Re: Choir: Dan's comments

Dan Margulis

In my previous post I brought up our major problem, which is that the foreground and background colors don’t match, so that even if we can bring their darknesses closer together the foreground will seem too red and/or the background too yellow. The question also is how far to go in equalizing the two halves. Should the foreground seem to be in the same intensity of lighting as the background, or should we leave it somewhat darker (although certainly not as dark as in the original).

This image has a lot of challenges but also opportunities for the use of LAB, particularly in terms of ease of isolating objects with Blend If. These comments have several demos that illustrate it.


701 We start off with two versions faithful to my preferred treatment, that the choir should be significantly darker than the background. This one, from my 2009 classes, is the better of the two. We know that the gap between the two halves needs to be reduced. I don’t think that this person went far enough in lightening the choir, but I don’t see that the background needs to get any darker. He has managed to get more separation between the gilded altarpiece and its surrounds than is even found in the darker par.

702 The choir is excellent. The common problems with the skin have been avoided. The person understood that the background needed more attention and added Vibrance to it, among other things. The real problem, though, is that it still appears washed out. Compare it to #701 to see how the background can remain light and still be interesting.

The easy cure here would be a multiplication, as described in the comments to #706. There is also a mention of this version at #713.

703 Not the version most would prefer, but perhaps the most important. This person did his color-balancing based on the synthesizer, the steps and the black clothing in the foreground. He then overwhelmed everything but the choir with a vignette so heavy-handed that it made this into a night scene.

1) Open your own version.
2) Apply #703 to it at 20% opacity.

I offer no guarantees since I did not test this on every image, but it dramatically improved every one I tried it on, including my own—and the par.

The trick works because #703 as it stands portrays a darkened church with a spotlight on the choir. Spotlights are very effective in directing our attention to something. We can’t afford to go as far as this person did, because our audience is never going to accept it, particularly since they can see sunlight coming in at upper left. If we blend it into ours at a low opacity, however, they’ll never detect the spotlight.

Considering that I spent much of Chapter 5 of On the Law of Simultaneous Contrast discussing a variant of this procedure, I am attributing my failure to use it to incipient Alzheimer’s. 

Also, I should have remembered my own motto: when everything is colorful then nothing is colorful. That’s one of the big dangers in this scene. Adding the darkening of #703 at the edges helps fight that sensation.

704 The first one to present what I’d call our consensus view. On reviewing this version along with all the others, I don’t understand why I didn’t make it part of the par suite. It is among the top in terms of the shape of the faces and of the dresses. It maintains the choir as darker than the background. The yellow cast in the background isn’t eliminated but it’s tolerable. And the person thought of a useful trick: he used the Channel mixer to spice up the greens. Apparently I felt that it wasn’t colorful enough to be one of the best, but I don’t think that now. I wouldn’t mind more color in the altarpiece and in the faces. The dresses are duller than in many other versions but the more I look at this exercise the less I like the idea of brilliant red in the dresses. The idea should be to highlight the singers, not what they’re wearing.

705 Shadows plugged, highlights blown, greenness in conductor’s hair.

706 This person paid careful attention to the foreground, which is good, but left the background washed out, which is bad. Additionally it is somewhat colorless. It happens that #707 has a similar treatment of the background but is generally more colorful. Even though it has a yellow cast in the background, which #706 does not, I consider #707 to be preferable. Fortunately there is an easy fix.

1) Add a duplicate layer to #706.
2) Set layer mode to Multiply.
3) Add a layer mask. To it, apply the green channel from the Merged layer. That is the choice because in the green channel the dresses are nearly solid and the faces fairly dark, so in the Merged (multiplied) version the dresses will definitely be fully black and the faces nearly so. Therefore when used as a layer mask the dresses will not change and the faces only a small amount. Meanwhile the background will be permitted to darken. We could not use the blue channel as a substitute because although the reds are just as dark there as in the green channel, the background is also dark.
4) Gaussian blur the layer mask at a Radius of 30 pixels or more. This move is always necessary when blending layers of drastically different weights.
5) As a trial only, move the file into LAB without flattening. This sometimes changes appearance enough to prefer flattening in one space rather than the other. Here, IMHO, the RGB trial, being less of a bright yellow in the background, is preferable. Therefore, Command-Z to cancel the move to LAB, flatten the file and save.

The result is arguably as good as the par. It is helpful that the dresses are a less obtrusive red. This case study should remind us (see also #703) that having color everywhere is often a good thing, but not always. The next version, #707, is similar to this one but much more colorful. If we compare the two as posted, I have to prefer #707—this one looks weak next to it. But if we build up the background as in the demonstration, then it becomes more austere, more powerful, and preferable to #707.

707 Another one from my 2009 classes, more in line with our consensus thinking about what is wanted. It has the yellow cast so many of us do in the background. The foreground is excellent. See comments on #706 for some thoughts on the importance of strong coloring.

708 Kent Sutorius says that he believes the photo was taken in Italy, and therefore he chooses what he considers an Italian red color for the dresses. This strikes me as a rather deep position to take, but there you have it. I personally like that the faces are darker than the par. The dresses are a mess, however, because of the sudden transitions from red to near-black. Also, there is too much noise in both the faces and dresses. That would have to be taken care of somehow but for now I’ll talk about fixing the dresses with some LAB trickery.

DEMONSTRATION, ignoring the JPEG artifacts which would have to be removed some other way: 
1) Start with the par version. Add a duplicate layer.
2) Apply #708 to the duplicate layer in Darken mode. Since the choir and foreground in #708 are darker but the background lighter than the par, we now essentially have the foreground of #508 married to the par’s church background. This is a nice improvement in my opinion.
3) Change layer mode to Luminosity. This yields brighter red at the top of the dresses and warms up the floor. These are also improvements, so I suppose we could just flatten and save now. But we still have that ugly posterization where the dresses jump from a saturated red to almost a black. So,
4) Move the file into LAB, WITHOUT FLATTENING.
5) Flatten the file.
6) Bring it back into RGB.
7) There isn’t any Step 7. We’re done.

How can that possibly work? Why does it make a difference whether we flatten in RGB or LAB?

Well, normally it doesn’t, but sometimes it does, often enough that I recommend that every time you have a layered file (not adjustment layers, that doesn’t work), before flattening try moving it into LAB to see that whether there’s an advantage to flattening it there. Most of the time there isn’t much difference, but here there most certainly is. The reason is that the LAB file contains an imaginary color.

In the RGB version the Luminosity layer demands something extremely dark, almost a black, to be coupled with the bright red color of the par. That can’t be done in RGB, so things just stay black and closed up. In LAB, however, we can define such a color, even though it doesn’t exist in real life. So, the layering structure, when brought into LAB, demands the imaginary color that is as dark as black but at the same time a strong red. Once flattened, converting it back to RGB forces a computation of what that imaginary color should look like. The difference will get split.

709 Chosen for the par version. This is what #707 should have been, with slightly better shaping in the faces and a much better portrayal the background. David Remington:

I found this to be a difficult image as well and was not very satisfied with what I came up with. It looks okay in context, but some parts look pretty rough. The gold figure in the top left, and the gold in general, is blocky looking. Several people handled the gold better. Same for the singers. Not much finesse in mine. I wanted to add color and contrast so maybe I went a bit too far. Not sure about my choice of dress color either but it seems to be within the range of consensus. I could have done a better job with the window as well. Layered with par in color mode is mostly an improvement. Better dresses, better gold. Luminosity mode, par is much smoother. A bigger improvement.

In my opinion, the foreground floor is distracting and should have been darkened.  So an even bigger improvement would be to blend in #703 at 20% opacity. Also, permit me to translate “the gold in general is blocky looking”. It means that there is a whole gang of colorless specular highlights that not only detract from the golden feel, but also compete with the silver and with the white candles, which are supposed to be colorless. With a couple of hours a fine job of eliminating them is possible. With a couple of minutes, the following imaginary-color move might be a satisfactory substitute.

1) Add a new blank layer to #707, Normal mode. This will be the painting layer.
2) Set foreground color to something golden, agreeable to the background. In the lion exercise I suggested a ratio of B=4A. This particular background seems rather yellowish so I’d boost the ratio to 5:1. So, in the Color Picker, specify something like 75L10a50b.
3) Activate a fairly wide brush tool, Normal mode, 100% opacity. Paint all over the speculars. Don’t paint over the candles or the silver. It can be done quickly. For example, in the picture frame, just drag the brush everywhere. At this point a lot of detail has been wiped out, but we’ll get it back later. Now, an intermission, for educational purposes only, not part of the procedure.
3a) Change the painting layer to Color mode. Now, toggling the layer on and off reveals that things have gotten worse, not better. The speculars haven’t changed and their surroundings have lost color variation.
3b) Change mode to LAB, WITHOUT FLATTENING. Now, suddenly, the speculars fill in. This is another side of the demonstration at #708, where an imaginary color (a brilliantly red black) was created in a good cause. Here, while the file is in RGB, the layering structure is a request to produce in RGB a color that does not exist in RGB. When it goes into LAB, it becomes a request for an imaginary color—one that’s as bright as white, but as golden as the background. On reconversion to RGB some of the yellowness will hold. End of preview as to why this method works.
4) Back to our regularly-scheduled program. We are in RGB, with the painting layer filled with streaks of yellow and set to Normal mode. Now, convert the file to LAB, WITHOUT FLATTENING.
5) Invert the painting layer. Now what has been painted is a dark blue rather than a gold.
6) Activate Blend If, Lightness, Underlying Layer. Drag the left slider almost all the way to the right, and the dark blue painting will start to disappear. Continue adjusting until the blue barely covers the speculars, then option-click the slider to split it into two halves. Move them slightly apart to prevent a rough transition.
7) The purpose of turning the brush strokes dark blue was obviously to help visualize how to finalize the Blend If in Step 6. That done, re-invert the painting layer to return it to gold strokes.
8) Change layer mode to Color.
9) The file must be flattened now while still in LAB. Returning it unflattened to RGB will cancel these changes.

710 Two separate problems that have each afflicted several others: 1) faces almost completely lacking detail; 2) yellow/green cast in the background. The gilded altarpiece should be quite a warm yellow, maybe something like B=4A. Instead, it’s almost a pure yellow, the A reading is almost 0.

711 Chosen for the par version. Hector Davila posts that he understood that the faces needed careful retouching. He also did work on the choir in isolation, as well as on the painting. The background came out a good golden color, not the yellowish cast that hurt so many others. The price was that the faces became too pink. Actually the entire foreground is. As often happens, the cast can be detected in otherwise irrelevant objects, such as the Yamaha synthesizer. It measures 66L19a21b, a nice red, which is impossible.

712 Bill Theis says he went for shape in the faces. A couple of these girls look like they have beards. Originally I had this selected for the par, but even at only 20% weight, these beards were so offensive that I had to substitute another version. See further comment on this issue at #731.

713 Similar to #702 in that the shape in the faces is good and the background is rather light, but the faces here are grayer. There’s also a contrast issue.  Checking with Auto Tone would reveal that the person should not have stopped with this version. 

714 This person did a lot of right things on the assumption that this is a single unified picture with standard lighting throughout. Using the ACR filter, he neutralized the conductor’s score, and found an appropriate black point presumably in her dress. After some local moves to the choir he was left with the typical problem of the faces being marginally too pink but the background much too yellow. The altarpiece is in fact slightly green. As we saw in the lion image, often blending the B into the A can get a better golden look. This file would also benefit from the multiplication procedure demonstrated in #706.

1) Add a duplicate layer to #714.
2) Set the layer to Multiply mode.
3) Add a layer mask.
4) Apply to the layer mask the green channel, Merged layer. This is chosen because in the Merged version, the green channel is going to be absolutely solid where the dresses are, so they won’t close up or otherwise change at all.
5) Gaussian Blur the mask, 30 pixel Radius or thereabouts. This is always necessary when blending to versions that vary greatly in weight.
6) Convert to LAB, without flattening. As discussed in #708, we should compare the look of the layered file in RGB vs. LAB. Usually there’s not much difference, but occasionally we prefer one to the other and want to flatten in that colorspace. That’s the case here. When the file goes to LAB the background gets more colorful, which exaggerates the yellow cast. So,
7) Command-Z to cancel the transfer to LAB, and flatten the image while in RGB.
8) Now return to LAB, and proceed to get rid of the greenness in the altarpiece as follows:
9) Add a duplicate layer.
10) On the duplicate layer, invert the A channel. This changes the dresses and faces from red to green, among other issues.
11) Fortunately it’s easy to exclude the damage with Blend If sliders. Exclude everything that is not A-negative on the Underlying layer. Since part of the altarpiece is, incorrectly, A-negative, it will become A-positive, warmer.
12) Add to the Blend If an exclusion of anything that is sharply B-negative (either slider will do). This restores the blue in the top columns. You may also with to extend the Blend If to prevent certain color changes in the painting.
13) Make a composite layer.
14) Set it to Color mode
15) Apply to it, the B channel, Normal mode. This adds both yellow and magenta to most of the image, benefitting both the faces and the background. Reduce opacity to taste; I thought 20% would be about right.

715 Chosen for the par version. This person found good facial detail in the blue channel and blended with it. He didn’t say where, but I think probably into the green. That got him the good faces he wanted but had the added benefit of adding shape to the altarpiece and adding warmth to the background. He might have added to the effect something like the following:

DEMONSTRATION for advisory purposes only:
The large painting in the background offers many opportunities to break up the tediousness of the scene. So, for the sake of argument:
1) Make a quick rectangular selection of the interior of the painting (not the frame)
2) Image: Auto Color. This gives the painting more snap, and makes it much cooler.
Even though attention is not going to be drawn to the painting, doing something like this further emphasizes the altarpiece. Of course you would choose a more sophisticated method, but this one will do in a pinch.

See additional comments about this version at #716 and #727.

716 This one, done by executing two versions and blending them 50-50 is perfectly serviceable, quite comparable to #715. Toggling between the two, however, reveals that #715 is superior: better shape in the faces, more definition in the background, less sense of a yellow cast.

717 Yellow-green everywhere. The steps need to be close to neutral, but they measure (8)a22b. Windows ditto. Interestingly, the person noted this and was willing to accept it. Also, even forgetting the overall cast, the altarpiece is full of specular highlights which this version makes very dark.

718 Background neutral, steps blue, faces blue. Apparently the idea is to emphasize the altarpiece. But this can be done by multiplication or several other procedures with Blend If, wherefore

Test your LAB/Blend If skills in this way.
1) Duplicate your RGB file and move the duplicate into LAB.
2) Add a duplicate layer to this file
3) Invert it, so that the background is blue, the dresses green, etc. The purpose of this is to make it easy to see what the next step, a Blend If, is excluding.
4) Adjust the Blend If sliders, Underlying Layer, to try to eliminate almost everything except the altarpiece. For example, you could start by knocking out anything that is more than mildly A-positive, which will take care of the faces and dresses.
5) Remember that if you can’t get a perfect selection and there are some purplish pieces elsewhere afterward, it is easy to add a layer mask, select those remnants, and fill the layer mask with black.
6) Return to your original. Do Color Boost, Bigger Hammer, or whatever you like to emphasize the altarpiece, disregarding what it may do to the rest of the image.
7) When done, convert it to LAB and replace the top (inverted) layer of the file with it. If successful, that should limit the move to the altarpiece. And you may find that now you have differences between the top and bottom layers, you may be able to refine it by using the This Layer sliders as well.

719 Detail in the faces wiped out. Too much noise in the dresses. Background seems blurry. The person says he used a Reduce Noise filter, which comes with a price.

720 Another one in the category of “except for one little thing.” Nice color, similar to the par with the pleasant addition of a better painting and the debatable addition of more saturated dresses. General contrast and appearance also excellent. But oh, my, we can’t accept this much noise in the faces.

721 This is my version from 2009, which offers a lesson on falling in love with one’s own method. I was one of those assigned to work on the flat version. I had recently developed the MMM technique, which the classes weren’t really familiar with. Once I thought I had the overall color under control, I wheeled it out, using the red dresses as my pivot point.  I was quite taken with the variation I had put into the dresses and was thinking that nobody would get as good a version as this one. When showdown time came I got quite a rude awakening when it was clear that my brilliant moves had made the fleshtones and background green.

722 Way too yellow, easily measured in the skin, the steps, and the synthesizer.

723 Faces are too soft and too pale. The background walls are darker and less saturated than anyone else. They do highlight the brilliance of the altarpiece but I think most would judge it as going too far. The picture has been transformed from one where the background is much lighter than the foreground, to the opposite. The impression, I think, is that the choir has been cut out of a different photo and pasted into this one.

724 The faces are pinkish and too pale in context. The background color seems washed out. A simple darkening of the midtone with curves could improve this version enough to make it competitive with the par. See comment at #730

725 Chosen for the par version. I’ve explained why I think the singers should be this dark, so it will perhaps not be surprising that this is my own version. 

726 For those who are trying to keep the background lighter than the choir, this version could be a good choice. The person states that the correction took him 10 minutes. A believable difference of darkness between foreground and background has been retained. The problem, as usual, is that the two don’t match for color. The background lacks magenta, and the foreground has too much of it. 

727 Gerald Bakker :
Compared to par color-wise, I think my background is slightly greenish. 

Agreed, and the reason is similar to #726 and some versions of the lion last time. A good B/A ratio for a golden color is about 4/1. In this version, I have selected and averaged the lower center of the altarpiece, between the flowers. The average reading there is 8a59b, or better than 7/1. Also, while we can’t rely on the colors of the painting to be predictable, it certainly seems from its fleshtones that there is an imbalance toward yellow there too. And the long hair of the woman in the front row measures 50L18a55b, which is appropriate for a blond, which she is not. The same point in

On the other hand, the gold ornaments stand out better in my version than in par. 

They do, because their color, though too yellow, is much more saturated than the brownish wall. The par doesn’t have that, but it does have better detailing.

The par has lighter floor tiles and stairs, but I'm not sure which to prefer in that respect. 

I definitely prefer the darker floor, directing more attention to the rest of the image.

I found this a hard image to process. Make the background too light and the golds get washed out. Make it too dark and it becomes too heavy. Make the foreground too light and it looks unnatural. Too dark and the background predominates over the choir. 

A very good summary.

Also, there is a lot of brilliant color, and it's important to emphasize it. But the pitfall of course is to make everything overly colorful. 

All the more reason to incorporate a blend with #703.

But all this discussion hasn’t touched the real weakness of this version: there is very limited shape in the face. Some of these girls don’t even have noses. That’s as unacceptable to me as the noisy faces of #720. It could have been fixed by better blending into the red, which was done, for example, by the guy responsible for #715. As that one also has a darker background, it’s a good choice for blending. But since we’re coming to the end, we may as well go whole hog to prove this #727 can be used to produce something better than the par. So, one final

1) Gather together #703, #715, and the par as well as #727.
2) Add a duplicate layer to #727.
3) To it, apply #715 in Lighten mode. This prevents the background from changing, but replaces the foreground.
4) Add a layer mask.
5) To it, apply the red channel, Merged layer. The red channel is the lightest of the three as regards the faces, and the Merged is lighter than the Background layer. That makes this the best choice to allow the faces of #715 to take over, with little impact on the rest of #727.
6) Nevertheless, the dresses have gotten somewhat choppier. To restore them, activate Blend If, and exclude anything that’s dark in the green channel, Underlying Layer. It should be easy to find a slider location that excludes the dresses but not the faces.
7) Change layer mode to Luminosity.
8) Add a new layer. To it, apply the par.
9) Change mode to Hue. So much for the green feeling in the background.
10) Add another new layer. To it, apply #703.
11) Reduce opacity to 15%.

There are obviously many ways to modify this procedure, but even as stated above it yields something I’d say is definitely superior to the par. I’ve posted it as #736.

728 Chosen for the par version, to which it is somewhat akin and not just because it avoids the minor mistakes that have plagued others while keeping a good balance between foreground and background. I’d like to see more color in the faces and in the altarpiece, but this is fine just as it stands. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come from one of us, or even from one of my classes. It’s from students of Edward Bateman, who explains:

We approached this as an experiment. They made one version from the flat and one version from the regular version using Photoshop tools. There was a bit of back and forth on this as they worked together… but they did discover that Bigger Hammer (and channel blending) is their friend. No major conclusions came from the choices by the class… but they did notice that each attempt led to their making different choice… in part based on who was doing the photoshop work under the group advice. The differences are quite noticeable.  In between these two, we did another version only using the Raw tools.  I was pleased to see that while an improvement, it was the least effective of their three trials. Finally, to make some comparisons of their work, all three versions were put on their own layers… with a blend made of all three at various opacities (with the Raw tools one adding by far the least.)

IOW, this is sort of a par version of its own. The accounts for the relative smoothness of the dresses and faces, without loss of detail. Individual mistakes are swallowed by the whole.

729 This agreeable version combines some of the best features of #726 and #728. Like #726, I think it would benefit from a darker midtone.

730 The final representative of the 2009 class, and the only one where the person was required to work with the open rather than the flat version. It reminds me of #724, to which I actually prefer it.

731 Admittedly we haven’t been given the exact color of the dresses but they look rather tomatoey here, and definitely less saturated than most others. Assuming for the sake of argument that the dresses in the par are too assertive, I’d prefer the deeper and less saturated reds of #706.  From the standpoint of contrast, this version is probably most directly comparable to #712 due to heavy sharpening, but #712 had better shape in the faces as well as better dress color.

732 Good color, poor noise reduction.

733 Too dark, too yellow.

734 We end with another nice version, probably most comparable to my #725. Faces too pink, though, as John Furnes noted in his subsequent posting. He adds:

Having seen the results, I tried to go all PPW using the recipe for faces 2015 (page 406 second edition  LAB), but used Lesser Hammer instead of Velvet Hammer. The result was much better than my 734, but it would need some more adjustments.  Time spent was less than 5 minutes as opposed to several night hours for the first entry.

735 The par version. 

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