Tag Archives: balance

mermaids digital manipulation composite photo copyright Aloha Lavina 2012.

Creativity, Camera, and Photoshop

Which net would you use to catch a butterfly?

Many photographers argue that getting an image right in camera is the real deal—if you’re going to call yourself a photographer, you better learn your exposure and technical stuff, and compose beauty in the frame.

With the rise of digital photography, however, now you can take your images into a whole new realm of manipulation. Highly stylized images have grown in popularity along with the advances in digital cameras and software for processing digital photos. Photoshop is arguably the giant in the post processing world, so much so that people now use the name of the software as a verb. As in, “Was this photo Photoshopped?”

Purists, or people who scoff at Photoshop artists as hacks, don’t like overly manipulated photos. Indeed, a lot of contests out there specify the minimal adjustments that the entrant can make to their entry to the contest. Still, the world is not made of purists. At the other end of the spectrum are the—for lack of an official term—digital artists, who style their photos with scores of layers, stacking special effect upon special effect, and not apologizing for it.

In between are you and me.

Every week, I have a group of hobbyist photographers who make images because we like it. We call ourselves a Tribe. It’s a lot of fun now that we kind of know each other, and we sometimes chat briefly on Facebook about photography. And when I asked the Tribe if they wanted weekly modules with a Photoshop twist, I got an overwhelmingly positive response. So I can anecdotallyconclude that in my Tribe at least, we like improving our skills with the camera and we like to learn new Photoshop tricks, too.

mermaid manipulated photo in Photoshop copyright Aloha Lavina 2012.

Do you think I overdid this one, my first attempt at a total composite? I thought the fire ball tipped the scale.

Photoshop is a complicated software that is the industry standard; it takes a long time to master its tools. But it is somewhat accessible to the emerging hobbyist, as long as he or she is patient and doesn’t get overwhelmed.

But it’s not fair to photography if the shooter shoots thinking that Photoshop will fix everything.

Here’s what I’ve learned from my forays into the world of digital manipulation using Photoshop.

1. You still have to light the image right.

Photography is still capturing light, no matter what you can do to create light in Photoshop. A well lit image can be enhanced beautifully in Photoshop, but you cannot create light where there is none in the software. Yes, people argue that with tools like Shadow/Highlight control, or painting with light technique, you can paint light with a Photoshop brush easily. But you still get unnatural effects when you do this, like nasty noise in the underexposed areas you tried to bump up, or discoloration. Nothing works like a photo where light is where it should be, in the first place, as you capture it in camera. So yes, learn to manipulate light in Photoshop, but first learn to light.

2. You still have to get a good exposure.

We could say this is like Tip Number 1, but it’s a little different. This is about balancing the way your camera becomes sensitive to the light (ISO), choosing the right amount of light to enter the lens (Aperture), and rendering the captured image in the right amount of time (Shutter Speed) to get an image that has a good dynamic range. A good dynamic range in plain English is when the highlights and shadows have good detail just like the midtones. Now you can ‘recover’ shadows and highlights using Photoshop, but the resulting image is not as detailed as you would like it to be in a good exposure. You still have to learn to make a good exposure, no matter how high powered the latest version of PS is.

3. You still have to compose the image.

You can crop in Photoshop, and move the elements around. You can even composite different images, add things, clone things out, flip or transform or warp the image.

Manipulating every single image like this, to create a composition you really like, takes a lot of time.

And you’re not really sure about the compatibility of the elements. For instance, what if the lighting isn’t similar in the items you choose to composite? And what if you plunked a cow that is clearly not proportionally matched with a model in the original photo? Ooops. Visually, some things do not work composed in Photoshop. You still have to learn to compose in your camera.

mermaids digital manipulation composite photo copyright Aloha Lavina 2012.

This was better. The light was right, the framing was deliberate. And then the whole slew of layers.

4. The rules of optics still apply.

We see with a maximum aperture of f/2.1 in the dark, and a minimum aperture of f/8.3 in bright light. But another thing happens with us in our three dimensional world: we see in planes. That means that things that are on the same plane have the same sharpness for our eyes.  Why is this important for Photoshop? It means that we can’t blur the hell out of things we don’t want to see clearly in the image when those things are on the same plane as the things we want sharp. It just doesn’t compute in our brains.

But this is called artistic license. Skillfully done, you could still make a beautiful image with unnatural optical composition.

5. Photoshop is almost like painting.

Painters have the luxury of composing their pictures exactly as they imagined. Photographers have to find that composition and then interpret it with skill and technicality. Photoshop gives the photographer the advantage of adding or subtracting things that are in the frame, just like a painter does. But if the shooter doesn’t have skills in Tips 1 to 4, it may not work as well.

So in conclusion, there has to be balance in the way we use our camera skills and the way we manipulate the resulting photos. Ignoring one for the other seems unwise when the beauty you could make with both is boundless.

And that’s why if you want to catch this butterfly, make sure your net is big enough.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That!

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Imagine That Photography Tribe

Editor’s Picks: Week 8 Module Finding Your Balance

The Tribe has done it again!

Check out this beautiful collection of images from our Week 8 Module, “Finding Your Balance.”

Imagine That Photography Tribe

Copyright Vincent Ng 2012.

Imagine That Photography Tribe

Copyright Sarah Darr 2012.

Imagine That Photography Tribe

Copyright Einstein Lavina 2012.

Imagine That Photography Tribe

Copyright Cynthia Swidler 2012.

Imagine That Photography Tribe

Copyright Cyndi Louden 2012.

Imagine That Photography Tribe

Copyright Mihaela Limberea 2012.

If you would like to participate in weekly modules on all kinds of topics in photography, why not join the Imagine That Photography Tribe? Like us on Facebook, and get updates on weekly lessons, have a chance to discuss photography with cool Tribe members, and get free ebooks with your photos featured!

Krystal Vee flowers girl with flower copyright Aloha Lavina

Week 8 Module: Finding your Balance

Designing an image involves harmony in its elements. One of the important things that promote harmony in an image is balance.

When we think of balance, we think of symmetry—the opposite sides from a center are equal.

abstract photo symmetrical balance copyright Aloha Lavina

Symmetrical Balance.

Balance in an image can be static balance. This happens when two sides of the image from the center form equal visual weight—they are symmetrical. Their sameness produces a static balance, which is very strict in its proportions.

But the brain isn’t very excited with symmetry. An image with static balance is already harmonious, and the mind doesn’t have to do any work to harmonize it. So it kinda gets bored.

What happens when an image is asymmetrical, when the two sides from the center are not of equal visual weight? What happens is, the brain fills in the harmony, making the viewer an active participant in the image. This is what excites the brain.

When making images with asymmetrical balance, we can use a few techniques to achieve balance.

Size and distance from the center

Some images can get away with putting the subject at one extreme side, and balancing the subject with another object at the opposite end. If the objects themselves are not visually ‘equal in weight,’ then the composition could work.

Krystal Vee flowers girl with flower copyright Aloha Lavina

Symmetrical in shape, but with variation.

Sometimes, it is possible to imagine a lever of two different sized objects, but the smaller one is balanced because it is farther from the center.

environmental portrait model urban grunge Singapore copyright Aloha Lavina

Depth can bring balance to an image.

Using depth to create illusion of asymmetry

You can use depth, the illusion of near and far objects, to help you achieve balance in the image.

You can balance a closer object that looks large with something farther away, which looks smaller. It helps if the objects are similar in shape and tone. Darker objects tend to look “heavier” to the eye.

Getty Museum black and white copyright Aloha Lavina

You can use relative size of objects caused by distance from the lens, to achieve balance.

 Using space to balance the subject

You can use empty space or negative space to balance the subject.


monk reading by window Myanmar Burma black and white copyright Aloha Lavina

You can balance a subject with a large space, like a temple wall.

Negative space often gives you a graphic look to the image.

abstract lily black and white copyright Aloha Lavina

Balance using negative space.

Using color to ‘split’ the image into two sides

You can use the colors in the image to ‘split’ it into balanced parts. In the first image of the mustard field and sky, the photo is split into almost symmetrical parts by the color. The variation that made it a bit interesting is the man’s silhouette and the top of the tree on the right.

mustard field India Rajasthan copyright Aloha Lavina

An image balanced by 'split' color.

The lighthouse is balanced by the colors of the kayaks in the foreground.

Carlsbad lighthouse copyright Aloha Lavina

Kayaks in the foreground in the same colors as the subject and background.

 Using movement to ‘split’ the image

One of the challenges you might face is how to use movement to balance an image. By movement, we don’t mean actual movement of the subject, but the movement of the eye suggested by the subject.

illustrated tension in a photo copyright Aloha Lavina

The eye is led to two directions, creating tension.

In the image of the balloon man and Hmong children, the children are moving to one side of the image while the man is moving to another. Although they are moving in the same direction, the eye perceives a tension in the photo; it’s tugged in two ways. This tension adds to the dynamic balance of the image.

Hmong children and balloon seller Sapa Vietnam copyright Aloha Lavina

Movement to create dynamic balance.


Similarly, the petals of this abstracted lily moves in two different directions. There is one petal moving the eye toward the front left of the photo. Another petal is moving toward the background. This creates the same type of visual tension for the eye, and creates a dynamic balance in the photograph.

lily abstraction copyright Aloha Lavina

Movement can also be suggested by foreground and background.

Balance is one of the basic elements of a good composition. By following these tips, you can decide which type of balance works for your image, and make some dynamic compositions.

Your assignment this week is to try shooting to create different ways to balance elements in your photos. Pick the best of the lot, and post it in the Imagine That Photography Tribe Facebook page. Let’s get creative with composition again with a new twist!

If you want to journey with me as I rekindle my love for all kinds of photography in 2012, and learn lots of things along the way, head on over to our new Facebook page (and like us!), where you can participate in project modules, get some feedback, talk photography, and have your photography featured in a monthly roundup!

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That!

If you like what’s on the blog, let us know by commenting! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the orange RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage. It would also be cool to be friends with you on Facebook, or connect with you on Twitter.

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Photography Doesn’t Fix Everything

for Jodi

I reread this post, about long term travel not being able to fix everything, over at Legalnomads, and thought, that sounds familiar. Last summer I took two months to travel to Burma and then Bali, thinking I needed to get away for some quiet time. Travel for me is a way to get inside my head and de-clutter; I wrote to Jodi the other day, I travel “to get away from my nine to five when it becomes too loud with worry that I can’t hear myself.”

I go away to listen, to remove the white noise that is other people’s needs, and find the voice that’s mine. I need very little really, to be happy, just a lot of silence and space, time to make photographs and write. But sometimes, I get caught up in work that is separate from my passion; more and more of this dislodges me from myself, and I float, an untethered balloon full of nothingness.

That’s when I want to get away. Being away brings a new reality. It reminds me of very early memories when every thing I learned seemed momentous, bright and shiny things I could gather and hold close to examine.

I’m not a sophisticated traveler. I don’t have the brave body of someone who climbs volcanoes or rides on rooftops of buses. Yes, I’ve been stuck in Europe because of an ashcloud, but hey, I was in Paris. Being stuck in Paris did not make me suffer. True, I was caught in a flashflood in the Philippines, but I was ten or eleven years old; it was an adventure full of floating refrigerators, bamboo rafts afloat above city streets, and ignorance about water born diseases. And yes, I live in Bangkok, the center of several coups d’etat and colorful politics. But last May, the closest I got to the burning of Bangkok was through Twitter apart from the days when the redshirts were still partying at Rachadamnoen. No, I’m not the Indiana Jones type of traveler.

What I do have, though, is a camera. I lug sixteen kilograms of equipment across all sorts of terrain, and I build my travel day around making photos. When I’m with my camera, composing images that tell stories of places, nothing can touch me. Words cease. You could speak a whole dissertation to me and think I am the rudest companion; the act of making an image fills me, engages me beyond any other experience.

This is flow, a state when a person is so engaged in something that time and space seem to disappear.

The problem is, you can’t stay in flow indefinitely. When I return to reality, I realize a few things.

Cold and dusty in Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan.

1.     Not everything is beautiful.

With the camera in front of my face, everything is a matter of design. The chaos of lines can be organized into a composition using other things, like point of view, values of light and dark, framing. As a photographer, I can move and things get a little bit more harmonious in the frame. Not so in life. Moving around a problem, I can’t recompose a better image, I only postpone dealing with a mess. I can’t freeze moments that are beautiful and take them out when things get ugly.

2.     Light doesn’t change the way things are, just the way they look.

If the light is bad one day, I can always pack up and go somewhere else, then go back to the landscape when the light is ‘right.’ But in life, things don’t always look better in the morning light, or at sundown. Sometimes things look the same for days, weeks.

A few hours before the first snowfall, Paro, Bhutan.

3.     You can’t Photoshop it out.

In Photoshop there’s a Clone Tool, and it helps the photographer get rid of distracting spots and other things in the image. You just sample one area of the photo, then click over the area you want gone.  If only it were that easy for the little things that distract us in our lives. Countless times I’ve wished for a clone tool to stamp out the little demands that keep me away from my photography.

The closest I’ve come to complete irresponsibility is traveling, especially alone. I love to wake up earlier than the sun, feel the nip of dawn air as I hurry out to Kusumba to catch the sun rising over the fishing village. There is no schedule, there are only images to make, people to study, expressions to savor through a viewfinder.

4.     You can’t just crop.

Similarly, I can’t just crop. Things in my life crowd into my focal point and want to be in the line of sight. No matter how messy, how utterly unphotogenic something is, life doesn’t have selective framing. Unwanted elements seem to find their way into the experience, and I just have to deal with them.

Holding down the roof with stones, Punakha, Bhutan.

5.     Your batteries run out at some point.

Nothing frustrates a photographer more than being unprepared with extra batteries, and there’re lots of pictures left to make. On very good days, I shoot thousands of photos and have to change the camera battery once or twice (especially with the early digital Nikons, whose batteries lasted less than a thousand shutter clicks when I used a Vibration Reduction lens on them).

I work a lot, seven days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day. I have to; if I don’t I can’t do this photography thing and the other things I have to do. So I plod along, and most of the time, I get enough sleep and have time to watch a movie or read a book from cover to cover, for pleasure.

Other times, I feel like I’m standing on a barbed wire fence, looking out over a vague landscape, and although my hands hurt from clinging to the barbed wire, I can’t let go or I’ll fall off.

Hanging on a barbed wire fence, near Thimphu, Bhutan.

It’s not that I’m into self-inflicted pain though others would argue; I just have obligations to fulfill, and I also have a passion that feeds my soul. I cannot run out of batteries, because I must always find strength for one or the other.

When I wrote to Jodi the other day, I said, “the Balinese are so talented at balance, and that was something you needed, and something I craved. So here you are again, ready for more surprises. I hope the basket stays on the head, even when you’re dancing.”

Maybe I was also talking to myself.