Planning for Photoshop™


One of the most overused statements by photographers has to be, “I’ll fix it in Photoshop™.”

When photo editing software is used to compensate for sloppy camera settings, poor composition or incorrect lighting, the photographer must, by definition, degrade the image in order to “fix” it. Exposure adjustments, color temperature adjustments and cropping all remove pixels and, therefore, reduce detail in an image. The photographer does not deliver the best images and the client suffers with this lower quality.

To be clear, I use Photoshop and/or Lightroom on just about every image I deliver. Digital images are not in final form when captured in the camera. RAW images must be processed and some editing adjustments are also needed. But my strategy is to use any photo editing software as little as possible, and only as a last resort if needed to fix a mistake that cannot be recovered in another way (such as a re-shoot.)

Recently I took some photos of an artwork restoration project. Tom Jones owns Sierra Hills Framing in downtown Lincoln. He recently framed a large painting that had been meticulously restored and he wanted some photos of the finished product before it was delivered to the owner.

Here is the back story on this painting: The artist was Gustave Henry Mosler, who lived from 1875 – 1906. He painted this image in 1902. The painting is nearly 8′ tall and about 11′ wide. The owner discovered it stored in a barn on rural property that she had inherited. When she found it, the painting was rolled up, had several rips in the canvas and was covered in mud and dust. At first she considered discarding it without investigating, but soon realized what it was. A professional fine art restorer in Grass Valley brought the painting back to life by attaching it to a new canvas and attaching it to a stretching frame, and carefully cleaning it. Tom Jones completed the final framing work.

I first considered the best way to light the painting in order to photograph it. The surface of the canvas has several ripples and creases, and the glossy paint finish was very reflective. I determined that any lights within the family of angles would reflect on the surface. If I moved the lights more to the sides, the raking of light would bring out the rippled surface and likely reflect those as well. After looking at the painting, I decided the best solution was to photograph this item with the full intention of using Photoshop as part of the primary capture process.  I would light and shoot the painting as two separate images and blend them into one image in post production.

The most important key to blending images is to use a sturdy tripod – this provides images that register and align without any changes in perspective.  I positioned the tripod at the center of the painting, and raised it as high as it would go. I noticed that the painting was leaning at a different angle than the back of my camera, so I made a note to also adjust the perspective of the final image. I chose not to move the painting at all.

I positioned two monolights, each one high on a light stand on either side of the camera, about 10′ away from the camera. Each light had a 7″ reflector and cast a bright glare on its respective side of the image. In my test shots I could see that the placement was correct for the effect I wanted. I was getting a clean shot of each half of the image. With the lights set at equal power, I shot two frames, each with only one light firing.

With one light firing from the left, its reflection appears in the upper quadrant of the painting, but the part I plan to use is the right half.
The light on the right gives clear color, and very little reflection on the left half of the image. I knew had the pieces I needed to make a complete image.

Before moving anything, I also positioned Tom to one side of the painting, put a softbox on one of the lights, moved it closer to Tom and took an additional photo with him standing next to the painting. This would give me an additional frame for blending.

The only part of this image I cared about was the section outside of the edge of the painting where Tom is standing. The softbox is visible in the upper left part of the image.

That was it for the camera – half of my capture was done. I brought the images into Photoshop and put each of them in a layer. With simple layer masking I was able to blend the two images of the painting with very little effort. An additional layer mask allowed me to include Tom in the photo, as seen below.

The final image, the result of a planned composite of three images.

In this result, the colors of the painting are reproduced accurately and as vibrant as the original. Including Tom in the image gives the viewer immediate information about the size of this painting.

I spent about 5 minutes planning my approach. The setup time was about 10 minutes, shooting took about 5 minutes and the post production work was an additional 10 minutes.

This is a similar technique to the way I’ve made many real estate photographs, where the lighting gear is best located within the image and removed later in a blended image.

Here is another example of this technique. I wanted a tight grid light on Jen, but also wanted to include a large part of the empty room. The light needed to be fairly close to her, so I chose to shoot an image with the light stand in the image and remove it by blending two images. (These photos were taken at the old rail yard buildings in downtown Sacramento prior to reconstruction.)

The light stand is visible in this frame.
One ambient-light image with the light stand removed.
The final image – no light stand visible.

When a photographer appropriately plans to use editing software as part of the image-making process, the resulting photo can be made quickly and easily, without loss of detail.

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Sweet Times at the Sugar Mill

The Old Sugar Mill was in operation between 1935 and 1993.


I recently attended a group photoshoot sponsored by Click Monkeys, a Meetup group formed by Sacramento photographer Tim Engle. Tim arranged access for a group of 84 photographers to use the Old Sugar Mill facility in Clarksburg.

The sugar mill opened in 1935 and processed sugar beets into sugar until 1993, when it closed. For many of these years it was operated by the American Crystal Sugar Company. Coincidentally, my father worked at this factory as a mechanic in the mid-1960’s.

Parts of the Sugar Mill have been restored and it is now home to several local winery tasting rooms, a wedding and reception venue and an outdoor entertainment area.

A panoramic view of the Old Sugar Mill property.

The photo group had access to the unimproved areas of the facility. Spanning several levels, the building shows signs of abandonment and decay. Much of the processing equipment has been removed, leaving large openings in the floors. Most(!) of these openings were roped off to keep us from falling through. Debris, dust and broken windows added to the ambience of the old facility.

An old coffee/paint can – wonder how long it has been there.

It was eerily poignant to walk around the building and wonder what it was like for my dad to work there almost 50 years ago. I imagined the sights, sounds and smells of the factory equipment when it was in full operation during the “campaigns”, the busy harvest times of sugar processing.

Tim does a great job of arranging these meetups, providing numerous talented models, hair and make-up artists.

Photographers of all skill levels can practice their technical skills and learn about interacting with and directing models. Sometimes the models are surrounded by enthusiastic shooters, somewhat paparazzi-like. The advantages are the close proximity of many people who can answer questions and share creative ideas. The disadvantages are the way it can be a little chaotic at times, and often leads to several people taking away very similar shots.

I was mainly interested in learning more about high dynamic range (HDR) photography and I knew that a couple of the people co-hosting the event have lots of experience with HDR. I appreciated the quick-start tips I received and had some fun trying out the HDR techniques. This type of environment lends itself to HDR, with a wide range of light levels (sunlit windows and dark shadows in the same scene.)

HDR photography combines a wide range of exposure levels in one image.
This is HDR with some extreme processing, makes for a surreal look.

The digital camera cannot capture the full range of light levels in one image, so HDR involves taking several different exposures of the same scene and blending them into one image. Some HDR can be overprocessed and look pretty dreamlike, but it also has some pretty useful application in areas such as indoor architectural photography.

One of my favorite portraits is this one, taken of fellow photographer, Carl. I asked him to step in for a simple lighting experiment. I put a small strobe on a light stand and placed a gridspot over the flash and set it to fire at about 1/64 power. This gave me a very low-level, concentrated spot of light that I placed on Carl’s eyes – just enough to punch up the light a little and add some drama to the portrait.

If you want to get out with other photographers and practice, check out and search for a photography group in your area. These groups are a great way to learn new techniques, practice, and check out interesting settings.

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Dos Caballeros




Recently I took a drive to the Napa Valley area to photograph fall colors in the vineyards. These two gentlemen were relaxing in Calistoga, sitting along the main street. They were quite willing to be photographed, although they may look a little apprehensive here. This image was taken late in the evening, it was much darker than it appears. Gotta love the new 5D Mk II and its low light resolution.

A few red leaves frame a bunch of grapes in a vineyard.
A vineyard sits among the rolling hills of Napa Valley.

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Break dancin


I was invited to join a photoshoot arranged by fellow shooter, Scott Fischbein, a photographer out of Davis, CA. Scott had arranged to take some dance shots of local breakdancer, Vince Horiuchi.

We met up with Vince and his girlfriend, Linh, in Old Sacramento. Vince was great to work with, he kept us on our toes with his fast moves. The photo above was taken near the historic railroad yard in Old Sac.

This photo was taken in an area off one of the alleys in Old Sac. Vince has an amazing energy level and gave us a full 90 minutes of mind-blowing photo opportunities. This photo was lit with two speedlites, cross-lighting Vince from the right and left sides. We used the speedlites to freeze Vince’s movement and add some drama to the scene.

The last photo of Lihn was taken in the same area. The lighting was changed to provide better dimension to her face.

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Passionately Pink

I recently shot some images for a promotional campaign for the Sacramento Chapter of the Susan G. Komen Foundation – the campaign is called Passionately Pink. I photographed a few prominent legislators at the State Capitol; they are showing their support for the Komen campaign by wearing pink ties, boas, whatever.

These are some of the final images chosen for the campaign. On all photos, I used a single speedlight with a white shoot-through umbrella. I needed to move quickly so as not to interfere with their busy schedules. In some cases, I had less than 5 minutes to move into the office, pick out a setting, establish rapport with the subject, set up the light, test exposure, move them into position and get the right expression, take some shots, then grab everything and get the heck outta there. (Click on the images to see a larger version.)

Senator Darrell Steinberg’s office had this great old brown leather couch, so I asked him to sit on his couch. I positioned the main light to the left of the camera and attached a white reflector to the door that is just out of view on his left shoulder. Senator Steinberg was very relaxed and quickly jumped into the picture.

Assemblyman Dave Jones was a lot of fun. He was busy that afternoon, he was literally putting on the pink tie while he was walking around his office discussing things with his staff. There was not a lot of floorspace in his office, so I set up the light stand on the center of his conference table and let the reflective wood paneling on the wall take care of filling in light on the dark side of the image. (I used three business cards as coasters on the table to insulate the light stand feet from the surface of the table.) When I was ready, he stepped into the photo and was immediately relaxed and present as I shot away.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (top photo) was very receptive, in spite of her busy schedule. I set up the main light on camera right and let the window light provide fill and nice ambient light for the scene. This photoshoot was the fastest, yet we had time to include Assemblywoman Patty Berg (right) in some of the shots. Both women were very down to earth and the images show their genuine support for the Komen mission.

This assignment was a lot of fun. It’s always a pleasure to shoot for the Komen group, they are very committed to eliminating breast cancer. These images will be shown on video screens in restaurants, in movie theaters between movie screenings, and on websites. The final video presentation required that all images be taken in a horizontal format; usually portraits are taken in the vertical format. It’s always important to understand the final usage of the images before taking them.

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Portrait with two lights…..and an ice chest lid.


Every once in a while you have to make use of whatever is laying around. In this case, I took a portrait of Kenny in a small space in a cabin. I used the bookcase to hold a black fleece backdrop and a hairlight on a clamp. I had two lights and wanted to use the second light as a hair light to keep the top of his head from disappearing into the black background. When I took a few test shots, I noticed the right side of his face was too dark. I looked around the cabin for something to use as a white reflector to add a little bit of light to the dark side of his face. I spotted a large white styrofoam ice chest on top of the refrigerator. I used a large rubber band to attach the lid from the ice chest to the back of a chair and placed it just to Kenny’s right. See the setup photo below.
(You can click on this setup photo to open a larger one in a new window.)

Main light: I placed a Vivitar 285 on a light stand, at camera right, with a white shoot-thru umbrella. This flash was set to 1/4 power and was placed about 3′ from him. I set the light stand on a table.

Hair light: I then used a Home Depot squeeze-clamp to mount another Vivitar 285 to the bookshelf behind and above Kenny. This flash was set at 1/16 power and had a gridspot on it to localize the light just on Kenny’s hair and right shoulder (opposite the main light).

Reflector: I attached the white styrofoam lid to a chair and placed it to Kenny’s right side.

Camera Position: I placed myself about 5′ away from Kenny.

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Natural curiosity


When you’re three years old, a ladybug can be pretty interesting. I wonder at what age we stop caring about the little mysteries of nature. I remember burning things with a magnifying glass and what a fascinating trick that was.
I think we can all learn something if we stop moving long enough for a ladybug to want to spend some time walking around on a leaf for us.
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Environmental Portrait Using Three Speedlights


Does the background in this photograph tell you anything about the person?

An environmental portrait shows a person within a context that explains something about the person. Usually, the image includes elements of the environment and these elements are visual clues about the subject matter.

In this case, I took a portrait of a Lutheran Minister (Pastor Bill) and wanted to include some parts of the back wall of the church altar. This required that I light the background on a completely different plane than the minister.

(You can click on this lighting diagram to open a larger one in a new window.)

Background light: First, I placed a Vivitar 285 on the floor near the back wall and placed a snoot on the flash to localize the light on the wall in a small area. This flash unit was set to 1/4 power.
Pastor Bill was positioned in the center aisle of the church, about 40′ from the back wall.

Main light: I placed a Vivitar 285 on a light stand, camera left, with a white shoot-thru umbrella. This flash was set to 1/4 power and was placed about 3′ from him.

Kicker light: I then used a Home Depot squeeze-clamp to mount another Vivitar 285 to the top of a pew behind and to the camera right of Pastor Bill. This flash was set at 1/16 power and also had a snoot on it to avoid lens flare. This light provided enough separation to keep Bill from blending into the background.

Camera Position: I placed myself about 20′ away from Pastor Bill and used a longer lens to compress him with the background, yet leave the background slightly out of focus.

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Portrait with Two Lights


I took some photos of Stephanie and Jeff on New Year’s Eve. This was a simple two-light set-up using Vivitar 285HV speedlights. These flash units have been around for about 30 years and they are still my favorite workhouse. The 285HV has a zoom and tilt head, and allows for some manual settings that allow you to reduce the flash output to 1/2, 1/4 and 1/16 power, thus giving much more control over the light. I added some velcro to the flash head to make it easy to attach a snoot or gobo.

(you can refer to the lighting diagram below as I describe the setup)

Backdrop: I placed Steph and Jeff in front of a black fleece backdrop. Black fleece is light and easy to store. Just stuff it into a bag – when you pull it out, there are no lasting wrinkles! It is easy to use a few pieces of blue painter’s tape to attach it to a wall. And you can light it with a color-gelled-flash for some extra “pop” behind the subjects. In this session, I left the fleece unlighted.

Posing: In this pose, Steph is sitting on a short stool in front of a white posing table. Jeff is kneeling right behind her. I wanted to bring their faces close together to give the sense of closeness between them. I also wanted to be sure that their eyes and mouths were not horizontally aligned. It gives a little more dynamic look to the image when the subjects’ faces are not at the same height.

Main light: The main light was a Vivitar 285HV at camera right. Notice the placement of the little catchlights in the eyes – this gives you the first clue about light placement. I shot the flash through a 43″ white shoot-thru umbrella to soften the light on their faces. The flash was set at 1/4 power – this gave me a working aperture of f/8 at ISO200- just about right for this image. The umbrella was about 1′ above their faces, slightly pointing downward.

Hair light: The second light was a Vivitar 285HV placed high on a light stand above and behind Stephanie. This light was pointing downward at the tops of their heads to give their hair some rim-lighting and separate them from the background. I placed a gridspot on the front of the flash to localize the light on them without lighting the rest of the scene. This flash was also set at 1/4 power. Both flash units were triggered with Pocket Wizard remotes.

Reflector: I placed a large white reflector just on the outside of the frame at Stephanie’s right shoulder. This adds a little bit of light to the opposite side of their faces, away from the main light. Since the main light is still stronger, it gives nice modeling to their faces.


What went well:

  • With the flashes set at 1/4 power, the recycling time was about 2 seconds. This allowed for quick shooting without long pauses.
  • The main light provided nice soft light on both faces. The subject placement gives a nice close feeling between Steph and Jeff.
  • The white posing tabletop reflected a small amount of light up into the faces. This slightly lightened up the areas under the eye brows and below the chins.

What Needs Improvement:

  • I noticed that the hairlight did not illuminate Jeff’s hair as much as I would have liked. This does not give a strong separation between his dark hair and the dark background. The existing separation is passable, but I would have liked it to be a little more prominent.

Overall, I am very happy with the results. This was a simple lighting setup and demonstrates that a minimum amount of portable equipment can support the creation of nice portraits.

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