dv class


Iceberg, Antarctica 2007. Canon 1Ds Mark II

Welcome to the December 2010 Edition of the Stephen Johnson Photography Newsletter.

Most of our efforts this month are concentrating on my new exhibit Exquisite Earth whose Opening Reception is December 10, 2010. From the decision to do a year-end show, the process has been intense and our View From Here essay this month explores that process.

Please join us for our 2010 Holiday Open House is Saturday Dec 11 from noon to 6pm.

In addition, we have some new workshops, a great new set of National Park Notecards and a special sale of Vintage Prints to share with you this month.

This month's Tutorial is on Image Sharpening.

Vintage Prints Sale


Exhibit Opening


Park Notecards


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FEATURED PRINT for December 2010

Positano, Italy. 2010.
Canon 1Ds III
11x14 Pigment Inkjet Print on Cotton paper
$195 each Purchase this print.

The amazing hillsides of Positano are a photograph already made, it is very hard to miss, hard to pass on, and hard not to share the wonderful stacking color and light of this amazing coastline.


2010 Event Calendar
Opening Reception for "Exquisite Earth" Exhibition and Holiday Open House
Friday December 10 from 6-10pm

ATX Los Angeles: Christmas Extravanganz and Annual Christmas Raffle
Stephen Johnson on Light Color and the Real World
December 18, 2010 9am to noon

The Burns Community Center. 5510 Clark Avenue, Lakewood, CA

2011 Workshops and Event Calendar
Basic Digital Camera Use Lecture
January 7, 2011
Death Valley in Winter
January 15-18, 2011
Photographers & Photoshop Series: Selections, Adjustment Layers, Tone and Color
January 22-23, 2011
Fine Art Digital Printing Hands on
February 5-8, 2011

Niagara Frontier Regional Camera Clubs 50th Anniversary Convention
Stephen Johnson Keynote
February 25-27, 2011. Niagara Falls
Conference Center in Niagara Falls, NY.

Yosemite in Winter
February 12-14, 2011

Color Management in a Day
March 5, 2011


Workshop Testimonials


Snow Drifts. Ellery Lake. 2010


Assembling a Photographic Exhibition

We decided a few weeks ago that it was time to assemble an exhibition from the growing group of photographs I characterized last spring as the Exquisite Earth work. Building the exhibition seemed a good subject for the essay this month as we are working toward the opening on December 10. I may expand on the process in January Newsletter, looking back on the experience.

Decisions have consequences, some with much work attached as is building and show of work. Creating a timeline and covering expenses were the first step. There was way too much work to look at in a short period of time, this exhibit idea had to be largely based on those photographs that had already been culled and edited. But the temptation to look deep, explore the last 5 years in deep detail was hard to resist, and was not resisted entirely.


Half the prints in the show are brand-new first prints, being explored on paper for the first time. This presents unique challenges, some absolute delights, and some disappointments. A thumbnail view of an image is so fundamentally different than a print in hand. Even a magnified view on screen is not as informative as a photograph on paper. Most of still think of it as the final form for the photographic image, therefore an exhibition is a bunch of final forms. This sounds both delightful and daunting.

A number of goals defined and characterized had to be balanced to make this exhibition happen, here are a few we went through this time:

  • Is there a viable show in the identified and available work?
  • How much additional printing might be needed?
  • Is the needed schedule realistic?
  • Publicity possible?
  • What are the exhibit's hoped for outcomes?
    • refine a body of work
    • print sales
    • portfolio

Most important of all, committing to an exhibition of work brings a disparate number of individual photographs into a body of work that becomes a discreet, viewable entity. This allows an understanding of a whole, a longer term set of intentions, an intended vision ascertained perhaps, and a hard look at whether that intent is matching the reality of the prints on the wall. They are no longer intention, but statement, no longer speculative possibility but realized or not. It does wonders for the editing process. Precious attachments get tossed aside for the greater good of the body. It can humble and delight.

Joining photographs together into a sequence of images on the wall is a challenge as well. Books have traditionally required side by side relationships, although this is changing with electronic presentation. Walls seem to require something very different to make sense, both sequence and overall impression. A kind of flow of impression is what I've been looking for as we curate this work, becoming almost a rhythm and dance of evolving visuals.

We considered grouping this work into broad categories of ice, fire, water, air, and probably will do that as the work from this period is gather together into a larger body of work. But for now, it almost seemed more important to let the relationships be purely visual, letting this first look at the work evolve more organically.

More than once I went back to the files to search for photographs related to a few I felt needed to be in the show, but were hanging out on their own aesthetically. Sometimes this worked, sometimes it just consumed time in editing and printing when I had really not counted on exploring unedited work. In a few cases the suspected strong images proved even more engaging than I expected.

...continued top of right column


Volcanic Hillside. Iceland, 2009.

Being well aware of my own sensitivities to photo cliches, I'm often tempted to exclude scenes that may also hold wonder. It's hard to reconcile these sorts of issues as they spin around the idea of moving photographic aesthetics forward, and avoiding merely repeating endless themes from the past. In landscape, romantic sunsets and foggy waterfalls always linger near the top of my list of don't show. Sometimes this may exclude work recording real natural magic. Again, I try to strike a balance.

Print sizes from a 35mm dSLR is a real consideration for any exhibition of the work. I do think people routinely over-enlarge digital photographs and make prints that reveal image breakdown rather than image beauty. There is nothing inherently good about a big print. It is perception and subject matter dependent, and ultimately original image resolution dependent. The fact that we often way over-enlarged 35mm film to the point that the image was little more than a sea of grain is not a measure that I wish to emulate. I too can add so much noise that over-enlarged digital file becomes little more than generated noise emulating that same sea of grain. But that has little to do with the visual beauty I am seeking.


Of course, making things big can also reveal problems unseen in smaller prints, forcing aspirations of scale back to how beautiful a smaller print can be. Softer focus than you imagined and unwanted detail can often make the smaller print an even more attractive alternative.

The sheer labor of matting and framing nearly 40 prints in a short timeline was clearly a daunting task. As this crunch approaches, I've tried to stage my help in waves to move existing work, assemble frames and matts, still allowing many days for hanging and fine tuning.

As I am also doing a portfolio from this first grouping of this work, I am looking for those ideal 10 photographs that really need to go together. A certain level of abstraction and a more intangible color quality emblematic of my color palette is what is staying in my mind. It will be interesting to see how close the final selection next week matches my imagination right now.

We are also fairly serious about assembling an electronic kiosk displaying a broader set of photographs from this period. Such a display gives me a wonderful alternative to exclusion of strong images from the exhibition itself, still allowing those photograph to be seen, but in a less important and formal context.

One thing seems very clear this week. Almost anything I start requires yet another hard drive. This time, the culprit is just a discrete place to store all of these edited files.


Digital Photographic "Sharpening"

(excerpt from the book Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography)

The final appearance of an image is influenced by many things, with the apparent sharpness being one of the critical factors. There is no feature in any software that can bring into focus a photograph whose lens was not focused properly when the photograph was made.

The Unsharp Mask (USM) function in Photoshop is an edge contrast exaggeration tool used routinely to create a greater illusion of focus in the image. The filter looks for tonal changes in the image, then exaggerates the difference between them, controlled by the filter’s sliders. This can give the appearance of a sharper, tighter image.

gray acr

Unsharp Mask Features

  • Amount: how much of an increase in edge contrast should be applied
  • Radius: how far in pixels on either side of a contrast change the sharpen will be applied
  • Threshold: how much of a contrast change must be encountered before the filter is applied (this can control sharpening of the image without undo sharpening of film grain)

Keep in mind that you don’t have to sharpen all three channels of a color file in the same way. Many digital cameras suffer from noise in the blue channel of the color file, which can be exaggerated in sharpening. In Photoshop you can simply select one channel, sharpen it to your taste, and inspect the results. You can also sharpen only selected areas of the image if you choose.

There is no magic set of numbers for “ideal” sharpening. Factors that influence the results are obviously the sharpness of the capture or scan: the resolution of the file, film grain, or digital noise; the paper you are printing on, and naturally, your taste. I generally start with a sub-pixel radius of .3 pixels, then increase the amount until it looks correct to me.

On my high resolution scanning back photographs, I leave the threshold to zero, on film it may go up to 4 or 5 to avoid sharpening film grain. There is no gospel here; you need to experiment and discover the results that please you. Remember, over-sharpening can create image halos around hard tonal edges, outlining these areas in black or white lines.

I use a viewing set-up for the whole image at 100% on screen, and the sharpened preview window at 200%. Additionally, after a sharpen you can Fade the filter (under the Edit menu) through the Luminosity mode and reduce possible emphasis of color artifacts caused by the original sharpen and Bayer-pattern sensors.

I am particularly careful about artifact creation in the "sharpening process". Since most sharpeners are essentially ways of creating light and dark outlines around contrast changes, the key is to create those outlines just below being obviously visible. If a dark outline or white outline has become visible, back off on the amount or radius.

Also be careful of an often internet recommended technique that calls for heavy sharpening with Threshold dialed up to confine the effect to just the edges of the image. This often results in one of the ugliest digital effects I've seen, what I call the oatmeal/razor blade effect, over sharpened edges with what then looks like a mushy blur everywhere else in the image.

Additional Workflow Considerations

Many people duplicate their Background image before sharpening to give them a copy to work on instead of the underlying image. That works fine, but it may be even better to flatten the whole set of editing layers you may have created into a new concatenated layer (command, option, shift E) and work on that layer as contrast and saturation layers can have a dramatic impact on the sharpening.

It is also true that if you bring the RAW photograph into Photoshop as a Smart Object, the Unsharp Mask (and all filters for that matter) become a Smart Filter which can be modified or masked like any other layer.

gray acr

Classic over sharpening, white and dark outlines have been created

Alternative Sharpening within Photoshop

There are various alternative to Photoshop’s sharpen functions. Some are “hand done,” other solutions can be purchased as add-in filters or Photoshop Actions.

In addition to Unsharp Mask, Smart Sharpen is also a standard filter within Photoshop. I don't generally use it as I find its approach to controls very non-intuitive and based on software engineering metaphors rather than photographic concepts.

One manual technique involves using edge selections as sharpen masks by using the Find Edges filter under Filter/Stylize on a duplicate Layer, creating a Luminance mask, inversing the selection, and sharpening your underlying file through the selection.

Another variation on edge detection and exaggeration is the High Pass Overlay technique.

Overlay/High Pass

  • Duplicate the image Layer
  • Set Blending Mode to Overlay
  • Run Filters/Other/High Pass on the just copied Layer. Start with a value of 2
  • Vary the opacity of the Layer for effect you desire
  • Erase the new Layer where the effect is over done such along high contrast edges

Be moderate, focus your camera carefully to begin with, use a fast enough shutter speed to prevent camera movement and crank the ISO if needed. Digital "sharpening" is about creating optical illusion, not about sharply focused photographs. The craft remains up front.


note card

National Park Color Notecard Set
Stephen Johnson
12 cards/envelopes $20 set

From "With a New Eye" Beautiful 300 line screen offset reproductions with envelopes in clear box. A perfect Christmas gift.




or call to order 650 355-7507



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Stephen Johnson Photography at the Pacifica Center for the Arts
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Last updated on December 5, 2010 . Mail comments to: info@sjphoto.com
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