Monday, February 8, 2016

Seeing is Not Always Believing


So, there are a few things you should know about what you see in real life, about what you see on the monitor at home, and what you think you see on the monitor at home. Because all of this “seeing” is going to result in a print – a colorful, accurate, sharp, paper print – that you can hold in your hands, frame, and quite possibly – sell.

Pingora Spire, Wind River Range - Wyoming
 You are standing on boulder in the middle of a lake, with the tripod so low that only a yoga instructor could comfortably look through the viewfinder. Backing up is impossible, and lying down is even more so. Your fingers are stupid with cold, and the whole time you are thinking, why is there so much metal on a camera? The scene before you is fantastic, and the golden hour of dawn is slipping past quickly – clouds moving around, sections of rock glowing pink and then falling again into silhouette. You work quickly to compose the shot, stand up and groan, and then start pushing the shutter release – each 15-second exposure seeming like an eternity.

At this very moment you relax, it’s all up to the camera and the lens now - you are the only witness to this crazy colorful landscape. For a few minutes you watch and memorize the scene, the colors, the shadows – it is beautiful. This is what we work for.

Once back home you scroll through the dull raw images, looking for that one that pops out, the one that reminds you most of what it was like standing there on that boulder, freezing. Eventually one image stands above the rest, and it is moved into a raw processor, and then transferred into Photoshop for fine-tuning.

Of course, your monitor is already calibrated, your image is captured and presented in the correct color space, you have a dark grey background on your desktop, you are sitting alone in a darkened room, and there is no ambient light to alter the work. Simple enough, right? It is like the total opposite of where you were for those 15-second exposures.

You adjust the overall white balance, attend to the green hues in the shadows with some selective color balance, draw down the glaring whites, make sure the shadows are not too deep so that they don’t appear black on a physical print, concentrate on the sharpness, look for dust spots on the sensor, erase the errant purple tent in the background. All of these processes take some time, sometimes hours – and the longer it takes, the more you are being fooled.

I know that once I get involved with an exciting image I just can’t stop until I think it is at a finished state. So, an hour and a half go by and I save the file as a finalized .TIF and compliment myself on the finished image. I drink a toast on a job well done and then do some stuff that doesn’t involve sitting in a chair, in the dark.
Wind River Range - Wyoming

However, when I open the file the next day or, God forbid, look at the image that I hastily posted on my Facebook business site – it looks horrible! The colors are all weird, there is a blue cast that I can’t explain, the oranges are pale – what the hell happened?

Eye fatigue my friend, or more accurately – color fatigue. I am sure there is a scientific ophthalmological term for this, but color fatigue seems perfect to me. It’s like all the cones in your eyeballs just get tired or lazy, “Yea, that’s green, whatever” or, “Orange? Oh this nasty yellow is good enough for now.” You have 7 million color cones in the very center of your eyes’ retina, and its hard to image all of them just falling asleep at the wheel when you are using them the most – but they do.

Each little cone has to transfer a chemical reaction into an electrical impulse and then send it on to your brain. Each one of these impulses takes a little bit of energy, and then the cone has to ‘recharge’, for a lack of better term. We trichromates (red, green, and blue cones) weren’t meant to sit and stare at the emissive display of a computer screen for hours. Instead, we were designed to spot the lime colored edible leaf, to avoid the vivid red tree frog, and to watch out for anything with spots hiding in the grass. I believe that by staring at an image for too long reduces or alters the colors that we see. And the longer you stare – the more you are being fooled.

So, what have I learned? Never post an image to the public for at least one day. Open the image the next day, in the same darkened environment, and look at it again with some fresh cones. Nine times out of ten you will be wondering what the hell you were smoking when you did the post-processing the day before. Better yet, what I now do is take a break while editing. So, about every 15 – 30 minutes, I just walk away. Go get coffee, check for the mail, figure out why that sound of rushing water is coming out of the kitchen. Just get away from the display for a little while.

When you come back from the break you also get a fresh sense of your composition, the center of focus, and the color. It’s like proofing print images – tweaking them until the output color is just right.

Wind River Range - Wyoming

It seems like there are always elements that can alter the way your print appears, many of which are out of your control; the color temperature of lighting, the print paper, the surrounding wall color, the refraction of glass, the yellowing of the human lens and cornea. However, at least now you are aware of color fatigue, and know when to - just walk away.

Wind River Range - Wyoming