Adobe CC subscription: Telling the Man

If you open Adobe Photoshop in the next couple of days you will get a quick survey question as shown.

Adobe survey popup
Adobe survey popup

If you are also a small company or sole contractor, I suggest you make the same comment as mine;

Q: What would make you more likely to recommend Adobe Photoshop CC to others?

A: CC subscription that is based on time used rather than a straight monthly rent. this would prevent small contractors and other occasional users getting killed by the CC subscription model.

Adobe needs to know that occasional users of Adobe CC should have the option to buy seat hours in advance rather than paying for the same seat for the entire month. This would allow us to budget our software better (i.e. based on our actual monthly needs) rather than having to pay for unused months. Off season photographers, occasional users (or simply folks on holiday) would then have a fairer cost to foot.

It would probably also stop Adobe Photoshop being the second most pirated program after MS Office.


A Cure for Cancer

Before Cancer

It was autumn 2011. My partner was full of health and energy, and looked pretty good for someone in her late 30s.

Before #1
The ‘Don’t take Photos of me’ look, Christmas 2009, Summer 2010
Summer 2009
Summer 2009
Summer 2010
Summer 2010 (and the only selfie on howgreenisyourgarden)

The Diagnosis

She was diagnosed with cancer in late 2011. An operation was performed in early 2012, and chemotherapy treatment began soon after.

The most discomforting part of it for her was not the cancer itself: unless the tumor pulls adjacent tissue or is near a joint, cancer is often painless to begin with (but eventually fatal if left untreated, a combination that make it deadly). The worst part for her was the chemotherapy.

Important note: the following description (and the rest of the post) relates to women’s breast cancer. Effects of particular chemotherapy treatments vary widely (from minor hair thinning to the effects illustrated in this post). Treatment varies by patient age, cancer type and how long it has being there (and to a lesser extent, which country you are in). You may have radiotherapy only, which is far more targeted and therefore far less invasive than chemotherapy.

Symptoms of the Cure

How does chemotherapy feel? Remember the most drunk you ever got, and then recall the associated hangover. After chemo, you get that hangover for weeks.

Chemotherapy doesn’t involve pumping you full of poison, but in practical terms it’s not far off. Chemotherapy drugs are like vitamins in reverse. Instead of adding the essential elements that your body needs to grow and flourish, chemotherapy drugs prevent your body from absorbing those essential elements, thus stunting fast cell growth. Cancer cells are the fastest growing part of your body so it suffers most from this regime: chemotherapy works by starving and stunting cancer by denying it the nutrients it needs.

Non-cancerous but naturally fast growing parts of your body (such as hair, skin, taste and smell receptors, immune system, stomach and ovary linings, and short term memory cells) also starve with the tumor, so you will lose them (or they will stop growing and start to show signs of wear). You will look and feel differently, both for the worse.

How does chemotherapy feel? Remember the most drunk you ever got, and then recall the associated hangover. After chemo, you get that hangover for weeks. You may also get additional issues, such as constant itching or feeling hot/cold (both caused by chemo affected nerve endings). When your body begins to recover, you have a week or two of a semi-working but spaced-out body before the next chemo course.

Half way through this, she had no head hair nor eye-lashes and was constantly tired with persistent aches. Her memory and concentration were starting to go (‘chemo brain’). Hair loss from the head is one thing, but you’ve probably never considered what your nose becomes when you lose the hair in your nasal passage: a water spout.

The only solids she could stand were mashed potato and vanilla ice cream. Her sense of smell and taste were now so unusually good she could not stand anything else. I did not appreciate this until the week before when she had not been able to sleep, telling me she could smell milk, so I got up, went downstairs and opened the fridge to find a milk carton dripping.

So, anyway, one Sunday she was depressed. She told me she looked ugly. I said she looked beautiful. She said I would say that. There was only one thing for it. She may have only just got up and still in a bathrobe, but I had to cure this.

I got my camera.

Chemotherapy (click to see larger image). Shot with Sony A500
Chemotherapy #1
Chemotherapy #02
Chemotherapy #2
Chemotherapy #3
Chemotherapy #3

She had bought wigs but she didn’t feel confident about them. I said go ahead and put them on: I’ll take some photos and you can see how you look.

Long wig #1
Long wig #1

She got to like the wigs. In the week before the next chemotherapy treatment, she would have a few days of normality, and go out. Modern wigs are very good: they make you look like you have your ‘going out hair’ on all the time but with zero effort. A good trick she learned was when she was getting unwanted attention: she would lift the front of her wig just enough to make it obvious.

Short wig #02
Short wig #1
Short wig #2
Short wig #2
Short wig #04, 05
Short wig #3

This had all happened first thing in the morning, and taken about 10 minutes so far (I was shooting hand-held with only natural light so there was no setup), but she was already by now tired from all the excitement.

Short wig #5
Short wig #4

I put her to bed 30 minutes after she had got up.

Later that month, her eyebrows would fall out, as well as some of her nails. She would forget to take the anti-sickness tablets after one chemo, and that night throw up so hard and fast that she would end up with two black eyes from the pressure.

As of this writing she’s in remission and every now and again she will say ‘how did I get through all that?’. I show her these photos and say, look, you were beautiful.

And you were smiling.

Looking back: what I wish I knew at the start

The best technical cure we have is time. The earlier cancer is detected, the better the outcome.

We’ve met a few people through cancer, some of whom are unfortunately no longer here, but most who are. There is no cure for cancer and there may never be. Cancer is always a genetic disease and thus a disease of chance: you might have it, you might not, and family history (generic disposition) and lifestyle may put you further up or further down the lottery, but (for most people) it is still a lottery.  Science is making the ‘might have it’ closer to ‘might not’, but we’re a long way from ever making it ‘will not’. And anyway, cancer is not a single disease but a class of diseases. We have no less chance of curing cancer as we have of curing all viral diseases or all bacterial diseases.

The best technical cure we have is time. The earlier cancer is detected, the better the outcome. Early treatment has high success rates: it means we know where the cancer is and can be sure it has not spread nor mutated so much that it no longer reacts to chemotherapy. If we detect cancer cells this early, there’s a high chance we can remove the main tumor and/or shrink it via chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone drugs.

One particular issue she came up against was age: doctors are trained to expect high incidence of cancer from the mid-fifties onwards but do not expect it in younger patients because its occurrence there is statistically very low, particularly for breast cancer. That means if like her, you actually do have breast cancer in your late thirties it is difficult to get an initial expert diagnosis (your general physician is not an expert when it comes to cancer – the most they can do is suspect cancer and refer you to someone else for proper tests).

We know of at least two people who were told to ‘come back in six months’ because they were too young to be at risk and there was no family history. As I said, time and early diagnosis is the only true healer of cancer, and we ended up at the funeral of one of those two people because of that six month wait. If you feel you may have cancer because of suspect changes in breast or other tissue, ask to see a specialist.

Another issue we found going through the process (and sharing with others experiences) is the effect of the Hippocratic oath. Many physicians will not tell you if  a chemotherapy course has a greater chance for failure.  The modern interpretation of the oath means medics must leave the patient with a sense of hope, but this can reduce remaining physical quality of life. A doctor or surgeon may or may not tell you this based purely on their judgement, but they are duty bound to tell you if you specifically ask. If you do ask, do it in medical terms so there is no room for interpretation.  Ask ‘what is the prognosis of this treatment, given my condition’. You are not then just asking for the success rate of you as a patient (which may be subjective), but also the historic survival rare of previous patients with your condition who underwent your treatment.  If you want to know the prognosis and expected efficacy of the treatment but are not the sufferer, my advice is don’t ask when the sufferer is there.

There are lots of websites out there that claim all sorts of things: vegan or vegetarian food stops you getting cancer (no – my partner has been vegetarian for as long as I’ve known her, and vegan before that), or there are foods that can prevent cancer (there are foods that can boost your bodys ability to detect and kill pre-cancerous cells, but that does not negate things that can cause cancer, such as cigarettes). This issue is compounded by medical staff who do not make the disease understandable. As a carer of someone with cancer, I had to sit down and read several books on cancer. I have written a summary of what cancer is and what causes it as an addendum in the notes section for this post.

Recovery, and a Cure for Cancer

Her hair began returning after treatment.

Hair, exactly one year after chemotherapy ended, and almost exactly one year from today
Hair, exactly one year after chemotherapy ended. Sony Alpha A77

Her hair came back just like hair grows on a newborn (very fine to start off, a little curly at the back, growing unevenly to start off with), so because of that and her propensity to sleep a lot, I called her ‘the baby’ for a while.

( Mostly) Recovered, Autumn 2013. Panasonic Lumix LX7
(Mostly) Recovered, Autumn 2013. Panasonic Lumix LX7

Well… actually, the name has stuck.

The most important part of her experience with cancer has been how friends and relatives have treated her. Cancer is a mirror through which the sufferer sees how important things in life really are, and this is especially true of other people. From discussion with others, we have found this is a common theme. Cancer survivors are likely to seek change. Divorce, loss of contact, or new found affection and understanding with family members and close friends is very common, as is a sudden change of life-direction.

We’re both pretty sure that we would have separated within the last two years if it wasn’t for cancer. We had been together for over 15 years, never married and never wanted children, and time was beginning to drag. Cancer lifted the veil of familiarity and showed us what we really thought of each other. And in the end, that was our cure: a change for the better.

And for that, we have cancer to thank.


Cancer is very treatable given early detection, so time is always important. Your physician expects to see adult patients presenting possible cancer symptoms from the early 50s up. The incidence of breast cancer before your 50s is so low that some doctors will underplay its possibility unless there is family history. That’s fine unless you actually have cancer. If they tell you to come back in a few months, remind them that if you really have cancer, that delay in diagnosis may be a death sentence.

Although most people are put off by losing their hair and poor skin and nails (as well as not being able to do much for 6 months of their life), this can be managed. Good modern wigs are indistinguishable from real hair so you won’t be a recluse, but bear in mind they only last a couple of months so don’t get the top of the range one (two or three mid priced ones are better, and bear in mind that they are really hot in summer so get at least one short one.  Oh, and don’t get them from that surprisingly cheap China based site that keeps changing its name (but is always the first or second paid result on Google). That one is a scam. We found out by noting that their photography was ripped from other sites or of celebrities who were clearly not wearing wigs, and further searching yielded scam-victim groups on Facebook). Do your research if you are buying online, and if you have been taken in by them, click on the Google search every couple of days (the clicks are all paid for, and using them will reduce their advertising budget).

If you are not the sufferer, how you treat a spouse or close relative diagnosed with cancer will have a big effect on how they treat you when they recover. Cancer sufferers have a lot of time to consider their past life and future direction, so actions really do speak louder than words here.

Notes: What is cancer

Some foods are beneficial as a cancer-prevention measure… Such foods are not the ‘super-foods’ that some websites will try to sell you, but the normal healthy eating options we all already know about: 5 fruit or vegetable portions a day, don’t eat excessive amounts of red meat nor excessive amounts of any one food.

Cancer is always a genetic disease caused by mutations in your genes. This was not known as a certainty until the 1980s, but has caused massive advances in the treatment of cancer since then. Success rates are now much higher than they were even a generation ago because we now know the underlying cause of cancer.

Generic mutations occur randomly in our cells over time, and can by chance leave a cell in a state where it becomes cancerous.

Think of this process of cumulative mutations as being like a thief trying to unlock a safe. The thief has to find the correct combination by altering the tumbler dials of your genes. This takes time because there are so many combinations, and in most cases, the thief is out of time: you have enjoyed and lived a natural lifespan before the thief gets anywhere.

If  the thief does crack the combination, you have a cancer cell in your body, but there is also a window of opportunity: we can detect cancer fairly easily and eradicate it as long as there is an early diagnosis.

There are several distinct ways the thief finds the combination and gives you cancer:

  1. Inherited predisposition to cancer. Sometimes, part of the safe’s lock is already open when you are born meaning the thief has more chance of getting the full combination before you die. This corresponds to being born with a genetic disposition to getting a particular type of cancer, and is almost always the cause of childhood cancers, unless the patient has been very very unlucky or introduced to strong carcinogens whilst very young.
  2. Carcinogens. Sometimes you help the thief along by speeding up the rate he can make guesses by ingesting something that increases the rate of cell mutation. These ‘somethings’ are called carcinogens. They include cigarette tar, asbestos, soot, radioactivity (which can include too much direct sun), some substances derived from deep underground (most heavy oils will give you cancer if you leave them on your skin over a long time, which has historically affected many industrial workers).  Some foods and drugs can be carcinogenic, and we will look at them under Lifestyle and Cancer.
  3. Retroviral action. Occasionally, the thief gets lucky by having parts of the combination given to him via certain retroviruses such as Human Papillomavirus (HPV). A retrovirus works by combining its genetic information with the host’s genetic information. Unfortunately, thousands of years ago a cancer victim was infected with HPV, and the cancerous gene is now part of the retrovirus. When the HPV virus combines with your genes, you have an increased likelihood of getting cancer because infected cells now contain an inherited predisposition to cancer (point 1 in this list). This mode of cancer infection commonly occurs for women (increased disposition to cervical cancer caused by HPV infection) and can be detected via a smear test, and this is why you should have a regular smear test. It can also happen to either sex for certain stomach viruses.
  4. Chance and old age. The thief can simply get lucky. This becomes more likely as we get older because the thief has more time to get lucky. It is also why, other things being equal, incidence generally increases with age.  As we now live longer, the thief gets more time than he did even a few generations ago. This is one reason why cancer is now a primary cause of premature death in all developed areas of the world.
  5. Premature aging through viral action. Some viruses can overwork or strain an organ so it prematurely ages (or fails to replenish, thus leaving cells that are much older than they should be) a condition that leads to cancer via point 4. For example, cirrhosis of the liver can cause cancer of the liver, and Hepatitis C can cause cirrhosis of the liver, so Hepatitis C is strongly linked to liver cancer. Incidentally, overuse of alcohol can also cause cirrhosis of the liver, and therefore eventually, cancer.
  6. A weakened immune system. As discussed previously, your immune system catches many cancerous cells before they get a foothold. If your immune system is not there to perform this function, your chances of getting a tumor increase
  7. Lifestyle. See the secion below for more on this.

Lifestyle and Cancer

What you are putting into your body (or adverse conditions that your body is going through such as extreme stress) can increase the cancer risk.

If cancer is always caused by genes, how does eating something give you cancer, given that food does not generally change genes?

  • Some foods and drugs are simply carcinogenic: not so poisonous that they kill cells, but instead damage the cell DNA  whilst leaving the cell alive. This causes increased rates of cell mutation (effectively speeding up the rate the thief works against us in getting the combination). Smoking is a good example of this.
  • Other foods contain chemicals that affect the local hormone balance, which can change the way our cells work for the worse. Cheap meat full of animal growth hormone may have some causal effect.
  • Some foods and drugs can overload an organ and lead to premature aging (and because age is related to cancer incidence, premature localised aging increases the risk of cancer in that location). Drinking so much alcohol that your liver begins to die will give you cirrhosis, which in turn can kill you through liver cancer.
  • Some foods are beneficial as a cancer prevention measure. They boost your overall resilience by feeding your immune system and prevent you getting cancers in the digestive system (such as bowel cancer), although you can’t count on these foods curing you if you already have cancer. Such foods are not the ‘super-foods’ that some websites will try to sell you, but the normal healthy eating options we all already know about: 5 fruit or vegetable portions a day, don’t eat excessive amounts of red meat nor excessive amounts of any one food.
  • Stress in itself probably doesn’t have anything to do with it, but it may be an indirect secondary cause (stress tends to prevent you making healthy choices, reduces your immune system and may stress some organs), all of which can be significant if they occur together.
  • Finally, obesity can increase the risk of cancer through associated hormonal changes. Obesity is also a significant complication that may make treatment more difficult.

Except for smoking or drinking heavily, it is not clear whether or not any single lifestyle choice on its own will cause cancer, but it is clear that if you are living under several poor livestyle choices, your probablility of getting cancer will go up.

Adding it all up: probability of getting cancer

So far we have seen that cancer is a game of chance, but there are things that increase it’s likelihood. You can have an inherited predisposition to cancer, a weak immune system or you can simply be long lived so cancer becomes more probable for you. There are also behaviors that make cancer more likely (smoking, long term heavy drinking, never having smear tests, living in a house that sits over a radon gas deposit, sunbathing until your skin burns, working in an oily or sooty environment and not washing it off, or lacking a varied diet so you end up eating too much of certain foods causing a carcinogen build-up in your body).

Finally, as with any game of chance, you can simply be unlucky.

Eating fruit and vegetables will make you healthier (plus give some protection against certain cancers) and bump up your immune system so some pre-cancerous cells are detected and killed naturally by your body, but the reverse effect is far more marked. Eating carcinogens is a much bigger issue and is not negated by eating well: being vegetarian but smoking probably puts you in negative territory overall. You always need to consider the overall risk your lifestyle is introducing.

Further, a healthy immune system only targets a subset of pre-cancer. If you have a family history of breast cancer, filling your body with healthy ‘super-foods’ and vitamins is a start but you really need to be having regular cancer checkups or going on a pre-emptive course of Tamoxifen. Carrot juice on its own will just not reduce an existing tumor.

How cancer can kill you

Cancer is always present in your body: you are actually born with some cancerous cells. The human immune system detects most cancerous cells and will kill them itself, and will do this often throughout your life. We don’t usually talk about such cancerous cells when we talk about cancer because they never come up on our radar. There are some cancers that the immune system does not respond to.

These cancer types are fatal if left untreated because cancer cells prevent the infected organs from carrying out their normal function (cancer cells generally provide no biological function, so are fast growing deadweight that crowds out or starves normal function).

Where cancer infects cells that you can live without, it is still dangerous because it can (and will if left untreated) spread to other, more vital organs. Thus, breast cancer is dangerous not because you cannot live without breast function, but because breast cancer can spread to other organs that you do need to live. Most cancers actually have a number of stages to go through before they become dangerous, and these are

  1. Carcinoma in situ: a small number of cancerous cells that have not yet started to invade nor form into a tumor or lesion. Sometimes this is called a pre-cancer stage because it is not yet dangerous (but will become so if untreated).
  2. Tumor: When a group of cancer cells have invaded the local healthy cell population, stole their blood supply and grown, you end up with a tumor. A tumor’s danger is specified by several things, but generally, these are to do with time (how long it has been there, how big it has got, and how much like normal cells they are), the importance of the organ they are in, and how easy it is for us (and chemotherapy drugs) to get to the tumor.
  3. Node: A tumor does not usually hit the jackpot and start in an organ that can kill you: it normally has to spread before it can kill you. Most of our organs are self contained, separated by membranes, There is only one way out of an organ: through the Lymphatic system. This is effectively a drainage system with an immune system tacked on: it drains your organs of fluid and is a gatekeeper and defense system for when things go wrong. Cancer cells have to exit through the lymphatic system, and we can see when this has happened because some lymph nodes contain cancer cells. If you have very few or no infected lymph nodes then its probable that the cancer has not yet spread from the original organ.
  4. Metastasis: When a large number of your lymph nodes are cancerous it is seen as a sign that the cancer has become mobile and has spread to other parts of your body. This is called the metastatic stage.

Generally the further along these four stages, the more advanced the cancer. Your specialist will certainly discuss how far your cancer has got with you, and often in terms of the stages noted above. Most of the stages have sub-stages. For example, the Tumor stage has different levels depending on the tumor size.

An important feature of a cancer is how far it has mutated vs. how well it remembers its original cell function. If it does remember its original cell function, it becomes easier to treat because the cancer cells will respond well to normal body chemistry, and can therefore be killed by blocking normal cell growth paths (i.e. blocking hormones that the original cells need to grow and thrive via chemotherapy). Another issue is where the original tumor is. A tumor in your brain does not have to get very big before it affects normal function, and a tumor in certain organs (such as your bone marrow) is harder to treat because chemotherapy nor radiotherapy can get to it.


Historically, there have been different types of individual treatments, all with some success (but none with 100% success on their own), including tumor removal, disconnection of the affected area from the lymphatic system, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and long term hormonal drug treatment. Modern treatments combine more than one of these individual treatments so that the success rate is very high. For example for breast cancer, you may get tumor removal and chemotherapy (the exact order dependent on personal preference or the specific cancer), followed by a short radiotherapy course, then a long term (5 years) on Tamoxifen hormonal treatment, and finally regular checkups for life. Having such interleaved treatment vastly increases success rate to the high 90s, and close to 100% for early detection.


Once you have gone through treatment, you will have tests to find any traces of the cancer. Full remission means no traces of cancer were found. It may mean you are totally clear of cancer, but that is not the same as being totally cured because of the way cancer works. There may still be one or two undetected cancer cells there, which is why you may go on long term hormone therapy such as Tamoxifen: that is targeting the one or two cancer cells that may still be there even though you are in remission. If you have a genetic disposition for cancer, it may mean that there are other pre-cancerous cells in your body, and again, that is what the hormonal treatment is targeting. Finally, a genetic disposition to cancer means that you may get the cancer again. Often the chances are lower than getting it the first time if you get to full remission: you will have died through old age before the thief gets lucky again.

What that all means is that cancer is a lottery, so doctors don’t say ‘cured’, they say ‘in remission’. In practical terms, this means you will have to take regular precautionary tests for the rest of your life. That is not a bad thing: all things being equal, the chances are that you will have lived a long and normal life well before the thief gets to you again.

Photography: Notes

  1. All photographs taken with a Sony A500 DSLR, hand held, natural light, unless otherwise stated. Converted from RAW with DxO Optics, then post-edited in Lightroom.
  2. Some of the shots have extreme depth of field that is greater than that possible on a crop frame camera, and really hard on a full frame camera unless you have very fast and expensive glass. I cheated: it was done in post via Photoshop’s Field blur filter. See here for a youtube tutorial on the process. In addition to this technique, the slight ‘halo’ around the face seen in chemotherapy #2 and chemotherapy #3 is created by increasing the background selection to include about 2-3 pixels of skin. This causes the skin to be part of the field blur and this creates the halo.




Tree-hugger: a Lightroom workflow

Tree-hugger. Olympus stylus 1. Post editing in Lightroom
Tree-hugger. Olympus stylus 1. Post editing in Lightroom

This photograph was taken during a walk in the woods this weekend.

Tree-hugger, as-shot
Tree-hugger, as-shot

This is the as-shot photograph. This is a very typical family/friends/social snapshot in that it captures a personal moment that we want to keep, but It is hardly commercial nor polished. We may still want to make it better because we will be printing it for display.

Even if we will not be printing, we may want a stand-out social media post that doesn’t just look like a straight from camera photo, but equally, doesn’t look like you just slapped on an ‘Instagram color boost and light leak’.

This article will tell you everything you need to know to perform this workflow quickly. More importantly I will show how Lightroom works better if you assume its tools operate on light rather than pixels. This way of thinking is actually more comfortable for the photographer who doesn’t wish to think like a Photoshop retoucher.

The only thing that is common to both the as-shot and final photographs is the placement. The tree-hugger is completely off center and in an odd place, but the image seems to balance. Composition is probably not a part of the Lightroom workflow, but I want to integrate everything that was on my mind throughout the process of tree-hugger (and composition is often overlooked in other Lightroom tutorials), so we will get it out of the way first.

Composition: Visual Weight and Golden Ratio

There are two composition rules I am following: ‘visual weight’ and the ‘golden ratio’ grid.

Golden Ratio

A golden ratio grid is a much better option than rule of thirds: less regimented, less obvious and less overused

Most cameras allow you to superimpose a rule-of-thirds (ROT) grid on the live view. A few cameras (such as the Olympus Stylus 1, which I used for tree-hugger) give you the option of a golden ratio (GR) grid.

The Golden Ratio grid. I have arranged the leftmost and rightmost trees+treehugger to fill the left and right grid columns.
The Golden Ratio grid. I have arranged the leftmost and rightmost trees+treehugger to fill the left and right grid columns.

A golden ratio grid is a much better option than rule of thirds: less regimented, less obvious and less overused. It is more difficult to see the GR grid placements when you take the lines away, so the placements look right to the eye without there being an obvious geometry.

Placement using the Golden ratio grid
Placement using the Golden ratio grid

Here’s a perfect example this. Each of these dandelion shots look balanced, but there is no obvious grid.

You can display the golden ratio grid (and the related Golden Spiral) when using the Crop Overlay tool in Lightroom. Just Select the Crop tool and press ‘O’ to move between the different overlays.

Visual weight

Using a grid is a good backup system, but a poor replacement for something that takes into account the relationship between your elements. A better system is visual weighting. In this method, you

  1. Decide whether the composition is horizontal (reads in a line that goes left-right), vertical (top-bottom) or even an oblique (line between diagonal opposite corners).
  2. Then, assume that line is the arms of a weighing scale, and the primary visual elements are weights (with their ‘visual impact’ being taken to be their weight). You get balance simply by moving the camera such that the primary visual elements balance with the imaginary weighing scale’s arm lying in your chosen direction.
  3. If your composition has more than two subjects, pick out the two major subjects or group them. For example, if you are taking a picture of three children, assume them as one subject by grouping them, and look for a background element to balance them out.

In effect, you see hard to define ‘visual balance’ as explicit and easy to define physical balance.

Balancing horizontally, vertically and along an oblique
Balancing horizontally, vertically and along an oblique

My two visual elements are the two pairs of two branches to the left and right of the image. Not only do they balance, but before shooting, I realized that moving my camera slightly would cause the two sets of trunks to look like a mirror image of each other, and that’s what I did for the final composition.

One thing to be aware of is the visual weight of things you don’t notice. A background lamp-post in your scene may go un-noticed because you are concentrating on the main subject, but in terms of visual weight it may be throwing your scene completely! It is often a good idea to think for a second not in terms of people and things you want to be in your photo, but to get into the habit of blocking the scene out in terms of visual mass. This allows you to immediately identify seemingly extraneous and mundane background items that will otherwise break the composition.

NB – there is a relationship between visual weight and the Golden ratio grid when you only have one subject: one column of content visually balances two columns of white-space. You can see this in the first and third dandelion images.

Post-editing lighting with the Graduated and Overlay Filters.

I have changed the lighting in the scene using the Lightroom Graduated filter tool and Radial filter tool.

The Graduated filter is typically used in the same way as a physical graduated filter: to color the sky and to reduce its exposure, but it can be used for so much more. By seeing the graduated filter as a light source rather than a filter, you can use it to set light and shadow throughout your photo, and not just to control the sky.

Here’s how to reinterpret the graduated filter controls to assume a light source:

You see the graduated filter as either a large natural light source, or an infinite soft-box (a light that comes in from all directions and therefore casts no shadow, or what 3D modelers call a sky light).

  • If you want to treat the graduated filter as a natural light source, then the Exposure slider is light intensity and the Color Temperature slider is the light color.
  • If you want to treat the graduated filter as an artificial light such as a soft-box, then Exposure is gain intensity and Color is the soft-box gel.
Using the color picker to simulate gels.
Using the color picker to simulate gels.

Treating the graduated filter tool as a natural light source will give you more photo-realistic edits, but assuming is as an infinite soft-box allows emulation of more complex studio lighting effects. In either case, when you draw out a graduated filter, you can think of the filter size as the light throw: the light fades in relation to the size of the filter.

If we carry the analogy further to explain what our light source becomes when we use the graduated filter in its normal mode (i.e. like a physical graduated filter), it becomes clear that a filter is really just a negative light source. A filter takes away light whereas alight source adds it. The control that decides whether you have created a light source or filter is simply exposure: less than 0 gives you a filter or ‘negative light source’, and greater than 0 gives you a normal light source.

Consider the following photo

Ruined steps, Olympus Stylus 1
Ruined steps, Olympus Stylus 1

The steps and wall look a lot colder than the background, and this makes the photo: the steps look creepy. It’s done with two graduated filter tools, or two infinite natural light sources.

Ruined steps: lighting post-production
Ruined steps: lighting post-production

The first goes from bottom to top and has a negative blue light (exposure -1/2 stop, cool blue temperature). I have also increased shadow, clarity and sharpness for this tool, giving me a hard, contrasty and directional cold light. In short, this light is a shadow creator: it creates harsh blue shade. The second light is a negative yellowish light (-1 stop, warmish temperature). This darkens the sky and gives the background some warmth – a bit like an autumnal sunset. What these two graduated filters are doing is giving two opposing light sources: a cold and harsh blue light on the steps, and a warm yellow light on the background. If you are ever taking photos of people against an old building, the look we see here is fairly common: make the building cold and add more warmth as you move towards the people.

As you can see, like a 3D skylight, our two lights cast no shadows: they just change the ambient.

tree-hugger : Infinite lighting post-production
tree-hugger : Infinite lighting post-production

Back to the tree-hugger photo, you should now be able to see that there are in fact four infinite light sources being emulated, with the colors and directions as shown. All except the top filter are negative lights: they are creating shadows. The top yellow light is creating illuminating yellow ambient light.

A graduated filter gives us an infinite, shadow-less light (or infinite soft-box), but what if we want a directional light? We use the Radial filter tool.

Selecting Invert mask applies the effect to the area inside the tool, enabling you to treat the Radial tool as a light source when you increase Exposure.
Selecting Invert mask applies the effect to the area inside the tool, enabling you to treat the Radial tool as a light source when you increase Exposure.

The radial filter tool is most often used to create vignettes, but it can also be used to create circular or ‘beam’ areas of bright light. To use a radial filter in this mode, simply check the Invert mask checkbox, and select a positive exposure.. Consider the image below.

Bluebells. Olympus Stylus 1
Bluebells. Olympus Stylus 1

Again, the thing that makes this shot is the lighting. You should by now already recognize the negative light source that is making the bottom-right leaves darker.

Adding a spotlight with the radial tool – Imagine that the Radial tool oval is the area of a spotlight.
Adding a spotlight with the radial tool – Imagine that the Radial tool oval is the area of a spotlight.

What makes this shot though is the lighting in the center – I am using a radial filter as a spotlight aimed at the central grass area.

In tree-hugger, I take this concept to its extreme – rather than using the circle of the radial tool as the circle of a spotlight, I am using it as the light beam itself…

One thing that makes the tree-hugger shot is the subtle but almost volumetric golden yellow rays that seem to be coming in from the top and filling the background with yellow warmth. This beam of light does not exist in the as-shot: that lighting is totally synthetic. Here’s how I did it:


Creating a light beam with the radial filter
Creating a light beam with the radial filter

There is a radial filter running top to bottom as shown. This has increased exposure and reduced clarity settings, creating a white beam that causes its background to lighten and blur slightly. This creates our synthetic beam. It is enhanced further by the existing darkening gradients (negative lights) coming in from the left, right and bottom edges, which create the shadow areas that the light beam would be expected to create. If you look at the very top of the tree-hugger photo, you can almost see this light beam as it falls through the trees.

Using the radial tool as a ‘volumetric sunbeam’ in this way can make the most boring image look like a great naturally lit scene…

The lighting in this Photo is seriously enhanced by a radial filter center-top, which is creating the sky glow you would see if the sun was directly behind the central tree. The sun is actually outside the shot (it’s a lot higher in the sky), but that doesn’t stop me placing it where I think it should have been after the event! Taken with Panasonic Lumix LX7.
The lighting in this Photo is seriously enhanced by a radial filter center-top, which is creating the sky glow you would see if the sun was directly behind the central tree. The sun is actually outside the shot (it’s a lot higher in the sky), but that doesn’t stop me placing it where I think it should have been after the event! Taken with Panasonic Lumix LX7.

Simple! As you can see, the radial tool is much more useful than just a vignette tool: it’s a virtual spotlight tool!

There is a second cool way you can use the radial tool, and this has nothing to do with lighting but is something Photoshop users often wish Lightroom had: a reverse mask.

Reverse masking with the Radial Filter tool

The Adjustment Brush tool in Lightroom is cool. It allows you to select specific areas and apply changes to only that area. We call this a selection tool: you select what you want to apply the change on, then make the change knowing that nothing else is affected by it.

It is sometimes easier to select what you don’t want to change. For example, in tree-hugger, I wanted to increase clarity on everything except the face (because increasing clarity on skin tends to age it). In Photoshop that is easy: select the face and then reverse the mask with Select > Inverse. In Lightroom, you have to take the long way around and use the Adjustment brush to explicitly select the ‘everything else’.

To use the radial tool as a reverse mask, simply place the radial filter around the thing you don’t want to edit and make sure the Invert Filter checkbox is unchecked. In tree-hugger I am using the Radial tool as two reverse masks, as shown below.

Reverse masking: The settings of the two Radial filters are being applied to everything except the circular areas they enclose. I use reverse masking because it is easier to enclose the tree-hugger in a selection than it is to enclose everything else.
Reverse masking: The settings of the two Radial filters are being applied to everything except the circular areas they enclose. I use reverse masking because it is easier to enclose the tree-hugger in a selection than it is to enclose everything else.

Okay, that’s the fun ‘how to hack Lightroom tools to do something completely different to their normal workflow’ stuff over with. There is one more tool I used in tree-hugger and it is perhaps the most important and least understood tool in all of Lightroom…

RGB Curves In Lightroom

Keep your changes small when using curves, because the effects of even a small change are significant.

The final piece of the puzzle is RGB curves and the Contrast ‘S’ curve. I’ve saved this till last because I know many readers will turn off at the very mention of Curves, but bear with it. If the tools we looked at in the last section provide our virtual lights, then Curves provide the other important kind of lighting: they define our global ambient light.

Let’s see why:

Have a look at this photograph. The colors and tone look very ‘current’, and are very similar to those used in a lot of commercial photography today (especially fashion). The darks look colder, the whites are warmer than they should be, and the skin-tones have a healthy warmth to them.

Using curves to get a more contemporary yet non-digital look.
Using curves to get a more contemporary, non-digitsl look.

You will probably already know about the Tone Curve in Lightroom, because it sits so prominently in the user interface:

The Tone curve, showing a typical ‘S’ curve
The Tone curve, showing a typical ‘S’ curve

The gradient of a tone curve represents the contrast. By lowering the gradient at the very bottom and top, we create a large area in the middle with a steeper gradient (and therefore greater contrast), and the resulting curve gives us the shallow ‘S’ shape. Out-of camera photographs generally lack contrast, and adding a slight ‘S’ curve is one of the first things you typically do.

The more important RGB curves are hiding in the Tone panel – click the icon bottom right (circled red) to see them.

RGB Curves, consisting of RGB (tone curve) and R (Red channel), G (Green channel) and B (Blue channel).
RGB Curves, consisting of RGB (tone curve) and R (Red channel), G (Green channel) and B (Blue channel).

You will see the RGB curve to start off with. This is the same as the tone curve, except that clicking on the curve will create a point on the curve, and dragging that point allows you to alter the shape of the curve. Its essentially a more advanced version of the tone curve because you can add many custom points to give more control.

The magic starts when you click the Channel control below the RGB curve and select Red, Green or Blue. This splits the tone curve into the three channels, allowing you to work on each color in isolation: you are no longer just controlling tone (black/white) balance, but color balance too.

At this point, most discussions go into a long description of what the tone curve and RGB curves actually are, but I don’t think that’s important. All you really need to know is what they do. Here’s the most succinct image of what they do I could come up.

A picture tells a thousand words, in this case, the picture sidesteps a massive section entitled ‘What RGB curves do’
A picture tells a thousand words, in this case, the picture sidesteps a massive section entitled ‘What RGB curves do’

If you are new to Curves, here’s a big tip. Print out the above image, laminate it (or put clear sticky tape on the printout front and back, then cut it out) and stick it on your keyboard or monitor. Not only does it look pretty, but this image is the Rosetta Stone to understanding what RGB curves do: you don’t need to know anything else about curves but that image.

The image consists of four color gradients. These correspond to the RGB, R, G and B curves. If you look closely, you will see that the diagonal from bottom left to top right are tones only (pure black to pure white). That diagonal line corresponds to the initial curves (a diagonal line, bottom left to top right).

The top left corner of the RGB, R, G and B curves are White, Red, Green and Blue. The bottom right corners are the complementary colors: black, cyan, magenta and yellow. If you know about print process, you can remember the complementary pairs because the complements to RGB and white are the print based channels, CMY and K (‘Key’ or Black).

The effect of dragging the midpoint of the R curve
The effect of dragging the midpoint of the R curve


Good so far. Here’s the cool bit. If you add a point to the curve, then drag it anywhere, the color shift you have created is the color under the dragged point on our gradient. So if we dragged the midpoint of the R curve up, we are changing a mid grey to a mid-red. Dragging down would create a mid-cyan shift.

It is important to realize the difference here between RGB curves and Lightroom’s HSL/Color panels. If you change the reds in HSL/Color panels, you are selectively changing the saturation, hue or brightness of reds only. If you change the red channel in RGB curves, you are introducing a red color cast that affects all colors. How do you know how our red shift will affect the greens and blues? Simple: try it! Right click on the ‘What the RGB curves do’ image, save it and import it into Lightroom then apply the curves change. You will see something like this:

The color cast produced by our Red channel change
The color cast produced by our Red channel change

Practice with the bitmap for a while later. Curves feel odd to start with (much less controllable than the Hue/HSL panels), but after a while the curves and my 4 gradients will start to link up in your mind, and you will know what your changes will do in real photos.

And that’s it. That’s all RGB curves do! They produce color casts. You have some control over them because you can decide which tonal range (lows, mids and highs) they affect, and by careful editing of the RGB curves, you can actually be very specific over where they occur. In essence, curves edit the ambient lighting in your scene, and you can control the color and tone of the low, mid and high key lighting separately. You typically use RGB curves to change the lighting to affect

  • Global ambience (e.g. make an image colder) or
  • Emphasize a particular color range that is already in the photo. Using the Hue/HSL panels to selectively change color can result in a very color obvious edit. Adding a tonally controlled color cast via curves is harder, but the result is always more subtle.
  • Color cast removal. This is not a usual use case in Lightroom, as you have the White Balance selection tool.
  • Separate the main subject from the background. In general, your main subject has one tonal range (typically mid or highs, but not always) and the background has an opposite tonal range (e.g. if the main subject is the lightest thing, then the background will be the darkest). When this tonal separation occurs, you can enhance it by adding a color separation via curves. This is most often seen in portraits, where the skin-tones are given warmth, and the background is made cooler to make the eye go naturally to the warm skin-tones. This is used all the time in fashion photography, and also in the Hollywood ‘blockbuster’ look for film. Doing the same thing in your photography is the single quickest way to take away the snapshot look and add a more mainstream aesthetic.

Finally, curves are useful to change the time of day through lighting. You can make a cold winter sunrise look like a warm summer sunset because almost all the differences between the two (except for the sun size and placement, which you can alter via lens focal length and post editing) are caused by ambient light color.

NB – Adobe Premiere has RGB curves, so much of this discussion also applies to video (in fact more so than stills – curves rule in video because you almost always need to change ambient light between shots to maintain continuity and keep to the impression of a common time of day even though the shoot occurred over the best part of the day and in variable lighting).

There are a few gotchas and things-to-know:

  1. Curves make drastic changes. Although you can move a point a significant distance for certain special effects, for most photo-editing you will drag points by a very small distance. By small I mean 2-3 pixels on the graphs… the RGB curves are for subtle changes!
  2. The gradient of a curve is the contrast.
  3. Don’t move the black and white point unless there is a specific reason to do so. Moving the low left point or the high right point drastically changes your black and white. If you move either, you lose true black and true white. You should either move the endpoints very slightly or not at all
  4. Making big changes on the curves will always lose color range. When you move a point you are actually pushing the colors in a direction. Think of a grid of coins completely covering a square table: if you push the central penny up, some coins are pushed off the table. Pushing a curve too far will always lose you some color range, and this can result in banding. Another reason to follow rule 1!
  5. There are two ways to think of the RGB curves: as RGB or as their complements (CMY). Moving the red and green curves up to create a blue-green cast is the same as thinking of cyan being increased, which equates to moving the red curve down. This means that if you are moving two RGB color curves in the same direction, there is always a simpler way to do the same thing involving one CMY color. This is an advanced concept, and many professionals don’t use it (its so damn complex once you have multiple point changes across curves!) but it i always worth bearing in mind.
  6. When you change the RGB curve, you also implicitly change the R, G and B curves, but Lightroom doesn’t show this. The RGB curve (tone curve) is really just an amalgamation of the separate R, G and B curves: the tone curve itself doesn’t really exist. So you would think that changing the tone curve will change the R G and B curves, but it doesn’t (they are added together behind the scenes to produce the fnal R, G and B curves). Instead, think of the tone curve as changing brightness and the R/G/B curves as changing color. Again, this will only really be true if you make small changes to the RGB curves and save any big changes for the tone curve: yet another reason to follow rule 1!

Although there are a lot of rules here, there’s really only one you need to remember: Rule 1. Keep your changes small when using curves, because the effects of even a small change are significant.

Here’s exaggerated as-used tone and RGB curves for tree-hugger:

RGB, Blue, Green and Red curves for Tree-hugger. The numbering for each point shows the order it was added in relation to the other points per graph (point 1 added first).
RGB, Blue, Green and Red curves for Tree-hugger. The numbering for each point shows the order it was added in relation to the other points per graph (point 1 added first).

The RGB curve is a typical S curve and gives us a better contrast to the out-of-camera photo.

Next, I worked on the Blue curve. First, I raised the Blue shadows (1) and increased yellow via points (2) and (3). This makes the dark tones bluish, and the mid and high tones more yellow. The effect of this changes is the increase the color contrast between the shadows and mid-highs, by making them colder and warmer respectively. Doing this is a common use-case for the blue curve.

Note that moving points (1) and (3) on the blue channel change the black and white points of the entire photo. Professional retouchers avoid this by adding more points near the extreme ends of the curves to make sure the black and white point never changes as per (1a)

I then worked on the Green channel. I use this channel to modify the Blue channel. Pure blue is far too unnatural a color, so I tone it down by adding a little bit of green to the shadows, giving us a blue-green for our shadow color. Points (1), (2) and (3) don’t actually do anything: they are just there to stop the mid and high tones from moving.

Finally, I worked on the red channel. Here, I am lifting the mid-point via (1) and moving the black point right a little. This adds warmth to the mids and loses it from the shadows.

Point (1) on the red curve and point (2) on the red curve work together: they are warming an area of the tonal range. If you are just warning the mid-tones as I am it will be near the mid-point of the curve as shown. Often, you are warming skintones, and the exact place the points go will be defined by the lightness of the skin tone itself: the lighter the skin, the higher up the point is on both curves.

Point (1) on the blue curve, point (4) on the green curve and point (2) on the red curve are working together to give us our final shadow color. This is normal: your shadow color is often the most important and most complex because it does two crucial things: it sets the color of the darks (and this goes a long way in setting the ambient color of the scene) and it acts as a counterpoint to the warmer mid-tones. Adding too much warmth to skintones can often look unrealistic, so instead you create most of the warmth by taking it away from the shadows. In fact, some photography has almost white skintones with no intrinsic warmth. The skintones still look warm overall, because the shadows have been made still colder with the blue curve.

The skintones in this photo are far colder than as-shot, but they are still not as cold as the shadows (which have been driven much bluer than as-shot). Thus, the eye is still led to the warmest point in the photo: skintones.
The skin-tones in this photo are far colder than as-shot, but they are still not as cold as the shadows (which have been driven much bluer than as-shot). Thus, the eye is still led to the warmest point in the photo: skin-tones.

Finally, its worth seeing the actual curves for tree-hugger. As you can see, the actual changes are much smaller than the graphs above imply! I’ve also used the Tone curve rather than the RGB curve to enter my contrast ‘S’ curve (it is easier to use).

Curves used in tree-hugger
Curves used in tree-hugger

The changes above are not specific to tree-hugger but are very close to a typical curves workflow for most photos. You typically use curves to create opposing tints between the background and main subject, and this works to separate the two visually, as well as giving the main subject a clear prominence.

In photos including skin-tones, the main subject will be the skin-tones themselves, so you will typically use exactly the same curve edits. In fact, almost all of the photos in this post use small variations of the same curve changes (if there is such thing as a text-book ‘how to make your images look more commercial’ curves change, the ones I have used are probably it!).


Before raising your camera, think about the composition you will end up creating, and if nothing else, think about the visual weight of the elements in your scene.

By seeing some Lightroom tools as ‘light editing systems’ rather than pixel based tools, they can make more sense, and allow quick and easy editing despite complex visual changes.

Lightroom curves are a crucial yet well hidden color editing tool within Lightroom. By thinking in terms of the complementary pairs of colors Red-Cyan, Green-Magenta and Blue-Yellow instead of just Red, Green and Blue, RGB curves become infinitely more usable.




Magnolia: Minolta 50/f1.4

Magnolia 1
Magnolia 1 (click for larger image)

The Minolta 50mm f1.4 is one lens that every Sony Alpha and m43rds videographer should consider getting. Its cheap on eBay (its one of the most affordable f1.4 lenses on any system), and produces typical 1980’s Minolta color and bokeh, all with a wonderful depth of field wide open.

Magnolia 2
Magnolia 2 (click for larger image)

It suffers from the usual issues of 1980s glass (chromatic aberration and veil hazing wide open, less contrast than modern equivalents when wide open, chance of fungus). The chromatic aberration is easily removed in Lightroom (or is a non-issue at video resolutions), and the lens becomes very sharp from f2.8 onwards. Most issues have totally disappeared by the time you are above f3.5.

The less adventurous APS-C user would be better off with the cheap crop frame 50mm primes that Sony, Canon, Nikon and almost every other DSLR range offer (for Sony its the 50mm f1.8 DT) . Despite the issues of the Minolta f1.4 wide open, that’s exactly where I tend to use it as per the photographs above.

Pictures of nice things that grow.

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