Mother Nature's Makeovers
How photographyer Colby Brown brings an artist's touch to the editing room.
Forging a successful career in photography often entails converging an ambition with a passion—to say nothing of the hard work, the blood, sweat and tears (your mileage may vary on that blood bit). Photographer Colby Brown is no exception. Over the course of a six-year career (and counting) Brown has managed to fuse a passion for nature and world travel with the ambition to earn a living as a professional photographer. Along the way, he honed his craft with an exacting editing process that enables him to create fine-art style landscapes and photojournalism of some of the world’s most breathtaking places and people.
When he first picked up a camera, Brown admits, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just the guy laying on the ground trying to get some crazy shots.” Working as a safety administrator in a hospital, Brown experienced a “quarter-life crisis” at the age 25 and decided to ditch the nine-to-five world for something more fulfilling. “I had this naive notion that I could travel the world and be a photographer,” he recalled with a laugh, “so I used my savings to buy a DSLR and traveled to British Colombia, taking horrible photographs.”
In time, though, Brown’s passion overcame his early liabilities and he taught himself the craft. "I would spend the morning shooting at sunrise and during the day I would study my images and try to figure out why one out of every 100 were good, and the other 99 were crap." It took about three months of daily work for Brown to build up his confidence to the point where he was ready to take on a more ambitious assignment. It just hap- pened to arrive serendipitously—on, of all things, a one- way ticket to thailand.
Brown was travelling to photograph some of thailand’s abundant natural beauties. On the plane, he was seated next to a woman who was en-route to get married and whose photographer had backed out on her at the very last moment. "On the ride over, I convinced her to hire me. So here I am, my first real gig, photographing a traditional Buddhist wedding in thailand."
From there, it was off to the races, or more accurately, around the world. Brown has since amassed a portfolio that reflects his passion for the natural world, with credits including National Geographic, the Red Cross, the Sierra Club and the Denver Post. he has set up shop in Denver Colorado, where, in addition to assignment work, he hosts photo workshops and has just published a book (Google+ for Photographers).
From the start, Brown approached his work with a care- ful attention to detail cultivated over many hours analyz- ing his images to learn what works, and what doesn’t. And while Brown is now batting considerably better than 1-in-100 with his photography, he is still applying this attention to detail and creative flare in the editing room where, by his own admission, he can often spend countless hours.
|Brown edits his images with Photoshop, a variety of plug-ins and the Wacom Intuos5 in order to bring out texture and detail. LEFT: “Cuernos del Paine Sunrise” Torres del Paine NP, Chile, Patagonia, 2010. RIGHT: “The Racetrack at Sunset” Death Valley National Park, CA, 2011.
But it’s not, he insists, a chore. "editing isn’t just something I do to get through and get over with, it’s something that I view as an essential part of the creative process."
Brown starts the process in Adobe© Lightroom©, importing RAW im- ages from his Canon 5D Mark II or 1Ds for tagging, naming and perhaps a few light edits before getting down to work in Adobe© Photoshop©. Once it’s in Photoshop, Brown sets to work with a combination of Photoshop tools and a variety of plug-ins from nik Software (including Silver efex Pro 2) and OnOne Software (Perfect Photo Suite). Another indispensible tool in Brown’s editing arsenal has been Wacom’s Intuos line of profes- sional pen tablets.
Two years ago, colleagues introduced him to the Intuos4 tablet and since now with the Intuos5, his Wacom tablet has become more than just an integral part of Brown’s photo editing workflow, it’s become his primary computer interface. "I still have a mouse—somewhere—on my desk," he confessed. "But it’s gathering dust."
For the kind of landscape photography Brown specializes in, the pres- sure sensitive stylus on the Intuos5 enables him to coax out subtle details, often at the pixel level, with a degree of granular accuracy he simply couldn’t obtain with a mouse. "I know, because I’ve tried," he said.
"I do a decent amount of stylizing," during the editing process, Brown added. the goal, he said, is to "dampen the line of authenticity" between "an accurate representation of what my eye saw and the sense, the atmo- sphere, expressed by the image." Brown is careful not to go too far, though. "I want the editing to bring out texture and detail, but I don’t want a story- book or comic book feel—I’m not going to take the saturation slider and pump it all the way up."
His philosophy is simple: treat every image as if it’s going to be blown up into billboard-sized dimensions. this way, you’re attuned not just to the tiny imperfections that may slip by the casual observer, but you’re also alert to other creative possibilities lying in wait in the photograph.
It’s this kind of granular editing that the Intous5 and its pressure-sen- sitive stylus excels at, Brown said. "I will dive into an image at a very fine level—I usually blow up the image to 2,000 percent—to see what’s there and to seek out imperfections." Using the stylus, Brown can dial in his cor- rections, such as noise reduction, or enhancements, such as opacity, at this level much more accurately. "With a Intuos pen, it’s a sweeping motion—every time a mouse moves, it’s jarring."
Take Brown’s Death valley scene, (above) which features a rock that seems to have mysteriously trekked its way across the parched dessert flats. his goal in the editing was to channel some of the locations "mysti- cal, cool energy." After merging three different exposures, Brown used the adjustment brush and the Intuos pen to draw out the contrast and clarity in the foreground so the tiny cracks and lines are evident in the rock and the fractured ground below. he then used an adjustment brush to remove some noise in the sky. the real challenge was the mountain, where Brown said the pen’s sensitivity and precision enabled him to remove just enough contrast to create a smoother flow between the ground and mountain range rather than the hard, contrasting line he started with. he finished up with the clone stamp tool and the Spot healing Brush to "clean up the mud" and used a filter in OnOne’s Perfect Photo Suite with the pen to gen- tly tease out texture in the mud and the rock.
Brown has also revisited photos he took years ago to improve them as editing technology evolves. A photo of horses grazing during a storm-laden sunrise in Jackson hole, Wyoming, is one such image. In the original, the mountain peaks were not as clear as he wanted, so Brown made some local adjustments in Lightroom to add clarity to the range. In Photoshop, Brown sharpened small portions of the foreground that were darker than others. here again, when dealing with details as minute as blades of prai- rie grass, Brown was able to use the pressure sensitivity of the Intuos pen to apply edits pre- cisely where he wanted them.
“Wild Moutains” photographed by Colby Brown in Jackson Hole National Park, Wyoming.
Aside from the precision, there are ergonomic considerations with the Intuos as well—partic- ularly for someone like Brown who has logged his fair of share of hours behind the desktop. "I don’t get the wrist cramps and strain I was get- ting when I was using a mouse," Brown noted.
Editing with a tablet has also made Brown more efficient. thanks to the Intous5’s custom- izable expressKeys, he’s able to pull up com- monly used functions instantly with the press of button. "I really like that the keys can be cus- tomized for each program or plug in used and that the tablet is smart enough to recognize when I move from one program to another, so I’m not stuck with just one set of custom ex- pressKeys for a particular program." Given that he’s editing through large batches of images— and usually playing catch up—the efficiency gains have been enormous. "I’m about five times more efficient now than I was when I was using a mouse."
A True Connection
Since ditching the mouse, Brown has grown to appreciate a subtle benefit of tablet/pen edit- ing, one that may not be as quantifiable as effi- ciency gains or the accurate placement of image effects, but is powerful nonetheless. "the pen, from an artist’s standpoint, is a much more natu- ral extension of the arm than a mouse. When I’m editing with the pen, I feel much more a part of the image—I feel more connected. It just flows." It’s this creative synergy between the image on the screen and the stylus in the hand that em- powers Brown’s photo editing as he gives Mother nature just the lightest of makeovers.