Thursday, February 23, 2012

White Sands Family Portrait

The one photograph that gets referenced most when folks call me about getting family photos done is this one (click images for a closer look):

A fellow photographer, and friend, asked me recently for a few tips on the creation process behind it...and I'm finally getting around to writing it up.  So here's the long story short: add perfect weather, time of day, a couple off-camera lights, a bit of Photoshop magic, a coordinated family, and presto!

Now, for the long version...

This is actually my first "cold call" customer - one where the mom landed on my Google Place page, liked what she saw, and contacted me for a family session.  Up to this point, I had not done any White Sands family sessions, and all my 'clients' so far were friends from work.

Once I was contacted, I dragged Ally and Sheba out to White Sands to do some practice shots - just getting comfortable with balancing my lights with the ambient.  In essence, it all revolves around the "look" that Annie Leibovitz pioneered, where you slightly underexpose the environment, and slightly overexpose the subject, in order to make them "pop."  This is an example from the test shoot:

So, getting back to the family, we had rescheduled several times leading up to this day (I think she first called in May?).  One thing or another would prevent us from heading out to White Sands, but one day in late July, everything worked out and we met at the visitor's center around 6pm (sunset this time of year is around 8-ish).  From there, I was planning on heading out to a fairly distant location, away from people, and full of the big swooping dunes.

Unfortunately, I was a little too enamored with the incredible skies that day, and missed the transition from 45mph down to 35mph.  I subsequently got pulled over by a park ranger getting ready to do the sunset stroll, just a mile or so into the park.  I didn't get a ticket, but lost quite a bit of time in the process - ask Ally, I was freaking out the whole time: new clients, a perfect sky, and I couldn't do anything but sit and wait!!!

Because of the delay, I scrapped the original plans to head deep into the park, and just got out where I was pulled over...I had no idea what this area would look like over the dune blocking the view, but I didn't care - I had to get that family out there before the sun got too low!  We climbed out of our cars, up over the dune, and to my relief, there wasn't a soul around, and the view was perfect...better, actually, than what I had planned.

This shot was created pretty early in the session...pretty simple, just have the family walk and look towards me.  The set up involved two bare speedlites on stands about 10 feet away from my left side.  To get the sky and sand exposed properly, I metered off of the clouds - I figured that a "0" in-camera meter reading would give me a slightly underexposed landscape due to the bright parts of the clouds and sky, and resulted in 1/200, f/6.3, and ISO100 camera settings.  That aperture setting, coupled with a 35mm focal length, I knew that I would have a large depth of field, and most of the scene would be in relatively sharp focus.  Of course the sun would be "blown out," but I chose to include it in the image because you just don't get weather like this every day out at White Sands!

The two speedlites were set to full power, and were about 15 feet away from the subjects.  I knew that I would need a lot of light to balance the people and landscape, but to be completely honest, the light settings were an educated guess, after a few practice shots.  Also, I placed the family on a ridge line to better mask any shadows that might be created by the speedlites - I was able to reduce them in the final image, but you can notice them in the original file, with default RAW settings applied:

Once opened in Adobe Camera Raw, I knew I had a great image on my hands, but it could gain from a bit of added contrast - most of which would come later in Photoshop.  In ACR, my exposure was spot on, but I did add a touch of fill light, raised the black level a smidge, added +36 of clarity (which simply adds more contrast in the mid-tones), and the tone curve was given a shallow "S."  That's it for ACR.

Now, moving to Photoshop, I imported the file and ran a custom action that is based off of a lomo photography tutorial that I found on the web, but tweaked for my own use.  In it, I add a layer via copy, do a global curves adjustment (slight "S" again), fill a new top layer with black, change the mode to hue, and adjust opacity to 40% - this gives the image a slight desaturation/silver kind of look.  Next, I merge all layers, change the mode to Lab, select the Lightness channel, throw on a good bit of unsharp mask, then convert back to RGB color.  This is what adds the "punch" to the image - high contrast all around, but especially in the mid-tones without affecting the color saturation.

If you notice, the dad's head is turned differently, and the daughter isn't quite smiling.  These two elements were grabbed from another file and composited into the image.

Finally, a touch of dodging brush was used on the family's faces - it's a tool I don't use any more, since there are less destructive methods of doing the same thing through the use of a curves layer and masking.

The final result works perfectly against the high contrast lines in the sand, the broken clouds and the family's wardrobe.  In the end, it was a perfect confluence of subject, location, weather, lighting technique, and post-processing that I feel makes this image really stand out from the crowd.

1 comment: