Monday, March 28, 2011

The dog days...

...are over? 
No. Probably not. Actually, I just wanted to put a gratuitous dog photo in my post to brighten things up. I have been neglecting my blog once again, mainly because I have been neglecting my laptop and spending all my time obsessing over my new iPad 2, which will hopefully liberate me from my laptop when I teach my photography class in Paris in May. Which leads to my strategy for posting again...

I need to prep my students for my "French Culture through Photography" class in Paris this spring. This isn't a class for seasoned photography students. It's more like a crash course in photo history, cultural studies, and creating photo essays. The idea is to help American study abroad students learn more about France through photography. If you're going to spend so much time taking photos, you may as well learn from the best—No, I don't mean me—by "the best" I mean Eugene Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sophie Calle, and so many other inspiring photographers. We will study the masters and then do photo essays inspired by their work. The last time I taught the course, we were there for 3 months. This time, I'm doing it in 3 weeks. Yikes!

With a few exceptions, the students have not studied photography. My assumption is that the great majority will be using point-and-shoot cameras and will be uploading photos without significant post-processing. None of this bothers me in the least. What does, however, drive me crazy, is to see people turn in noisy, blurry, or otherwise crappy photos because they are trying to make their poor camera do something it wasn't built to do. And so, the first lesson in my series of pre-Paris prep is:
Work with what you've got.
 Sure, it would be nice to have unlimited resources and buy a new Leica, and I'm envious if you can, but for the rest of us, we better learn to appreciate what we've got.

Take "American Idol," for example. How many times do the judges emphasize the importance of knowing who you are? Work within your range, work within your style, play to your strengths, etc. etc. I'm sure you see where this is headed...If your camera isn't a diva, then don't make it sing Celine Dion ballads. OK, you know what I mean.

At Sundance this year, one of the feature-length movies was literally a pastiche of dozens of different film stocks that the student filmmakers had saved from various commercial projects. A scrap here, a scrap there, some old stuff from eBay, toss it all in the freezer until you've got enough, and then try to figure out how to make a film out of it. The location? The student's family owns a farm, so how about that? The script? That comes AFTER thinking about real life constraints. If you start with a script that requires heavy CGI effects, period costumes, and exotic locations, you've already failed (unless you're Ed Wood). Instead, the filmmakers took what they had and invented the film that those ingredients could produce. The result was meditative, moody, almost surreal, and while it did not make my best-of list, the film still inspired me.

Another Sundance film. Someone asked how the director had cast the male lead. His reply:
"I thought...Who is the best actor in America [pause] that I have on my cell phone?"

Now apply this to your camera. What can it do? How does it handle different lighting situations? Under what conditions does it get too noisy? Are there scenarios where that noise might actually contribute something positive? How does your camera work on different shutter speeds? Is it good at freezing motion or do you usually get blur? Are there situations where the blur might be desirable? What about depth of field? How much control do you have? Could the size of your camera work to your advantage in street photography? Is it easy to take photos without drawing attention to yourself? etc. etc.

If you work with what you've got, you can do great things. If you try to pretend your camera is something that it isn't, you could end up looking like a fool.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Fix perspective (aka "keystoning") in Photoshop

You know when you take a photo of a building and the perspective makes it look like it's getting more narrow at the top? That's called "the keystone effect" and it can be very annoying. But there's a quick way to fix it in Photoshop, so your snapshots look more professional.

First duplicate your layer (Mac: Command–J; PC: Ctrl–J) so you can toggle between the original and the adjusted versions later. Now, with your top layer active...
In CS5, just go to Filter-->Lens Correction

In CS4 and earlier, go to Filter-->Distort-->Lens Correction

 In CS5, you will have to click the "custom" tab instead of the "auto correction" that appears when the window opens (the "auto correction" doesn't appear in earlier versions, sadly, because it's really cool and I'll deal with it in another tutorial)
A pop-up window will now appear with your image at the left and some distort options at the right. The pictures are pretty self-explanatory. Go to the vertical and horizontal perspective sliders and drag to the left or to the right (go ahead, be extreme at first so you can see what it's doing—or you slide them like crazy and pretend you're in "Inception") until you fix the perspective.
For my photo, I brought the vertical perspective -23 to the left until the towers of Notre Dame didn't look like they were being sucked into space by aliens, and then I shifted the horizontal perspective just a little to straighten the building more. Just eyeball it.

One more difference between CS5 and earlier versions. As you shift the perspective, CS5 crops as needed. In earlier versions, once you commit your transform, you will have to re-crop your image. Toggle the background layer off and you will see what I mean. If your initial image it too tightly cropped then you may end up losing parts of the picture you wanted to keep.

There you have it. A super quick fix for a very common problem.