Your brain on Photoshop

“Head, heart and hand play a simultaneous role in the creative process,” according to Herbert Bayer.

Yes, that’s true, but while we make digital photographs with our hands and heart, I think our brain is the visual master. Try printing without it. Not only must we use our brains to create unique imagery, we must also use our brains to edit out the lousy stuff. We must anticipate in order to escape imagery that is thoughtless and pictures we have done before. This is your brain on Photoshop.

When your friend shows you an image she raves about, you know her “heart was in it,” and she loves the photograph. Surround yourself with like-minded photographers to support your process. And invite your brain to work. Let’s look at seven working principles.

The seven principles of the photography process are purpose, character, form, tools, methods, creativity, and balance. To have methods, tools, and form means using your thinking brain to critique your imaging. A good critical question to ask yourself is “So what?” For instance, I look at my pictures and ask, “So what about the method?” and “So what about the form?” of the shot. Let’s start with purpose.

1. Purpose is how ideas are revealed. When you manipulate a digital image in Photoshop, you don’t have to have to have every step planned, but you can ask, “So what is my purpose here?” My purpose at right was to capture a subject flying over a rainbow. For the rainbow-and-pelicans picture above, I shot the background long before I shot the birds. The method required adding artificial light on the birds that matched the direction of sunlight in the rainbow background. I accomplished this trick using Photoshop’s Filter > Render > Lighting Effects dialog. Matching the light on the birds with the background meant applying Lighting Effects in a new way, letting go of the initial purpose for two separate images. At lower right is the first version I discarded because it wasn’t balanced.

Since the pelicans were cut out from a separate image, and pasted in above the rainbow, they could be moved around. The decision to place the pelicans just above right of center came from puzzling over Principle #7: Balance. The pelicans balanced with the boats when the edge of an uplifted wing formed a triangle with the white boat at left and the yellow dinghy. Why did I want to create a triangle? Because I learned in a Freeman Patterson workshop that triangles are a basic visual design element. The final picture seemed to fit the title “Flying over the Rainbow.” So what? The purpose was to learn more Photoshop, practice with novel tools, and let my brain find a balanced composition.

2. Character
is the photographer’s inner life and attitudes toward a subject. Attitude drives your photographs. Why? As Emerson put it “That only which we have within, can we see without.”

In this dual portrait of Colorado’s former governor Richard Lamm and his wife Dottie Lamm, they were speaking at two different events, but I wanted profiles and a three-quarter view of each of them. The trait I wanted to convey was the straightforwardness these politicians have when they speak, as I tried to reach beyond their appearance to their character.

In nature photography, honesty defines character, so be honest about your Photoshop use. Consider the context where you publish your photographs. Use forethought. Do you owe the viewer a disclosure of how the image was changed or altered for artistic or commercial reasons? The blue eyes at left and below do not show how a real red crowned crane appears. This is a digital composite, so that fact was included in the file information. The File > File Info tool in Photoshop can add a credit, copyright or caption about the image before you sell it.

Thinking ahead to how your hard-earned images will be used will keep you a respected photographer. Ask if your pictures could do anyone harm. Do you need to refrain from taking a picture? In today’s climate, where you can be imprisoned or detained, forced to erase pictures from your digital camera by the police, or fired for taking a picture, thinking ahead may be a vital skill. Have integrity.

3. Form means that someone has to live in your photo as if it were a home. It is the body of the subject. Lighting defines form. Side-lighting and back-lighting are marks of photographers who think about light and seek it out for its own beauty, chasing it after others have gone back to the car. Practice photography in the dark, at dusk, in coalmines, and with all kinds of artificial light. No lighting situation is too dim for modern imaging digicams. Below, the mirrored image of a flower in my hot tub was lit from above with sunlight, and I painted over distracting highlights in Photoshop.

Photographers sometimes tell me they used only “natural” light, and they “didn’t manipulate this in any way. It’s all natural.” Fine, but be cautious. You may be setting yourself up for making images that threaten to fall into monotony as they exclude an entire universe of forms where exquisite light can be added to enhance your purpose.

3. Form.The mirrored image of a flower shot in my hot tub was lit from above with sunlight, and I painted over distracting highlights in Photoshop.

4. Tools. In this image, taken at Denver’s Fort restaurant, on-camera and remote flash were used during a snowfall.

4. Tools can be film, digital, scanning or any alternative process that lets you capture light, as long as it is used when your brain is connected to it. An economy of tools characterizes the artist. There are great imaging artists that work with a scanner and paintbrushes. However, at times, photographers need extra tools. Forget your tripod when you travel and you risk photographs that look rushed, as if you were on a quick tour and didn’t have time to get off the bus and plant your feet. Take your Mac/PC laptop or mini computer and memory to back up your digital images when you travel, so you can work while the image ideas are clear in your mind’s eye, and your tools will serve you well.

Plan the shot in advance. For example, Photoshop-added light works really well when you’ve already used an on-camera or remote flash. In the image above, taken at Denver’s Fort restaurant, on-camera and remote flash were used during a snowfall. This flash was bounced off a white canvas at camera right. While I lightened the campfire behind the couple, the detail in the fire was already there from the on-camera flash. Without the tools of tripod, three light sources, and chosen shutter speed duration to catch the snowflakes, this image would have been a dark blur. The shot was made at night, in twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit, but it conveys warmth.

Methods are the techniques of the working process. As a fisherman casts a wide net, I photograph everything when I hold the camera. Some images are stronger. Later, I work like an architect with these stronger compositions, planning and building space and light within the image. At left is an example of a repetitive method to add motion in Photoshop.

While the main shot was taken at D Thomas Floyd studios with a tripod, I was playing around with the Edit> Transform > Transform Again Command (Shift + CTRL/ Command + T). The end result ( left) was thirty transformations of the figure. These background motifs give movement to the model as he holds the gun. This seemed to establish an “in-your-face” character in the portrait where, perhaps, the use of a blur technique would not have been as effective. The picture became a concept advertisement and was not titled. Its purpose? To learn a new process in Photoshop that is useful. Read on for principle #6: Creativity.

6. Creativity For Picasso, art was change. To be creative and make pictures that are ahead of their time, you must make changes. Change the tools of your vision with each year. Change your approach. I invite photo students to say to themselves, “It’s okay to make bad pictures” to get them to loosen up and take more images. If you’re basing the forms in your pictures on emotions, suggest to yourself that you may use mathematics or music as guiding forces of your compositions. Many photographers are inspired by jazz, for instance.

Creativity is not technology. We can’t just take our pictures, run a Photoshop filter, and call the image creative, because a machine can do that and do it faster than we can. Like clothes without the emperor, too much filtering makes us see the exterior when the subject matter has been wiped out. Creativity comes from the brain; it is a process of seeing and meditating. When you make a print, put it aside and meditate on it for a day or a month. I like to think that the word “edit” is in the middle of meditate.

The image at right of another crane at the Denver Zoo is number fifty-six of sixty shots. Fifty-nine were edited out; no one will see them. Were they failures? The specs of the three-year process were a Canon D-30 three-megapixel camera, Canon 180 macro L lens, wide aperture and fast shutter, tripod, and Photoshop 6.0 with a custom action to run several filters at partial opacity. I discarded pictures I’d shot that showed more of the body of the bird, because the white feathers would have thrown off the balance. So what? The movement of the bird’s head balances the stillness of its body. The saturated color of the red balances neutral colors in the background. A question I asked was, “I’ve seen thousands of African Crowned Crane pictures, but have I ever seen one like this?”

7. Balance is the seventh and final principle of vision discussed here. It’s a lot like balancing a boat. You try to have the visual weight of the parts of the picture spread out, so no one area has too much weight. Balance is the rhythm and proportion within a photograph. To get it, you can use negative space, under-saturate some colors to balance bright color, or use motion to balance stillness. Another way to balance is to fill the frame, as in this photograph of two dogs in a rowboat. Challenge your brain with Photoshop, and your heart and hands will find their own creative balance.

Text/Color Images James Austin M.A., A.C.E.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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