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Expanding Your Photography Portfolio

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  1. Portraits in the Men's Bathroom
  2. The Wave
  3. Sleepwalking in a Sandstorm
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This chapter focuses on four images that Michael Clark created in an effort to expand his photography portfolio. He explains the genesis of each image, how the images were shot, the gear involved, and how they were worked up in Lightroom and Photoshop so you can see the entire process from start to finish.
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  • “If you are out there shooting, things will happen for you. If you’re not out there, you will only hear about it.”

Improving as a photographer involves hard work, experimentation, and having a vision for where you want to take your photography. It takes a lot of energy to flex your creative muscles, and it isn’t always fun or easy. As quoted in the opening of Chapter 1, Henri Cartier-Bresson declared, “Your first 10,000 images are your worst.” I’m not sure this is completely true because some of my early images are still among my favorites. But the gist of his statement is that improving your work takes time and thoughtful assessment of where your work is and where you want it to be.

Like anything in life, excellence comes from repeated effort. The more you work at something the more you learn, and the more you improve. There are no shortcuts. Even if you were born with significant artistic talent, creating interesting and compelling photographs can still be a challenging endeavor, and I think that explains in large part the allure of photography.

I constantly strive to learn new techniques and take on new genres of photography to improve my skill set as a photographer. When I have time, whether on an assignment or not, I’ll experiment with new techniques to create a certain look or type of image for my portfolio. It is in these “portfolio” shoots that I might try a new lighting setup and see how it works. Lighting, for portraiture or sports, can be tricky, and a lot of time and effort goes into crafting the light on the subject. I also experiment with specialized postprocessing techniques to create a whole new look, as with my high-contrast, black-and-white portraits. Whatever the case, once I have optimized the process, I then have the confidence to use that same technique on an actual assignment.

This chapter focuses on four images that were created in an effort to expand my portfolio. Three of them were shot on my own time, and one was shot on an assignment. All of them are in my printed portfolio and showcase a different genre, style, or technique. Here again, I’ll explain the genesis of each image, how the images were shot, the gear involved, and how they were worked up in Lightroom and Photoshop so you can see the entire process from start to finish.

Portraits in the Men’s Bathroom

As a pro, there is constant pressure to produce new images and improve your skills so that you have more to offer your clients. For that reason, I shoot as much as possible whether on assignment or not, and I work hard to create images with a new and different look than I’ve shot before. Several years ago I decided it was time to seriously improve my portrait photography skills and to create a new lighting style in the process. Of course, I am still working on improving my portraiture skills, and even though I’ve made quite a bit of progress, I still have a long way to go. I find portraiture to be one of the hardest genres of photography, and I’ll likely be working to improve my skills in this area for the rest of my life.

I shoot as much as possible whether on assignment or not, and I work hard to create images with a new and different look than I’ve shot before.

A few years ago I had what I would say was a seminal moment while shooting portraits of some good friends of mine who were free diving near Santa Rosa, New Mexico. The image in Figure 5.1 was created on that self-assignment, and since then I’ve been asked to create similar style portraits by several of my regular clients. In fact, over the last few years, this high-contrast, black-and-white style has become one of my go-to techniques. Perhaps I’ve even over used this style, but it never seems to grow old. That may be because it is as old as photography itself, and I am certainly not the first photographer to shoot high-contrast, black-and-white portraits on a white background.

Figure 5.1

Figure 5.1. Portrait of Nicolas Danan shot just after free diving at the Blue Hole in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.

Nikon D300, Nikon 24–70mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 400, 1/250th second at f/10

The Story

In portrait photography the goal is to connect with your subject and capture a bit of the subject’s spirit or character in a photograph. That is obviously pretty hard to do, if not impossible. But in this instance, it certainly seems like I caught a part of the subject’s spirit. Nicolas “Nico” Danan had just dived to the bottom of the Blue Hole, an 80-foot-deep natural spring in Santa Rosa, New Mexico. He was free diving, meaning he used no scuba gear or supplemental oxygen, and he held his breath for over two minutes. I figured portraits of the divers in their wetsuits and goggles, still dripping with water, would be more interesting than the action because the setting wasn’t all that adventurous. In particular, I was keen to try a new technique—shooting black-and-white portraits on location with a white background. My only problem was that the wind was howling.

For this image, I set up a makeshift portrait studio in the only place that would work on such a windy day—the entrance to a men’s public bathroom, which was just 50 feet from the dive location. I taped a white paper backdrop to a wall in the entrance way and used one strobe to light Nicolas and another to light the background (Figure 5.2). It was a very simple setup with the main light placed directly behind and above me. Once Nico surfaced, I asked him to come over directly so that I could capture a portrait of him “in the moment.” The quarters were very cramped, and every once in a while someone would interrupt us because he needed to get into the bathroom. When Nicolas first saw the setup, he laughed, which was a good thing because that broke the ice quite nicely. In this image Nico gave me a blank stare that really catches him in a calm, collected moment, as if just before a big dive.

Figure 5.2

Figure 5.2. A diagram showing the lighting setup for this image.

During the shoot, it felt like I was really connecting with Nico and getting some nice shots, although nothing on the LCD seemed earth shattering. I wasn’t shooting in black and white, but instead was shooting digitally and in color so I had to interpret what the images would look like once they were processed. When I returned to the office and started working up the images, I realized how solid this set of portraits really was and went to my scientific reasoning to try to figure out what had happened. After speaking with Nico and the other divers (I also shot with two other divers that day), I realized there were several factors.

First, the odd location helped the divers let down their guard. And because I chose to photograph them after they came out of the water, they were a bit subdued. Second, it helped that it was a simple lighting setup with one main strobe. That allowed me to concentrate on the subject. Third, the shoot entailed just the subject and me in very close quarters. Because I was so close, the divers really let me into their personal space. There were no distractions (save for the occasional person wanting to get into the bathroom). Fourth, I knew these guys very well, which obviously helped. Talking with the divers after the shoot, they all told me I had really captured them that day.

In fact, I’d say this image is one of the best portraits I’ve ever shot. It is in both my print and online portfolios, and it always gets comments when I show it to art buyers and photo editors. My goal for this shoot was to create a set of portraits that were raw and edgy—that weren’t worked to death in Photoshop—and showed real people in real situations. This image in particular met that goal and then some.

The Gear

To create this image, I first had to create the studio on location. In this instance it was a semi-enclosed brick entranceway to the Men’s bathroom. The entranceway was about 5 feet wide and 9 feet long—not that big. I taped a 4-foot wide, bright-white paper background to one wall with gaffer’s tape. As described earlier, the lighting setup was a very simple two-light setup. Because we were on location and there was no power, I used an Elinchrom Ranger RX Speed AS battery-powered strobe kit with two flash heads. One head was put into a very large, 60-inch shoot through an umbrella and placed directly above my head level with the subject’s face. The other strobe, fitted with a standard seven-inch reflector, was tucked in behind the subject pointing straight back at the background. The light on the background was set so that it was two stops brighter than the light on the subject: This way the background would be rendered pure white or close to it. To keep the light from bouncing off the background and wrapping around Nico, I pulled him away from the background as far as possible. It certainly wasn’t an ideal lighting setup, but we made it work.

I shot with a Nikon D300 and a 17–35mm f/2.8 lens, which is not your typical setup for portraits, but in these tight quarters it worked well. This image was shot at 35mm on that lens, which is equivalent to a 52mm lens given the DX (APS-C) size sensor in that camera; hence, there was not much distortion. The flashes were triggered wirelessly using Pocket Wizard Transceivers.

The Postproduction

Although this image is pretty much a straight shot processed as a high-contrast, black-and-white image, there was a fair bit of work done on it to clean up the background and some blemishes on Nico’s face. Straight out of the camera this image wouldn’t win any awards—that is for sure. I could have certainly lit the background better on location, but there wasn’t room to do so. Hence, I did what I could on location, knowing I could clean it up in Lightroom and Photoshop after the fact. My normal modus operandi is to get the shot as perfect in the camera as possible, which results in the best-quality image. Although the quality of this image isn’t subpar by any means, it wasn’t captured perfectly. So the difference in the image before and after processing is fairly drastic (Figure 5.3).

Figure 5.3

Figure 5.3. The image as it came out of the camera (left) and after it was processed (right).

In Lightroom I converted the image to black and white right off the bat because that was my plan all along (Figure 5.4). I had to pull the Exposure slider out to +0.85 to blow out a significant portion of the white background. Even with this adjustment, not all of the background was pure white, and of course, part of a brick wall was showing on the right side of the image as well. The rest of the work on the background—to make it pure white and remove the brick wall—was done in Photoshop, as I’ll discuss later. While adjusting the Exposure slider, I held down the Option key to make sure I didn’t clip any details in Nico’s face. I only wanted to clip the highlights on the background to force it to pure white. Note that I could have also used the Adjustment Brush and painted over the background with the Exposure set to +2.0 to force the background to pure white. I now use this technique when working up similar type images instead of doing all the heavy lifting in Photoshop.

Figure 5.4

Figure 5.4. The image as it was processed in Lightroom.

Next, I set the Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks sliders to +4, +6, +2, and +4, respectively. If you look at the Histogram, you will see that both ends of the Histogram are clipped. This is intentional. Parts of the background are pure white and should be clipped on the highlights side of the Histogram. On the shadows side of the Histogram I could have set the Blacks slider to +11 and retained all of the shadow detail, but my intent was to create a high-contrast image. Hence, I set the Blacks slider to +4. I did not add any contrast in the Basic panel because I could do so with more control in the Tone Curve panel just below.

The real trick with this image, and the adjustment that really made it pop, was the Clarity slider. When I teach digital workflow workshops, I refer to the Clarity slider as “crack cocaine” because it is fairly addictive. Here you can see why: By pulling the Clarity slider all the way out to +79, I built up a lot of contrast in the midtones. Without this adjustment, the image lacked serious contrast and just didn’t have that much impact. Pulling this slider all the way out also solved another problem. With the subject only four feet away from the lit background, there was some light bouncing off the background and wrapping around the right side of his face and neoprene wetsuit. Fortunately, because the Clarity tool builds up midtone contrast, and those areas where the light was wrapping around him were midtones, it corrected this lighting flaw. In other words, I got lucky here and learned a good lesson about shooting on a white background. The subject needs to be quite far away from the background if you want to blow it out completely and not have light wrapping around your subject. In my experience, the subject should be at least ten feet from the background. Ideally, the strobes lighting the background should be angled so that the light is raking across the background, not blasting it straight on. I knew this would be an issue when I shot the image, but the location in this instance gave me few options.

The rest of the settings in Lightroom were the usual suspects. At this point I tweaked the White Balance ever so slightly. But being in the Black and White mode, adjusting the White Balance changed the tones of certain colors because they appeared in black and white. Hence, it only had a minor effect on the image, and I adjusted it to taste. In addition, I adjusted the Lights, Darks, and Shadows sliders in the Tone Curve panel to -3, -2, and -4, respectively. This just helped to accentuate the high-contrast look.

The last tweaks I made in Lightroom were in the B&W panel (found in the HSL panel). Here I just fine-tuned the individual color channels, working with the red, orange, yellow, green, and blue channels (Figure 5.5). For black-and-white conversions, the B&W sliders are wonderful tools. By using the Before and After view mode (found in the toolbar) in Lightroom’s Develop module, you can see the before and after versions of your image. The before image will be the image in full color, and by looking at this image and choosing the appropriate color slider, you can affect the luminance of each color independently.

Figure 5.5

Figure 5.5. By using the Before and After mode in the Lightroom Develop module and the B&W color sliders, I could very accurately adjust each color channel’s luminosity.

Moving into Photoshop, the first order of business was to work on the background. I used the Lasso, Eraser, and Clone tools, and basically erased or cloned large chunks of the background so it was rendered pure white (Figure 5.6). As you might imagine, this took a while. In this process I also removed the brick wall that was on the right side of the image. As I got closer to the subject while removing the brick wall, I had to zoom in closer and closer to 800% magnification to make sure I wasn’t cloning out any of the subject.

Figure 5.6

Figure 5.6. Here are the stages of work done to this image in Photoshop. The top shot shows how the image looked when I brought it into Photoshop. In the middle image, I used the Lasso, Eraser, and Clone tools, and erased or cloned large chunks of the background to render it pure white. I also removed the brick wall showing through the background on the far right side of the image. The bottom shot shows the final worked up image. I added two adjustment layers to the image: a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer and a Levels adjustment layer, as well as a layer mask to keep the highlights on Nico’s face from being blown out. I also retouched his face. Note that I elected to create duplicate layers for each retouching step so that if I had to go back in and redo one of those steps, I didn’t have to start from scratch.

When I had the background closer to pure white, I added a Levels adjustment layer and pulled in the white point slider to 246 to force those last few areas to pure white. I also changed the Output Levels to 3 and 255 so that the blacks would be backed off from pure black ever so slightly. Notice that I left the white Output Level at 255 because I wanted it to be pure white. If I changed this to 252 as usual, when the image was printed, the white background would not be pure white but a very light almost imperceptible gray color, which might be visible. To keep parts of Nico’s face from being blown out, I added a layer mask to the Levels adjustment layer and used the Brush tool to paint over those areas that were blowing out because of the Levels adjustment. I then added a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer to brighten up Nico’s face just a bit.

Once I had the background and the overall image worked up, the last task was to use the Spot Healing Brush, the Patch tool, and the Clone Stamp tool to touch up a few parts of his face. Each of these tools works best for certain types of cloning and healing. The Patch tool is my favorite, but it also takes more time to use. If the area around the spot I am working on is pretty uniform, I’ll use the Spot Healing Brush (with Content-Aware fill). If not, and I am trying to blend that area with an already busy area, the Patch tool seems to be the best bet. The Clone Stamp tool works well for those areas that are uniform, like cloning parts of the background in this image.

This image took about two hours to work up. I’m not one to spend days and days working up images; I just don’t have the patience, and if an image needed that much work, I would hire a professional retoucher to work on it. With two hours of time invested in this image, I was very happy with the end result, especially seeing how much it changed in the process.

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