About composition – Sometimes centering works

Rubjergknude light house

Rubjerg Knude Fyr in Denmark.

I have approximately 20 different compositions from this day. It was a bright summer day just after midday. The light was pretty hard, but just a little bit of summer haze defused the light a tiny bit. But not enough to make great light. Of the 20 compositions, this one, is the one that works best, and it works really well, even if I broke the rule “do not center your primary object”. I did that, and it yet it still works, but why is that?

I have been thinking about the ‘why’. Let me start by showing you the original unprocessed shot:

Rubjerg knude hard light original

Unprocessed shot of Rubjerg Knude Fyr.

The unprocessed photo is flat, and the light is pretty hard. The sky is uninteresting, and yet you can see the potential. There some leading lines and a couple of other important details.

The tower is shot at close to an exact 45-degree angle. Dead on angles usually work well. as for the dead center. This is no different than shooting a building straight from the front, like this shot:

Pantheon in Rome at night

The Pantheon in Rome shot dead on from the front. A strong composition.

Symmetry is pleasing to the eye, a square building, like the lighthouse, gives symmetry when shot at a 45-degree angle. This is the first important factor. When you work with symmetry, it often works well, to have the object the center, in particular if you can support it with leading lines.

The leading lines in the shot from Pantheon are easy to spot. Man made lines, and they all (if extended) point to the door. This draws the eyes of the viewer to the center of the image, to the door, and the door itself is also a focus point because it is so bright.

But how about the leading lines in the lighthouse photo? There are plenty! Let’s have a look:

Rubjerg knude hard light leading lines

Leading lines. Some are more subtle than others.

As you can see, there are many leading lines. Some are more subtle than others. The one going from the left-hand lower corner is very subtle, but there are lines going through the sand dune. And the curved orange line going through the sand is very powerful, and probably the most important one. And then you have the sand dune horizon that also work as leading lines from left and right.

During the post-processing, I also enhanced some lines, and I created some new ones. The sky I had, in the original photo, didn’t work well. I replaced that, with another sky, shot just before sunset. A sky that had the soft light, that we like so much. I made a mask, and dumped the new sky. The sky was shot at higher resolution, and it allowed me to move the sky around until I found the strongest position for it.

The new sky also adds some leading lines. There is the brighter cloud wiggling like an s-curve from the right to the center of the image, and you also have it coming down from the top. And from the left, you have clear blue sky moving in. Everything pointing to the lighthouse.

There is one more thing the new sky added, and that is a repeated shape. The cloud where it says #1 repeats the shape (more or less) of the lighthouse, this is also a well working a compositional trick.

The dark and bright lines coming in, from the right-hand corner I enhanced by using some simple dodge and burn (making things brighter and darker in local areas). This enhanced existing lines.

A centered composition can be a strong composition

So, what at a first glance looks like a simple composition, turns out to be quite complex. All of these lines makes it a very powerful composition, and if you compare it to the photo of Pantheon, it is a very similar composition. All lines point to the center of the image, where you find the brightest part (the bright door and the bright lighthouse).

The straight on composition used on the Pantheon photo, is a strong composition, even if it seems simple. The interesting composition, are the ones, that order things in a pleasing way, no matter how complex that may be. And usually in a way, that you don’t normally see with your human eye.

The head-on shot of some building or whatever, is unusual for the human eye. How often to you stand at the exact center and watch a building or similar? Hardly ever! And that is why it is unusual to the human eye and is a strong composition, and it is pleasing because it is symmetric.

The hard part is to know when to use the centered composition, and especially when NOT to use it. One of the important factors is, can you get a perfect symmetry? Then it’s probably ok. If it is supported by leading lines, then go ahead for sure!

The processing details

As for the rest of the processing. The photo still had a bit of hard light to it, and I began to add some textures. I find that textures can be used to add that missing element, that softness in the colors, take off the edge of the hard light.

When I was done, I could see, that the texture was too much, and I had second thoughts on the textures. I made a new copy of the image, without the texture part. That’s one of the great things about working with layers in Photoshop. You can just hide some. Now I had these two images:

Now I had these two images:

Rubjerg knude hard light mixing

 Too strong textures and no texture version.

I found that neither worked to my satisfaction. One had too strong textures, but the other one missed something.

In the end, I decided to do a compromise. I loaded both images as layers into Photoshop and changed the global opacity for the top layer, which happened to be the one without textures. And moved the slider back and forth, until I had the right amount of textures, to my taste, and that was at 45% opacity.

Rubjerg knude texture mixing

And my final step, was to do a clean up in the photo. Removing irregularities, stones, rubble etc. that did no good thing to the image.

–Jacob Surland

Mixing HDR and Textures

Trees by the road to the woods

Trees by the road to the woods.

Every Thursday my son plays keyboard at a school of music, and I get to spend an hour waiting while he plays. When the weather is suitable, I drive and shoot some photos. This picture is from one of those drives. It’s right next to a horse farm.

This photo is an HDR photo. In the beginning, I tried to get something more funky HDR like out of it. I tried to push it, but I didn’t get something that I liked.

Other versions of Road trees

In the end, I opted for a more neutral processing and then used some textures to get a sort of vintage look. Sometimes, the look comes easy, at other times, I have to try a long time, to get something that I like.

–Jacob Surland

Same photo – different images


Pantheon in Rome at night

Wide version of photo of Pantheon.

We didn’t have any breakfast when we left the hotel early to photograph the Spanish Stairs. We figured that was ok; the hotel was quite nearby the Spanish Stairs. When we got the Spanish Stairs, they were sealed off for restoration. There was no way; we could not get any photos worth the while.

We decided to go for the Pantheon instead, but we were under pressure now. To reach the Pantheon long enough before sunrise required a forced walk. Empty stomachs and a forced walk was not the best cocktail. Half way to Pantheon we were saved by an open coffee and pastry shop. Among police officers we bought a croissant, and we were fueled, and made it to the Pantheon just in time.

About the processing of this photo

You can always process photos in different ways. Some even make a colored and a black and white of every single photo they make. I rarely do more than one version, of each photo. Sometimes I go back to fix something, that I find too displeasing in a photo.

But this one of Pantheon I have done two versions of. They share the same image processing, more or less. It is not the same file anymore, but they originate from the same HDR photo, and their path separated very late in the process.

A part of my workflow is to rumble through photos in Lightroom mobile whenever I have a few minutes. I do some preliminary processing, to find candidates for processing. Often I get an idea of what the final result could be. One of the limitations in Lightroom mobile, is that you can’t fix perspective. So I played around with cropping instead on this image, and I ended up having this very wide version of the image, that I got to like very much.

Stars above Pantheon in Rome

Tall version of the photo of Panteon, showing the stars more clearly.

Later when I was finalizing the processing I tried to do a perspective correction, and I liked that too. At first I stuck to the one with the perspective correction, but later I decided both qualify for final images. So here the are.

–Jacob Surland

Speicherstadt in Hamburg is a gem

Wasserschloss in Hamburg

The Wasserschloss restaurant in Speicherstadt in Hamburg.

Speicherstadt in Hamburg is an absolutely gorgeous piece of architecture. It’s like a ghost trade harbor. A hundred years ago, this was an extremely busy area. Nowadays it’s a mixture of offices and living quarters. But late at night, it’s a quiet area. The houses are built on wooden pillars, just like they are in Venice. In 2015, it was included as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I arrived at Hamburg on my way home from an exhibition in Carousel du Louvre just as the sun was setting. I was tired, after the long drive alone. I had used the app from Hotels.com to book a hotel in the Speicherstadt neighborhood, and I just picked the first one, I found because I thought the price was reasonable. It seemed like a maritime hotel, from the quick look that I got in the app.

When I arrived at the hotel, it was really funky. I had to figure out if I liked it. But when I opened the door to my room, I was convinced that I had got a bargain for the night. The hotel was the 25 hours City Hafen hotel in Hamburg. Absolutely worth staying at. Just after arriving, I went out shooting photos.

–Jacob Surland

The Millenium Bridge and Sct Pauls

Millenium Bridge and Sct Pauls

The Millenium Bridge and Sct. Pauls Cathedral in London.

The first time I tried to get to the Millenium Bridge, while I was in London, and get a shot of Sct. Pauls Cathedral, I completely underestimated how long time it would take to walk there, from London Tower Bridge. I had to give up, because it was getting very late, and I was tired, and my feet hurt. I had to get a Taxi back to the Hotel because the Underground had stopped for the night.

A few months later, I got back to London, and this time, my starting point was once more London Tower Bridge. However, I did not hang around too long in this neighbourhood, but started moving down the Thames, and when I felt it was time, I got the Underground and quickly got here.

The bridge is actually quite wobbly, and I had to wait until no people walked the bridge, and shot my 9 shots. The dynamic range of this scene is incredibly high, from the darkest areas down around the Thames, and to the highly lit Sct. Pauls Cathedral. But 9 shots did it.

–Jacob Surland

Small boat house by Bastrup Lake

Small Boat House

Boat House at Bastrup Lake.

I went chasing the sunset one day a couple of years ago. I went to this place, called Bastrup Castle Ruin. It’s right next to Bastrup lake and it’s not that far away, and yet I have never seen it. It’s not always you get around, to go to see what’s close to home.

Bastrup Castle Ruin used to be one of the strongest fortifications in northern Europe around 1100. It had an impressive 6m thick walls. However, there s not much left of it, and I went searching for something else along Bastrup Lake, and I came across this little boat house, with an old boat inside.

I wasn’t too lucky with the light, though. The sunset didn’t really work my way, and I never did finish processing any of them. I tried a few times doing this boat house, which I liked. Not until I tried this ‘Orange’ look, things started working my way.

This is the before photo:

Bastrup lake boat house

As you can see something quite different. Because I am shooting right into a pretty strong Sun, I have shot from -5 to +3, that is 9 shot’s, and merged them in Lightroom, using the new’ish HDR merge. I only normally only use this one, if I do not want to make any tone mapping. I often want to do tone mapping, because it opens up for a lot of creative processing. In this case, however, the orange look is created within Lightroom.

The Orange Look presets will be available in my upcoming Lightroom presets.

–Jacob Surland

How to create dreamy lamps in a night shot

Ancient Chicago

Ancient Chicago… with dreamy lamps.

The shot is one from the shelves, and I don’t remember the exact goals from, when I shot it, I guess I thought this ancient looking construction, with skyscrapers in the background, looked cool.

But processing wise, I had an idea I wanted to try out, a special processing technique on the lamps. It was an idea I got when I saw another photo. I often do that. See something and think, that looks cool, wonder how that is made. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out, at other times, it comes easy. This is one had been lying around in the back of my head, and then one day, an idea struck me as lightning.

Before this gets too abstract, let’s get down to what it’s all about. I had seen this photo having street lamps in the dark. And I really loved these lamps, they looked just awesome. And one day, I came by this photo from Chicago in Lightroom, the word ‘dreamy lamps’ popped into my head. I was convinced I knew how those lamps in the other photo were made.

The idea works on night shots including lamps, like this one from Chicago does. As soon as I realized, that I thought of the lamps, as dreamy, I instantly knew I had to try to apply Orton effect on the lamps, maybe even a lot of it.

Afterwards, I went back to the photo, that originally inspired me, and I saw that, what I had remembered about the lamps, really was wrong. It was something, my mind remembered, and I had just done my own “invention” (probably not the first in the World to do it, but at least independently).

The principle I thought I would use, was  to do a double Orton effect on the lamps, locally, to make them dreamy.

Creating dreamy lamps

As it turned out, an idea always needs to be twisted a bit. As it turned out I had to apply quite a lot more on the lamp at the left side.

What is the Orton effect? I have a longer post on it here, but let’s just repeat quickly.

Chicago Dreamy Lamps step 0

Create a flattened layer, without delete the layers below. You can do this by pressing CTRL + SHIFT + ALT + E (or on a Mac CMD + SHIFT + ALT + E). This feature I haven’t found anywhere in the menus, but I use it all the time.

Now duplicate the new ‘flattened layer’. You now have two identical layers on top. Change the blend mode on the top layer, to either Overlay, Hard Light or Soft Light. Sometimes ‘Screen’ can also be used, but I mostly use Overlay.

Go to the lower layer, and blur that using Gaussian blur. You can see the effect change as you change the blur level. Find a level you like. This effect is called Orton effect.

I then place these two new layers in a Group, and a black mask to this group (or a white, and invert it (CTRL + I or on a Mac CMD + I). I can now paint in what amount of Orton effect I like, in particular around my lamps.

Chicago Dreamy Lamps step 1

As you can see I applied Orton effect on the rest of the photo too, but just to a lesser degree. It turned out, that strong Orton in a local place, did not work out too well. It had to be used a bit more general to look good. But I did get the lamps that I wanted, even if it was different from what I had got inspired from.

–Jacob Surland

Using LAB color to bring out the magic

Fire in the Sky

This photo really came to life, when I used the color space Lab Color as a tool.

Teaser: Last in this post, you can see the before version of this image of the Eiffel Tower.

Recently I have been working a lot on understanding colors and color spaces. It has been coming to me, from two different angles. It’s funny how things sometimes converge from different places and situations into the same realization, at the same time.

I have been working on understanding why some of my prints went haywire color wise, even at a professional printing house. It turned out, it had to do with color spaces or more correctly the gamut of a color space. A gamut is the range of colors a color space can produce. Gamut is a strange word, but I will try to exemplify in a simple way. I will discuss this in more detail in a later post.

At the same time, as I was working on getting my prints looking right, on another track in my life, in my eternal search for new cool processing ways, I came across the Lab color space as a processing technique. It was introduced to me, by Robin Griggs Woods, and I was completely blown by it.

What is a color space anyway?

Before getting deeper into the Lab Color color space, let’s talk a bit about the color spaces in general. Color spaces are quite complicated, and I will try to make an easier-to-digest description.

Continue reading “Using LAB color to bring out the magic”

Secrets found in Chester Cathedral

Patterns in the floor

Semi secret room found in the Cathedral of Chester.

When I exhibited at Chester Art Fair 2015, I got the chance to see Chester Cathedral. An amazingly beautiful cathedral built in the shape of an enormous big cross. It’s like it has more churches in one, or many chapels if you like. This pattern on the floor I think is a bit of a secret. It’s hidden behind the main altar, next the choir boy’s benches. It’s a sort of a room right in the middle of the church, but for some reason you miss it.

Before getting into the Cathedral we were standing in some of the surrounding facilities shooting on a tripod, and an elderly formally clad lady working in the church came by, and said ‘that must be important’, and I figured she was a member of the tripod police, but no, she wasn’t. She just wanted to know why I used a tripod.

I shot this photo with my Sony A6000. I really like the size of the camera, it produces photos of an amazing quality, as you can see. This is a bracketed photo shot using -2, 0 and +2 exposure compensation.

–Jacob Surland

The Ever Searching Eiffel Tower

The Ever Searching Eiffel Tower

The Ever Searching Eiffel Tower.

It’s been a while since my last post. I have been doing a lot exciting other stuff, that I will tell you about in some posts. I have been exhibiting in France, USA and UK, and I am preparing a solo exhibition too. It does take some time. I have learned quite a lot recently, on printing photos and getting a good result, and I will tell you all about it soon.

I have also learned some new fancy techniques, one I have used in this photo. I will tell you about this too.

I already had left the roof of the Arc of the Triumph in Paris, when I decided to go back up. I am glad I did because I got this shot. I did one with a similar angle with my iPhone, earlier, and when I saw it on the phone, I went straight back to the roof, to do a version with a proper camera.

–Jacob Surland