Windows and Stone

Laurel, Maryland: A window in the old Laurel Volunteer Fire Department building. Here, I cropped the image to focus your attention on the window itself and not on the ugly power lines or pavement.

The original image was not level and had too many distracting elements.

I’m going through some of my older photographs and seeing what raw material I have for doing some creative work in Photoshop. I keep buying issues of Photoshop Creative and other art magazines and then I let them sit on my desk while I’m busy with schoolwork or other stuff. But this is the final week of my humanities class and I only have one more short assignment to work on, and I already feel like a kid of the verge of summer vacation.

I’m taking a month’s break before starting my next history class in June. I’m just about halfway through my master’s degree program in European history (another week!) and plan to use the final weeks of April and all of May to finish my novel and catch up on some other creative projects that I’ve started — one of which is learning Photoshop CS5 a lot better. So, now it’s time to dust off the electronic cobwebs from some of my digital files and get creative!

What I’ve done with these two photographs is extremely basic. With the window image, I had to straighten it so that the lines in the image were horizontal. I had taken the picture with a hand-held camera and the image was crooked in the frame. Plus, there were a lot of distracting elements in the original photo. This is one of those small things that you don’t necessarily see while you’re out taking photos, but as soon as you pull it up onscreen it looks awful. The trick is to start training yourself to look for these things while you’re out taking pictures so that you have less mess to deal with once you’re back at the computer, although sometimes you can’t avoid them altogether. You don’t want to spend all your time editing out power lines from your images!

I used the Image Rotation feature in Photoshop and manipulated the image by rotating it about 1.3 degrees counterclockwise. I had to play with the numbers a bit until it looked straight. I don’t know if there’s a protractor tool or not in Photoshop CS5, so I just winged it. I haven’t been using Photoshop for some time and I’m rusty with masking and some of the finely tuned controls, plus I haven’t learned most of the new tools in CS5 (I upgraded from CS, so it’s a bit of a shock to my system!).

After straightening the image I used Unsharp Mask and applied some sharpening, careful to keep the amount low enough so that I didn’t introduce major artifacts to the image. I cropped the image so the street and electric wires are gone, since they add nothing but clutter to the image. The result is that the window and the stonework become the center of attention. I also used Topaz Adjust’s HDR filter to bring out some detail in the stone. Take a close look at the original image and the edited image. There’s a great deal of texture in the brick and stone, and the glass has a much more reflective quality than it did in the original.

Here, I've given emphasis to the texture of the stonework by converting the image to black and white with the Topaz B&W filter plug-in.

For this smaller image of the building’s dedication plaque, I did very little except convert the image to black and white with Topaz filters. I liked the angles in this image because they lend some movement to the picture and make it a bit less static. And the horizontal lines aren’t so far removed from being level that the image seems unbalanced, either. Also, there’s an interesting contrast between the textures and shapes. The stone and concrete are rough enough that you can almost feel the texture, while the glass is smooth. The stones are irregular in shape but the square glass blocks with their vertical and horizontal dividers make for a strict geometric background.

Photographing the Office Plant

It’s that time of year again: the Christmas cactus (or holiday cactus, if you prefer) is in bloom. But this isn’t one of the plants I’ve had for years. Around February I accidentally knocked a segment of two leaves off one of my established plants, so I potted them up and took them into the office. Within a few weeks the two leaves became four, then eight or nine, then twenty. I stopped counting at 87 leaves because I figured the plant was pretty well established by then, plus it was getting harder to keep track of them. In November the plant started setting buds, so I did a flower watch and took my camera in to work once the cactus started blooming.

In the top image is the original photo, which I photographed with a Nikon Coolpix S6200, using the selective color mode. It’s a fun tool to play around with. I like the image, but the red is a bit too vibrant against the black-and-white for my tastes. It’s actually harsh, and it doesn’t convey the feeling that I want. So I loaded the file into Photoshop and started playing with the Topaz BW Effects filters. I applied the “Hand Tinted Chiffon” preset from the Opalotype Collection, and then clicked on “Simplify” in the Creative Effects menu. The result is a nice dreamy image that accentuates the plant by vignetting the edges. The fiery red is toned down to a pale color, so it’s a little easier on the eyes. And the simplify changes the sharp focus into an artistic rendering by reducing the number of colors in the image.

Thursday Writing Prompt No. 17

architectural decoration

This lion gargoyle sits atop a window in Baltimore. The picture was taken with a Nikon Coolpix S210 and converted to black-and-white using Topaz filters.

This week’s Thursday Writing Prompt asks you to write a descriptive paragraph or two that focus on setting. I think if you aim for 350 words that will give you enough room to do some development, but it isn’t so short that you get lazy and write lame sentences such as “the building was made from stone.” Tell your reader what kind of stone by describing its physical properties, like size, shape, and color. What you want to do is make your description so vivid that the reader will see your setting and feel like it’s real.

Writing about things you see every day is actually pretty hard. What I’ve found is that I tend to go past things without really looking at them, because I’m usually on the way to work and busy thinking about something other than the buildings that I’m walking or driving past. And I’ve got to say that people who spend a lot of time on their cell phones are almost never aware of their surroundings. Not a rant; just an observation. But the larger point is that people get distracted with daily life and don’t notice the details. I only just noticed last week that the building I park my car in has a second-story balcony on the front, and I’ve been walking into the lobby of that building for, oh, almost a year.

Being a tourist or visiting someplace nearby where you don’t often go is a better way to start writing description because you’re already primed to be looking around you for directions. The novelty of non-routine is enough sometimes to break through the fog of boredom and chores that accompanies daily life. If you can, go someplace that’s new to you and write about something. It doesn’t have to be a road trip. You can go to a coffee shop that you’ve never been to and sit and write about the building across the street or the trees planted outside. If you’re stuck, just write notes.

Here are some things to consider about description. When you’re writing about buildings, look at their shape. Yes, most buildings look like squares or rectangles when you look at them from the side, but don’t assume that’s a given. Tell your reader the general shape, then add details like how many windows or whether the windows are large or small, single panes or multiple panes. Are there shutters? Does the building have venetian blinds or shades? Sketch them with words. Don’t forget to include architectural elements, like the lion’s head in the photo. Modern buildings may lack gargoyles, but they still have decoration. If you are writing about a natural setting don’t just write “There are six trees on the far side of the stream.” Are they pine trees? I love pine trees. Is one of them dead? Is the stream moving quickly or jammed up with a beaver dam? What shape does the stream take across the landscape?

One thing I’ve been doing is carrying my small camera with me and taking pictures of ordinary stuff, like street scenes, my desk at home, and all sorts of non-photogenic things you can think of. It’s a bit strange, but when you look at a picture you tend to notice things that you ignore otherwise. And I’ve found that converting some of my images to black-and-white gives me yet another perspective. Alternatively, sketching a scene (no matter your art skills) can be helpful to draw your attention to things like shapes and lighting. I think it’s good fodder for your writing practice to add a little art in your life.