Death as a Photo Theme

Death has been an artistic theme for millennia. A stroll through an old cemetery will produce a number of death-related themes, including that odd mix of a skull and angel wings called a death head, weeping willow trees, more symbolic of mourning than death itself, and the occasional “cut down in his prime” gravestone carved in the form of a tree stump with its branches cut off.

While such themes are not appropriate for condolence cards, they do have a powerful psychological value that makes such images useful for illustrating death-related themes and articles. The orchard of white stumps in the image below can have a ghastly effect on some viewers, with its references to death and even to the battlefield. But it also has notes of life in the yellow mustard blooming between the rows, and the shoots attempting to grow on the stumps.


The next image, below, is a less ambiguous image of death. The less-majestic-than-usual Tuscan field adds a lyric backdrop without detracting from the main theme, and even the colors are less dramatic then typically seen in Tuscany.


But perhaps its possible to take the image theme a level further. Below is the same image converted to black and white. No brilliant blue sky, no greens below. While this version reduces the impact of the tree’s actual shades of gray, it does create an even more sober result. You decide which mood you prefer: death amidst color, or death in black and white.


C. David Tobie


Chasing an Archetype

Archetypes are those essential elements that we keep going back to. We create variations, combinations, and reworks of them. They are what speaks to us, and our viewers, in many of our images. We hone them, until they speak more loudly, and more clearly, and make our voices heard.

This series of images is based on a “lone tree” archetype. That of a single oak tree, on a ridge, silhouetted against the sky, above the wheat field it is rooted in. The question is always whether the shots are really about the tree, or the wheat field. Returning time and again over the years to the same locations, one in Tuscany, one in Paso Robles, has produced this ongoing series of the same motif, in different seasons, on different continents.  First green, full green, mature golden wheat, rowed stubble, tilled earth. And the tree, in leaf, and bare branched. The sky, weaker or brighter blue with the season. You decide which shot comes closest to capturing the archetype; or whether the series is more important than the individual images.






C. David Tobie

Comparison: How Using a Lensbaby Affects Photography

I recently had the opportunity to shoot with my long-distance friend David Saffir. We are usually thousands of miles apart, so this was a great chance to work side-by-side. One of the goals of the shoot was for David to experience Lensbaby’s lenses and macro attachments, and since the upcoming webinar Datacolor is co-sponsoring with Lensbaby is on floral photography, we went to the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, as a prime location for shooting native California flowers, as well as landscapes.

When reviewing images after the shoot, I was struck by a pair of shots of the same view across Mission Canyon. David Saffir’s image was taken with the Fujifilm X-Pro1, with the 35mm f/1.4 lens. Mine was shot with the Canon 5D Mark lll, with a Lensbaby Composer lens. Comparing the two images is a good opportunity to analyze Lensbaby photography; highlighting some of its unique features.

Final Image by David Saffir

Final Image by David Saffir

Lets start with the “straight” photo, shot with the X-Pro1. David cropped this image to what he felt was the best composition. The slightly hazy air, and its effect on the shaded portion on the opposite canyon wall was part of what had drawn his attention to this scene, along with the powerful silhouetting of the foreground tree trunks, and their dramatically lit leaves. Here the eye moves around the composition, following the dark lines created by the tree trunks and limbs, and settles on the leaves, and finally on the little vignette of the trees on the far side later in the examination of the image. This is how traditional landscape photography controls the eye of the viewer to draw it to the areas of interest.

Final Lensbaby image, by CDTobie

Final Lensbaby image, by CDTobie

Now, lets compare this to the Lensbaby shot. Here the branch with the orange leaves has been placed in the center of the image, where the sharp focal zone occurs, making it a more important part of the composition. And the sun has been placed where it will shine through the trees, producing a dazzling effect. So, even standing side-by-side, the intended compositions are somewhat different. But in both images the small story of the delicate tracery of branches on the far wall of the canyon is important. However, with the Lensbaby image, further emphasis is placed on this scene, as well as on the branch of orange leaves in front of it, by the selective focus of the Lensbaby lens.

Center Detail, David Saffir's Image

Center Detail, David Saffir’s Image

Center Detail, CDTobie's Lensbaby Image

Center Detail, CDTobie’s Lensbaby Image

The outer regions of the “standard” image are as sharply focused as the central area, allowing the eye to move into and out of them at the same tempo as the center of the image, with only the content to control the eye movement. But in the Lensbaby shot, increasingly less focus, and more distortion, occurs in areas farther from the focal center. This creates an artistic blur effect that mimics the way the eye sees, making this image look “right” when the viewer is in the right range of distances from the image, and looking at the center of focus. To look elsewhere in the image is to view the blur that can’t usually be examined, as the focus of the eye moves as the viewer attempts to view these regions, bringing them into sharp focus as well. Here that does not happen, allowing the viewer to examine the peripheral regions, examining the blur and the stretching of the elements further out from the image center, which have a beauty all their own.

Off-Center Detail, David Saffir Image

Off-Center Detail, David Saffir Image

Off-Center Detail, CDTobie Lensbaby Image

Off-Center Detail, CDTobie Lensbaby Image

Both images are good compositions, and interesting images. The less literal and more poetic feel of the second image is caused almost entirely by the use of the Lensbaby lens. Not all viewers will be comfortable with this different way of seeing, but those with a more artistic view will immediately see the beauty of the Lensbaby version of the scene.

Credits: C. David Tobie, Copyright 2012.   Website:   Return to Blog’s Main Page

Tutorial: Editing Fall Foliage Photos

At the peak of fall foliage season the colors can reach fluorescent levels, by borrowing light from outside the visible spectrum and reemitting it in the red through yellow zones. Because of this, foliage photography requires careful editing to produce the type of image our eye recalls seeing. All too often people make the wrong adjustments, resulting in images that look false and unsatisfying. Lets look at a set of foliage photo adjustments, first by the numbers, and then tweaked to emulate the eye’s response, to see where photographers usually go wrong.

The Starting Point

Typically the camera is left to determine the best whitepoint, and to adjust at least one of the exposure parameters. The success of this varies with the subject matter, but often the result is not accurate, and the look is not ideal. In the image below, the default settings, when opened in Adobe Lightroom 4, produce a flat image, with insufficient color. Keep in mind that no color adjustment should be done to images without first calibrating your display.

Image at Defaults in Lightroom 4

Other elements in a fall foliage image still need to be correctly exposed and white balanced, for instance the twigs in this macro can’t be too red or too saturated, or the overall believability of the image will be lost. The best starting point for correcting camera settings for any image is with the SpyderCube. For this image the adjustments from shooting the SpyderCube in another frame earlier in the series are applied to the image. The camera default settings in Lightroom are shown next to the Cube-adjusted settings in the image below.

Default Settings, on left, and SpyderCube Adjustments, right

These settings increase the dynamic range of the image, making the midtones more dense, the shadows and blacks darker, adding punch to the image. Too often the assumption is that lightening fall foliage will make it “brighter” when the actual result is to make the colors weaker as they get lighter. Often, careful deepening of the midtones actually intensifies the foliage colors, as well as increasing the punch of the image as a whole. Note that the whitepoint of this image was fairly well estimated by the camera, so the color change caused by whitepoint correction, which can sometimes be quite significant, is minor in this case. The image below shows the result of applying these adjustments to the same photo.

Image with SpyderCube Adjustments applied

Camera Color Correction

Before making any visual adjustments to the image color, it is best to make global color corrections for the camera used. In this case I now applied a SpyderCheckr color calibration for this camera. The change to the image is subtle, and actually reduces the color saturation of the red channel, which is technically correct; but not necessarily in line with the artistic intent we have in mind for this image. Here is the SpyderCheckr adjusted version of the image below.

Image with SpyderCheckr Adjustments applied

Artistic Intent

Now that the dynamic range, white balance, and camera color have been corrected, I can make further adjustments to bring out the fluorescent nature of fall foliage in the image, while feeling comfortable that the overall corrections of the image will be in-line with the other images from the shoot that will be used in the same series. The lazy solution for fall foliage correction is to simply increase the global image saturation with the Saturation slider. However, many fall foliage images include greens and other colors, which will have their saturation increased along with the foliage colors, resulting in an image that the eye immediately sees as false.

The preferred solution is to adjust the saturation of the foliage color channels, while keeping an eye on the realism of the resulting image, and watching out for possible posterization in color transition zones. The image below shows a closeup of what happens to out of focus areas with color transitions when the changes between adjacent channels are excessive, and gradients posterize. The version at the bottom shows the final choices, which minimize this posterization. Note the reduction in banding around the green area.

Image with excessive adjustments between adjacent channels, top, and reductions to improve gradients, below

The next consideration is out-of-gamut colors. Its easy, when attempting to create the type of fluorescent results fall foliage can produce, to exceed the gamut of both your display and your printer. Gamut warning tools can be helpful in avoiding this situation, but the eye is the final arbiter. If further increase in the saturation of a color does not actually increase its saturation, and perhaps causes other side effects instead, then you are working outside the gamut of your display. Reduce the saturation increase you are producing until you can distinguish saturation changes with each slider adjustment.

Below are the SpyderCheckr HSL adjustments on the left, with the tweaked saturation settings on the right. These tweaked adjustments are only to the saturation sliders, and only for the red, orange, and yellow channels, where fall foliage colors occur, plus adjustment to the green channel to smooth color transitions. Avoid excessive green increases to keep the image believable. If your foliage was shot at a long distance, especially through humid air, then global increases to saturation, contrast, and sharpness may be needed to compensate for atmospheric perspective effects.

SpyderCheckr Adjustments, on left, added Visual Adjustments, right


Below is the resulting image. It has been converted to sRGB for the web, so not all colors desired for inkjet output can be included in the images shown here. But the general result of correcting dynamic range, whitepoint, camera color, and foliage fluorescence, instead of simply increasing the saturation slider show even in the sRGB version of the image. In order to print this image, I would now move on to using Lightroom 4’s softproof function, to work with the capabilities of my printer, ink, and media combination as described by my SpyderPrint output profile for the combination.

Image with Visual Tweaks to R,O,Y, G Saturation Sliders

Credits: C. David Tobie, Copyright 2012. Website: Return to Blog’s Main Page