Prehistoric woods

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There is a geologic period called the Devonian. One characteristic of it was the formation of extensive forests, with ferns being one of the early forms of vegetation. If you wander round the woods of Exmoor on the north Devon coast you can imagine that time.

This particular shot caught my eye partly because of the play of light and the slender zig-zagging sapling in the centre of the scene. However, I think it is only fully successful when you see it in a large reproduction. The version above is down-sized but I’ve included a full-size version below that you can click on. I didn’t want to include it in-line because of the size (over 9Mb).

Here is the full size version

Carrying on the sharpness theme of recent posts I discovered many years ago how adding an amount of blur can (paradoxically) add an impression of sharpness. The processing software I used (PictureWindow Pro) had an Unsharp Mask tool for sharpening. I found I could get a very nice result by using a small amount of gaussian blur in addition (I think I added the blur after the sharpening but don’t quote me – it’s been a while since I’ve done it that way). My theory is that the impression of sharpness comes from having smooth tonal gradations. Too much sharpening and contrast can make the picture harsh and the blur softens it again. In this shot I’ve used Lightroom’s usual Sharpen settings but also taken the Clarity slider down to -43. I think it’s had the same effect of smoothing the tonal gradations to reduce harshness. I think it is best seen in the full size version in the ferns at the bottom of the scene.

In addition, the contrast (in tone, colour and texture) between the foliage and the tree trunks creates another source of perceived sharpness and three-dimensionality, helped by the lighting.

Triptych

Triptych

These three shots are not new but I’ve revisited the processing for two of them. I wrote a few weeks ago about how I found how effective it can be to stretch the whites and blacks sliders in Lightroom. Since then it’s been part of my standard workflow. This has prompted me to take a fresh look at some older pictures and that’s what I’ve tried with the two left hand shots above. I’ve shown them with the shot on the right because I think they make a great triptych.

To carry on with the theme of sharpness I’ve had for the last few posts this is another angle on that subject. An effect we want to achieve is a sense of depth and three dimensionality to our pictures. Having a wide range of tones from dark to bright is one way to help that. It’s not enough just to have the range. You’ll get that from a bright sunny day of high contrast. It’s how you position the tones to emphasise parts of the shot and downplay others. In these shots I’ve lightened the parts of the shot I want to bring to the foreground and used vignetting or radial filters to darken the surround. This makes parts of the shot advance or recede and adds to the sense of depth and this is part of the whole perception of what we simply call sharpness.

On Sharpness

I talked a few posts ago about our perceptions of image sharpness. I illustrated that post with an example of extreme sharpness – showing the amazing level of detail available even hand-held from my Olympus OMD-EM10 and its tiny and cheap kit lens.

A view of Skiddaw shot using the Olympus OMD-EM10 "high grain with pin-hole" scene mode.
A view of Skiddaw shot using the Olympus OMD-EM10 “high grain with pin-hole” scene mode.

This time I want to go to the other extreme. The shot above was a result of constraining myself to shoot JPEG only on a day of uninspiring bright sunshine. In real life this was not an attractive scene. A water pipeline is being layed and the project has created an ugly scar on the landscape. The light is flat and uninteresting. However the shapes are strong. The S-shaped curve of the pipes and track leading up to the mountain range and with the aircraft contrails fanning out at the top.

I used the Olympus’ “High Grain” scene mode, with the addition of “pin-hole effect” which has created a strong vignette. I find the results work quite well, though quite different to my normal style. Here’s another shot taken a short while later. The scene is more my usual thing but the light and haze made it a boring conventional shot.

Using Olympus High Grain scene mode
Using Olympus High Grain scene mode

The point of this post, though, is that the effects have removed much of the technical sharpness from the shot. Looking at it at 100% magnification gives the authentic impression of poor quality film shot through a poor quality lens from a hundred years ago. However this becomes irrelevant because of the strong subject and composition. If anything, sharpness and technical quality might have distracted. As it is, it becomes easier for the viewer to see the strong abstract shapes but still keeping the atmosphere of the landscape.

I was speaking about this subject to someone recently and they said that when you’re concerned about the lack of sharpness in your picture it’s because there’s nothing to hold your attention in the subject and composition. I agree. Probably all modern cameras are capable of giving good quality results. If you’re worrying whether your camera or lens are sharp enough then pay more attention to the fundamentals – subject, composition and light.