Planning for Photoshop™

FixitScreen02-13-2015

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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.)

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The light stand is visible in this frame.
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One ambient-light image with the light stand removed.
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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.

07-11-2011

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.

Chelsea was one of the several outstanding models at the photoshoot.

 

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 Meetup.com 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

 

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11-26-2009

Recently we 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.

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

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Time for an updated self portrait

12-29-2008

It’s time to update my self portrait. It looks like the beard is going to stay awhile, so here goes.

This portrait was shot with a three-light setup. The main light was a 24″x36″ softbox positioned camera left . There was a large white reflector just outside of the frame camera right. I also had two small reflector umbrellas on either side as hair/kicker lights. I used a radio remote to trigger the camera, the camera was on a 2-second delay self timer so I had time to press the trigger, drop it and then the camera would fire.

And just to prove that this was a true self-portrait and nobody else was taking the photo, check out this actual setup shot:

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Break dancin


09-16-2008

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.

You can check out a news report on Vince’s school, Flexible Flave, on Youtube.

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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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Self-portrait, from 75 yards away

08-24-2008

This photo was taken while on vacation in the Sierra Nevada mountains. We were floating on a lake, the camera was located on an island and the flash unit was resting on an old tree stump about 20 feet on our right. I used Pocket Wizard radio triggers to fire the camera and flash.

Check out the video for the whole story on how this photo was taken…

If you have a high-speed connection, you can view the video in higher quality by clicking here.

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