Rough Edges

The streets and back alleys of Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood are rich with texture, literally and figuratively. Worn brick, surprising architectural juxtapositions, and the curious traces left by passers by are all fodder for the curious photographer.

Unlike the cities of Europe or even the eastern US, Seattle’s history began fairly recently, with active settlement getting underway about 160 years ago. A city of wooden buildings grew up on the logging industry, and then the combustibility of wood took the city down, in the “Great Fire” of 1889. It was quickly built back up, this time with brick, and many of those sturdy old structures still stand in Pioneer Square, where Seattle’s moody beauty come into its own.

It was a mid January afternoon and the goal was simply to wander around Pioneer Square, take photos, and enjoy the day. The weather was far from ideal, with dull, overcast skies and glare, so my processing choices were based on bringing more life to the images and involved more effects like infrared than I typically use. Below I’ll describe the “where” or “what” of the photographs and talk about processing decisions.



























The Photos:

  1. A photographer sets up a shot in an alley near Pioneer Square.  Processing: The highlights are blown out in the original, so I recovered some of the overexposed areas in Lightroom first. The image needed more punch, or a more graphic look. Settling on an infrared filter in Color Efex, I chose this off-kilter color style because I thought it suited the surroundings.
  2. A “Cash for your Banksy” poster with an L.A. phone number, posted in a Seattle alley? I’m still scratching my head about that one!  Processing: The original had too much going on and lacked focus. Again, I chose a color infrared effect in Color Efex. The color shift brought out the Banksy flyer and “TOM” graffiti nicely, but blackened the brick, so I lightened up the shadows and blacks a bit in Lightroom.
  3. What’s left of the old brick paving still gathers cigarette butts in this alley.  At the end of the block is Merrill Place, a renovation of a clutch of hundred-year-old buildings into retail space and condos. I bet the young urban professionals who buy a tony 1 -3 bedroom unit (paying mid to upper six figures) are the envy of their peers. We have an influx of new residents, a booming economy, and a construction boom in Seattle. The city was crowned “Crane Capitol of America” for two years running, with 58 cranes stabbing the skyline as of July, 2017.  Processing: The original was so dull that I wasn’t going to use it, but after seeing how well the infrared effect enhanced other images, I tried it again. To further emphasize the dark mystery of the alley I softened the focus, using the Color Efex “Glamor glow” filter. Then I added a vignette in Lightroom.
  4. Share a bike on the fly using the app on your phone, and you’ll help LimeBike and Spin grow their revenue! You’ll be doing good for the planet, too. Your first ride is free, after that it’s just $1/half hour. When you reach your destination, just leave the bike “anywhere responsible” and close the wheel lock. Next time you need a bike, your app will lead you to the nearest one. That’s how shared bikes work, and the trend is growing. Here, the competing company colors of two bikes left in an alley made a nice picture. I didn’t move them an inch!  Processing: A garbage bin marred the original so I cropped heavily to focus in on the bikes and reflections. I should have framed it better in the first place.  To emphasize the wonderful colors I used a film effect in Color Efex: Kodak Ektachrome 400X Pro. I lightened the center of the image slightly, and added a little vignetting in Lightroom.
  5. This photograph brings together three Pioneer Square themes: handsome old brick buildings, hanging flower baskets, and construction. Tarps are a recurring subject in my photography and I’m always on the lookout for them; for me, the tarp in front of the building doesn’t hurt the picture.  Processing: Silver Efex was used to convert to black and white, using the “Full Contrast & Structure” filter, Ilford PanX Plus 50 film simulation, and selenium toning. Back in Lightroom, blacks were darkened a bit and a slight vignette was added.
  6. Seattle Steam’s old smokestack is a welcome interruption in the cube-based skyline. When Seattle’s “Great Fire” of 1889 destroyed much of this area, companies like Seattle Steam took advantage of lucrative opportunities to rebuild the infrastructure. Over the years, Seattle Steam has gone through several owners and iterations, but the company still provides steam heat to many businesses and residences. Coal and oil are fuels of the past here; natural gas is preferred, and recently the company’s carbon footprint was reduced by 60% after installing equipment to use biomass – wood waste! – to heat the boilers. That’s coming full circle for a logging town!  Processing: Silver Efex was used to convert to black and white, using the “Fine Art High Key” filter, a Kodak 100 Tmax Pro film simulation and selenium toning. In Lightroom I cropped, darkened the exposure a little, increased the clarity, and sharpened.
  7. Perhaps there’s a restaurant in this old brick building, given the serious exhaust duct work.  Processing: This image is all about that beautiful duct, the way it contrasts with the brick, and its curve. I converted to black and white in Silver Efex; I don’t remember which settings I used. Back in Lightroom, a few minor adjustments included smoothing the tones on the duct slightly.
  8. I like the way these two older buildings follow the bend of the street and I’m surprised they haven’t been torn down (yet).  Processing: This poorly lit image went through several versions before I decided the sepia tones (a Lightroom preset) worked best. I adjusted the tone curve, opening up the shadows, then lightened the garage door and street, and darkened the upper right. I cropped to eliminate extraneous “stuff” and used Lightroom “Transform” to straighten building edges that appeared to lean.
  9. There’s that photographer again, framing a shot of the rail tracks that feed freight and passengers into and out of Seattle.  Processing: For consistency with the first photo of the photographer (actually my son) I used one of the colored infrared filters in Color Efex, which turned the green-leaved tree into a pink-blooming winter wonder. I added a lightened vignette in Lightroom.
  10. A heavy scrim of tree branches obscures one of Seattle’s landmarks, the building with the peaked roof line. Finished in 1914, the Smith Tower is the oldest skyscraper in town, and was for many years the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.  Processing: The photo was taken with my phone because I was traveling light, with just one lens. It wasn’t wide enough to capture what I wanted here, but the camera lens is. I cropped somewhat on both sides, decreased exposure and contrast, and made adjustments to saturation and luminance of each individual color. Because it was getting dark when the photo was taken, noise reduction was needed along with sharpening, both in Lightroom.
  11. A dock at the Seattle Ferry Terminal, where passengers walk or drive onto ferries to West Seattle, Bainbridge Island, Vashon Island or Bremerton, a town on the Kitsap Peninsula. It’s a pleasure to walk over to the waterfront from Pioneer Square and take in the views, where the skies over the water are ever changing.  Processing: The blue-toned, contrasty look comes from converting the photo to black and white first, then adding a color infrared filter in Color Efex to the black and white image.
  12. The shiny newcomer wedging itself into Seattle’s skyline is the F5 Tower. Each floor is a different size. Rainwater collection, rooftop solar power, and glass similar to that used at One World Trade Center in New York that both absorbs and reflects sunlight, are Gold LEED certification features. The offices will house F5 Networks, a tech company.  Processing: The original photo was all about the mix of old and new buildings with the F5 Tower in the background, but the composition was just too crowded and needed to be simplified. I cropped a lot out, zeroing in on the tower’s facade. Unfortunately, I have forgotten how I made the rest of the changes!
  13. Late afternoon sun sidles through the storm clouds over Puget Sound, seen from the ferry terminal. That could be the ferry from Bremerton coming in. The rugged, snow-covered Olympic Mountains seen on the horizon lie between Seattle and the coast, to our east. With the Cascade Range to Seattle’s west and Mount Rainier rising up to the southwest, mountain vistas provide a majestic frame for the city…when they aren’t obscured by clouds!  Processing: This photo just needed subtle adjustments in Lightroom, such as softening the clouds at the top by using the graduated filter to reduce contrast, using it again to slightly darken the upper corners, and adjusting luminance in most of the colors, individually.

I don’t use filters in Color Efex as much as I did for this batch of photos, and I don’t convert to black and white as often as I did here, but I enjoyed using the effects to add interest to many photos that tended to be flat, due to overcast skies. At the waterfront, conditions improved, and the final shot’s colors stood well on their own. 












Thread-like pieces of wetland plants are caught on last year’s reeds and drift in the current, at the outflow of Lake Sammamish where it empties into the Sammamish River. Bald Eagles keep watch from the treetops, mergansers dive for fish, and a Great Blue Heron stalks the river edge.




Some of these were shot with in-camera filters – soft focus and dramatic tone. Some were processed later using Onone’s Perfect Photo program, others in Lightroom. What I didn’t do that day was bring a polarizing filter – shooting into the water on a sunny day, that would have helped reduce the glare. Oops! So I tried to work with the glare, playing with different effects.






Mid-winter days offer no pretty flowers, but the arc of drifting water defined by errant grasses is lovely in itself. And after you get home, changing up the photo processing can be another way to beat the winter doldrums. Below, converting to black and white, and next, adding texture layers.









Experimenting With Free Effects

People can get pretty worked up about how much processing is appropriate in digital photography. There are purists who aim for getting the image exactly right in the camera and making as few changes as possible on the computer. There are people who view processing as another phase of the work, and people who embrace every new program and effect that comes along without thinking critically about about whether or not it improves their photographs.

Purists have a point when they claim that we can get too sloppy with our shooting when we know that almost anything can be fixed in a photo processing program. But a bad photo is a bad photo, and no amount of processing will change that.

It seems to me there’s no need to go overboard in either direction. I’m not a fan of the all too common overdone HDR look or other heavy handed processing, but I really have benefited from image processing programs. When I want a fairly realistic look, I try to use applications like levels, luminance, and sharpening in Lightroom or Photoshop with a light touch to enhance my photo and bring the image closer to what was in my mind’s eye.

It’s also fun to play around with processing effects that take an image farther away from its beginnings in the camera.  Sometimes experimenting with effects loosens up my creative vision. Here is an example of using effects like textures to introduce a different feeling into a photograph:

For this photo I used OnOne’s Perfect Effects 4, a free program you can download on the OnOne website (no, I’m not getting anything for this; I just think a free program that works well is good to share).  I added a texture called “Warm Concrete Subtle” to a photograph of the shadow of a leaf that was skeletonized by insects.

The program is really easy to use. Each time you want to make a change you click “Add” and a new layer is created. Then you scroll through the effects for one you like, click on it, and there it is. If you don’t like it, just click “delete.”  You can apply a variety of effects  – and reverse them –  without damaging your photo (the program automatically creates a copy to work on). So why not experiment?

Here’s the original. You’ll notice I cropped it a lot to focus on the shadow and texture:

The photo was taken with an older model Samsung phone and sent to my email. Then I and downloaded it and imported to Lightroom. In Lightroom I right clicked on the image to “Edit in Perfect Effects 4.” It’s a fairly quick approach, with just minutes between taking a picture and having a final image.

You can just click on the Perfect Effects Program and open up your photo there – even faster! But I like to keep my photos organized in Lightroom so I take the extra steps to put them there first.

In the next photo I used a strong vignette called “Dark Glow Vignette” and a “True Film” effect called “Colorchrome” that tweaks the colors and contrast to give photos a look reminiscent of slide film.

Each effect or adjustment can be used at any strength from 1% to 100% – you just move a slider back until you like the look. I often apply adjustments at less than 100%.

Here’s the original. The difference is not huge in this case, but I think it’s significant.

There are HDR, vintage, “movie” and monochrome effects like black and white, sepia, red or green filters, etc. There are adjustments that smooth skin in portraits, make city pictures  sharper, or give desert pictures more of that warm desert glow.

You can put borders around your images, too. In the photo below I used a round black border at a low opacity (I just moved the slider back to about 15%)  so it’s like a shadow or a bevel. I also used two vintage effects.

Here’s the original:


Here’s a photograph of fern fiddleheads  that I used several effects on – I used one, called “Angel Glow”, two times, to heighten the effect. Then I also used the “Skin Smoother” to increase the smoothness even more, and two other effects that alter the colors.

Here’s the original. I do like the colors in the original, but it’s interesting to see how different an image can look when the color is completely different.

Here’s a photo processed with a vintage effect called “Mayor” and a contrast adjustment:

The original:

“Tattered Paper Gray” texture,  “Magic City”,  “Brandon”, and a thin black border give this shot of snowy New York rooftops a different atmosphere from the original:

Here’s the original:

For the photo below I used a vintage effect called “Robin”, a texture called “Cool Concrete”, a glow effect called “Orton Hears a Who” and  “Sloppy Border 4”. Here’s the original:

In the photo below I used four effects and a border – two different “Glow” effects, a vignette and a vintage effect. The resulting image was too dark overall so I chose to brush in highlights at 60% to parts of the tree and building. Many of the adjustments can be used selectively, on just a portion of the image. And it took less than 10 seconds to pick an adjustment and brush size and then pull the brush over the image. If it’s not quite right, click on edit and “undo”  and try again.

Here’s the original photo:

Here’s a case where strong effects were used to emphasize an image.  An HDR effect, a “Turbo Boost” contrast adjustment, a vignette, and other effects give this photo of a Northwest Coast indigenous sculpture a graphic look.

Here’s the original:

The header photo was also processed with Perfect Effects 4. And in case you didn’t know, there are many free effects to be found on the web. Just google “free photo effects” or “free textures” and you’ll see what I mean.  What I like about this program though, is that it works with Photoshop and Lightroom, and it includes basic adjustments, such as contrast or sharpening, along with effects – all in one place and all easy to apply.

These effects are clearly a matter of taste – I understand if some of the results I’ve shown aren’t for you – but maybe you’ll be encouraged to experiment with image processing, and I think that can’t hurt.  You might discover new ways to look at or think about your work. And many effects lend themselves to things like cards or books or T shirts or…well, ’tis the season!

Maybe you’ll have an inspiration for a last minute gift.