Adding Color to Photos

So how far do you go with image editing and post processing?  Just some slight boost and sharpening to keep it realistic, or very artistic and fantastic, beyond what’s real?  That’s a question I’ve been running into.

I guess the answer is: As far as you want to.

There is both a technical, logical, realist and an creative artist in me, and sometimes they argue.  I like a colorful and bold style, so I usually boost saturation and contrast in my photos, sometimes more than what the real scene looked like when I was standing there shooting it.  But in these “before and after” photos, I am adding color to a photo where there wasn’t any before.

Hilltop Tree - No Editing

Hilltop Tree – No Editing

This photo was taken with my EOS 10D in Chino Hills State Park in southern California. This is the JPEG that the camera spit out. This was before I learned the value of shooting in RAW format. The rolling hills and lone tree on top made an interesting composition, but I never did anything with this file for the past 7 years because it was rather dull. The sky is colorless and the rest… well, brown.  I’ve been practicing with Aperture 3 and some NIK plug-in software. I did this photo with NIK Color Efex Pro 4.

Hilltop Tree - Color Added

Hilltop Tree – Color Added

Using some software filters, including graduated and color effects, this photo has taken on an entirely different mood!  I did try to be gentle and muted with the effect and keep it somewhat natural. If you saw this photo alone, without the “before” picture, you might not see anything artificial about it.  But those colors and the density in the sky certainly are artificial.

This last weekend I went out to walk on some trails around some wastewater treatment ponds. Not septic systems, just managing water drainage and runoff from the roads and fields above. It does rain a lot in Washington, after all.  It’s the middle of winter now, so there isn’t as much color around as usual.

Grass Clumps

Grass Clumps

I shot this with my EOS 7D with the 70-200mm f/4L.  I thought the row of light colored grass and their reflections in the water was interesting. The sun was just about to set behind trees to the right of the photo.  But I wanted to make this photo something more.  And I probably overdid it!

Glowing Grass

Glowing Grass

There is a “bi-color” filter and an artistic “glow” effect in play here.  The glow effect softens the sharpness of the details, but it does add a soft, dreamy effect. This one is definitely less realistic than the first edit, but I like it, even though I know some people won’t.  Is it an improvement? That’s probably subjective. I could edit this photo in several different directions, some more realistic and authentic looking than others.  My wife says I should apply more of a vintage look, and that this is too strong and obvious.  I did just say some people won’t like it, didn’t I?  Well, she has an art degree in interior design, so she probably knows better.  I’m just an accountant who likes to push photographs into the range of surreal and fantasy sometimes. I don’t get paid to do this, so it might as well be fun!


Infrared photos with unconverted dSLR

I’ve been doing a lot of experimenting over the past 9 months or so with different photography projects. Everything from using new software plug-ins to technical experiments, like using a ridiculously strong close-up filter. And I’ve just done another one.

If you want to take infrared photographs, you have two basic paths to take:

1. You can buy an IR filter which passes only infrared light, screw it on the end of your lens, and put the assembly on a tripod. Why? Because most digital cameras have “hot mirrors”, or a filter over the sensor which blocks most of the IR light. This means it takes a long time to get enough IR rays to make a decent exposure. The stronger the hot mirror, the longer your exposure. Filters cost from $20 – nearly $200 depending on brand and size.

2. You can send your camera to a company who removes the hot mirror and calibrates your auto-focus for infrared. IR wave lengths are different from visible light and actually focus sharply at different distances. This procedure costs from $250 – $350, from what I’ve seen.

I don’t have an extra $300 lying around, so I’ve been going about it the first and cheaper way. I’ve been using a Canon Powershot G3 since it was a new model in 2002 (see this post, and its relatively weak hot mirror still requires a tripod. This means I’ve only been able to shoot static subjects, and have to setup a tripod and compose for every shot.  By the way, I did say “cheaper”, but I just found that the B+W brand 093 filter I bought 12 years ago for $75 is now about $150 on  That’s more expensive than some multi-element lenses!

I still have my old EOS 10D, so I ordered a step-up ring to make my old 58mm filter fit my 28mm prime lens (which has a 52mm filter size).  The Canon 28mm f/2.8 is not an expensive lens, but it is quite sharp. I purchased it as an alternative to my softer Sigma zoom (back before I got my red-striped Canon L lenses).  Since my 58mm IR filter won’t fit on my 17-40mm 4.0L with its 77mm filter size, I had to use the widest smaller lens I had.  Enough text! Let’s see my first attempt in my own backyard!

Unconverted EOS 10D - 30 seconds, f/8

Unconverted EOS 10D – 30 seconds, f/8

Shooting in the shade with weak winter sun still got a decent result with the shutter open for a full half minute. The procedure is focus manually before putting on the filter, then stop down to f/8 or smaller to avoid focus differences between IR and visible light. I could have gotten a shorter exposure using higher ISO setting, but I didn’t really need one.

Unconverted EOS 10D - 30 secs, f/8.0

Unconverted EOS 10D – 30 secs, f/8.0

This shot was obviously in full sunlight, but with the exact same exposure value as the shade shot. I kept shooting at different shutter speeds until I got a decent “mountain” in the middle of my histogram, instead of lopsided to the left. 30 seconds happens to be the longest shutter speed you can set in manual exposure mode on most EOS dSLRs. To go longer, you need to use bulb mode. I just got a timer/remote release, so that will be a future experiment.

These photo’s have been edited considerably. They look rather low contrast and gray straight out of the camera. Thanks to RAW files, I was able to sharpen and adjust them without loosing much image quality.

Just for comparison, my Canon G3 takes around one second to make an exposure with the same IR filter attached.  I’d say that means the EOS 10D has a much stricter, stronger hot mirror in front of the sensor.  I expect my much newer EOS 7D simply isn’t practical at all for IR photography.

So how would things change if I forked over $300 to have my old EOS 10D converted to be dedicated to IR photography?

1. I could take hand-held IR photos without a tripod with normal shutter speeds.

2. I could compose through the viewfinder because the IR filter is on the sensor, not the end of the lens. (You can’t see through an IR filter – it looks painted black.)

3. I don’t know for sure, but I believe the RAW files would be more contrasty and have a more pronounced IR effect without the IR-blocking hot mirror in the way.

I don’t know… those are some pretty tempting advantages! I should probably start saving my pennies!

HDR variations of Seattle

The realist in me struggles with stylized HDR photography, but the artist in me loves the vivid and surreal effects. Some of them look so cool! In the end I have to reconcile these two photographers in me: the photojournalist who thinks everything should look just like the real scene, no more and no less, and the artist who loves creative effects which go way beyond realistic.

So here is a non-HDR exposure for comparison, shot at minus 1.33 stop exposure compensation.  I chose the (-1.33) from my (-1.33, 0, +1.33) HDR set. (I should have used 2 full stops over/under, but I wasn’t paying attention.)  I chose the underexposed image (according to the camera’s meter) because the meter tries to expose everything 18% gray, and this night scene was a lot darker than that.

Seattle at Night - Non-HDR

Seattle at Night – Non-HDR

So that’s what happens when I shoot RAW and use slight negative exposure compensation, then edit in the computer with my still growing but painfully lacking skills. Not bad, and it looks fairly realistic.

Seattle Night - HDR 1

Seattle Night – HDR 1

This is the HDR version. I think “detail extractor” and/or contrast adjustments in my Aperture plug-in software caused the vertical streaks you see in the sky. I’ll have to experiment and figure out how to eliminate that unpleasing effect.

Seattle Night - HDR 2

Seattle Night – HDR 2

Combining three images into one seems to make the color saturation more intense.  Also, moving things are blurred because the longest exposure was 30 seconds. It probably should have been longer, but 30 secs is the longest I can set the camera to without plugging in an external timer. If you look at the ship’s rear housing, it was obviously rocking slightly. And just above the front of the ship, you can see the blurred lights of two ferries pulling into port.

Seattle Night - HDR 3

Seattle Night – HDR 3

This last shot is more stylized and less realistic. The shadows lightened up and the colors are even more intense.  It can also create some strange halo effects around objects like the dark building on the right

HDR, in it’s most basic sense, allows us to capture detail that a single exposure would lose in it’s shadows and highlights because the “Dynamic Range” is too “High” for the sensor get everything at a single exposure value.  Shadows too dark and highlights too bright. Combining over- and under-exposed images allows us to capture that extra detail and compress it into tones we can perceive with our eyes.

I am still learning about HDR and when to use it, but from what I’ve gathered so far, most daylight shooting doesn’t call for it. It’s simply not needed because the tones from dark to light can be captured with a single exposure. An example of where it could come in handy would be if you are shooting a scene where the sky is much brighter than the foreground. Or you could just use a graduated neutral density filter to even things out. Obviously, it’s not practical for fast moving subjects or photos that require precise, split-second timing.

Someone said HDR exposures should be at least 2 stops apart, otherwise you’re just wasting exposures. Some people do 7- or 9-shot sequences, which seems a bit like overkill to me, but there may be some extreme situations that call for it. I do like some of the cool HDR effects, but I’m drawn to a cleaner, smoother, less gritty and texturized look.

Seattle as the sun sets…

I have been experimenting with long exposure photography and night-time HDR photos. One afternoon last week I drove up to West Seattle and took some photos from a hillside park with a great view of the downtown area across the water.  I took some HDR photos (bracketed exposures of the same composition) after the sun went down, but I’ll save those for another post.

When I started really getting into film photography around 1993, some people called me “Filter Boy” because I liked to stylize my shots with colored filters.  I grew to appreciate the natural look and moved away from doing that. Another reason to avoid using colored filters on film is that such effects can be added in software if you scan the negative, but you can’t change the negative itself when the sunset is forever an unnatural purple color.  I do use a polarizing filter to cut haze in daytime scenic shots, or graduated neutral density filters to even out exposure, but that’s about making a crisper, better exposed photo, not a more colorful one.

Fast forward to present day… we have some powerful and awesome image editing software!  And it’s quite hard to stop myself from pushing RAW files to be much more colorful and contrasty than the original scenes actually were.  So forgive me if some of these don’t look entirely natural. I was having fun!

Seattle at Sunset

Seattle at Sunset

Seattle Panoramic

Seattle Panoramic

Seattle & Ship

Seattle & Ship

Seattle Building Reflections

Seattle Building Reflections