Jimmy recently posted an article talking about his post-processing workflow for a series of winter-themed images I shot with Sonia a few weeks back. As Jimmy mentioned, he tends to spend the majority of his time post-processing in Photoshop, whereas I am more of a Lightroom to Exposure guy.
Outside of Alien Skin, I am a wedding and portrait photographer normally working through anything from 40 to 3,000 images per shoot. With such a high volume of images to edit, I simply don’t have the time to go through and tweak every single image in Photoshop to the Nth degree. Conversely, Jimmy comes from more of a fashion photography background, where only one shot makes the cover, so he is more than happy to spend time fiddling about to make the “perfect” image. Given our different approaches, we thought it might be a fun exercise to compare our post-production methodology to show how we get from A to B. Let us know in the comments below if you agree. We’re keen to make the most useful content possible for you guys!
As always, workflow starts in the camera itself. For this shoot, I used a Canon EOS 1D-X and Canon EOS 5D Mark III firing RAWs into the first card and JPGs into the second. This provides me with an instant backup in case of the dreaded corrupt memory card. I shoot primarily weddings, so this is really important area given that you only get one chance to get the shot. If my RAWs go belly-up for some reason, then I always have the JPGs to fall back on and I only need one 16 GB card to back up an entire wedding in-camera.
With regard to lens selection, I knew this was going to be a portrait shoot, so I brought along a few of my prime lenses that I knew were going to get the job done. These were the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM, the 85mm f/1.2L USM, the EF 35mm f/1.4L USM, and just for a bit of fun experimentation, the Lensbaby Composer coupled with a Sweet 35 optic. The goal here was pretty simple: to use the 135 and 85mm for the tighter head shots and the 35mm for more environmental shots to bring in the snowy setting or to provide a woozy, dreamlike effect for some variety with the head shots.
For this first series of photos, we’ll be looking at images made with the 85mm f/1.2L USM, which is one of my favourites; with its super fast f/1.2 aperture combined with a medium telephoto focal length of 85mm, the shallow depth of field it produces for portraits wide-open is just amazing. Incidentally, you can win one of these fab lenses (or its Nikon or Sigma counterpart) by entering our Flickr Photo Competition (check out the details here).
Here’s the first shot, SOOC using the 85mm f/1.2:
As you can see, the file is looking pretty good straight out of the camera. At f/1.2, we’re working with a razor thin depth of field, so it’s really key to ensure that at least the eye nearest the camera is in focus. Simply focusing using the centre spot and recomposing will adjust the plane of the sensor and throw both eyes out of focus. To avoid this, I use the joystick on the back of the camera to move the selected focus point over that nearest eye, lock focus, hold my breath to keep my body as still as possible, and shoot the frame. Focusing in this way is really key to the success of the shot, so let’s zoom in and take a look to see how the eyes look:
Both eyes look in focus to me (phew!), but you can get an idea of the shallow depth of field of this lens wide-open by the fact that Sonia’s nose and the two stray hairs in front of her left eye are out of focus. That’s just a few millimetres in front of the point of focus, so for the eyes to not be soft, technique here is really important.
When I’m editing a shoot, I first load my images into Photo Mechanic to be able to go through and quickly check each image for things like this. I select the best shots in Photo Mechanic by tagging them and then export the keepers to be uploaded into Lightroom for some basic editing. I tend to underexpose my images slightly as it’s easier to pull back detail in shadows than it is to recover highlights, so if there’s an exposure correction needed, I’ll do that and maybe do some light dodging and burning using the adjustment brush, radial and graduated filter features in Lightroom. Sometimes, for portraits, I’ll need to do some softening of the skin (using the adjustment brush (K) with clarity and sharpness dialled down) to remove wrinkles and the spot removal tool (Q) for small blemishes. Sonia has pretty much perfect skin though, so for this shot I’ll just tweak the exposure slightly using the Tone Curve panel, and then a couple of dabs with the healing brush (Q) before hitting Command+Option+E to open it in Exposure. In actual fact, for this shoot, I went through all the images to make a few fine adjustments in LR before launching them in Exposure as a batch (you can do this from the Library module in LR by selecting the images you want to edit in Exposure and then hitting Command+Option+E).
Once I get into Exposure, then I find I tend to play around with a couple of images from each location to see what looks best and what kind of feel I get. Such experimentation often leads me to obtain multiple looks just based on something as simple as the expression of the model or the colours they are wearing. In this case, I really wanted to bring out the colours of Sonia’s face and eyes against the vibrant red of her shawl and subdued green of the background. For this image, I found that the “Kodak Ektachrome 100GX” filter in the “Color Films – Slide” presets pretty much got me where I want to be in terms of colour and grain. It provides some colour punch, whilst also warming up Sonia’s skin slightly.
I sometimes add a vignette to my images, but in this case the 85mm f/1.2 L wide open is already doing that for me (fast glass like this has a pretty heavy vignette built-in), so I’ll call this one done as far as Exposure is concerned. After I pull it back into Lightroom, I’ll go in and use the adjustment brush again to dodge her eyes a little to make them stand out, and done. Here’s the final image:
Here’s a detail of the face in the above image. You can see how Exposure has added some warmth to the skin tones and we have lightened the eyes without overcooking them:
Now this is the sort of level of work I would provide for a proof. If Sonia came back to me and said she wanted this image as a large print, I’d then go into Photoshop and clone out the stray hairs over her eyes. In fact, I did just that in this next image where more of Sonia’s face was filling the frame:
Upon closer inspection, I could see a stray hair had blown across her lips and, as it was in focus, it was more distracting than in the previous example and so required an edit right off-the-bat:
To fix this, I took the image from Lightroom into Photoshop by hitting Command+E. I then hit Command+J to create a new layer mask and then used the clone stamp tool to carefully cone out the stray hair. My tip for this is to hit Command+1 to zoom in on the area of the image you want to work on and then adjust the size of the stamp as you go. Work in small sections and hit Option often to resample the area next to where you’re working into order to avoid streaks and have a smooth blend, like this:
If I’m already in Photoshop, I’ll make the most of my time there and, in this case, I want to soften Sonia’s skin just a tad to blend out the lines I cloned. For wrinkles and such that you just want to dial down versus removing completely, you can do this by just pulling back the opacity of the layer containing the clone stamp. For something like this though, where I want to blend in the edges of the cloned areas, I use a great action by Jeff Ascough called “Botox Baby”, which allows me to selectively soften the skin and then adjust it to my tastes. With this the of action, you can effectively go from a china doll look to pretty natural looking results by just dialling back the opacity till you get the look you’re after.
Again, if I’m in Photoshop and want to go out to Exposure, I’ll click on the “Filter” button in the navigation toolbar to export out to Exposure directly rather than going back into Lightroom and doing it.
With this image, I want a very subtle look, so I select the “Kodak Kodachrome 25″ filter in the “Color Film Slide” section, bring it back into Lightroom and, again, use an adjustment brush to just give the eyes a little pop. Here’s the final image:
Here’s another image from this series, with a slightly different look SOOC. All I did here was recompose in portrait versus landscape and have Sonia stand face-on to the camera versus with one shoulder towards me as in the previous shot.
For this one, Sonia’s hair in kind of a straight centre-parting kind of reminded me of a 1970′s feel, so I gave it a quick bump to the mid tones in Lightroom and then jumped over straight to Exposure where I applied a Time-Zero Film preset from the “Color Films – Polaroid” section. I found this gave me the warm tones I wanted to evoke that 70′s feel. I tweaked the curves again slightly in Exposure before pulling it back into Lightroom to give the eyes a quick nudge, again using the adjustment brush set to Dodge. I do this at the end of the process as I want everything else in the image to be pretty much where I want it. If you adjust the eyes early on and then fiddle with the curves again, they can start looking a little supernatural in nature. We don’t want Sonia to have the eyes of the possessed – at least not in this image!
As I mentioned before, I edit each image based on the feel I get from it. I think this is demonstrated pretty well by the final frame we’ll look at today. Here it is:
As you’ll see, the only difference between this photo and the last one is the fact I had taken a step back and changed the position of Sonia’s head; I asked her to raise her chin up so she would look down on me. I also asked her to breathe through her mouth so her lips were parted, which, to me, gives the image a slightly confrontational, aggressive feel. I also underexposed it more to give it a darker feel. I wanted to enhance this in Exposure, so I went to the “B&W Films – Vintage | Daguerreotype – Scratches & Vignette” filter. Upon selection, I saw the pre-selected scratches overpowered the image, so I went in and selected “Scratches 5″ from the “Dust & Scratches” panel, dialled down the opacity to 25 and used the “Protect Location” feature set at 33 in order to remove the distraction of having scratches running across Sonia’s face. I also wanted to add some detail to the shadows, so I selected the “Milky Blacks” preset in the “Tone Curve” panel. Done.
After hitting “Apply” and pulling the image back into Lightroom, I decided I wanted to enhance the imposing feel of the image by cropping it slightly; Sonia’s eyes were a third of the way down the SOOC frame so the image worked from that standpoint, I just felt that a tighter crop suited the aesthetics of this specific image better. I selected a 5 x 7 crop and moved Sonia’s eyes up in the frame to enhance the feeling of her looking down on the viewer.
We spent about 2 hours shooting to make the most of the day and I ended up working on about 70 images for Sonia’s portfolio. We used all the lenses mentioned above, Sonia changed her wardrobe a couple of times and we also moved indoors to shoot some images using window light. You can see the rest of the shoot over on my personal blog. If there are any other images you’d like to chat through in there, let me know in the comments below and I’ll cover them in another post.