Replacing The Sky

E9 Final

Located in Deer Lodge Montana, this EMD E9 was a locomotive that pulled passenger trains for the once-mighty Milwaukee Road.

Bankrupt in 1985 and ultimately absorbed into the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Milwaukee left behind the legacy of a scrappy continental railroad that chose to do things their own way – along with miles of artifacts across the Western landscape. Depending on who you talk with, the demise of the Milwaukee Road was due to bad management or changing times.

Probably a lot of both.

In 2012 I read a blog post about editing interesting photos that had uninteresting elements (tried to find the article again but no luck). The case in point was a picture that the writer had taken of the Cyclone Roller Coaster on Coney Island; it had an interesting perspective, but because of overall lighting the sky was mostly blown out and had no detail. In the post he talked about how he could edit out the sky and replace it with something with more character, like dramatic clouds. The project got me thinking that in my archives there had to be a few shots that could be edited in the same way.

And the E9 shot was the first one I thought of.

The reason was this: the original photo was well exposed on the nose of the locomotive, but suffered from a very bright sky behind it. Not surprising, since the photo was taken with my camera phone. In any case it seemed like a good candidate to merge a couple of photos and make a good one. Adding to the fire was a fundraising campaign being conducted by the Cascade Rail Foundation, to bring a historic Milwaukee Road locomotive to their restored railroad depot in South Cle Elum WA.

I thought maybe I could create something to donate, so they could sell and benefit from the proceeds.

The biggest hurdle I had was trying to get rid of the old sky. Initially I first tried by changing the sky color to one hue and then setting the color to transparency; that didn’t work, mainly because it only made the locomotive transparent while preserving the color I wanted to remoe. I also watched a tutorial video on Youtube, where the person used the equivalent of an eraser to get rid of the stuff he didn’t want. That technique seemed to work for him but didn’t allow me enough control around the edges between the sky and the locomotive. I tried different file types and two different editors. Each tool had a different hurdle to overcome. Help Files for each program – GIMP and Adobe Photoshop Elements 8 – weren’t much help at all. I was either using the wrong verbage to search solutions, or didn’t know what I was doing.

But I sure knew what I wanted.

In the end – after nearly a full afternoon of trial and error – I was finally successful with the following steps:

  1. Change sky in train picture to a single color
  2. Open the cloud picture in GIMP
  3. Open train picture as a “Layer” over the cloud picture
  4. Use the GIMP “Fuzzy Selection Tool” to select the entire sky in the train picture.
  5. Choose “Color To Alpha” to remove the color from the train picture.
  6. “Flatten” image to merge the two layers together

After that I converted the photo to black and white using Pixlr-O-Matic, using one of the filters with extra contrast. The resulting image was then saved as a JPEG file at 360 dots per inch (dpi) to allow for larger prints.

Sure, if someone looks really close at the outline of the locomotive, a trace can be seen between the train and the sky. I mentioned it to a couple of people; one person said, “I see it, and notice that kind of thing in edited photos, but yours doesn’t bug me.” Phew. In a later revision I went in and softened the line.

16x20s of this improved train picture were ordered and looked great!

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Old Photos Revisited

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February 2011 – Olympus Stylus 410 Point & Shoot

Going through the archives this morning – while looking for a photo to use on my Facebook wall, I came across this 2011 picture of my son playing pool.

There was no special reason for the capture, other than to get a picture of him.  I never intended to make “something artsy.”  What I ended up with however was unexpected and looked kind of cool, showing the track of his shot in slow motion.  The whole scene was captured in half a second, with a simple hand-held 4MP point & shoot camera purchased off Craigslist for $35:

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At the time this Olympus Stylus 410 was my only digital camera; my higher-end Olympus C4040 had died in 2009 and this one was procured to fill the void until I could find something better.  The pictures taken with the 410 weren’t the best quality, but they were something.  It documented our family times, and was always reliable.  I did have plenty of film cameras, but it was pretty hard to beat the convenience of this little silver bullet.  The camera itself was small, light, and still handy to have around for pictures that don’t need to be 850 Magoogapixels (we still have it, and it still works).  A couple months later I bought a Canon Powershot S70, and then replaced them both with a Canon 20D DSLR a year later.

The pictures taken with the Stylus 410 were mostly forgotten.

But because I’m a visual guy, I could never completely leave them alone.  The picture I ended up posting on Facebook this morning was taken on the same vacation with the same point & shoot, depicting an ocean scene at sundown that cleaned up pretty well using simple editing tools. It was testament to what I’ve learned about post editing in the last couple years, as I was able to use some tricks I didn’t know about back then.  Composition also makes a huge difference, even with point & shoot photos.  The results were so satisfying in fact, that I revisited the rest of the file folder from February 2011 to see if I could work some edits into another photo.

This billiards shot popped out at me.

In its original format, the colors were overly warm – due to the indoor lighting and slow shutter speed.  But the ball track and the existence of one red ball in the middle drew me in.  Although it was a big fuzzy and discolored, the image to me was still compelling.  Making it black & white would have been too simple and, quite frankly, would take delicate detail out of the image.  No, a “toning” was needed.  So I clarified the picture a bit, then added some contrast and vignetting, before cooling off the colors and desaturating it just a tad.  The resulting work was more interesting than the original:

Ball Track

Same shot edited and filtered

I love going through the older stuff.

Often I find images I had forgotten about or discarded mentally due to the image quality. Sometimes, not all times, I can edit them using my current skill levels and make something decent out of them. Others remain untouched longer, possibly waiting for better tools or better skills. The key is to always learn and always have fun!

Long Lasting Art Supplies

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So I bought an assortment of Tombo brush pens back between 1995 and 1997. They are actually combo pens: brush on one side and stubby pen tip on the other.  Very versatile, very colorful.  I used them heavily for a couple years and then stashed them. A week ago I found them in a drawer and thought to myself, “These might come in handy for the postcards I draw.” But after nearly two decades would they work?

Yep…they do!

I almost didn’t believe when I saw the color flowing off the brush like I have purchased them yesterday.  With all the dried-up ballpoint pens I have laying around the house, it’s sure nice to have some quality art gear.  Is this a thumbs up for Tombo art pens?

Yep…sure is!

Under The Surface

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Sometimes reality is hidden, ever so faintly, under a veil of quiet solace.  Maybe that reality is good.  Maybe that reality is something which should remain hidden.  It might bring comfort. Or cause shame.  What’s below the skin is a compilation of mind, body, and past experience.

What’s your reality?

Photo: Canon Rebel G film SLR with 28-90mm lens – April 2012

David’s Art From Squares

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30 years apart – David’s on top from early 2013, and mine from senior year of high school 1982.

“David, did you do this?”

I pulled a crumpled drawing from his backpack.

“Yeah, before Winter break. I still need to fill it in.”

It reminded me immediately of an art project I did for school in 1982, making a layout of boxes of varying sizes in a variety of colors.

It’s not the first time.

Couple years ago he did a drawing that reminded us of one done by his great uncle Doug, who died in 1970. While he doesn’t seem to have a lot of interest in art, I’m happy to see that he enjoys doing things like this.

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I Made My Teacher What?

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Photo from Clare_and_Ben (Creative Commons)

I once gave my 5th Grade teacher the most embarrassing home made gift ever…

For Christmas 1975 I proudly presented him with a paperweight, made out of a Colt 45 can found in a ditch. Efforts to make it gifty included massaging out a dent with a screwdriver blade; that worked well…I only punctured the can twice. After the body work was done, the can was filled with small rocks as ballast.

I’m sure he was thrilled.

Now I’m just mortified, but writing about it did make me laugh!

Cadillac In The Wasteland [1979]

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In the late 1970s I had a paperback book named Car Sinister, which was a collection of short sci-fi stories that were focused on cars. In one of the stories a car got pregnant, and the offspring looked like two different ones. Another story – which gave the book its title – was about a car that ruled the desert and attacked all who came within driving distance. I don’t remember much else about the book.

But I remember the cover.

It looked like my drawing above from 1979. The cover was of course better than my rendition, but in any case I wanted to draw it for myself. My version was done in pencil on the back of recycled paper from my Mom’s office – presumably some kind of ballot for a committee meeting.  I made the headlights into eyes.  The hood louvers were based on the design from a 1966 Chevy Malibu SS.  In art class at the time, we had been working on perspective; this was perfect subject matter for practice.

The mid-50s Cadillac remains one of my all-time favorite cars.

I would own one today; two-door, four-door, hearse, airport taxi – doesn’t matter. That front end design with its huge bulby bumpers and egg-crate grill are part of classic American design. Yes, they were heavy. Yes, they were somewhat underpowered. But drive up to an event in one even today and you will get a response. Usually favorable.

Maybe not so much, if it’s packing heat like Car Sinister though!

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