Wednesday, December 23, 2009



Settings: Ambient was completely underexposed, 3 stops or more. Large white softbox from camera left at neutral grey, and small gridded softbox from above and to camera right at +1.5 stops over neutral grey.

This one was a little different than most of my stuff, being that it was a real studio shoot rather than a location based outdoor shoot. I was inspired by a real life lighting situation. I was riding the train, and sitting in one of the small glass booth partitions. It had a glass back wall behind my head, which let in the bright soft light from the main car to provide a dim fill, and a spotlight embedded in the ceiling lit up my forehead and cheekbones while leaving my eye sockets relatively dark. The reflection on the window behind me gave a brighter background to show the silhouette of my face. I knew I wanted to use this lighting setup, but it would require more equipment than I have.

Luckily a coworker allowed me to borrow his grey seamless background, a hensel studio flash and giant 1x1.2 meter softbox. First step was to setup the seamless, fairly easy, just two stands, a cross bar and a roll of paper. I have to get me one of these. Next was his softbox. I kept the power as low as it could go, because it was a 1,000 watt unit compared to my 400 watt running the small softbox. The large one was to keep anything from going black, to illuminate the background, and cast a nice soft shadow onto the background, anchoring the subject.

I set my camera to iso 100, 1/125 and f/5.6 to get sharpness and enough depth of field. I was using an 85mm lens to get rid of any distortion from being a full body shot, and to make sure I only got grey seamless background. (longer lenses compress the background, shorter lenses show more, subject size staying the same) The background was featureless so there was no room to isolate or try to over increase dof. The softbox had to be boosted just a tad to get the right lighting on the face. Most of this initial time was spent with my friend acting as assistant (more on this later). I had to move the softbox forward, closer to the camera axis to get the light to fall correctly and fill both eye sockets. I also kept it about 3 meters back to evenly light him and the background without too much severe light falloff. The dark color of his suit, and the lightish grey of the background paper is what gives the nice silhouette outline. The softbox adds just a bit of volume to the suit, but it's too low to brighten it fully. The grey paper background reflects a lot more, giving a good tonal change. The soft shadow on the background paper is from the large softbox.

Once the fill softbox was dialed in, I added my small 30x40cm softbox with 20 degree grid to a boom, directly in front of the subjects face, about 2/3 of a meter above the head. I wanted the light to hit his face, but only on the forehead, and cheek ledges, not fill in his eyes. This would give me several things key to the look: Deep eye sockets, falloff from head to toes bringing attention to the face, soft edged shadows from the apparent size of the softbox being so close to the face. Without the giant fill softbox, the eyes would have gone way too dark, and had no catchlight, making a much more sinister look. The bright area around his feet are from the beam of this overhead softbox.

I really like how clean the final result came out without looking too soft or safe. It has some edge and contrast to it, with a clear focus point of his face, and nothing important getting lost.

Thursday, December 17, 2009



Settings: Ambient was all over the place, the lightbulbs almost clipping and the shadows near black, but it was a neutral exposure with no flash. Flash at 2 stops over neutral grey providing the rim light on his shoulders and hair.

Above is the final composite, click through for large.

Below is the animated gif of all layers, with images brought in fully, then the next frame showing the masks applied to cut them out.

  1. First was to get the main background plate more symmetrical. The benches were slightly offset, so I evened up the front most bench. The farthest two benches on the left were broken (not illuminated) so I cloned over the benches and lit tree trunks from the right side.
  2. Darken the farthest trees so it would fade well into the next layer.
  3. Comp in 2nd photo of the same benches, but I was further away. This required scaling the image way down and careful placement to make it fit.
  4. Color correction for the main background plate.
  5. Using an exposure layer, I boosted the foreground path, and then comped in some empty ground from one of the bench shots with no subject. It was made by copying just the ground in front of the bench, then duplicating it, and flipping it vertically to be now above, doubling the height of the lit ground, then using perspective scale matched to the perspective of the bottom chunk. Then I used the clone brush to get rid of the seam or any other identifying details you saw near the flipped edge.
  6. Add in fake shadow from the bench using another exposure layer set to reduce exposure.
  7. Pull in the bench, then mask away the dark background. I mainly used the marque selection with a 1 pixel feather built into the setting (only CS3 and above). I used a magic lasso for the non geometric bits, and a paintbrush to clean up, working in the mask.
  8. Bring in the subject and arrange him in place, mask him out using magic lasso and then a brush for cleanup.
  9. Exposure and contrast boost on his face. I liked this body pose and another face, so I comped that together also.
  10. Final color correction on all layers.

I found a new trick for matching White Balance on separate layers, and that's to make a Hue/Saturation layer at the top of the image with saturation set to 100%. This makes color discrepancies really obvious and can be turned on and off by hiding the layer.

In the end, the final composite looks very similar to my original vision I had in my minds eye. Shooting everything at the same time and in the same lighting conditions, as well as with similar standing heights and angle the camera is aimed will make sure these composites work. If the lighting is lying between layers, or the perspective radically different, your white balance matching and perfect masks won't have any affect on unifying the image.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


This is a super quick mockup, sloppy layer masks, no real color correction, but it lets me preview the final result and see what sizes and where I need to focus my retouching on.

You can see the layers in the animated gif build up below.

I like the general layout. I'm going to have to work on the perspective of the front bench, clone in some ground so that the ground below the front bench doesn't fade into green grass, but into more dry dirt path, color correct, fix the masks, and balance the values of the different layers so that his face is still the focal point.


A friend of mine mentioned that there are fluorescent tube park benches near my work in Dusseldorf. I knew I wanted to do a shoot there, and struck out on a research trip during lunch. The park benches were cool but there wasn't much behind them providing interest. I knew I'd need to do a composite of some sort. I was pretty sure the park benches would make a nice scene when looking down the lane with them on either side, and there was an interesting building in the background as well that could be used.

Once I arrived with my subject, we focused first on getting the shot I wanted of him. I like symmetrical poses, but I wasn't absolutely sure of what I wanted, so we shot several, focusing on his leg position, how slouched or straight he sat, and whether he looked directly at me, or off to the side. I plan to roughly mock out the final comp with my 3 or 4 favorite poses and see which one feels right.

These are my initial shots in lightroom, no post processing yet. I imported the entire shoot, and went through adding one star to all the ones I thought had promise, or the best background plates for the final comp. Then I turn on ratings with only one star, so that all the rest are hidden and I can focus on these.

You'll notice that most of the poses are similar with slight variations. I won't know which one is best till I mock up the final comp and see how it feels. The background plates show that I got a clean shot of the bench with no light stand or subject, and then a few views of the park benches to pick from. The building will most likely be so blurred in post that it's ok there are some cars and pedestrians, but in all the shots I waited till the scene was empty of people as much as I could.

Monday, November 23, 2009



Settings: Ambient is around neutral grey, with the flash modeling light one stop over neutral grey.

This is my friend Sebastian. He told me he had an awesome balcony with a view of the city of Cologne, and he wasn't lying. While visiting with him, he went out to smoke, and it gave me this really cool vibe of him out there, and I felt like doing a Marlboro man-esque shoot with him there.

I knew before the shoot it was going to be difficult. The city is way in the background, so keeping them both in focus even on a bright day would be hard, at night even harder. Even just letting in enough light for proper exposure was an ordeal. This was taken at ISO 1600, F/1.8, and 1/30 of a second on an 85mm lens. The light was so low, using the flash was out of the question, so this is just the modeling light from the Quadra, a 20 watt LED that is daylight balanced.

I used the softbox without the inner baffle to let through as much light as possible, but used the fabric grid to restrict the light to his face, with some falloff towards the body. To get a good balance, the light is about 2 meters from his face on the right. Then I turned on the lights inside his flat, which were tungsten bulbs, to provide some fill, that's where the orangeish light is from.

With the camera cranked to maximum light gathering mode, I was able to properly grab an exposure of him with the city. The only problem is that the city was super blurry from the 1.8 aperture. I solved this by moving him and taking another photo of the city in focus, so I could blur to taste in Photoshop with the lens blur filter. I wanted a little blur to isolate him as the subject, but not so much that the church was unrecognizable. By masking him out first, I was able to blur to the exact amount I wanted, which was not much. I'd say this is the equivalent of the same photo at f/8 or so, which would have required a camera with iso 12,800 or so.

In post I first did some body editing, using liquify to change the profile, and dodge/burn to sculpt in more muscles. Then I masked him out, quickly with the magic lasso tool, then cleaned up with the brush using a layer mask. I added clouds to the background from another shoot, since the sky was empty, collapsed it, then blurred the collapse layer, blending the skyline and clouds perfectly. Then I used my masking trick from this post: to blend the border of him in so it wasn't so obvious he'd been cut out.

Here you can see the stages of editing. The final stage is multiple small things, from enhancing the intensity of the cigarette, to adding some fresnel glow on his silhouette to imply the city lights, to the masking trick, high pass sharpening, and a final color grading to unify it all.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009



Settings: Ambient (on the subject) is one stop below neutral grey. Flash is one stop above neutral grey.

This past week I traveled to Lausanne to vacation and attend a strobist meetup. I had a great time and got a chance to photograph two very good models, Sandra and Scott. I was a group leader, and when we were asked if any group wanted to use the library, I volunteered, as it was very bright and sunny outside, and I didn't know the campus we were on. I didn't want to lose too much time walking around looking for a spot. Once in the library, the tables and chairs near the brightly lit windows immediately drew my attention. I explained how that when walking around looking for locations, I use my hand to envision how the ambient light will fall, and how bright the exposure on it compared to things in the background will be. It's much faster than having the camera up and trying to arrange the model. It's like a divining rod for pleasing light.

Once we were all set up, I asked the group if they wanted me to walk through a normal shoot, and they said yes. I'll try to repeat all the steps and explanations here.


This first image is the natural light only. I explained my first choice is always lens fov. Because of the location, a wide angle lens would have revealed that this was just a row of tables at the edge of a library, and for the narrative of this photo, I wanted it to feel more like a warmly lit cafe. A telephoto lens would compress the scene to only show the row of tables and give a more blurry background, creating more subject isolation, and a pleasing pattern of all the background patterns.

Step two for me is to figure out ambient exposure. If I'm planning to use flash, I use 1/180 as my ceiling for shutter speed (1/200 is the 5d sync speed, but I can't seem to get my skyport/quadra setup to reliably sync, but it always hits 1/180, and I have my camera set to half, rather than third stop exposure changes, so 1/200 doesn't show up anymore, but 1/180 does). It was really bright in this room so I was able to use ISO 100, 1/125 and f/2.

We noticed that the background really blew out in brightness, so our next step was to try to control the background, and use the flash to augment the existing light. The goal was to get the same overall feel as the ambient only image, but with complete control of background and subject illumination. I doubled the shutter speed to 1/250 to darken the background. This left the face quite dark, but I positioned my softbox in the same location as the window, and powered it up to match. Because I did not want spill on the table, the shutter at 1/250 managed to block the flash from hitting the table, which was a convenient feature.


The light is a bit more contrasty and specular than the window light only, but to be honest I prefer it that way. It's not quite as appropriate for women as for men, but she had sufficient makeup on that it worked well anyway. Specular highlights tend to work nicer in bringing out skull structure on men, whereas women look better looking smooth and matte.

Notice how in the ambient only image, the bright areas in the background fight for visual attention with her face. In the flash lit image, we were able to darken the background, add a bit of volume to her face, and bring it out brighter. Now there is no question where the eye should go, directly to the subject's face. With this control we could darken the background even more, or let it bleach out. The flash frees us from the ratio of the ambient only.

Next I wanted to try a different feel. With the crop occurring mid-torso, it has a more relaxed location feel. But since she had very nice legs and a short dress, I felt that a more full body shot would be more beauty/glamor. I asked her to move the chair to the edge of the table so that I could see all of her.


Settings: Ambient (on the subject) is even with neutral grey. Flash is one stop above neutral grey.

For this the flash is coming from almost directly in front of her face, perpendicular to the camera. One of the group members asked about how the light would work in terms of reading well, since the ambient light is clearly coming from the other side. I said that since it was an indoor location, there would most likely be interior lights, and having a light source coming from the other direction was ok and would most likely still read well. It was a good question though, as it's good to have your light motivated by existing ambient. It is possible to break the lighting on the subject so they appear not to actually exist in the background.

I also explained that once I have a lighting setup and pose that I like, it's fun to explore around to the different angles, and you can potentially find a really nice image that you hadn't pre visualized. This was one such example.


This was the first part of the day, I will cover the second portion tomorrow or the next day.

Sunday, August 16, 2009



A forum I participate in expressed interest in my workflow of post processing my portraits. This was a recent image I was happy with, so I decided to document my workflow.

For this shot, I worked the way I normally do, in that I find a location first, then arrange a subject and clothing and engineer a lighting setup. I also work backwards from getting my ambient exposure first, and only then adding in flash. My work qualifies as portraiture, but my subjects and their faces are always much smaller in the frame than pure portraiture. I like using interesting environments as framing and compositional elements.

Sometimes this requires compositing, because the environment only has a specific feeling at a time of day where I can't have a model in a helicopter waiting to be drop-flown in.

For this particular shot, I saw this doorway while bicycling past one night, and it just had this timeless, slightly victorian feel to me. I made a trip back out a few nights later at the right time period (it's boring during the day) and worked out which lens I wanted to use (I almost always use my 35mm for these type of shots, but I wanted to see if the extra compression of 50 would still get the door in, it didn't) and how far back I need to be, standing or crouched, and where I would put the model to get them the size I want and to be frame properly.

Straight out of the camera original:

First things first. I try to work from a top down approach. Largest changes first, especially things that will move pixels. I like to work in a non-destructive workflow, with layer effects, which means I use a lot of masks. Moving pixels after making a mask, requires you to either re-paint the mask, or to move a merged copy of the previous layers, which is destructive. That means my first goal is to remove all the crap that dates this as a photo from 2009. Garbage cans, metal pipes, placards, etc, all have to go. I purposefully lined up the image to be centered and completely parallel to the film plane. This means I can use uncluttered areas of the left side to cover up clutter on the right.

So I duplicate the whole layer to a new layer, and flip it from right to left:

Next I apply a mask, and invert it. This hides the entire layer. I am now free to reveal the layer by painting into the mask. The next image shows my mask, overlayed onto the original layer. The white parts are where I've revealed the flipped image, essentially covering what's underneath. To recap, I'm covering the original image, with the flipped image, using a mask.

This is just that duplicated and flipped layer, showing only what the mask is allowing to be revealed.

Here is the combination of that flipped info, and the original layer:

This is all the info I can salvage easily. Now I have to clean up manually. I create a new blank layer, use the clone stamp tool, set to "sample all layers" otherwise it can't clone because it's on an empty layer. I now grab info from nearby areas that will cover the remaining metal bits easily. I do this on a new layer, because the normally end up either too bright, or too dark to match the surrounding materials seamlessly, so by having them on a new layer, I can just marquee select and use dodge/burn, exposure, or curves to get it to where it matches the value and color much better. If it still shows some borders, then I break out the healing brush to properly blend together, but this image didn't need it. This is just that empty layer with the clone stamped bits:

And the result of this layer on top of the previous ones:

Next I do some sharpening, using the high pass technique I've posted before, as well as a smart sharpen. The final background plate:

Once I arranged the model and shoot time, we headed out and I took the photo. It was in the same location, but it was much earlier in the day (model was limited on when he could come). This was both a blessing and a curse. The good part is that the higher ambient level opened up the shadows on his face, and it's easy to darken to match the original. The bad news is that right out of the camera, it didn't match at all.

Large things first again. On the subject, the large things are always proportional changes. I often use the liquify brush to lengthen or compress, widen shoulders, narrow waists, etc. For this, I straightened his stance, and used liquify to bring his waist area a bit narrower. I also used some dodge/burn to bring out his pectoral muscles a bit more.

Next, I didn't like how sloppy the hang of his jacket was. It made him look really wide, and it was visually too heavy. I used the lasso tool to grab the hanging portions, and lifted them to a new layer (you can do this with ctrl+j) Then I used the warp transform to make it sit snugger to his body, while still looking like it's hanging. This left some gaps which I filled with just the paint brush tool, color picking from the surrounding fabric and just connecting the gap. Here is just that layer:

Here it is showing on the layer. You can still see the original jacket showing, but it's ok, because I will be masking the background in over top. I will just make it so the mask covers the old jacket line.

Now I bring in the background plate, and position it over the environment correctly. I have made a mask the shape of the subject to hide it where he is. This is why I made all the changes to him first. If I had made this mask, then tried to make his waist thinner, I'd have to repaint the mask, or I'd need to be editing a flattened layer for no reason:

Two things are immediately apparent. First is that the plate isn't wide enough, second is that the color is way off between the two layers. I started by fixing the background to be wide enough. I duplicated the background plate, and killed the mask. Then I used photoshop's "content aware scale" to make the background plate wide enough. Then I put it below the previous background plate, mask away the center really quickly, because all this needs to do is extend the edges:

Their was a seam between the original un-stretched background, and this one underneath. I just painted on the edges of the mask on the top layer to get rid of it and seamlessly blend the two. Now I have the unstretched background with the tight mask around the subject on the top, and the stretched version below:

Now I want to match the lighting on the subject to match the background. I made a new exposure adjustment layer with -4 exposure on it. I put this layer above the subject, but below the background. Now I added a mask, and only painted on it where the subject needed darkening.

This is the mask of the exposure layer. Full white darkens -4 stops, full black does nothing. I left this layer totally away from the face, to keep the night lighting from the flash, and the fill from the ambient, but on the legs, I added it all over, but mostly to the shadow side of the wrinkles and the leg, where the flash didn't reach. This way it simulates what the lighting would be had the ambient actually been as dark as the background. This layer mask probably was the most time intensive of the steps, because I needed the border from leg to cobblestone to be perfect. If it bled onto the pants, I got a black cartoony line, and if it bled onto the cobblestones, they became too bright. I ended up making a new alpha layer with the magic lasso tool to have an easy selection that would give mea nice border:

There was still too much of a separation between the cobblestones and the stairs. It looked too bright to look natural. Check the image 16, two images back. I added another exposure layer, with -1.5 stops, and just gave a quick brush stroke into the mask where the cobblestone meets the stairs, keeping the stroke off the legs, in order to darken the cobblestone where it meets the stairs.

Now the lighting matches, but the color tone is still way off. I added a color balance adjustment layer,which lets you tint your shadows, midtones, and highlights. It's good for split toning, and especially matching mixed ambient levels like this. Once again this is over the subject, and under the background

The highlights I made a bit more yellow, the midtones more blue/green, and the shadows a blueish purple with some green in it. I knew I needed bluer shadows and warmer highlights, but the fine adjustments I had to eyeball till they looked correct, adding or removing one point on these sliders till it matched.

Next I didn't like how the stairs were so bright behind his legs, it made it feel a bit cutout. I made yet another exposure layer, with -1 stop exposure, and did a quick soft paint brush behind his legs to darken the stairs. This layer was set above the background as a clipping layer. This means it can only affect the layer right below it. It makes it so I can be sloppy with the mask, and not worry about it changing the exposure of the subject.

And finally a quick progression gif because some of the stages are minor enough that you really have to see it change over top of the previous version:

Tutorials related to this post:



Wednesday, August 12, 2009



Settings: The background was shot separately with ambient about 2 stops below neutral grey for a dark feel and still allowing the lamps to not blow out. In the subject's image, Ambient is 1 stop below neutral grey, and flash is 1.5 stops above neutral grey.

I've posted the original setting, and a closeup of this shot for the previous masking tricks post, but here is the full image.

Having scouted the door location, I knew I wanted to use a male model, in a dress coat. I asked around for my friends, trying to find someone with a look I could use, who also owned a dress jacket with collars that could be held up. I used google images of pea coats and chesterfields when asking people if they owned what I was after.

If I had the full budget of a paid shoot, I would have scouted for a Hugo Boss grey or black double breasted pea coat. I also wanted a double layered undershirt, something white with a low V-neck showing the upper pectorals, and then a button down blue shirt. However when putting together a shoot with a budget of zero monies, you work with what you have.

We arrived at the location, and I set up while the model changed into the wardrobe (it was far too hot out to bicycle there already dressed). I had already scouted the location, so I knew I was going to use my 35mm lens, I knew about where I'd stand as well. The evening wasn't dim enough yet for them to have turned on the lamps, but in hind sight it worked well, because the ambient provided a nice fill on his face on the non flash side that would have been lacking if it was closer to dark.


Settings: Ambient is one stop below neutral grey. Flash is 1.5 stops above neutral grey.

In this photo you can see what the ambient levels were like at the time of the shooting. The flash in all these images is in a 30x40 cm softbox with a 20 degree grid. In this image, it is coming from camera left, through a fabric grid to keep the light only on his face, and not on the door or his knee. You'll notice in all the images the flash is set to a narrow lighting pattern, where the flash hits the front of his face, but leaves the side of the face we can see in shadow. I like this lighting pattern best for how it reveals facial details.


Settings: The background was shot separately with ambient about 2 stops below neutral grey for a dark feel and still allowing the lamps to not blow out. In the subject's image, Ambient is 1 stop below neutral grey, and flash is 1.5 stops above neutral grey.

This image uses the same settings as the first, I've just moved the subject further back, and gotten down on my knees instead of taking at eye level. The background was composited in. The bricks on the ground are from the subject's image, and the background plate had to be extended as it wasn't wide enough. I used photoshops content aware resizing to extend the brick walls without ruining the windows or the doorway. Then I did some reshaping of the jacket, as it was too loose, and then used dodge and burn to give him a bit more obvious musculature. I also slimmed the waist a bit. The hardest part was getting the ambient levels of the subject to match the background, as well as the color toning. The ambient was still quite neutral, whereas on the background plate it had a ton of blue and a bit of purple in the shadows. I used an exposure layer with lots of masking to darken the non flash lit parts to match. Then I used a color balance and a photo filter to tone the ambient to match the background. In the top image, I used Photoshop's Lens Blur filter to add depth of field to the background so that the subject would stand out a bit more.

Before and After: