Who is Rupert Neve and what does he have to do with Photoshop?
Rupert Neve designed and built, arguably, the finest mixing consoles in the world for professional recording studios in the late 60’s and early 70’s. A mixing console is what is used to reduce all the individual tracks of a typical recording (24 or more) down to stereo (two tracks) for public consumption. Each individual track may contain a separate instrument or vocal. All of these tracks have been built up over time on a multi-track tape recorder, layer by layer, and must be reduced or mixed down to stereo. The mixing process is also a highly creative process as you can imagine.
I was fortunate enough to be able to work with one of Rupert Neve’s gems in one of London, England’s top recording studios during that time period. I had the opportunity to work with artists like Fleetwood Mac, Ringo Starr, Emerson Lake & Palmer, The Yes Band, and other notables of the day. Today, I play with different high-end toys like full-frame DSLRs, a suite of expensive lenses, and Photoshop.
What does Photoshop have in common with using one of Rupert’s mixing masterpieces? Let me count the ways.
This article addresses the many technical and creative similarities of what, on the surface, appears to be two completely different disciplines. The goal, perhaps, is to introduce through an appropriate analogy, some artistic and technical ideas that will make your images better.
Photoshop uses the eyes. Mixing uses the ears. Both of these senses can perceive and recognize creativity in their respective domains. John has a good eye for landscape photography for example. Mary has a good ear for music.
A great image is as much appreciated as a great piece of music, and in as much as the eye can wander and explore the subtle nuances of a great image, so too can the ear dissect and discern the individual instruments in a well crafted (mixed) recording.
Not known to many people is the ability for the human ear to isolate, or zero-in on, a particular sound from what appears to be a cacophony of other sounds. Recording and mixing engineers know this all too well and use this knowledge to great creative effect. Test this for yourself by playing your current favorite song and listen only to, say, the bass guitar. See how long you can focus on the bass without being drawn into, say, the lyrics of the lead vocal. Neat eh?
Photographers are also aware of this same ability in the human eye. We want our audience to roam around in our images but we also want to be able to focus their attention on our subject. Photoshop can assist the photographer in this regard in much the same way that the Neve console can assist the mixing engineer. I will elaborate on this specifically later in this piece.
First, a trick of the trade. Recording and mixing engineers use a little mental trick to help them at their craft. It’s a bit of a mind game that you play on yourself, but it works. When you are waiting for the tape recorder to rewind, you would use that moment or two to play the little trick on yourself. You would say to yourself, “I am about to hear a piece of music for the very first time, and I am going to open my ears and mind, and listen accordingly.” You have to convince yourself of this and you truly have to believe it. I know it sounds corny and contrived but it works. You don’t need to do it all the time – you just need to be able to pull it off when you need to. Professional recording engineers and producers are fully aware of this mental strategy.
So, when you are working for hours on an image in Photoshop, you periodically need to employ a similar trick to keep your viewpoint fresh. Every now and then you need to step away from the computer to give your eyes and brain a chance to re-visit your image as though you were seeing it for the first time.
See, you thought I was kidding about the similarities between PS and RN. There’s more.
Have you ever adjusted the tone controls on your stereo to make it sound better? In the recording studio we call that EQ, short for equalization. A professional EQ is much more elaborate than a simple bass & treble control though. In Photoshop, the comparable adjustment would be called contrast. Photoshop also offers a variety of tools to alter contrast: Brightness / Contrast, Levels, Curves, etc.
The equalizers on Rupert Neve’s consoles also allowed you to highlight or “sharpen” a given track by boosting or cutting specific frequencies. Photoshop too allows for selective sharpening which, by the way, is also a contrast adjustment – but on a much smaller scale.
Dynamic range in audio is very similar to dynamic range in photography. In the recording studio, a signal that is too loud distorts, and one that is too quiet introduces noise. And if the signal being recorded has a greater dynamic range than the recording device allows, we can overcome this problem by compressing the signal using a device called a compressor. Compressors have long been used for this functional purpose but have also been used for creative effect. Imagine being able to make the consonants of the human voice (the esses and tees) sound as loud as the vowels. Listen to any Beatles record or more recently, Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”. Creative compression is now an integral component of the recording and mixing process. Virtually all recorded music today has some form of compression going on.
In photography, if the signal is too bright (loud) it too will distort into pure white, and if the signal is too dark (quiet) it can introduce noise, as well as distort into pure black. If the scene being photographed has a greater dynamic range than the camera is capable of recording, we must reach a compromise. There is no counterpart to compressors in photography. I wish there were compressors for cameras but there aren’t. The only real solution is to take multiple photographs of varying exposure and then let Photoshop compress the dynamic ranges of all the images into one. We call that HDR (High Dynamic Range). HDR has its functional purposes as well as creative.
When mixing a song, there is going to be some element in the music that is the featured component – the subject. Typically, it’s the lead vocal. As a mixer you want the listener to not only hear the lead vocal above the other instruments, but also to be able to understand the lyrics. To do that you must raise the level of the lead vocal in relation to the rest of the band. In photography, the equivalent would be our subject. Photoshop gives us several tools that allow us to bring our subject front and center – just like the lead vocal. The ears are naturally drawn to the loudest part of the mix and the eyes are naturally drawn to the brightest area in an image. Photoshop can help make your subject stand out by making it brighter, or, by making the background darker. A vignette is one of many tools that will do this. Another strategy would be to create a selection of your subject, invert the selection, and then darken what is now a selection of the background – thereby making the subject appear brighter.
The design of Rupert Neve consoles, or any mixing console for that matter, is such that all the controls for most mixing scenarios are available to the mixer on the console itself. However, there are times when you would like to use a piece of equipment that is not found on the mixer. We call that equipment outboard gear. To incorporate the outboard gear into the mixing console, you would simply plug in the component to the console via what we call a patch bay. Outboard gear can be phasers, flangers, auto-tune devices, echo units, etc. In Photoshop we call these additional tools plugins.
When I first started post-processing my images in Photoshop, I could not help but realize that something familiar was going on here. It took me the longest time to recognize the similarities to the craft I honed as a recording and mixing engineer. Once I understood that both processes are essentially the same from a creative perspective, and shared many technical likenesses, I started to incorporate my “feel” of mixing and what makes a good recording into my post-processing in Photoshop. I thought I would share with you some of my thinking in this regard with the hope that you too can be inspired about your images, and how listening to great recordings of music that you love might help you with your post-processing as well.
By: David Mitchell
David will be teaching a Wildlife Photography Seminar called “Drive By Shooting” on January 24th, 2015 at our classroom facility. For more information and to register, visit the official event page.