Beach at Sunset: Dan's comments

Dan Margulis

When confronted with an image of the sun-and-shade type, where half is strongly lit and the other not, normal procedure is to attempt to bring the two halves closer together. The reason is that humans adjust easily to two types of lighting in the same scene whereas cameras do not. They therefore present us with more contrast between the two areas than we would see ourselves. For PPW adherents, the normal way of closing the gap between the two is with a Hammer action if we are strongly interested in picking up more highlight and shadow detail, or a false profile plus multiplication through a layer mask if we are not.

Decent cameras are bad enough at such scenes, but at least they don’t try to outsmart the photographer. Smartphones and tablets do. They assume, probably rightly so, that their typical user is a fool, and consequently they build in a lot of tweaks that make for better images if that supposition happens to be true. Greens will get greener and blues bluer but fleshtones won’t, for example.  Unfortunately, what works well for typical photographs can do badly on weirdos like this one. What seems to have happened is that the iPad decided that the color variation in the sky and water made it the most important part of the image, enough so that it would pay to blow out the lighter portion of the sky and darken the beach drastically in order to give the favored area more snap. To overcome that, we need a Hammer and a false profile, and very likely need to select each half and work on them separately as well.

The sun is low in the sky, and it will be going down soon, but it hasn’t done so yet. Forget the iPad’s interpretation. The beach and the woman are getting a lot of light, so the original is way, way too dark in the entire beach area. How do we know?

a) The sea is getting plenty of sunlight, as seen by the powerful colored reflections that extend all the way to the water’s edge. But somehow the sunlight doesn’t extend into the beach?

b) The gravelly beach surface isn’t very reflective, but human skin is. Reflections are coming off the woman’s hair, nose, cheek, knees and hands, and the top of the camera as well. This strong lighting cannot mysteriously avoid lighting up the beach as well.

c) The boats, and the village in the background: nobody has their lights on! How can this be, if the scene is dark? (The few lights that are on look to be of the type that are timer-controlled, and would go on earlier to account for days shorter than those of mid-July.)

d) Look at the par, or better yet, at Paco’s #417 (which is lighter). These two convincingly portray daylight conditions on the beach. If the beach were truly in nighttime conditions or even dusk such a correction would be impossible. Don’t believe it? Our next case study, the Bellagio, is a night shot. Try to make it a daytime shot and see how far you get!

Now that we know that the two sides need to come closer together, what are we trying for. I disagree with Hector when he says,
So, I focus on making the woman in this picture as bright as possible (especially if they look very dark).

You'd be surprised, they might not even notice the sunset or the ocean.

That might be true of a photo of me at that age, or of my parents/grandparents, because not so many exist that we can afford to be selective. But here we have a child of our century. She probably has a thousand better photos of herself. If nothing was interesting about the sunset, why should she save this one at all, let alone ask for a corrected version? 

I don’t necessarily disagree with the people who used the word spectacular to describe what was wanted in the sky, but it doesn’t have to be spectacular to be interesting. A lot of the entries are what I’d describe as over the top in the sky, but who’s to say that isn’t what’s wanted?

Certainly the sky won’t say it, because the sky isn’t the client. The woman is, and whatever her opinion of the sky may be, she will insist that she herself look good enough, meaning much, much better than the original. Could her friends even recognize her in that one, considering she isn’t facing the camera?

What does it take to make a decent picture out of this mess? Not much, IMHO.

1) The sky/sea combination. Anything from interesting to lurid is acceptable. Any color combination is acceptable. It’s almost all personal taste.

2) The woman. A lot of this is personal taste, too, but there are some mandatory features, easily seen in Hector’s #401 and Paco’s #417:
*Healthy skin color, not too gray or too jaundiced.
*Distinctly blond feel to the lighter hair.
*A feeling of softness to the hair, not a sudden jump from lightness to black.
*Denim jeans and gray shirt approximating their real colors.
*Something done to minimize the noise in the fleshtone.
*Good shaping of the skin, taking account of the reflections.

Considering that there are only two priorities and just about anything will satisfy the first, you would think this would be a fairly easy exercise. But I could count the entrants who meet both requirements on my fingers.

I became so irritated after receiving around half a dozen consecutive poor entries with descriptions of lengthy workflows that I said to myself, “I could make an acceptable version of this bleeping thing in one minute.” So I did. Here are the steps, admittedly it would take longer without the PPW panel. The † symbol means that ordinarily I would consider some modification of the settings but with one minute there was no time for thinking, so I made the “normal” choice.

Click Velvet Hammer
Flatten and Click False Profile 1.4†
Add Background RGB as layer mask†
Gaussian Blur 30 pixels†
Move to LAB
Click Skin Desaturation
1-second lasso selection of woman†
Click MMM+CB
Adjust downward MMM Color and Color Boost.

That’s it. No sharpening, no channel blending, no curves correction, no retouching. The result is #407. Is it in the same league as our best entries? No. Does it have an interesting sky and an acceptable woman? Yes. Consequently it’s better than a healthy majority of our entrants.

Hopefully not yours, though. I’ll post some individual comments in the next day or two.

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