Monument Valley: comments on individual versions

Dan Margulis

Here are my comments on the individual versions of this exercise, with some discussion of the techniques used. I start off by saying there are at least a dozen excellent versions here so that my choices for which ones made par are quite arbitrary,

Dan Margulis

801 This is the averaged version of the five MIT retouchers. The sky came out well, but without an adequate means of creating variation in the foreground the result is boring. So is #826, which is the one I judged the best of the five.

802 This excellent version shows off the PPW advantage in this type of image; just compare it to #801. This person did some mild adjustments in ACR, but he then wheeled out H-K and MMM, being properly conservative with his color boosting. He also made a CMYK copy to steal a black channel for blending. As a reminder, that can be done automatically by option-clicking H-K in the panel. All these things, plus a luminosity blend with the green channel, created great definition in the butte.

Also, note that he could have created a whole lot more definition in the clouds at the top of the sky, but chose not to. I think that was the right decision. No point in creating a diversion from the main attraction.

803 Chosen for the “conservative par” version. Granted the lighter foreground, it makes sense for this version to have a more detailed and darker sky than #802 does. Robert Wheeler created a separate contrast version outside of Photoshop, which accounts for decent detailing, but did not use MMM. His full description is posted in the main thread.

804 Chosen for the par version. The coloring is extravagant but I’m not going to criticize it in view of what a cliché the image is. His steps are basically the same as #802, just done with a heavier hand, note how much yellower the near foreground is than the butte itself.

805 As #804 is to #802 this one is to #803: same basic concept but more intense coloring. This one could have benefitted from H-K to create some more neutral areas. Also, the person describes a complex series of six versions, each with their own problems and strong points, which he then blended to create his final. And with all that effort, taking the second or two to try out Auto Tone at the end would have made a nice difference.

806 Here’s a straightforward assignment of contrast without much color variation. In both this one and #805 the upper right blue sky is very different from what’s at lower left, which I find distracting.

807 I did this one in 2017, limiting myself to three minutes. As with all the MIT images in this category (deserts, canyons, etc.) PPW showed a huge advantage. Here, for example, my competition was #801. I hope you will agree that #807 is decisively better, which is how I rated it.

808 The individual did not state a workflow but the end result is a flat image. Also, the lightest clouds are blue, not white. Just try Auto Tone at the end and it makes a major improvement in both color and tonality.

809 Chosen for the “conservative par” version. Very pretty. Attractive sky due to whiteness of the clouds. Although the clouds are detailed he is careful to avoid giving them enough punch to compete with the foreground. He adopted a sensible strategy for this image. First, he made a version entirely in Capture One. Then he started over and went crazy with PPW. There was no harm in doing this because he had a much tamer version available for blending. In fact, there’s often a lot of good in looking at something overly colorful, it helps us understand what the danger areas are. After blending the two, he did some manual adjustments, such as painting in the yellow flowers.

810 Chosen for the par version. Gerald Bakker is not a big fan of some of the more spectacular renditions of this scene and was looking for something more conservative. His approach was basically PPW, but his first pass struck him as too contrasty in the butte, so he made a second pass with the intent to blend.

Now we turn to artistic intent because Gerald made a couple of decisions that others specifically reversed. First, he decided near the end of his process that his greens were unnaturally saturated, and he toned them down. This disagrees with some who said they made them more intense, thinking that it would complement the reds of the landscape. Second, he applied his MMM Finetuned action to the sky. It produced a very soft and interesting effect. Several people, however, tried to avoid this as being too distracting from the butte. I had this experience myself in my #824; I originally put in a sky similar to Gerald’s and then decided it had to be toned down.

Since this came right after #809, which is also somewhat conservative, a comparison seems inevitable. #809 avoids the complex sky, and makes the clouds very white. It also is slightly more of a golden color. The greens are lighter and more saturated, especially in the yellow flowers.

I therefore rate #809 better for color and would describe its look as warmer and friendlier. #810, however, looks more realistic while retaining interesting variation. So in choosing for the original par version I threw up my hands and took #810.

Not before, however, attempting a blend. It seems logical that if #809’s color is better then blending it into #810 in Color mode would make an improvement. It does not. These two versions are integrated enough that neither can accept either the color or luminosity of the other without damaging the concept.

The way to get the best of both: blend #809 into #810 in Darker Color mode. This preserves Gerald’s sky and subdued greenery, while adding nice accents to the butte. I think that would be my favorite entrant, if it existed.

811 Another very nice version, notable for its treatment of the yellow flowers in the greenery. It is hard to say how this was accomplished, since the person was working mainly in Photoline, not Photoshop. Like several others, he treated the sky completely different from the rest of the image. He also selected the butte itself for special attention, moving it toward a rust color and adding contrast. So as I understand it he did not use MMM or equivalent, but tried to get a similar effect via selections and maskings. To me, the result is a little busy, with the greenery, the yellowish foreground, the butte itself, and the very active sky all competing for attention. But who’s to say this isn’t right?

812 Chosen for the par version. The person writes, “Right now the image looks colorful and well saturated, it will be interesting to see if I still believe that after seeing the other entries.” I have to agree that it is. The impression is very powerful and it seems like the saturation is much more than #810. In fact, they are about the same. The big difference is the overall weight. That this one is heavier also makes it seem more powerful colorfully. It only gets away with this by strong doses of MMM and H-K, otherwise it would become a fireball like ##805, 813, 821 and others.

813 Extremely red, not helped by the fact that the background clouds are quite blue.

814 The color is correct and the sky is nice, but the lack of variation in the foreground stands out. 

815 A complicated series of blends led up to what was apparently an overdose of Davide Barranca’s ALCE plugin which, being a form of sharpening, should probably not be permitted here but hasn’t specifically been banned. But it can give us an important reminder about sharpening practice.

In #814 we just saw an ultra-conservative counterpart to this violent version. Blending the two can be instructive but would generally be a matter of taste. Here’s one that isn’t a matter of taste IMHO: #815 suffers from the equivalent of light haloing, which damages some of the color. Generally light halos are worse than dark ones. Blend #814 in at 40%, Darken mode, and these halos are much improved. (Since #815 is basically a darker version than #814 except in the halos, this blend mode works well to target them.

816 In principle this is an adequate conservative treatment with many of the features that characterize the best results. It ought, therefore, to be directly comparable to Gerald Bakker's #810, which also answers that description. Unfortunately, #810 is clearly better. A casual observer might say it is because #810’s sky is much more interesting without being a distraction.

The real reason, though, harks back to the village in Cinque Terre. Everybody will find a highlight in the clouds and has a choice of shadow areas, so everybody will have approximately the same overall tonal range (particularly those who take my advice and check with Auto Tone after “completing” their correction).

But when one object or area dominates the scene, as the village did in Cinque Terre and the butte does in this image, then the question is how much range is assigned to that. To find out, I measured a large relatively light rock near the bottom of the butte and a shadowy area at its top right. In #816 the range is 65L-12L, 53 points total range, whereas in #810 it’s 76L-9L for 67L total range.

This is why #810 is the better of the two versions. And the “conservative par” version, of which #810 is not a parent, has almost identical values: 76L-8L.

817 Chosen for the “conservative par” version. This is the yellowest of our serious contestants. The technique is straight PPW starting with the flat version, including H-K, and the Lesser Hammer action aimed specifically at the sky.  The person stresses, “I believe that this exercise shows and confirms (as if we needed confirmation) the importance of an accurate correction of color before any other steps. I have tried this one with several curves and the result varies greatly even with small variations in the color curve.”

818 A reasonable non-PPW version. Why no PPW? Because this guy is using Photoshop CS3, which is indeed a capable program.

819 The foreground is reasonable PPW, no H-K, but a luminosity blend from the blue to the red. The person was concentrating so much on the foreground, which came out well, that he left the darker clouds much too blue. Clouds do get bluer as they get darker, but not so much as that. 

To see how important this is, grab a copy of #817, which has nice white clouds, and paste it as a layer on top of #819. Add as a layer mask the blue channel from the bottom layer. As this mask is quite dark, basically it substitutes one sky for the other while not changing much in the foreground.

820 Flat and washed out compared to most others. The clouds were not used as a white point as they should have been. By placing a white point in the lightest clouds and then darkening the midtone overall the version becomes much more acceptable.

821 Chosen for the par version. John Lund writes, “ I  found this image a simpler challenge than even the Cinque Terre, much less the other ones, mainly because it’s a decent capture of a straightforward landscape with pretty simple lighting. So no need for heroic measures to extract something usable.” He states he is familiar with the colors of the area from trips to Utah, which has similar lanscaping, but was not intending realism. Instead, he used Lightroom to enhance the colors of everything; the oranges, the sky, and the greenery. He then moved into LAB and added MMM+CB, saying “I liked the overall ‘hyper-saturated’ look. Nevertheless, he came back the next day and added an H-K layer, Luminosity mode, to get more tonal contrast in the butte. I don’t understand why he wouldn’t have also used H-K to subdue some of the more neutral areas and make the overall color less oppressive. But, it is what it is. Unsurprisingly, John vindicated my earlier prediction when he announced in the main thread that he prefers the main par version to the “conservative par”, putting him at odds with others. But, as his private comments make clear, “The final may be a bit over-cooked, but that’s how I experience those wonderful Utah landscapes, so maybe I can get away with this under the rubric of ‘pleasing color.’”

822 This person describes the image as one trap after another and says he eventually decided that less is more. It’s a reasonable conservative effort.

823 Chosen for the “conservative par” version.  This very nice rendition has the rosiest butte, and is thus the counterpart of #817, the yellowest one. This guy did much of his contrast-enhancing work in CMYK. And why not? It’s not like there are any brilliant colors that are out of the CMYK gamut. And so he got better handing of shadows than many did by paying special attention to the black channel. He also added a golden tone to the highlights and used an unspecified channel mask to prevent it transitioning into the butte.

824 Chosen for the “conservative par” version.  It’s mine, and features H-K, MMM+CB, and the Darken Sky action. A couple of days after doing it I reopened it and decided that the effort I had put in trying to make the sky fascinating (including Bigger Hammer) had been counterproductive, so I drastically lightened the upper clouds and am glad I did.  Interesting to compare it with #807, the one I did in 2017. Looks like my sky was too heavy-handed there.

825 Interesting that this one comes right after the discussion of the sky in #824, because this person had the same idea, Bigger Hammer plus Darken Sky actions to make something interesting happen in the sky. It is similar in conception to #824 anyway, if I had to choose one I’d pick #824 because of superior contrast in the butte (see the discussion of #816 being compared to #810), however this #825 has slightly better color in the clouds and the greenery. So, if you put #824 on top of #825 in Luminosity mode, I prefer the result to either parent.

826 This was the best individual result from the five MIT retouchers. It can speak for itself.

827 An outlier, a version that isn’t similar to any other. It takes the philosophy of #814 that the sky should be lightened a bit farther. Here, the clouds are suppressed to much that the butte seems almost to be silhouetted. This person identifies the shot as being a winter scene based on what seems to be frost in the foreground. He describes an exceedingly complex workflow that I don’t fully comprehend. I think I underrated the unusual result, because it is most like #823 but in comparing the two directly I prefer this one as being more realistic. I do think it has too much unused real estate in the midtones, so I would multiply it through a blurred layer mask based on the blue channel of the multiplied layer. 

828 Lee Varis has declared that he has become less of an LAB aficionado than in his youth and now prefers something like this version, as opposed to a fireball like #830, which he says he would have shot for after being introduced to LAB. I’m here to tell you that tastes do change over time but that certain concepts do not, including the idea of using full range every time. A hit of Auto Tone makes this a better version.

829 Another reasonable PPW effort making use of MMM, H-K, and channel blending. As this is a comparatively dark treatment, the greenery began to close up, so this person made the sensible choice of using Channel Mixer to lighten the green channel within the greenery.

830 Chosen for the par version. Like John Lund in #821, the person is familiar with the actual colors of the scene, but preferred what he called this “eye candy” version. He spent a lot of time experimenting with various method and blending them into his final; it included two separate hits of H-K to try to prevent the color becoming totally ridiculous. Some would find the final result over the top but I rather like it.

831 The par version, which I subsequently said unduly favored some violent versions like #830.

832 The “conservative par” version, not included in the original .zip file, based on five other versions that I identified as being good, but not spectacularly colorful in the sense that #830 is.

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