tips and tricks to help you with every aspect of bookmaking, from workflow to typography to final layout.”

Find more bookmaking resources here.

Learn more in my digital printing and digital photography workshops here.


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