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

The first time I saw the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, I was kind of shocked.  I guess I half expected it to be some little creek or something.  More than a decade later, I never get tired of coming down to the riverfront.  There are all these great little restaurants, bars, biking trails, and lots of other activity around downtown.  But when I want to enjoy tranquility in the city, I come downriver to this out of the way bridge to watch sunset.  It’s close enough to really feel like you’re part of the city, but it’s also a bit off the beaten path.  There aren’t many people around, and you can just enjoy the beautiful waters of the Mississippi flowing past the city on a golden summer sunset.

Minneapolis skyline and Miississippi River at Sunse

I’m always fascinated by “do-overs”.  It’s a chance to improve, or to depart the past to become something completely new.  This Frank Gehry building is one of many interesting buildings in Dusseldorf’s “media harbor”.  A decade ago, this area was a grungy harbor area, apparently used for industrial steel tubes.  Now it’s this incredibly hip place full of media companies, fashion designers, and bars – not to mention a more than a few Ferrari’s.  It still retains the best of its harbor character, but it has become vibrant again.  I try to think of my art the same way.  Where am I getting stale?  How can I reinvent my technique or adjust my perspective to make my work better than ever?

Frank Gehry building in Dusseldorf Media Harbor

Are you using movement to tell stories with your photos?  Motion can transport you into the photograph to truly bring it to life.  Using a slow shutter speed in your camera can help capture motion, but there are many times when that isn’t possible or practical.  But if you can’t capture it in camera, post-processing can often be used to add that emotional story-telling element.

Photoshop has long offered motion blur and radial blur filters, but they only creation motion in a perfect line or circle. They don’t let you create different amounts of blur to deal with depth in the image or a subject that may be speeding up or slowing down. And blurring in a straight line won’t even work if the subject is moving directly towards or away from the camera (which is part of the problem in my tutorial video below).  Fortunately, Photoshop now has the “Path Blur” tool (since Photoshop CC 2014). This incredible tool lets you create very sophisticated and realistic blur effects. I’ve posted the tutorial video below, as well as more information in my latest blog post, to help you master Path Blur.

 

In the video, I’ve also included an overview of the luminosity masks and exposure blending I used to prepare the image, how to blend the blurred layer into the image, and (most importantly) how to deal with artifacts at the edge of any blur. If you’re already familiar with those topics and just want to see how to use Path Blur, you may wish to skip to 3:42 in the video.  Note that even if you don’t have Photoshop CC, this tutorial still includes many great tips that are relevant to working with the older blur tools in Photoshop.

Steps to use the Path Blur filter:

  1. Stamp all visible layers into a new layer on top by pressing <shift>-<alt/option>-<ctrl/cmd>-E.  You will create the blur on this separate layer so that you can later blend in motion just in the targeted areas of the photograph.
  2. Convert the clone stamp to a smart object.  This will allow you to later revise the blur and to help correct some artifacts that may be created in the blurring process.
  3. Click on Filter/Blur Gallery/Path Blur to start using the path blur tool.
    • Click and drag to draw blue arrows to define the path that your subject is moving in the image.
    • You may continue clicking and dragging to create as many blue arrows as you need.  This is helpful for multiple subjects.  It is also helpful for a subject that is coming towards or away from the camera (such as the escalator stairs and handrails in my tutorial video above).
    • Adjust the endpoint speeds to control how much blur is at the beginning and end of each blue line.  This value is specific to the endpoint that is currently active (click on an endpoint to make it active).
    • Adjust the speed setting to increase or decrease the amount of blur on all lines (ie, this is a global setting that is applied on top of the endpoint speeds).  It is important that this is set to a value above 0, or you won’t see any motion in the image.
    • You may wish to adjust the taper value.  This is also a global setting.  It controls how quickly the blur settings transition from one part of the image to another.  I often use a value in the middle of the slider (such as 20%).
    • Continue to tweak the various settings until you get the desired result.  It’s an iterative process, as the sliders interactive with each other.
  4. Add a layer mask on the blurred layer to control which parts of your image are blurred (paint white on the mask) and which should be left alone (paint black on the mask).
  5. Edit the smart object if you need to remove any blurring artifacts.  These are likely to occur at the edges of the blurred area when the nearby pixels look different from the blurred part of the image.
    • Use the clone stamp, healing brush, and content-aware fill to replace adjacent areas with content that looks similar to what you are blurring.
    • Don’t need to worry about being overly accurate, just getting “good enough” should make for a realistic blur.

I feel like I’m blasting off into space when I look at this scene.  Which is kind of funny, since the escalator takes you straight into Mother Earth.

I thought I was doing everything right the first time I attempted this shot.  I arrived at the Natural History Museum in London fifteen minutes before opening on what should have been a slow morning.  Whoa, was I ever wrong.  My line (coming in the side door) was pretty short – but the main entrance already had a line of people a block long!  I tried my best, but really, it was almost hopeless trying to get this shot with the immediate crowd of people.  By the time I walked out of the museum, the line to get in was now snaking around multiple sides of the building!  But persistence, better planning, and a new friendship paid off on my next attempt, when I was able to take this shot.  I think that’s pretty typical: technique and hard work matter so much more than equipment.  What do you think?

London Natural History Museum Earth Hall

You know how buildings lean into the center of your image when you shoot with the camera pointing up?  This is known as “converging verticals” or the “keystone effect”.  It’s a type of image distortion that is caused by the angle of your camera’s sensor relative to your subject.  Sometimes, it’s no big deal.  But in architectural images or cityscapes, where there are obvious lines that should be straight/parallel, straightening these lines can take your image to a whole new level.  Fortunately, it’s very easy to fix this issue, and I’ll show you how in the video below.  Additionally, I’ve posted a description of other techniques you can use to prevent or correct distorted vertical lines to get beautifully straight images.

And these techniques aren’t just useful for buildings.  All images show converging verticals when you point the camera up, you may have just not noticed.  You might be surprised how much your images improve when you try correcting the perspective.

 

 

Straightening in camera

It’s great that we can fix converging verticals in post, but there are good reasons to get it right in the camera.  Any time you stretch pixels, you are loosing some quality as well as cropping out part of the image.  There are several strategies you can use to get things right in camera:

  • Shoot with the camera’s sensor plane parallel to the surface in question.  For converging verticals, this means shooting with the camera perfectly level.  For converging horizontals, this means shooting with the lens pointed directly at the primary face of the subject.  This may mean using a different crop/composition, or shooting from a different location.  One way to achieve this, or at least get closer to level, is to step further back from your subject and use a longer lens.  This will change the relative size of foreground/background elements, so be careful not to lose the intimacy and mood of the shoot simply to get a technically correct vertical line.
  • Shoot with a “tilt-shift” lens.  I use all of Nikon’s “PC-E” lenses and love them, especially the 24 and 45mm.  Canon users are lucky, as Canon also offers a 17mm tilt-shift lens (I really wish Nikon had one).  These lenses are expensive and manual-focus only, but they are often the best or only way to get straight lines in the camera.  These lenses have the added benefit of being extremely sharp in the corners (unless you have to shift too far), which is often a nice plus.  To use one, level your camera, and then shift the lens up to get the framing you want for your subject.  As long as your camera is level, the vertical lines will be perfectly straight.
  • Of course, another strategy is simply to enhance the effect.  Sometimes this can make an image more dramatic.  Or, if some degree of slant is inevitable, it may be better to make it look deliberate than to leave it on the fuzzy edge of straight and slanted.

 

Other options to straighten with post-processing

The technique I show in the video above is my go-to technique for significant corrections, but there are some other great options.

  • Lens corrections tool in Lightroom / Photoshop.  I use this to some degree on nearly all my images.  For simple images, this may be all I need.  For more complex images, I may use this to get a better starting point before using the Photoshop techniques I showed above.  Within lens corrections, I check “enable profile corrections” on many images to get rid of lens distortion.  Then I use automatic vertical or manual vertical transformation tools to deal with the converging verticals.  See this video from the amazing Julieanne Kost for a demo of how to use the lens corrections tool.
  • Adaptive Wide Angle in Photoshop (found under the Filter menu).  This is a great tool for both images shot with wide angle lenses as well as panoramas that were stitched in Photoshop.  It allows a great degree of custom control.  It’s much trickier to use than the techniques I show above, but can be a good solution for some complex situations (especially where there is lens distortion on top of converging verticals).
  • Warp tool in Photoshop (see Edit/Transform/Warp).  I like using this approach when I want to correct something in the middle of the image, without cropping out material from the edges.

 

Photoshop is the #1 professional image editing program in the world for a reason, it’s incredibly powerful.  But that power has a downside, it can also be maddeningly complex.  It has over 25 years of features designed to meet the needs of professionals, hobbyists, photographers, web designers, graphic designers, videographers, and more.  I’m an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop and I don’t even know what many of the options do!  But Adobe gets it, and they’ve built some awesome tools to let you customize Photoshop for your needs.  One of my favorites is the custom menu editor.  This little known tool lets you color-code the menu items you use most and hide the items you never need.  And even better, you can save your settings to import on other copies of Photoshop.

 

 

I went crazy on an 8-hour flight home from London and made a comprehensive custom menu specifically for photographers, and it’s available for free to all my subscribers (current subscribers will receive an email with a link within the next day).  My system for organizing the menus is:

  • The most important or frequently-used options are green.
  • Other commonly-used options are yellow.
  • Less important options get left in the default gray.
  • Photoshop settings are blue.
  • Items that are rarely or never used for photography are hidden (this includes old filters that don’t support modern high res / 16-bit images, redundant options more commonly accessed elsewhere, press printing options, 3D modeling, tools specific to graphic design, etc).  This gets rid of a lot of clutter.  In the image below, you can see that my “Layer” menu is roughly 1/3rd shorter than the full default menu.  Even though these options are hidden, you can still easily reveal them just by clicking “show all menu items” at the bottom of the menu (I set them up so that the hidden items show in red when displayed.)

Simplify Photoshop with Custom Menus

 

To install my custom menu:

  • Download the custom menu file (sign up for my free newsletter to get the download link, or check the bottom of the latest newsletter if you’re already a subscriber).
  • Just double-click the MNU file (Greg Benz Photoshop Menus.mnu).  For most users, this should be all you need to do.
  • If you have multiple versions of Photoshop installed, right-click the MNU file to choose which version of Photoshop should open and install the menu.
  • If you have any problems with the approach above, you can also take a slightly more complicated approach.  Click Edit/Presets/Export/Import Presets.  Then click “select import folder” at the bottom-left of the window to point to the folder where you put the MNU file. The file will appear in the list box on the left: just click on it, then click the > arrow to move it to the import box, and then click “import presets” on the bottom right.  Once you’ve done this, you still need to activate the imported menu.  Click Edit/Menus, then change the “set” dropdown to the custom menu.
  • (Note that if you want to remove it, just change the “set” option back to the default or use the trashcan icon to delete it.)

 

If you prefer to create your own custom menu from scratch or to modify what I’ve done, just follow these steps:

  • Click Edit / Menus to open the custom menu editor.
  • Make sure “menu for” is set to application menus.  (Set it to panel menus if you want to tweak the fly-out menus in the panels.  I have also customized these in my custom menus.  Unfortunately, you cannot customize the options you see when you right-click in a panel, just the options that show up when you click the three little bars at the top-right of the panel.)
  • Click the triangle in front of File, Edit, Image, etc.  This will show all of the menu items.  Sub-menu items are indented.
  • Click on the color options to change the color for each item.
  • Click on the visibility (eyeball icon) to show or hide each item.  (Be sure to set color before making an item invisible).
  • When you are done, click save (first icon with a down arrow) or save as (second icon, by the trash can).
  • If you want to switch from one custom menu setup to another, click the “set” dropdown.
  • To delete a custom menu, select it under “set” and then click the trashcan icon.

Photoshop Menu Editor

 

My friend Mark picked me up from the airport in Amsterdam and we drove straight to the ING House to shoot sunset.  It was a precision operation, one wrong move – flight, luggage, traffic – and the whole operation would have been blown for the night.  But we made it just in time.  We walked briskly from the car to the building and immediately started shooting.  I love it when a plan comes together.  Amsterdammers (I just made that up) like to refer to this building as “The Shoe”.   Having seen it from above when we passed by it on the freeway, I can see why people say that (you can’t really see the legs, and the back part looks much more prominent like the whole where you put your foot into a shoe).  But having seen it from down low, I would propose to rename it robo-pup.  It looks like the sci-fi love child of a chihuahua and a spider.  Just add in some yippy barking sound, it’d be “cute”.  I hope the architect isn’t reading this – I do like the building, really.

The Shoe

I’m still in awe of how green the glacial lakes of New Zealand can get!   And of “lenticular clouds”.  I’d never even heard of these crazy round clouds until I went to New Zealand, and then I saw them for days on end.  Apparently, some people think they explain many UFO sightings…  but we all know little green men like big green lakes.

Green lake in New Zealand

This is the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai, China.  I took this photo in 2007.  When I went back in 2014, I took a photo looking down from the Shanghai World Financial Center (the one under construction in the background), and looked up at the much taller Shanghai Tower being built.  I’m starting to think the Chinese should install zip lines between all these super towers,  it’d be much faster than having to go down and up so much.  Just saying.

Jin Mao Tower at night in Shanghai

There’s something magical about watching sunset along the Oregon coast.  The rocky coastline, surf, and endless color on the horizon make hours pass like minutes.  But as much as I love the scene, I feel like some stranger who just walked in the front door uninvited.  If you turned the lens around, behind this beautiful scene you’d see me looking like a complete schmuck in a pair of thick, baggy brown fishing waders. While this gorgeous rock pillar has held its ground against the cold, crashing waves for thousands of years, I thought how ironic it was that I needed protection to withstand a few minutes.  But I abandoned all sense of fashion in pursuit of the image (and prayed that none of the other photographers around me decided to capture me in some kind of joke).  Stepping just knee deep into the surf made all the difference.  The rocks and waves were no longer part of some static postcard, but filled the frame.  The closer I brought the lens, the more I could feel the energy in the images.  And with each crashing wave, the ocean invited me to walk further into the scene as the pressure of the water squeezed my around my legs like a bear hub.

Rialto Beach Sunset