The Making of An Image - I

In the darkest coldest depths of the winter of 2013 I found myself actually making photographs. Thats atypical for me. I tend to hibernate during the winter as I have mentioned more than a few times. The reason for my somewhat energetic activity this particular winter is twofold. First I gave myself a project. A photography related project but not really a project to make any particular photographs that I would consider real photography work of my own. The intent was to produce illustrations for my lighting field guides. Workman like, illustrative of a particular technical thing in isolation but not complicated or nuanced in any visual sense. Second is the banter between LaRoque and I that I have referred to in many posts.

I thought it might be interesting sharing a smattering of thought processes on particular images here and there now that I have a bit more perspective on some of them. Consider this the first in a series of ramblings. The particular image I happen to choose aren't random nor are they particularly fantastical the only criteria is that when I come across them they spark a couple of thoughts related to my own particular process at this moment in my journey. Some thoughts technical, some creative, things I was consciously aware of while shooting and others where I see influences and subconscious things that have crept in.

To kick it of I chose the image at the top. An image that ultimately didn't end up being used as an illustration because the way it looks was far far too dependent on things that had nothing to do with what I ended up discussing in simulating sunlight with one strobe. The thought process for this particular set was pretty simple. Just me and a subject - no hair and make up people, no wardrobe stylist (well me if that counts - I just cannot help it). Take a dark dreary horrible rainy day and transform the look into something a bit more sunny and summery by imagining the sun coming through a window in the background to camera right that didn't exist.

All of the exposure decisions were completely consciously manually dialed in. The top Mika was wearing was purpose bought for this shoot to feel summery. My shooting style at the moment and choice to release the shutter when I did was completely conscious. As was my direction for Mika to cause a set of circumstances that looked like this. For better or worse I direct loosely and change it up to get what I want rather than "stand exactly here, close your eyes, put your arm up, put the other one down, hold that, etc". It's more like stand between those doors, maybe move back a little, okay now look toward the windows and hold the door, could you move your hair away from your face a bit - all the time shooting as those motions are occurring in real time. May not be your thing but try it sometime. Will bet you end up with a different set of expressions and looseness and gesture than if you are a bit more static.

That brings us to what I will call the semi-conscious things going on in my head when I took this. Not completely thought out but right behind the primary thought process. Things that I have been playing with intently and vigorously enough in personal projects that I am now finally inspired to pursue that are really close to primary objectives but have no need to allocate a ton of thought to. Objectives visually and stylistically but not so ingrained to the point you aren't even aware you are doing them. In this particular image there are two things that have been floating my photographic boat of late with personal projects.

First there is messing with frames inside frames in a subtle way. Everyone has seen this and heard this with respect to using windows, doors, trees, etc to frame a main subject inside of your frame - typically what you see are quite contrived from my perspective. Maybe that's not a good word. I have been playing more with dividing the frame up in various ways very explicitly and then messing around with they way the primary subject interacts and is positioned within both frames. I am hung up on making a square inside the typical 3:2 lately and then having the subject composed inside that as well as venture a bit outside of it. It's obvious when I point it out for this image. My intent is playing with graphics without it being so so explicit.

The second thing that is really delighting my visual and aesthetic sensibilities at the moment are mixing bits of perfection with what could be considered flaws on multiple levels. The intersection of beauty and not so beautiful. The contrast of technical perfection with things that are not so prefect. The extremely polished with completely unpolished in every way I can imagine. This actually intersects with the first semi-conscious frame play in terms of a mixture of following compositional rules and breaking them hard with in the same image.

These semi-conscious things that float my boat stylistically and visually at the moment aren't exercises that subjugate the subject. They only work if they are background context that is secondary to the subject. Strange I know but have you ever sat down and really looked at what is charging you up visually at any given moment. If not some introspection can really inform you and your photography. You may decide to completely change them or embrace them.

Last but certainly not least are the almost completely unconscious things. Things that develop over significant amounts of time and effort and thought and exercise. Things that just happen now. Things that are hard not to do. They can be good and bad. Bad ones are really hard to stop. Even good things can sometimes get in the way as they did here. At least for the illustration purposes of why I was shooting this set in the first place.

What is going on with the light here? Ostensibly the big over exposed backlight of course but all that stuff is just window dressing and context - an effect if you will. What's going on with the main subject? Well - extremely soft key by a huge light source - window light bouncing around a big white room. Really soft, really flat. Great but it would look completely different if Mika moved forward even three or four inches. Completely different image with far far far far less impact and separation. Even some of the lesser feel would disappear. Why? Because all of the light that actually makes this photograph look the way it does is actually bounce from the flash off of the white drape on the back side of the door to Mika's left. The highlight on her face, and her hair are all because of that white drape on the back of the door and her position. Secondarily the bounce back off of her blouse. This is where those well matched (to the window provided highlight on her hand) soft kickers are coming from.

I have studied, and used, and messed around with using the environment and even parts of the subject as reflectors to fine tune light for as long as I can remember. It's one of the first things that I really took notice to in asking myself why two pictures that on the surface were exactly the same looked so so different. Believe it or not it took me a bit to figure out what was going on. Hey I was young and my head was far more gear focused so I was asking myself the wrong questions. After looking at this and using it and tuning it over and over and over again with intent and focus I cannot not do it. Too bad that I focus way more on that in my window light field guide than what I shot this for. Since I made a decision not to talk about that extensively I couldn't use this particular image that was meant for demonstrating something else entirely.

To wrap this up I'll discuss some technical decisions. They are dead last in my book but necessary none the less. I had to shoot this at ISO 6400 to get a hand holdable shutter speed of 1/125 @ f2.8 for the given ambient exposure you see on Mika's face. The noise you see is actually from VSCO film grain. Be confident ISO 6400 on the D600 is perfectly useable. In terms of post processing this particular photograph has the absolute most post processing of any image I have ever posted here - I thinkā€¦ can't be sure but it's darn close. It also deviates from my goto use of VSCO a bit.

Here's a run through of every single thing I did to the OOC RAW file and why.

  • First off is a VSCO preset. Specifically Portra 400NC++. Yep the ++ version with the bad blacks. I wanted this to have a flare-y feel. There was a tiny bit of flare going on where I wanted it but even my old 85mm 1.8D was so good it was rendering with too much shadow contrast for the feel I was looking for. So I chose a preset that exaggerated the flaws I wanted instead of trying to "fix" them. Sometimes it may server you better if you actually embrace some of the things that might be considered technical flaws rather than trying to correct them.
  • I jacked the WB color temperature up a bit. About 400 points because I didn't gel the flash and it was too cool. I couldn't go farther because it started making the ambient too too warm.
  • I used the toolkit preset of creamy highlights. This adds a bunch of yellow/orange to the highlights. Great for making the flash lit parts even warmer still. Warm and yellow is good and actually my preference when rendering sun. Probably hung over from when I was in kindergarten - I used a yellow crayon to draw the sun. What color did you use? Orange? Red? I bet you didn't.
  • Now a fault that I actually corrected because it looks like shit. Glowy hairs in high contrast areas, worse they were purple due to the lens aperture I used and the fact they were almost in focus but not exactly. I was lazy I just used the Lens fringing tool in lightroom with the purple desaturate cranked up to get rid of them.
  • I actually used a local adjustment - you know how lazy I am right? I hate messing around with local adjustments. If I were shooting on spec I would have someone that liked to do it for me. I rather shoot and interact with subjects. So the big local adjustment here was some sloppy brushing in of negative clarity on Mika's hair. Very closely related to the purple fringing but the imaging devices and lenses most of us use are too good in someways and have quirks that when combined make things like high contrast hair look like shit compared to slightly worse resolution equipment and film. In this case brushing in negative clarity was good enough to make hair look less like crap in this particular situation. Again if I were shooting for spec I probably would have minimized what causes this and would have someone that does hair in post do it for me.

There you have it.

I thought a few of you may find the way another photographer's gears grind entertaining, possibly useful, maybe give you some insight on your own process, whatever. Take what you want - leave the rest. I will post more in this series - obviously with different images and circumstances if any of you find it remotely useful.


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