Lori Carey Photography

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Long Overdue

my feet in hospital bed

Hello, is anyone still here?? This post is long overdue. If you don't follow any of my social media accounts or know me personally in real life, you probably don't know that I was diagnosed with Stage IV de novo Metastatic Breast Cancer last September. I didn't feel like blogging, I couldn't bear picking up my cameras, I couldn't even deal with reviewing any of the hundreds of photos I still need to process. If this post is TL:DR for you, or you don't care to hear about the stark realities of life and death, feel free to skip directly to the last paragraph where I share some good news and get back to business. Much of this is me just thinking out loud, but I feel that I owe an explanation for my extended absence from my own blog. Said too much or said too little, it doesn't really matter and if I don't hit the button to Publish now I'm afraid I'll just stare at this post for another couple of weeks while I agonize over it.

one day of tests
A busy day full of scans.

I have a rare and extremely aggressive type - Inflammatory Breast Cancer - that hit me hard and took me down fast. It spread to both breasts, my chest wall, brachial nerves and I lost use of my right arm, skin, liver and throughout my skeleton and had me fighting for my life in no time at all. Everything was a blur - one minute I was perfectly fine, I drove myself to my doctor's office and figured I would give my husband the news that night over dinner. A few hours later I was being admitted to the hospital with dangerously low blood pressure, blood oxygen, and an erratic heart rate of 208. The cancer continued to spread while I was in the hospital undergoing what felt like every test known to mankind, and they thought I was going to die. They said I'd be lucky to last 60 days. I fought long and hard to get back on my feet. My sister-in-law flew out and stayed with us for over a month because I was unable to care for myself and my husband almost had a breakdown trying to take care of me, the house, and his business. Although the chemo started working immediately, it was still six months before I even felt like I had a chance to pull through (part of that due to an atypical adverse reaction to chemo), and then a few more months of slowing gaining strength with targeted therapy drugs.

My Mom calls this photo "The Free Spirit, The Earth Mother, and The Wild Child". My baby sisters flew out to visit me and fill my freezer with food. They probably thought that they were saying their last goodbyes. I didn't want my photo taken when I didn't feel well, but I'm glad that my sister-in-law insisted because I love this photo. My hair had just started to fall out but I was still able to disguise it with a scarf.


Many people ask me if I had been skipping my mammograms, as if that would have somehow prevented it. I know they ask the question only to make themselves feel better, as if annual mammograms will prevent the same thing from happening to them or their loved ones and maybe that is where I went wrong. Repeat after me - annual mammograms only aid in detection, they do NOT prevent breast cancer and they do not save your life. In fact, it was recently determined that mammograms have been leading to over-diagnosis (Stage 0 DCIS that probably never would become cancerous) and over-treatment. The New England Journal of Medicine published a report stating that up to 85% of women with early stage cancer didn't need the chemo they were treated with.

With IBC the tumor grows in sheets or layers instead of a lump so it is not usually detected by a mammogram. By the time there is any sign of it all, typically nothing more than what appears to be a rash, it is always late Stage III or Stage IV. Just luck of the draw, I've never been known for doing things half way. It's pink-washing to think that annual mammograms and catching it early will save your life too. 30% of all breast cancers will go on to metastasize, sometimes as much as 20 years later. The death rate from Metastatic BC has not changed in 30 years. Too much money being spent on pink ribbon "awareness" campaigns should be directed toward researching a real cure for MBC. I have a lot more to say on that topic but I'll save it for another day. And as far as risk factors go, according to the CDC my only risk factor was that I didn't have children and that I have breasts. I have no family history, I (usually) eat good foods, I'm not overweight, I live(d) an active lifestyle, I didn't start my period early or go through menopause late, I don't drink alcohol excessively (the past ten years I rarely drank at all), I've never been sick a day in my life, my biggest risk was just the fact that I have breasts (men have breasts too, and they can also get breast cancer).

chemo infusion


My doctor said it was most likely growing inside me for years, undetected and symptom-less. In hindsight I often wonder if that is why I felt so fatigued the past few years. I chalked it up to getting older and lazy. When I was admitted to the hospital the main thought that went through my head the first few days was that I finally had permission to rest without feeling guilty, and how good it felt to finally put my head down and not worry about anything, just sleep and sleep. I slept for months, resting and healing, only leaving the house for chemo.

There were many times that I thought about blogging, but I didn't want to bombard my readers with talk about cancer and dying, I didn't want that to be all I was about, but that was the only thing I had going on in my life. I didn't even post on social media much because I didn't have much to say that wasn't about cancer. I wrote beautiful prose in my head, but when I found the energy to grab pen and paper the words disappeared. I thought about creating a new blog just for my cancer story (it's a trendy thing to do these days), but it required too much energy and frankly was another expense that I couldn't justify. Cancer treatment is insanely expensive (my current targeted therapy drugs are $10,000 every 3 weeks with a 20% co-pay at the Silver level, I could never afford it without co-pay assistance. I maxed out on my total out-of-pocket by March of this year) and I haven't worked since I was diagnosed. And as much as I hate to admit it, because my husband and I are both self-employed with irregular income, we rolled the dice and cancelled our health insurance the year before because our "affordable" premiums had sky-rocketed (whoever thinks $18,000 a year for a family of two is affordable needs to have their head checked, especially on top of a California mortgage and cost-of-living. In all of the ACA discussions there isn't nearly enough attention paid to self-employed people who make over roughly $65,000 - the point where subsidies are cut off. I can't even imagine how a free-lancer with kids who makes just over the threshold could possibly afford it.) and neither of us had ever been sick or seriously injured in our lives. It was cheaper to pay cash when we needed to see a doctor. I never was very good at Craps (dice game for those who might not know). This was only time I ever had doubts about my decision to leave my 22-year corporate job with all of the great benefits. Now we have bills from my hospital stay, port surgery, and chemo that my husband will still be paying off after I die. Every penny counts these days. I don't know how we're going to do it, we'll probably end up selling our house, but I have faith that we'll find a way. We always have.


I needed to have a Bard PowerPort put in because my veins went into hiding and the few they could find were too scarred. I'll probably be having infusions for the rest of my life and the port makes it easier. One line goes into my jugular and one into my carotid artery.

But this blog isn't supposed to be about cancer,

It's supposed to be about photography and adventures.

I thought that any photographer worth her salt should be documenting the experience with a camera and I felt like a failure. I managed to snap a few shots in the hospital with my phone one day, but mostly I slept. When I started chemo I knew that all the cool photographers, even amateurs, would take a selfie and post some brave face rah-rah shit, but it seemed disrespectful to me and I decided to not do it. It's different when you are early stage and have a defined end to treatment, they get to ring the bell and celebrate having made it through the god-awful treatment, go home knowing that it's over and they've survived, but I'll be in treatment for the rest of my life. I won't get to ring any bells. Not only did it seem wrong to make light of it, it felt disrespectful to everyone else in the infusion room, many of whom were "lifers" like me. I didn't want to talk about what was going on my head because I didn't want to scare people. It's strange how some people are so scared by the idea of death and refuse to believe that something could be incurable. They want to believe in miracles and false hopes. I prefer to deal with the reality of the situation, and I put a high value on the few friends who were okay with openly discussing things with me. The hardest part for me was seeing what it did to my husband. I didn't (and still don't) know how to make any of this easier on him. The truth is, I think came to terms with things easier than most people would. It made sense to me in a way. My life has been full of more pain and hardship than many people could bear, and this only seemed fitting to the rest of my life. I still remember that my Aunt wrote to me, "After everything you've overcome, this isn't fair.", but I figured why should the end be any different? That probably comes as a surprise, but very few people know anything about my life except what I let them see. This is just another challenge. Life deals you a hand of cards, and you play them best you can. I've really had a great life despite all of the hardships, and best of all I've had the opportunity to spend the last years doing what I love best. It's almost as if that was part of the plan.

I keep kicking around the idea of doing a Stage IV photo project. I tried taking a few photos as time went on, but they didn't have the depth of emotion I was feeling. They felt empty and devoid of feeling. I realized that it was too hard to convey emotion without a human element, and I didn't have the energy to do more than grab a snap now and then with my phone. Well-planned conceptual shots were beyond me; I was lost in a morphine haze and proud of myself when I actually managed to take a shower, get dressed for the day and feed myself. Self portraits were out of the question because I couldn't bear to look at myself in the mirror. I looked like I was dying. I wanted to run from the person in the mirror and I did everything I could to avoid looking at her.

My Bard PowerPort
This is what my PowerPort and scars look like after healing. The black spot near my neck is where my body was rejecting part of it and pushing it outside my skin, but that's just a white scar now. All of the new wrinkles are courtesy of chemo, which is absolute hell on the skin.

But as I felt better and started looking into other cancer photography projects I realized they all fell into one of two groups - either a photographer with early stage cancer documented his/her journey, or a photographer documented another's Stage IV journey. I haven't come across any where a photographer documents their own demise from a terminal cancer - what it feels like from the inside not how it looks to an observer; to see those around you suffering; to write instructions for your husband for things that need to be handled upon your death and how to pay the bills with on-line banking and where you keep the titles to the house and cars; the darkness when your body becomes resistant to a treatment and they're not sure if there is anything left to try; the constant roller-coaster of dealing with side effects of treatments; what it feels like to sign a DNR as your husband watches with tears in his eyes and tries so damn hard to stay strong, what it feels like to be afraid to make plans because you're not sure if you'll be up to it, or even alive; what it feels like to wonder if this is your last anniversary, last Christmas, last birthday, the giggles when my hair started growing back and my husband called me his "little q-tip", the feelings of relief after a good scan. I've come up with a few ideas but they're mostly conceptual and require a good deal of planning, prop-making and set up. Since I started with my phone, do I need to finish with my phone? Can I mix black and white with color images? Is it okay to mix raw and real with conceptual? I'm still kicking it around in my head and I'm not sure if I have the time and energy to pull it off. I also want to put together some memory photo books for my husband before my entire photographic legacy disappears into the ether, and that should probably take priority. But I'm going to give the Stage IV Project an effort, and if I make progress I'll be sure to have posts appropriately labeled for those who don't care for such things and only want to enjoy my outdoor and/or Jeep photography.

Now For The Good News

It's not all doom and gloom. I am one of the 20% of women who benefit from monoclonal antibody targeted therapy, a type of immunotherapy. I'm actually feeling pretty good right now, all things considered, and I've been getting stronger every day. I know that it will only keep the dogs at bay for a while, hopefully a long while, but I'm determined to enjoy life as best I can, while I still can. Bill and I just returned from a ten day camping trip in beautiful Wyoming and I have lots of photos and stories to share. We visited Jackson, Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Bridger-Teton National Forest, and Caribou-Targhee National Forest. Of course we took the Jeep out there and found some beautiful dirt trails to explore! It was a bucket list celebration trip for us because I finally felt well enough to venture out camping and spending time in nature, and we wanted to go make more great memories together. I work at a slower pace these days, but please look for my posts and photos soon!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Learning To Fly

I have a love/hate relationship with drones.

I hate seeing my neighbor's drone fly over my backyard. They can be annoying when an insensitive drone operator buzzes around people (which isn't legal) or along a hiking trail where people want to hear the sounds of nature, or when they are wrecking the shot somewhere that landscape photographers are trying to shoot without a care for others. Then there's the idiots with a sense of entitlement, few skills and no common sense who fly where they shouldn't and crash them into the Grand Prismatic spring, annoy wildlife, interfere with fire-fighting efforts, and do other stupid things that give drone operators (unmanned aircraft pilots per the FAA) a bad name.

But there's no denying that aerial footage from drones can be spectacular and absolutely breath-taking when done right.

My cousin Sean Mitchell visited us last January while he was in California on business. Sean was the co-founder and COO of the Irish tech company Movidius before they were purchased by Intel earlier this year. I won't even pretend to have an inkling of exactly what Movidius does beyond making chips with a focus on AI (artificial intelligence), but some of the technology they developed was the Vision Processing System that does the Active Track, Tap-To-Fly, and Obstacle Avoidance for DJI drones/quadcopters. (I'm incredibly proud of my cousin - he's an astute businessman who is extremely intelligent and now wildly successful, but he's one of the most down-to-earth people you could meet and a really fun guy to hang out with). While I was cooking dinner, Sean and my husband were discussing the advances in drone (quadcopter) technology. My husband was fascinated and thought it would be great to have on our Jeep trips. I explained that as awesome as it would be, I was already stretched thin and didn't have time to dedicate to learning something new. Learning to shoot and edit video, and do it well, takes an incredible amount of time. Motion is a whole different ballgame than still photography.

A few weeks later my husband received a package in the mail with no note or sender information. It was the newly released DJI Mavic Pro Fly More Combo, in our hands while others were still wondering when they would ship. I couldn't ignore such a generous gift and all of my excuses about not having time disappeared. After adding international calling to Bill's phone so he could call Sean to thank him, Bill and I set up our game plan. I told Bill that if we were going to do this (rather if I were going to invest the time and effort), we were going to do it the right way and make it worthwhile. We would have to work as a team, with each of us taking on the responsibilities that played to our strengths.

He learned how to fly the drone and work the camera controls, I began studying basic cinematography and then teaching him what I was learning - camera angles and movement, the relationship between frame rate and shutter speeds, exposure, visualizing the scene, and all that other fun stuff that needs to be learned only after you learn how to control the drone. I'm sure I drove him crazy by making him watch endless drone footage that showed the kind of camera movement I wanted him to learn. Eventually he was doing more than just flying the Mavic around with the camera running. He began filming with an eye toward the end product.

I started learning about the legal and business angle of drones and devoted a lot of time toward studying for my 107 UAS Pilot license, which is required for commercial shooting. I'm ready to sit for the exam but I still haven't decided if I'm going to pull the trigger; being licensed changes the game completely and adds a lot more legal responsibility as well as additional restrictions (one would think that hobbyists would have more restrictions than licensed professionals, but it's actually the opposite in this case). I need to make a strong business case for obtaining my license (the exam is $150 and several hours) or we may just stick with doing it for fun.

Then I had to learn video editing. I purchased Adobe Premiere Elements because I couldn't justify $50 per month for Premier Pro unless I was making money shooting videos. I hated Premiere Elements. While there are some things I like about the program, I didn't like that only very basic grading could be done, the title templates looked very hokey, and the whole thing had the feel of software for amateurs. It was way too cutesy for me. After spending a couple months playing around with it, I decided to try the highly recommended DaVinci Resolve. After months of learning Premiere, now I was back to square one. Resolve is a very sophisticated and highly capable video editor, but learning how to use the program is akin to learning Photoshop; you could spend the rest of your life learning how to do everything the program is capable of doing. Nothing is intuitive, so while I usually can sit down and figure out how to use software right off the bat, Resolve took me hours and hours of studying before I could do even the most basic thing.

Meanwhile I was supposed to be shooting the "B-roll" when we were out in the field and I have to admit that I failed miserably. I get too wrapped up in shooting stills and forget about getting any video footage, and when I do remember to shoot video one of the hardest things for me to remember is to shoot for several seconds longer than I think I should...shoot "through" the scene. I've shot so many clips that were way too short to be of any use. I need to figure out how to change my mental work flow when I'm in the field. Bill kept adding to our aerial footage over several months and our archive was building. I wanted him to have a "brag" video to show his friends and family, and I wanted to show my cousin that his generous gift has been put to good use. We'd been working on this since January and still didn't have anything to show for it. I also wanted Bill to see the results of his hard work, and that there was a reason for the things I wanted him to learn (and also see why some things are mistakes that don't work).

All of this learning about how to fly (and control) the Mavic and the camera, aerial photography, cinematic techniques, video editing, and studying for the license exam has taken up a substantial portion of my time in 2017. We both still have a LOT to learn, but finally we've reached the point where the footage is starting to match my vision and my editing/grading skills are improving enough so that I could finally put something together.

I called it Learning To Fly because that's what it really is - Bill learning to fly the drone to capture cinematic footage at several beautiful locations we've visited in the California desert. I had hoped to share it on Facebook, but it's too big to upload there so I had to use YouTube. It's not perfect, we're both still working on our skills, but I think we're headed in the right direction. I have something to show my cousin, and Bill absolutely loved it, which was the important thing. I hope you enjoy seeing the places we love to explore and photograph in a whole new light.



The DJI Mavic Pro is perfect for us because it's small size is easy to fit in our already over-packed Jeep and it's so easy to fly. Knock on wood, we haven't had any mishaps with it yet.

It's getting harder and harder to find places to legally fly the drone. We try to stay educated on the legal issues and we're very conscious of only flying in remote locations where we won't bother other people. National Parks and Monuments are out, National Forests are okay. A huge portion of BLM land in California was recently made into two new monuments (Sand To Snow and Mojave Trails), so they are out now. Entire towns have banned drones (Laguna Beach most recently). We have to use an app on our phones to check for TFRs (Temporary Flight Restrictions) and NOTAMs (Notice to Airmen) and if we're going someplace without a signal we need to do our research first. Another app tells us if there are any airports within five miles (including heliports) that need to be notified before we fly. If I get my 107 UAS license so I can do it commercially, there are even more restrictions, more regulations, more requirements. I often wonder if it's worth all of the trouble. Yet there's no denying that the footage can be incredibly beautiful and shows a location in a way that still photos can't. I'm still weighing the pros and cons.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Hunting Arches In The Alabama Hills

Moon, Mt. Whitney, scaly rock formation and tiny unknown arch in the Alabama Hills, Eastern Sierra, California

I am probably the only landscape photographer who has visited the Alabama Hills in the Eastern Sierra region of California without even once taking a photograph of Mobius or Lathe Arches. Google either one of them and you'll find thousands of photos, most of which look pretty much the same...."Stand here, put your tripod there, and shoot that.". Those two arches are easily accessible. The BLM put in a parking lot and a sign pointing the way to the well worn trail head. There are typically dozens of cars there at any given time of day. Even sadder is that most of the photographers mistake Lone Pine Peak for Mt. Whitney. It's an easy mistake to make if you don't do your research. From this spot, Lone Pine Peak dominates the landscape and looks much higher than Mt. Whitney, so everyone just assumes that it is Mt. Whitney. (HINT: That is Lone Pine Peak in the photo at the top of this post.)

I supposed I'm spoiled because I don't usually have to deal with other people when I'm out on the trail. I find that standing elbow-to-elbow, jockeying for position, and waiting for the selfie crowd to get out of the frame so everyone can shoot substantially the same image is more than I have the patience to deal with. It's even worse trying to photograph a popular location at night because someone will undoubtedly want to do some light painting with no concern for everyone else, or someone will hike up with a flashlight turned on, ruining the long exposure star trail shot you've patiently been waiting on.

I don't see the fun in that. I think that other photographers do it because a) they want to have the iconic shot in their portfolio, even if everyone else has the exact same shot, and/or b) the shot is a proven formula, guaranteed to get lots of "likes" as long as you at least halfway know what you're doing (and even if you don't know what mountain peak you are seeing).

I became fascinated with locating the lesser known arches after finding a hand drawn map several years ago that showed the general location of many arches and other points of interest. The man who drew the (not to scale) map had located hundreds of arches in the Alabama Hills area. Unfortunately the map only covers a portion of the area. While many of the arches are given names, others are only identified with a number.

Three Brothers rock formation, Alabama Hills

It's the same map I used to find the petroglyphs on the Three Brothers rock formation. To this day I haven't found any other mention of the petroglyphs on the Three Brothers, so I always make sure to bring the map with me any time I visit Alabama Hills, and my trips have become a game of of seeing what other surprises I can find.


My travels on my most recent trip took me beyond the area covered by the map and I found several arches that I haven't been able to identify. One is the small arch in the photo at the top of this post. I spotted that arch while hiking around somewhere between Cyclops Arch and Boot Arch.

Cyclops and Boot aren't hard to find. There is a small parking area for each, but there are no signs pointing the way like there is for Mobius and Lathe, so fewer people find their way to them. I actually found the Cyclops Double Arch by chance. I was doing some scouting around our camp when I spotted the large arch off in the distance. I attempted to see if I could drive closer, but the trail only took me further away. When we got back to camp, I grabbed my camera and set out to find the large arch.

Cyclops Arch, aka Double Arch, Alabama Hills

If you want to shoot Mt. Whitney, Lone Pine Peak, or any of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range through the arches, you need to shoot in the morning. The mountain range is to the west, and by late afternoon you are shooting directly into the sun.

As I got closer, I realized the arch was very different than it appeared from farther away. It was a massive double arch, several stories high. Shooting in the afternoon allowed me to capture the unique shape of the arch and understand why it was called the Cyclops Arch.

Cyclops Double Arch in black and white, Alabama Hills, California

I considered shooting the arch that night in the moonlight, but the moon and the Milky Way rose in the exact same spot at almost the exact same time, and the moon was behind the arch, so it was wasn't worth making the hike. I made a return trip the next morning to get the traditional shot of the mountains through the arch. Sunrise was bland and boring, but there was still a tiny moon setting in the sky and I hoped to include the moon in my composition. I had to scramble up some boulders in order to frame the mountains through the arch.

Mt. Whitney through Cyclops Double Arch, Alabama Hills

The moon was closer to Lone Pine Peak and I couldn't get the angle. I instead chose to frame Mt. Whitney in the arch (the rather un-dramatic high peak is Mt. Whitney, and you can see why many photographers mistakenly photograph the more dramatic Lone Pine Peak, believing it is Mt. Whitney. It's a trick of perspective from this location.).

I was glad to be wearing good boots with sticky soles. After I finished shooting, it took me several minutes to figure out how to get back down the rocks I had climbed while holding a camera in one hand. I spotted Boot Arch off in the distance and started making my way over. I found the tiny unknown arch in the top photo while wandering toward Boot Arch.

Boot Arch

Boot Arch is named for the shape of the arch, the hole in the rock. Many people see a horse head in the shape of the rock itself. Once again I found myself scrambling for a position that would get me high enough to shoot the Sierra mountains through the arch, this time with Lone Pine Peak and the setting moon.

Boot Arch, Lone Pine Peak and the setting moon, Alabama Hills

Those were the only two new (to me) arches I was able to identify on this trip. While driving along the dirt roads and trails gathering material for some DrivingLine articles, I found several more large arches and a few tiny ones. There isn't much information available on line about the arches of Alabama Hills, and after several hours of researching I've thrown my hands up trying to identifying of them.

I found this arch overlooking Owens Valley when I followed a hiking path up in the hills. It wasn't far from where we had camped on our previous visit.

Unknown arch overlooking Owens Valley, Alabama Hills

I might be able to identify this one if I had photographed it from the other side. I thought possibly it was Fat Slob Arch, but it doesn't match up completely to the photos I've been able to find.

Unknown arch, Alabama Hills

Then there's the tiny arch in the photo at the top of the post, and several more almost-arches or very small arches whose photos aren't worth posting here. Shooting trails for DrivingLine usually means shooting under the desert midday sun, very challenging conditions and not exactly my favorite time to shoot. I've learned to consider it as scouting trips for "real" photography in the future instead of letting it frustrate me.

The Alabama Hills trails I covered for DrivingLine are suitable for any SUV, so if you want to escape the crowds of boondockers at Alabama Hills check out my two DrivingLine articles on Alabama Hills. You can get directions to where I found these arches and discover a few of my favorite "secret" camp locations, although they're not much of a secret now that I've published them and I have only myself to blame if I find someone there next time I visit.

The Other Alabama: Alabama Hills in the Eastern Sierra

Exploring Unmarked Trails in the Alabama Hills
That's not the original title I gave this article but my editor changed it. ;)


In closing, this is Morning Moon Over Lone Pine Peak (NOT Mt. Whitney!). After a boring sunrise, I was glad to have something unique to add to the composition.

Morning Moon Over Lone Pine Peak, Alabama Hills



Prints are available in the Gallery.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Sleeklens Through The Woods Workflow for Landscape Photographers Review

Shooting in RAW means that every single photo I take needs to have some post-processing. When you shoot jpegs the camera decides how much saturation, contrast and sharpness to add. When you shoot RAW files you need to make those decisions yourself and apply them to the image file. Depending on the image and the final usage, this could be as simple as correcting any lens distortion, setting the black and white points, maybe a curves adjustment and sharpening for output. Often it requires more extensive work, especially when processing images that were shot in tough light conditions or when I want to bring my creative vision to an image.

Lightroom presets can be a great way to speed up a photographer's workflow because they are a bundle of edits contained inside one click. In addition to saving time, they can provide a quick way to evaluate many different "looks". If you keep the Navigation Pane open in the Development Module, you can quickly preview an effect just by hovering your cursor over the name of a preset. Presets can also provide consistency across a shoot. I created a preset for most of my off road trail images for my DrivingLine articles to keep a consistent look, and a result I think my off road images are fairly easy to recognize. While I would never recommend relying entirely on presets, high-quality presets do have a place in my workflow, especially when I'm trying to decide what direction I want go with an image. They are another tool in my toolbox.

When Sleeklens asked me to review their Through The Woods workflow for landscape photographers, I was excited to have the opportunity to play with some new "toys". The workflow is available either as Lightroom Presets or Photoshop Actions. I chose the Lightroom presets because it seems that most photographers prefer to use Lightroom these days, and despite 20 years of extensive experience with Photoshop I have never like using Actions for several reasons.

Sleeklens Through The Woods Workflow


The Through The Woods workflow contains 51 presets and 30 brushes. There are 12 All-In-One presets, 12 Base presets, 6 Exposure presets, 5 Color Correction presets, 4 Tone/Tint presets, 6 Polish presets, and 6 Vignette presets. The brushes can be used with the Adjustment Brush, Radial, and Graduated filters. What sets this collection apart from many other presets collections is that everything, including the All-In-One presets, is stackable which allows you to layer the effects.

Sleeklens provides several videos showing how to use their workflow and a "recipe book" of examples. I have to be honest, the example recipes were a little garish for my taste and I got worried that they wouldn't be a good fit for me. Post-processing is highly subjective and personal and some people prefer a highly saturated and over-processed look. My style is typically toward a more natural look. The good thing about presets (unlike Instagram filters) is that all of the individual settings in a preset can be adjusted to personal taste, so I tossed the recipe book to the side and worked on instinct.

All-In-One Presets


The first thing I did was to grab a photo with a well-exposed histogram (even distribution across the histogram, no blown highlights or blocked shadows) and tried out each of the All-In-One presets to see how they looked. All-In-One presets are designed to do most of the editing in one click. I didn't make any adjustment to the RAW file before using the presets. This one is from a recent trip to the Alabama Hills in the Eastern Sierra.

Original RAW File

Calm Sunset

Heavenly Warmth

Dawn Rising

Mid Range Splendor

Love Me Tender

Pastel Caress

Pressed In Time

Shine Into The Sun

The Real Teal

The Royal Treatment

Warm Shadows

Wide Open Spaces



Five of the color and one of the black and white All-In-One presets are low contrast, which doesn't really suit my work. However, the low contrast matte look is quite popular these days. Four of the twelve Base presets are also low contrast. Some of the All-In-One presets have color casts not generally suitable to my work (purple and teal), and others are too highly saturated for my taste (although saturation, along with the other settings, can be adjusted after applied). Most of the presets had too much sharpening. But again, a preset is just a start and all of the settings can be adjusted to taste.

I went back and worked the image using the All-In-One Warm Shadows preset to see what I could do with it.

All-In-One Warm Shadows
Reduce Vibrance (from +64 to +26)
Medium Contrast Tone Curve
Reduce Yellow saturation
Reduce Orange saturation
Subtle Black Vignette - adjust midpoint
Brush - Cloudy Sky Definition on mountains in background
Reduce Blue saturation


I decided to test with another image to get a better feel for how each of the presets would work. This image taken at sunset in the El Paso Mountains Wilderness has all mid-tones with a compressed histogram centered squarely in the middle. The frame was exposed to preserve detail in the highlights of the white stripe down the right side of the hills where it is hit by sunlight.

 Again no adjustments were made to the RAW file prior to testing the presets. If this were real life instead of testing, I would adjust the black and white points before doing anything else, which would make a big difference in how these look. 

Original RAW FILE

Dawn Rising

Calm Sunset

Heavenly Warmth

Love Me Tender

Mid Tone Splendor

Pastel Caress

Pressed In Time

Shine Into The Sun

The Real Teal

The Royal Treatment

Warm Shadows

Wide Open Spaces


We can see that color casts from The Real Teal and The Royal Treatment aren't as strong when applied to mid-tones. The strong saturation of some of the presets isn't as apparent either, except with Calm Sunset, which has an anything but calm strong red. 

Warm Shadows is the closest to how I remembered the scene, so I played a bit more with it. Since there are no strong dark or light tones in the photo I know I want to add some contrast. 

All-In-One Warm Shadows
Strong Tone Curve
Brush- Cloudy Sky Definition
Set White Point
Remove dust spot
Crop to 16:9

At this point, the yellow grass at the bottom of the frame was really popping and I found it distracting, so I used an adjustment brush to reduce the exposure a full two stops just on the grass.


I also removed the sharpening that was added by the preset. I don't typically sharpen until output because the correct amount of sharpening is highly dependent on the output - print, web, etc. I also don't believe in always sharpening an entire image (especially the sky), which is a limitation of Lightroom. Many the presets in this collection have the sharpening set between 76-106. Warm Shadows uses 106,  which creates some pretty heavy artifacting as seen here in a section of the sky -

Over-sharpened Sky

Reducing the sharpening cleaned that right up. 


If you don't like any of the All-In-One presets you can start with the Base, Exposure, Color Correct, or Tint/Tone presets. The Base presets include an Auto Tone for color and for black and white, Basic Film, Cinematic which is an orange/blue split tone, Autumn Color which adds gold to the highlights with a saturation bump to all of the warm colors, Dance In The Rain which bumps both the shadow and highlight sliders to the right +75, Down To A Whisper which slides everything including Saturation and Clarity to the left, Exdenting DR (which I wondered was a typo?) which makes strong adjustments to shadows and highlights. High Dynamic Range which essentially slides highlights and whites to zero, shadows and blacks to +100, Monochrome Fantasy which is a low contrast black and white conversion, Morning Light increases exposure and raises the shadows +50, and Punchy which gives a big boost to Vibrance, Contrast and Clarity. The remaining presets are for smaller edits such as more/less contrast, more/less highlights, warm/cool tinting, four color reduction presets (blues, reds, greens, yellows), and the vignette presets. 

The brushes have several haze effects, tint/tone adjustment, and adjustments for clarity, contrast, highlights and shadows. 

More Examples


I decided that Warm Shadows and Shine Into The Sunset were best suited to my work. They both do a nice job of bringing warmth back into my desert shots, although I usually need to tone them down. Warm Shadows increases Magenta luminence +24, adds gold to the shadows, and gives an overall vibrance boost of  a whopping +64. Shine Into The Sunset bumps Orange saturation +15, adds a more subtle gold to the shadows, +43 vibrance and lifts the shadows more than Warm Shadows does.


This photo taken in the Mojave National Preserve was taken on an overcast day with just a few peeks of blue sky. Again this was exposed to preserve highlight detail in the clouds.

RAW file

Base - Basic Film
All-In-One - Warm Shadows
Reduce Vibrance
Reduce Sharpening
Adjust white balance
Yellow Saturation -20
Blue Saturation +11



This photo of a lone mesquite on the edge of Panamint Dry Lake taken at dawn is my favorite result from this workflow so far.

RAW file

All-In-One Shine Into The Sunset
Color - Deep Blue Skies
Tone/Tine - Color Pop
Brush - Cloudy Sky Definition
Reduce Blue Saturation
Noise Reduction
Vignette - Subtle Black
Adjust white point
Brush - Add Golden Sun to small sections of grass in foreground

I shot this during blue hour but did not want to use Tungsten white balance to deepen the blue sky because I wanted to preserve the golds in the foreground. The Deep Blue Sky preset did a good job of bringing the blue hour tone back to the sky (the preset would be too much for a day time shot unless you like super-saturated skies), but the Cloudy Sky Definition brush also adds a small amount of saturation. This meant I needed to reduce the blue saturation after using both. I recommend that if you plan to use the Cloudy Sky Definition Brush (which I really like because it isn't overdone like many other cloud definition presets and brushes), don't make any adjustments to your blues until AFTER you use the brush. Shine Into The Sunset lifts the shadows more than Warm Shadows and was better suited to this photo that was taken before the sun was up.


I selected a photo from Trona Pinnacles to try out the monochrome presets.

RAW file

Mid Tone Splendor is too low contrast for my tastes, but Pressed In Time gave a nice dramatic result with the strong shadows I love on this file. 


After using the Pressed In Time preset, I set the white point and then decided on a 16:9 crop. 

Then in a happy mistake because I forgot that the presets were stackable, I realized that I could use a technique that I often use in Photoshop. When the colors in an image aren't quite working for me but I don't want go straight black and white, I often desaturate by adding a black and white layer on top of the color image and adjusting the opacity. It gives an edgy, gritty look that I sometimes use for desert shots. 


Because I forgot to reset, I clicked Base Color - Autumn Colors on top of the Pressed In Time black and white preset and decided that I liked where it was going. I made a drastic reduction in the orange saturation, and since the clouds had almost faded into oblivion I used the Cloudy Sky Definition brush. That brought more blue into the sky, giving me a nice blue/orange complementary color scheme. I couldn't avoid using Photoshop on this one. I realized that when I used the Lens Profile Correction in Lightroom, the rock formation on the right moved too close to the edge of the frame and it was really bugging me. I took the file into Photoshop, extended the canvas a smidge on the right and added some breathing room. While I was in Photoshop I noticed a car far off in the distance and removed it.


A Note to Beginners About Processing Underexposed Images


Most of the examples provided by Sleeklens in their recipe book and video tutorials use extremely underexposed photos. This often happens when a beginning photographer uses an auto exposure mode and the subject is backlit, when the sky is bright but the foreground is dark, when the photographer shoots directly into the sun, or any time the dynamic range is too great to capture in one frame.

When shooting a scene with high dynamic range I typically shoot multiple frames to combine in post and I'll have a range of frames exposed for the highlights, midtones and the shadows. For this example I selected a frame that was exposed for the highlights with a very dark foreground. Actually, the sun is still overexposed and blown out in this frame, but it will work for this example. This was taken during one of my pre-dawn hikes in Joshua Tree National Park.

RAW file

All-In-One Calm Sunset
Pull Highlights down
Base - High Dynamic Range
Adjust Highlights
Adjust Vibrance
Adjust Blues
Adjust Exposure
Remove Sharpening
Brush - Golden Haze, around sun and
top of plants where light is hitting

The first time you do this you'll probably be amazed how much data can be recovered from an area that looked solidly black. Today's digital cameras are amazing! Doing this can make for a dramatic image that will undoubtedly be popular on social media, but this image would never be suitable for print or even viewing on a large screen monitor. 

Even shot on a full frame Canon 5d Mark III at ISO 1250 (1/500 at f/22 to get the sunstar), there is an incredible amount of noise in the shadows that is revealed when you increase the exposure or use the shadow slider. The problem would usually be even worse on a consumer level camera. You can see in this crop how much noise there is even though I still left the foreground fairly dark. This crop is from the finished image before applying any noise reduction. 

Before applying noise reduction

You can use noise reduction to reduce the problem to some degree, but there is a point where you start to lose too much detail in the image and have to back off. I used very aggressive color and luminence noise reductions settings in the final image above to get it to where I felt it would be appropriate for social media posting viewed on a mobile device, but there was still a substantial amount of noise and the final image would never make it into my portfolio or be suitable for print.

If your goal is just to create images for social media posting viewed on a mobile device, this collection makes it very easy to create the look. If you aspire to shoot this type of image for professional use or even personal printing, you should always be sure to view the image at 100%, preferably on a large, color-calibrated monitor to check for artifacting, noise, halos, and chromatic aberration because this method can completely trash an image. There are other technically correct methods to produce a high quality final image of this type (although they involved quite a bit of work).

Summary


Overall I think the Sleeklens Through The Woods workflow was created for photographers with a very different style than mine based on the number of low contrast and haze presets and brushes, but there is still a lot I like in the collection. The All-In-One Warm Shadows and Shine Into The Sunset are a good fit for my desert images, and I absolutely love the Cloudy Sky Definition brush because it adds just the right amount to look natural, without being overdone like so many others I've seen. The most important thing to remember is that presets are just a starting point and can be adjusted to better suit your individual style. 

The hazy, low-contrast style is very popular these days, and I'm sure that landscape photographers who shoot in that style will find much to like in this workflow. I'm looking forward to giving them a try if I ever find my way back to the forest and can shoot sunlight streaming through the trees, which I think several of the presets and brushes would be perfect for. 

The workflow is easy to install and easy to use. I really like the ability to stack the presets, which sets Sleeklens apart from many other companies selling presets. I was very happy with results I was able to achieve using this workflow. 

The Through The Woods workflow is $39 and you can learn more about it here -

Check out all of the Sleeklens workflow and preset collections

The Sleeklens Pinterest Page

Sleeklens also offers a professional editing service



Please note that while I was provided with a free copy of the Sleeklens Through The Woods workflow for purposes of this review, I was not compensated in any way. The links posted here are not affiliate links, and I do not make any commission should you decided to purchase from Sleeklens. This review is entirely my own unbiased opinion based on my personal experiences. 







Final Images Created with Sleeklens Through The Woods workflow for landscape photographers