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Posts Tagged ‘gimp’

In May 2007, I was at Rydal Mount, the house Wordsworth occupied from 1813, until his death in 1850. While I was there, I took this photograph:

Rydal Mount, May 2007

But cameras don’t take images the way we see them. They make a recording that might be faithful in detail, but not in the mood. That has more to do with imagination and emotion at the moment we press the shutter. For the technically minded, I used a 12 megapixel Canon A640, set on aperture priority, with the lens stopped down to F8. At ISO 100, the shutter managed 1/125 second. On the plus side, the picture is evenly exposed, and sharp, no clipped highlights – a thing to which the A640, in common with many digital cameras of the period, was prone. On the downside, it looks flat, and dull, and certainly not as I remember it.

What I want to do is go back in time, to 2007, take this old photograph and see if we can liven it up a bit, using the tools and techniques we have now, that I didn’t have then. I want to make it look more like I saw it, and felt it on the day. To achieve this, I’ll be using two pieces of free, but powerfully sophisticated software: Luminance HDR, and GIMP,

Of course, the common objection among photographers is that if we have to manipulate an image to make it shine, then we should have taken a better image in the first place. That’s fair enough, and I shall always bow to greater skill. But I’m an amateur, not a pro, and if I can salvage a picture from the mess I’ve made of it, it’s all good.

The world’s earliest known, surviving, photograph was taken around 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, using a technique called heliography:

World’s earliest surviving photograph – Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/View_from_the_Window_at_Le_Gras.

Image manipulation began almost at the same time, either as an aid to overcome shortcomings in rudimentary equipment, or to enhance details for artistic effect. Film negatives or glass plates would have areas scrubbed with wire wool to blur them out, and make other details prominent, and prints would be hand-tinted. Indeed, without significant image enhancement, even this grainy image of Niépce’s is barely recognisable as anything at all. But back to Wordsworth.

He was nearly evicted from Rydal Mount, on the whim of the rentier, Lady Anne le Flemin, who wanted it for a relative. But by now he’d developed a deep love for the place, had invested much effort and emotion in landscaping the garden, and he was understandably desperate not to lose it. But he was up against the local Aristocrat, so had to fight canny. He purchased an adjoining meadow, and let it be known he intended building on it, thus spoiling the view from Rydal Mount. He even went as far as having designs for a house drawn up. The ruse worked. The Wordsworths kept their home, and their garden.

Nearly a century after Wordsworth’s passing, the house was bought by Mary Henderson, his great-great-granddaughter. It remains in the possession of the Wordsworth family today, and is open to visitors. I’ve been a few times since 2007, but something about that morning sticks in the memory, and I was never able to capture the garden again, without people in it. My digital archive goes back 20 years, and it was while browsing I discovered the photograph. What struck me was the gap between my memory of the day, and the image. Digital images do not fade over time, of course. But something clearly happens to memory, and it’s more complex than simply fading away. Perhaps it becomes more idealised over time, or those impressions that are important to us begin to crystallise more.

Anyway, first we take our original image and load it into Luminance HDR. HDR stands for high dynamic range, which we’re not going to bother with today. All we’re going to use are the tone mapping algorithms, and apply them to this single image. Tone mapping is a way of taking what’s there – the light, the tones, the contrasts, and amplifying them, simulating the wide dynamic range of the human eye and allowing them to be displayed on a screen or in a print. Not all images are suited to the method, but one that’s well exposed with a good balance of tones and brightness to begin with will usually respond well. Then it’s just a question of fiddling about to get the effect you want. It can be overdone, and I’m as guilty as all amateurs of overcooking images. But I think this is a big improvement:

It’s lifted the various greens, brightened up the rhododendrons, and the azaleas, even uncovered some detail and texture in the rendering of the house. I’d say we were nearly there with this one, but there’s more we can do.

The garden at Rydal Mount is very much in the Romantic in style. Wordsworth, along with Southey and Coleridge, were the founders and champions of the English Romantic movement. Wordsworth was the author of its manifesto, which stands as a preface to the Lyrical Ballads. One of the tenets of Romanticism is that we should not seek to command nature. We should cooperate with it, and learn from it. Hence, the garden is very informal, flowing with the lie of the land, using natural elements for decoration, rather in the fashion of the Taoist inspired gardens of China. Does the photograph capture that? Perhaps we’re asking too much. Perhaps we’re going to end up overcooking it, now, but let’s have a look anyway.

We can add a touch of the romantic to any photograph by adding a layer of blur, or soft focus. But having just restored all that detail, it would be a shame to lose it in blurriness. What we want is something impressionist, but not too much. So we turn to a technique mastered by the photographer Michael Orton in the 1980’s. Orton experimented with superimposing photographs of the same scene, one sharp, the other deliberately defocused. As a professional fine art photographer, he was aiming at something very abstract, but the method was thereafter widely adopted by others for the impact it can add to an image. In the days of film transparencies it took a lot of technical skill and a professional darkroom to make this work, but since the digital age, anyone can do it. If you have filters on your phone camera, the chances are there’s an Orton effect among them.

We’ll be using GIMP for this bit. GIMP stands for GNU image manipulation program. GNU means it’s free and holds to a certain standard and a set of egalitarian values. GIMP is an amazingly versatile tool for a photographer. Your alternative is something like Photoshop, which, last time I checked, you couldn’t even own. You have to rent it. No thanks.

GIMP allows us to take our image, overlay a blurred copy of it, then blend the two together. There are various ways of blending, and the best one depends on the image, so we have to experiement. I most commonly use the “Soft Light” merge, or sometimes just “Overlay” with a degree of transparency. Here I find the “Multiply” option works best, with about 50% transparency. It deepens the greens, and the shadows, and lends a more dreamy feel to the image, while preserving the highlights:

We’ve perhaps lost a bit of the crackle in the detail, though, and part of the joy of that garden lies in its textures, so we bring back a bit of sharpness and texture by blending in another layer to which we’ve added a high pass filter. This basically preserves all the sharp corners, like in a line drawing. Thus, we get the impressionist blur, while the detail is still there to draw us in. The difference is subtle, on a screen, but certainly looks better as a print.

If you’ve ever done the Wordsworth thing at Grasmere, you’d be forgiven for thinking he spent his entire life at Dove Cottage. He didn’t. He was there for fourteen years, and, having, escaped its poky confines, and its gloomy light, I can well imagine his delight at discovering Rydal Mount. The EXIF data embedded in my original photograph tells me I took the picture at 10:30 am, which suggests I left the hotel after breakfast and went straight there. I’m sure it gets busier later on, but for a good hour we had the house and grounds to ourselves. There was a timeless atmosphere. I could imagine turning a corner to find the man himself in dreamy contemplation. He smiles, he nods in gentle welcome, before wandering off, counting meter, in his head.

FAREWELL, thou little Nook of mountain-ground,
Thou rocky corner in the lowest stair
Of that magnificent temple which doth bound
One side of our whole vale with grandeur rare;
Sweet garden-orchard, eminently fair,
The loveliest spot that man hath ever found,
Farewell!–we leave thee to Heaven’s peaceful care,
Thee, and the Cottage which thou dost surround.

I’m glad his ruse worked, that he didn’t actually have to say farewell to Rydal Mount, though from the depth of feeling in his poem, he clearly felt it was going to be a close run thing.

Thanks for listening. And enjoy your photography.

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