[Ctein's "Bird Impression" Print Sale ends tomorrow at noon Central time. —Mike]
Before I dive into this particular monologue, I want to remind you that the purpose of illustrations are to illustrate a point. They don't prove anything. Most especially, not when they're JPEGs plugged into some website and viewed in a browser. How much connection they have to reality is something one should question.
Furthermore, the point of this exercise is to produce a lovely finished print. What looks best in a big print is not always the same as what looks best in a small JPEG on the screen. Even a well-calibrated screen.
If you see something here that seems at odds with my words, ignore what you see. What you see is false. My words are true. If any of the illustrations here mislead you into imagining that some earlier version of the photograph is better than the final one, that is an erroneous conclusion and you are encouraged to stifle it.
Pictures do lie. Frequently.
Are we all on the same (web) page? Excellent! On with the show.
This was a tricky photograph to make. It wasn't going to work unless it was tolerably sharp corner to corner. Not being the sort to travel around with a view camera with swings and tilts I needed to stay reasonably parallel to the window glass. Unfortunately, I also needed to find a point of view that didn't include a distracting background. Those requirements were mutually incompatible. When I faced the bird impression head-on, there were visually intrusive elements in the background scene. When I completely eliminated the distracting elements, I was way too far off axis. Further making my life difficult, I could not stop down very far. If I did, the background became too sharp, and that pulled the eye away from the subject. I ended up working at ƒ/2.2., slightly off-axis. Not far enough, unfortunately, to be able to move the bright and dark bar in the background out of the frame. All I could do was hope that I could keep it from being so distracting as to ruin the photograph. I also had to hope that even though the edges of the frame weren't going to be as sharp as the center, they wouldn't be so unsharp as to distract the viewer.
I lucked out. The geometries could have been entirely incompatible. Once I got the photograph imported into DDB's computer, I could see that I'd solved these technical problems well enough. Unadjusted, the photo didn't have a lot going for it. Figure 1 is what the photograph looks like imported with my default settings in Adobe Camera RAW. All the elements are there, but it's not much of a photograph. I made some tweaks. I upped the Clarity slider in ACR to bring out a bit more separation between the dust and the tones in the background...but not very much, because it also increased the contrast in the background features. Another rock and a hard place. Then I did some judicious dodging and burning-in to even out the illumination and and bring the focus of attention more onto the body of the bird. You can see that in figure 2. There's also a careful amount of smart sharpening on the entire image, to separate the finest details of the feathers, with a stronger degree of smart sharpening along the edges to counter some of the out-of-focus issues. It doesn't eliminate them, but it prevents the eye from being drawn to them.
Okay, now I needed to bring up the contrast between the powdery impression and the background. I applied a fairly heavy dose of wide-radius unsharp masking filtration to a duplicate image layer. Then I added a mask to that layer, inverted it to black, and painted it white where I wanted to bring out the imprint. You can see the results in figure 3 and the mask I painted in figure 4.
And that was pretty much it!
All I did to get from here to the final version was make a minor curves adjustment that flattened out the midtones. That suppressed the background and kept it from being too distracting (figure 5).
This looked great on DDB's monitor. I had serious concerns, though, that when I got it home it wouldn't print well. Digital prints tend to suppress subtle tonal differences. One normally compensates for this when creating a file that will print well. It's good to have a little more local contrast than looks good on the monitor, and an extra bit of white-radius unsharp masking does the trick nicely in most cases. This photograph was such a delicate balancing act, though, between accentuating the dusty impression and suppressing the background. Who knew how much (or how) I'd have to tweak it to get what looked good on the screen to look good in the print? I wouldn't find out for a week.
And then, lo, a miracle occurred. The file printed perfectly. No tweaks, I left it just the way I created an DDB's computer. The very first print was a final print.
That was the last thing in the world I expected.
To make the same photograph look good in a smaller 11x14 print, I made one additional adjustment. I gave it an extra dose of the smart-sharpen function in Photoshop. Why? Because at that size, the finest detail in the photograph was pushing into spatial frequencies where the printer starts to lose contrast. Giving those ultra-fine details a bit of a kick compensated for that. It's only necessary for the small print. The 17x22 print comes out just fine without that extra dose of sharpening. In fact, it makes it look worse, as I can start to see unnaturally-enhanced qualities at the edges of the feathery imprints, just a little bit.
What about bigger? Well, one person has bought a print in 20x26" size, and it holds up very nicely.
Me, I like it at the original 17x22 size. You? Maybe not. So, two different sizes for sale this time. I hope one of them pleases.
[Here's the link again. As I said up top, this sale ends tomorrow at noon. —Ed.]
Original contents copyright 2014 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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