Fads come and go and photography is not immune to the fad of the day any less than other creative endeavors. From selective coloring to the current trend of blown highlights and vintage yellowish looks, photographs are being over processed and passed off as art.
Yes, I’m ashamed to admit this was one of my own earlier misadventures into selective coloring. And no, I did not do it again.
In particular, with wedding shooters, the advent of easily acquired Lightroom presets and Photoshop actions have unleashed a deluge of hyper sharpened, over saturated, distressed and generally mangled images. A good wedding image is not about the action used to create the colors, it’s about the moment in time being captured. And a good picture stands on it’s own, without needing to have it heavily manipulated. I just finished a wedding album where only one image was heavily processed for a very specific reason. I did flip a few to B/W but most of them were just cleaned up, sharpened a bit and cropped here and there. The bride, when she saw the KISS album for the first time, commented on how classy her pictures looked.
In this case, this was the last set of formal pictures the bride has of her dad who passed away several weeks after the wedding. I’m proud my images are a timeless version and not a worn out trendy version. You never know how your images will be view in the future, I prefer mine to be viewed as keepsakes and not kitsch.
I an not a Photoshop luddite, I use Photoshop alot and would not give it up. There are actions and presets I use often in my own workflow. Most times I use them because in my work flow I need to repeat something over and over again. My most commonly used preset is a freebie from Cameradojo called “Bam”. There are three versions and all come very close to a D300 preset I made (was making) and since it was close and I liked it, I use it. When you shoot RAW, you have to process the image and at the very least apply a camera profile to it so the image on the screen matches what you saw on the LCD which is a processed JPEG. The Bam preset fits very well into my Nikon work flow and saved me the trouble of creating my own from scratch.
There is a set of commercial actions I like for eyes and teeth called The Eye Doctor and Dentist Actions from MCP. I love them because they put each adjustment on a layer so when I need to brighten the eye whites or work on the pupil, no big deal. I go to that layer, turn it on and dial it in. Done. I’m not getting weird with the colors or saturation, I’m working on the basics.. color balance, initial sharpness, eye clarity, teeth coloring.. all the small things that can really make or break a picture. It’s called “Basics” for a reason, one should always pay attention to the basics. Another source of knowledge and inspiration is David Cuerdon who has the Beauty and Portrait Retouching Kit on Kelby Training. He shows how to really get into the eye to make them beautiful and not alien.
When I have my basics in place, I do use a palette of actions by Focht Creative (partner of Fundy) called “Retouch Palette: or Touchflo. This is a very nice set of Photoshop actions that provide a lot of tools for touching up images fast. And there are some processing “tricks’ in the bag of actions for popping the color or going with a soft B/W conversion and so on. There are times that something like this is of great use. One action I seem to go back over and over again is called “Creamsicle” which is by Kevin Kubota but I got mine in OneSoftware Protools.
And lets talk about another basic skill, sharpening an image or what happens often, under or over sharpening an image. With the advent of digital photography, the photographer can now sharpen to his or her heart’s content. And many try to use sharpening to salvage an out of focused image. Sharpening will NOT save an out of focus image, it just makes it look jaggy. Sharpening is to bring up the contrast between light and dark areas which tends to be a bit smudged by the way a digital image is processed in the camera. When it’s done properly, it will add some “pop” to the image. My preference is to lightly sharpen an image in Lightroom and then use a high pass filter in Photoshop to really bring up the edges on a layer where I can really dial in how much or how little I need. In CS5, the claim is the sharpening tool really works like it should. I will be testing that shortly myself to see if I can optimize my workflow a bit more. Lightroom 3 will also help in the that regard. But even then, the tools will not fix an out of focus image. The photographer still has to get it right inside the camera first. Someday we will have software that can recalculate the path of the light through a given lens but not yet.
And the eyes!! Man, I know the eyes are the window to the soul but having devil eyes popping off a subdued image is not a good thing. I’ve seen way too many pictures of late where the eyes are so over-processed compared to the rest of the image that it’s scary looking. You want to clean up the eyes, brighten them a bit, enhanced them not have them looking like polished glass marbles. And let us bring in skin smoothing while we are at it. Humans do not have ultrasmooth skin without a single wrinkle or even texture. We have pores!!! we have wrinkles!! Again, the idea like the eyes, is to ENHANCE and not plastify the skin so much it should belong on a store bought barbie doll. Do I smooth skin? you bet I do.. I also remove major wrinkles but in both cases, I leave enough behind so it looks like the real person but a bit more polished. A good job in skin smoothing evens out the tones and still leaves some visual texture but loses the huge open pores, the blotchy skin and munge like pimples. I also remove large wrinkles in a few key places but I leave much because those wrinkles are what gives character to the person. It shows they have had a life and it has marked them to some degree. The exception are babies and children which tend to have lovely skin without the wear and tear us “older” people have. Even on children I will even out the tones and watch for blotches.
This little cowgirl had just a touch of tonal smoothing. You can still see faint freckles and shadows. Her eyes were cleaned up just a touch. They do not pop out of the image but they do draw you into it.
Today’s digital cameras can be too good at picking up details, even more so with a super sharp prime lens. I dont have any numbers but in looking at portraits I took with my film Canon AE1 with a 50mm lens and my digital D300 with roughly the same lens, the digital images are so much sharper across the board. I did shoot a batch of images using my old Tamaron 28-80 film lens on my D300. Definitely sharper even though I used the same lens nearly 20 years apart. And this sharpness does need a bit of smoothing to really make people look their best.
There is a time and a place for all looks and styles. High fashion loves the smooth, no fault look. I dare you to find a wrinkle on a Playboy bunny 🙂 But those images are not selling reality or a memorable moment in time, they are selling a fantasy that is unattainable by mere humans. When we as photographers shoot a wedding or a portrait, we are creating a visual representation of a moment in time and we need to be accurate and mindful of what that moment means now and can mean later. It’s not time to show off how much of a Photoshop junkie you are or what cool action you just bought. It IS the time show off how good you can make your clients look today and tomorrow.