Thursday, November 19, 2009

Is That All?

I saw this post on the Digital Photography School web site today and it inspired me to think through and document the post-processing steps I take on the majority of my images. It helped me to think through why I do what I do and identify a few things that I could probably better automate. For those interested, here's what I usually do with the files after I wave goodbye to the client.

Let's start after the obvious steps of nailing the shots on set then saving and backing-up of the files:

1) Review the pre-session notes and make sure I have the story I was trying to capture clear in my mind (explained here)
1a) Re-read notes and make sure that I'm sure I have the story I was trying to capture clear in my mind.
2) Select the images that do the best job of illustrating that story.
3) Second pass to pick the best technical shots from that group.
4) Open in Camera Raw and make sure my camera's profile is selected.
5) Click "auto", review what Adobe suggests then set it back to "default".
6) Crop and set the white balance.
7) Tweak the exposure, brightness, fill and black sliders to set the highlight and shadows where they need to be for the story I'm trying to tell.
8) Jack up the vibrance slider until I see the peaks of the histogram start to drop.
9) Back off the saturation slider until the colors enhance the tone of the story.
10) Add clarity until the histogram peaks start to move up then tweak a bit one way or the other to taste.
11) If the image has skin tones in it I'll click on the HSL/grayscale tab and bump the luminance of the oranges a little to help bring them forward.
12) Work the luminance and saturation sliders on all of the individual colors to better isolate the subject and match the background to the mood of the story.

*** Side note: Yes, again with the story - remember, unless you are in a line of work that requires photocopy level "truth" in your images your goal is not to tell the truth, it is to tell the story. Don't get hung up on "rules". Get hung up on the story. Most photographers should be entertainers first and foremost, not just reporters. If you are adding a strong accent to your story, in the form of heavy post processing, make sure it's because the accent adds to the story, not just because you liked the way it looked when another photographer used it. If you are strongly opposed to those things please make sure your reasons are, again, tied to your story, not just a list of self imposed limitations. Remember, 99% of the people who look at a picture are looking at the story, not the image. The other 1% are probably competitors, not clients. Ok, back to our regularly scheduled program***

13) Open in Photoshop at 16 bits.
14) Massage, tweak, stack, select, clone, heal, blend, cut, paste, liquify, dodge, burn, mask, filter, etc., etc, etc. - per story requirements. This can be minor or extreme. Sorry I can't be more specific, this part can go a thousand directions and it's never the same way twice. Neither is the story.
15) Sharpen with a high pass filter and save per job requirements.
16) Repeat as required until job is ready for delivery.

Finally, one of my favorite parts:
17) Pick a few of the shots that speak to me and PLAY!!

As you can probably guess by this work flow, I may shoot a lot on site but I rarely deliver a huge volume of final images to the client. I kind of feel like any story that takes several hundred images to tell could probably use a little more clarity from the start. I made the decision early on that I was going to specialize in capturing and developing a vibrantly told story in as few images as possible so that I could give those images the attention they deserve. My goal is to entertain and engage the viewers who invest their time and attention in my client's story without loosing them along the way. Fifteen images is kind of my base line number for a full blown portrait session but that's pretty arbitrary. Some ad jobs only require one and some require a LOT more, but if I haven't delivered in 15 images or less, the viewers are going to be very tired of hearing from me by the 100th frame. If I do it right I believe people will invest more time looking at those 15 images than they would reviewing a typical higher volume set. I know I sure do.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Flame-on, originally uploaded by goldenwreckedangle.

There are those who believe that any image manipulation is something new and evil, and that anything that isn't created in the camera should be shunned as something less than pure. I've got a few subjects in my portfolio who are probably glad I don't take that self imposed limitation too seriously. A quick study will reveal that few of the old school masters of the darkroom did either.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Liar, Liar Brains on Fire...

Da-Shroom-Wida-Plume, originally uploaded by goldenwreckedangle.

I like mustard. I like sweet potatoes. This is a big deal.

One of my 2009 new years resolutions was to learn to like the taste of mustard and sweet potatoes before the end of the year (not together mind you) . That may sound like a silly exercise but I've hated them both all my life so much that I literally had a hard time swallowing a bite of anything that had a hint of either one in it. I use to jokingly tell my waiter not to prepare my food in the same kitchen where mustard had been used.

Today I enjoy the taste of both of them enough to eat them fairly often. It turns out my own brain had been lying to me all my life about the taste of mustard and sweet potatoes. They are actually quite delicious.

What does that have to do with photography or creativity?

Simple - Confront your brain. It's lying to you. It's been lying to you most of your life.

Your brain is forcing you to see things the way you have always seen them. It wants you to go with what it tells you at first glance. It wants you to reject the unfamiliar and accept only what it hands you after it has applied all of the filters that help to keep you sane.

Children move those filters out of the way all the time and discover new truths and new skills at an amazing rate but in time the brain builds enough experience based evidence that it gets harder to push around. It eventually becomes a mountain that is very difficult to move and even harder to see around. Everything starts to get... predictable.

It takes a little faith to move that mountain, faith that there is more there than meets the eye. Faith is not the absence of doubt, it is the cultivation of the doubt that what you are seeing is all there is to see. Crazy hu, the idea that the seed of faith is doubt? It develops into something more, and one of the side effects is creativity, but faith sprouts from the seed of looking your brain square in the face, doubting what it's been telling you, then calling its bluff.

It's not a mustard seed, it's a creative seed, but they are about the same size, small enough to be easy to miss. You get one every time you remind yourself that your brain is lying to you. Plant one and see what grows. It may not be what you expect but it will certainly be more interesting than sitting around looking at the same mountain of predictable misinformation all day.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Velcro Fly

Velcro Fly, originally uploaded by goldenwreckedangle.

This was an image inspired by the ZZ-Top song "Velcro Fly." It started life as this creative commons licensed stock image.

Fly Source, originally uploaded by goldenwreckedangle.

Anyone with enough discipline, faith, hard work and imagination can transform their life in pretty much the same way. How far do you want to go? There is a way.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Story Telling Tips

I just listened to a podcast that is a perfect follow up to yesterday's post about storytelling. This is a short Scott Bourne interview with Kevin Shahinian, filmaker for Pacific Pictures, a cinema company you really need to check out.

Click the link to the podcast right here. I guarantee you will learn at least one new story telling secret worth the six minutes or so it takes to listen to the full interview.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Don't forget to wink!

I've been adding light, and lots of it, to just about everything I'm shooting lately. A lot of the images involve building a small scene, locking the camera on a tripod, then layering light on to the image one photon at a time until I have what I want in the final image.

It's a good metaphor for the way I've built up my style and technique over the last couple of years. I pretty much started in the dark and worked my way up to where I am now by adding one layer of new knowledge after another until I'm reasonably satisfied with the results I'm currently getting. The thing is though, I hate that word, "satisfied." It leads to "beautifully boring" and every time I get close to that place I find myself panicking a little and looking for something new and unexpected to shake things up a bit.

Who let the dogs out

Do you ever do that?

Sure you do, I think most creatives feel that way often, and while our spouses rarely understand it, it's actually a healthy thing. However, I think it's caused by something that's easy to miss and the way we tend to try and solve it can actually make it worse with effort. The tendency is to keep adding bigger and brighter lights (knowledge, technique, equipment, etc.) until we start to go blind trying to see our way through all of that brilliance into the bold new future we all feel compelled to create. I think I've found the answer - "Don't forget to wink."

That's a phrase I've been saying to myself often lately and it always brings me around to a clearer vision and renewed purpose when the lights start to get a little overwhelming. It's a reminder to close one eye and look through the view finder on my camera and to stay there until I see the story I'm shooting isolated from all of the clutter. I can stand there with both eyes open, looking at a room full of light stands, softboxes, umbrellas extension cords, battery packs, light meters and all of the other things that go into building a complex shot and it just doesn't seem to be coming together. Then somewhere out of my subconscious comes that little phrase, "don't forget to wink." I close one eye, and peer into the view finder. It's like shaking a magic snow globe and getting transported into another world. There's a magical little story unfolding in there and I'm the only one in the room who can see it (shhhh - wink, wink! This is a secret world all photographers get to themselves for a few moments on every job, let's keep it quiet ok?).

"View finder." What a perfect name, but you can't just look through it and turn it into one, you have to learn to wink through it. You wink at something you share a secret with and in this case, the secret is the story. When I tell myself, "don't forget to wink," it's a reminder to think about the story going on in that little magic snow globe and be sure I'm telling it in the most engaging way possible. The images that capture that wink will stand out over the images that don't as sure as a person winking at you in a crowd will draw your eye in a hurry.

President Clinton was famous for the sign on his desk that read, "it's the economy stupid." As creatives, the sign on our desk should read, "it's the story stupid!" It helps if it's well lit, well composed, well focused and up to date with the latest trends but all we've really got to offer, all that people really want to see, is the story in the picture. I started telling my oldest son when he was just an infant that if he could learn to tell stories well he could rule the world. I stand by that and the camera is one of the best story telling devices ever invented.

If you have clients they aren't paying you for a picture, they are paying you to tell their story. It doesn't matter if it's a product or a person, all of that gear and light and knowledge is worthless if you fail to tell that story. You will take a portrait of some people that want you to tell the story of how tough they are. Others want you to tell the story of what a great mom they are, how much fun you could have if you only knew them better, or that they are an amazing athlete. A client may want you to tell the story of what their product can do for the viewer, what their company has done for the planet or a thousand other things that can all be said in a glance if the image is right. Make sure you have a very firm grasp on that story before you think about anything else.

Be flexible. The story will probably evolve during the shoot but you can't throw enough light at a dim starting concept to make it brilliant in the end.

Can I be straight with you? I'm kind of tired of the story I keep seeing repeated in a thousand different portfolios every day. I'm kind of tired of seeing it in mine. The story goes something like this, "hi, I'm another well lit subject sitting in front of another brilliant photographer who doesn't know my name but who wants me to tell you that he's got something important to say."

I'm pretty sure that's where the "beautifully boring" thing that all creatives hate but find themselves flirting with from time to time comes from. I think the answer is to forget all of the gear for a while and go back to that first step, learning to tell a good story. Study good stories by others. Ask a lot of questions. Figure out the story you want to tell. Write it down. Build a scene. Is this a dark story or a bright story? Add some light and see if the story gets better. Where do the shadows belong in this story?

Tweak it. Make it better. Get it? It's the story stupid! (nothing personal, it's just a sign) Wink!

Reel Comfy, originally uploaded by goldenwreckedangle.