Thursday, July 29, 2010

Birds of a Feather

Sometimes we just don't have the props, or in this case some random wildlife hanging around the studio.  Upon seeing this hat that Valarie brought to the shoot, I immediately envisioned her standing in an area with some crows.  Don't ask me why, cause I don't know myself.  Often something little will set off an idea, and you just have to roll with it and not fight it.  It isn't really something you can be taught, you just have to learn to let you mind wander as you stare at the model or a prop and accept without question what might appear and start exploring it.  I have often warned models that I tend to sit there and stare into space for a while and they are all used to it by now.  I also like to write down ideas and then choose from those or combine them.  In this case, the idea hit me right in the face and there was no second thoughts on it.

Posing the Model
Because the hat has tipped me off, I know the bird(s) will need a landing place, so the tips of the fingers would work.  I thought that a single finger might be harder to work with depending on the bird (which we don't exactly have handy), so I decided on "tips-up" type of gesture which will probably be the most flexible.  The model here is an incredible professional and needed nothing more than to hear my plan and she completely understood.  Val has to be one of the best models I have worked with so far in my career.  She also carries a bevy of props with her, and this $1,400 hat was amongst her menagerie of garments.

Lighting The Portrait
There are 4 lights in this shot, or that was the plan anyway.  To add a little variety and to bend some rules I used a 22" beauty dish with a cloth "sock" over the front of the bowl.  It was camera right and pretty high up as well as far back (6' or so), from the model.  I ganked up the power, so it would reach her at ƒ5.6 or so.  Because the source is smallish and further away I expect the shadows to be a bit more sharp, and indeed they are.  There is a strip-light on either side and slightly behind her, but as you can see the strobe on the left didn't fire. Oh well, I think it worked out as it is anyway.  The other light is a large softbox that is on-axis with the camera  (you can see it in the original photo) and set 2 stops under the key.  This is to help fill some of the deeper shadows that I am creating with the smaller key as well as light the background a bit more.

Push The 'Add Some Birds Button'
In CS5 there is a new "Add Bird" command under the images menu.  From there I selected Crow from the checkboxes and then hit apply to position the bird on her hand!  Ok, well this was actually a bit of work, but not impossible by any stretch if you have a clear vision in mind.  The first thing I needed to do was to find the tone for the image.  I used a texture I like, desaturate it so it does not contaminate what colors I have, and added a color adjustment layer to move it a bit toward burgundy.  I also had to mask out the model from the background, which I tend to do on about every work.  If you can make "planes" of foreground and background elements you discover a lot of capability you will have over working on the image as a whole.

I then took a Dodge brush (large and soft), and added a bit of randomness to the background texture with a 9% opacity on the brush and proceeded to paint like an idiot randomly.  I wanted a mottled look here, so I needed to handle that to avoid it looking to flat for my taste.  While my right hand was painting, my left hand was looking for stock images of birds to use here.  I don't happen to have any cool crow photos laying about, so I bought one from iStock for an embarrassing amount.  I still think iStock hurts the photography industry, but then again times change and there is no going back to the days of $4,000 photos, but that is a topic for another day.

I also found some feathers and this nifty bird and placed them into the image.  The feathers were sliced up from a larger image and placed using the multiply blending mode into the photo.  Mind your depth of field here, as the front feather would not be in focus given the ƒ5.6 and focal distance.  So, I used lens blur on that puppy and then doubled the layer because closer objects have more contrast than those in the distance and these feathers are pretty light using this mode.  The other feathers are similar in process but might have less opacity for the previously mentioned reason.

The so-big-you-could-eat-it crow was next, and it was going to be fun (well, fun to me anyway).  First we create a curve adjustment layer and mess with each color until it seems to fit the scene.  In this case I was using her skin tone as a goal for the breast area of the bird.  I used the dodge and burn tools to "re-light" the bird so it matched the lighting configuration.  I also added some tonal changes to help it appear more realistic than it did in the stock photo which I bought for a wee pittance.  I moved the bird into position over her hand and painted in the claws as I felt they should be using a round damn-small brush (almost a pencil).  Remember to borrow tones from the rest of the bird to make it appear real.  I then revisited my dodge and burn layers with fresh eyes after flipping the canvas vertically.  Remember to do this every so often so you can see things you missed the first time.  As the feather of the bird pass in front of her bodice, I added the shadows there to help it become a more solid object in the reality we have created here.  Shadows are the key and you have to pay great attention to them.  I might cover the types of shadows at some point (yes, there is more than one type) so everyone knows where to start and how to build them up.

Final step was to add a photo filter adjustment layer (some seemingly random flavor of blue) to cool it down just a bit and rescue any value error I might have created with my meaty-fisted tone curve on the fowl in question.  After staring at it for a bit I also added an overlay layer and used a white brush to bring her "forward" from the background (thanks to my earlier creation of her mask).  Total time to complete is about an hour, sans potty breaks from the green tea binge I was on at the time.  Questions?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Beauty Isn't Skin Deep

I thought I would take some time to cover more about retouching skin and some of the techiques I use.  There are a ton of ways to do this the right way, and a bunch more common ways to totally screw it up.  So, lets eliminate the blurring of skin as a method of fixing skin and put it under another category like "ways to look like a total n00b" or "things you learned that you should forget tomorrow".

There are many solid ways to retouch skin, but the goal is always the same:  the skin should look natural and as if it has not been edited at all.  So, as you use whatever techniques you find to be your bailiwick, keep in mind that if it looks retouched you should start over and place whatever method you used into the hopper with blurring the skin.

I did create a video of me working this image and will put it up if people are interested.  I would like to charge for it as it helps pay for some new equipment but would love to know what would be a reasonable price.  If you have an opinion, or if you think this would be valuable, please let me know in a comment.

Lighting the Model
We shot this in a hotel room in Kewaunee, Wisconsin as it was colder outside than expected.  We had several trusty Nikon SB900 speedlights with us and some softboxes.  The key light here is a 28" softbox powered by a speedlight.  There is also a speedlight hitting the ceiling to bring up the ambient in the room so the shadows on her face will not be so dark.  We also have another speeedlight camera right to add some interest to the shoulder, as if the light is coming from the window.  Now this gets a bit tricky, as I know I want the light to look like the window is the source, but in reality we had the shades closed as the color outside was some weird green shade, like you get just before some huge twister drops a house on some witch somewhere.  I decided to pull the shades and add the brightness after the fact, but in the correct color.  I could have added gels to all the speedlights, but it isn't hard to just eliminate the odd-man-out and work it in post.  I know I would be retouching this image because the model was a little self-conscious about her complexion on this day, so hitting the shades would not be much additional effort.

Posing The Model
The pose here isn't anything amazing as it is quite natural.  The few things that bother me after-the-fact as the tilt of the glass and the fact the back of her hand is toward the camera.  Try and avoid that as veins are not pretty and with just a bit of additional lift, we would not have a problem.  The glass has a slight tilt to camera right which bothers me, but I will live with it as the effort to fix it isn't worth it as I am probably the only person that noticed it until I said something.

Post Production & Skin
Aside from adding brightness to the shades we will also need to fix her skin in a few places.  I used liquify on her arms to drop a bit of weight as she mentioned a few times how she hates her arms.  Listening to the model can help you know what areas should be your focus so in the end they love the image and feel good about themselves. 

You might have noticed that the final image is flipped.  I often flip the image several times as I work on it to give my eyes a chance to refresh and see things I might have missed before.  In the end, I don't decide on which flip I prefer until I am done.  Also, remember that people only see themselves in a mirror, so they tend to prefer the opposite view.

There are 4 main tools used in *properly* retouching skin.  You will use ALL of them, and depending on the image one will have more prominence then the others.  Here are your weapons:

  • Clone Stamp - Use at between 40 and 60% opacity
  • Patch Tool - Used for large areas and should be feathered
  • Healing Brush - Awesome tool.  I prefer proximity match
  • Dodge & Burn - Your main tools!  Learn to use them.
There are a few others, but those are a bit advanced and seldom used.

Also, a little hint...  the dodge and burn tools are related, so if you are using one and just hold down the ALT key, you will switch to the other.  Since you use them a ton, this is a great set of tools you can use with only a single keypress.

Describing how to use the tools is a bit difficult, so I made a video of my work on this.  You get to even see me screw up a bit :-)  Let me know if you want the video, as it will be a large download.  I am thinking I will ask for a $20 donation, but let me know if you think this would be valuable at that price.  I really don't want to start charging for info, but I also have to eat :-)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Pump Up The Volume

The image I want to discuss today is one of those *zingers* that captures people's attention.  The cleavage probably has something to do with it, but more than that I feel it is the sense of motion and action that brings the eyes over to see what is going on.

Our image today features Cambriea, probably my most photographed model and someone I have worked with since I got into photography.  I am completely obsessed with hair in my photos, especially the long type.  So much can be done with it and when it is in motion, you can really hear the choir of angels singing.  Often I use fans, or a good breeze, but sometimes you resort to the "hey, whip your head around real fast and don't fall over" technique.

Lighting The Model
Today we are using 4 lights, and this is my first run using my new Einstein strobes from  I am really happy with them and can't recommend them enough.

Our key light is a large reflector (22") made of stainless steel. The AlienBee people call this their Laser Reflector, but basically it works like a silver beauty dish.  I have this over the model and slightly in front of her.  Off to either side are small strip boxes with 40 degree grids to help keep the light off of the background.  Behind the model and camera right is another strobe with a barn-door modifier on it aimed at the white wall.  I did this just to create a bit of visual interest rather than just having a flat gray surface.

I even remembered to take a shot of the lighting setup.  It really takes the magic out of the illusion as you can see the meager environment in which it was shot.  Basically a plain white wall and about 10'x10' of floor space was all that was required.

Posing The Model
Posing consisted of " that again and again until you are almost ready to fall over" series of hair flipping.  The directive of "get your arms out" is the only other piece of advice I had for her.  Overall I think 10 of the 80 turned out well and will probably fiddle with those someday.

Post Production In Photoshop CS5
Well as you can tell we have more work here than one would probably expect.  First we have some physical *oddities* that have occurred due to the swinging of the arms and head to create the dynamic image.  So, using liquify we need to adjust her "ladies" so they are even as well as take that bump off the waistline of the shirt on the pants camera right.  The neck on camera left was pushed forward by her shoulder while turning, so that looks all wonky and needs to be addressed as well. The model is also self conscious of her arms because mom has apparently given her some DNA she would rather give to someone she hates.  So, to please her we will push those in a bit to keep her happy with the image.  No one wants to hear "gee, I look fat in your photo".

Next we need to do as the title insinuated and add some hair.  I borrowed most of her from another image and then masked off all the hair on the right side and added it to this image.  We can then easily mask out her hand and then work on blending the two rats-nests into one happy condo of hair.  Most of this was done with a typical mask and some additional painting of hairs using colors local to where the blending was problematic.

The finishing touch was the addition of the background texture.  I used one of the Flypaper Textures as I like the quality and usability of them. This is the "soft light" blending mode being applied to the image of the steel like texture.  I did go back and mask out her body and most of the hair as the texture was not something that looked good in this case, so it was removed.  I also created a curve layer and set it to "hard light" and masked in only her hair.  This will really push up the highlights so I ultimately lowered the opacity down to a believable level.  In the end your goal should be an image that does not appear to have been retouched.  You will notice she does not have skin made of plastic or weird glowing eyes (not like you can see them in this image).  To often I see skin smoothing gone horribly wrong or people that overwork the eyes.  Just keep the realism goal at the top of the list and you will always produce great work. 

Waiting For Morpheus

final image This image was shot on location in Edgerton, Wisconsin, which I mentioned before is very close to the edge of the Earth (pu...