The act of photography involves many factors including being in the right place at the right time (event, lighting, context), the vision to pick out the captures and finally your underlying ability to deliver these moments coupled with a working knowledge of your camera’s capability. That brings us to our 3 part lesson today – Never stop pushing for clarity. Clarity in your workflow & process, clarity in your subject, and clarity in displaying your best work. Clarity in these areas defines the connective nature of photography – sharp images draw our eyes and give us a defining focal point. Nothing delivers this lesson from planning to workflow to production better than a portrait with a very sharp set of eyes. Pushing for clarity is a three-fold process – a clear goal of what capture you would like to walk away with, a sufficient knowledge of your equipment in order to properly capture your vision and finally, a defined approach to post processing in order to finalize your vision and help your share your best work.
This week’s assignment we put together for this article encompasses the need to push for clarity – Our goal was to deliver portraits in various lighting conditions to challenge your abilities and push your camera settings to discover yours (and your camera’s) limits without resorting to art filters or editing which conceals the shortfalls of our ability to create a good capture.
1) Photography should be about having a clear vision of what you intend to capture. Sometimes this intent is built in a matter of seconds as is the case for photo journalistic assignments or perhaps sports events. In other cases, vision is defined over coffee, dinner or perhaps conversation with friends, sometimes organized by committee for assignment, or maybe even just specific shots you decide on in order to build up your portfolio. Regardless of the reasons which might present themselves for you to pull out your camera, it’s important for you to define the subject, the environment (whether you show it or not) and the overall context of the shot you’re going to eventually present to friends, family or a prospective client. Having clarity of what your photographic subject is will help you achieve stronger composition, better dial-in the settings which will best represent your subject and most importantly, eliminate the feel of a snap shot that looks like you walked by and clicked the button.
2) That leads us to – Push to become better every single outing – know your equipment, use your equipment and seriously, you paid good money for a good camera – use it to the best of its ability and invest time and effort into learning what your camera can deliver. Don’t be a photographer that uses “creativity” as a shield for not knowing what settings to use to properly expose & capture a sharp image. Knowing what your camera can do translates to what you can get away with – our photo set today runs the gamut of really terrible lighting conditions requiring super high ISOs to the very last one shot in perfect studio lighting. The photographs below range anywhere from ISO6400 in a sodium-lit tunnel (first 2 images), perfect golden hour back-lighting (photo 3) to ISO100 in the studio (very last image).
The characteristic which defines all of the shots regardless of the lighting condition is sharp capture of the eyes – we had to deliver a head shot – that meant sharp eyes and defined features – the challenge was the various and mostly less than ideal light we had to work with. As we touched upon in the Zoo Photography Tips, sharp eyes define the subject and can allow you to get away with murder (metaphorically speaking) as it gives a focal point to your viewer that they can connect with and delivers an emotional anchor for your photograph. The range of lighting conditions challenges your skills as a photographer to step up to the next level – “It’s too dark”, “My lens isn’t good”, “It’s an entry level DSLR” – these aren’t valid excuses preventing you from taking any of the photos below- cameras available today far exceed anything that film stalwarts ever had to work with during the heydays of film. If the old cameras without autofocus, super-high ISOs and modern lenses could capture exceptional photos in war zones and sporting events, there’s nothing stopping you from delivering a great kids or pet picture.
Sometimes a support system such as a tripod or monopod might be in order depending on your combination of light, focal length and general hand stability, but if you’re going to go through the effort to setup, shoot and edit photos, you may as well make sure it’s the best representation of your subject that you can deliver. Strangely enough – only the studio shot is using a tripod whereas all of the “poor light” shots were completed hand-held. The shots below turned out well not because of the equipment we were using – they turned out well because we had a clear vision of the shots we needed to get, knew what our cameras allowed us to capture in the given environments and finally, we had;
3) A Mental benchmark or reference for the final image you intend to deliver. Post production in Lightroom or Photoshop should be treated in the same way as the film days – develop in order to best represent the qualities you captured in the frame. Understanding what you want to achieve in post production helps to narrow down what work is required of you to present it well. Therefore, post processing is about finishing the image – by this stage, you should have done everything to ensure the lighting, framing, composition and emotion is already included and you’re only visiting Photoshop or Lightroom in order to better bring it out of the frame. If you want to accelerate your knowledge of the first two parts of today’s lesson, step away from this section as much as you can. Get things right in camera from the beginning and you will learn faster. There’s nothing wrong with post processing if you’ve done everything you can during the capture process to get as close as possible to your vision, but until you explore the limits of your actual photographic skill, you will continue to shortchange your learning curve by relying on post production to “fix” things that you could otherwise have tackled and built experience on in the field.
Now, for those that haven’t been to my workshops, I would like to clarify that this has nothing to do with digital art where you add, create or remove elements for composites and or artistic representation, what I’m advocating is using & improving the technical capabilities of you & your camera to ensure a capture which retains the most detail, maximizes your subject impact and most importantly, gives you latitude when you do get to post to have the most creative range because you’ve got the best file to start with. This is a photography blog and my first priority is to offer advice into maximizing your shooting experience so that you can best capture your life moments when they present themselves.
Push yourself to be a better photographer by having a clarity of mind when shooting, having a clear understanding of what your equipment is capable of delivering and clearly presenting your subject as a completed work. Til next time, happy shooting!
As deeply entrenched as I am in my technology and toys, photography offers me an opportunity to get away even for a little bit to focus on something external to the connected world. Photography gives us both an escape from the modern world to focus on the subjects which interest us while also delivering an opportunity to explore and enjoy the world like a child. As of this writing, I’ve been shooting for almost 4 days straight on both assignments as well as workshops. In conversation and instruction with the wonderful people I’ve worked with these last few days, one topic kept coming up – what am I supposed to be taking a picture of? Well frankly, it’s simple – whatever interests you. Keeping your eye on the ball applies to the subject, the equipment, the scene and your personal growth goals as a photographer.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a landscape or portrait, the important part of capture is that the final image is a reflection of how you see the world and is wholly determined by your perceptions, experiences and timing. This defines the practice of photo-journalism. Whether you’re a mom capturing your kids running around the playground or you undertake a hike or expedition to capture the perfect mountain sunrise, you are directly documenting your experience and sharing it with others. What images you share are the so-called flash bulb memories committed to a picture frame and whether you consciously recognize it or not, is a reflection of your vision. Don’t be afraid to pick and choose what interests you and forget the world around you or what people might think of your photos. Just keep shooting what interests you.
Building on the idea of shooting what interests you, I also encourage workshop participants to not be afraid to hammer the shutter button when it comes to portraits and wildlife. Sometimes the best moments we capture are the moments in between the the ones we planned in our head. Over years and through hundreds of thousands of photos, some of my favourites are the ones in-between the ones I planned. This principles can apply to landscapes where a few extra shots here and there might capture the difference between the sun highlighting the correct mountain peak or fast moving clouds might take your subject in and out of the shade delivering you dramatically different looks. More importantly, in portraiture, keeping your eyes open, camera aimed and shutter button ready can help capture the candid moments between set poses. The in-between moments capture emotion and particularly when not working with experienced models can help deliver the connective quality which presents stunning photos.
All of this is summed up in the photo above. It had nothing to do with the assignment we were there to shoot, but in the end, this candid moment turned out to be the best shot which I can proudly add to my portfolio. It’s a moment capturing a dramatic landscape, which is what we were there to get and the sunset became even more dramatic by my assistant stepping in to block a little bit of it and creating the wonderful glow you see. It’s a basic photograph, it’s a technically poor photograph due to the lens flare, but in the end, it is simply a nice photograph that we couldn’t re-create because the candid smile is what makes the photo compelling and adds to the overall warmth of the scene.
Photography is about patience, not necessarily a patience of sitting on a mountain for hours on end waiting for the right light, although that’s just inspiring for your soul, but patience for yourself and taking control of the scene before you to capture. I believe that everyone will take a beautiful picture at some point in their life, but the ones that excel are those who can deliver a compelling image on a consistent basis. Defining yourself as a photographer is about finding that internal drive to push for the 4am wakeup or to sit in a lonely mountain peak to capture the stars. That takes a special focus & attitude that is a core requirement to get the photos that not many others will effort.
Beyond that, as we’ve discussed in previous Photographer’s Tips, it’s about knowing your gear. I constantly harp on workshop attendees that it doesn’t matter what gear you show up with, but you have a huge responsibility to yourself to intimately and efficiently know the equipment you have, the operational requirements and the execution ability. I don’t care if you show up with $15k in cameras and lenses, can you actually control your focus, can you control your composition and do you know how to best set your camera for the cleanest output? That’s what defines the complete photographer. Drive, understanding, and most importantly, the ability to simply stop and stare to take in the scenes before you, enjoy it and then capture it for presentation.
Today’s Photographer’s Tip focuses on a quick and simple edit of an environmental portrait shot. This is a simple portrait taken in available light with a nice bright streetlight providing our main light. The city skyline provides our bokeh (blurred light) to create the mood of the photo. For this exercise, we are using Adobe Lightroom to process and edit the image. Alternative programs are available which offer many of the same features just under potentially different headings. If you have any questions or would like further information, please don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll do my best to respond in a timely manner.
Click on the images to expand to full screen (1920 x 1200)
Step 1 – Our starting image – 20mm | ISO400 | F2.8
What we want to accomplish;
Step 2 – As we did in our earlier landscape processing exercise, fiddling with the white balance and selecting the one which best suits our vision is the first step. Our camera file gives us a color temperature of 5350k which gives the yellow color cast upon both our subject and causes the downtown buildings to give off a candlelight colored glow. I settled on a color temperature of 4529k using the sliders in Adobe Lightroom. This temperature setting took a little of the yellow cast away while maintaining a healthy skin tone for our subject. Pushing this any further to the left caused undesirable blue color to be introduced to our subject giving her a zombie look.
Step 3 – We begin the bulk of processing in this step. First and foremost we want to boost the exposure a smidge (+ 0.3 is what I was happy with) in order to bring better focus to the foreground subject and separating it from our dark, but busy background. We then move into boosting our brightness and fill light sliders to best highlight our individual subject while maintaining the mood of the surrounding environment. I settled on +16 fill light (0 default) and +62 brightness (+44 default). This filled in the light on her face, emphasized the contrast of her white coat against the warm wood and gives the photo a more defined environmental portrait feel where the background serves as a frame of reference to the young lady.
In order to increase details, I boosted the black level to +6 (0 default) and clarity to +33 (0 default) in order to help make the shadows pop against the highlights we just worked on. When working in low-light situations like this, boosting the blacks and increasing the clarity slider will also help to give better definitions to subject edges and can help suppress noise in areas you’re increasing the exposure of. Our image is now looking cleaner and delivers better focus than our starting point.
Step 4 – Our last step is to correct framing and lens aberrations. As it’s winter in Canada, you can bet that it was certainly cold. Blowing gusts also didn’t help our subject nor mine’s situation. This resulted in a little hap-hazard framing as my fingers were getting too numb to fine tune some settings. As a result, it’s not perfectly level nor is it squared with our horizon. Lightroom thankfully allows latitude in this easily fixing this. First and foremost, we want to visit the Lens Correction module and select our appropriate camera and lens combination. This brings corrections for color fringing (reducing sharpness and causing some halos) as well as any distortion causing straight lines to bow due to lens design. Within the lens module, we can also go into the manual correction section and play with the Vertical sliders to correct the tilting convergence of the background buildings. The 2nd half of this step is to use our crop tool to straighten our horizon to bring a final polish to the image.
Comparison & Final Image