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!

Thank You Chess Club

Thank you Junior High Chess Club, for making me a better photographer.

I came to the club after school twice a week – with diligence because I loved Chess. I never won a game. In fact, Chess Club, you would typically beat me in a mere  handful of moves. Over and over. Each one of you. I was the newbie punching bag. Never able to move past that point. And through all the beatings and smug checkmates, you also said a total of 8 words to me in the weeks I attended. Eight words from no fewer than six other kids. No effort to teach, engage or encourage.

And because of that I quit Chess Club and joined the Annual Staff.

Using my Mom’s camera and unlimited black & white film supplied by the school, I took pictures of everything and got feedback from the the staff advisor. She pointed me towards what looked good and what needed to go away. She trained, engaged, and encouraged.

Her actions carried value for a lifetime.

So thank you Chess Club, for being pompous self-righteous gamers. If you hadn’t been so, I would still be stuck at a board losing my back line to a checkmate. Because of you I’m capturing life as it happens with a camera.

And I am much better off.

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!

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

[ 1979 ]

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Teaching how to draw an X-Wing Fighter

In 2010 some black and white pictures appeared in my email.

They arrived after asking my sisters if they had any Halloween photos of me as a child. When Janice sent these, it was like finding treasure; I don’t recall ever seeing them before.

In 1979 my oldest sister was attending Bethel College in St. Paul MN. She lived in an older single-story apartment with another woman. In the Spring of that year, she asked if I would come out from Seattle and teach an art class to her elementary-age students.

I was 14 years old.

Although I was only in high school, I had been drawing for ten years. Doodling and artwork is something I have enjoyed for as long as I can remember. In 1979 I was drawing a lot of airplanes, spaceships, and the like. Friends Ned and Bill would hang out and draw with me through many rainy Saturdays back then. My sister’s lesson plan: teach her kids to draw spaceships from Star Wars.

So I flew out to the Twin Cities during my Spring Break. On the flight out, I sat next to a very talkative person who was happy to engage in any sort of conversation – even with a 14-year old. I stayed with my sister in her apartment and met  her roommate plus several of her friends. That year she was student-teaching kindergartners. In the art lesson, I used photocopies of simple drawings I had already done, and showed the students how to draw X-Wing and TIE Fighters. The core of the lesson was breaking each one down into simple shapes and then having them duplicate from the shapes they knew. It worked well. I recall being very surprised that these 5 year olds were quite good at drawing already. Each one would run up to me: “How does this look Mister Clark?” To be honest, I loved every drawing they showed me.

Some of the time in St. Paul was spent just hanging out or walking around. Thankfully it didn’t snow while I was there; the sun came out most of the time, bringing the temperature into the 50s. I bought a case of my favorite Minnesota soft drink Rondo – a citrus-flavored soda – to take back with me to Seattle. I also picked up a Wayzata letterman’s jacket at a thrift store while I was there (it was stolen in Ravensdale WA the next year).

On the weekend before I went home, we drove a classic Ford Mustang owned by one of Jan’s friends, out to visit our Grandparents in Grove City MN. Somewhere between Cokato and Grove City we drove past a car that had been driven out onto a lake. The Spring thaw had begun, and the car was starting to list sideways on the ice as the lake melted underneath its weight. Grandma Martha – ever the kind soul – allowed Janice to take her picture wearing my cowboy hat; as I look at these pictures, I’d say it looked better on her than it did on me.

The camera used for these photos has a story all its own.

My sister bought her Canon 35mm not long before these photos were taken, in preparation for a summer trip to Bolivia. It had all the features of a Canon SLR of the time, with the exception of a swappable lens. It was almost stolen in La Paz Bolivia, when a thief used a knife to cut through her purse while she was in a crowd; the blade mark is still visible across the camera’s leather case.

These pictures, taken with that simple camera and probably some Kodak Tri-X Pan Film, have so much feeling. I can tell that the aperture of the lens was wide open, because the ‘depth of field’ is very shallow and focused only on the subject. She also didn’t use a flash for any of these shots, based on what I can see, and only used natural light. The more I look at them, the more I realize that my photography style nearly mimics hers: natural light and situations, capturing life as it happens.

She retired the film camera in 2009, getting a full 30 years of service before replacing it with a digital.

It’s funny how a photo can flood a person with memories. When I see the five shots above, I think of the feelings of being a 14-year old and how confusing that time can be. I haven’t thought of this trip to St. Paul in a long time, but as I think back over it now I recall that it was a lot of fun and a highlight to an otherwise dull year.

Long-lost photos will do that.

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Kindergarten Rap Session

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Grandma Martha in a Cowboy Hat

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Me in a Cowboy Hat. Grandma Martha looked better 🙂

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Favorite Fedora back in the day

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Six pack of Rondo for the road!