Alterations

Most of the time I want to say to you: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! (Except, okay, WOMAN behind the curtain. And it’s not a curtain, it’s a computer screen. Whatever.)

But sometimes I feel like pulling aside the veil and showing you how the sausage gets made (ooo, block that metaphor!). Typically it’s not a pretty process, and this one is a relatively extreme case to illustrate my point. Usually I don’t move as far away from the original exposure as I did in this case.

So it’s my last day in St. Augustine and I’m having fish and chips in a British-style pub which came highly recommended by Yelp. (I wasn’t so impressed.) Way down and kitty-corner across the street, my eye was caught by a splotch of purple color. After I finished my meal, I went to look for it.

This is the first picture I took.

As you can see, it has a bunch of problems. Setting aside the technical merits, the composition is not working. There’s too much busy-ness in the background. (The guy cut in half doesn’t help.) I liked the front of the building and the sidewalk, but they weren’t contributing to capturing what was appealing about the plant—the way it was backlit and glowing.

So I tried again.This is the version straight out of the camera RAW and into Aperture.

The good news is that the background is less distracting, and I even like the echo of foliage in the back right of the picture. Time to do my standard suite of clean-up adjustments: color balance, contrast, definition, vibrancy, levels, and so on.

The result of the basic fixes:

The fact is, I don’t love it. It’s not a great composition and—what’s worse—it really fails at replicating the qualities that drew me to make the image in the first place.

Most of the time I’ll stop right there and the photograph goes into the dustbin/archive never to see the public light of day. Arguably, that’s what should have happened with this one. But I decided to see if I could mess with it sufficiently to have it at least reflect my own response to that plant, by that fence, in that light, with that backdrop. I got stubborn.

So I dragged it into Photoshop and went all filter-y on its ass. I also used “Lens Correction” to straighten up the building vertical a bit, which was driving me bonkers. I no longer cared whether it looked like a photograph. I just wanted the “warm sunlight through tropical leaves” to be the most salient quality.

Altered photograph of plant, St. Augustine, FL

This is still hardly my favorite image ever. It won’t be one I point to with pride when I’m on my deathbed or anything. Still, I’m glad I pushed at it until I got something that—no matter how artificial—replicated my sense-impression and the idea of what I wanted to represent.

I hope you will give yourselves permission not only to document what you find to be beautiful, but also to re-present it in a way that is faithful to your interior experience. Mess with it. It’s digital; if you keep a copy of the original, you can’t hurt it. Try anything and everything. Even if it doesn’t work out, you’ll probably learn something that will come in handy the next time.

To the extent that they test our aesthetic sensibilities and stretch our sense of what’s possible, these types of exploration are valuable in themselves.


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