In the Moment:
Michael Frye's Landscape Photography Blog

The Power of Curves

The Power of Curves

I did something I’ve wanted to do for a long time: post a video tutorial on YouTube. It’s called The Power of Curves, and it’s about, well, curves in Photoshop. This is one of those things that’s just easier to show than explain, so it’s a perfect subject for video.

I think Curves are the single most powerful tool in the digital darkroom; if you learn to master Curves, you’re well on your way to mastering image-processing. Curves tend to intimidate some people, as they seem foreign if you haven’t used them before. But Curves are really quite simple, and I hope this video helps clarify how to use this amazing tool. I had to break this into two parts; here are the links:

The Power of Curves Part 1

The Power of Curves Part 2

Originally I had wanted to talk about the new Point Curve feature in Lightroom 3, but then realized that I needed to explain some basics about Curves first, and that Photoshop was a better tool for that. But I’ll post another video in about two weeks about using Curves in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw, and about dealing with their strange default settings.

YouTube HDSo I hope you enjoy these—let me know what you think! To see everything clearly you need to view in high resolution—click on where it says 240p or 360p in the lower-right corner and choose 480p. Also, if  you click on the little double-sided arrow you’ll see the video larger.


A Trip to Tuolumne Meadows

Lenticular cloud above Mounts Dana and Gibbs
Lenticular cloud above Mounts Dana and Gibbs

Saturday Claudia and I drove up to Tuolumne Meadows. There was still lots of snow in the high country—not as much as when the pass first opened, of course, but plenty. We hiked around Pothole Dome to the place where the Tuolumne River starts to tumble down from the west end of the meadows, as I wanted to photograph these cascades with high water. We had the place to ourselves and it was beautiful. Claudia took a short video of that upper cascade, which I posted on Facebook.

We kept our eyes on a big lenticular cloud that had formed over the mountains to the north, but it seemed to dissipate near the end of the day. As we walked back up to the main meadow near sunset, however, we saw that a smaller lenticular cloud was riding above Mt. Gibbs, so we rushed to a spot closer to the road and caught the last sunset light on the mountains. I assembled the panorama above from two images zoomed in on the peaks.

We didn’t get home until 11 p.m., but it was worth it. We had a great afternoon in a special place.

Water leaving Tuolumne Meadows (this is the cascade in the video)
Water leaving Tuolumne Meadows (this is the cascade in the video)

Photo Critique Series: “Fog Shrouded Merlot” by Mark Zukowski.

"Fog Shrouded Merlot" by Mark Zukowski
“Fog Shrouded Merlot” by Mark Zukowski

This week’s photograph was made by Mark Zukowski in Sonoma County, California. By having his image chosen for this critique Mark will receive a free 16×20 matted print from Aspen Creek Photo. If you’d like your images considered for future critiques you can upload them to the Flickr group I created for this purpose.

Mark made this image at his own vineyard. Nice place! Finding photogenic areas near your home can reap rewards, allowing you to take advantage of fleeting weather conditions. Mark did that here, using the fog to create a wonderfully moody photograph.

This image was originally captured in color, in Raw. Mark said he initially struggled with the white balance, and that’s one of the reasons he tried converting this to black and white. Here’s the color version, and I see what he means about the white balance: something seems off about the color, although it’s hard to pinpoint whether it’s color temperature or camera calibration. But even if the color could be improved this photograph would still be better in black and white. The slightly warm-toned monochrome treatment adds to the mood and gives the image an old-world feeling that seems appropriate for this setting.

The color version
The color version

I like the way the rows of grapevines lead my eyes right to the building in the background. The craggy oak right of center has a great shape, and adds an interesting focal point. Overall the composition works well.

One thing that bothers me however is the patch of dark ground at the very bottom of the frame, as it draws my attention away from more interesting things above. Trimming this edge a bit to eliminate the darkest patches of ground seems to help:

After trimming the bottom edge
After trimming the bottom edge

We see only part of the tree along the left side, and that’s normally a problem, as prominent elements like this can become distracting when hanging along the edge. Here though that tree seems to work, as it adds an echo to the tree right of center, and cropping it out leaves the left side of the picture somewhat empty.

But perhaps this might have worked even better if Mark had included all of that left-edge tree, creating even stronger repetition between the shapes of the two oaks. Of course there may have been some distracting element just outside the picture that prompted Mark to frame the image this way. Even if there wasn’t, including all of that left-hand tree would have required zooming out and adding either more sky or more foreground, neither of which would be desirable. But cropping into more of a panoramic shape probably would have solved that.

Another idea would have been stepping further to the left, which would have brought the two trees closer together visually. From a certain angle the building could have been neatly framed between the two trees. Of course moving to the left would have changed the alignment of the grapevines, so instead of leading our eyes right to the house they would lead toward the trees left of the house. Another issue is that, as we see it now, the tree right of center stands out clearly against a lighter background; there seems to be a small gap in the trees behind it, allowing lighter fog to show through. Stepping to the left probably would have positioned that tree against the darker vegetation that we now see on the right edge of the frame. So maybe moving to the left wouldn’t have worked, but it’s always worth thinking about different camera positions when you’re there, behind the camera, and have a chance to improve the composition.

Mark used a 70 mm lens on a Nikon D700, giving the image a short telephoto perspective with this full-frame sensor. The exposure was 1/125 sec. at f/5.6 with 200 ISO. This is a pretty wide aperture, and while everything appears looks in focus at this small size, a bigger enlargement might reveal softness in the foreground or background. A smaller aperture, like f/11 or more, might have been a better choice to expand the depth of field and ensure that everything was in focus. Of course this would have required a slower shutter speed and necessitated a tripod.

The exposure and contrast look just right. The sky in the upper-right corner is the brightest part of the scene, but not really where you want people to look most, so that area should probably be darkened a bit.

But overall this photograph is very well done. It has a great mood, enhanced by the warm-toned black-and-white treatment. If you communicate a feeling, you’ve done your job as a photographer.

Thanks Mark for sharing your image! You can see more his work on Flickr.

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As part of being chosen for this week’s critique John will receive a free 16×20 matted print courtesy of the folks at Aspen Creek Photo. If you’d like your images considered for future critiques, just upload them to the Flickr group I created for this purpose. If you’re not a Flickr member yet, joining is free and easy. You’ll have to read and accept the rules for the group before adding images, and please, no more than five photos per person per week. I’ll be posting the next critique in two weeks. Thanks for participating!


High Water

Melting snow fills the Tuolumne RiverWhile the snow at high elevations in Yosemite is melting rapidly, there’s still plenty around,enough to keep the water flow high as it melts. While the snow at high elevations in forecast calls for warmer temperatures Sunday and Monday, so the water volume in Yosemite Valley should increase—maybe not to the level we saw last weekend, but close. After that, temperatures are supposed to cool down again, so that may be the end of the highest water this year, as most of the snow will be gone soon.

Sideways Photography

Vertical composition of Lower Calf Creek Fall, Utah, with the waterfall centered
Vertical composition of Lower Calf Creek Fall, Utah, with the waterfall centered


Two weeks ago I wrote about workflow. Today I’m going to talk about composition. But vision, technique, and the digital darkroom are all vital aspects of landscape photography, and I want to explore every relevant topic in this blog. I hope I can make the concepts, whether technical or creative, clear and easy to understand.

As a beginning photographer I almost always held the camera horizontally. Not only is the camera designed this way, it’s also the most natural way to see, since our eyes are lined up side-by-side on our heads. But the camera only has one lens—one eye—and “sees” just as well in an upright position. I missed a lot of good compositions in those early days because I didn’t think to turn the camera sideways.  (more…)