Limitations of the Contrast Slider in Adobe Camera Raw

Curve equivalents of Contrast Slider in Adobe Camera Raw at +25, +50, +75, and +100.

I’m working on an article, and it turns out the Curves slider in Adobe Camera RAW is very limiting. The graphic above shows the curves required to produce the equivalent of +25, +50, +75, and +100 with the curves slider. The most pronounced curve is the +100, and the least pronounced (from the 1:1 slope baseline) is +25.

I’ve been meaning to do this for a long time, and honestly I’m a little shocked by the results. Even at +100, the curves slider is weak sauce, and doesn’t even begin to harness the power of curves.

What I’ve seen so far makes be glad I bypass the contrast slider and go right to curves. I’m looking forward to running some more experiments and developing a more in depth article.

Why are my B&W prints Purple?

That’s the problem one of my workshop participants was having and asked what could be causing it. This is actually a pretty common problem, but it can be easy to miss until you’ve trained your eyes to see it. 

The prints in question were made with the Epson Stylus Photo R1900, which lacks the Light Gray and Light Light Gray found in some other Epson models. That means when it prints a B&W photo, most shades of gray are being made up from the color inks. 

It’s very difficult to make a neutral gray from color inks, hence the color cast. The 24 and 44 inch epson and Canon printers, as well as some smaller printers, use two shades of light gray in addition to black to solve this. 

Yet even with those extra shades of gray, profiles can be to blame.  You need an accurate profile to get neutral color, and canned profiles (the ones that came with your printer or you downloaded from the paper manufacturer) rarely achieve perfect neutrality. 

In the case of the Epson R1900, if the photographer wants a better result, they will have to print on a printer that has gray inks and a decent profile. 

i1Studio Update Alert

I’ve been having issues with the latest i1Studio software version 1.5 and 1.5.1. It doesn’t let me successfully “save session” which means I loose my work if I close the app or start a new profile , and that interferes with allowing extended drydown time. Till I hear from X-rite, my solution was to roll back to the 1.1.1 version which is working properly and I know produces good profiles.

Finding the right version can be a little complicated because x-rite spreads their content across several URLs, but these links should work for you.

https://xritephoto.com/i1Studio

https://www.xrite.com/service-support/product-support/calibration-solutions/i1studio

As a side note, this is why typically turn off “auto update” on my software and I don’t install updated unless I have the time to troubleshoot and validate that the software has not changed the behavior of my printing or viewing environment. I’ve been bit too many times by updates messing things up while on deadline projects. This was one of those times, said, what the heck, I’ll update” thinking it would be no big deal, but it turned into a multi-day setback.

Cotton Field and Moonrise

The fields of cotton near my house have been captivating me. I grew up in Ohio when corn was the dominant crop, so this is a totally new visual experience for me.  Besides its visual interest, cotton is an iconic crop, woven into the fabric of the American Experiment. None of us would know who Eli Whitney was without the cotton gin, nor can we forget cotton’s former role in the horrible practice of slavery.

In this present age, it’s planted in neat little rows, with highly bred strains designed for maximum yield and mechanical harvesting. While contemplating the past, I could also be in the present and appreciate the beauty of the plant in the here and now. This photo was taken nearly an hour after sunset, with the light and color provided by the incredible purple volcanic sunsets we’ve been having. I wanted to capture the tranquility of a cloudless Tennessee autumn sky lit by the post-sunset glow and a half moon rising over the fields. The beauty of that night is well conveyed for me in this photograph, and makes me interested in photographing more of the crops of Tennessee.

This photograph was the efforts of nearly 2 hours of working the subject through sunset and changing light. I approached it with my initial preconceptions, but turning 180 degrees from sunset, I saw the beautiful purple sky and moon and raced to a field that would let me show these elements int eh beauty I was seeing. I worked through various angles close to the ground and lenses until finally I settled on this wide view and was able to make three exposures before the color dropped from the sky. I’ve been putting more effort into working the scene when my first attempts aren’t creating the visual impact I want, and this night, the hour I spend on my knees in the dirt were rewarded with a nice frame that captures part of the beauty of Tennessee. 

Sony A7RII with Nikon 20mm f/2.8 lens, exposure 30 seconds f/11 iso 640

Processing Makes the Difference in Prints

Reflections, Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park

Not sure why your prints aren’t coming our the way you want? Want better prints? Then it’s time to look at how you process. 

Processing is where we take creative control over what a print will look like. 

The printer (output device) is supposed to be the dumb part of the process. It’s not supposed to interpret, fix, or change your processing decisions. It’s just supposed to render the processing accurately. 

A printer should be like a player piano. You put in a piano roll, and assuming the piano is in tune, you hear the music as the musician intended. 

Our file is the piano roll, and processing is where we decide what notes should be played, when, and for how long. 

Processing is where the really important stuff happens. Processing creates a file that tells the output device what to do; what colors to print, how dark and how light, how saturated, and what color balance. The output device isn’t supposed to be deciding those things, YOU ARE!

One of the challenges you may be facing is that making something look “good” on a screen is easier than making it look good in print. 

Screens are more forgiving because they they can’t display the same subtle variations of color, highlight, and shadow that a print can. They hide small (and sometimes not so small) differences in processing. This is especially true of phone and tablet size screens. 

If you are processing for web and social media, the screen becomes your final output device, and you can see it instantly in its final form. But not so with prints. 

There is always a screen to print translation as we switch from transmitted light (screen) to reflected light with ink on paper (print.) 

Prints are less forgiving of processing errors. Things that will hide on screen become glaringly evident on the print. The “pop” of a screen isn’t there to mask these processing errors. 

So when we’re printing, we need to learn how to “read” the monitor and anticipate what it will look like on the print. Like any art, that means practicing, gaining experience, and refining our techniques. 

Printing is sensitive to very small changes. If you can see the difference between a one point slider move on screen, assume you’ll be able to see the difference in print. 

So instead of trying to see if 50 contrast is better than 30, try and see if 34 contrast is better than 35. Or instead of deciding between a 5000k and a 4950k white balance how about trying a 4975k setting?

It may sounds like splitting hairs, but these very refined changes is where you bring out the magic in a print. I often spend half my processing time on an image going back and forth between small changes to asses their effect. I’m looking for the “perfect” setting that matches my artistic vision.

This fine tuning is really noticeable in highlights and shadows because  those tonal areas simply do not display accurately on screen.  So I rely on the info tool to read the numbers. This gives me a mathematic measure of what the print will show instead of the visual measure our eyes give us. For shadows and highlights, the numbers are more accurate than our monitor or eyes. 

Processing for print is a culmination of all your photographic experience and knowledge to express your vision. The more you grow your skills, the more you gain experience, the more satisfied you’ll be with your results. Next time you don’t get the print you were expecting, go back to your processing to make it better. 

Taming Large File Sizes in Photoshop

Working with high megapixel files in Photoshop can be a pain. It seems I’m routinely working on files that are close to a GB in size when I start adding layers to my 42MP 16 bit captures. New 61MP and larger cameras are just going to make that worse. 

While Photoshop can deal with these files, the disk space taken up by multiple versions of them, as well as for backup, plus save times can get to be a real drag. So how do we make it easier?

Well, this problem is nothing new. In my early days as a printmaker, working on 300 MB scans was a huge challenge. I remember when it took an hour just to do a 90 degree rotation, which gave me plenty of time to roam outside my cabin in Yosemite, but wasn’t very efficient. So I came up with a solution that I think you might find useful today. 

Here’s how it works. When starting with a large source file, like a 1GB scan or high MP capture, I make a copy of it and size it down to a reasonable size, say 8×10 inches @300ppi, which is a good size for proofing. Then I do all my processing on adjustment layers in Photoshop. This keeps the files small and quick to work on. 

When, and if, I need a larger version of the file, there is a simple process to transfer all those layers over to the high resolution original. 

My printmakers and I used this process on thousands upon thousands of files in my days at West Coast Imaging, and I even made a youtube video that demonstrates the process. One of these days I want to re-record these videos in beautiful HD (or 4k!), but I thought it was worth sharing the old videos because the process works the same, even on the ancient version of Photoshop depicted. 

Take a look and see if it’s a trick that can help in your toolbox. 

Creating the Classic Black and White Look with Digital Tools

Bridal Veil Fall and Snow, Yosemite National Park

September 12, 2019 6:30PM
The Brentwood Library
8109 Concord Rd, Brentwood, TN 37027

I’m really looking forward to my September 12th mini clinic with Brentwood Photo Group because I get to talk about one of my favorite subjects, black and white photography. 

The focus of this clinic is on what I call “Classic” black and white. 

What is “Classic” black and white? I’d consider the work of photographers like Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, John Sexton, Alan Ross all good examples. Its roots are based in the best of what analog printmaking can do. The work of these photographers and others in this school focus on rich, vibrant, full tonal range prints. It’s a distinctly different look that you see in HDR photos, or that created by heavy use of slider based tools.

Creating the classic black and white starts with a vision of what the final print should look like, and then using the tools in a manner that achieves that vision. The are no magic presets or filters. It’s an exercise in manual control of the variables to bring them together into a harmonious whole. 

This mini-clinic will focus on learning to see with the classic black and white look. I’ll cover topics from exposure, RGB conversion, the importance of local contrast, using brushing for creative control, and more. 

This event is at the Brentwood Library . Looking forward to seeing you there!

The Lasting Connection of Prints

When someone has a print on the wall, it creates a lasting connection between the viewer and the photographer. A print on display is unique because it exists in the viewers space on a daily basis. It becomes more than just a quick glance on the bottomless social media feed, or even the impulsive “like” that drives the algorithms. A print becomes part of the viewer’s life, and a point of continued dialog between the photographer and the viewer.  

Like many photographers, I’ve collected prints over the years from friends and artists I admire. Even after seeing them every day for years, they continue to bring me joy, and I can discover new things within them. But they also bring me back to the moment I connected with the photograph, and the photographer. 

That ability to connect is what makes a print so powerful. If an artist or a story moved me enough to put it on my wall, the print serves as a portal to reconnect to that artist and their story over and over again. It’s built a relationship in the way reading a good book does, or a fine conversation with friends. It’s a mile marker, a touchstone. It makes me, as the viewer, somehow more invested in the artist, and every time I view it, renews that investment.  

It’s this “viewer investment” that begs us to give more consideration to sharing our work as prints. What photographer doesn’t want a more invested audience in an era of visual saturation?

At its simplest, that investment is in the photographer’s story and vision, whatever that may be. And a photographer’s story and vision can do powerful things. 

I’ve seen it save the last un-fished ocean, stop destructive mining, bring attention to threatened species, bring back memories of a long lost family member, and so many other things. 

Photography has an ability to connect us to current and historical events, people, places, and things like no other art form. It makes the sharing of that story between photographer and viewer a more personal connection. And it turns that connection into a long term conversation. It’s not gone in three seconds like an Instagram post at crappy resolution, it’s not on a shelf like a book that rarely is viewed. It’s on bold display for all who pass, sharing it’s story over and over again. 

That is why the effort to make prints, sell prints, and display prints is worth being part of a photographers endeavors, and why I, as a photographer and printmaker, am so passionate about making well crafted, expressive prints.

Adobe Enhance Details

Does the new Enhanced Detail feature in Photoshop and Lightroom really work? It does, at least for me. 

Heres an example of the same RAW file processed with Enhance Details on, and with it off. This is a screen shot at about 400% magnification. 

Normal Raw Processing
Processed using Enhance Details

You might have to zoom in to see this on your device, but when viewed at full resolution, I can clearly see that all the lines of the branches, and even the edges of the flowers are smoother and more refined. With it off, there is much more aliasing, very blocky in-fact. 

Enhanced Details may work better with some sensors than others. I’m hearing from photographers that see no effect, but I’ve seen plenty of examples where it does work. So you’ll have to try it yourself. 

For my Sony A7RII, it clearly does work, and this refinement of detail will allow me more options when applying unsharp mask, as well as resolving finer detail.  It’s now my default processing option. I just wish Adobe would integrate it better into the workflow instead of the current requirement to export to a DNG first.