Learning to edit : A review of Bruce Percy's Advanced Photoshop Curves
Loch Coruisk, Isle of Skye, home of the Uraisg
Loch Coruisk, Isle of Skye, home of the Uraisg

Being primarily a mountaineer with a camera, it’s only been in the last two or three years I’ve begun to explore ‘photography’ in a serious way. Up until then I relied on my wee Sony Cybershot and although its noise reduction is draconian its best feature was exposure lock, allowing me to compose for both the scene and my mood. A tiny wee camera that went everywhere with me and allowed me to gain a commendation a couple of years ago.

‘Upgrading’, if that’s even a meaningful word in photography saw me move to a Nikon D5500 and a selection of lenses along with Lightroom, Photoshop and Nik Collection. I loved the images I could create in post processing using Silver Efex Pro 2 but over time I grew uneasy with it. I didn’t understand what it was doing. With Lightroom’s new luminance masking I started to see how I could manipulate the raw image in different areas but I couldn’t get it near enough to the output of Silver Efex. During this period of angst I’d been following Bruce Percy’s blog as I liked his photographs, shot on Fuji Velvia film and processed digitally. I thought they were ‘monastic’ in their (tonal) simplicity but said so much with so little in the composition. During a recent trip to the Cuillin mountains on the Isle of Skye a storm blew in and highlighted Marsco amidst scouring rain and cloud and the minimalism in the landscape reminded me of Bruce’s images and I took the photograph, knowing there would be potential in the raw data, having been influenced by his images. I’m still working on it but with a much better understanding of what I’m doing, thanks to this course.

There are two schools of thought, it would appear, when it comes to gaining experience and confidence in photography. One is book on a workshop, which can be very expensive and watch and learn from the instructor in the field (if the weather is with you). The other is just get out there and do it. Watch youtube videos, read books, learn for yourself. I’ve no doubt a workshop is a great idea (I’ve picked up tips from professional programmers on workshops no book would contain) but I tend towards the ‘do it yourself’ philosophy for photography but now and then I’ll buy a book. A few weeks ago I bought Bruce Percy’s Advanced Photoshop Curves - The Art Of Tonal Adjustment.

The book covers tonal interpretation in a 52 page PDF accompanied by Bruce’s PSD files to practice on as well as seven private videos accessible via password on his website, where you can watch and listen to Bruce applying the techniques from the book. For 19.99 I felt this bundle was fantastic value for money. The curves tool is explained in depth, in both the book and the accompanying videos as well as how it affects contrast in the image. I was surprised at what happens to local contrast when using curves, something I wouldn’t have realised without this course. It really was an aha! moment to see Bruce explore and manipulate the images while explaining how the shape of the curve can remove contrast in certain tones while you’re increasing contrast in the target tones. I found this part of the course very helpful indeed. In fact it went a long way to explaining why I couldn’t get anywhere near the output of tools like Silver Efex Pro. It was all down to how the shape of the curve affects local contrast, in a way I wouldn’t have looked for, or even understood. The book and videos explore at length the use of the hand-tool eyedropper to anchor key tones while editing others and the more I used this the more I found myself becoming immersed in the landscape. Taking the eye dropper for a walk through the mountains really brought to life the concepts of related and unrelated tones. Relationships I wouldn’t have spotted due to the way we see. Tones that looked dissimilar were actually the same and realising this led to more natural edits. I found the section on ‘narrowing the tonal selection’ to be even more of an aha! moment. I thought this section, in both the book and video was the moment it all came together for me. The rest of the book is a set of ‘recipes’ for looking for tonal relationships and either strengthening or weakening them, depending on the image and what you want to say in the image and you can use the included PSD files to follow along.

I used my own raw images instead. I always find working parallel to a course is much better than following it exactly. There will be instances of things not working such as tones not doing what you expect and it’s in these nooks and crannies of uncertainty that your knowledge is really pushed, reaching a deeper, personal understanding you might not get by following the course verbatim. They are beautiful images however and I did practice on the first one. There are small tips in the videos I suspect you get from going on a good workshop. Tips you’re unlikely to get from texts (unless it’s this book) or blogs or whatever. Having read the book, watched the videos and practiced on one of Bruce’s images I felt confident enough to tackle my own raw images.

Bruce teaches tonal interpretation, how to decide what you want to do before you begin editing. Prior to this it was a case of set the sliders in Lightroom, open in Photoshop, twiddle with Silver Efex Pro 2, bit of sharpening, send to print, done. Then Silver Efex Pro was abandoned and I thought, what now? Thanks to this course I’m now gaining an understanding of what Silver Efex Pro was doing. Contrast in different tonal areas of the image, matching tones, making tones dissimilar etc. I was surprised at how near I could get to Silver Efex Pro output just using these tonal techniques. I say ‘just’ but these techniques are distillations of years of experience and experiment which I’m benefitting from. The course is entirely Photoshop, which may make some people uneasy as there seems to be a perception that it’s a ‘cheat’ to use it. Lightroom uses the same engine and yet seems to be a more ‘acceptable’ tool. Who knows. All I know is I need a tool to turn raw binary data into a visionary masterpiece (ahem!) and Bruce’s course has actually allowed me to get most of the way there.

The image above is a tentative step on this journey into tonal interpretation, creating images that reflect how I see the world. I decided to see what would happen with no editing in Lightroom other than lens correction and dropping the highlights to get some definition back in the clouds. It was a gloomy day on the shore of Loch Coruisk in the heart of the Cuillin mountains on the Isle of Skye and I wanted to bring that out, along with the calmness in the loch on the largely windless afternoon of flat light. Using Bruce’s techniques I walked the mounatins again, this time with my curves eye-dropper to see where each part of the landscape fell on the histogram. I wanted contrast and thanks to Bruce’s techniques, I now knew where. After some creative sharpening using the high pass filter with overlay blend mode, the result is at the top of this post. Below is my editing session in Photoshop for the image (click to see a larger version):

Tonal editing in Photoshop

Although it’s not fully finished I’m very pleased with it, as well as with my interpretation of the tones. I was restrained. If I’d been using Silver Efex Pro no doubt I would have had much more micro-contrast and far more dramatic skies but I found that using these tonal techniques, the result is far more natural. More ‘real’. Yet still me. Sometimes cranking it out on Silver Efex Pro somehow removes me from the landscape. It’s a bit too dramatic (I get carried away!) but now there is space for me in this image to return and listen to the cry of the Uraisg, the mythical half-man half-goat that lived at the wild and remote head of Loch Coruisk. I’m following him for my next book but that’s a story for another post. Thanks to Bruce’s course I feel more at home in my image. More able to find the creatures that live there.