The Making Of A Photograph IV

Whooo hooooo - Summer. At least in the US mid-atlantic this week. It's been 80-90 and sunny for a week. So what to do for the first official post of June and Summer. How about a weird and wonderful random walk-thru of an image I made in the dead of winter. Specifically on a day where it was dark and snowing like crazy. Ahhh doesn't even bother me now. We'll talk a bit about the shooting conditions as well as a smidgen of screw up on my part and then talk about a subject near and dear to my heart the trials and tribulations of dealing with skin. Somewhat semi-distantly-related to the last post in an askew kind of way. Heck summertime gives me so much energy that I'm even going to mess with this image in post a bit - something I rarely do for the blog apart from applying a preset. Not a good habit for sure. I should probably take about 10 more seconds…

First of some context. This was the last shooting session I had scheduled to wrap up the simulating sunlight field guide. Most of the shots I had did so far were free from a lot of environmental context against light colored walls and such. Sort of worst case so that readers could see what was going on. These wrap up shots were going to have other stuff in the frame which makes things far far easier in most cases. Like this…

When you have various surfaces that are not mostly white lots of complicated things go on that hides various flaws of simple lighting setups. After making what I needed for those I did a few more just for the heck of it incase I needed some extras so I did some with a speedlight providing backlight and the main light coming from a bank of windows opposite side which is shown at 100% at the top of the post.

As luck would have it worst case was worse than I planned that day. It was so dark that even close to the bank of windows I had to shoot at 1600 ISO. What's worse is that the rooms in the background were so so dark they pretty much went black because of the smaller windows farther away in those rooms. If I was not shooting for the eBook committed to one and only one speedlight I would have definitely setup another one to send a shaft of "sun" into that dark area from the same direction as the one lighting up Fayette's side to camera right. So goes it. More context and larger areas in the frame tends to require more lights and more gear.

Moving on the other thing that I just cannot stand is shooting where the hard light source is cooler than the soft window source. That's completely opposite of things that go on with natural light where it's reversed - again worst case. I don't know a lot of people besides myself that mess with CTO/CTS gels when using speedlights. Well some do but for the Part I eBook I eschewed any type of specialized gear that might not be at hand.

The reason that I dislike that inversion so much is usually in the case where the warmer ambient is acting as the main light. With out a CTS or CTO gel it's pretty much impossible to warm up the speedlight via WB to anywhere close to where it needs to be if to look anywhere close to the real sun without the softer ambient also going nutty warm. Not good. Looks all wrong and it's a pet thing I have where I don't like the relationship of warmer soft light and cooler hard light in the same scene. Just looks bad. Okay enough on that. Get some 1/4 and 1/2 CTO or CTS. Weaker if you use real stobes that are actually balanced somewhere near 5500K gels - I like CTS looks more like morning to me…

All of this was really about color and more specifically skin color/tone/saturation/etc. A lot of the rest of this discussion is going to be on post production color and it's relationship to human skin. This is extremely taste driven but I am going to throw some truisms out there that should help you out if you haven't spent a lot of time messing with skin no matter what particular taste you happen to have.

First let's take a look at the screw-ups and failures and all the stuff that had nothing to do with color. Easy to get that out of the way. I tend to expose lighter colored caucasian skin at around the 75% mark. Which is probably way hotter than what your camera tells you to do most of the time. This is really where it needs to end up anyway. Maybe a bit darker or a bit lighter but not too far off that. So think centered around the 3/4 mark from a histogram perspective. A purely mechanical failure caused me to blow this shot as well as about 5 others around it.

Specifically note the f-stop - f/3.5. Oooops it was f/4 a few shots prior. Too much chit-chat and not paying attention. I was probably waving my camera around wildly while discussing some passionate topic and knocked the aperture dial. So a bunch of shots were overexposed by 1/3 before I noticed it. Not a big deal hence the -0.33 in the exposure block. Using Aperture 3's exposure control results in almost exactly the same results (within reason) as if you actually exposed that way in the camera.

This however exacerbated an issue of the dreaded purple fringing do to even shallower depth of field in the problem areas. No this is not really lens CA in the technical sense but it does look really bad. A sure recipe for aggravating it is crazy bright white highlights against dark blacks. The more contrast, fine detail, the sharper your lens, and the closer it is to actually being in perfect focus the worse it gets. I normally check to minimize this as much as possible in camera. How - ummm make sure I tweak the Aperture focus point and viewpoint to avoid it.

Oooops it was okay at f/4 with where my focus point was but f/3.5 really aggravated the crap out of it in all the hair highlights and even more so on all the black texture against the glancing white highlights of the rim-light. Most folks don't know that Aperture 3 can correct this. It's under the quick brush menu and it's called halo reduction. It works great too bad you have to use a brush to put it where the issue is. Takes about 2 seconds. Contrary to popular believe Lightroom is not better it's just global. The upside is you just "turn it on and mess with sliders" the downside is the result looks like shit for really bad issues. Aperture 3 seems to produce better results for me. The "best" I have seen is Capture One 7 - In fact even when I turn off lens corrections that purple de-fringe seems to happen by default and it's like you cannot even tell. This particular image looks like hell after LR4 is done with it.

That's it for the "corrections" of screw-ups. Everything else has to do with color - even if not directly so. First off is WB. Nikon auto WB actually did a credible job at producing a neural image. Too bad I wanted something that felt a bit warmer so I just yanked the WB adjustment block in "skin" mode up to around +0.8. I didn't bother to sample it just used the calibration in Skin mode which is fairly well tuned to dial in some warmth.

Now if you do that on just about any image that is neutral you will most likely end up with really nuclear skin. If you add any additional contrast or saturation directly or indirectly it will go from a fission kind of nuclear to more of a thermo-nuclear fusion kind of deal. In other words really really orange. This problem is built into digital from my perspective but not completely also happened with film.

Brief history lesson that you can relate to even if you didn't shoot film. At least it was simple. High contrast film = high saturation film. Why did you not want to use Fuji Velvia for people? Because it was really really saturated and really really contrasty - they are linked one to one with film. If you did shoot people with high contrast film their skin went ompa-loompa orange. You shot people with low contrast film - hence low saturation. End of story. Simple.

With digital it gets a bit more complicated because there are 42 controls that you are supposed to mess with that are all interrelated that mess with saturation and one specifically that messes with orange in a big big way - white balance. In fact the blue/orange main slider is almost directly centered on what could be considered the average hue for skin. If you add blue with WB it actually starts to desaturate the orange of skin tone before even remotely going "blue". Test some images you have that have wildly varying perception of skin in terms of cool/warm. I will bet that skin is still pretty much orange in terms of hue. The problem if you are not used to messing with color is that you want warm but when you go warm w/ WB it tends to increase saturation in skin and when you dial in blue w/ WB it tends to desaturate skin but also make everything else cooler.

Here's the problem - OOC digital tends to have too much overall contrast and too much overall saturation but flat mid-tones. As compared to any film you really would have wanted to use with people. Every time you dial in more overall contrast or just mid-tone contrast it's also going to up your saturation especially in the critical orange mids where your skin tones live. There's a really good chance if you don't like the way skin looks it's a saturation issue at least as much as a WB issue.

Forgive the extremely long diatribe but it was required to give some background for the the rest of the adjustments which should now go real quick…

  • Check out the black point here. It's set at 0. The default for my D600 in Aperture 3 is a whopping 5. Way way way to high. It certainly makes for a poppy image when you first import. Too bad it also exacerbates the too much saturation problem.
  • My go to black point numbers are somewhere between -3 and 1. That happens to be lower than the default of any camera I own. As a side note the variance is probably more dependent on the ISO I shoot than the scene. Lower ISO's seem to produce more contrast than higher ISO's see what your camera does. If I were shooting at 200 ISO this would probabably be more like -3.
  • Where your blacks start is an extremely powerful control that people tend to only dial up. Dialing it back at this stage of the processing fixes all kinds of problems. The first being a more normal level of saturation for skin. The second is that it will unblock your shadows in a big way. Always using Hightlights and Shadows to boost your darks? Maybe you don't need to do that. Back off the blacks in the exposure block. This way when you add mid-tone pop you won't end up pushing all the blacks even closer together and blocking them up.
  • The rest of the processing is pretty much the VSCO film 01 Fuji 400H preset with one big adjustment after that. I mentioned this before will do it again. VSCO for Aperture 3 adds shit loads of mid-tone contrast with RGB curves which as you now know also increases saturation at the same time. This needs to be fixed. Aperture 3 does have a luminosity curves mode but it's not used in film 01. Even if it was there is contrast added to individual channels which will mess with saturation as well.
  • Okay here is the critical part. No matter what your particular taste, no matter what tool you are using, no matter where you like your contrast and how you like to get here… the color control at the end of this chain. Aperture has one, Lightroom has one, there's a way to deal with this in pretty much every RAW processor or image manipulation tool. Using Aperture 3's color control take a sample of the skin - it will be orange one way or another. If you do nothing else with this control try dialing in somewhere between -10 and -20 for the saturation. This will fix a multitude of skin issues and give you a much clearer picture of what temperature you want to render your skin tones. This is touchy the difference between -10 or -15 is a world apart in some cases. You do not want any of your skin to even hint at "grey" that's too to far. If it goes gray real quick your WB is probably too too cool as a reaction to too saturated skin in the first place.

Okay - summary time. Contrast, exposure, WB, and saturation are all linked to the way skin looks in a big way. They all change the way it looks. Change one and the others will need to be tweaked. Typically what you want is less overall contrast and more mid-tones which will usually still leave you with oranges that are too saturated. When skin is too saturated it's on a razor's edge a tiny nudge in WB or lightness/darkness will look all wrong one way or another with virtually no nice middle ground. Skin with a more appropriate saturation is extremely flexible in terms of exact color and tone. It will look "good" cool or warm. Big secret desaturate your oranges to get decent looking skin and get a lot more flexibility in rendering it dark/light cool/warm.

So what to look for??? Here's a hint. Take a look at the shadows/darker parts on your subject's skin something around mid-tone or a bit lower than mid-tone on the histogram. Are they orange? You should probably dial back orange saturation or overall saturation so they are more brown looking than orange looking… You choose which one.

Typically I don't bother with messing around with this stuff that I chuck up on the web as it's a pain in the ass to explain for illustration purposes when I am generally talking about shooting instead of talking about post-production (which I do rarely) so I just avoid it. I for sure mess with this stuff for any images I actually print for or make for other people.


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