Motivation is a photography blog that discusses the creative aspects of photography. The posts will include thoughts about images and their interpretation, photographers and their work, technique, workflow, my ongoing projects, and perhaps even the occasional off topic rant.

Grape Hyacinth

Sometimes, if one revisits older images with a different mindset, the result can be interesting. Here, I was looking for a simpler looking result than my first go round. More form and less detail. It can be hard to tell when viewing the image small on screen, but I’m happy with the new look (using Topaz Simplify and textures layered in).

Grape Hyacinth © Howard Grill

Grape Hyacinth © Howard Grill



Every so often it is interesting to redo an image. When you are in a different mood, or your outlook is different, or maybe you just want to try out another style…..sometimes the results of such a ‘redo’ can be interesting. Here is one of my ‘revisitations’.

The original:

Evergreen In Fog

And the redo, during which I wanted to give it a cleaner and a more vintage look:

 Captue sharpened only
Canon IPG 2000
Ilford Gold Fiber Silk
M0 profile
Relative colorimetric

A Way To Portray Finale (For Now Anyway)

In my last three posts (here, here, and here) I explained how I had found a way to display my bare tree images in a way that really focuses on what I wanted to show….their shape. Today, I am posting another two pieces of ‘tree art’.

In addition, while I am not much of a writer, I decided to (believe it or not) write a poem to accompany the tree images. Maybe I should stay away from the poetry and stick with the imaging!

In the winter,

When most living things

Cover themselves for warmth,

Trees take the opposite tact,

Shedding their leaves,

Exposing themselves to the frigid cold,

And baring their souls.

© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill


A Way To Portray II

In my last post I explained how it dawned upon me to display my bare tree images in a way that accentuates their shape and makes the intriguing shapes that nature can take the center of focus. For the next few posts I would like to show some other images from that series, which I continue to work on.

Tree #2 © Howard Grill

Tree #2 © Howard Grill

Tree #3 © Howard Grill

Tree #3 © Howard Grill


Using Channels To Create Masks In Photoshop

I’m not a big fan of having to make masks in Photoshop. It’s easy when you are just brushing in tones, saturation, contrast etc. But when it comes to having to make an actual accurate mask for, say, an extraction….well, just the thought is painful.

I ran across this excellent video about using the alpha channels in Photoshop to make accurate masks and really learned some interesting and useful techniques from it. It is a bit long at one hour and twenty minutes, but it is divided into individual chapters for easier digestion. It starts out simple but rapidly becomes quite advanced. I found watching it to be time very well spent and thought I would share it with those that might be interested.

Color Grading

I recently finished viewing one of the fantastic ‘art summits’ over on Shift Art. If you aren’t familiar with Shift Art you really should have a look at it as it is a really superb resource. Their Color Grading Summit went over in detail the many ways to ‘color grade’ a photograph in order to alter the mood it transmits. These techniques included the application of color gradients, gradient mapping, using color look up tables (LUTS), filters, and curves. I thought that the Gothic architecture of my recent photo trip to the Cathedral of Learning would be a great subject for me to try out some of what I had learned.

In this particular photo I decided to try to give the image a ‘suspense’ or ‘horror’ type feel through the use of color. In this case I utilized a LUT applied through a color lookup adjustment layer in Photoshop. It is quite intriguing to see how color alone can really add a mood to an image.

 Gothic architecture at Cathedral of Learning at University of Pittsburgh

Photo Artistry Publication

I have mentioned in prior blog posts that I’ve been spending time taking on-line courses in ‘photo artistry’, which is to say using Photoshop to composite and alter ‘straight’ images into various types of digital artwork. It isn’t necessarily easy or straightforward, so I was very encouraged when two pieces of mine were accepted for publication and appear in the current issue of an excellent magazine dedicated to the genre called “Living The Photo-Artistic Life”. The on-line version of the magazine is free for download and if you think you might enjoy this type of work you should definitely take a look at the artwork of the many talented individuals who are far more accomplished in this genre than me. Did I say it was free :)

Below are the two images that were published, and I believe I have posted them before. The first is based on a synagogue in Prague that I visited about two years or so ago that had tens of thousands of names printed on the walls of the building….the names of all those in Czech lands that were murdered during the Holocaust.

“Holocaust Memories” © Howard Grill

“Holocaust Memories” © Howard Grill


This second image is of a tree in Harrisburg, PA that I took many years ago that I combined with text, textures, birds and lighting effects.

“Reaching Out” © Howard Grll

“Reaching Out” © Howard Grll


The fact that the images were chosen for publication encourages me to explore this path further to see where it leads.

In The Woods

Now this is something really different for me, but I am committed to at least trying different things. I think I at least owe that to my parents after years of not eating my veggies :)  The background is composed of three of my tree photos taken from different images and composited together. My idea was not to make an entirely convincing background but, rather, to make an interesting one. That is why the overlap of some of the trees doesn't look quite natural, or perhaps looks a little 'odd'. They were blended together to be just a little 'off', to raise an eyebrow or make you wonder whats not quite right about it.

But when I was done with the background, it needed a subject. So I dropped in a model image that came with the course I am taking (fully licensed for any use, of course). Well, she didn't exactly simply 'drop in' since she was in color, much bigger etc. Lets say she was gently manipulated into the photo in an attempt to make her presence at least look realistic against the background.

Definitely not my usual type of work, but I am having fun playing!

© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill



When I was at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris a few years ago, they had a display of paintings by one of the grand old masters.....unfortunately, I can't remember who (if a reader knows, by all means, please remind me). At any rate, given some of the techniques I have been learning and practicing I couldn't help but 'grunge up' the photo I took of the painting a bit. Well, maybe more than a bit. I sort of made it mine. With apologies to that grand master of painting.

old master.jpg

Another Self Assignment

Another self assignment to digitally transform a photograph utilizing fractals and by 'painting with light'. What are fractals?  See those wavy green and orange lines behind the doll....those are fractals, which are blended into the image at low opacity. And 'painting with light'? That is an enhancement of the yellow glow behind the doll done by using the color picker in Photoshop to choose the color of the existing glow and then painting with a soft, low opacity brush in the appropriate area on a new empty layer. Looks messy, but then change the blend mode to color, or soft light, or just experiment...the messy looks goes away and it all blends together nicely. I also obviously added in the musical note embellishment.

Where is this all headed? I don't know, but I do know that I'm having fun with it all!

© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill


Self Assignments

In my last post, I wrote about trying to get my photographic thoughts and plans together after having 'completed' my Empathy Project.  One of the ideas I had mentioned was delving further into 'Photoshop digital artistry'. I had taken an excellent course in this some time ago, but had really gone through the tutorials listening and watching but not doing.....and that's a mistake. So I have started going through it again, this time giving myself self-assignments to utilize the techniques taught in the tutorials of compositions that seem to be in a style that I like.

And so I thought I would post some of my self assignments, of which this is the first. The assignment was (utilizing my own main image):

Construct a background from multiple textures

Add the main image and mask out the edges  using a 'grungy' brush

Add the frame with the main image 'spilling out'

Add some embellishments to create visual interest, including scribbles that I make and scan in myself

Blend in a 'line drawing' version from Topaz Impression


And the final result is below.


© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill


An Admission

In the past, I have spoken about having taken Sebastian Michael's "Photoshop Artistry" course, which is truly a superb course if you have an interest in learning more about 'grunge techniques' (though I really don't like that term since it seems to harbor negative connotations). But I have an admission to make, I haven't been doing my homework!  

While I have put some of the techniques taught into use, there are also a series of weekly exercises, or 'challenges', which gets one to use all the various techniques in order to really cement them in. I hadn't done them. One of my friends has started to take the course as well, and we have decide to do the weekly assignments and trade the files to see how each other work. The accountability to each other of doing the assignments is a motivating factor to actually get them done. In addition, I think that seeing how we each individually implement and interpret the techniques will be fascinating.

I don't plan to post my results every week, but thought if I end up with some images that I really like (the purpose of the assignments is to get facile with the techniques, not create masterpieces) I would post them. Well, I do like the result of this first assignment, which was to take an image and add two textures, an edge effect, a vector, and to utilize a 'painting with light' technique. In addition, any other adjustments could be used.

Here is the result:

Gone Fishing    © Howard Grill

Gone Fishing    © Howard Grill

Here is the fully processed image that I used for the assignment before adding anything, one that had been 'finished' and that I enjoyed even without any further manipulations. 

Gone Fishing    © Howard Grill

Gone Fishing    © Howard Grill

They are the same yet different and I enjoy them both. Which do you prefer? Is the transmitted emotion different between them?

More Compositing

Back in the beginning of August I mentioned that I had been working on learning more digital artistry techniques and I posted a piece that I had finished after visiting the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague. At that time, I warned that I might be posting more composites as I continued to work on them. You were fairly warned and yet here you are :)

This piece started as a photograph of some ships in the water on a gray day, with a very bland sky, made during a photo trip to Provincetown, Massachusetts. I decide to work with it, seeing what type of image I could make that had a nautical theme to it.

Provncetown Harbor    © Howard Grill

Provncetown Harbor    © Howard Grill

In addition to the 'base' image of the boats at the bottom, I layered in some textures, some text, some brushwork and two other images. There is a large image of a nautilus shell......don't look for it; it didn't work as a component of the composite, but it did work to bring in some nice highlights to the lighting. The boat on the upper left comes from a shot I took in Florida. Finally, there were also a good number of color and contrast edits

I am finding this kind of work interesting and challenging and intend to continue with it!

The Pinkas Synagogue

During my recent trip to Prague, I was able to take a private tour of the city's old Jewish Quarter. The tour was a truly unique and a fantastic experience (I used Terezin Private Tours - Anna was not available but her colleague Alicia was wonderful). The tour was quite moving overall, but I was particularly affected by my visit to the historic Pinkas Synagogue.

The synagogue was built in 1535 and is the second oldest surviving synagogue in the city. The reason there are old synagogues in Prague, as opposed to some other European cities, is that Hitler had planned to use this area as a museum for an 'extinct race' and thus not much was destroyed. That and the fact that the country was basically handed over to Germany without much of a battle after the Munich Conference, as a form of appeasement.

The synagogue is now a museum, and on its walls are written the names of the approximately 78,000 Czech and Moravians who lost their lives in the Holocaust. The enormity of the number is driven home when one sees wall after wall after wall of written names.

Recently, I have been trying to learn more techniques used in digital artistry as another creative outlet in addition to my 'straight photography'. I am early in my attempts at this type of artwork, but when I was in the synagogue I had taken some photographs of sections of the walls. Having been moved by my visit, I wanted to try to make something representative of those feelings using the photos. The result of that attempt is below.

78,000    © Howard Grill

78,000    © Howard Grill

Ancient Tree

A few posts back I wrote about an image I had constructed and even made an instructional video showing how it was done. I have now completed a second piece using these techniques. As you can see, I am a fan of trees, birds, and mysterious text!


Ancient Tree    © Howard Grill


But what you might not have guessed is that there are actually two 'base images'.

First, the obvious one:


The obvious base image of a tree      © Howard Grill


But the second one might not be quite as obvious:


The not so obvious base image of a flower      © Howard Grill


The 'base images' are clearly of differing shapes and so the flower image had to be transformed to fit over the image of the tree. Here is the flower pulled onto the tree image:

Flower pulled onto tree

Flower pulled onto tree


And then transformed (CTL-T on Windows) to cover the entire tree:


Flower transformed to fit over image of tree      © Howard Grill


And now with the blend mode changed to soft light:


Both images blended using the soft light blend mode      © Howard GRill


While the blend doesn't change the tree image to a very large degree, it does add some interesting shadows in the field and lower parts of the distant trees while generally brightening up and adding contrast to the image and making it easier to combine with the darker textures. The following textures were also combined with the image:


© Paree Erica

© Fly Edges

© Fly Edges


© 2 l'il owls


And, if anyone is interested, here is the Photoshop layer stack.

Hope you enjoyed seeing how the image was construcyted!

Digital Artistry

An Instructional Video On How This Image Was Made

Some time ago I had signed up for a very interesting on-line course on how to utilize Photoshop not for digital image processing, but to learn how to composite images and apply artistic effects. I wanted to learn some of these approaches not so much to produce photo-realistic scenes but, rather, to produce not so realistic looking artwork.  There is obviously a rather large spectrum between 'straight' photography (which typically isn't as 'straight' as one might think) and surreal alternative worlds.  I wanted to discover where I might sit along that spectrum.

As can often happen, I was constrained for time and never really got to go through the course like I had wanted to. But there was recently a Facebook group formed by others like myself who sort of got 'left behind'.  So I decided to take it up once again, along with this group.

After learning from the video training, one is encouraged to perform weekly 'challenges'. These are an exercise to reinforce the techniques and typically come with very specific rules, such as take one of your images and choose two out of these 10 textures and then chose a vector from group one and then utilize a certain technique.  I'm not very good at following rules and doing exercises but decided to give it a try.  I became enthused by what I produced and started thinking about how the piece might look if there were no strict rules. I then reworked the image and ended up with this:

The composition was built upon the base photo below, which i took at a cemetery near my home during the winter last year.

Since I had wanted to produce more blog posts that show how I did things, I thought that this might be a good image to make a video about, showing how I put it together. I am new at this sort of work but would like to pursue it further and also integrate some of the techniques into my more traditional photography......but, on with the video!

If you are email subscriber, the video, unfortunately, does not come along with the email so you will have to go to the actual blog to view it or click here to watch it on youtube.

How To Resize And Prepare Photos For Web And Projection

Recently, some friends have asked me how to prepare photos for web viewing, projecting, or submission to various publications after being asked, for example, to submit images that are 1024x768, 8 bit, jpeg format, in the sRGB color space. The easiest way to explain this is to I made a short instructional video for them. I thought I would share it on the blog.

For the best viewing experience, click the little gear icon to the bottom right of the video once it starts, set the quality for 1080p, and watch in full screen mode. If your browser won't play it full screen, just click on the youtube link at the bottom right of the video to view it on youtube, where full screen should be attainable. I hope the information is helpful.

Topaz DeNoise 6 And Canon 5DsR Noise

Back in October I wrote about a five minute exposure I had made at Pete's Lake in Michigan's Upper Peninsula using my Canon 5DsR camera. That exposure was quite noisy because of its duration and if I wanted a usable image I had to leave the island quite dark, almost black, in order to mask the strong noise. I didn't really like the way it looked and thought the image might not be able to be saved.

Recently, Topaz Labs came out with a new version of their DeNoise product/plug-in. I already own a couple of noise removal programs, including the prior Topaz version, but decided to upgrade to their newest.  This version is a whole different ball game.

There is an incredible amount of control available within the program.  An excellent 40 minute video is all you really need to get a good grasp on how it works. So I watched it and gave DeNoise 6 a try with this immensely challenging image after I wasn't happy with the results that other programs gave me (see that original post).

The ground rules:

  • I duplicated and reprocessed the image from the same starting point but did noise reduction first and then processed it the way I wanted it to look in terms of the tonality of the trees and island.
  • I took the original, noisy image from that post back in October and, without applying noise removal, used a curve and a bit of saturation, to bring it to just about where the newly processed version was in terms of appearance.
  • The crops below are 100% but converted to 8 bit jpeg and sRGB color space; I didn't notice any dramatic changes resulting from this. 
  • Disclaimer: there were residual white specks following the DeNoise process that were present on the original (ie, they were not artifacts induced by DeNoise). I would not call the processing a success if these remained or if I had to work for hours on manual removal. I tried the Photoshop dusk and speck removal filter and it took care of nearly all these specks in a second.

So here is the newly processed image:


Pete's Lake, 5 Minute Exposure    © Howard Grill

Directly below is a 100% crop, as described above, from the upper left hand corner of the image without Topaz DeNoise processing. 

Upper Left Corner, Before Topaz DeNoise 6

Here is the same crop after noise removal. I was pleased that you could see the gentle tones of the cloud streaking. Removal of the noise actually made it more evident.

Upper Left Corner, After Topaz DeNoise 6

Below is a 100% crop from the water.  It's even worse than the upper left corner in terms of noise. NASTY!!!

Section Of Water, Before Topaz DeNoise 6

And below is the DeNoise 6 version of the same location in the image:

Section Of Water, After Topaz DeNoise 6

Finally, we come to the very distant trees in the shadows, which I significantly lightened compared to how the photograph came out of the camera. Note that at baseline there is some lack of sharpness, but this is explained by the fact that the trees are probably a half mile away and that the exposure is five minutes long with a gentle breeze blowing those branches.

Here is the original version:

Trees On Distant Isalnd, Before Topaz DeNoise 6

And the DeNoise version (after Photoshop dust and scratch removal was also used; see above).  It appears to me that there is perhaps a very, very slight softening of the image in comparison, which is pretty impressive for this degree of noise removal. In my opinion it has taken the image to a state where it is quite usable. Given that this is a 50 MP file the size of those trees on even a large print is going to be small.

Trees On Distant Island, After Topaz DeNoise 6

Definitely a worthwhile purchase in my opinion!

In Camera Texture

One thing I am growing more fond of is layering textures on photographs. But despite the appearance, that is NOT what today's blog post image is.  In fact, except for the conversion to a cyanotype tinted black and white image and the edge treatment, this image was made totally 'in-camera', which is why I couldn't resist taking the photo. And I should add that despite the fact that I took the photo right after the recent big snowstorm (well, it was big on the coast, but being about 400 miles inland we only got about 5 inches of the white stuff) it was not snowing at the time the shutter was clicked!


"Snow"    © Howard Grill


So how did the image get this textured appearance? As I was going on my post-snowstorm photo-walk, I took a stroll through a nearby college campus.  As I walked by the library, I noticed that the front facade of the building was covered with a dark brown granite or granite-like polished stone that had large 'flecks' of other colors in it.  If you stood at a specific angle to the stone you could, because of the way the sun was hitting it, see a strong reflection of a university hall, lampost, and a snow covered stone wall that was behind it. I thought it looked pretty cool!

After taking the photo through Lightroom to make basic adjustments it was brought into Silver Efex Pro to convert it to black an white and apply the vintage edge. Then , in Photoshop, I used a curves adjustment layer to increase the contrast a bit and I applied the slightest amount of Gaussian Blur to try to decrease the harsh edges of the 'flecks'. Then I toned the image a blue color to fit the cold subject.

I thought the final image had an interesting 'dreamy' appearance such that you know what it the subject is, but with a sense that you aren't quite sure if it is 'real' or how it was made.