I have no idea why, but I always get some relief from any mental anguish from converting an image to black and white. There is something about eliminating the color from an image and creating drama through tonal contrast and separation that soothes my mind.
The secret to a compelling monochrome image is usually contrast. In monochrome, there are two ways to create contrast; there is contrast the same as in the image before you make the conversion and then there is separating tone based on color by using color filtration in the editing software. The second method, is always foremost on my mind when I shoot for b&W, which I rarely do. My method usually means that I sort through my existing images looking for one that will look dramatic after allowing for the color filtration etc.
For the process, I use Silver Efex Pro2, now available for free from Google. It is easy and powerful. I’ve tried to get similar results just as a test in Lightroom, and it takes a lot of work, but honestly can be done. Silver Efex Pro2 comes with such a great variety of presets that it is usually a matter of choosing a preset and then making tweaks. I rarely go with the preset alone; doesn’t provide the exact look I want, and deprives me of some of my therapy.
My most used preset these days is the High Structure (smooth). I usually apply a yellow or orange filter to it, red is usually too contrasty. In most pics, yellow, orange, red filters provide increasing contrast as you move through the list. This is dependent on the color makeup of the image however and sometimes blue or green are the appropriate choice. One thing to watch for is that due to some characteristic of digital images that I don’t understand, blue usually will make noise more visible.
If you want a closer look at these images look at this gallery.
It may not be Darwinian, but a photographer’s style evolves over time. Sometimes it is intentional; the photographer will pay attention to what works in the marketplace, filtering that through what excites him, altering his style. Further, if he’s really working at this he will continue to learn new things. Finally, there is unintentional evolution; it may be subtle, but the way the photographer looks at a subject will change over time.
I have created two galleries here displaying some evolution in my shooting. Both are connected to my attempts to pay homage to George Hurrell, a Hollywood photographer from the past. The above gallery is my earlier attempt and the bottom is some very recent shooting. Of course, I must also credit the help of Sami Van Der Westhuizen (the model), Carrie Strahle (makeup artist) and WAAAM (the museum that owns the planes) for having an impact on the second set of images looking different than the first.
On April 24, 2015, Erickson Aircraft Collection performed engine tests on Madras Maiden, their B-17G Flying Fortress, for the first time since some maintenance work. There was some talk of flying that day also, but it didn’t happen for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons was the weather kind of sucked.
I went over to photograph the day’s events and was a bit frustrated by the weather, but came up with some stuff I like pretty well.
I used too basic methods for accomplishing this in these less than ideal weather conditions. The number one challenge was preventing getting a washed out sky combined with a too dark airplane. Method number one for dealing with this was to shoot carefully making sure that the sky retained detail. This was followed by processing in Lightroom to make the most out of the dynamic range. This included bringing the highlights down and the shadows up along with judicious use of the clarity slider. Graduated filters applied to the sky were also sometimes used.
The other thing I did, that gave me results I preferred, was to use alternative “retro” processing. On some of the images I applied presets in Nik’s Analog Efex Pro2. On my favorites however, I went in to Silver Efex Pro2. There I started with the High Structure: Harsh preset. I then let the sky go very light and optimized contrast. I was shooting for an almost etching look. I finished it off with a little sepia toning.
Recently, I completed a model shoot at WAAAM with some of the old biplanes there. The route to this shoot was nebulous and the original point of the shoot got lost a little bit, but we made something great out of it. I believe WAAAM will get a great photo to hang in the lobby out of this and I certainly got some nice new additions to my portfolio.
I’ll begin my narrative with the human side of the story, as the shoot was an incredible experience, and this part of the story isn’t necessarily evident in the story.
I have been working with Ken Olsson with various things at WAAAM for several years. Initially, we met when I was writing a story about aviation museums in Oregon. I’ve always enjoyed talking with Ken, he’s friendly, and we’ve always had plenty to talk about. I met Carrie Strahle, of Carrie Strahle Makeup Artistry, at an ASMP event, and exchanged business cards with her. She is the kind of person that instantly strikes you as a friend, despite the brief encounter. In discussions with Carrie later, she suggested Sami Van Der Westhuizen might be able to help me with a project that I was beginning to think about at that time. Thus I contacted Sami on FB.
So when I came up with the idea for this project. I started by having a meeting with Ken and Judy at WAAAM and discussed this as well as a few other ideas. I did not want to move ahead with other elements of the project without making sure it was ok with them; although, I had discussed the idea with Carrie in friendly conversation and got her ideas on whether the logistics of this could be worked out or not. After getting approval from WAAAM, for a slightly different idea than what you see before you, I put out a casting call on FB. When someone suggested Sami, I wasn’t aware she met the height requirements we had at that point, I thought perfect. I asked Sami if she would be interested. Next step was to ask Carrie if she would be willing to do the project.
Finally, the day came. The photographic crew met at Joe Wilson’s studio, Joe is the membership chair at the local chapter of the ASMP. Sami was the only person involved I had not met in person. She came in with her boyfriend and I must say, they are some of the nicest people you’ll meet. So, with one of the friendliest, fun crews around, we got to work.
In summation, the shoot was a blast, in addition to producing some great imagery. I was able to make contact with existing friends again and make some new ones. On the professional side of things, Sami was amazing, what I noticed immediately was her ability to help me aim the lights shaving minutes off setup when I changed the lighting. Carrie’s work was fantastic; I especially loved the curls she gave Sami for the shoot.
One thing I learned about myself that had to do with the human side of the shoot, is I do get in a bit of “a zone” when I photograph. During most of the shoot, I got in this zone where I was only aware of Sami, myself and the plane. I came out of it occasionally to share what images we were getting. I was not aware of what others were doing around me on set. It really struck home for me when I started retouching images and I would notice a frame or two when a strand of hair on Sami would fall out of place and then suddenly, the next frame, it’d be all perfect again. From this it was apparent that Carrie was stepping in to touch up. Looking at the bts images my assistant (dad) made, it was more apparent; Carrie doing touch ups, everyone very attentive to what was happening, confirming what I had earlier suspected about me falling into “the zone.”
If you are a photographer needing a model and makeup artist, I recommend putting Sami and Carrie at the top of your list of possibilities. They do excellent work and will certainly help keep your set a fun place to be.
Now to move on to a technical thing, I wanted to explain how I made the above image.
It was inspired by a promotional video on the Profoto web site. I started by setting my ambient exposure such that everything would fade to black. Setting ISO 100, 1/160th of a second and f/16 ensures that happens really quickly under the indoor setting. I setup one light in a strip bank, as close as possible to directly above the Jenny. It was slightly in front of the plane and then tilted at a slight angle to make sure the light shone far enough back on the plane. Then, I lit Sami with a very large octabox placed 45° to her front and 45° above, essentially Rembrandt light. The octa was also aimed across her, feathering the light onto her face. This was primarily done to prevent spill on the background, but also makes the light softer on her.
Post processing on this image was really simple. Basically, it comes down to I applied Tonal Contrast from Nik’s Color Efex Pro4 on the plane and Sami’s clothes.
Personal projects are very important. Photographers must always develop their skills, practice those skills, invent new techniques, and keep their portfolio updated, these are all things that personal projects can provide. They can be intimidating to setup, however. One idea I’ve heard from several sources lately is to approach the project as if you were shooting an assignment for someone. This helps provide direction to the project that helps one cope with the intimidation. I’m going to tell you a bit about how I setup my most recent project.
I came up with the idea that I would shoot as if I was creating an ad for a cultural/musical festival. I did have a specific festival in mind, although I don’t want to name it here. Belly dancing was a great fit and I had worked with a dancer before whom I felt would be willing to do a shoot like this again. However, for this project I felt it important to include her dancing partner. So I asked them both if they’d be interesting in doing a trade shoot.
We then set out trying to come up with an appropriate location. I was thinking something that would create a Mid-Eastern coffee house sort of feel. After trying to come up with something for a few weeks, we decided it would probably be best to use one of the dancers’ home. I set out to come up with an idea that would give a similar ambience in her home.
What I came up with was to use a piece of fabric I found that’s color was close to saffron. Then in Photoshop, I would add a texture to the solid color. In the end I decided not to add the texture to all the images. When lit appropriately, this created the look and feel I was after.
The shooting itself was fairly easy. I let what images were most successful from the earlier shoot guide me. The only real challenge was positioning two dancers so that behind them was the background we made and nothing else. Portable backgrounds are only moderate size out of necessity and this can cause difficulties at times.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted here and for my return I thought I’d post about how I’ve further refined an earlier technique I wrote about here. Inspired by Joel Grimes’ online training at Kelby, I played around with my earlier method until I arrived at something I truly love.
The method starts with a three shot HDR that I merge in Nik HDR EFex Pro 2. I process it to be a little flatter than I want the final product to be with slightly exaggerated detail. Of course, I prepped the RAW files by applying the chromatic aberration reduction and reducing the noise a little. When I finish with the HDR merge, I then open the file in Photoshop. I open the file in Nik Silver Efex Pro2 and process this image to be a little flatter than the desired finished product with good defined detail. I start with either the High Structure (Harsh), High Structure (Smooth) or Fine Art preset. In the final, I want the subject to have more structure than the foreground, so I use whichever preset will lead to that result the easiest.
After finishing with Silver Efex Pro2, I convert the background to a regular layer and move it above the Silver Efex layer and change the blend mode to soft light. Next I stamp the visible layers on top and apply a 16 pt Gaussian Blur. Change the blend mode of this layer to overlay and reduce the opacity between 60% and 40%.
Next Stamp all visible layers to the top and apply a Color Efex Pro4 recipe I discussed earlier here. This applies Tonal Contrast and Detail Extractor. Brush this effect on to only the vehicle and then reduce the opacity of this layer as desired, I find 70% is the average setting.
Finally, you may want to stamp all visible layers to the top again and apply Darken/Lighten Center in Color Efex Pro4.
First off, I’d like to start by stating that these images are inspired by George Hurrell, but are certainly not supposed to be a direct copy of his work.
I’d like to continue with the story where I left off when I decided to ask Jenny, the dancer in the previous composite, if she wanted to model for me. I already mentioned that I had been envisioning this kind of photo for a very long time with a model with a specific look. There were a few women at this event that had this look. I spoke to one or two that night letting them know to contact me if they were interested; having never heard from them, I hope it’s because they weren’t interested and not that they forgot or something. Anyhow, Natalie, the darker haired of the two women in the above slide show was one of the women that had the look I had envisioned. Emily the other young woman, I had in mind for another sort of shot; in the end, I had both women pose for both types of shots. I was a bit nervous about proposing this idea to these two ladies as I didn’t know Natalie at all and only barely knew Emily. However, they both seemed really cool, so I definitely thought it was worth the shot.
Turns out, I was right on both counts; the ladies looked as expected in the image and were very good company for the several hours the shoot took. The three women I photographed that evening are definitely some folks that I am very happy to know.
Anyhow, let’s move on to how the images were made.
I had several lighting ideas pieced together from many different things that I read. The two that I thought worked best.
Place a beauty dish almost overhead without a diffusion sock. Bring it down at an angle to the camera until the models eyes are illuminated. Directly overhead leaves her eyes in a shadow, not a good look. Then power this flash up so that it illuminates her skin extremely brightly, but not blown-out. Then have a strip bank in front of the model for fill. Power this flash down to where it just barely provides some detail in the shadow areas.
Use the fill precisely as in #1. Take the beauty dish off the key light. Replace it with a grid. Place it such that it is 45° above and to the side. Aim it by asking the model to look at it and watch for when she can see the flash tube. Please remember to power the flash down before doing this, I forgot, this being my first time to use the technique and for a brief time I made Natalie quite uncomfortable. Without any diffusing materials in front of the flash, the light will be much brighter so this much lower power setting will probably give you the exposure you need, again you want to be approaching blown-out, but not yet there. This was my preferred of these two methods.
Then it’s on to post processing. I initially start in Lightroom, choosing the images I want to use. Then I apply the Camera Portrait profile and remove chromatic aberrations. Finally, I move to the basic panel and increase the contrast to +20 and increase the black setting until only a few pixels are showing black. At this point I right click on the image and choose Edit In> Photoshop.
Once in Photoshop, I start by converting the image to black and white in Silver Efex Pro2. I do this first because the image being in black and white sometimes changes what needs to be retouched, and thus you can save time by doing this first. For example, my method includes using the red color filter and this lightens everything red, this often makes the veins in ones eyes blend with the white, thus making retouching this completely unnecessary. Speaking of my method for this, I have created a preset in Silver Efex Pro2 for this. It includes a red filter, approximately +20 in contrast and soft contrast, -50 in highlight structure, -20 in midtone structure, +30 in shadow structure and +20 in fine structure. I then check to see if any shadow areas need local adjustment to bring out detail and I apply the copper toner using the most subtle preset.
At this point, it’s time for the basic retouching. I use the techniques from Scott Kelby’s Professional Portrait Retouching Techniques for Photographers using Photoshop. I recommend you get this book. I got it in the spiral bound version, easier to use as a reference while you’re doing the retouching. A basic overview of what I do is lighten the eyes, retouch veins if they’re visible at all, lighten highlights in hair, retouch any blemishes, reduce the intensity of wrinkles (you could entirely eliminate, but I choose to maintain more reality than that), soften skin, and dodge and burn contours to accentuate dimensionality of face. For skin softening, I use the “High Pass Skin Softening” method discussed in the book; I mention it specifically because I vastly prefer it to other methods. It is very controllable and does an excellent job. I find the most important step for this look is the dodging and burning and I’ll explain why in the next paragraph.
After doing this retouch, I stamp all visible layers to the top; the [shift][ctrl][alt][e] shortcut. Then I open that in Color Efex Pro4. I run the Glamour Glow filter on the Warm Glow preset. I tweak this, primarily by lowering the warmth. This is where the dodging and burning really pays off, what the Glamour Glow filter does with that is truly magical and you’ll see it again in an upcoming blog post. It makes the image look almost three dimensional. Finally, to accentuate the look I use the Darken/Lighten Center filter. I place the center directly on whichever eye I think is more important to the composition, reduce the size of the center to the minimum size and then tweak the luminosities of center and border.
Hope you give this look a try; it’s a lot of fun. These sorts of images help your models/clients experience a bit of fantasy as well.
This image was very important to my recent updates to my portrait portfolio and I’ll begin this entry with an explanation of why.
I have been trying to find a model for the “George Hurrell inspired glam shots” that I have been envisioning for a very long time (I’ll tell you more about these images in the next blog post.) It has been quite the challenge since I’ve been working with friends on a TFP basis because of limited budget. I’ve had models cancel on me, potential models go from friends to certainly not friends before I asked them, etc. Thus, I have been constantly on the lookout for someone to ask to do this.
So along came this event that a friend of mine asked me to photograph for the Emerald City Rollergirls, the flat track rollerderby league of Eugene, Oregon. The event photography consisted of photographing the various people as they came through the room where I was setup to get an image of themselves in their cool costumes. When Jenny (the girl in the photo) came through, she made an effort to introduce herself and when I found out she was a belly dancer, this image popped into my mind and I got very excited about making the image. Furthermore, there were some women who had the look I felt was right for my aforementioned, George Hurrell inspired shot, so I went about setting up a shoot with several of the women from the group.
For this particular image, I was looking for a light and airy feel. I picked an old image I had of the Warner Wetlands at the base of Hart Mountain in Eastern Oregon. I was playing around with many different ways to prepare the background image and all of the came close, but none were exactly what I was looking for. That’s when my Google+ friend Monico Havier suggested I try the blending a black and white image with the color for the B-17 image that I have written about here recently. Now, this is a method I knew how to do already, but it wasn’t dawning on me to try it on the B-17, until Monico mentioned it. Well, I loved it and so did a lot of other folks. That got me to thinking that maybe this was the proper approach to this background image.
I opened the background image in Photoshop and opened the Silver Efex Pro2 plugin. I ran the Fine Art – High Key preset and turned off the border and brought the blacks down. This gave me a good black anchor, while still giving me that creamy look I wanted through the water, etc. Then I double clicked on the background to convert it to a regular layer and moved it above the Silver Efex Pro2 layer and changed the blend mode to soft light. At this point I saved the background for when I made the portrait. (I was overly excited about this composite and was messing with the background long before the portrait shoot was scheduled.)
For the actual shoot, I was looking for a little softer look than I usually do for my composites. So, I positioned a strip bank directly to one side and a speedlight in a softbox to the other. Above and in front of the blocked spot was a beauty dish with a diffusion sock. My Dad was there as an assistant, so I had him step in and we established our lighting ratios. The two lights to the side I intended to illuminate the model just slightly darker than pure white. The fill light in front would be just slightly less than that. This is where the setup differed significantly from my normal as I usually set the front light to considerably darker. When Jenny arrived we readjusted the lights a bit as she is considerably shorter than my Dad, but the power settings were already dialed in. After that, the shooting was pretty easy, at least from the photographer’s perspective; told Jenny I wanted eye contact in the shot and she did her dance poses.
Then came post processing. I started with some basic Lightroom stuff with a slight darkening of highlights, slight brightening of shadows. After this I opened both this image and the intended background as separate documents in Photoshop. Then I selected the dancer using quick select and then refine edge, exporting the result as new layer with layer mask. This selection actually worked unusually easily and only required use of the refine edge brush along some of the fuzzy costume accessories. Then, even if there was a mistake there, no one would probably be able to tell unless it was pretty major. Next I dropped in the background and moved it in the layer stack until it was beneath our dancer. After this, I duplicated the dancer layer and opened the bottom one in Silver Efex Pro2. This time I did not run the High Key preset, but instead made it a contrasty image. My aim was to make the skin tones look like they received the High Key treatment, while still keeping the darker tones nice and rich. Once this was done I changed the blend mode of the top layer to soft light. Then it was time to unify the two elements. The color saturation was now low enough that there was no apparent mismatch in the color. Thus, I went to the background layer and opened it in Color Efex Pro4. I ran the Fog filter here and made the fog pretty intense. I then brushed it in just behind her and along the horizon but fading away as I got further from her. Next I stamped all the visible layers on top, the old [shift] [ctrl] [alt] [E] shortcut and opened that in Color Efex Pro4. I ran Tonal Contrast on balanced mode and then ran Glamour Glow on it. This pretty much finished the post.
Today, I thought I would use the three images that I added to my Aviation Portfolio to illustrate my three favorite methods to post process aviation photos. All three of these methods utilize plugins from Nik Software. The two color methods I have made custom recipes for in Color Efex Pro4. The B&W process is close enough to one of the presets, that I just go with it.
We’ll start with this image of a B-17G.
This photograph uses a recipe that includes Pro Contrast, Detail Extractor and Darken/Lighten Center. The first filter applied is the Pro Contrast and here I use the Dynamic Contrast preset included with the plugin. Next Detail Extractor is applied with the default preset, I use control points to make sure that it is only applied to the aircraft itself. Finally, I apply the Darken/Lighten Center filter with the default preset. I use the place center button to assure that it is precisely where it looks best.
This is the starting point for this image.
Next let’s discuss my B&W method.
Here I use Silver Efex Pro2. This is one of the greatest plugins anywhere in my opinion. I start with the High Structure – harsh preset and then do some tweaking, usually concentrating on using one of the color filters. The idea with a polished aluminum aircraft is to enhance that sheen on the plane. Then I applied the lowest level of Sepia toning and applied a vignette – very slight. This is just about the simplest of these three methods.
Here is the before image.
Finally, there’s my Bleach Bypass method.
This recipe starts with the Bleach Bypass filter, then applies the Detail Extractor, and finally the Darken/Lighten Center. I start with the Bleach Bypass filter with the default preset. I control the contrast carefully here to make sure shadow detail is retained, I want the shadows pretty dark, but not all the way to black. Next, I apply the Detail Extractor on the default preset and like before, use control points to make sure it is only applied to the aircraft. Detail Extractor and Bleach Bypass together really makes out of focus foliage take on an appearance I don’t like much, but obviously I love the look on the aircraft. Finally, I apply the Darken/Lighten Center and as before place the center precisely.
Today I thought I’d discuss a bit about the post processing techniques behind my new portfolio.
The first step is choosing the right photos. For the high-key shots it is necessary to have a mostly light photo with some detail on your subject being dark and just the inverse of that for the low-key shots. I find that this leaves a fairly wide selection for the high-key shots, but I could only get side-lit shots to work well for the low-key.
After choosing the photo comes the fun part. In Lightroom, right click on the photo and choose edit>edit in Silver Exex Pro2. For the high-key shots I start with the fine art high key preset. I immediately delete the border, I’m not a big fan of borders being hard-baked into my image files. Then I apply one of the white border vignettes. Then tweak the settings to accentuate the overall light feel to the image, while making the detail in my animal adequate. This might mean amplifying the blacks or often a little localized editing using control points. For example, place a very small control point on the eyes and increase contrast and structure to taste.
For the low-key shots, I use one of the lens-falloff vignettes. Tweak the image to get a mostly dark image with some part of your subject light. If detail falls too dark on the subject, use a control point placed on the dark side of the subject and increase the structure. This brings out the detail on that side without lightening it too much. You then might decide to increase the brightness as well, but I typically don’t. This increasing structure on the dark side works similarly to detail extractor in the new Color Efex Pro4 plugin – my favorite filter in that plugin.
Another very important thing to remember is your choice of the color filter to use in Silver Efex Pro 2 has a big influence on this effect and can get you a long way to where you want to be in just one click, remember to experiment with them.