THE CREATIVE THOUGHT PROCESS BEHIND THE MAKING OF THE SALK INSTITUTE IN SAN DIEGO, CA. AKA “FEEDING WATER TO THE OCEAN”. BY JOEL TJINTJELAAR
PART 1 OF A SERIES FOR POST PROCESSING SUNDAY USING THE PRINCIPLES OF DEFINING EDGES AND ALTERING CONTRASTS IN BLACK AND WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY. PLEASE DO NOT DISTRIBUTE THIS DOCUMENT OR PARTS OF ITS CONTENT WITHOUT THE PRIOR WRITTEN CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR.
POSTPROCESSING SUNDAY – WEEK 1 THE CREATIVE THOUGHT PROCESS BEHIND THE SALK INSTITUTE IN SAN DIEGO, CA AKA ‘FEEDING WATER TO THE OCEAN’.
In this first and free mini tutorial you will find the creative thought process of an image that marks a turning point in my black and white photography processing and that’s among one of my all time favourites even though this isn’t my most popular image among the public.
But it is with the creation of this image that creating presence became quintessential in my image making. What do I mean with presence? There’s a very interesting article in the following link that forms the foundation of what I do in black and white photography processing, it’s about the importance of presence and luminosity: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/tutorials/bw_master_print.shtml
I recommend reading only the first part and skip the part where the author is promoting his tool. Here’s an important quote from that article:
“The basic physical difference between the two states – Luminance and Luminosity – is largely one of defining edges and altering contrast”
Before reading this article I instinctively used the principles in this article on all of my images but never could express it in words. I can now, after reading it, and it makes my own thought process more structured and clearer to me.
In my workflow I define edges and alter contrasts by using the curves tool for larger objects and surfaces and the dodge and burn tool for small objects and surfaces. The result of that is also that objects will have more depth and look sharper without using the sharpening tool.
1. BEFORE AND AFTER – DETERMINE YOUR VISION
LEFT: The original colour photo after it has been cropped to a square. Only White Balance correction, colour correction and a crop have been applied in Lightroom.
RIGHT: The end result.
So how did I go from the original photo showing the plaza of the Salk Institute under relatively neutral conditions (sun just behind a cloud so there were no shadows) with neutral diffused light, to the strange almost surreal looking end result?
Before starting to process your images you should have an idea of how you want your photo to look like: you should visualize it first. The way you visualize it depends largely on your own personal vision.
Here’s my vision, my pre-visualization when looking at the colour photo:
– I wanted to give the water from the fountain flowing through the small channel in the middle all the attention by highlighting that part and darkening the surrounding. The eye should be led through the channel to the Pacific Ocean in the background.
– I wanted the sky to be dark, very dark to give it a strange and unnatural feel to it, as if it was night.
– The buildings should stand out from the dark plaza and the sky and needed depth: they needed presence.
Why? The buildings and the plaza with its view on the Pacific Ocean are meant to provide inspiration to the researchers working in this institute. And it is an inspirational location. I felt a great sense of mystery and inspiration, ZEN if you like, while being at this particular place. I wanted to visualize this by making it “otherworldly”.
This is purely personal and is all about having a personal vision. This is my vision for black and white photography. Anyone else could have an entirely different vision, and that’s good since that’s what makes photography interesting and gives it an artistic and individual element.
The steps below are all about how to translate this vision to a visible and tangible result that also complies with aesthetic rules as described in the linked article in this tutorial. There are more, maybe personal aesthetic rules but I won’t go into that in this tutorial.
2. STEP 1. FROM VISION TO END RESULT – NEUTRAL CONVERSION TO BLACK AND WHITE AND DARKENING THE PLAZA
LEFT: The photo after I converted it in SEP2 with a neutral conversion and darkened sky by selecting the sky only and play with the curves to make it dark and then using masks to bring back the rest of the original photo.
You see that the left photo has a bit of an uninteresting, relatively lighter plaza with lots of tonal variations in a larger tonal range (approx. 2 to 7) that I found distracting. I wanted to have a dark foreground with a limited tonal range somewhere between zone 2 and 5 so the small channel with water would stand out more.
RIGHT: A darkened plaza and limited the tonal range by selecting only the plaza and not the part with water and fountain. I did that by using the curves tool. I cut off the highlights and dragged the curve down to make it darker and more even. I don’t pay any attention to the effect the curve tool has on the rest. I will mask that out. See screenshot below.
Screenshot curves tool and darkened plaza.
3. STEP 2. FROM VISION TO END RESULT – BRIGHTENING THE WATER AND FOUNTAIN
LEFT: The photo after I’ve darkened the plaza and masked out the rest. The channel of water and fountain are too dark and need more presence. Also the sky indicated with 2 isn’t dark enough: you can still see some clouds so I need to darken that part even more. I need the fountain and the small channel to have a tonal range somewhere between zone 5 to 10. Zone 10 for the lightest part but in a subtle way and a smooth transition from the darkest part (approx. zone 5) in the fountain, to retain enough details in the flowing water, building up to approx. zone 9 and 10 in the middle of the water channel.
RIGHT: I used the curve tool again and dragged the curve upwards to create more highlights, but not too much – do it carefully: see the picture below. Again: I only look at the parts I need, I’m not looking at the rest since I will mask that out with some pre-saved selections I created earlier for all the relevant parts in this image. You can see the result in the right image after painting in the parts I need using masks and the selections.
Screenshot curves tool and brightened water channel and fountain.
4. STEP 3. FROM VISION TO END RESULT – DEFINING EDGES AND ADDING DEPTH TO THE BUILDINGS
LEFT: This is the most interesting part. The part where I try to create presence by defining edges and altering contrasts. If you look at the buildings in the left photo you will see that there’s no depth, no clear edges to it. Let’s take a close look at the detail shots below where I zoomed in the buildings. The detail shot of the buildings on the left side of the plaza – left picture, shows hardly visible edges and there’s no depth. The same applies to the buildings on the right side of the plaza. I darkened the zones in all the areas 1 and brightened the zones in all areas 2 and made sure that the transition from dark to light is built up in a very subtle way. I did that by using separate gradients for each of the visible walls. That resulted in the photo right in both the screenshots: the edges are far more distinctive and visible and there’s more depth in the building walls. It’s clear where one wall starts and ends and they look more 3D due to the tonal transitions from dark to light in each wall.
RIGHT: The buildings have more depth and the edges are far more visible. I think they have more presence after I’ve treated all the walls and used selective gradients for each walls. At the same time there’s more sharpness to the buildings without using the sharpening tool but by simply defining edges and altering contrasts.
DETAILSHOT BUILDINGS LEFT SIDE OF PLAZA BEFORE AND AFTER.
DETAILSHOT BUILDINGS RIGHT SIDE OF PLAZA BEFORE AND AFTER
5. STEP 4. FROM VISION TO END RESULT – DEFINING EDGES AND ADDING DEPTH TO OTHER DETAILS.
LEFT: I love attention to details: they can make or break a photo, especially in black and white photography. Looking at the photo on the left you see that the benches surrounding the plaza are barely visible and look flat. The streaks of clouds in the sky needed more presence as well but in a subtle way. The same goes for the water in the fountain: they needed more contrast in that area.
RIGHT: I’ve added depth to the benches by dodging or burning each side of each bench. The edges of the benches are more visible now, the overall result is that the benches look sharper as well without using the sharpening tool but simply by defining edges and altering the contrasts using dodge and burn tools. The fountain and clouds in the sky have been dodged as well, and stand out more.
6. STEP 5. FROM VISION TO END RESULT – FINISHING TOUCHES
LEFT: The photo is almost finished. But I always create a photo with the intention to have it printed and they should look good on a print as well. Often this means just adding a bit more contrast, sharpness and presence to small details. And all that without using the sharpening tool but by once again “defining edges by altering contrasts” and in my case that means by using the dodge and burn tool for small surfaces and objects or the curves tool for larger objects and surfaces.
The benches on the left photo still don’t look good enough for me: they could use some dodging under the benches so the benches would stand out even more. And also the fountain could use a bit more contrast and highlights.
RIGHT: The final result. Details like the benches and the fountain stand out more and have the right contrasts without disturbing the visual and tonal balance in the photo.
A detailed explanation of the techniques used here, like the use of selective gradient masks, are described in separate (video) tutorials that will be created for the online workshops. If you want to learn more about black and white photography or long exposures, I have compiled a list of tutorials in this post.