Photoshop To The Rescue

These days there are a number of schools of thought when it comes to photography. There’s the “why fake it when you can create it” group and I’m solidly in that camp. There’s the “because of Lightroom I don’t need Photoshop” group and I have one foot solidly in that group as well. But Photoshop is my all around quicker-fixer-upper and it’s saved me more than a few times.

I have always tried my best to achieve 99% of my signature look in camera by bringing lots of flashes and plenty of tools to control all of that light. With soft boxes, grids, gels and radio triggers I like to wrestle a look out of my images before they ever get opened on a computer. Most of the time I succeed and my post processing time is minimized. But every once in a while I have a technical problem (like when the lights don’t do what I ask of them). ┬áMy recent senior portrait shoot with Alex is a good example of how I made a mistake on location but rescued the images in Lightroom/Photoshop.

People who know me well know I have a background in design. I’ve spent a lot of years working in Photoshop as a touchup artist and as a member of the Ford Design North America team that specialized in creating “photo realistic” renders. I earned a living sitting in a cubicle and working in Photoshop for 50 hours a week. After spending that much time with a piece of software you learn a lot about what you can and can’t do. Today I’m pretty confident whenever I open an image in Photoshop that I can make it better. For this shot I had a technical problem and I needed to do a lot more than making it better. Here’s what the RAW file looked like right out of my camera:

Out at the location I was looking to underexpose the background but fill Alex back in with my flash. I also planned on using a single flash with a beauty dish and a tight grid as a hair/accent light. I placed a 1.5′ octa to camera right and up high for my main light and the flash with the beauty dish was positioned high and to camera left. When I’m setting up my lights I’m holding my radio trigger and pressing the “test” button to see what the lights are doing. When I am happy with everything I put the radio trigger back onto my camera hot shoe. Unfortunately, for these shots I didn’t have the radio trigger seated properly and the flashes never went off.

Normally I work with assistants who are tasked with keeping an eye on things like the flashes. On this shoot I didn’t have my assistants with me (both were unavailable) so the mistake got by me. When the shot wasn’t looking too god on the camera LCD I began overexposing to get Alex to look correct. He looks great but the background was totally blown out. Here’s a look at what the image looked like after some big moves with the highlight, shadow, exposure and clarity sliders in Lightroom 4:

I probably could have gotten a little more out of this image with Lightroom, but I’ve never felt that Lightroom should completely take the place of programs like Photoshop. Photoshop is a much more involved program with lots of very specialized tools that are perfect for dealing with images like this.

To fix this image I decided to do a majority of the work in LAB color space. Being in LAB is great for attacking contrast information separately from color information. Working in LAB isn’t for everyone but it’s been an important tool for me when it comes to fixing problem images.

When I’m in LAB color space I work mostly with layers, blend modes, curves and masks. These techniques are what I’d call advanced use of Photoshop and not part of my everyday workflow. It takes additional time and you need to keep that in mind when you’re working against a deadline. Sometimes you just need to let an image go because you don’t have the time to do what you’d like (and sometimes you know that after the deadline you’ll revisit an image).

It’s also important to note that working in LAB isn’t the only way to fix a problem image with Photoshop. It just happens to be the way I learned years ago and with my experience (and actions I recorded) I’m able to work faster in this color space than most people. I’ll talk more about working in LAB in a future blog entry.

Here’s a look at the final image after I spent about 30 minutes in Photoshop trying to get the image to look closer to how I envisioned the picture when I was on location:

The biggest difference you should see on the final image is that the background (sky) isn’t completely blown out. Sometimes the sky actually looks completely blown out but when it comes to pictures it’s usually not a good thing.

When people look at pictures their eyes often go the the brightest part of the image first. If the brightest part of the image takes the viewer out of the image (goes to an edge) the viewer doesn’t want to come back to the picture. You’ve lost the viewers interest. This is the reason we use flash to make a subjects face brighter than other parts of the final image.

I knew instantly that having so much pure white around and above Alex’s head was going to kill this picture. My solution was to recover as much information as I could and when it wasn’t enough I found a picture of the sky I took during the shoot and I composited it into the final image. I went with a very subtle blending of the original sky and my emergency sky so that it wasn’t distracting. The final shot now has a sky that looks like it belongs and this keeps the viewer looking at Alex (since his face is now brighter than the sky behind him). The lines of the tree now feel like they lead to Alex instead of away from Alex.

After correcting the sky I removed the park bench using the content aware patch tool (new in Photoshop CS6), added a little light to Alex’s face with the lighting effects filter (Filter>render>lighting effects) and I finished by making some localized corrections.

It turns out that the extra 30 minutes I spent on this picture were worth while since Alex liked the picture enough to order some wallet prints of the final image. He doesn’t know that I made a mistake during the shoot, he only knows that he really likes the final image.

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