What is that growing out of her head?

One of the best things that a photographer can do to give their images more impact is to consider their composition.  This can come in many, many forms but I don’t want to overwhelm so I’ll take them one at a time.  Today’s topic is related to one I’ve discussed in the past – simplifying the background.  Spring helped me when I last wrote about backgrounds and she’s back today for this easy lesson.

Mind your background - don't let things 'grow' out of your subject's head.

Mind your background – don’t let things ‘grow’ out of your subject’s head.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Have you ever looked at a picture and noticed that a tree or pole seems to be growing out of a person’s head?  Take this portrait of Spring for example.  I’ve exaggerated it here by putting Spring and the plant on a white seamless paper but I wanted to emphasize the point.  As I’ve mentioned before, just a slight shift in perspective can make a big difference.

See - much better.  This is a portrait of a dog and a plant rather than one mutant combo of both.

See – much better. This is a portrait of a dog and a plant rather than one mutant combo of both.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So I know what you’re thinking – I could always just shoot away now and use the magic later to fix it in post.  And you’re right!  But consider this – each of these two photos was created a 1/160 second exposure taken, maybe if I was being really slow, five minutes apart so we are talking about a total of 5 minutes and 1/80th of a second elapsed time.  In order to edit the first photo to have a clean white background, I’d spend at least fifteen minutes to do a convincing job of it.  And that even takes into consideration that I’m an Adobe Certified Expert with Photoshop.  How much longer might it take someone with less experience?  Now consider then that I might make 20, 50, or more images in a session and we are talking a BIG time commitment.  Believe me when I tell you that there are much better things that you could be doing with your time even if that something else is just relaxing, reading a book, watching television, having a conversation with your friend, and more.

The bottom line then?  It might not always be practical to change your perspective or you might simply not have noticed a distracting background element, but when you do notice and can do something about it, then make that adjustment.  Your photos will be much stronger for that little bit of extra effort.

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Custom paw prints

I’ll be teaching two classes this fall for Washington State University so I’ll have a lot less free time starting in a couple weeks.  Watching the start of the semester sneak up meant that I needed to get some projects done around the house while I still had some time.  One project was redecorating one of the rooms in our house.  I started the usual way by painting the walls then I moved on to removing the carpet, repairing, and prepping the concrete floor.  Next was painting the floor and adding some subtle paw prints for a bit of visual interest.  To know Spring, is to know that she ALWAYS wants to be where ever I am so it’s fitting that I used her feet as my template.

I wouldn’t exactly call this an easy project because of all of the time I spent on my hands and knees but making the prints was pretty straight forward.  I started by having Spring stand on a flatbed scanner – two passes seemed to work best so that just her front or back feet were on the scanner at a time.  Once scanned, using Photoshop I created a basic drawing around each of her pads and claws and printed them on a piece of paper.  The print was used as a template for cutting out the stencils from a sheet of transparency film (the regular old office store variety) with an X-Acto knife.  That might have been the most difficult part of the (paw print) project.  I chose one of those cheap sponge brushes to dab on the paint to give a little texture to each print.  The best part of it is that if you’ve ever looked at wet paw prints on the floor, you know that they are not perfect – meaning that I didn’t have to worry if the template slipped a bit when I applied the paint because those imperfections made it look more normal.

This is the evolution of the paw print project.

This is the evolution of the paw print project. Click on the image to see a larger version.

It’s funny how we grow.  We never would have considered adding such a lasting custom design in our first house (never mind that it is just paint and it can always be repainted).  Today this is just one of the many custom art and craft projects that Robin and I have done since we bought our current home.  Maybe that means we knew on some level that our previous houses (and cities we lived in) were not our final destinations.  Maybe it’s that we don’t have a lot of wall space for hanging our art and this is just another way to make our house feel like home.  What ever the reason, we are enjoying the results and I hope you do too.

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Photoshop is basically magic

You all know that magic can be used for good or for bad.  Photoshop is pretty much like that too.  Read on for examples of good, or check out sites like this if you want to see how Photoshop can be used for bad.

In her comment, Lisa expressed some surprised that this photo of Alice wasn’t Photoshopped.  Well, that’s not exactly right.

Alice the cat

Alice the cat

When I wrote about Alice, I was talking about how flash can be used to darken the background and not about how the final image was prepared.  There is definitely more to the story.

First, I want to point out that EVERY image I share has some amount of post-processing done to it – using a mix of Lightroom and Photoshop.  I’ll talk more about that some other time.  Today I want to set the stage by explaining that when I make a photo, I start with a RAW file from the camera.  That is, the digital file is the equivalent of a negative in olden times.  Sure the exposure was recorded in a way that can lead to it becoming a photograph, but it isn’t something that can be used as is.  That’s opposed to a JPEG file – if your camera records that kind of image, then that is all ready to go just as soon as you download that file from your memory card.

Okay, to recap then, a JPEG (or JPG) file is ready to use but a RAW file needs to be processed in order for it to be used in any way other than in specialty software (like Photoshop).

The question then is, what happens during the processing?  Well, other than converting it to a file format that is universally recognized, I do the same kinds of things that photographers have been doing pretty much from the start (well, after Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s first ever recorded image).  I adjust exposure (dodge & burn), adjust color, adjust contrast, and I sharpen the image.  I might also remove some distractions from image – typically small things like leashes, eye boogers, etc. (remember – simplify the background), and of course, I add a logo.  That’s it.

I’ll wrap it up with some before and after examples.

In this photo, you can see I added contrast to the overall image (look at her face in both) which effectively brought the background to black.  Also I removed that edge of the box she was sitting in to make it match the rest of the background.  Note:  the flash technique didn't work on that part because the outside of the box was on the same plane as her face therefore it had the same amount of flash illumination as Alice.

In this photo, you can see I added contrast to the overall image (look at her face in both) which effectively brought the background to black. Also I removed that edge of the box she was sitting in to make it match the rest of the background. Note: the flash technique didn’t work on that part because the outside of the box was on the same plane as her face therefore it had the same amount of flash illumination as Alice.

In this portrait of Spud, I removed the leash, added some contrast and saturation, and touched up some of the dirt on his face.

In this portrait of Spud, I removed the leash, added some contrast and saturation, and touched up some of the dirt on his face.

I know what you're thinking with this last example - what the heck?  That before is a HORRIBLE exposure.  And to that I reply, not so - because I know how to use the magic.  When you have an image with high contrast (like a dog with black and white fur sitting in the sun (as opposed to Spud in the previous example sitting in the shade), you have to make some adjustments to protect the highlights from getting clipped.  In this capture, I under exposed the overall image so that Misty's white fur would have good detail.  Because I use a RAW file, I was easily able to bring up the exposure of the image everywhere except in the white fur so that I could have the best of both worlds.  I also removed the leash, touched up her face, added some contrast, and some saturation.  To be clear, you can do some of these kinds of edits with a JPEG file too but it won't give nearly the same result due to the relative lack of information present in the file when compared to the information present in a RAW file.

I know what you’re thinking with this last example – what the heck? That before is a HORRIBLE exposure. And to that I reply, not so – because I know how to use the magic. When you have an image with high contrast (like a dog with black and white fur sitting in the sun (as opposed to Spud in the previous example sitting in the shade), you have to make some adjustments to protect the highlights from getting clipped. In this capture, I under exposed the overall image so that Misty’s white fur would have good detail. Because I use a RAW file, I was easily able to bring up the exposure of the image everywhere except in the white fur so that I could have the best of both worlds. I also removed the leash, touched up her face, added some contrast, and some saturation. To be clear, you can do some of these kinds of edits with a JPEG file too but it won’t give nearly the same result due to the relative lack of information present in the file when compared to the information present in a RAW file.

So there you have it.  I Photoshop my images.  Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.

One last tidbit for you – I can do this because I am not a photojournalist.  In photojournalism, it is generally okay to make basic corrections (like exposure, contrast, and saturation) just as they used to do in the film days but it is absolutely unacceptable to remove distracting elements from the backgrounds.  Even something like removing the leash would be a career ending mistake.

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Eliminating visual clutter for better portraits

Last week I wrote about using lighting to help simplify a background.  Today I want to take a step back and simplify things.  Sure, learning to light a composition is very important but sometimes elevating a portrait can be as simple as deciding what not to include in the frame.  In this lesson (with the help of my faithful assistant Spring)  I’ll show you how little changes can make a big difference for your portraits.

Visually cluttered picture

Visually cluttered picture

So take a look at the above picture of Spring.  What do you see?  An eager dog of course but also some blankets, a kitchen with drying dishes, the mail, a plant, the back yard, etc.  This leads to two questions.  What is the important part of the picture?  And what can I do to put the viewer’s focus on that subject?  The answers are (assuming you are not just interested in what my home looks like), Spring, and get rid of all of the non-essential parts of the composition.  Seems obvious, right?  Well, it might be but how often have you just walked up to a beautiful scene, lifted your camera, and pressed the button?  Sometimes turning to one side or the other and taking a few steps can have a huge impact on your composition.

M_Kloth_Spring_wall_background_8020

In this portrait we have the exact same super cute model photographed in the same room with the same (más o menos) lighting, yet aside from an out of focus brick wall, there is nothing else to see.  This immediately serves to bring the viewers’ eyes to the focal point of the portrait – Spring’s face and eyes.

Now I know what you’re thinking, that’s all fine and well if you have an empty wall that you could use as a background, but let’s face it, some scenes are going to be busy no matter what direction you turn.  And that’s a good point – so then you have to work a bit to isolate your model.  Last week I discussed how you could overpower the light on the background.  This week’s solution is even more straight forward – just find something to cover it up.

M_Kloth_Spring_studio_8027

For this final portrait, I put Spring on a piece of white paper which eliminates all distractions (and contextual location clues).  If you’ve been following my work with adoptable animals for a while, you know that white seamless background paper is often my go-to solution for photographing shelter critters.  That’s for good reason – some of the rooms I worked in were so full of stuff over the years that without a way to hide the background, a puppy portrait would turn into a Where’s Waldo picture.

So before you make that next portrait, think about the background and how it might work for or against your goals for the image.  Oh, and if your model is of the canine persuasion, don’t forget your treats.

 

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Anatomy of a shot – cat portrait using a flash or two

Alice the cat

Alice the cat

This week I’m starting off my photo tip series discussing just one of the elements that went into making this photo (I don’t want to overwhelm you on my first lesson) but it’s an important place to start.  The basic idea here is one that is essential for EVERY photographer – using your lighting to focus the viewer’s attention exactly where you want it in the photo.

Alice was photographed in a mixed lighting room in a walk in ‘cat condo’.  That is, the fluorescent lights were on and there was bright sunlight coming in through the window (though not directly lighting her) – this is what we call the ‘ambient light’.  There were other cats in the condo, the walls of the cage were barred (it is an animal shelter after all), and there was assorted clutter throughout (food and water bowls, kitty litter, blankets, toys, etc.) – basically there was a lot that I didn’t want in the picture.  If you’ve ever made someone’s portrait indoors in a room with windows, with the overhead lights on, and with lots of things in the background then you’ll have a pretty good idea about what the ambient light and background would do for this kind of portrait.  It would all be fine for making a record of the scene but it might be kind of ho hum portrait.  One of the easiest ways to make your model stand out in an image is to remove distracting background elements from the frame.  Today I’m going to talk about achieving this isolation using flashes to light the portrait.  To be sure, there are ways to make an amazing portrait using ambient light but that’s a topic for another day.

The dark background here is a result of using a flash (two actually, but one would do the trick).  This happens because flash outputs are very bright but short lasting.  This allows the camera to use a fast (relatively) shutter speed because the bright light properly illuminates the model but it isn’t strong enough to light the background (there’s physics involved here – it’s what is referred to as the inverse square law) hence a properly lit model with a dark background.  This is a great way to make your model stand out in what might otherwise be a distracting background.

Since the primary on camera flash would be enough to properly light the portrait, the question remains, why complicate things with another flash?  Well, that comes down to aesthetics.  One of the things that you can do to add interest to a portrait is to incorporate areas of light and shadow (instead of just lighting everything straight on).  This allows the viewer to better see things like texture (great for furred subjects) but it is also something that we’ve been conditioned to appreciate in our art for centuries.  One of the masters of using this technique of light and shadow was the painter Rembrandt van Rijn.

Old Man with a Black Hat and Gorget http://www.rembrandtpainting.net, accessed 7/17/14

 

So give your flash a try.  It might not be the perfect solution for every shot but it definitely has its place.  Most importantly have some fun experimenting!

 

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