Alien Skin Bokeh

Shallow depth of field is one of the most important tools in any photographer’s arsenal. Depth of field is the measure of how much of your image is in focus, and shooting with shallow depth of field provides you with another way to bring focus to your subject. The ability to shoot with shallow depth of field is especially useful for portrait and sports shooters. However, achieving shallow depth of field requires a fast lens (that is, a lens that can open to a wide aperture) and you may not always have such a lens with your. Or, you might simply not realize at the time you’re shooting that a shallow depth of field is what the image needs. For those times when you need to remove depth of field from an image, Alien Skin has a Photoshop plug-in that can help.

There are, of course, filters built-in to Photoshop that can be used to achieve a shallow depth of field effect, but as you’ll see, they lack features that Bokeh provides. Unfortunately, even though Bokeh is a very good piece of engineering and design, software depth of field reduction might still be of limited utility, as you’ll see in the complete review.

Read the full Alien Skin Bokeh review here

Remembering Some Basics

Ask any educator and they’ll tell you that teaching is usually a two-way street. While, as a teacher, you always hope to impart useful knowledge to your students, (and possibly even understanding) you almost always come away learning something yourself. For the last four years I’ve had the great privilege to work at the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute, an exceptional arts camp for 14 to 18-year-olds. And every year, our students remind me of some very simple, essential photographic tenets. If you’ve lately been feeling uninspired, or “stuck” with your shooting , perhaps some of these ideas will help you re-find your photographic footing.

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Shooting Landscapes by Moonlight

One of the great advantages of a digital image sensor is its extreme capability in low light. With a digital image sensor, you can work at light levels far below what is possible with any type of film. This sensitivity opens up a lot of photographic possibilities, such as shooting landscapes by moonlight. However, while your camera can be very sensitive to low light, your eyes might have trouble getting by when shooting in the dark. As such, you’ll need to employ some specific procedures when working in low light.

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Wacom Intuos4

So you’ve got a camera that delivers the features, quality, and performance that you want, you’ve tricked it out with high-quality, speedy lenses, multiple flash units, and a really cool bag, and you’re pumping your completed images into a fast desktop workstation with a beefy graphics card. You’re set, right? You have the dream digital photography setup, no? No. Because if you spend any appreciable time editing your images, you need a Wacom pressure sensitive tablet. For masking, retouching, cloning, dodging and burning, there’s no substitute. A Wacom tablet is truly an essential piece of photo gear. Not convinced? Read this to understand more.

The Netbook as Photo Accessory – Mac Version

I love my aluminum MacBook. While I used a MacBook Pro for years, the smaller MacBook is a little easier to carry, and it never feels like it flexes or bends under its own weight, as the MacBook Pro sometimes did. However, it’s still just big enough that packing it in a bicycle or motorcycle bag is problematic, and it’s heavy enough that for backcountry or extended travel, it’s a bit of a load. What’s more, a lot of times it’s overkill. Usually all I need in the field is a place to dump images, and perhaps some email access. Over the last year or so a new class of tiny, ultralight laptop computers – netbooks – have appeared on the market at extremely reasonable prices. These machines turn out to be ideal photo accessories. Of course, Apple doesn’t make such a product, but there are now quite a few netbooks that can be hacked to run the Macintosh OS, allowing you to make something that Apple doesn’t: a tiny, very portable Macintosh.

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The Netbook as Photo Accessory – Windows Version

A friend of mine has a very cool portable darkroom. (Because he’s primarily a wet-plate pinhole shooter, he needs to be able to develop plates as soon as he takes them.) As digital photographers, we have things a little easier, of course. If we want to process images in the field, we only have to carry a computer. But, if you’re on an extended trip, heading into the backcountry, or you just like to travel as light as possible, then carrying a computer is not always an option. Fortunately, over the last year or so a new class of tiny, ultralight laptop computers – netbooks – have appeared on the market at extremely reasonable prices. These machines turn out to be ideal photo accessories.

The name “netbook” stems from the idea that, when traveling, most people’s computer needs don’t go beyond network access. Other than web browsing and email, they have few computing chores. If you’re a digital photographer, though, you might want to use a computer as a place to offload images, or to browse the day’s shoot, to begin to organize your shots, apply metadata, or even to start adjusting and editing. Of course, if you have network access, then you may want to be able to upload to web sites, or send images via email.

I have a MacBook that I use for a lot of travel. It’s a great portable digital photography workstation, but at 4.5 pounds it’s a little heavy for some trips, and its size makes it difficult to cram into smaller bags (such as when bicycling or motorcycling).

So, when traveling into the backcountry, or for some international travel, I’ve been taking a Digital Foci FotoSafe (.6 pounds) for offloading images, and a Palm Treo 680 (.3 pounds) with foldable keyboard (.4 pounds) for email, Google maps and for reading RSS feeds. I also usually take either my iPhone or my fifth generation iPod (.3 pounds) with me for media needs. With all of these, I have data backup, email access, limited web functionality and some music playback (okay, not an essential photo tool, but definitely an essential travel tool). However, because my FotoSafe lacks a screen, I have no way to review or edit images.

Wanting something between the weight and bulk of the Macbook, and the bare minimum functionality of my other gizmos, I bought an MSI Wind last December.

With a 10″ screen, mostly full-sized keyboard, 120 gb hard drive 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor, built in webcam, 10/100 Ethernet, built in 802.11g wireless, 3 USB ports, and bluetooth, it’s a very full-functioned laptop. Best of all, it weighs only 2.3 pounds and measures roughly 10.25 x 7 x .75″. So, not only is it lighter than my Macbook, but it fits in a much smaller bag.

Obviously, it’s a little larger than my FotoSafe/Treo/iPod arrangement, but it offers far more functionality.

You can order the Wind with an 80, 120, or 160 GB hard drive. I opted for the 160 gb version, and after installing an OS and some photo editing software, I still have more than enough space for offloading images. While I’ve never had any trouble or reliability issues with the FotoSafe, the Wind has the obvious advantage of a screen for reviewing images.

The Wind has a built-in SD card reader, which is a really nice addition. I usually shoot on CompactFlash, which means I still need to carry a card reader.

As a computer, the Wind works great for almost everything I need to do in the field. Obviously, email and web browsing are much easier with a real keyboard and large screen, so it’s a nice replacement for either my Treo or iPhone. Having built-in Wifi and Ethernet networking gives me lots of options for getting online. I can also tether to either the Treo or the iPhone, and get online connectivity through those, albeit slow, devices.

While the 1.6 GHz Atom processor is not the speediest CPU out there, it’s fine for most of the image editing tasks I’d want to do in the field. With its small screen, I’m not going to get into a lot of serious color correction and editing anyway (this was also true for my MacBook). But, for reviewing images, and performing some initial edits, or for organizing and keyword tagging, the Wind is perfectly adequate. I’ve been running CS4 on it and performance is perfectly acceptable.

The only hitch is with Photoshop Camera Raw. Because of the limited vertical screen dimension on the Wind, the entire Camera Raw dialog box cannot be displayed, which means you don’t have access to the Save Image, Open Image, Cancel or Done buttons.

So far, I’ve found two workarounds: you can just press Return, which opens the image, or you can install Adobe Photoshop Lightroom which also runs Camera Raw, but manages to fit onto the Wind’s screen. If you don’t usually use Lightroom, working all of this into your regular workflow when you get back home can require some extra steps.

Of course, you can still preview your raw images in Bridge, so having access to Camera Raw in the field may not be a critical need.

The Wind’s screen is bright and clear, and has a nice matte finish, and overall build-quality of the machine is fine. It feels plasticy, but this is also why it weighs so little. Most importantly, it only costs $350. In fact, if you look around, you might find it as low as $300. This becomes another upside when compared to a more expensive laptop. If you drop it in a river, it’s cheap to replace.

If you’ve been considering a photo viewer with a screen, such as the Epson P-series viewers, then you should definitely look at the Wind. It’s cheaper, weighs about the same, has a bigger screen, packs the same storage, and is a full-fledged computer.

The Wind comes with Windows XP pre-installed. As a Mac user, I wanted to run the Mac OS on the machine, so I’ve been using the Wind as a Mac-based machine. You can read about that here.

I’ve been very pleased with this little computer, and heartily recommend it to any traveling shooter, who doesn’t want to carry a larger, heavier laptop.

Canon Rebel XSi

Canon Rebel XSi

Canon has positioned their new Rebel XSi at the “entry-level” end of their product line. But it’s getting increasingly difficult to divide digital cameras into “entry-level” and “mid-range” and “high-end.” In the early days, there was a single distinguishing feature that made it simple to tell what market a camera was aimed at: the image quality of an entry-level camera was markedly different from a high-end, “pro” level camera. Those days are now long gone, and ‚Äì just as with entry-level and pro-level film cameras ‚Äì you can now shoot high-end image quality with an entry-level camera. Canon’s Rebel XSi marks the high end of Canon’s low end, and the new model offers important changes over its predecessor, the Rebel XTi.

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Build Yourself a Faster Mac

I have a few Macs that I use for my various jobs, but the main machines that I use are a MacBook Pro, and a Dual 2.7 GHz G5 tower. Since the tower is connected to a large monitor, it’s what I use as my primary image editing workstation. After a few recent jobs, including a computationally-intensive video gig, I started to wonder if it wasn’t time to think about upgrading to a faster machine. A friend mentioned that he was going to build a Hackintosh. As his machine came together, and he sent me some benchmarks, I decided that this was the upgrade path that I would choose. The result? A machine with Mac-Pro like performance that crushes all the other Macs in my house, and cost only about $1000.

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Batch Converting DNGs to JPEGs

DNGReader Bill Baum writes in asking if it’s possible to batch convert DNG files to JPEGs. Bill says that several years ago, he converted several thousand images to DNG, but now wants them as JPEGs to ease the process of working with them in Nikon Capture NX, which doesn’t natively read DNG files. Fortunately, if you have Photoshop CS2 or CS3, you can easily use Bridge to batch process DNG conversions into JPEGs, Photoshop files, or TIFFs.

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Reader Graham Long (no relation) sends in an image that he titled “An Almost Quite Good Photo.” As he describes it: “the shot was taken at Granville Island in Vancouver. My wife took the kids for a bite to eat and I rattled off more than 250 ill-considered shots in about 15 minutes.” Graham’s experience shows the merit of heavy shooting, as his blitzkrieg approach delivered an image that truly is almost quite good. However, there are just one or two issues that keep it from being a an outright quite good photo, and in this Before and After we’re going to discuss what those issues are, and explore some ways that you can fix them in an image editor.

Let’s start with the quite good part.

As someone who lives in an urban area with a lot of pigeons, I occasionally set out to try to get photos of them flying. When an entire flock takes off over an area, you can get some great compositions. Unfortunately, you never know when it’s going to happen, so capturing a moment like Graham has here is not easy.

The frozen motion on the pigeons is very nice, as is the soft background, which creates a great sense of depth, and a feeling for the pigeons being in a big 3D space.

Unfortunatly, the background is interfering with the foreground. The guy on the cellphone is wearing a color that’s very close to the magenta on the pigeon and he’s just generally in the way. While the soft background helps to create some foreground/background separation, it’s not quite enough to really make the pigeons stand out.

So, our general course of action will be to try to bring attention to the pigeons – to strengthen the sense of them as the subject of the image. That will be the main idea that guides our image editing decisions.

Usually, the easiest way to bring more attention to a subject is to crop it. We’ve definitely got room to crop this image:

But in this case, cropping doesn’t really help us very much, because Cell Phone Guy is still back there getting in the way. Also, with a cropped image there’s less of a sense of “where” to the image. Also, Graham’s original composition doesn’t feature the pigeons so perfectly centered, which gives it a nice sense of immediacy. I’m going to stick with the uncropped version.

Another good way to bring focus to a subject in the center of an image is to use a vignette. Vignetting, the darkening of the corners in an image, is usually something you try to avoid. Some wide angle lenses have vignetting problems, and a bad vignette can really wreck an image. But vignetting can also serve to obscure unnecessary edge details, without cropping them out completely, bringing more focus to your image.

Photoshop CS3, CS2, and Photoshop Elements 5 or later all have a very good vignette tool that can be used for removing or adding vignettes. With the original image open, we simply choose the Lens Correction filter from Photoshop’s Filter menu. In Photoshop CS2 or CS3, you’ll find it under Filter > Distort > Lens Correction.

The Lens Correction filter actually provides a number of important features including straightening, distortion correction, (for removing barrel or pincushion distortion) chromatic aberration correction, (for removing the colored fringes that can appear around high-contrast edges in an area) and Transform controls that can be used to correct perspective. For our problem, we’re going to use the Vignette sliders.

First, we want to deactivate the grid display that is on by default. The grid helps with straightening and perspective adjustments, and you can turn it off by unchecking the Show Grid checkbox.

The Vignette Amount slider is very simple. Slide it to the right, and the corners of your image will brighten, slide it to the left and the corners will darken. By sliding to the left, we can darken the corners, to bring more focus to the center of the image.

With an amount of -40, we get darker corners that do serve to make the pigeons in the foreground jump out a little more.

We don’t want to go too much darker, though, or the vignette will become distracting. If the vignette is too dark, it will become the focus of the image. Here’s the image with a vignette amount of -70.

We’re going to leave Amount set to -40, and move to the midpoint slider, which lets us control how wide the darkening is. A lower amount causes the vignette effect to cover more of the image. Here’s the image with a midpoint of +23.

By adjusting the Midpoint slider, we create a stronger vignette, but one that isn’t so dark and eye-attracting. This is the vignette we’ll stick with.

While this helps to bring more focus to the center, we’ve still got a lot of foreground/background clash. At this point, we can simply start experimenting to see what might create more distinction between the pigeons and the background.

Tonal Change

There are a few approaches that you can take to bring focus to a subject. You can try a compositional change, (cropping) or a tone or hue change. Vignetting is a simple tonal change – we’ve darkened the corners so that the center of the image appears brighter and more attention-grabbing. Let’s take this idea farther, and darken the background of the image.

In Photoshop, we can darken only the background by using an Adjustment Layer.

At the bottom of the Layers palette, you’ll find a pop-up menu called “Create Fill or Adjustment Layer.” Open this menu and select Levels:

Photoshop will present you with a standard Levels dialog box. Our goal is to darken the image, and increase the contrast. So we want settings like this:

In the process of doing this, we’ll be darkening the entire image uniformly, which means the pigeons will go dark along with the background. At this point, we have to not worry about that, and try eyeballing the background for the values we want. Because we’re working with an Adjustment Layer, we can always change our settings later, so it’s not critical that we get them perfect right now. With this Levels adjustment, our image looks like this:

We want to constrain our Levels adjustment so that it only affects the background of the image. All Adjustment Layers have a built in Layer Mask that lets you control which parts of your image get affected by the adjustment. You can see the mask in the Layers palette, it’s the white square in the Levels Adjustment Layer.

You can think of the mask just like a stencil in the real world. Where there’s white in the mask, there’s a hole which allows the effect of the adjustment layer to pass through to underlying layers. So, in this case, the entire image is being affected by our Levels adjustment, and so the entire image is being darkened.

Choose the paintbrush tool and some black paint and click on the Layer Mask in the Adjustment Layer to select it. Now paint over the pigeons in the image with black. As you paint, you’ll be covering that part of the mask, which will prevent the Levels adjustment from affecting the pigeons.

Notice that you can see a representation of the mask you’ve painted in the Layer Mask thumbnail.

If you make a mistake and mask something that you don’t want masked, just switch to white paint and paint over that area.

This is looking better, but there’s still not enough separation between the pigeons and the background. Let’s add another Levels Adjustment Layer, but set this one to brighten the image. With these settings, our entire image will get brigher:

Now we’re facing the same problem we had before: everything in the image has been brightened. We want to construct a mask that affects only the pigeons. Let’s begin by filling the entire mask with black, so that none of the image gets the brightening effect.

Select black as the foreground color, then select the Paint Bucket. Click on the mask of the new Adjustment Layer to select it, and then click somewhere in the image. You should see the entire mask thumbnail fill with black.

Now switch to white paint, select the paintbrush, and paint over the pigeons. We’re now effectively punching a hole in our mask, so that the brightening adjustment affects only the pigeons.

This is better, but Cell Phone Guy is still really in the way. We could use the Rubber Stamp tool to try to remove him, but that would be a lot of work. One problem is that his jacket is very close in hue to the pigeon. Let’s change the color of it to something more contrasty.

Hue Adjustment

From the Adjustment Layer pop-up menu at the bottom of the Layers palette, create a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer. As you might guess, this adjustment lets us alter the hue and saturation in an image, as well as lighness. After selecting the Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer, you’ll be presented with the standard Hue/Saturation dialog box. We want to make a Hue adjustment – that is, a color adjustment – to the magentas in the image. From the Edit pop-up menu at the top of the Hue/Saturation dialog box, choose Magentas. (We’re picking Magentas, because Cell Phone Guy’s jacket is a magenta color.

Begin your adjustment by dialing in a big Hue shift. Slide the Hue shift slider to the right, to around 140. In your image, you’ll see some areas here and there where some bright purple spots turn green. The problem is we want more than just bright purple to be affected.

The color ramps at the bottom of the dialog box let you control which colors are affected by the adjustment. The two inner sliders control the hues that will be greatly affected, while the outer sliders control the “falloff”. That is, the colors delineated by the outer sliders will be adjusted by slighter and slighter degrees, to blend the adjustment into the surrounding colors. Adjust the sliders so they look like this:

Now your image should look something like this:

We’ve got a better color separation between the pigeon and the jacket, but we’ve also got some weird colors in other parts of the image. Some flesh tones have turned green, and some other purple things besides Cell Phone Guy’s jacket have been altered. Fortunately, we can easily constrain the Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer using a Layer Mask, just as we did with our Levels adjustment.

Using a mask that looks like this:

We get an image that looks like this:

We’re getting closer now, but the pigeon wing is still a little bit lost in Cell Phone Guy’s sweater. One nice thing about Adjustment Layers is that you can go back and alter their settings at any time. Let’s try another tonal adjustment and darken Cell Phone Guy’s jacket, so it’s not so close to the tone of the pigeon wing.

If you double click on the Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer in the Layers palette you’ll get the Hue/Saturation dialog box again. (Be sure to click on the left-most icon, not the mask icon.)

With the Edit pop-up menu set to Master, slide the Lightness slider to -24.

With the darkening, the jacket now has better separation from the pigeon wing.

Let’s try one last addition. We’ve now got an image with a fairly stylized look – it’s got severe vignetting and weird exposure. In other words, it’s got all the hallmarks of an image shot with a lens of questionable quality, using film that’s been pushed and manipulated. The problem is, it’s got a clarity of a digital image. So let’s muck it up a little bit with some noise, to give the image some texture that’s more in line with its tone and color qualities.

At the bottom of the Layers palette, click the Create a New Layer button. A new, empty layer will appear at the top of the Layers palette. Now choose a 50% gray tone from the Swatches palette.

Your image will appear completely gray. We want to blend this gray with the underlying layers, so choose Soft Light from the Blending Mode menu at the top of the Layers palette.

Press the D key to set the foreground color to black, then choose Filter > Noise > Add Noise. This will bring up the Gaussian Noise dialog box. Make sure Monochrome and Preview are checked, and set Distribution to Gaussian. You should see the effects of the noise right away. Play with the Amount slider until you find a level of grain that you like. It will vary depending on the resolution you’re working with.

Now we have an image that has some texture to it, and is a little more evocative.

One reason that I like this technique for adding noise is that it’s non-destructive. We can delete the noise layer at any time if we decide we don’t like the noise. Or, if we want a different amount of noise we can build a new noise layer with different settings. Also, we can further attenuate the noise by lowering the opacity of the noise layer.

How did I know to use Soft Light blending mode? Because I’ve used this technique a lot and just remembered it. But, originally, I learned it simply through trial and error. It doesn’t take long to work through all the blending modes until you find one that does what you want.

Now that I’ve led you through all that, I’m going to make one more suggestion: set this image aside, there might be a better idea.

As I mentioned before, in addition to separating foreground and background through cropping or tonal adjustments, you can also create separation through color adjustments. We did a little bit of that by changing the color of Cell Phone Guy’s jacket, but let’s try a more extreme adjustment.

Let’s return to our vignetted image – the one with no additional adjustments – and add a Black and White adjusment layer (Black and White is only available in CS3, but you can do a similar effect in earlier versions of Photoshop by using a Channel Mixer Adjustment Layer.)

Black and White will convert our image to, you guessed it, black and white. Like all Adjustment Layers, the Black and White Adjustment Layer includes a built-in Layer Mask. This makes it simple to block out some of the black and white conversion so that we can leave some parts of the image in color. In this case, we’ll let the background go to black and white, and leave the pigeons in color. All we have to do is paint black into our mask, as we did earlier. We end up with a Layer Mask that looks like this:

And an image that has something of a hand-tinted look:

You need to be careful with this effect, though, as it’s beginning to become a bit of a cliché. With this image, the color is nicely subtle.

Why did I drag you through all of that stuff at the beginning if I was also going to suggest a simple single-adjustment-layer fix? Partly because this is the workflow that I actually went through when working with the image. It’s important to understand that experimentation is often the only way to find the image you want. No matter how much you may understand about how to perform different types of corrections, and no matter how much theory you may have amassed about different approaches to foreground/background relationship, or composition, very often the only way to find out what works is to start trying things. Even experienced Photoshop users often have to just poke around until they figure out what works.

But I also detailed both fixes because I’m still not sure which one I like bettter. Graham is partial to the black and white conversion, and I can understand why, but there’s still something about the first version that intrigues me. Perhaps, since I can’t commit to it completely, it’s not yet done, and I need to spend some more time playing with it.

Before you make any kind of final evaluation in a situation like this, though, you should view your images using your intended delivery medium. If your goal is to print this picture, you should print both versions and see which one works. There’s a good chance that once they’re on paper, the better choice is obvious.

A big thanks to Graham for this submission! Check out his Flickr page, where you can see a number of other quite good photos.

If you’ve got an image you’re not sure how to correct, adjust, fix, or simply don’t know what it might need, send it to, and we’ll take a look at it.