Lori Carey Photography

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







Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Snagged

Dances With Coyotes I
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We base camped a few nights at the edge of the dry lake, one of the rare times that we camped on the flats instead of tucked away in a canyon where we could shelter from the fierce Mojave winds. Every morning before dawn I would grab my camera and tripod and hike out into the brutal 25°F darkness, silent except for the crunch of my boots on the frozen ground and the occasional coyote howl.

Lone Mesquite at Dawn
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During the day we ran Jeep trails. We would get back to camp late in the afternoon, and I would wander through the dazzling gold of dried grasses and mesquite trees at the edge of the lake that shimmered in the late day light. The brilliant gold is what attracted me to the location in the first place and the reason for camping here. I would stay out long after the sun set, then head back to camp for dinner before heading back out for night sky photography. I don't usually have much time for sleeping when I'm out in the wild.

I love wandering in the desert at night.

Although it was the brilliant gold grasses and trees that initially attracted me to this location, I found myself repeatedly drawn to this majestic dead tree and I photographed it every time I went out. I guess you could say I was snagged by a snag.

Dances With Coyotes II
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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

When Life Hands You Lemons

When Life Hands You Lemons II, still life with lemons
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It's been a while since I spent serious time in my studio. As much fun as it is to be running and gunning outdoors shooting in natural light, I'm really in my element when I have the time to properly set up and light a shot, something I can't usually do when I am chasing Jeeps down a trail. I love working with and manipulating light to create the scene as I envision it in my head. California finally got much-needed rain this year, and my lemon tree produced an overabundance of fruit. I have a list of all of the goodies I am going to make with the two quarts of lemon juice I've squeezed so far (with suggestions from friends - lemon bars, lemon meringue pie, lemon curd tart, limoncello, and lemonade - with and without booze), but I couldn't resist grabbing a few lemons to bring into the studio.

Chiaroscuro is an Italian term which literally means "light-dark". It is the dramatic play of light and shadow in an image, where the nuances and subtleties help create the narrative. If the look reminds you of the Old Masters, that's because the technique was developed by da Vinci, Caravaggio and Rembrandt in their beautifully dramatic oil paintings. You can learn a lot about fine art photography by studying the techniques of the Old Masters, something every serious fine art photographer should do. Photography at it's essence is really about light.

There is a brief period of time when the light coming through the upper windows of my house is perfect for still life photography. Of course I could always recreate the effect with strobes, but there is something about that beautiful quality of light streaming through my windows that makes me want to use the real thing, not a simulation. It only lasts about a half hour and the time of day changes with the seasons, so I have to watch and wait for it to be just right. Being able to "see" the quality of light is one of the most important skills a photographer needs. I used a black card to create the shadows and depth, and I re-arranged the composition over and over using props from around the house until it felt right. I'm sure you can't tell that the candle has slices of lemon embedded in it, but I felt that it was a stroke of genius when I spotted it in another room. If you've ever wandered around your house desperately searching for just the right prop, you'll know exactly what I mean.



My husband was impressed by the photos but said he never understood the appeal of still life images. He has just started to learn about cinematography and has been paying more attention to the art of photography, so he asked questions and we talked a bit about the chiaroscuro technique and the often underlying meaning of still life images. We talked about symbolism and intent - are the loaf of bread and grapes in a painting meant to represent the Body and Blood of Christ, sustenance, bounty, or merely a random collection of items found in the kitchen?

I explained how there is often a subtle underlying theme of Vanitas in Dutch still life paintings. Vanitas art always includes some reference to man's mortality. Vanitas is Latin for vanity and refers to Ecclesiastes 12: 8 in the Old Testament (Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.), which implies that all human action is transient in contrast to the everlasting nature of faith. More modern vanitas art has moved away from the religious reference, while still implying that man is a mortal being who will one day die. Images in the vanitas genre typically use more obvious symbols such as skulls, dead flowers and rotting fruit, but I gave a more subtle nod with the cut lemon. While it is visually appealing to show the interior of the fruit and it adds to the composition, I explained that it also signifies the fleeting nature of life and the inevitability of death. The same could be said for the unlit candle, although I resisted the typical portrayal of a wisp of smoke from a freshly snuffed candle because this image isn't about vanitas, it is about light. It's also important that my lemons aren't the perfect specimens that I would use in a completely different type of image; the natural imperfections are part of the narrative here. Usually this stuff makes his glaze over, but this time Bill described a chiaroscuro still life painting he remembered from his childhood and what he thought it meant, and I could tell that he was developing a new sense of appreciation for still life and fine art.


I don't usually have a difficult time choosing my favorite composition, but this time I do. The compositions vary only in that the candle is higher and the shadows are deeper in one, and the cut lemon is in a slightly different position. Just when I think I've chosen my favorite, I see something in the other that makes me change my mind.

When Life Hands You Lemons I, still life with lemons
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One of these is going to look great hanging in my kitchen, I just need to decide between the two. Which one do you prefer?


One of these would look great hanging in your kitchen or dining room too. You can purchase a gallery wrapped canvas print by clicking the link below the image.