Playing with Photos

billboard photo of a cockatiel

I used PhotoFunia to put Zim on a billboard poster.

I’m trying to break through the pack ice of my creativity and see if I can break loose a few ideas. The problem with getting caught up with the idea of trying to sell your creative work, whether it’s writing or photography, is that you start to think in terms of whether or not you can sell a piece. I’m trying to back far enough away from that mindset so that I can take some throw-away pictures and see if I can come up with something fun. I’m trying not to think of it as a waste of time, because it really isn’t.

Having a smartphone with a camera has given me a “toy” to play with, as far as photography is concerned. Since I’m not carrying around my big camera I don’t feel like I have to produce a really good photo. It’s no big deal if the photo doesn’t turn out well because there’s no danger of it being “wrong.” So I take pictures of my birds occasionally simply because they’re available as (more or less willing) models. This usually gives me a bit of a challenge because they tend to move around a lot, and they can change from oh-so-cute little fluff balls into the meanest, angriest birds you’re likely to see this side of that popular game. Small they may be, but let me tell you, they know exactly where to bite your hand. And forget that nonsense about not biting the hand that feeds you — these birds have never heard that expression and wouldn’t understand it, either.

Zim poses for a Xolaroid 2000 portrait.

This is the original photo taken with the Retro Camera phone app, using the Xolaroid camera.

Okay, so on to photography. I used my Droid smartphone and Retro Camera to take the picture of Zim, and then I used the PhotoFunia application to upload the image and paste Zim’s photo into this billboard. You can see some of the graininess in the black-and-white image compared to the smoothness of the color part of the image. The whole thing is a bit silly, but it might be useful for a creativity prompt. I’m thinking of experimenting with some more of my informal pictures to use them for the Thursday Writing Prompts posts. This one would be a bit of a head-scratcher for a story, but maybe that’s what creative folks need — a bit of a jolt to get pushed off from those mental icebergs.

High Dynamic Range Photography

National Building Museum fountain

The central fountain inside the National Building Museum. I used Topaz Adjust to bring out details in the stairway and corridor areas.

I’ve dabbled a bit with high dynamic range (HDR) photography, but I haven’t done anything more than dip my toes in the water, so to speak. Last year I downloaded a couple of trial programs and bought a Dummies book on HDR photography. I love the way it looks and wanted to try it out.

When we went to Yellowstone and Arches national parks last year I took a lot of photos with multiple exposures with the idea that I would someday combine them for HDR. But I got busy with school and work, and they’ve sat on my computer, untouched.

Last month I joined a photography group on Meetup called the DC High Dynamic Rangers so I would have a reason to get out and do some photography. I used to belong to a camera club that did outings, and I kind of missed the photo trips. There are a lot of places I’d like to go, but I just don’t want to go by myself.

Detail of eagle urn, National Building Museum

This HDR image shows the detail of one of the many eagle urns that line second-floor walkway at the National Building Museum.

I still don’t understand my HDR software yet, and I’m dabbling with three different trial programs to see which one I like the best: Fhotoroom HDR (which used to be called Artizen), Oloneo Photo Engine, and Photomatix. I also purchased a plug-in for Photoshop called Topaz Adjust. I like it very much, but it only works with one image at a time. And my version of Photoshop is so old — CS — that I think it’s starting to fossilize. Some of the plug-in software I want to use won’t work with it, so I guess I need to spring for an updated version.

eagle urn detail

The original photo of the eagle urn doesn't seem very detailed when compared to the HDR image.

For both images on this blog post, I used the Topaz Adjust plug-in to create a single-file HDR image. The original eagle close-up looked just fine — until I applied the filter to it. Once I saw the detail in the HDR eagle, the original looked like it was just flat color.

This HDR photography is going to take some work for me to get fluent with any of the software packages that are out there. So far, I really like the Topaz plug-in and I plan to play with a lot of my existing images to see what details I can pull out of them. Stay tuned.

Playing with Photo Textures

Seagull photo

The seagull photo was combined with a freeware texture to produce this op-art effect.

I haven’t been doing much work with Photoshop lately, and for that matter, I haven’t done much photography since I’ve come back from vacation last fall. It’s too easy to get back into the work grind, you know? Traveling makes me want to take pictures, but it’s hard to be a tourist where you live. You simply stop noticing the kinds of things that make for good pictures because you’re too focused on the daily things in life.

Still, I launched Photoshop — I’m still on version CS — and did some playing. I wasn’t trying to make anything in particular, so there was no “wrong” image. In the above photo, I used a texture image that came on a CD from It’s the radial lines combined with the grunge effect. I layered it over my photo of the seagull and adjusted the opacity. I also had to resize it and move it around so that the seagull would be at the center of the circle. I used the eraser tool to remove some of the texture that was directly over the seagull so he wouldn’t look too messy.

It’s not a work of art — I don’t expect to make an enlargement and hang the photo on my wall. There are some areas around the bird that could use some tweaking and there’s a white line at the top of the image that looks like a huge scratch. But the more I look at it, I realize that not every image needs to be perfect. This one was simply a playful experiment that I did so I could get motivated to do some creative work. An art studio instructor I had long ago told us to take our charcoal and draw a big, dark line across our entire sheet of paper. It dispelled the “blank page” syndrome. Apparently, artists get this block just as much as writers, so I guess it’s possible for photographers to be afflicted with it, too. Take some “junk” photos and just play with manipulating them in your software. Add colors and textures, combine images, and don’t worry too much about what looks right. Just have fun, and if you come up with anything really interesting, post a link to it.

Using Photo Filters

I used a Cokin mauve graduated filter to add some color to the reflections of these trees at the Patuxent Research Refuge.

Now that we’re firmly in the digital age, it’s a pretty simple thing to get yourself some photo editing software and add color to just one section of your image. But that wasn’t always the case and, back in the “good ‘ol days” of film, you needed a filter of some kind to add the color to the image when you were taking the photo. Savvy darkroom enthusiasts might have been able to use colored filters to bump the colors a bit when they were processing their prints, but this was a bit of a hit-or-miss affair and not something for the faint of heart.

If you’ve ever done darkroom work, you know what the terms “dodge” and “burn” mean in real life. To dodge an image mean putting your hand or a piece of cardboard or anything else that would block the enlarger’s light from hitting the light-sensitive photo paper. “Burning in” was dodging’s complement: any area that received more light than the rest of the image was burned in, meaning that it became darker on the final print.

Black and white darkroom work was about as basic as you could get, because the light coming from the enlarger either struck your paper or it didn’t. The more light that hit the paper, the darker the final image would be. In addition to basic photo papers, there were multi-contrast photo papers that were sensitive to a range of colors. With these papers, you could use gelatin filters in your enlarger to adjust the contrast of the final print. I had a set of these filters when I did black and white darkroom work, and I used to make several prints and try out the different filters to see which image I liked best.

Color printing was more complicated. I tried it only once or twice and then gladly paid the local photo store to process my film and prints! I imagine it’s possible to add color to portions of a photo through careful manipulation of the amount of light hitting the color photo paper and the judicious use of filters. Every print made this way would be an absolute original, and it would be nearly impossible to make small adjustments to portions of the image.

Using colored filters in front of the lens when you take the picture is much easier. And these filters work with film or digital cameras, too. Don’t be afraid to try them just because you can add the colors in later with software. Sometimes it’s not so easy, and working with the filters can be fun, too. I have about 25 Cokin and generic brand A-sized filters that I started buying in the 1980s. I probably invested a couple of hundred dollars in these, so I didn’t want to trash them. But they’re too small for my SLR’s lenses. Just recently I found a filter holder that will work with my Nikon Coolpix that cost about ten dollars. Now these filters have a new lease on life, and I have my toys back!