Creative Homework: Using Texture to Minimize Distractions

Hibiscus with Texture Effect Applied
Hibiscus with Texture

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

Another month has come and gone, but unfortunately, things haven’t changed that much. Most of the country is now on full or partial lockdown. Each day tends to blend right into the other. There were many things I had planned to shoot this spring which will now, undoubtedly, have to wait until next year. But, that’s a small price to pay compared to the medical superheroes who are fighting on the front lines every day. With field work indefinitely postponed, I thought it best to remove the batteries from all my equipment to prevent corrosion. Nowadays, I spend most of my time working in Photoshop. In my last article, I touched on adding texture effects to old images. Since so many of us are still confined to our homes, I decided to expand on this technique as another way to take advantage of this unprecedented downtime.

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Picture(s)-In-Picture: Creating Multiple Images From a Single Viewpoint

Overall, wide-angle view of The Lake in Central Park at 24mm.
Overall, wide-angle view of The Lake at 24mm.

Story and photos by F.M. Kearney

It’s easy to get caught up in the big picture. Some photographers tend to focus solely on the main scene. They shoot one or two photos, then quickly move on to the next “great thing.” This can be very tempting – especially when you’re shooting in a new area and you have a limited amount of time. But, most likely, you will end up with a bunch of generic-looking images of many different places, but fail to capture the true essence of any single place.

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True Affects: Using Special Effects to Realistically Affect Reality

Daylilies with Radial blur filter (spin method) applied
Daylilies with Radial Blur filter (spin method) applied

Story and Photos by F. M. Kearney

A friend of mine once showed me a movie trailer on Youtube for a foreign-made film called “B-14.” It’s about rival drug gangs, featuring an assassin with superhuman powers. To say that the special effects are ridiculously over-the-top would be an extreme understatement! This movie wasn’t meant to be funny, but I laughed more during this 1-minute trailer than I have during some 2-hour actual comedies. It seemed as though the producers just discovered special effects the night before and were determined to use all of them in this film – no matter how poorly executed, or whether the scene called for them or not.

Personally, I think special effects work best when they enhance existing attributes within a photo. If you can discern a distinctive pattern within a subject’s color or shape, or the overall composition of the scene, chances are there’s an effect that will accentuate it. 

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Finding Color in a Black & White World: Ways to Liven-Up Drab Winter Photos

A waterfall is a great place to find color… even in the winter.
A waterfall is a great place to find color… even in the winter.

Story and photos by F. M. Kearney

Winter – nature’s bleakest season. Or is it? It seems so, considering the scarcity of photographers in the field at this time of year. Where you would normally have to fight for the best position, you will undoubtedly now have the entire place all to yourself. In addition, you don’t have to worry too much about anyone wandering into your shot. Yes, winter doesn’t get much love when it comes to photography. Perhaps, it’s the inconvenience of dealing with frigid temperatures, and all the precautions needed to properly protect yourself and your equipment. Or, perhaps it’s the belief that there just isn’t anything worthwhile to shoot. Let’s face it, outside of a majestic, winter wonderland captured at the break of dawn or late in the day, most winter scenes are pretty bland. The fact that winter follows autumn – the most colorful of all seasons – you might feel as though you’re now shooting in black and white. But that doesn’t mean there’s absolutely no color to be found at all. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look and employing a few simple techniques.

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Shooting Through “Distractions”: Using Natural Elements to Frame Your Subjects

Blue spruce pine needles (200mm, f/4, ISO 400, 1/90 sec.)
Blue spruce pine needles (200mm, f/4, ISO 400, 1/90 sec.)

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

Imagine a child’s frustration in trying to see a passing parade while peering through a forest of gargantuan adult legs. I suppose it’s human nature to always want an unobstructed view of whatever it is we’re trying to see. This is especially true of press photographers, and of course… the paparazzi. How many times have you seen them on the evening news jostling and elbowing each other out the way in order to get the “best” shot? In nature, however, the best shot isn’t always necessarily the cleanest shot. If used correctly, certain “distractions” can provide a creative frame or bokeh around your subjects.

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From the Archives: The Complexity of Simplicity

F-14_edited-1

Story & photo by F. M. Kearney

I’m often amazed at just how much subconscious thought and planning goes into the creation of a “simple” photograph.

A couple of years ago I was in the Thain Family Forest of the New York Botanical Garden. Located in the center of the 250-acre garden, this forest is the last remaining tract of original forest that once covered most of New York City.

I was initially attracted to a rustic log fence at the entrance to one of the forest trails. Seeing it as the perfect foreground element to lead a viewer’s eye into the photo, I positioned my tripod in the center of the trail and leveled it to the height of the fence. This was the best perspective to show the lines converging as they disappeared around the bend in the distance.

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Giving Forethought to Foregrounds: Using Foregrounds to Add Visual Interest

Traditional use of foregrounds
Traditional use of foregrounds

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

The subject matter is intriguing. The light is just right. Everything looks perfect. You’re all set to take the shot, but something seems missing when you look through the viewfinder. It’s the foreground. If the foreground lacks interest, or worse, is non-existent, it can really diminish the aesthetics of a scene. It’s not that the scene is ruined, it’s just significantly less interesting. I’ve foregone photographing many otherwise perfect scenes simply because I could not find an engaging foreground element.

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Last Light: Taking Advantage of the Last Vestiges of Daylight

Venice Beach at twilight (1-minute exposure).
Venice Beach at twilight (1-minute exposure).

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

She snapped a photo of him each time he jumped in the air over an incoming wave.

A family the size of a small wedding party took turns photographing each other along the numerous rocks lining the shoreline.

He spent a lot of time capturing his better half in the evening light as she posed on a sand dune.

A day at the beach can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Photography has always been a popular pastime – especially toward the end of the day. If the beach is westward-facing, the sunsets are often truly amazing. This is usually the time when everyone’s attention turns to the sun (instead of each other) as it begins its descent below the horizon. The problem is that most people will pack up and leave immediately after it sets. It’s sort of like leaving the theater before the final credits finish rolling. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve hung around after the movie, only to be treated to some of the funniest outtakes and/or entire scenes that would have otherwise gone completely unseen had I left with the masses.

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Off-Peak Performance: Dealing With Pre- and Post-Peak Fall Foliage Periods

Pre-peak colors in the White Mountains National Forest (5-image HDR compilation).
Pre-peak colors in the White Mountains National Forest (5-image HDR compilation).

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

A few years ago, I went to the White Mountains National Forest in New Hampshire to capture the fall colors. I booked the trip weeks in advance, scheduled for mid-September – figuring that should be around the peak period in that part of the country. It was my first time visiting the New England area, so I was really anxious to witness and photograph its legendary color display. As fate would have it, I arrived about a week too soon. The photo above, shot along the Saco River in Bartlett, NH, was representative of the amount of color (or lack thereof) I was greeted with. Although the scenery was quite beautiful, the colors were nowhere near as vivid as what I was expecting.

When I got back home, I turned to Photoshop to see how I might improve my images. In the past, I had gotten terrific results using a special blur filter, called the Gaussian Blur. This filter adds a beautiful glow to your image, while also increasing its color saturation. It can be applied locally to selected areas, or globally – affecting the entire image. For my purposes, I chose the latter. Below is the opening photo with the Gaussian Blur technique applied.

Pre-peak colors enhanced with the Gaussian Blur technique.
Pre-peak colors enhanced with the Gaussian Blur technique.

Unfortunately, this filter alone will not produce the effect you see here. In fact, simply applying it to your image will only result in a blurry image. It’s definitely not a one-click solution to a perfect photo. Hence, the reason why I use the word “technique” instead of “filter.” To achieve optimum results, a considerable amount of prep is necessary, but the end results are well worth the effort.

To start off, I create a “high-key” image in the Camera Raw software. I lighten the exposure, highlights and whites; while reducing the contrast, shadows and blacks. Once I bring it into Photoshop, I copy the image by duplicating the layer. I then open a Levels Adjustment Layer and lighten the image even more. (I’ll explain the reason for all of this lightening in a second.) Next, I click on the background copy and apply the filter: Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur. Duplicating the layers is what prevents you from ending up with a blurry image. The blur is only applied to the background copy, while the original background remains sharp – creating an overall, soft glow. The amount of radius (blur) to apply is subjective, but I find that a single-digit setting for small files and a 20+ setting for larger files generally works well. My files are over 200mb, so I usually choose a setting between 34 and 36. I then make sure that the Opacity, located with the Layers panel, is set to 100% and select “Multiply” as the blending mode. This is why I lighten the image so much. The Multiple mode drastically increases the contrast and saturation. When I first started using the Gaussian Blur, I would only apply it to images taken on cloudy days. The high-contrast levels I got with this blending mode were consistently blocking up my shadow details. I could have chosen other modes, but they didn’t produce quite the same type of effect. The excessive over-lightening solved that problem. However, if you don’t experience these issues, you can probably skip the lightening step in Camera Raw. Finally, I return to the Levels layer and adjust the exposure to my liking. In most cases, the image will still need a bit of fine-tuning. After some selective burning and dodging and a desaturation of some of the more overly vivid colors, the image is finally complete. If you absolutely hate doing a lot of digital editing, a much easier workaround would be to simply increase the color saturation globally, or of specific colors. However, the overall tone won’t be as rich, and of course, you won’t get that nice, soft glow.

Original photo without Gaussian Blur technique.
Original photo without Gaussian Blur technique.
Gaussian Blur technique applied.
Gaussian Blur technique applied.

The Gaussian Blur technique doesn’t just come in handy during the off-peak periods. Last year, I photographed the fall colors at their peak in Wolfe’s Pond Park, in Staten Island, NY. The image above on the left is the finished, original photo. On the right, is the photo with the technique applied. Since the colors didn’t really need that much enhancing, I spent most of my time desaturating them afterwards. But the technique still produced a much richer-looking image overall.

While shooting in that same park, I came across a more wooded area where the colors were a bit past-peak. I could have used the Gaussian Blur technique here as well, but in this case, it wouldn’t have produced the effect I wanted. What initially attracted me to the scene was the abundance of tall trees receding into the background. Staten Island, the most rural of the five boroughs, is one of the few places within the confines of New York City where you can see scenes like this. I wanted to emphasize, not only the trees, but also the dwindling amount of foliage remaining. The photo below conveys what I saw, but not necessarily what I envisioned.

Past-peak conditions (original photo).
Past-peak conditions (original photo).

In order to emphasize the trees, I turned to another one of Photoshop’s blur filters, called the Motion Blur: Filter>Blur>Motion blur. Before applying it I, once again, duplicated the layer. The Motion Blur is defaulted to apply the blur at a 90-degree angle, which is exactly what I wanted for this image. If that doesn’t suit your needs, you can change the angle to whatever you want. I then selected the “Distance,” which determines the amount of blur. My image was now completely blurred with a vertical streak. This emphasized the trees, but did nothing for the foliage. But, because I duplicated the layer, I could now remove the effect from select portions of the image. I applied a layer mask to the background copy and selected the brush tool. With the foreground color set to black, I could now “paint” back in the foliage in selected locations. (If I go too far and remove too much blur, I can paint it back in by setting the foreground color to white.) All of this is completely customizable by adjusting the Opacity and Flow amounts. The photo below represents my vision of the scene.

Past-peak conditions with Motion Blur filter.
Past-peak conditions with Motion Blur filter.

Sometimes, you might be faced with a situation of great color in one area, but hardly any other significant color around it. You could, of course, just zoom in on it and call it a day. However, tight closeups can’t convey a “sense of place.” If the place is especially grand, you might want to show more of it than just a little snippet – which could have been shot anywhere. 

A patch of color along the Saco River in the White Mountains National Forest.
A patch of color along the Saco River in the White Mountains National Forest.

The image above is another scene from the White Mountains National Forest. Unlike the opening photo, a significant amount of color is localized right in the center of the frame. Rather than trying to enhance what little color there was surrounding it, I decided to go in a totally different direction.

Patch of color enhanced by a greyscale rendition.
Patch of color enhanced by a greyscale rendition.

Rendering everything else as a greyscale really made the color stand out – sort of like when a bride deliberately chooses the most hideous bridesmaids dresses in creation in order to make herself look better by comparison. But, unlike an insecure bride’s intentions, this method produces an almost fine-art version of the scene. It also gives the illusion that the entire area was awash with color. That can just be your little secret!

This effect is very easy to do. I just made a selection of the patch of color (including the reflection in the river) and inversed the selection. This selects everything but the color patch. I then converted the image to greyscale: Image>Adjustments>Black & White. Lastly, I inversed the selection again to reselect the patch, then slightly increased the overall color saturation. Also, when making a selection like this, when the intended effect will be drastic, it’s important to feather the selection with the Refine Edge tool. This will prevent a visible transition edge.

So, if you’re faced with less than stellar color this autumn… don’t despair. Using techniques like these just might produce images preferable to the standard fare.

F. M. Kearney began his photography career as a photojournalist for New York City newspapers. His focus soon shifted to capturing the beauty of the natural world. As an award-winning nature photographer, Kearney’s images have been widely published. A slight departure from photography, his recently published horror novel, “They Only Come Out at Night,” about supernatural happenings in the New York City subway (partially inspired by his travels as a photojournalist), is available on Amazon. To see more of Kearney’s work, visit http://www.starlitecollection.com.

Get Connected to the Underworld: Discover the Beauty of the Underside of Flowers

Rear of floribunda roses shot from below.
Rear of floribunda roses shot from below.

Story and photos by F. M. Kearney

Flowers are definitely one of the most popular subjects in nature photography. They’ve been photographed with limited depths of field to convey a soft, romantic look. They’ve been photographed with large depths of field to show the abundance of a large group. Sometimes, the sun is included for a more dynamic shot. A vast array of special effects have been employed to produce some truly stunning imagery. Indeed, flowers have been photographed in every conceivable way imaginable. However, the one way in which I hardly ever see is from the rear. I did a Google search of “Creative Flower Photography,” and out of the 100 or so results, only 2 or 3 photos featured the backside. That’s a shame because so many great opportunities are going unrealized.

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