May 13, 2024 ·

David Osborn

Cameras record and people create.

A building with a statue in the middle of it

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24 Holborn Viaduct, London.

When we travel, our time is limited, and conditions are rarely perfect. We can only shoot what we’re given in the time we’re given. We see a subject that appeals, but it’s not an appealing photograph ‘as is.’ As a painter, we could include ‘what we want.’ Cameras include everything ‘they see,’ and ‘everything’ can ruin our ideal picture; cameras are unforgiving. Very few photographs are perfect straight from the camera, but they can still be transformed into good pictures.

What do you do? It’s a good subject, but it’s not a good photograph taken straight from the camera.

Photoshop removes the total reliance on the camera. If we embrace it, it gives us the freedom to create like painters. The argument is not about whether we need to retouch but how well we retouch. To retouch well, we must draw on knowledge beyond Photography: understand ‘Human Nature’ to know ‘How pictures work’ and artistic expertise to ‘Create pictures that work.’

The key is to transform what we see and make it thought-provoking. This is where the magic of artistic interpretation comes in, sparking curiosity and imagination in the viewer and creative satisfaction in ourselves.

I was in central London and walked past this old building, 24 Holborn Viaduct. I had seen it many times before, but this time, it was different. It felt alone and isolated; the tower block beside it had been demolished. Its lonely, defiant, and timeless attitude struck me; it said to me, ‘I’ve been here for years, I’m not moving. London can modernize, I’m not.’

The Shoot.

A building with a statue in the middle of it

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The raw image is stitched together.

I returned the next day to photograph it using a Nikon D850 with a 35mm Sigma Art lens and a Novoflex multi-row Pano head on a tripod. I chose a panoramic process to minimize the distortion a wide-angle lens would give me, and I can correct the architectural verticals using PTGui stitching software. I didn’t know what to do with it as a picture, but I loved the architecture of the tall, slim, and stylish building. It had lots of character. However, the background buildings were ugly. The priority was to get a clean shot of the building and worry about what to do with the picture when I returned home. – All I could do now was record what I saw. It needed some life, so I shot numerous people walking, cars, buses, taxis, and as much variety as possible.

When I played with the image in Photoshop at home, it had a strange, timeless quality, which I liked. However, adding people, cars, taxis, etc., gave the picture life, but it gave it boring everyday normality; it lost its strangeness and didn’t spark my imagination or curiosity. So, the following day, I returned again with only a Nikon and an 85mm lens handheld and stood in the same position to photograph passing people and vehicles.

I didn’t know what I hoped to get; I just hoped something would catch my eye. After an hour and a half, this electric delivery vehicle crossed the bridge. It had the same strange feel that matched the feel of my picture. I knew this was it, so I shot it as it went by, about 5 frames, the only one to pass by.

Creating the picture.

A building with a statue in the middle of it

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After cleaning and adding the vehicle.

The first phase of the picture-making process was simplifying the image and removing the clutter. I did my best when composing the building, keeping clean outlines and maintaining a balanced relationship with the background buildings.

In Photoshop, I simplified the picture even more by removing all distractions that were impossible to remove ‘in camera.’ All signage and lamps on the building hoarding, for example. The general ‘noise’ or visual clutter that distracts our attention. The more I removed, the simpler and more strange the picture felt; it lost some of its literal feel.

The Photoshop ‘spot healing brush’ works well in most cases. The old ‘clone’ tool can be slower but is more reliable and controllable. Doing this on a duplicate layer is always essential if mistakes are made and you must ‘undo’ anything. The electric delivery vehicle was cut out by making a mask and then repositioned on the road to perfectly suit the composition.

So, as an experiment, I thought about what would happen if I took the cleaning to the extreme – not only to remove distractions but to go crazy and remove everything possible, way beyond a natural level, all the expected’ points of reference’ – lamp posts, road markings, and signage.

The more I removed, the more it took on a surreal feel I liked. I had disconnected the building from the feel of a literal view of reality. This meant copying large areas of a building to a new layer and then moving that layer to cover large distracting objects like the CCTV post and the base of the buildings behind the hoarding; these objects are too big to use the clone stamp tool or other removal tools.

A building with a statue in the middle of it

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Isolate my ‘hero ’ building.

Phase two was ’emphasis,’ making my ‘hero’ building stand out from the background. Make my ‘hero’ visually different to catch the eye and give it importance. The building is brighter with more tonal contrast and detail, which contrasts with the flat, darker background, which is smoother and gentler in tone. Rebalancing the tonal relationships downgrades the dominance of the background while increasing the dominance of the ‘hero.’

This gives the picture overall cohesiveness, visual readability, structure and order. The content has a visual hierarchy, removing any confusion or indecision by the viewer about what the ‘hero’ of my picture is. This part of the process required making very accurate masks in Photoshop to cut out selective buildings or areas so that their tones could be selectively altered using blending modes and adjustment layers but not leaving any telltale artefacts that would ruin the feel of the picture.

A building with a statue in the middle of the street

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Make the ‘hero’ building more three-dimensional.

Having downplayed the background, giving viewers no incentive to study these areas, it’s time to turn up the volume and bring my ‘hero’ to life. Make my ‘hero’ more dynamic and ‘pop.’ Light dictates form. Light and three-dimensional form bring the building to life, giving it a solid structure and realism. The vehicle and building having the same light confirm a single cohesive story about the light. Flat light also sets the mood and the picture’s timeless, surreal tone. To give my ‘hero’ more ‘pop,’ it has been ‘dodged and burned’ to give the details more contrast. I always do this on a duplicate layer, so I have a backup if I make mistakes or don’t like the end result. The actual ‘dodge and burn’ is just a case of carefully brushing it in and changing the brush size relative to the size of the detail being worked on.

A building with a statue on the side of it

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Increase the textural details of the building.

I changed the overall color cast to a greenish tint using a green ‘photo filter’ and adjusting its strength; green adds a more eerie feeling, enhancing the surreal and unreal atmosphere. The final step was to give the viewer a doorway into the picture so they enter fast and efficiently without confusion or indecision; my ‘hero’ needs its own ‘hero,’ its own visual ‘eye-catcher,’ a point of visual interest clear to all that tells viewers where to start looking within the building, and where to begin their journey to explore the picture as a whole; the picture needs one clear, defined visual ‘target.’

A building with a statue in the middle of it

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Add the eye-catching doorway light.

Human perception dictates our eyes are drawn to brighter tones, high-contrast edges, and more saturated colors; using this knowledge, I built up the interior light in the stairway leading down to the road below. Due to its brightness and difference in color, the orange glow creates an eye-catching ‘target’ for the viewer to enter the picture. It also triggers the viewers’ curiosity to ponder what the steps lead down to.

At the same time, This is done with a solid colour adjustment layer set to colour blending mode to add the colour. Adjusting a hue/saturation adjustment layer to locally saturate the orange stair lights. However, if we oversaturate a colour, we can lose the structural detail; it takes on a ‘bald’ look. I darkened the top of the building to emphasize and concentrate attention on the brighter staircase below using a combination of layers in blending modes and adjustment layers.

The Actionable Takeaway.

Creative satisfaction comes from the enjoyment of not knowing what the end result will look like but discovering its potential as you work on the image and see it transform before your eyes into something totally different. We make the picture our own by adding our personality and ideas; it is a creative process. We use the subject only as raw material. Retouching allows us to ‘interpret what the camera gives us,’ not rely solely on the camera to give us a literal picture. Fluency in Photoshop gives us the creative freedom painters have.

Literal pictures don’t trigger our curiosity and imagination because they show us what we expect to see and have seen before; they offer nothing new or different.

To trigger our curiosity and create an engaging picture, we must show something less predictable and more unexpected. The result has the feel of a minimalist painting but the detail of Photography. The sense of light, form, and atmospheric distance make it believable and understandable, and the interpretation triggers curiosity and imagination, making it thought-provoking. We may not ‘like’ a photograph, but it should ‘stimulate’ us. – If a picture stimulates us, it can be called ‘a good photograph.’

We may have many beautiful pictures on file; we just don’t realize we have them because we have yet to artistically transform them to realize their full creative potential. When we take pictures, we must judge the subject not as we see it but by ‘what it could become.’ Visualize its artistic and creative potential.

This is the tremendous creative satisfaction of Photography: not relying on what the camera gives us but using what the camera records gives us as a starting point to be artistic and creative at home. Photography doesn’t have to be limited to recording the world. It’s unlikely what we see will be a perfect photograph. Still, we can create stunning artistic pictures by applying our personal creativity. This is the most enjoyable aspect of Photography for me, discovering beautiful pictures by creating engaging pictures back home after travelling.


We’re thrilled to have David Osborne share his expertise! Look out for more insights from him. LuLa members, enjoy a 10% discount on his workshops—this is a perk for us; LuLa does not profit. Explore more at David Osborn Photography. Exciting times ahead!

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David Osborn is a professional photographer with 40 years of experience in hard news and corporate Photography and now teaches Photography and post-production full-time. As a personal tutor, David offers live online and in-person workshops teaching Artistic Knowledge, Photography Skills, and Photoshop Techniques to create beautiful, engaging travel and landscape Photography. David's philosophy is: 'If you know why pictures work,' you will know how to make pictures that work. How to put creativity back into Photography and gain creative satisfaction from Photography. My website, www.davidosbornphotography.com, explains much more.

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