Editing

I recently shot sexy photos of a friend, both to increase my experience as well as to provide a favor to her. When done, I showed some other photos to her that I was in the process of editing. I also asked if she wanted a dump of camera photos now or to wait for the editing to be done. Having seen the difference between the camera version and the edited version, she chose to wait. She also pointed out that she, as well as many other women would focus on the bad photos and not even see the good ones we captured. Speaking of which, we did get several great photos of her.

Here are a pair of photos (of a different friend) showing the camera version and the edited version:

This is the image straight from the camera
This is what the image looked like when I was done editing.

I adjusted the white balance and exposure, I removed a few skin blemishes, and I removed a couple of minor wrinkles. Note that my camera is recording in RAW mode, so I have a lot of data to work with to produce a good photo. And, I’m expressing a bias here, but it never hurts when the subject is a beautiful young woman.

So, one (of many) lessons I learned from this photo shoot was that I need to edit photos and not just give them out, in spite of doing my best to get it right in the camera in the first place.

Black and White Backdrops

Recently I shot Candace Nirvana. This was a chance to try out my new backdrops, fixing problems with my earlier backdrops. The backdrops were commercial ones, purchased from the Backdrop Outlet. I tried both black and white ones.

Both worked far better than the muslin I had tried earlier. I could get the black one to go completely black, and the white to be completely burned out. These were good improvements.

Black background behind a woman in purple dress holding a coffee cup
Candace in front of a black backdrop
The black backdrop really makes your eye go to the lighter parts of the image. In the example here, this is her skin. In general, when an image contains a face, your eyes naturally seek out the eyes. With a black backdrop, this effect seems to be enhanced.

I did have to ensure that I had a hair light from above and behind to make sure that her hair was separated from the backdrop. Dark hair on a light-skinned model makes for more of challenge due to the contrast. Add to this the need to not lose the hair in the background, and the lighting is not trivial.

For this image, there are four lights: The primary lights are a “softbox” created by placing a diffuser in front of a flash that is left and forward of her, and an umbrella forward, right, and above her. The secondary lights are two hair lights above and behind her on the left and right. Each light that is added is one more that has to be balanced with all the others, so the complexity is higher than I would have liked. Also, in spite of all of the lights and softeners, I still had harder shadows than I would have liked. For example, look at her hair shadows on the right side of her face (her right).

Another point I learned was that I really need to be able to mount lights on the crossbar of the backdrop holder. Then, I could have used a single light with a grid as a hair light.

Woman with white shirt in front of a white backdrop
Candace in front of a white backdrop

I also worked with my white backdrop. If I lit it, I could burn it out, creating a solid white background, which makes darker hair easy to work with. However, I was getting a lot of reflected light from the backdrop onto her skin, which was a different challenge. I could have moved her forward, but the backdrop only came so far (I should have invested in the larger one…). For photos like this one, it would have been an acceptable solution, because I was not showing her feet.

A white shirt and a white backdrop makes for a challenge when trying to avoid burning out the shirt while doing just that with the backdrop.

Lighting the backdrop with fewer reflections onto the model would have been easier with barn doors or something similar on the backdrop lights.

One final issue was wrinkles. Both the black and the white backdrops had wrinkles in them from being folded. They did show up in the pictures, which makes more work for me since I want a smooth background. Both of the images on this page had visible wrinkles that I took out. Next time, I’ll try dampening them and putting them in a cool dryer to see if that helps. I guess I could break out a iron as well. Anybody have other ideas?

Soft Light

Soft light comes from a diffuse source. The classic example is an overcast day, where the light comes from everywhere and there are few, if any shadows. Other examples of soft light include studio softboxes, diffusers, and reflected light from a large surface (e.g., a ceiling). All of these need to be near the subject, otherwise they begin to act more like hard light…move an umbrella reflector away from the subject and the light becomes harder.

Shadows on an object lit with soft light have a less-defined edge, and they are not as dark. Because it does not highlight blemishes, scars, and wrinkles, soft light tends to be more flattering for people. For this reason, portraits normally use soft light, as do some glamor shots.

Here are some of my favorite soft-light shots illustrating this type of lighting.

The light on his face is bounced from the rock he is looking at, creating a light soruce that is effectively as large as the lit area of the rock.

The primary light source is a large diffuser to the right that the flash unit is lighting up.. Effectively, the size of the light source is about three by two feet . You can see that the shadows have plenty of detail in them.

This is the second in a series of blog entries about hard and soft lighting. The previous entry is Hard Light.

Hard Light

I am not the first to write about the distinction between hard and soft light. However, I recently prepared (and gave) a talk for the 2011 National Speleological Society (NSS) convention, and I learned a bit in doing the preparation for the talk. The results for this will be spread across a few blog entries to keep each one tight and on a specific topic. As I finish them, I will link them all together.

First, definitions. Hard light is light that has sharp edges to the shadows. It comes from a small light source or a large one far from the subject. Most speedlite/speedlight flash units are relatively small light sources. The sun is large, but it is far away, so it also is a hard light source, especially near noon.

Hard light is good for showing textures and fine details. This is great for photos like geological features, but few people want every last blemish and wrinkle highlighted in the photo unless it is to show character as in this example.

high-contrast image of cave pearls lit by a single hard light source
Note the texture, sharp shadow lines , and deep shadows in this high-contrast image.

Young people, such as this lovely young woman, can also take hard light because they have great skin.

Her skin is good enough that the hard light is not a problem; she has no blemishes or wrinkles.

Shadows in hard light tend to be dark with few details. The high contrast can create a moody image that can be dramatic. Film noir movies are classic examples of this type of lighting.

You can also soften hard light by using a second (and possibly more) light source. If you have no modification devices that soften the light, this approach alone might be sufficient. Position the extra light(s) so they fill the deep shadows. I normally set the second light to be about a stop darker than the primary light, but the exact ratio depends on the situation.

Cave formations lit by two light sources, the second filling in the shadows of the first
The primary light is a hard light to the upper left. A second light to the right fills in most of the shadows with a lower light level.

To summarize this blog entry, hard light comes from a small light source and produces high-contrast images with dark, well-defined shadows. Sometimes, it is exactly what you need to set the mood of an image.

The importance of getting it right in the camera

I have been in India the last several weeks on non-photography business. When I did get out to take photos, I was yet again shown the importance of spending more time when taking the image to save much more post-processing time later. Here are a pair of images (you can click on them to see a larger version):


The one on the left is the one I took. I was so focused on the woman’s face that I missed the very distracting motorcycle parked behind her. And, I had the camera set at a higher aperture to give reasonable depth-of-field, making the problem worse. The second image is what I wish I had taken. I’m not completely happy with my post-processing of the motorcycle out, so before I would really use the image, I’d need to re-do it. Overall, the result is spending much more time than it would have taken to stop, think about the picture I wanted to capture, and then getting it right in the camera. To get it right would have taken maybe five minutes. To post-process reasonably well will require an hour or few. Multiply this by several such photos, and these photos are a real time sink to make any use of.

So, the lesson is a repeat of what has been said several times before by several other photographers: Create an image, do not take a picture. The difference is the difference between a snapshot and a good photograph.

Simple studio

Until very recently, all of my photography has been on location. This means that have never really used a studio. As an experiment, I built a simple studio in my living room to experiment. Parts were a success, and parts need additional work. Here’s a sample photo, only lightly edited, from that experiment.

Couple looking at each other with love in their eyes
An example of using a simple studio setup

What worked
The backdrop stand I made from two pieces of half-inch conduit set in Quickrete in buckets. I used another piece of conduit for the cross piece, and a pair of connected conduit hangers to hold the crosspiece. If there’s sufficient demand, I’ll take pictures of all of the pieces. I held the backdrop on the crosspiece with simple 1-inch clamps. The whole set of materials cost under $30 (I forget how much) at a local hardware store. If I was doing it again, I’d get slightly larger buckets for improved stability, but what I have worked OK.

What did not work
At the hardware store, I purchased a 9×12 ft muslin drop cloth. I had thought it was a great idea because it was heavy (I had read about people’s problems with some muslin being too thin). This certainly had no problems with transparency. However, like most (all?) muslin, it really wrinkles. I was hoping the depth-of-field and/or overexposing it would take care of the wrinkles. Not always.

There were two reasons that the wrinkles were problems. I had a dedicated backdrop light, but it was not quite good enough for the job. I needed it to produce better diffused light, but all my light-softening devices were in use for the model(s). Yet one more thing on the to-buy list (plus more light shaping options). In some cases, I was able to over-expose the muslin, and the problems went away. However, because of problem number two, not quite enough distance between the model(s) and the backdrop, there were many times when the light reflecting back from the backdrop was a problem and it had to be toned down. In 20-20 hindsight, I could have lowered the crosspiece to gain more room in front, especially when I was shooting just the shorter model. However, the real solution is to get different material for the backdrop. A quick Google search led me to multiple companies who sell backdrops that do not wrinkle, and they are not too expensive (around $100-150).

Next photo shoot, I will think about whether or not having a backdrop with me would be useful or not. It is yet more stuff for me (or my assistant) to carry, and the bucket with concrete is not too portable. Yes, I know about light stands and crosspieces. I have one light stand, but I tend to use it for holding a light, diffuser, or reflector. I use tripods (I own several of varying sizes) for holding other lights. Plus, I have a voice-activated carbon-based bipod that holds lights and can even adjust them as needed.

The importance of the rehearsal

Bridesmaid, flower girls and ring bearers
Bridesmaid, flower girls and ring bearers processing down the aisle at the rehearsal

When I shot the wedding recently, the family said that they did not need photos of the rehearsal. I considered not going, but decided to attend, and I was really glad I went.

While the rehearsal is for the wedding party to know what will be happening when, for me, it was a chance to experiment with lighting options—churches are large, and, even with the lights all on, it was not well-lit. Luckily, the priest allowed me to use flash at any time during the ceremony, so I could figure out what settings and locations for me and the off-camera flash worked best for the various parts of the ceremony. There is no time for experimenting during the ceremony!

Another benefit of being there for the rehearsal, I saw who was going to be where when. This meant that I was prepared for shots on the wedding day.

I got few good shots in the rehearsal; one is attached to this post. This is the bridesmaid, flower girls, and ring bearers as they process down the aisle (they all went together, not separately as in other weddings I have been to).

Wedding photography

A little girl behind lacing ribbon
Recently, I shot my first wedding as a professional photographer. I have shot a few others before just as a favor to friends, but this was a real job, in more ways than one. I can say that the photographers who charge $1000 to $3000 for shooting a wedding earn this price.

This wedding was non-stop shooting from 9:30 in the morning till we left after 8pm at night. We managed only a five-minute lunch between running between various venues, and dinner was inhaled at the reception, in between getting photos of the various reception events.

I will write more about the things I learned in separate posts. Also, if you want to learn more about shooting weddings, a quick web search will quickly give you more advice than you have time to read. Some of this advice was very useful, and combined with the fact I had attended a friend’s wedding about a week before, I was more-or-less ready for the chaos.

To see example wedding photos from this and other weddings, you can check out the gallery of my portfolio.  The bride and her mother said that they were happy with their photos.