August, 2015. I was looking for subjects along West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz to photograph. There was no surf. Flat as a proverbial pancake. I setup to photograph a passing boat, carefully set my focus point and waited for just the right arrangement.
This isn’t that arrangement.
Moments later a man and a woman paddled out into the frame. They didn’t seem bothered that there was utterly no swell. Their eyes never left each other. Surfing clearly wasn’t as important as being together. I don’t think they noticed anything else in the world.
The scene changed quickly. The boat kept moving to the right and out of frame. The couple got closer together. The light continued to fade and I had to make a decision. Was I changing my focus away from the boat and to the couple? There just wasn’t time. I kept focus where it was knowing that the couple would be a little blurry. The resulting image still told such a compelling story that I kept it and worked on the photograph again nearly five years later. On close inspection I can see now that they’re even on the same board.
I had a photo assignment from my favorite Santa Cruz website/magazine in 2015. KUSP radio had new management and it seemed like everybody was doing a story about it. I think we all knew that the closure was coming any time.
Over the past few days a handful of images kept coming back to my mind. I revisited the photographs tonight and edited them again with a different look.
Probably my favorite photographs were with Lee by the stacks of vinyl records. He would poke through, finding his favorites. We’d pause and talk about one for a while.
Event photography is a challenge. You play the part of host, guest, on the fly portrait photographer, lighting technician, lens juggler, battery wrangler, and eternal camera strap adjuster. You’re also invisible as necessary and life of the party the rest of the time. This is, to use all of my extensive powers of the English language: hard.
Lighting is often a challenge. Sometimes it’s nearly impossible to focus on my subjects because it can be so very dark. On-camera flash is really the only way to go and there are so many lessons applied from previous events. Get that light up high. Bounce the flash off the ceiling when you can. Move the flash around when you can’t. Shoot RAW. Be pretty good with Adobe Lightroom. Ask people to move. Pose them around for something super fun. Take note of the folks who really, really don’t want their picture taken. Have a couple of good jokes ready to go. Know who the VIP’s are.
That doesn’t necessarily mean provide more photographs than required. To me that means anticipate. Research the venue, the type of the event, the details happening around that event.
Be prepared to narrow down the top 50 out of hundreds of photos. While you may think that supplying hundreds of photos speaks well of you (it kind of does) you may actually be creating more work for the person tasked with publishing the photos. Provide the service and break out those top 50 at delivery time.
For this event I checked out the venue. I learned that people were coming in costume. I also learned that a couple of classic cars would be out front with a red carpet. The combination of beautiful building, red carpet, costumes, and period cars told me that people were going to want their pictures taken with those cars.
this allows me to get in tight while still ready for a group shot
I learned some of the backstory about each of the cars to get people engaged (and to give a good reason why leaning against it might not be a great idea).
One was a Bentley that once belonged to Bob Hope
The other was a Lincoln from the early 1930s made in Pasadena, CA.
The owners of the cars were incredibly generous with their time, and just like most folks love to tell their story when asked. The amount of good will created here will blow your mind.
I brought one of my studio lights, a powerful external battery, a solid light stand, and radio triggers.
Bring business cards. People will ask. This is a perfect opportunity to network and gain new clients.
Before the event I rounded up some volunteers to help meter the light and look for good angles.
Roam! Make sure everybody knows why you’re there and that you’re having a good time too! Most importantly look for moments when people are engaging with each other. Tell the story.
No, really! Get out on the dance floor and dance! Be part of that party. Engage. Make people happy that you’re capturing the moment.
Yes, that’s a total contradiction to nearly everything I said earlier. There are moments when you need to not distract. A perfect example is when there is a performance. Turn off the flash. Spot meter on your subject. Crank up the ISO as needed and break out that telephoto.
Honest, people usually love it when you have an idea of how to make them look great. This is also a perfect moment to have a funny joke ready to get a reaction from your subjects. Have a couple of standard poses and draw out their personalities. This is a skill and in the end it’s probably why you were hired for the event. I’m mostly an extrovert but even I had to work to develop this skill. I’m sure this is far more difficult for an introvert but like any skill it can be learned.
A friend of mine asked for thoughts on post processing a nice photograph today. The main elements involved a sky with dramatic clouds, a shoreline in the middle of the frame, and a seascape in the foreground. It’s a nice composition, but what would I do? I started poring through my image library for something similar. Sure I’m loaded with coastline, but what we usually lack are the dramatic clouds. I had to dig for a bit to find something appropriate.
A starting point
Here’s a photograph from 2015 at Pleasure Point near Capitola, CA. We’ve got dramatic clouds, seascape, and a coastline. Not a bad start and close enough to the kind of image that my friend was asking about. I started with some basic edits in Lightroom.
Update the version in Lightroom (the color process has changed since I originally photographed the scene).
Straighten the horizon a bit (note there should be a little curve here)
Bring up the shadows
Export to Photoshop
Now the fun begins
Here’s my approach to completing this photograph. Note something interesting though. For me the process only starts with pressing the shutter button. Lightroom is an intermediate step. The rest of the image is longer and more purposeful to bring out the intention – or the updated intention since this was from four years ago.
Add some groups
I’ve exported the image to Photoshop.
The first thing was to create groups/folders. I usually start with 3 or 4 and almost always end up with more.
Add a Levels adjustment layer for color correction.
Place the Levels adjustment layer inside a group
In this one you can see that I’m moving the leftmost point of the red channel to the right just a touch. The goal is to bring that slider closer to the cliff of data in that histogram.
Repeat as needed for the remaining channels (red, green, blue)
Why am I doing this as an adjustment layer? Because it is nondestructive to the original image! I can play with this all I want and revert back any time.
Add a curves layer in the same group as the Levels layer
Here I’m darkening the image from the midtones. The sky is a little bright as is the water. Let’s start by dialing down the whole thing
Playing with masks
Next up I paint in the mask in the curves adjustment layer.
I setup a large soft brush
Select black for the brush color
Set the brush opacity 50% or less. That’s a suggestion of course. Do your own thing.
Brush into the white mask, revealing the image beneath it. This darkens everything but the sections you just painted in.
In this case I’ve brushed along the coastline and the foreground leading to the boy and his surf board.
I touched the paintbrush around bits of the clouds that I wanted to bring up very selectively
This has already been a big improvement. Keep in mind that I’m going lightweight into this. I’m not spending any time on this image removing distractions. But then this image is pretty good like that I think, so let’s not dive into the minutia.
For me the finishing touches lie in directing the viewer’s eye around. That includes a creative vignette and selective sharpening. I almost never apply sharpening globally these days.
Select the lasso tool and draw around where you want the viewer’s eye to go. I prefer an organic shape rather than a typical oval.
Create a mask from the selection.
Click on the Curves Adjustment Layer tool to make the mask
Invert the mask. (control-i, or select “Invert” from the “Adjustments” menu
Apply a gaussian blur to the mask for gradual darkening.
The amount of blur I apply depends on a few things. More for my full frame camera. Less for my crop frame. This is totally up to you of course.
Click on the curves tool and darken to taste!
… then consider backing it off just a little bit.
Sharpen the image
The amount of sharpening needed will depend on a ton of considerations. Mirrorless cameras don’t seem to need much sharpening, if any. There are technical reasons for this. (I’m going to stick with my DSLRs until I have a really good reason to move on to mirrorless. That’s another discussion.) DSLRs almost always need some extra sharpening. Images shot in RAW on a DSLR always need some sharpening. Images shot in JPG won’t benefit much because they’ve already gone through a sharpening algorithm in camera. Side question: why did you shoot that in JPG?You may have had a good reason, but I’d say that there aren’t many.
I apply sharpening very selectively. I use a couple of methods for this, but for this article I’m going with the simplest. Why selective? Why not sharpen the whole thing? Because not everything makes sense to sharpen; clouds, waves with motion blur, purposely blurry areas from a shallow depth of field, portraits, etc. Sharpening that portrait you shot at f/2.0 with the bokeh doesn’t make sense but sharpening your subjects eyes might.
Hide the vignette layer that we made earlier.
Create a “visible layer stamp” of the image so far (shift-cntrl-alt-e … or the Macintosh equivalent… )
Consider what your subject is in the image. What anchors it? In this case it’s the young boy with his surfboard in the foreground. I’m going to sharpen around him and some other details that make sense.
For this example I’ve chosen to apply an “unsharp mask” filter.
Choose an amount and radius that make sense for your chosen subject. Then back it off a little bit. What you choose will be up to you. If you start seeing a halo effect around your subject then you’ve probably gone too far.
I use words like “probably” a lot. This is art. There’s no “right” or “wrong”, you either achieved what you set out to do or you didn’t.
Apply a black mask to the image stamp layer you just created.
Paint white onto the black layer mask to reveal only what you wanted to sharpen.
I have a treasured side gig taking pictures for a local magazine here in Santa Cruz. In November of 2014 I needed something for a gallery of photos. Usually that’s a collection of surf photos from some favorite spots. This particular day it was raining and there was nothing going on. I went downtown instead looking for anything interesting. I had a new lens that I was dying to put to use: a Canon 135mm f/2.0 L-series that I bought from Dan Mitchell. This thing is glorious and I rarely get to use it.
While I wandered around I spotted a beautiful young lady under an umbrella walking my direction. A quick decision on my part meant a ISO 800, f/2.0 for 1/500 second. I loved the result. The texture of the rain drops on her umbrella were what captivated me the most. The fact that I couldn’t see her face added to the story.
A nice lady who often commented on my posts on Google Plus (ahh remember Google Plus?) titled it “Bella And The Umbrella” and the name stuck.
I keep a version of this photograph as a wallpaper on my display at work (ahh that’s right, I don’t do photography full time. I know very few people who do or can). There’s a problem with that version that’s been bothering me since November of 2014. Wes Hardaker pointed out a severe problem with chromatic aberration throughout the photograph. I just had no idea how to fix it because it was so rampant.
I can’t unsee it
Once you see it you can’t unsee it. You start seeing it everywhere. Look at the high contrast areas. There is a green and purple fringe where light meets dark. And it’s everywhere in the picture.
Tonight I had some time and decided to tackle the chromatic aberration monster that tried eating my photograph. Lightroom alone is not enough in this instance. Helping this one meant opening the image in Photoshop.
Duplicate the layer
apply a Gaussian blur enough so that the edges are blurry but you can still identify the main subject
set that layer’s mode to “color”
The chromatic aberration mostly vanishes
Here’s where I get fiddly with it (that’s another term for “detail oriented” or some would say “anal retentive”… your call really). I don’t like how applying the color mode dulls the color throughout the image. I want this to be selective to the problem areas.
Create a black layer mask for the layer mentioned above
using a fairly small brush paint white on the outlines of the problem areas just in the black layer mask
“Laugh at perfection. It’s boring and keeps you from being done.”
The Cult Of Done Manifesto
That’s a pretty cool quote. In this case please ignore #3 just for me. Just this once. Please. This is photography; I edit everything. Even the line to the left about editing things. I edited that. Twice. No shit.
This year Tyler Fox asked me if I’d help shoot the awards for his magazine’s Swellies event. This is always so much fun, there was just no way I’d say no. What I love about shooting events like this is that my job isn’t just to take pictures but to really engage with everybody and to be part of the life of the party. I can be ridiculously social so it’s not hard for me to get people to put on their best selves for my camera.
Tonight at Shark Fin Cove. I have to admit that I have a mixed relationship with this place. An iconic Santa Cruz scene that’s been “loved to death”.
This scene is occasionally found on the cover of magazines like Outdoor Photographer. It’s a tricky location to shoot, and I’ll be honest there are a lot of times when this place doesn’t do a lot for me. There’s usually a lot of garbage from visitors who couldn’t be bothered to pick up after themselves, graffiti, or any number of people who want a selfie while I’m trying to compose a photograph here. Usually I patiently wait out that last one.
A fashion shoot was actually happening off to my right and we were all careful to work around each other. I’m grateful for that kind of awareness. The selfie variety… not so much.
This scene is shot from just about every angle; up high behind this perspective, up and to the right, and slightly less often up the cliff and to my left. I think that what really makes this scene work is an interesting foreground. The rock outcropping that I’m standing on here almost always has interesting reflections and leading lines. The algae on the rocks provides a little color contrast. Tonight the sun was setting to the southwest and provided a fun pop of lens flare.
Processing the Image
It’s a little more complicated than it seems; this is a blend of two photographs. It’s nearly impossible to get both the sunset and the foreground exposed the way I like in a single frame, so this is a blend of 2. I can see a good argument for using 3. Actually blending them together is a lot of work and met with varying success. This area is alive and not standing still at all. For example the cliff sides have tall grass swaying in the breeze. To blend the two images together means carefully painting in a mask along the grass.
There are dangers shooting here. A lot of folks along the cliff don’t realize that they’re standing on an overhang. If you’re visiting here please leave no trace, pick up some trash, and be very careful along those cliffs.