Monday, December 26, 2011


Photoshop - love it or hate it, it's definetly a game changer.

The shot above shows a shot I took recently, with the first one being out of camera and the second one showing after I decided my work in PS was complete.  I would not classify myself as a PS expert, but I've learned and practiced enough of it by now to realize I can afford to post very few unretouched photos as examples of my work.  It's just a given in the world of fashion/beauty image creation.

I didn't start off with this point of view.  The first few models I shot were posted without any retouching at all (you can still find some of them on my Flickr stream).  My reasons were not based on any purist religion, nor any well thought out strategy.  It was mostly a matter of my not having any suitable software (LightRoom or Photoshop), and not being interested in investing the time to learn them.  But I eventually came to understand that this is part of the image creation process - akin to working in a digital darkroom.  It was only a matter of time before I came around.

I know there are still folks out there, perhaps considered "purists" who work exclusively in "no-PS" mode, but my skills are either insufficient, or the images coming out-of-camera are not what I'm really trying to create.  I suppose in some ways this is similar to some people being able to work in film and achieve outstanding results, but I haven't reached that level (for the record, I've only been doing this for a bit under two years as I write this).

I first started retouching using LightRoom (LR), since I saw some demos and realized I could buy a copy fairly inexpensively (I do believe in actually purchasing legit software for these purposes).  I bought a good book on LR and learned it pretty extensively.  I was amazed at what I could do with images - change exposure (even in selected areas), adjust white balance, saturate or desaturate colors, eliminate or hide blemishes, even smooth skin (sort of).  It wasn't long before I could not imagine handling or publishing any images without LR. 

I even became transfixed by it when I wasn't retouching photos.  I'll get to that a bit later.

After about a year of using LR, I ran into increasing numbers of images where I could not retouch at the level I wanted, nor could I fix certain image problems.  There were a lot of images I simply could not use as I became more critical of my work.  I considered getting PS for a long time before I finally made the jump.  One thing was the cost (it's something like $700 retail); the other was knowing there would be a steep learning curve.  But late last summer I found someone who had an extra copy that they didn't need and were selling it for about half price.  This was my trigger; I made the leap.

I knew that, for me, I would be lost without at least one good reference (book) to lean on.  So I had actually bought at least one fairly thick guide before I even bought the software.  Then I went to the library and checked out several books over the course of several months, and read straight through several of them.  Some books were much better for me than others.

It was a very short period of time before the realization hit me that PS is like the Pacific Ocean compared to LR being Lake Tahoe in terms of capability and complexity.  I still feel like I've only scratched the surface, and will probably feel that way for a very long time (forever?). 

I've had lots of philosophical revelations as I've come to be more familiar with PS.  In fact, I could write a good many blog entries (maybe I will) on that topic alone.  One such revelation hit me as I scanned one volume I had reserved from the local library (it's called "Body Shop", by Birgit Nitzche).  This wasn't a book I found particularly helpful for my own purposes, but nonetheless I realized something as I scanned the different retouching techniques covered in the book.  For example, they showed seemingly quite fabulous models' bodies being transformed.  Detaching the legs, narowing the hips, and then reattaching the legs, turning serious faces into smiles, moving the foot position, on and on.  I surmised that these techniques are probably widely in use in the industry, expecially for professional models, photographers, etc. involved in the commercial beauty industry.

It surely was impressive to me that this kind of extensive work actually went into a single photo.  At the same time, I have to admit that I felt a bit bothered by it - for this reason.  Those of us involved in creating images of beauty, especially women's beauty, are distorting reality in an unbounded manner.  I see this as a bit of a problem insofar as how we create and shape peoples' image of beauty.  It is probably not a big stretch to see this as destructive in some ways.  For example, it's a sure bet that countless women look at commercially produced images and compare themselves to that "perfection".  Gosh, who can compare to those images?  I can tell you - not even the model on whom the image was originally based on.

I mentioned above that using these editing programs has even affected my own thinking and perception in some subconscious way.  Really - it's weird.  Sometimes I'll be having coffee or something with a woman friend of mine, and I'll imagine using the "blemish remove" tool to go over various little freckles and spots on her face.  It's almost embarrassing to admit it.  I wouldn't tell them that, and surely there are a lot more things that would require "fixing" on my own face!  But I mention this to illustrate how this idea or manufacturing images of human perfection is in some ways invading our subconscious - well, at least mine.

Even though I use the word "perfection", I should add that my own idea of achieving a satisfactory image is in fact NOT perfection.  In fact, one of the things I find quite distasteful in some images I see is overly perfected women's skin.  In fact, it's very easy to create a soft blur on every inch of the skin, with the end result that the model looks like a mannequin with human eyes.  Yuck!  When I look back at some of my early retouching efforts I can see that I was indeed guilty of that.  Since that time I've learned some of the nuances and subtlety required to soften skin and yet retain some of the texture, some of the human character, of the model.  This is what I want to achieve - retouching that doesn't look retouched.  This is a continual learning process, and one area I'm going to keep honing my skills.

I've written in at least one previous blog on how the photographer is compelled to spend large amounts of time in front of the computer after the shoot.  Whatever I said before is all the more true at this point.  Since I started applying more sophisticated techniques, it is quite common for me to spend an hour or more on just a single image.  And that's after doing the initial file backup, cataloging, and selective editing.  Maybe I'm realizing how lonely the pursuit of photographic excellence can become.  In this way, it's much like any other art - you've got so spend a lot of time alone doing the work.

As much as I'm compelled to follow my usual workflow for catologing and editing photographs, there are still some occasions when the model just has the right look, the lighting is just right, and the composition works well enough, where I don't really need to do any editing at all.  It's quite rare now, since my own ideas about what being "done" have changed, but sometimes I get some captures that are pretty darned nice "as is".  This photo below is one of those:

We have indeed led ourselves down the path of tending to adjust and fiddle with everything in the digital domain (especially images), but there is one truth I'd like to not lose sight of.  Photography has taught me to simply look at the world that surrounds me in a different way.  It's taught me to take time to examine and absorb the beauty that's always been there, though perhaps gone unnoticed.  This "true beauty" exists in its purest form, and needs no enhancement.

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