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

Before I went to Cuba, I always wondered if there are old classic American cars all over the roads in Havana, or if photographers warp how we see Cuba by cherry picking the cool cars amidst a bunch of new ones?  The old cars are definitely legit.  It feels like half the cars on the road are classics, though in reality, nearly 95% of them have been repaired or rebuilt with new parts.  There might be a Honda engine under the hood of this car for all I know.  But it’s awesomely nostalgic either way.  I found this old Studebaker sitting at the end of a residential alley in a quiet neighborhood.  It’s like they put it out just for me to photograph!  Seriously, how awesome is this scene?

Cuban car edited with luminosity masks

I sent out the unedited RAW file for this image to a handful of people who use Lumenzia as part of a fun challenge to see how we might all tackle the same image with luminosity masks.  If you want to try editing the image yourself, you can download the original RAW file here.  Please feel free to edit and share the image per my Creative Commons (Attribution, NonCommercial) license.  Here’s the original image before I edited it:

Original image before Lumenzia

I got rid of the windshield reflections, punched up the background, added texture, and a whole lot of other changes.  I think I used about 26 layers!  Definitely one of my more complex edits, but that’s the beauty of luminosity masks – you can adjust very specific parts of the image.  Here’s a video showing how I actually edited the image with Lumenzia (luminosity masks), Nik (Color Efex Pro), a texture, and some cloning to get rid of the hand prints on the dusty hood.

 

Key segments in the tutorial:

  • 0:00 Intro
  • 0:58 Game plan for editing
  • 3:44 Example of how to select part of the image with luminosity masks (reflection in windshield)
  • 5:01 Walking through the luminosity masking layers
  • 12:23 Before and after luminosity masks
  • 12:49 Adding contrast/detail with Nik Color Efex Pro
  • 15:29 Adding a texture
  • 18:03 Lumenzia sharpening to add grunge/detail to background

 

If you’re an American and interested in going, I can’t recommend Cuba enough.  There were 5 daily flights direct from Miami when I went, and hoards of other Americans traveling there legally, not to mention people from many other countries around the world.  No doubt the tourism will increase significantly in the coming years as relations between the US and Cuba begin to normalize.  I went (legally) with Sante Fe Workshops.  My trip was led by Jennifer Spelman and Dustin Sammann, with strong local support from the leading photographic institution in Cuba:  Fototeca de Cuba.  The trip was very well organized, we got to see amazing places you would miss as a random tourist, and the Fototeca photographers were incredible.  Cuba is a very safe place for photographers, and the locals are very welcoming.  There is no more interesting place in the world for street photography!

One last thought…  I wanted to show that I wasn’t cherrying picking images of cars, so I dropped my camera on a tripod one morning and just recorded a few minutes of Cuban life passing by.  It’s pretty simple footage, but the kids in school uniforms and old cars show a very real slice of life in Havana today.

Antelope Canyon (Page, AZ) reminds me of India.  It’s an incredible mind-blowing experience, and at the same time a blood-booling crush of humanity.  If you can get past the super expensive hotels, tour costs, and the photographer’s version of “Fight Club” that is Antelope canyon at midday – you are in for an unbelievable trip to a place that is truly magical.  There are few places on earth that I find as beautiful as the SouthWest United States, and the slot canyons are among the most impressive sites I’ve ever seen.  I literally took thousands of photos during my two days there.  The light is constantly changing.  The top of the canyon is lit by the orange glow of the sun hitting the sandstone, while only the blue tones reflected by the sky above reach the bottom.  This mix of light creates an incredible mix of blues, purples, orange, and yellow colors. – all along the sensual flowing lines of rock that has been carved by untold years of the flood waters that occasionally rip through these canyons as fast as cars on the highway.

Rattlesnake Canyon (near Antelope Canyon, Page, AZ)

 

Of course, capturing such an incredibly wide dynamic range of light and dark tones with a camera is next to impossible.  While HDR (automatic blending of multiple exposures) could be used here, I strongly prefer to use a manual approach to blend the exposures with luminosity masking techniques in Photoshop.  While I do use HDR for some other situations, I find that HDR tends to create a lot of halos when I have large areas of light and dark, such as in this image.  Below is a before and after comparison showing the image straight out of the camera, compared to the final image I created using two exposures and Lumenzia (my interactive luminosity masking panel for Photoshop).

Note that I wanted to keep this video brief, so it mostly just shows the exposure blending process.  Subsequent to this video, I spent a few more minutes with Lumenzia/Photoshop to complete the following steps in order to finalize the image:

  • Saturation mask + group: to reduce orange saturation on brightest parts of the left side of the image.
  • Vibrance mask + group: to increase the peach tones in the middle/top of the image.
  • Solid color adjustment layer with peach-color restricted through L4 and group mask to tone down the powerful yellows.
  • Sharpen: (increased radius to ~80, increased threshold to ~20, and dropped opacity of the sharpening layer to ~30%)

These color adjustments help to keep the focus on my main subject (the rock formation in the middle/top), and sharpening added some additional texture to the rock.

Lumenzia lets you create images that look as stunning as the scene you saw in real life!

The Chinese are fascinated with height. Skyscrapers are a given (the entire foreground of this photo was farmland just over 20 years ago), but they seem to be blown away by tall people. I visited the Jin Mao Tower (the one in the front that looks like a golden asparagus spear) with a buddy of mine. I’m pretty tall, but my buddy absolutely towers over the locals at 6’6″. When he’d come around some corner and surprise some group of women, they’d just look up and laugh at how huge he was. So while, while were waiting in line to ride the elevator to the top of Jin Mao, there was a cardboard model of the tower and Chinese tourists were lining up to take my friend’s picture next to it – as if he were some giant looming over Shanghai.

This photo of Shanghai made it to “Explore” on Flickr and got over 20,000 views on the first day!  I had to laugh at the comments though, they’re full of those random “awards” that people post all over Flickr.  I appreciate the attention, but I honestly don’t get the point of these comments with images of awards…  It feels fake to me.  If the image moves you, why not say something about what you liked about the shot, or the memory it triggered, or something that tells me something about you?  Sometimes social media doesn’t feel very social to me, as if we lost the ability to talk to other people when we can’t physically see or hear them.  I kind of wish Flickr would disable the ability to post images in comments, it seems like that would stop some of these silly “comments”.

How I edited the shot…  Even though I shot a bracket, I only used a single RAW file for the final image.  The fact that it was a hazy blue hour meant the contrast was manageable.  There was plenty of detail in the single exposure, since I’d shot a 14-bit RAW at low ISO – and I didn’t need to bring back more detail in the brightest lights.  I edited in Lumenzia using a luminosity mask for contrast in the foreground, a different luminosity mask to bring out contrast in the buildings in the hazy distance, a vibrance mask to bring out more of the orange colors, and a custom vignette to help bring attention to the Jin Mao Tower in the foreground.

Jin Mao Tower and Pudong Skyscrapers in Shanghai at night

Creating Lumenzia has been a labor of love.  I’ve had to learn all sorts of new tricks: coding for Photoshop, website design, etc.  Getting everything right without some feedback would be impossible, but thankfully Google Analytics offers amazing data to help get the website part right.  My blog runs on WordPress.  It has some pretty good data right out of the box, but there’s also a lot of information that isn’t captured.  I also get some great comments on the blog and emails with helpful information, but most people visit websites without sending feedback, so analytics are key.  I wanted to get a sense of whether people were able to understand the Lumenzia information I put on the blog and successfully navigate over to the 3rd party website I use to sell digital downloads (DPD).  Configuring everything to measure cross-site analytics were definitely above my head, so I reached out for professional help.  If you’re ever looking for assistance with Google Analytics or website optimization, I highly recommend Paul Sanders from Radio Tower Digital.  He’s insanely nice, won’t stop until the job is finished, and is an SEO/analytics ninja.

I’ve lived in Minnesota over 10 years, and only recently learned of this little gem just over the border into Wisconsin, the Will River Falls.  I drove in not long before sunset, walked straight to the falls, and took this shot.  But I definitely got the feeling I need to head back, it’s a huge park with loads of trails.  I always love looking over my photos later to find the little details I’ve missed (one of the wonderful things about the Nikon D810, you can see every little detail).  I was so engrossed in getting this shot (and in making sure I didn’t get dunked from the tiny perch I used), that I didn’t notice this couple sitting high on the cliff to the right.  They look like little dots here on the web, but if you look at the bottom of the treeline toward the right edge of the top of the falls, you’ll see them sitting there just enjoying the view.  Such a cool little spot, I can’t wait to get back.

Willow River Falls in Hudson, WI.