You can tone a piano but can you tone a …

Some may have heard about a certain news photographer from Denmark whos photos from Haiti were disqualified from the final round of a major photo competition because he worked the be-jebus out of his entries in Photoshop. He didn't add/remove stuff like some other guys lately who have come under the watchful eye of journalistic ethics. Nope. Here he took rather boring images and cranked the color, contrast and burn/dodge tools into the relm of "that's nothing like what the scene looked like at all".

This got me thinking about how for ever I have been, on non-news "its the truth yer Honor" photos, actually been doing essentially straight prints. By that I mean if I was to be shooting film and after processing it, if it's a negitive, I would pop it into the enlarger and make a color correct print with adequate contrast and minimal cropping. No burning, dodging or selective anything. Basically taking the image out of the camera and adjusting it to print well without doing anything to be creative to it after the fact. Now when I was making gallery prints I'd do all kinds of stuff to bring out my vision. As Ansel Adams said "The negitive is the score but the print is the performance" and I wanted great performances. I was/am am pretty darned good print maker but in the news world that's a bad thing so I have left that stuff at the door, so to type.

However for some things where it's not reality to begin with, like portraits, the act of making one is from the get-go a manipulated situation. So if you are going to have your subject sit here, wear this outfit, turn your head this way, hold the chicken like this and put a few lights around to set the mood, why can't you make a few adjustments to the image to bring out what you want to show? With in reason of course.

I have a few actions set up in Photoshop so that they take the RAW image that I shoot, always RAW muh-friend!, and create adjustment layers for all the things that I may need. These are: a sharpening layer, a color boost, levels adjustment, curve adjustment preset, a selective color layer, a burn/dodge layer and a layer with a whole lot of mid boost that I call a "fill light". Once I open up the RAW file it takes Photoshop about 3 seconds to make all these layers. With the preset color and curves I have in my main action I usually just flatten the image and start shipping it to the client. But with other things I'll get a bit funky with the tools at hand. Take this shot which is the straight RAW file: BTW, everyone say "HI!" to Leah.

Leah raw  

It's really flat but that's the way that a RAW file looks. I wanted to bring out her eyes and add some depth to the image but not make it look "worked". So here is the image with the layers and masks I created:

Leah with layers
It's pretty simple really. I masked out the color saturation to her skin but not her lips and eyes. I applied the sharpening only to her eyes, eyebrows and lips. I did a slight edge burn and boosted the white point on her face for more contrast. Using the "fill light" mid tone boost I increased mid tone separation in her eyes and hair. Total time to produce: maybe 4 minutes.

Final result:
Leah final

I'm pretty sure that I'm not going to be kicked out of any competitions for my toning – ever. With Leah I didn't use the clone or healing tools. I didn't add or remove any "content" but instead just tried to bring more focus on her. The "straight print" didn't work that well. The saturation on her skin was wrong and the contrast was weak. With some minor adjustments I think that she looks "right" to me. At least that is how I felt about her when I was making the photos. Having the emotional content as well as the informational content be true is, to me, rather important.

Technicals: Nikon D700 daylight WB, 1/60th sec ISO320. Nikon AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8 @ f/2.8 SB-800 into 43" shoot through umbrella at camera left and and SB-800 at camera right set to -1.7 controlled via CLS.

Making sausage

Being a "foodie" I get a big kick out of photographing the people who grow and craft our food. Cooking is the only art form where all 5 senses are taken into account so in lots of ways I'm jealous of chefs but don't tell them that, ok? They say that the test of a chef is to have them make you soup. It's something where most of the fancy techniques a chef learns, especially those for presentation, can't really be used and none of it matters a whit if the soup isn't tasty. Give a chef a lovely fillet, some foie gras or a lobster and they are hard pressed to botch it. Then there is the task of taking scraps, odds and ends and making something yummy out of it. That is the beauty sausage: turning things that you would throw away into something that is superb. A staff photographer for Associate Press once referred to news photography as a sasauge factory: making something good out of bad situations.

Well I had to photograph a chef/owner of a new place that is about to open and when I arrived what I found was this:

Arugula interior

Well they said that they were finishing up construction but I didn't believe that it would be that rough. I couldn't take him outside as it was snowing and the whole place was a construction zone. Mmm, ok … give me a dude and some space and we will grind it up into something usable. Light is the seasoning that's the easiest to use, yeah I'm still using culinary terms, so I tried to find a space to use. There were about 6 construction dudes running about so I needed some place that let me set up lights without being in the way. So I took this hall way and moved the baking racks out of the way to give me access to the tiles that would break up the scene and give something more interesting than a seamless background. However the hall is only 7 or so feet wide. Gad!

Arugula hall

Alec the chef was super nice and accomidating. I sent him to the storage shed to get some kind of cooking impliment so that he'd have something in his hands.

Arugula lighting

I put a small Chimera softbox high and over his shoulder at camera left very close to him so that it would quickly fall off his face. I also pointed it away from the wall as best as I could to minimize it's spill as it was only about 3 feet from the wall. I aimed a light with a grid about 20 feet away at about waist level so as to light the tiles with extreme side lighting for maximum texture and dialed about 2 stops below "normal". When Alec brought out a long French wisk, yeah I actually know my wisks!, I knew that I wanted some sparkle on it but the main light woudn't be enough. So I pulled out my 3 degree grid spot so as to just add a bit of light to the tip of the whisk without hitting him or the wall. The softbox did spill onto the wall but I didn't expect that the line created would be the same as the line of the whisk – when I saw the first test shot I just smiled and went with it. Why not?


Sweetness and light

As I've mentioned before I tend to be a strobe junky. If I can find a way to light my subject, especially a portrait, I tend to do so. This morning I met Nicole DeBoom, professional triathlete, owner of the SportSkirt clothing company and super-duper nice lady for a photo session for a profile of her. I arrived as I always do: with a trunk full of lights and lighting do-dads. What did I end up using?

Nothing at all!


The morning light was enough. Can you imagine – a natural light portrait from me? Yeah, it seems that even that is possible. Amazing.