the power of photoshop

I've been recently receiving some emails about my post production techniques. In most posts I explain what it is that I do in post but never have I shown a before and after of the photograph, for comparison purposes. Today is your lucky day. I am going against the grain here. Typically, I usually go into great depth of how a shot was made with emphasis leaning towards camera and lighting scenarios. In this post, I will explain the workflow that went into this shoot from beginning to end, with more of the weight leaning towards the editing portion of how the photograph was created.

Before I enlighten you let me start of by explaining what motivated me to write this post. I'm a loyal reader of Strobist. David Hobby, CEO of the website, has given me priceless information about off camera lighting. I will be forever indebted to the Strobist cause. Anyway, if you are familiar with Strobist, you probably will notice that there isn't much talk of post production. I did however stumble upon a couple Photoshop links on his "index" page. It was not the first time I found the video but I decided to give it another view. The video is Called "Time Lapse Beauty." If you haven't seen this masterpiece, I recommend giving it a peek. This video reveals to what extremes Photoshop can be used for photographic purposes. After viewing this video for the umpteenth time, I broke down and decided that it may be a good idea to do a before and after post. And without further ado...

The Plan


On the particular day that this photo was taken, I had no preconceived notion that I was going to do anything worthy of making it to this blog. It was a dreary day, lighting conditions were less than ideal. My wife Stefanie (the model) was outside, cleaning up or something like that. I'm exactly clear on what it was that she was doing out there but that is besides the point. I, on the other hand, was watching a podcast by Chase Jarvis via Apple TV. Before I go any further let me state that Apple TV is freaking awesome. No, I'm not getting paid by Apple to say that, although it would be nice.

Anyway, after watching Jarvis shoot while hanging off of a mountain top, I wandered out to see what wifey was doing. I grabbed my camera and ripped off a few semi-candid frames. Stefanie was not prepared or pleased to say the least. Apparently, I caught her at a bad moment. She had just woken up and decided to do some dirty work out back. Needless to say, I had to do lots of begging to get permission to post these photos on the blog.

The Shoot


Nothing too extravagant in the shooting department. Being that this was not a planned shoot by any means, I had no lighting equipment or other wild gadgets to assist in making the photograph. Remember, don't let good light ruin a photo (words of wisdom by Strobist). I had my EF 85 1.8 usm Canon lens strapped to the 40d (yes, I will be upgrading the dinosaur very soon. More on that later).

Again, I wasn't working with any type of strobes or mods, simply available light, which was quite low at that specific time. There was no time for a tripod either. I just wanted to grab a few frames and call it quits. To work handheld in this situation I had to allow the camera to let in as much light as possible. I dialed into a color temperature around 6000 degrees Kelvin.

I had to bump the ISO way up to get the sensor as sensitive as possible. That would ensure that I wouldn't have to get a shutter speed so slow that my shaky hands would cause a blurry mess. I upped the ISO to an outrageous 1600, which, may I say, doesn't perform so well on my dinosaur DSLR. Want to talk about noise? The noise was deafening! See for yourself. I may be exaggerating but I tend to be a pixel peeper and any amounts of significant noise tends to get under my skin. For gigs that are paid, I typically keep that sucker dialed all the way down to ensure I get tack sharp images. My wife wasn't paying me so I decided that this setting was acceptable.

The EF 85 1.8 usm Canon lens is a beauty. I love the image quality that I get from it and I also appreciate that big little number, 1.8. If you are scratching your head about that figure, scratch no more, unless it itches. That number signifies the maximum f-stop. Furthermore, this means that the aperture of the lens can open to a maximum of f/1.8. The smaller the number the wider the aperture opens and the more pricey the lens becomes. Think of the aperture being similar to your pupil. At night (or on LSD) your pupils are very large, allowing as much light in as possible. On the other hand, if your pupils are very small, it's because you are probably outside in the bright sun and less light is needed for you to see. Ok, so, I wanted to get that aperture (pupil) as wide as possible to allow lots of light to hit that sensor. I opened wide to f/1.8, perfect.

Shutter speed is the last part of the exposure triangle that I needed to decide on while shooting in the low available light situation. I knew that the ISO and aperture would get me the fastest shutter possible. Had I went ISO 100 at f/11, I would have needed some strobes and/or a tripod to make the photo possible. At 1600 and 1.8 I knew I could get a reasonable shutter that my shaky hands would be able to handle. I ended up at 1/160 of a second. Perfect for a handheld, strobe free environment.

The camera was in continuous drive mode and within a minute, I had tons of frames. I chimped the LCD and saw that I had more than a few workable exposures. It was time to head on over to the digital darkroom.

The RAW Edits


Here we go. The moment you've all been waiting for. The secret of the universe is revealed here. Pay close attention.

My first step is to upload the photos from the camera. I do so by simply attaching the appropriate USB from camera to computer. I know there are people who rather use a card reader but I find that a waste of time and money. Once tethered, my computer's default is to open Adobe's Photo Downloader and Bridge, respectively. After the process is complete, I view the thumbnail versions in Bridge to decide which are keepers and which are garbage. After narrowing it down to the one I wanted, I double click and the file opens in Adobe's RAW editor (yes, I shoot 100% RAW, nothing else).

In the RAW editor, my edits are fairly simple. It is here that I make basic corrections. I simply work my way down each column. First, is the white balance section. I usually try to keep that dialed in from the camera but from time to time this needs some tweaking. I fiddled with the slider a bit, to adjust the color temperature, but decided it didn't need any adjusting.

Next, I go down to the exposure adjustments. My first choice is to click on the auto option. I rarely stick with this choice but I like to see what the RAW editor thinks the proper exposure should be. The results are typically bad but it never hurts to give it a shot. I go back to default and start my own slider adjustments. For this particular photo, I thought that the exposure was on but needed some bumps in the blacks and contrast. First, I upped the blacks to 6 or 7. I'm a fan of nice rich blacks in a photograph. Sure details in shadows are nice but sometimes blacks should just be black. Period. After finding a pleasing black level, I went to the contrast slider and jacked it up to a healthy level of 50. The dull, flat image you see above left was starting to come to life. There are a bunch of other sliders in the exposure section but I didn't feel that they needed any toying around with.

Below the exposure sliders are three that are in their own little world of RAW edits. These are clarity, vibrance and saturation. I typically avoid the saturation slider at this point but I do give the clarity and vibrance some attention. As with any of my post processing, I don't go overboard with any of these tools. That is a dead giveaway of any amateur who is new to the game. More is not better, trust me. Ok, I first bump up the clarity to 25, this brings in some needed detail, a little pop if you will. Overdo it and your photo is going to look like a failed attempt at a M. Scott Whitson. Take it easy! Next I use the vibrance slider to introduce some needed life in the skin tones. This slider is much safer to use in such matters than using the saturation slider. Adobe has continually improved on this tool, allowing it to recognize skin tones. Give it a try, compare the saturation and vibrance sliders and see which is more intelligent. I up the vibrance to 30, again, not going overboard.

The RAW file is slowing starting to exhibit something that resembles a portrait. Still, there is much needed work to be done.

There are many other options in the RAW editor but I typically only use a few. After being in the Basic section, I skip on over to the Detail section. Here's what went down there. The first section is the sharpening section. Here I bump the amount and detail sliders to a desired level. Be sure that if you are editing in this section that you are zoomed to at least 100% or you will not be able to see the results of your adjustments. For this particular image, I bumped the amount and the detail to 125 while leaving the radius at 1.0 and the masking at 0.0.

Below this section are the noise reduction tools. I'm not a huge fan of the RAW editors noise reduction capabilities but I still use them to some degree. On the Stefanie file, I bumped the luminance and color sliders to 75 while leaving the others at their default settings.

At this point the RAW edits are complete. Again, there are more functions in this editor but I wasn't using them for this particular photograph. Also, you will notice that some edits that I do in Photoshop closely resemble the RAW edits. I redo some in the end to fine tune the photo, not to be redundant. Read on and you'll see.


Photoshop  -  The Fun Stuff


Once I open a file in Photoshop, I make some important decisions. I take a close look at the image to see what approach I will take to get a desired result. This only takes a minute or so but it helps me develop a plan of attack. I highly recommend doing the same, don't go in there without a plan. If you just start to edit randomly, you will end up with one big mess.

First things first. Let me start by saying that no matter which camera you shoot with, no matter how expensive, or inexpensive for that matter, Hasselblad or disposable, the image will have an unwanted color cast. If you aren't using any third party software or plugins, the typical route is to remove the casting via the curves adjustment tool. I've recently chosen a different route, with better results, using Nik's Color Efex Pro. This is a Photoshop plugin that has many different functions. Specifically, they have a color cast correction tool that I have found to be amazing. By default it gives you a reading that it thinks works best for a specific file. It's never quite exact so only a bit of tweaking one slider takes care of any abnormalities. Awesome! Once this is applied it automatically creates a new layer and layer mask. You can then apply where needed and adjust the opacity, accordingly. For the photo of Stefanie, I removed the mask, revealing the effect on the entire image and then lowered the opacity to 75%. This gave me a clean, free of color cast image. I used the shortcut, command E (all functions are Apple based) to flatten that layer into one working layer.

If you take a close look at the wife, you may notice that we had a late night at a local watering hole. Yep, those bags tell the story. Need I say more? The point that I'm trying to make is that my second step in editing a portrait is to work on facial imperfections. Again, in this particular photograph, I immediately noticed the blemishes on her skin. I wanted to remove any and all before moving on to any other step. That would just make all future edits much easier.

Removing bags under the eyes can be tricky. Just like I said earlier, don't go overboard or you will look like a hack. Same is true here. If you do too much, it will be noticeable to anyone that there was major retouching done to the file. Keep it Subtle.

So how did I do it? The trusty clone tool is my goto gadget. This tool gives you much more control than say, the healing brush. There is a time and place for the healing brush but when you need 110% control, the clone tool is the way to go. The file was zoomed in to about 60% so that I was able to get a good look at the problem areas. Once I selected the clone tool, I adjusted its brush size by right clicking. I made it just big enough that it would be a bit smaller than the bags themselves. While that dialogue was still open, I'm double check that the brush hardness is down to zero. Once I had a chosen brush size, I then option click over an area just below the bags. Now that the selection was made, I lowered the brush opacity to 30% and gently paint over the bags. At the low opacity and soft brush, I was able to paint until I had a desirable, yet subtle removal of the blemish. I did this for both sides of her face until I was completely satisfied.

Now, the clone tool was not quite ready to be thrown in its toolbox just yet. There were some more blemishes that needed some attention. If you take a close look, you can see that there were also some pimples or pimples to be that needed some digital popping. The technique used there was almost the same as removing the bags. The only difference being the brush size and opacity. For obvious reasons, I had to shrink down the brush size but still leaving the hardness at zero. I then upped the opacity to 75%. The smaller pimples are an easier fix so I'm confident that at a higher opacity, I would be able to remove the zits without any mistake, in one or two brush strokes.

At this point the model's skin was blemish free but here eye's were not. Lack of sleep had caused the veins in her eye's to be more red than usual. This probably could have went unnoticed but again, I am a pixel peeper that aims for perfection. I can't help myself. My approach at making the whites of the eyes, well, more white, is one I learned from Scott Kelby, the Photoshop master. For this particular photograph, I added a levels adjustment layer. In that adjustment layer, there are three sliders that need attention. They are the highlights, mid-tones and shadows. To get those eyes nice and white, I bumped the mid-tone and highlight shadow until the desired result became visible. Now, this effect was also applied to the entire image, which was not desirable. The remedy was to invert the layer mask by hitting command I. That makes the adjustment invisible. I then grabbed a soft white brush of appropriate size and pained over the whites of the eyes. Once painted in I lowered the opacity of the layer until all looked nice and natural. I don't flatten this and future layers until the end for the simple fact that if needed to go back and adjust some more, I could. I heart layers!

While still focused on the eyes, I decided to add another adjustment layer. This time I added a hue/saturation adjustment layer. I chose the greens (green eyes, duh) and bumped them up to 15. Just as I inverted the mask for the whites of the eyes, I did the same for the greens, painted them in and adjusted the opacity according to taste.

I was done with the fine tuning of the eyes and didn't see anymore specific parts that I wanted to focus on. I was ready to do an overall fine tuning of color and contrast. I once again added another adjustment layer, only this time it was a vibrance layer. Again, I mentioned that I had done so in RAW but now that there were some changes in the overall appearance of the photo, I felt that some extra work needed to be done. With the vibrance layer, I bumped up the slider to 10, not much but just the perfect amount of pop. I left the opacity at 100%.

At this point colors, hues, etc. were looking sweet but I was feeling that a brightness contrast adjustment layer wouldn't be a bad idea. A 25% bump in contrast was just the ticket. Not too much, not too little. Just enough to compliment all other adjustments.

Although I was not done with layers or masks as a whole, I did know that I was done with these particular adjustments. I then flattened the whole image and hit command J to create a new layer from the background. This was a duplicate layer. My goal with this new layer was to add some high pass filter for sharpening purposes. Remember that there was lots of noise so this part would be hit or miss. Once the layer was made and desaturated, I chose high pass, and moved the slider to 60. After choosing OK, the whole image looked gray and odd. This is normal. Under layer style there is an option for vivid color. I chose that and then took the opacity down to 10%. The result was just a nice hint of sharpening to the edges. The reason that I desaturated the duplicate layer was not to effect any color in this sharpening process. Some don't go this anal but I think it is much safer to go that route. Command E flattened the image into one lonely layer.

Things were coming close to complete. I wanted to soften the skin since some blotchy red spots were still bothering me. Once again, I hit command J to duplicate the layer and then chose gaussian blur. I added a healthy amount of blur to the entire image. Once added, another layer mask was added and inverted. I then chose another soft white brush and painted the areas over her face that did not hold detail, such as lips and eyes. Once satisfied with my painting, I lowered the opacity until everything looked very natural. Command E to flatten.

I swear it's almost over.

One final tweak that I like to add to portraits is to introduce a vignette. How I did this? Take a wild guess. Yep, LAYERS! Anyways, I duplicated the background layer and chose multiply under the layer style. This gave me a nice underexposed image. I then made a selection with the rectangle marquee tool. I chose the area about two inches in from each edge. Then I chose the refine edge dialogue and adjusted two sliders, the smooth and feather sliders. All others in this dialogue were left alone. The smoothing slider was pulled to one and the feathering slider up to 200.0. This makes the selection transition very soft. Once that is made I deleted the selection and hit command D to remove the selection, Command E to flatten and bam! Instant vignette.

The, I'm Done Summary

I think that about wrapped up the edits for the day. Cake right? Trust me, once you get the hang of the whole editing process, it becomes second nature. It took longer to write this post than it did to edit the actual photograph. Go figure.

Oh, don't forget to save that photoshop document as a jpeg.

Happy shooting (and Photoshopping)

BTW, If you are wondering, I have Lightroom 3 but prefer the RAW editor and Photoshop. Just a personal preference. If you prefer Lightroom, that is your choice, go for it.

Last but not least, BACK UP, BACK UP, BACK UP. If you aren't backing up your work, well, shame on you. 

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