The Process of “Making” a Picture

A friend of mine (not to mention world traveler, master educator, keynote speaker, master photographer) once said in one of his photography workshops, that there was a difference between TAKING a picture and MAKING a picture. It’s the reason for the title of this blog article.  I struggled between “The Process..” and “A Process..”  The rolled better though it is not the more accurate phrasing.  Each photograph that I publish on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr or that I choose to print, is developed by a process that depends on the particular challenges it presents and the outcome that I am working toward.  So the follow is the process for making a particular picture of a Great Blue Heron.



First is the original photo that I took while walking along the Mine Creek Trail, part of the Capital Area Greenway in Raleigh.  This is one of about 20 photos taken as I followed the bird trying to get clear shots through the trees and other growth between us.  Of those, I picked images to post process based on classic and also unique positions or postures.  This one I liked because of the classic posture, but also the motion that the rising left leg implied.

Blue Heron 1
Blue Heron 2

This is a fine snapshot of a Great Blue Heron. However, I want to celebrate its Heron-ness, and there is too much distracting space in the photo that prevents the viewer to from subject. So I use Lightroom to crop the photo down to a 1×1 ratio, a square.  


There is still too much activity around the bird that is distracting. It is mostly the leaves and pine needles. So I load the image into Photoshop and use the healing tool to remove them. Sounds like magic? The software takes a marked object find imagery near it that matches its surrounding and then stamps that over the object.  I also used the healing tool to enlarge the surface of the moss.

Blue Heron 3
Blue Heron 4

In image four, I have used a blurring filter in Photoshop to make the background less interesting / less distracting. This probably seems strange since I blurred the entire image. But that’s going to be fixed by one of the coolest tools at the photographers fingertips.


 Before blurring the image (4), I had made a copy of the clearer version. These two versions were layered on top of each other. Of course, the layers top is what I saw and would would be saved. To re-clarify the parts of the image that I did not want blurred, I created a mask. This is essentially an additional layer that is all white. The white doesn’t show. However, any part of the mask layer that is painted black essentially creates a hole through which the layer beneath shows. So using a black digital paint brush I painted the rocks, water, under wash of the bank and part of the moss. Then I carefully painted in the bird’s head and neck so that they would be detailed. What’s cool about this process is that if you make a mistake and blacken too much, then you simple fix your mistake by painting the problem white.

Blue Heron 5
Blue Heron 6
In image six, I wanted to punch up parts of the image with more color. To do this, duplicated my working layer and then turned up the color saturation on the layer beneath.
 7. For seven, I asked the top, less colorful layer and then I painted through only the parts I wanted to increase the color for – the rocky sandbar and the bird. 
Blue Heron 7
Blue Heron 8

 For image eight, I didn’t like the dark area at the top, so I cropped that out.


 9.  I’m close now, simply fixing small things that bother me, such as the unexplainable dark area in the top left corner. So for version nine, I used the healing tool to bring in some more moss. I also made a duplicate layer, increasing the exposure on the bottom layer, making it brighter. Finally, I used the masking tool to paint in the parts of the bird that I wanted to brighten up.  I also decreased the color saturation after bringing it back into Lightroom, to make it a little more real.  
0HeronProcess031117 1a
Blue Heron 9

Like so many things, you are never done. There is always something else you can do to make it better, especially when you come back to it hours or days later. But typically, I am done when the photo interests me, when I’ve come close to capturing what it was that inspired me to take the picture.

I Learn to Play & Play with What I Learn

I’ve been worrying over what’s to become of my 2¢ worth as I come to pay less attention to the education debate and less effort on promoting my own value to that conversation, which is at least a small part of what my pennies’ worth has been. Do I continue to have my children publish their video and infographic contributions, or drop the blog all together.

What continues to play at the edges of this conundrum is what was perhaps the most resounding nail I’ve hammered on during the final years and months of my professional career – that there is a distinct and crucial difference between learning and being taught. I suspect that there has been no time in human history where the ability to skillfully, resourcefully and continuously learn has been such an essential life long working (and playing) skill — lifestyle.

It’s a profound notion that begs the question, do we need an education system to teaches children how to be taught, or that helps them to learn to teach themselves? And if this is a question worth asking, then what does its answer mean to the pedagogies of our classrooms, libraries, school schedules…

As I have turned my attention away from writing about education and preparing for three keynote addresses a week (mostly not an exaggeration), I will must insist to you that I have not stopped learning. To treat my wife, I’ve taken on more of the cooking — applicable learning. I've started practicing the martial art of Aikido — reflective learning. Digital photography and the art and technique of post-production — information-rich learning.

I wonder if it might be useful to write about these learning experiences, removed from formal education. Though I've done a lot of thinking about my martial arts learning, the injured my coccyx (tail bone) from a bicycle accident, has prevented me from visiting the Raleigh Aikikai Dojo lately. I’m not yet mended enough to go and repeatedly fall down again. So let's look think about my photography learning.


I bought a descent DSLR camera several years ago, as an incentive strategy for getting me out of the hotel rooms of the interesting and sometimes exotic places my work was taking me. The scheme worked, and I now have a wealth of snapshots going back close to twenty years. It’s afforded me a richer memory of my global wanderings, but also given me a virtual warehouse of digital images with which to learn and play.

I am mostly using three software tools: Photomatix Pro, to enrich photos by blending different exposures together; Photoshop, to shove pixels around with; and Lightroom for the finishing touches. They are all three, rich and powerful tools for working in a field about which I have no formal training. I simply look at the work of better photographers, watch videos and read blog articles about how they accomplished their masterpieces, pick out a particular technique of interest or need, and teach myself to do it.

And I play.

To the right are before and after images from the train station in Basel, Switzerland, where my wife and I changed trains travel from Frankfort to Milan. The before image is a fine snapshot. It’s clear and crisp. However, there is little sense of the station itself. So a produced a copy of the photo with the exposure cranked up, revealing the high rounded roof and ribbed structure. Blending these two files, with a third lower exposure copy, not only revealed the vast size of the station, but with some play, gave the photo an antique and artistically rendered effect. Near the far end of the building, there was a hint of some open windows with morning sunlight shining through. To excentuate this, I used some techniques that I'd learned the day before to enhance the beams of light add added some extra open windows, giving the photo not only a sense of place, but also of moment.

My point is that

I learn by playing and working and then play and work with what a learn —

..and there is no clear point where one ends and the other begins.

Might classrooms be a little more like this, where students learn by playing and working (accomplishing something of value) and then play and work with what they've learned?

Might these sorts of writings be useful to you, practicing educators?


Tricks of Photography & Teaching

Brenda (my wife) and I are having a continuing “conversation” about photography.  She’s a purist, a once passionate photographer in the age of film.  Like many things, she set aside her passion for picture-taking for motherhood.  Yet, she continues to have an opinion about what’s good photography and what’s…

Bottom line, digital processing of photos is not photography.  She wants the photos to look like photos and the other stuff can be enjoyed by people who enjoy.. well, “other stuff.”

I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain to her the joy I have playing with the photos that I take, using a variety of computer applications, to continue to make the picture – and I think I’ve found an angle.

It started a while back when I was watching a photography podcast, a session about HDR (High Dynamic Range) (see this previous article). The speaker said that,

“HDR enables the photographer to capture what it was that inspired the taking of the picture.”

The more I thought about it, the more sense this statement made.  You see, when I look up this mountain, the house, and the distinct cloud formations above it, I’m struck by both the distance and the closeness, the sheer quantity of ground, covered by giant spruce trees standing before me and the changing hues that all seem eager to claim their place, I am overwhelmed by the awesomeness of it – and I aim and snap.

The original photo, where the brightness of the sky and clouds darkens the mountain-scape

Two more exposures, an over exposure (light) and an underexposure (dark)

The software combines the three photos, and enables me to bring through the qualities of each that recapture what it was that inspired me to snap the photo.

I can even push some of the qualities beyond their reality to make a picture even more interesting, and perhaps more inspiring.

But, when I finally display the photo on my computer screen, it comes out pretty much as it was, though not as I saw it. My mind, you see, saw more than my eyes did.  It saw the multiple distances, the sunlight swimming through millions of spruce needles, the warmth in the clouds and coolness in the mountains’ shadows.  My mind amplified the vibrant colors and registered that the scene was only part of a 360º panorama of sameness and diversity.  

My brain made the vision something that no camera could adequately capture, both functionally and technically.

But, when I take three different photos of the scene, at three different exposures, and load them all into my HDR software (Photomatix), I can bring out specific qualities of each exposure, overlap them, bleed them through and accentuate, approaching the vibrance and space that inspired me to aim and snap.  I can also exaggerate qualities creating a surreal version of the image, perhaps making interesting something that simply wasn’t to start with.

Now, there’s a reason why I tell this story here.  I use to have a bulletin board in my classroom that read, “This classroom is a lens through which you can see the rest of the world,” and I meant it.  But there was only so much of the world that I could show my students through 5+ year old textbooks, a 1948 world map, and three cracked chalk boards.  To be sure, there was not a lot more I could have done with more recent textbooks, a brand new map and shiny new white boards.  The purist would say that I was doing my job, and perhaps doing it well.  I was playing my role – educating my students and teaching them skills.

It was also during those first years of teaching that I started paying attention: to the news, to people who weren’t students or teachers, to science (became fascinated by quantum physics), to geography (we owned the book, Europe on $10 a Day (now Europe on $85 a Day) and dreamed of summers, vagabonding across the old continent).  I came to realize just how exciting and mysterious and vibrant the world really was, and was inspired to become a better teacher and better lens for my students.  

Closest that I could come. It’s so hard to find pictures of things that predate the World Wide Web.

But, I couldn’t do it.  I went back to the classroom, continuing my traditional role as teacher, expecting my students to sit still, pay attention, and remember.  My passion as a lecturer wasn’t nearly enough.

Here we are today, with a new kind of classroom.  Our personal learning devices give us access to networked, digital and overwhelmingly abundant information.  We are no longer teaching from information scarcity.

Are we now teaching in a time when we can HDR our classrooms.  Might we finally capture and share what it was about our world experience, that inspired us to teach.  Might we even exaggerate hues and contrasts and blend colors in weird ways.  Can we make knowledge flow and glow and grow and cause learning to energize our children – rather than steal it from them.

Can we push reality into our classrooms and inspire our learners to become members, participants, and shapers of their future? – and ours?



Trying to Explain HDR

This HDR-rendered photo was made by Trey Radcliff, one of the preeminent HDR photo artists. His blog is Stuck in Customs.

Several of my friends on Facebook have asked me to explain HDR. Since any attempt would exceed 140 characters and the typical Facebook status post, I thought I would post it here.

I should insert that the author is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or medical advice.  If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. 😉

I am also not a professional photographer. The following description reflects my knowledge of HDR, as I understand it right now. As an amateur photographer, I am learning, as much and as quickly as I can. I only have so many years left to make the best picture that I can.

First off, there is a concept about photography today that has been repeated to me several times recently. Taking a picture is different from making a picture. Taking a picture is simply capturing an image as accurately as the camera is capable. Making a picture involves a whole lot more. It uses the camera and other devices, both hardware and software, to capture not only the image, but also what inspired the taking of the image — and sometimes adding to the image in order to inspire further reactions.

First, HDR solves a problem. The human eye can register a limited range of light frequency — color. Cameras can register even less. It can not match what the eye sees.  This is one reason why so many pictures end out being less dramatic than the subject being photographed.

Enter HDR, which stands for High Dynamic Range. It works like this. Many cameras have a feature called bracketing. When switched on, the camera takes three (usually) photographs of the subject, at three different exposures. One photo will be dark, one light and the third pretty close to the exposure your camera would take normally. Many cameras will allow the photographer to set the degree of separation between exposures. I usually divided mine by 2.0 fStops. Don’t worry about knowing what an fStop is.

 -2.0 fStops  0 fStops  +2.0 fStops

To process the HDR requires special software. I’ve started using Photomatix, which is fairly high end – but not really all than much better than HDRtist Pro, which is much less expensive. The software looks at each of the exposures and brings out the best that that exposure offers, combines them into a single photograph.  The result is a picture that more closely matches what the eye of the photographer saw.

HDR rendered photo. Click the photo to see an enlarged version on Flickr.

I heard someone recently say that HDR enables the photographer to capture more closely, what it was that inspired him to take the picture. Better contrast. Colors that pop.

Since the software can identify and exaggerate different elements of three different photos, the photographer can alter how the elements are presented and blended, resulting in photos that are more surreal. There is a good deal of artistry possible, though many push this too far, for the sake of a cool picture — myself included. These are frowned upon by accomplished photo artists, as artists are prone to do.

This photo was taken outside my hotel window in San Antonio last week. I pushed the software to produce an image that exaggerated what the eye was seeing.

About half of my HDR photos were made with a Nikon D5100 (bought it used). I usually have it on a tripod when taking an HDR, because it is crucial that each of the three photos be as close to the same framing as the others. I have had success at making HDRs without a tripod, but just as often not.

on my iPhone, I use an app called Pro HDR.  It allows me to select the lightest part of the subject and the darkest, and then it takes two photos at two exposures  Pro HDR does a pretty darn good job of blending the two into a satisfying photograph.  But for the best and highest resolution photos, I use the Nikon.  Again, it’s good to have your iPhone on a tripod, but I also get satisfactory results without it.

Many cameras come with HDR switches. Both my Nikon and my iPhone have them. But the cameras take care of everything for you, leaving the photographer with no control — no artistry. There are also apps out there take a standard photo and exaggerate elements to simulate the HDR effect. This is cheating, in my opinion.

But what ever gives you satisfaction.  

It’s why we make pictures.

Conference Gear – ISTE Photo Walk

From the archive of last year's Photo Safari
This blog post is going to be in two installments.  This first one is my opportunity to share my gear, but also to promote ISTE’s 5th annual Photo Walk / Photo Safari.  Organized by Apple Destinguished Educators (IDEs), the gathering and 8:00 AM to 10:00 AM on Sunday.  I attended last year’s more extended walk in San Diego, and from that, I’d recommend a health application of sunblock.  Here are photos taken during that walk.

This year, I’ll be taking the following gear as of now.  Main tool will be a Nikon D5100 (more camera than I deserve) with 24-120 and 55-300MM Nikon lenses.  You also see a remote for taking those sensitive low-light shots where camera movement is death to the end product.  It also comes in handy for HDRs, which abuse, admittedly.

David Warlick's Gear Gathering for the ISTE13 ADE Photo Safari in San Antonio on June 23 2013
My gear for the Photo Walk. A tripod for the big camera is still under consideration.
 There are also an unglamorous assortment of filters, and a variety of methods for getting photos from camera to computer (or iPad).  You can also see two embarrassingly low capacity and slow memory cards.  

For my iPhone 4 (older iPhone 3GS standing in), I’ll have a miniature tripod, mostly because I can.  There is also an alternative and easier to attach tripod mount and an ōlloclip, which is a very cool lens set for iPhonography.  Most of the umpgh in my iPhone is in the apps, my favorite of which are Snapseed, TiltShift, Pro HDR, AutoStitch and ToonCamera.

Go here to register for the ADE ISTE Photo Safari 2013.