I get tired of purely technical pursuits. I get tired of how without why. I’m also afraid of repeating what’s already been said by photographers I respect, and to whom I have nothing, zero, nada to add—David Hobby, Joe McNally, Zack Arias…seriously, all the bases have been superbly covered already. If I’m to contribute anything serious, it would need to at least provide a different angle…
It’s a pursuit that has to be about emotion just as much as sharpness. It needs the how while also begging for the why in order to avoid becoming an empty shell.
This is the rub. There’s so much photography how-to material out there, how do you make it your own?
It’s the emotion part that makes what we do unique. What do we bring to the process beyond technique? What are we trying to say, and how do we say it?
LaRoque’s first post in his Process series, The Film Curve, is a goodie – about how to set the tonal range for a photo in the highlights and shadows to express your creative goals.
A year or two ago, I thought about doing a book called “So You Bought a Fancy Camera.” It would be for friends who had just bought a DSLR or mirrorless camera and needed to get started with the basics.
Instead, I spent my time making another book (and another after that), covering something other than how-to material, and I feel like that was time better spent.
Who needs another asshole talking about focal length?
I did this a while back on portraits, but here’s a little behind-the-scenes on how I process my photos in Lightroom.
Let’s take a photo from the Heidelberg Project in Detroit – blending a few favorite subjects of mine: an abandoned house, public art in an urban setting, good mix of light and deep shadows.
Here’s a before and after. The photo was captured with a Canon 7D and 24-70mm f/2.8 Sigma lens. The framing of the brick pillar and the burned black ceiling, with the shaft of light streaming down the stairs, made for an interesting scene.
I start with exposure. Is the frame too dark? Too bright? How about white balance. After adjusting those in Lightroom, I pick my VSCO present. These days, it’s Film 05′s Kodak Ektar 100. That particular film setting has a lot of options, but I usually stick with the default, or play with the Contrast+ setting.
I like Ektar because of its high-contrast, green-tinted-shadows look. It’s not afraid to let the shadows go completely to black, and it’s a warmer film tone. But that’s just the start.
From there I’ll probably add a bit more punch in the contrast setting, drop the highlights a bit to let more detail in the bright spots, and drop the blacks down to give it that really contrasty look. Shadows are my friend.
Depending on the image, I’ll also reduce the saturation a bit. Adding contrast makes the colors pop a bit too much for my liking (those shoes might be a bit too blue for my taste).
Increase the sharpening a tad (usually to the 30 mark, with some masking to only sharpen the edges), maybe bump the clarity (only for non-people photos), and increase the color noise reduction if I have to. Peeking at the shadows and dark spots in the photos lets me know if there is color noise.
Hit the “Remove Chromatic Aberration” toggle if I need to, and do any kind of lens or perspective corrections if I have to. And then I’ll add a bit of a vignette and, especially for VSCO film packs, reduce the grain level. My settings rarely have grain going anywhere above 20-30.
As a last touch, I’ll sharpen little details with the adjustment brush, spot remove anything that seems out of place, and crop a bit.
That’s it. Nothing complicated or fussy. I’ll spend a very short amount of time on a photo, and bring it into Photoshop to do any kind of heavy lifting. Getting it most of the way there in camera is the important part, allowing me to make the styling adjustments as needed.
I almost wrote “editing” instead of processing, because sometimes I still think of “editing photos” meaning: correcting, cropping, etc.
But that’s semantics. What I really mean is, I give my photos a certain look, and this is how I do it.
To illustrate, I’m going to use a senior portrait shoot from last summer.
This is Kaitlyn.
Kaitlyn and I worked together on a hot summer evening around the college where I work. In all, we hit up an abandoned Catholic church, a wooded seating area, the football field, and the college’s nature center.
Let’s start with the out-of-camera raw file, and work our way toward the finished product.
Here’s a sample of a raw photo file from the shoot. It’s important to get lighting and composition down first, of course. Here, things look okay. But we’re just getting started.
To start, I play with a few VSCO film emulations I like, usually in the Kodak Portra family. In this case, it’s Portra 400 VC.
I like my photos to have lots of contrast, so I bump that in Lightroom. Nothing crazy, but usually in the 20-50 range. This deepens the shadows and make the colors stand out a bit.
Next, I tweak the highlights and shadows if I need to. I’d rather have more details in the shadows and then darken them with contrast. This photo was a little on the light side, so I dropped the highlights slider in Lightroom to bring more detail back into the face.
If it’s appropriate, I’ll boost the vibrance a bit to help the colors stand out.
I don’t always add a vignette, but in the case of strong center-point portraits like Kaitlyn’s, I think a bit of vignetting adds some focus.
To finish up a portrait, I’ll darken the hair around the face, lighten any dark spots under the eyes, and add emphasis to the contours of the face. If needed, I’ll pull the photo into Photoshop and clean up stray hairs here and there.
Here’s the finished product, before and after:
That’s basically it. Tone, contrast, and some clean-up work are the big three. There may be some cropping involved, too, or taking out distracting background elements. But I can get a lot done using these basic techniques.
Here are a few other samples from the photo shoot, with before and after images.
A few months ago, a friend asked me, “How do you take all those cool Instagram shots?”
My simple advice: pull over.
A lot of my Instagram photos are snagged on my work commute, through back country roads with great views of the sky. Some are grabbed when I’m traveling for work, or out doing errands. But the common thread is that I pull my car over, get out, and snap the shot.
Sure, keeping an eye out for possibilities helps. Also, I try to keep locations in mind so that, if I return, I can pull over and grab the shot.
But the kicker is to just get out of the car. That’s it. If I see something noteworthy, or worth grabbing, I pull over and snap the photo. This is how I avoid banal Instagram shots like food or coffee.
Step one: go somewhere. Step two: see something cool. Step three: pull over and take the shot.
There are times when I’m concerned about traffic, especially on highways. And if someone’s behind me, I tend not to pull over. Something about being on an empty road makes me more likely to pull over. But that’s why I keep a mental inventory, for times when I am alone on the road. If a car does happen to pass by, sometimes I’ll pretend like I’m looking for something along the road.
It also helps to make sure no one’s on the property. You avoid awkward questions that way.
I’m usually not afraid to take pictures of someone’s property. Sometimes the shot is worth it. In general though, and for the style of photos I like to share, #abandoned property is best.
For the above shot, I stopped by a house that I pass fairly often. I noticed the For Sale out front, and saw that some of the barns in the back looked pretty rough. So I pulled over to walk around the property to grab some shots.
I probably looked mighty suspicious to neighbors, who had a clear view of the property. But the light was just right, and the abandoned buildlings were in disarray. It was a great opportunity to do some iPhoneography.