Shooting The Barn Cottage

While on holiday in The Barn Cottage beside Foxhall Wood and the River Swilly in Donegal, I turned on all the lights and went out into the front garden at dusk to try a few shots. Unfortunately I couldn’t get any farther back than the corner of the boundary hedge which forced me to use a wider focal length than was ideal. Converging verticals, as they are called, definitely wouldn’t suit a subject like this.

I was pleased with the long exposures I captured, by chance benefitting from a rare passing car that very nicely painted light onto the gloomy gable wall. Daylight white balance meant each of the windows gave out a rich warm glow in the fading evening light. The longer exposure time added subtle movement to the clouds.

The following week when I finally got around to studying the image on-screen I knew some manipulation was needed here and there. You can see below the original shot and some tonal work being carried out in layers.

In it’s final restored condition The Barn Cottage has come a long way from the old farm barn (below, borrowed from the owners’ website). I can recommend a visit. A desirable accommodation and location, summer or winter.



Content Over Sharpness

To a certain extent it depends on the subject, but sometimes we sweat too much about sharpness and noise. I don’t know about you but there are times when I fail to nail the focus. In my opinion and experience, beating camera shake isn’t such a big deal, although there are times when it can be used creatively. But I’ve never been too good at getting sharp results with anything close by that moves – especially when I’m trying to get very soft background blur. Yes, I should be firing at x frames a second on continuous focus, but it’s just not my thing. I should practice more.

What’s particularly frustrating is missing focus in images with content that really matters to me personally. The fact is there are times when the content – what’s happening in the shot, who or what it is, how the elements are placed and composed in the frame – trumps focussing errors and camera-shake. I came on the image below while looking online for inspiration and motivation. Apologies for not giving credit to the photographer (and also with the other black and white images further down this page). I don’t know who took it. I wish I had, but I’m sharing it here just to make a point. I think it’s a fantastic shot.

After looking at this image for a while I noticed the carved bed board was in focus but the girl wasn’t. Does it detract from the shot in any way? I’m pretty sure it’s not an advertisement shot. Maybe the photographer was the carpenter and she’s miffed because he’s more taken with his woodwork than her. Er, somehow I doubt that… As well as being off-the-plumb, did you notice the misplaced point-of-focus before I mentioned it?

Although it may not be clearly visible at this resolution, the images shared below also have focussing/camera shake issues, but only if we want them to. In my opinion they are all carried by the content. Each is engaging, inspirational and stands as a successful photograph. What more could we ask?

If you’ve taken shots that miss the key point-of-focus maybe there’s something you can do in software to make the blur less obvious at typical viewing distances. The fact of typical viewing distances is a key concept. It’s photographers who often miss the point and glue their bloodshot eyes to prints and screens.

In the examples I’m sharing below, all unavoidably taken at higher ISO settings, I’ve tried to use software to bluff my way mainly by targeting eyes. It’s just a photographic fact that sharp eyes (or the eye closest to the camera) help to carry the image. If the content really matters it would be a shame to bin it before at least trying to give the impression of sharpness where it’s needed most. Think content over sharpness.

Along with the first image I’ve combined a few screen shots to show how I’ve fiddled about with various filters and tools in an attempt to tone down multiple problems with the shot – mixed lighting sources, high ISO, out-of-focus eyes. It’s a great expression and an important subject. Bear in mind I’m not an expert, but what I’m sharing here might help someone or suggest a new approach.

With the other examples I’ve also tried to enhance contrast and the illusion of sharpness. Incidentally, the shot of my mother is a JPEG. There is no RAW version. It’s interesting that I was able to draw out more highlight detail. I’ve experienced that before with JPEGs. They are more flexible than many think and it’s often possible to edit them successfully.

With the image of my dog waiting patiently for his treat, despite several attempts I lost focus on his nearest eye. So I’ve tried to compensate in software as best I can. I like this shot a lot, and after processing it I’m confident it would look well printed and framed.

Not focussed properly, tricky mixed lighting, ISO 1600. But the content matters.

The original image.

The effects of processing.

My one and only “wee mate”, as someone once called him.

About and Contact

focusThanks for visiting.

Hopefully some of these posts will be of passing interest. Many are about photography, but other subjects are mulled over too.

The author is a ruminating enthusiast living in Ireland. He’s been into photography since the 70s, switching from shooting and scanning negative film to using digital cameras in 2003.

He enjoys the challenge of good technique when capturing and processing images. His main goal is medium-sized lab prints. Using software to make online presentations is also a satisfying way to share images.

Feel free to comment if you have a different angle on something.

Images are shared with you to view. Thanks for looking only.

I got rice cooking in the microwave
I got a three-day beard I don’t plan to shave
It’s a goofy thing but I just gotta say, hey,
I’m doing all right

Now I look in the mirror and what do I see
A lone wolf there staring back at me
Long in the tooth but harmless as can be
Lord, I guess he’s doin’ all right

Sometimes it’s lonely, sometimes it’s only me
And the shadows that fill this room
Sometimes I’m falling, desperately calling
Howling at the moon

And it’s a great day to be alive
I know the sun’s still shining
When I close my eyes
There’s some hard times in the neighbourhood
But why can’t every day be just this good

From a song by Darrell Scott







Restoring a Binned RAW Image

Nearly but not quite. First attempt at restoring an image of the Mourne Mountains at dawn. Canon EOS 5D, EF17-40mm f/4L USM  @ 30.0mm, ISO 100, 1/200 @ f4.5.

The original image.

While looking through old images I decided I’d have a go at restoring one that seemed a total lost cause. It was an interesting first attempt that took me half the day and proved to be a steep learning curve! But practice makes perfect, and all that. I had no idea the image had so much potential. The shot was taken handheld in the wonderful glow of early morning light. Truth be told, it was a daft idea trying to grab an image in these conditions.

Many of my landscape shots are handheld, but that’s no excuse. I should have set up my tripod, used f8 and taken two exposures, one for the sky and the other for the foreground. I sometimes wonder if many dedicated landscape shooters occasionally have their cameras on a tripod when they don’t need to. Seriously! In my modest collection I have a book of quality images by accomplished professional photographer Brian Bower who rarely used a tripod with his Leicas (!), preferring to shoot handheld outdoor shots in a wide variety of situations. Great results, and on film too. 

Yes, 30+ MP sensors may sometimes be a different proposition, especially with longer focal lengths. But shooting handheld in good light at lower ISO settings with appropriate shutter speeds can deliver sharp results, especially with stabilisation technology built into lenses and cameras. I don’t need more than 20 MP, and you probably don’t either. We should aim to enjoy the portability and spontaneity offered by small format cameras. 

Certainly, we will need a tripod in dim light, for long exposures and bracketed shots, and it can be an advantage when shooting low to the ground using live view on a tilting screen. A tripod is also necessary for software processing techniques that combine several files into one high quality image. 

Does a tripod always help us compose the frame by slowing us down, encouraging us to think things through more carefully? Or does it cramp our creativity by impeding convenient movement and easy compositional experimentation? Does it matter? I’d say it probably does. Maybe it’s sometimes worthwhile trying both approaches and studying your results. Anyway… moving on.

Although I can understand their popularity and usefulness, since I switched to digital in 2003 I’ve never been a big fan of graduated filters. I would rather preserve the range of tones in the scene than mute them permanently at capture, which is essentially what a neutral density graduated filter does. I’ve listened to the arguments back and forth from those who favour controlling skies in the field and won’t countenance anything else.

But I prefer shooting two images if possible, or even processing just one twice, which is what I did with the above shot. Movement in two separate images of a landscape scene isn’t a deal breaker. Maybe it’s just the difference between the pro purists and the less industrious amateurs? But I don’t think so. Yes, I’ve heard of using a graduated filter side-on when shooting a waterfall that’s much brighter at one side, but I bet two images could be successfully blended.

Software like ON1 is remarkably flexible when holding images in layers. The sky layer can be selectively graduated over the image that was exposed or processed for everything else. It’s possible to paint in and paint out areas and details in the graduated image. This can be very helpful. Tonal enhancements can be made to regions in shadow around horizons, lessening the impact of the graduated layer without compromising the effect on the sky. In fact, both layers can be tonally and selectively adjusted before being combined. This is significant when the horizon is very uneven. It’s even possible to target trees in software. Tricky though, but I’m determined!

So, in this case having just one image to use, I copied it, renamed one and processed them separately – once for the sky, then again for everything else. After further editing I combined the two and targeted specific areas and details throughout the single image. Unfortunately while working on a new layer of the central section of the frame I overworked tonal structure which caused detail to break down quite badly here and there. Oddly it seemed much worse after exporting to a TIFF, as did the dividing line at the horizon.

I missed something somewhere. But in my second attempt with this image, and with others in the future, I now know to avoid these issues and get an even better result. (I might try getting rid of that jet trail too.) Using two separately and correctly exposed images would be a significant advantage, but this processing practice has been very instructive.


Taking Time to Stand and Stare – and Shoot

Now and then when I’m in a Wordsworthian “pensive mood”, I think of something my uncle once said: “Today you might do something for the last time.” It’s one of those arresting, sobering thoughts – a truism to remember often.

Sometimes while hiking and scrambling through the mountains I’m guilty of pushing myself along rather than slowing down to see what’s around me. And I mean properly seeing by making the most of it while I’m there. In the context of poetry again, I would do well to adapt W. H. Davis’ famous words: “What is this life, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?” It’s worth taking a long look with that photographic eye that occasionally takes us beyond the cliché.

One of the outstanding joys of photography in the landscape is being able to capture what uniquely gets our attention. We may get stuck in a rut in our quest for pretty pictures. I don’t know about you, but as an enthusiast I need to think more about what appeals to me specially rather than skewing my creativity to suit the expectations of everyone else. Chances are if you truly serve your individualistic fancies you’ll shoot images that may well bomb in competitions or on your favourite photography forum. No loss there!

Of course it’s not an excuse for remiss amateurs to use lousy technique and shoot any old rubbish that grabs them. Rather it’s an opportunity to compose visual keepsakes that connect with us personally. Hopefully in the months and years that lie ahead we can look at them again and send our minds back to where we were, perhaps reliving the emotion and spirit of that time and place. We may not get another chance.





Processing for Colour and Black and White

Processed uniquely for colour.

Recently I revisited an image to process it afresh in ON1 Photo RAW, a program I’m still learning to use. I also wanted to see how this landscape shot looked converted to black and white. In this example, the only way to do this properly is to fully process the RAW file twice.

The colour version that underlies ON1’s black and white filter (bottom) looks grungy because I have specifically processed the colour and tones for monochrome. Perhaps the foreground of the final image is just too busy and the shot has more impact in colour? Also, the morning light was very soft and maybe that’s why I found it hard to get more punchy contrast in the scene overall.

Black and white version.

The unprocessed RAW image.

The unacceptable colour image revealed when B&W filter processing is turned off.

Rescuing a Low Contrast Image

The original misty image of Slievelamagan. Fujifilm X-T1, Fujinon XF 55-200mm f3.5-4.8 R LM OIS at 200mm, ISO 400, 1/800, f4.8.

At the time I took this hurried image I wasn’t hopeful, to say the least. I was shooting through mist and cloud that was suddenly rolling over the mountaintop. As you can see above, the original image lacked useful contrast and colour. But it’s surprising what can be achieved in software if we’re prepared to work at it. In this case I guessed I couldn’t successfully process in colour, though others with much more experience may do better. So I decided to aim for black and white.

The greyscale before histogram (below) shows how tonally muted and flat my original image actually is. The effects of tonal enhancement can be seen in the after version, especially in the mid-shadow range and among highlight detail. Pushing the processing to compensate for the below average dynamic range resulted in a few patches of artefacts in the sky to the right which I disguised with global film grain simulation. The grainy look suits the context anyway.

Where the extreme contrast levels of misty sky and mountain met was also a concern. After defringing for chromatic aberration, I used various masking techniques to bluff it as best I could. I added a targeted hazy effect to tone down the contrast and make the processing artefacts less noticeable. The Perfect Erasure in ON1 Photo RAW was very helpful.

It was quite a lot of work over several hours, but I got a pleasing result from an image I almost binned. In my opinion it’s good enough to be printed and framed-up. I might just do that. It reminded me of scanning and processing a 35mm film frame also shot in misty overcast conditions. The looming mountain in the background could be properly seen only after making colour channel separations (below).