Jeff's Blog - Wednesday, December 20, 2017 - Packard Proving Grounds

I am inspired by several photos by Anja Buehrer which were published in PHOTOGRAPH magazine, issue 5. I obtained this magazine due to the good graces of David duChemin, a photographer I follow and admire quite a bit. If you're a photographer and haven't watched his inspirational Vision is Better series, you owe it to yourself to at least watch episodes 15, 16, 17, 19, 36, 37 and 76 (but they're all good). One of the photos featured in issue 5 if PHOTOGRAPH magazine is reproduced at very low resolution, below:

A place near home that might let me imitate this photo is the road that runs through the Packard Proving Grounds in Shelby Township, Michigan. It's lined with trees on both sides. I met my friend, Jamie, for breakfast at a restaurant right across the street on December 20th, and stopped at the proving grounds to snap my photo on my way home. The original photo I shot that morning is below, and all of the remaining photos in this blog entry are derived from this photo:

Packard Proving Grounds, in Shelby Township, Michigan

Over the subsequent couple of weeks I worked this image in Photoshop to try and imitate the mood of the Anja Buerher photograph, and also to learn how to create such manipulations in Photoshop non-destructively. This is what I came up with with my first attempt:

::: A Dark Moment ::: Abstract of the Packard Proving Grounds in Shelby Township, Michigan, combined with a bit of Dachau Concentration Camp in Munich, Germany at the focal point

To create this image from the original, here are the steps I used (all in Photoshop):

  • Used the cloning tool to get rid of the problems, such as snow removal reflectors, no parking sign, trash cans, etc.
  • Created a Curves layer with a very small mask to reduce the brightness of the very bright white building just left of center.
  • Replaced the focal point of the image (the far end of the road, that ugly green new construction) with some detail from a photo I made at Dachau Concentration Camp of a few fellow tourists. I used a mask to blend in the tourists and background tower which replaces the ugly green buildings, but preserved as much of the two rows of trees as I could to make it look natural.
  • Now at this point, I had the image I'd like to have started with, reproduced below. This image must be flattened in Photoshop to apply the subsequent edits. If somebody knows how to proceed here without flattening the image, please email me with some education, because using these techniques, if I go back and clone something additional out of the original photo, I need re-flatten the image and manually re-make the next step. But, in any case, the image after these manipulations, and before flattening, is shown below:
Flattened after clean-up

Now the fun begins. With the flattened image, I applied a vertical Motion Blur of 260 pixels, and masked this motion blur so that it didn't apply to the bottom of the photo or the central point of focus. Then I converted to black and white, lightened the people with a Brightness/Contast later, brightened much of the image with a curves layer, masking the parts that were already quite bright, added grain, added a substantial vignette, and ended up with this final photo:

::: A Dark Moment ::: Abstract of the Packard Proving Grounds in Shelby Township, Michigan, combined with a bit of Dachau Concentration Camp in Munich, Germany at the focal point

Then I saw some YouTube videos about adding snow to wintertime photos, so I became distracted from my original mission and reprocessed the flattened photo into the winter wonderland shot below. To do this, I used the same brightening, then added four layers of snow, and a similar vignette. The four layers of snow simulate snow which is quite close to the camera (large flakes, few of them, long motion streaks), quite far from the camera (very small flakes, a whole lot of them, very short motion streaks) and two layers in-between them. A mask was used to remove the furthest-from-the-camera snowflakes from in front of foreground objects. The resulting winter wonderland photo is:

::: Winter Fun ::: Packard Proving Grounds, in Shelby Township, Michigan

But I looked back onto my original Anja Buehrer photo and the two photos I'd come up with, and realized that although the two photos I'd come up with were pretty good, they didn't really imitate that superb look Anja achieved. So I started over. I went back to my photos from Dachau and found a row of tall trees that would make a nice background to the two rows of trees in my original photo (to cover the green construction), and I found two silhouetted people in google images to walk through my photo. Starting with my flattened image, I added in those background trees and the two people, performed a 160-pixel motion blur (completely unmasked), used a free transform to make the photo skinnier, cropped to put the people's heads at a rule-of-thirds intersection, used a hue-saturation layer to reduce the yellows and greens, added contrast, added a photo filter / cooling filter (80), and desaturated the upper third of the photo to make a balanced cool color tone throughout the photo. The final result is:

::: Winter Chill ::: Abstract of the Packard Proving Grounds in Shelby Township, Michigan

I had stopped at the cool-toned photo above (which is my favorite of the bunch) knowing it was still not an imitation of my original goal. To get to my final imitation of the Anja Buehrer photo I just added a color balance layer, pulling the yellow/blue slider of the Highlights down toward the yellow:

::: Imitation ::: Packard Proving Grounds, in Shelby Township, Michigan

I think it's reasonably close to the feeling of the original Anja Buehrer photo. (Believe me, I realize she's done a superior job making the people insignificant and making their environment more confining than mine, but hey, at least I tried)

I worked hard to learn how to make nearly all of the adjustments I've described using non-destructive techniques in Photoshop. In other words, they're always done in adjustment layers rather than being direct modifications of the pixels of the photos. I can make any adjustment to a lower layer and it will affect all the upper layers. This allowed me to modify prior adjustments (or remove them entirely) as I reached subsequent editing steps, and made it trivially easy to make multiple versions of these photos. This technique cost me a lot of time in learning how to achieve these goals, but hopefully some of it will sink in and cost me a lot less time in the future. I can always refer back to these files to see how I achieved this non-destructive editing for the various tools.

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