“Bella And The Umbrella” or “chromatic aberration overdrive”

A beautiful young woman with an umbrella on a rainy day in Santa Cruz, CA

I have a treasured side gig taking pictures for a local magazine here in Santa Cruz. In November of 2014 I needed something for a gallery of photos. Usually that’s a collection of surf photos from some favorite spots. This particular day it was raining and there was nothing going on. I went downtown instead looking for anything interesting. I had a new lens that I was dying to put to use: a Canon 135mm f/2.0 L-series that I bought from Dan Mitchell. This thing is glorious and I rarely get to use it.

While I wandered around I spotted a beautiful young lady under an umbrella walking my direction. A quick decision on my part meant a ISO 800, f/2.0 for 1/500 second. I loved the result. The texture of the rain drops on her umbrella were what captivated me the most. The fact that I couldn’t see her face added to the story.

A nice lady who often commented on my posts on Google Plus (ahh remember Google Plus?) titled it “Bella And The Umbrella” and the name stuck.

I keep a version of this photograph as a wallpaper on my display at work (ahh that’s right, I don’t do photography full time. I know very few people who do or can). There’s a problem with that version that’s been bothering me since November of 2014. Wes Hardaker pointed out a severe problem with chromatic aberration throughout the photograph. I just had no idea how to fix it because it was so rampant.

I can’t unsee it

Once you see it you can’t unsee it. You start seeing it everywhere. Look at the high contrast areas. There is a green and purple fringe where light meets dark. And it’s everywhere in the picture.

Chromatic aberration detail – look at the high contrast areas.

Tonight I had some time and decided to tackle the chromatic aberration monster that tried eating my photograph. Lightroom alone is not enough in this instance. Helping this one meant opening the image in Photoshop.

  • Duplicate the layer
  • apply a Gaussian blur enough so that the edges are blurry but you can still identify the main subject
  • set that layer’s mode to “color”
  • The chromatic aberration mostly vanishes

Here’s where I get fiddly with it (that’s another term for “detail oriented” or some would say “anal retentive”… your call really). I don’t like how applying the color mode dulls the color throughout the image. I want this to be selective to the problem areas.

  • Create a black layer mask for the layer mentioned above
  • using a fairly small brush paint white on the outlines of the problem areas just in the black layer mask
See the layer named “Background copy”. Yeah clever name, I know. Shaddap.

This takes a lot of time but it’s worth the effort. It’s not perfect, but to quote The Cult Of Done Manifesto

“Laugh at perfection. It’s boring and keeps you from being done.”

The Cult Of Done Manifesto

That’s a pretty cool quote. In this case please ignore #3 just for me. Just this once. Please. This is photography; I edit everything. Even the line to the left about editing things. I edited that. Twice. No shit.

There is no editing stage.

The Cult Of Done Manifesto

Seeing, Acting, Doing: workflow walkthrough

I thought it would be worth writing about the creative process and workflow behind this photograph. For a few miles I walked along the trail looking for compositions that I liked. Up high, down low, close to the water, high above. Many things spoke to me here. The whole area was still damp from recent rains and the colors were saturated. There were yellows, oranges, and of course lots of green. 

The finished photograph
A starting point

Observing

At a turn in the trail I seriously thought about a small cascade. There wasn’t anything especially unique about that cascade and I decided to keep looking. It just didn’t do anything for me at that time. About half a mile later there was a concrete diversion dam. This was a beautiful spot which I wrote about in an earlier post. 

Side note: A funny thing about the paragraph above; as I’m developing my blogging style I try to keep in mind how I want this to be read. I want to write it as if I’m talking with a friend over a beer. I started this with “But there were visual elements that compelled me to…” . That may be what I was thinking, but that’s definitely now how I’d say it. So, hang with me please while I get the hang of this. 

A lower, rudimentary dam – just concrete and rebar really created a nice vantage point. Some visual elements that had me think about it for a while. I wanted to create a photograph that leads the eye around the frame. As I looked at the scene in the first “A starting point” picture above, I saw the curve of the San Lorenzo River taking up the lower 2/3 of the frame. The river curves, leading the eye to the colorful trees. The reeds half way up the photo do a nice job of framing the river. The rock at the bottom left 1/3 does a nice job of anchoring the scene. The river itself was moving and I thought it would be good to slow down my shutter speed. 

Seeing the problems

As I looked at the scene I realized there there were problems. Potentially this would also be a really good topic for a workshop and a blog topic. I’ll try to break this down into bullet points to keep it brief. (note: yeah I kind of failed at the “brief” idea)

  • The scene was really busy
  • The plants (I really want to use a word more interesting than “plants” but does “vegetation” seem like something you’d really hear me say? Probably not) in the center were colorful but they were also total chaos. 
  • The river was nice but it had a lot of distracting reflections
  • The amount of green was overwhelming. Green on green, with pops of yellow.
  • I knew that the river would turn this weird unnatural blue in post processing
  • A gap is in the upper right where the tree line ends and the sky begins. The sky was definitely going to be an uninteresting blown out blob so I composed the shot to omit as much of it as possible.  

But here’s the thing — I recognized all of this in the field. I also started thinking about how to approach this in post processing while I was there. 

Acting

Setting up the shot

I got up on the lower concrete & rebar eyesore dam (it’s really ugly, I’m not mincing words here) and setup my tripod. I stood up and squatted down a few times to decide what height I want to shoot from. I chose a height that was nearly fully extended. I wanted the colorful trees in the background to be in the upper 1/3 of the frame so I setup the lens at 40mm. The composition of photo is very “rule of thirds.” You can see how I placed certain elements in the frame so that the object would be where grid lines would intersect. That’s not an accident.

A lot of reflected light was in the water so I put a circular polarizer on the lens to cut that back some. I wanted a longer exposure and thought that about one second would be nice for the water. This created a problem though; (ooh a semicolon! Fancy schmancy!) stacking  circular filters on the lens creates unwanted vignetting. Ditching the circular polarizer wasn’t an option so I decided to use f/16 to reduce the amount of light. I sure didn’t need f/16 for the depth of field. I’m pretty sure this would have been good around f/8. For longer exposures (really anything under 1/40th sec) I like to use a simple remote trigger.

Knowing that I had a lot of depth of field to work with I set my focus manually about 1/3 of the way into the field. That was a pretty good estimate to gauge hyperfocal distance.  The result is the elements close to the camera are in sharp focus while my main subject (the colorful trees in the distance) are also in reasonably sharp focus. I use my Canon 5d Mk III’s live view to select where I want to focus, then I zoom in using the zoom buttons on the camera body to tighten it more. 

I’m paying attention to the histogram displayed in the live view while I’m working. I set mine up to display values in red, green, and blue rather than the default luminosity. This way I can be sure no individual value is overexposing

From an outing in Capitola that shows the RBB histogram idea

Post Processing – Adobe Lightroom

Work in Lightroom was kept very basic with a little exploration into color grading. Most of the work was going to be done in Photoshop. Lightroom was used to bring up the shadows, bring down the highlights. Color temperature was changed to something warmer. The scene was shot in an “open shade” kind of situation which the camera would usually decide is around 6000k.  

After the Lightroom edits. Still more work to be done.
Basic Panel. Bring the shadows up, highlights down, add some contrast, and changed the white balance to 7500k
It’s not often that change much in the HSL panel, but I wanted to get out of my comfort zone a bit with this photograph.
I added just a little split toning. This is very unusual for me, but I liked the overall effect and will probably do this more often now.

Doing

Finish the job in Photoshop

Basic RAW edits from Lightroom are exported to Photoshop for more work. I usually break this down into a few groups of edits. I use adjustment layers (I keep looking for a phrase that’s more interesting than “a lot…” but hell…) a lot. The great thing about adjustment layers is that it’s as close to “non destructive editing” as you’re going to get in a raster editor like Photoshop.

So many adjustment layers…

Yeah there’s a lot going on here but it’s nowhere near as complicated as I’ve seen. More isn’t better here. 

Color Correction

Left slider moves up all the way to the cliff on the histogram

A Levels adjustment layer is added where I am working with red, green, and blue channels. I bring the darkest values of each channel to the edge of the meaningful data in the histogram. 

Green channel
I moved the blue channel a little more than I usually do. 

Bring some things up, some things down

My goal is to lead the viewer’s eye around the frame. I added an adjustment layer that darkens most of the image. I painted black into the layer mask with a large brush to bring some brightness back up selectively

Color Grading In the Mid Tones

Raya Pro was used to get the mid tones luminosity mask. If right about now you’re cross eyed and saying “wha???” that’s cool. I wanted to be very selective about how I got creative with color. Admittedly I didn’t go wild but this did have a nice effect. No, this isn’t how I actually saw the scene in front of me, but it is how I wanted to present it. That’s the difference between a photograph and a snapshot. I’ll keep this brief, mostly because this post has gotten to be very long and I’m into beer number two while writing it. The YOST SEO plugin is telling me I’m wording poorly. 

Thanks YOST. 

Below you can see that I was editing the curves for each color channel. The neat thing is that I’m doing this only in the midtones to keep it selective. No, the screenshot below isn’t really an accurate depiction of the whole thing but it gives you the general idea. 

Selective color correction

There was probably a better way to do this. I wanted to add a little more contrast. I also thought at the image was too blue. The levels adjustment layer at bottom brings the middle slider for the blues up, reducing the blues in the midtones. The curves layer darkens the darks values a bit, and really just a little bit. The levels adjustment later up top is where I make a custom mask to keep the edits to a portion of the image. 

There was probably a better way to do this…

Essentially the river is reflecting a lot of blue from the sky and I found it distracting. That last levels adjustment layer is to bring those blue tones down to something I liked better. 

The middle slider was moved to the right a bit to get those blue tones under control.

Finishing touches

Selective sharpening and a vignette are added last. Sharpening will be different depending the camera used and the final output. My Canon 5d Mk III needs a little more sharpening in post processing than newer Sony mirrorless cameras. I’ve found that the sharpening can also cause problems when the job goes to print. My favorite high end shop, LightSource SF, adds some custom sharpening. I compensate for this by doing my sharpening in an adjustment layer that can be disabled for printing if needed.

Take a closer look at my sharpening layer. It’s a high-pass filter with a layer mask painted black. I paint white with a big, soft brush on that layer mask so the sharpening is applied only to the parts of the image that I really want. The high-pass filter layer is set to an “overlay” or “soft light” mode. Honestly I can’t tell the difference between the modes by looking at them. No, really. 

A vignette is used to further draw the eye around. How do you something brighter? One way is to make everything else darker. I make an organic shape using a Wacom Intuos drawing tablet. That vignette is applied to a curve layer and the white parts of the layer mask make darker areas in the final image.

Selective sharpening and vignette