Note: If you aren’t interested in photography you’ll probably want to skip this post.
I got quite a few comments about the lighting in my Style Arc Italia photo shoot, so I thought I would give an overview of what I did. I am still pretty new to photography so I like using my finished sewing project shoots as an opportunity to practice and experiment.
My blog photos are pretty much the one time I get to experiment with lighting and framing and posing at my own pace, and since I do everything myself I don’t have to worry about time constraints or an impatient/uncooperative subject. For example, Sallie is a gorgeous subject, but she is so wiggly and fast that I spend most of my time just trying to keep her in the frame.
While the BurdaStyle magazine gets a lot of hate for their poses, I always loved looking at the spreads and seeing what they came up with for art direction. And I admire how they try to do something different rather than the same old stiff, boring studio-set poses that you see all the time on Butterick and Kwik Sew pattern envelopes. So I decided to try for a Burda rather than Butterick style shoot, and if I failed miserably and looked dumb, well, so be it. At least I would try something new and get to enjoy the beautiful weather in the process!
I took the photos at around 5:30 or 6PM. The sun was very bright, and even though I didn’t plan on it I ended up needing to wear my sunglasses. I could have moved into the shade somewhere, but I liked the background of the spot I chose, plus I wanted to use the fence as a prop. It made for a slightly rustic setting for this denim dress. And the green grass in the field really made the plum-colored fabric pop.
I shot these photos using a Canon 5D Mark III and Canon 24-105 f/4 L IS USM lens. As usual I shot in RAW (Canon’s digital negative format) instead of JPG. I always shoot in RAW now because when you go to “develop” the file in Photoshop you have a lot more flexibility to correct things like underexposure and color temperature.
I also almost always shoot using full manual mode now. When I first started doing this it was really scary; I felt like I was going into it completely blind. And I got it just plain wrong for quite a while and got a bunch of terrible photos. But the advantage is that you have complete control. Letting the camera do the metering and choose an aperture/shutter speed/ISO works really well sometimes, and other times it fails miserably. (I’m sure those of you that are fair skinned like me have had your fair share of photos taken in bright sunlight where you look like a ghost!) Plus if you’re looking for an intentionally overexposed or underexposed image manual mode is probably the only way you’re going to get it. You can definitely shoot in full manual with a consumer-level DLSR, and I think most point-and-shoots will let you as well. Even if you have just an iPhone for taking photos, there’s apps out there that will let you shoot in manual mode.
Since it was extremely bright I set my ISO to just 100. (ISO relates to light sensitivity. Lower ISO (like 200) is great when you have a ton of light, and gives a razor-sharp image. Higher ISO (at least 800) is very useful when you have minimal available light, but you’ll get a grainier photo.)
To have a nice blurred background but keep myself sharp I needed a shallow depth of field, which basically the range/depth of your focus. I set the aperture to f/4 (which is as wide as it will go on this lens).
Then I metered off of green grass; green grass is read by the camera as roughly 18% gray (neutral). This way my highlights wouldn’t get blown out, and my shadows would still have some detail. I upped the shutter speed to 1/1000, which left the image very slightly underexposed. I like to err on the side of underexposure because if you overexpose the details get “blown out” and are just about impossible to recover in post-production. But if your image is a little underexposed you have a very good chance of being able to fix it.
Here’s a few test images, straight out of the camera (I made no changes when converting from RAW):
f/4, ISO 100, 1/400. Not awful, but quite washed out. If I was standing in the frame you would be blinded by my skin ;).
And here’s the same image again, at f/4, ISO100, 1/1000. See how everything looks so much richer?
At this point I shot my gray card. If you shoot in RAW it is a good thing to do before beginning so you can more easily color-correct the white balance (light color temperature) if the lighting is too cool (blue) or warm (yellow). If you’re shooting at sunset the light will be warm, and if you’re shooting on a cloudy, snowy winter day the light will be cool. I was happy with how my camera handled the white balance during this shoot, so I ended up not using it.
Now here’s a diagram of how I had things set up. The arrows from the sun show the direction of the light.
I was taught that when you’re setting up the light for portraits, stand where the subject will be and extend your arms out at about 45º. Set your key (primary) light at that angle, slightly above the subject. Then move your other arm out directly to your side. Set your fill (secondary) light at that angle. Then you position the subject so that they are looking toward the key light.
In this case I used the sun as my key light and a silver reflector as my fill light. If I took the photos without the reflector the strength of the direct sunlight would have been too harsh and half of me would have been completely lost in a shadow.
I use this giant collapsible 5-in-1 reflector since one of my primary interests is full-length portrait shots. My first reflector was a smaller white/silver-gold reflector. It isn’t as useful for full-length portraits, but it is much easier to handle when doing head shots or photographing smaller objects. Reflectors come in different colors, but the most popular ones are probably white, silver, and gold.
- White is matte and gives a very soft, diffused light. You can make a very cheap white reflector out of foam board. The effect is a little weak, so you need to hold it as close as possible to the subject.
- Silver gives a much more dramatic look than white (which is what I wanted) but due to the very reflective nature of it you may need to place it further away so it isn’t too overpowering.
- I haven’t used gold too much yet. I heard it is great for darker skin tones, or when you’re doing shoots with a lot of skin (like at the beach) and want to really warm up skin tones.
I’ve been reading about how useful reflectors are for outdoor photos, so as soon as it warmed up enough to be outside for a significant amount of time I decided to try using one. The biggest challenge I faced was getting it positioned correctly. I had to make do with a stand, and whenever the wind below it would start to topple over. (This is why when you look at an overview of an outdoor photo shoot you’ll probably see assistants standing around holding them.) I am starting to prefer them to strobes/external flashes for fill light though because the effect is softer and more natural. There’s a billion articles out there showing how useful they are for brightening up a person’s face and eliminating “raccoon eyes.” (I have deep-set eyes, so I’m up for learning every trick I can to eliminate the raccoon eye effect!) I found this article one of the best for showing the effects of a reflector, and how to position one.
Now for a couple more out-of-the-camera shots.
In this outtake I didn’t have the reflector set up right (it was reflecting too far to my right and not high enough) and you can see how contrasty the image is. A lot of detail is lost in the shadows.
I moved it for this shot. Now you can actually see the whole dress (and that lovely hem gusset!)
After I shoot my photos I select the ones I like best, then “develop” them using Photoshop’s Camera Raw:
As I mentioned earlier, shooting in RAW lets you do a lot of tweaking. Below I’ve played with the fill light. You can see how my left side is a little bit brighter than in the original photo above.
And in this one I’ve set the white balance to Cloudy, which gives a much warmer light. (It isn’t suitable in this case because it was a very sunny day with minimal clouds.)
When I’m done playing with Camera Raw I save it as a JPG, then bring it into Photoshop again for further processing.
1. Unsharp Mask
My first adjustment is applying an unsharp mask adjustment of 35%, the amount someone recommended to me for the Canon 5D Mark III:
Then I immediately fade the unsharp mask Luminosity mode to 100%. This restricts the unsharp mask effect to just light and dark sections, and leaves the color alone.
The reason for the Unsharp Mask adjustment: many (most?) cameras apply an anti-aliasing filter when taking the photo. This helps prevent moiré patterning (you sometimes see this with photos taken of densely patterned fabric) but also results in a slightly soft image. The Unsharp Mask adjustment helps negate the effects of the anti-aliasing filter.
Before and after. The effect is very subtle, but in the second photo everything is a little bit more defined.
I keep this Unsharp Mask adjustment saved as an Action so I can just run it on a batch of photos instead of having to do it over and over again.
Next I play around with the Selective Color adjustment. I use this adjustment a lot for increased contrast, and to give more depth to a photo. (As far as I know this is something you can do in Photoshop, but not the consumer-grade Photoshop Elements software.)
I usually start by adjusting the blacks. This can deepen shadows and other dark areas, giving a more “punchy” and dramatic image. (It is particularly helpful for sports photos when you want to darken the background and help highlight the player. Or if you are shooting something like hockey through plexiglass, which usually results in faded blacks.) It depends on the image (and what effect I am going for), but usually I bump up the Black up to 6%. Sometimes I need to go up to 12 or 15% though.
Here’s the original, then 3% Black, then 6% Black. Notice how when the blacks are increased the trees in the background (particularly on the left) get darker, the grass by my feet gets darker, and the shadows and folds of the dress are enhanced.
Sometimes I play around with the Neutrals too, which can lighten or darken mid-tones. Here I increased the Neutral Black 5%. In the second photo my skin and the plum color of the dress are a little bit more saturated. (I kept the Black Black at 0%.)
Sometimes I’ll also play with the Levels adjustment, but usually I like to try Selective Color first.
After I am done with the Unsharp Mask and Selective Color I crop the image. I used to do very tight crops, but now I prefer more breathing room in my photos and do looser crops. I do try to crop for impact though; the image below was full-length, but since I wanted to use it for making a point about the sleeve I cropped it more closely.
Here’s before and after. In the After I applied the Unsharp Mask, bumped up the blacks for Neutral 5% and the blacks for Black 2%.
Aside from erasing things like the occasional zit (which I STILL have at 30 years old) or a nasty bug bite I don’t bother with retouching or body modifications. I just don’t see the point, when everyone that’s seen me in person knows I’m pear shaped and my alterations list things like adding 5″ to the hips. Everyone has their best poses and angles, so I try to work with that instead. I also do as much as possible prior/during to the shoot rather than depending on Photoshop to correct things after the fact. For example, I have deep-set eyes and very fair skin, so I often have dark circles under my eyes no matter how much I sleep I’ve had. It is much easier and quicker to touch up my under-eye concealer prior to shooting than it is to fix it in post-production. And my skin-tone is a bit uneven, with redness especially around the corners of my nose, so it is easier to apply/re-apply some foundation than it is to digitally fix it after the fact.