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Photography is hard, and there’s no automatic mode to do it right.

There are people who do it well, and do it well because they spent years studying, and expended a small fortune on expensive equipment and software to manipulate pixels like Native American gods reconfigured reality. These professionals weld a litany of filters and lenses during the times of day when only grave robbers and fornicating politicians are conscious. They stack layers of blending modes and masks against images etched with samples and pastings, molded with a utility belt of binary brushes.

I learned this fact the hard way during a recent studio shoot.

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What I Did

Photographers and retouchers are entering the age of au naturalPhotoshop has long been accused of transforming the female gender into a new species of mammary giraffe teenagers. The criticism from actresses like Emma Roberts and Kate Winslet tends to gravitate around the Liquify filter, a setting that allows a cursor to shape, pull, stretch, and tighten hips, breasts, and double chins into a perpetual vision of juvenile Olympic fitness. That’s a more-than-fair protest. I’m personally more weirded out by the blur filters that convert skin into poreless sheets of vinyl.

The opposite argument is this: cameras don’t capture reality, as there is no such thing as a uniform visual reality. Humans use three types of color cones. Conversely, dogs only harbor two and lack the capacity to interpret hues of green or red. And as Matthew Inman has pointed out, butterflies have five types of color receptive-cones and some freakish acid-spewing shrimp has 16 color-receptive cones. The point being that the camera sensor of a nice DSLR can’t absorb the same complexity of information as the human eye, let alone a rainbow-colored crustacean in Florida. Color correction, cloning, cropping, and some light skin work should fall in favor of simplification or art, not deception.

This was largely the approach I took in a studio shoot I completed for an upstart suit company. The company already had some lights that I fit around a white wall in the back of its store, complemented by my Speedlite flash for a 3-point lighting system of a hair, main, and fill. Our model—Ronnie—was phenomenal. Energetic, hilarious, and charismatic, I feel like he practiced for the shoot with a six-pack of vintage Jolt and a mirror in his basement weeks before we met.

InProgress

After the shoot, here’s what I did in post-production:

  • Adjusted Levels
  • Tweaked curves for skin tone (cyan should be one third to one fifth of magenta and yellow; yellow should be a hair higher than magenta)
  • Whitened teeth/eyes (some of the lights cast a nasty sodium glow)
  • Healed/cloned out hair flyaways
  • Adjusted background coloring (more on that later)
  • Healed skin abrasions lightly
  • Smoothed wrinkles on clothing with healing and cloning

If there’s one lesson to internalize, it’s to work with a light hand. Turn your transparency down and your light blending modes on. Take the Germanic elf approach; sneak in, do good, and get out before the elderly, kindly-hearted shoe hammer man (or your client) knows you were there.

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What I Should Have Done

Kelvins

Different lights have different temperatures, ranging from bile yellow to grandmother-hug auburn to antiseptic white to surreal electric blue. The technology of light dictates the temperature, measured in Kelvins.

  • Tungston: Cheap, doesn’t last long, makes subjects sweaty. Tungston lies low at around 3,200 Kelvins.
  • Fluorescent: Cooler at 5,000 Kelvins, saves more energy and provides softer light.
  • LED: Most expensive with a color temperature of 3,200 to 5,600 Kelvins. It weighs less, travels well and gives hugs to small children and animals.

We used a bizarre mix of lights that we believed to be fluorescent, but really just looked horrible. The Frankenstein’s Monster of electromagnetic radiation. The fill gave off a nasty burnt glow that I tried to fix in post with some pinpoint hue layers. It didn’t work well. Use lights that are the same color temperature and make. No matter how much you fidget with your white balance, you want these tones to be even and your camera can’t guarantee that visual harmony.

Clothes

I think at one point we planned on having clips, but for whatever reason, they weren’t there that morning and we decided to shoot anyway. And we’re terrible human beings for that lapse in reason. The model and I focused on expression and different positions that could lend themselves nicely to print or digital. This approach was ignorant, because we should have been thinking of how the model interacted with the clothes. When you shoot a model for a clothing brand, you’re not selling the model—your’e selling the model’s interaction with the shirts, suits, ties, or whatever else your client is selling. Two points:

Wrinkles and Bunching: They’re bad. So bad. Avoid trying to heal or clone them out, because the clothing will lose texture (see Ronnie’s left sleeve). Use clips, make sure the clothes fit your model, and iron all applicable clothing beforehand.

Product: Make sure your model isn’t wearing anything not sold by the company you’re shooting. We shot Ronnie with an earring and bracelet. The clothing store sells neither of those, but we thought they looked super cool.

 

Overexposure

If you expose your camera for your model’s skin tone, you run the chance of not exposing correctly for the color and lighting of the clothes. To solve this, bracket exposures and then mask off the different exposures in Photoshop. Also ensure your lighting rig isn’t “blasting out” the model’s face. No skin tone in the history of the human race has ever resembled a magnesium flair. Clone and heal over that area to make it more even.

Bonus: Tell your model to wear chapstick.

Second Bonus: Play good, energetic upbeat music. Thievery Corporation, Sylvan Esso, Still Corners, maybe Run the Jewels. No Norwegian Black Metal.

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Full Shots

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