Greg Benz Photography » Minneapolis based cityscape and landscape photographer; luminosity masking fiend

There is this great pedestrian mall in the midst of central Guangzhou, China.  On one end is the Canton Tower, which looks like an enormous multi-colored Chinese finger trap at night.  On the other end is this nice 10 minute walk through a park.  There is activity all around the middle with people relaxing, kids playing, vendors fling light up toys.  And you are surrounded on all sides by these futuristic looking buildings.  This is the Guangzhou Opera House.  I have no idea what a Chinese Opera is like, but I hung around here for a couple hours just enjoying the architecture.

Post-processing notes:  Complete processes in Photoshop.   HDR processed in Camera Raw, followed by multiple luminosity masks to control the bright spotlights on the building.

Guangzhou Opera House

Curves and Levels are some of the best tools in Photoshop to enhance your photos.  Both offer the ability to impact contrast, tone, and white balance.  Curves offers complete control, but can be a little confusing to understand initially.  On the other hand, Levels promises “simplicity” if you’re willing to give up some control.  I’m throwing the quotes around simplicity because I actually believe Levels is more difficult to use, which I’ll explain below.  But it’s good to understand both, especially if you’re familiar with Levels and want to try Curves.


Black/White Point

The black point and white point can be set in exactly the same way in both Levels and Curves.  Anything darker than the black point becomes pure black.  And anything brighter than the white point becomes pure white.  Photoshop will simply remap the remaining value between your black and white set points.  This is a nice way to boost contrast when your image doesn’t have a true black/white, which often occurs in low contrast scenes and under/over-exposed images.

Black Point Clipping in Levels and Curves

White Point Clipping in Levels and Curves


Output levels

Both Levels and Curves have options to remap the output to a smaller dynamic range by changing the black/white output to some gray value.  It’s easy to do this in Curves, but you have to drag the black/white curve point up/down (there is no slider like the one you get in Curves for this).  I rarely use these adjustments.  In fact, the only time I really use this is when I want to prepare an image for printing by a 3rd party lab (increasing your black output level from 0 to 8-10 works miracles with many vendors and avoids the common issue where the prints come back too dark).  I suppose you might use this to intentionally reduce contrast (if you wanted to simulate for, for example).

Limit Black Output in Levels and Curves
Limit White Output in Levels and Curves



The midtones slider

This is where the Levels adjustment falls apart for me.  It has a certain appeal – move one slider and make the image lighter/darker without causing clipping black or white values.  But you can do this by just sliding some mid-point in the Curves left or right.  The problem is that the midtones slider changes brightness and contrast at the same time.  Want to increase highlight contrast without darkening the image?  Move the midtones slider right (boosts highlight contrast, but darkens the image), and the white point to the left (lightens the image to offset the midtone slider).  How much should you move them?  It’s pure guesswork.  With Curves, you can use the visual adjustment tool to target tones visually from the image.  Oh, and when you make this double-move in Curves, you are probably going to blow out your brightest highlights.

Effect of Photoshop levels midtone slider


You may be wondering what Curves adjustment is equivalent to moving the midtone slider in Levels.  Moving the midpoint of the Curve is pretty close (ie, grab 127 and slide left or right).  However, Photoshop uses different math to connect the dots in Levels and Curves.  To get an exact match, you’d have to use the multi-point curve shown below.  I’ve overlaid them for comparison.  You can see that the simple curve is darker in the shadows and brighter in the highlights.  Personally, I believe the complex curve based on Levels is generally less useful, as it reduces midtone contrast to get more shadow contrast than you probably need (and eliminates a lot of the shadows).

Approximate Curves equivalent of Levels Gamma of 2

Exact Curves equivalent of Levels Gamma of 2

Approximation and Exact Curves equivalent of Levels Gamma of 2

Here’s a video that explains this in greater detail detail.  In the video, I go through the comparison above, and show how you can use Curves to easily adjust brightness and contrast.  I demonstrate how Curves can create better results.

This scene reminds me of the wormhole from Interstellar.  My girlfriend and some friends of ours went to see it on IMAX over the weekend.  It seemed like a great omen when we  (randomly) received a package of freeze-dried ice cream the day before.   I used to think IMAX meant “massive screen”, but I’m now under the impression that it means “some high school dude’s car with MASSIVE speakers”.  The movie was so insanely loud that several people were covering their ears.  But, hey, we still enjoyed it.

This image was taken in the main lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in Hangzhou (pronouned like “hong jo”).  Hangzhou is one of those cities that epitomizes the massive scale of China.  It’s almost exactly the same size as Chicago (America’s 3rd largest city), but few American’s have ever heard of it.

And while it may not be well very known in the US (despite its massive size), Hangzhou is very famous in China for the “West Lake”.  It’s a beautiful historic area and an major inspiration for Chinese artists and poets.  It’s also the inspiration for posting about Hangzhou today.  I’ve been emailing back and forth with a new Chinese friend this week, Nelson.  He’s been using my luminosity masks this week to edit some lovely photos of West Lake that he shared with me.  Too bad I don’t have any photos of West Lake to share!

Intercontinental Hangzhou Elevator Lobby

I have a bad feeling this sort of winter scene is just around the corner in Minneapolis…  I passed by “Tucker’s Treehouse” in St Louis Park for years and always thought “I’ve got to shoot that some day!”  This arboreal fortress would have been nirvana when I was 10.  Seriously, how motivated would your parents or a baby sitter need to be to climb up 7 stories into a tree?  Hanging out with friends.  check.  Hiding out where no one would bother me when I was up to no good.  check.  Throwing water balloons at innocent pedestrians below.  check.  First beer.  Ah, the mischief.  I’m sure this treehouse has plenty of good stories in it.

I kept thinking that I’d contact the owner and ask permission to do some elaborate shoot (I thought it’d be fun to light it with a bunch of strobes).  Finally, one day, I just got out out of my car when I was driving by and took a quick snap shot.  Then just like that, after being here nearly 30 years, part of it came crashing down a few weeks later in the midst of an April Fool’s Day storm.  Looking back at this photo, you can see it coming (the tilted platform on the left is the one that came down).  I’m glad I finally got around to taking this picture this past winter before Mother Nature took a swing at it.  I vow never to wait so long again to shoot something that piques my interest!

Snow Fortress in the Tree

A huge thanks to Karen Hutton for the suggestion to visit Bonsai Rock.  These hearty bonsai trees have somehow established a foothold in the cracks of this large boulder near the shore of Lake Tahoe.  There were a couple other photographers down around me, but the area had this very zen-like feeling that the photo portrays.  Everything was calm, and the cloudless sky just had a beautiful warm glow at sunset as I looked over the frigid lake.

Click here for a map to Bonsai Rock.  To get there, look for the handful of cars parked by the side of the road in what appears to be nowhere, and look for a trail down the hill.  The hill is somewhat steep, and the footing very loose, so be careful and be sure to bring some kind of flashlight or headlamp if you’re trying to shoot sunrise or sunset!

Bonzai and the Tranquility of Tahoe