Cleaning the Background

Usually I don’t like wildlife images with a subject on an absolutely “creamy” background unless this effect was obtained in a natural way — with a lens and not through postprocessing. When the background isn’t detracting from the subject, I rather prefer that the objects in it, such as vegetation, soil, or rocks, are blurred but still a little recognisable than when it is looking just like a homogenous colour backdrop. In certain cases, however, I agree that the background has to be tweaked after the shot. More often it is necessary in the images of small subjects created with use of a macro lens. Since narrow aperture and consequently greater depth-of-field are typically required in macro photography, the not very distant objects in the background may appear in the image not blurred enough. Such photographs are then criticised as having a disturbing, “busy”, background — when the separation of the main subject isn’t sufficiently provided.

Macro photographers often use artificial backdrops — prints or colour paper — that they put behind the subject before making the shot. Obviously, this is possible only with static or slow-moving and not shy subjects, such as flowers or caterpillars. In most other situations the background can’t be controlled that well, and the photographer is confronted with a dilemma — to leave it as is, or to improve it in a graphic editing software. Sometimes the background looks so “dirty” that there is no other choice than to work on it in Photoshop. In my photography practice this need usually arises when I have photographed and underwater subject with a macro lens.

I use a small water tank that I built extra for this purpose from acrylic glass. Since I currently have only one such tank, it is quite wide, so that I can put also larger fishes and amphibians in it. For small animals, there is too much space, and this causes two problems. First, it is difficult to compose an image because the animal has too much freedom to move along the front glass and quickly leaves the view field of the lens. Second, the subject tends to swim away from the front glass thus leaving the area in focus. To solve these problems, I use dividers which are also made of acrylic glass. One of them limits the distance from the front glass and is made non-reflective — to absorb flash bursts.

When I photograph water animals in this tank, I fill it with clear water. Nonetheless, swimming dust and dirt particles can’t be avoided completely: Even when the water was absolutely clean they emerge as soon as the animal and the decoration objects are there. These particles appear in the photographs due to magnification by the macro lens. Air bulbs are a much worse problem: When the water was fresh and cold, they remain there for hours and appear in the photographs. When they are out of focus, it is even worse because they look like snow flakes. All this you can see in the picture below.

Of course, as in so many images captured with macro lenses, the background in this one looks very homogenous, and the foreground appears as if sticked on it. However, there is nothing wrong because the same effect can be observed in macro photographs that didn’t undergo the post-processing described in this article, i.e. that remained as shot.  Also, with this photograph of the newt, if we compare the original with the result, we would recognise that in the original the foreground was also looking “sticked”. The only difference was that the background was extremely messy. In the process described in this article I solved this issue, and, as you see below, the result was worth the efforts.


Read the complete article Cleaning the Background.

Inconsistency in Colour Display of Digital Screens: Can There Be a Solution?

This is an excerpt of an article that I wrote some time ago. See the complete text and illustrations on my website: Nature Images by Arthur Tiutenko – Articles: Colour Madness

No. The problem that we discussed here is caused by the variety of technical devices being used by people. There is nothing bad in this variety itself, and we should regard it as a completely normal effect of technical progress and competition between hardware and software developers and manufacturers. However, if we can’t completely solve the problem of inconsistent colour display, it doesn’t mean that we should just give up. The following measures may help us to live with it and to reduce its impact:

1. Work with calibrated screens.

Begin with yourself: ensure that the colours that you see and produce in image editing process are correct. The best way to it is to calibrate your computer screen. I work with my images on two computers. Each of them has two displays, i.e. I see my images on 4 screens. Though all of them are of very high quality, I calibrated them immediately after purchase and re-calibrate now and then. I need it because I want my images to look the same on all four screens and want to be certain that their colours are objectively correct, i.e. as much as possible correspond to real-world colours.

Some people believe that it is enough just to work with a good screen. This is only partially true. Of course, a good display is what we always should start with. In my opinion, for work with photos a good monitor is even more important than a powerful computer or software. If you are a photographer, it is wise not to save money with it. You may not buy Adobe Photoshop and use GIMP instead, your computer may be old and slow because you have no budget for an upgrade. In that case you will just need more time to work with your images if the processor is slow or the software is not very sophisticated — but the results will still be good. Things may be completely different when your monitor is a crap. When you work on an image you make it look good on your screen. Making an image match a bad display does not guarantee that it will appear good when the monitor is of top-quality. When first-class monitors cost 2.000 – 4.000 €, you wouldn’t do anything wrong if you pay at least 500 – 700 € for a monitor — which will be if not excellent then at least just good. Further discussion of the requirements that a monitor of a photographer has to meet would exceed the scope of this article, so I would not elaborate on them here. The quality and technical features of a monitor correspond roughly to its price, i.e. you can normally expect from a monitor that costs at least 500 € it will be good enough for image processing.

The next step will be to install a colour profile for the monitor. The best way is to create a customized one as we discussed above.

2. Persevere the colour managed workflow.

Here I am assuming that the operating system of your computer is either Mac OS or Windows. Other OS, such as Linux, may lack colour management features or support them only partially. If you use Photoshop, configure it properly in the Color Settings dialog. If it is a different image editing software, find out how to setup colour management in it.

3. Always publish tagged images.

I’ve seen advices that photos that are to be published in the Internet shouldn’t be provided with colour profiles at all. People who give them are usually arguing that the standardization of browsers goes towards rendering of untagged images with sRGB colour space. Thus there is no need to attach a profile to the image file: it will only increase its size, but the browser will default to sRGB without it and render correct colour. This argumentation is wrong or at least outdated.

The development of browsers and operating systems is going just in opposite direction — towards colour management. It was added to the recent versions of Windows, and to Mozilla Firefox. New browsers — Apple Safari and Google Chrome — are also colour managed, both in Mac OS and Windows. Internet Explorer that lacks colour management is the only browser that works like those writers are suggesting: it displays all images by default with sRGB colour space. But this browser exists only in Windows. Opera that ignores ICC profiles too, defaults to sRGB only in Windows. In Mac OS it uses the current monitor profile, and would render the colours of the same image differently.

4. Find a compromise.

Check the images on as many screens as possible and, if the colours somewhere appear bad, adjust them till they will be looking more or less acceptable on all screens you are checking with. Use only good screens: adjusting the images for bad displays is a really bad idea which was already discussed above.

5. Be aware of your target group of viewers.

It is neither possible nor necessary that your photographs attract all people on the Earth. Like with printed images that you sell, give or just show concrete persons, only certain audience will interested in your images when they will be published in the Internet or distributed on an optical disc. Well, the Internet audience may be very unpredictable and heterogenous. But occasional visitors of your website are normally not those people whom you as a photographer want to impress with your work. More likely you would want to show your images to other photographers, publishers, or other potential buyers. You can expect that they will be using good screens — often better than yours. In that case I would prepare my images only for this audience. I would then either ignore the technical issues that other viewers may have with my images or restrict their access, i.e. redirect their browsers to a page explaining that the online gallery can be accessed only with specific browsers, screen resolution, etc.

6. Don’t take it too serious.

Usually the variations in colour rendering between different browsers, operating systems and displays are quite minor, so that most people even won’t notice any. This is always only you who exactly knows how the colour should be, hence a colour shift that is obvious to you may not be so to other person. In that case, unless the colours are absolutely horrible, just stay cool and do as if everything is all right.