Well, for the past couple of months I have faced some complex Photoshop challenges. No, nothing spectacular like I had to upgrade software, or a computer crashed, nope – just detailing some portraits from last fall, and working on big stitched panoramas that needed some cleanup work and cloning, so that they would print at the desired size of - huge! Two of them are printing with super accurate detail at six feet across.
Things were going along just fine until I slowly realized how little I understood the colossal machine that is Photoshop; the shortcut key strokes, smart filters, writing scripts, grouping layers, cinema grading, creating brushes and presets, drawing with a tablet, jitter and scatter and randomness, etc. Sure, I can dodge and burn, correct color balance, soften skin, eliminate the occasional beer can that I didn’t see floating in a lake, I can even image-blend with a fair degree of reliability. But, to really progress to the next level of photographic expertise – I needed to learn; to stretch and bend what I have been doing, and increase my level of awareness while working within Photoshop.
So I started watching PS tutorials on YouTube – everything from GoAskErin (an underwater photography-based PS studio geared specifically for those environments in the great blue) to Phlearn.com (an advanced site mostly for model and fashion photography). I now understand why the retouching editors that work for Annie Leibovitz make so much money. It might not be rocket science – but it’s pretty damn close.
So, I thought I would quickly show a few screen shots, along with a little dialogue, to explain how I now treat eyes in some select portraits. They are subtle, but I think that the extra work shows in the final print.
This first image is the RAW file directly from the camera. No flash, just indirect light from a window and some reflected light from a fashion disk. I do not like to use a flash for two reasons; one – it can be a complex process that adds a dimension of exposure complexity and hardware setup/transportation that I just do not have the experience with, or time for, and two – if I buy any more gear it’s going to be a new tripod!
Warning – Do NOT buy Chinese carbon fiber tripods!
By the way - thank you Chelsie for volunteering your time and face to my experiment, and thanks also to Dixie, who loaned us the clothing and hair.
I first gray-balanced the image with a Curves layer and touched a neutral section of her gray jacket with the eyedropper tool. I do these same procedures with big complex landscapes; only it is much more involved and includes an initial Threshold layer and all of the white/gray/black eyedroppers in a Curves layer. I was not thrilled with the purple cape, so the next thing I did was to create a mask and desaturate the color all the way to gray – one that would not detract from the subject. Next I inverted the mask and over saturated the reds to bring out the Merida-esque color of the hair, and then zoomed in and cleaned up any ‘overspray’.
Now I had a starting point.
This next image shows just her eyes. Don’t get me wrong, her eyes are awesome – but they just need a little touching up and highlights, so that the final image reflects what I was hoping to achieve when I was taking the picture. Without a flash, there are no spectral highlights that often times create an “eye illusion” of being more alive, deep, and rainwater clear.
So, the little naturally occurring vessels were erased with a tiny Spot Healing brush, the white globe was lightened with a Levels mask, the outer rim of the iris got burned a little, iris color was enriched with a mask and a Hue/Saturation slider, highlights were added in steps using the sampled color from the original highlights, and mascara was enhanced with a Levels adjustment and mask.
I did not use any Smart Layers for these steps, as I was not altering the size or shape of any one aspect.
After completing the eyes, I moved to softening her skin with a layer blend consisting of a Duplicate background layer and a Gaussian Blur filter. Once you create this new layer, change the blend setting to Soft Light. Then you add a mask to it and “paint” directly onto the image with a big soft brush, leaving the effect behind the brush instead of a blanket overlay on the entire image. You can then adjust this layer strength with the opacity and fill sliders. To further blend this layer, you can also double click the layer and adjust the underlying opacity in the Layer Style.
In the end, I feel that the final image is much more powerful than what the lifeless digital sensor was able to capture. The openly artistic fairytale interpretation is much more pleasing than the original - with its crazy purple silk, desaturated reds, and weak highlights - exchanged for unashamed Irish red, rosy skin, and a background that sends all of the attention to her face.
Photography is, after all – art; the ability to learn and practice and create in a world where everything can be interpreted and manipulated as your imagination sees fit. This technology, and those old world contraptions of glass and gears, is a wonderful place to be.
I love this! After finishing one of the images (the one at the top of this Blog) I noticed the giant clip that we were using to snug up her skirt (it was way too big). Thank God for Photoshop!