Create illusion of natural light with flashes and capture stunning portraits

Just like in life everything in excess is usually not the best thing. The same goes to artificial lights in photography. I love outdoor portraits, but I also like to mix lights for ultimate control of mood and emotions in my photos. Flash photography is often disliked by many people and the reason for it is simple. It is not about mastering flashes and exposure, but about falling in love with light and effects that you can create with it. Set exposure and measure light with your soul not the light meter. That is the key. Attune to your model's mood or evoke one, whatever you do the light quality should complement it, without drawing too much attention. You are painting with light, not following math equasions.

model: Mina

model: Mina

It depends on the effect you are going for but if you want to create an illusion of natural light with flashes then the key is to tone down the flash power and (often) use color gels that will complement colors or shift them to your liking. This photo that you can see above was shot few minutes before the sun dissapeared behind the horizon. The ligth was too weak to shoot crystal clear portrait but the light color was amazing, and the softness was too good to ruin it. I shot this at 1/250 so max shutter speed that my camera syncs with the flash (HSS would not give me enough power from one flash gun). I had to dial down the flash manually untill it felt right, I do have light meter but honestly I rarely use it. I used double diffusion with CTO gel for the flash to warm the light up. I callibrated WB with XRITE color checker before applying the gel, so then the orange cast would add on top of the corrected color. That gave the illusion of sunset color. Photo was cross processed so the final tones have shifted anyways (see the video below which shows my photoshop editing workflow) but it is important to have a good color base, esepcially for portraits. 

Experiment with light and forget about TTL if you are not in a hurry. And quite frankly I never am. I create image after image and time doesnt bother me. I do not care how long I have to shoot to get what I want. Also, you should master photo editing and preferably in Photoshop or any program that gives you superb control over layers and offers non destructive editing. Leave Lightroom for lazy people and those who edit their photos in bulk. They lack respect for their own work. Portrait editing is an art and requires time (see my 5h long in-depth photoshop tutorial on portrait editing), patience and vision. Get it right in camera for me means two things: to capture beautiful light and natural body language. The rest I not only can, but WANT to play with in photoshop. I love doing it.

Go outside and learn how the light works, study it and appreciate what it can do and what you can do with it. You will see world in a completely new light.

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Create drama and mood in your portraits with cinematic color grading in photoshop

Photo retouching is a complex art and it comes with countless options and possibilities. In fact, the only limitation is your skills and imagination. Color grading is one of the last steps in my editing workflow in photoshop. It is best to leave coloring and toning until the image is fully edited. Any changes to contrast, sharpness, vignetting, etc. will amplify or reduce colors and saturation. Those always effect toning and mood of the photo so again it is best to wait till you are sure that the image is finalized. 

model: Apple Nicole

model: Apple Nicole

Having said that, very often it happens so that I revise my editing either after I finish working on it, or the next day. While retouching a photo I change the zoom very often, so I switch between details and global scale all the time. It is possible to miss certain things when I am redirect a narrow focus to a problem area. It is essential to review your work after you are happy with the final result. If you are a obsessed with details like I am, you will always find something to be fine tuned.

The way you color grade your image will depend on the model, mood, lighting, retouching style, your photoshop knowledge, artistic concept and vision the photo was taken with, and so on. There is no recipe for photo toning and no preset that should be applied. Every single time you will encounter different colors on your images, so the color values that you will apply during toning should match those. Applying presets and photoshop actions is a lazy way out and produces rather poor results. Take your time, look at the building blocks of the image and try to sense what type of toning would fit this particular photo. It is your art and your decision, do not let presets created by others mindlessly decide for you.

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Importance of matching colors and tones with the mood of a photo

Human skin is very complex in terms of tonal shifts and colors. Depending on the light used during the shoot, you can achieve different results. Light decides everything: mood, composition,  colors, tonal shifts, and so on. Then, during photo retouching, you will need to deal with things like color casts, skin blotchiness, imperfections of skin texture, shadow and highlight bending and uneven transitions between them, discoloration in highlights and excessive saturation in shadows, difference of skin color temperature or even hue depending on the size of the light source used, etc.

model: Nami

model: Nami

Photo retouching is an extremely powerful tool which allows me to complete my artistic vision. I do not care about how things should look like, all I care about is what feel and mood I want to convey. Photo retouching should not be a result of happy accident or what you think others will find appropriate, but a creative tool for finalizing YOUR idea. The same as with photography rules, you master those to break them. Composing a photo is like falling in love, you feel it, you do not think about it or analyze it. There are no limits to art, as long as it does not feel forced or fake. Photography and photo editing should be naturally inspired by what you see and what it makes you feel like. This is also why taking time to choose photo for retouching is of no less importance than the editing process. Not rushing through the retouch or using photoshop presets mindlessly will only benefit you at the end.

If the toning does not match the mood of the photo it will be a visual cacophony. You are composing a symphony, and all the instruments have to be in tune with one another. But understanding all this is not enough. You need a good connection with your model or client, a connection strong enough for you to either capture an emotion that is real and not staged, a moment in between if you will, or be able to evoke it. Only then you will fully understand the mood of your own photo. At that stage a direction in which you should take your retouching will become clear.

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The devil is in the detail - perfectionism and photo editing in photoshop

Whenever I edit my photos my paranoia kicks in before I even start retouching. I can spend an hour deciding between photos to edit. It is all down to finding that one photo with perfect body language, or even merging elements from various photos to achieve that goal. I do not care how I get there, all I care about is great creating images with fluid and undisturbed energy flow. There has to be a balance of elements and this is why post processing plays a huge role in my photography.

If you watch my speed art videos in which I edit my portrait photos, you will notice that very often I work in great zoom, 100% - 400%. It is essential for skin editing and making sure that skin pores are not damaged, also it helps a great deal during skin mattifying (micro dodging and burning), which is done almost exclusively on skin pore level. All my portfolio photos are in full resolution at 300dpi, so everything is out in the open. There is a lot you can get away with in resized photos, especially if they are full or half length portraits.

model: Yayoi Kawahara

model: Yayoi Kawahara

If you are serious about portrait editing you will appreciate its complexity. Whether it is removing distracting elements that ruin the composition, skin editing, global tonal adjustments, color cast and blemish removal, matching skin tones, blending shadow to highlight transitions, adding new complementing elements to the photo via compositing and photoshop manipulation (like drawing hair by hand for instance), contrast and micro contrast adjustments, sharpening, texture repairing, etc., you have to remember that the devil lurks in details so once you take care of all those things that are not visible immediately, all the elements of the photo will start falling in place. And that is why single portrait photo retouching can take between 1.5 to 4h. There are no shortcuts or plugins that can get you there faster and allow for the same level of quality. There is a reason why some of the best things in the world are hand made. Automation is great, but far from perfect.

If nothing else, remember this - portrait photography brings responsibility. As a professional you are responsible for how your model looks on your photos. It is your job to make sure you have done everything that justifies their time or money spent helping you to create images. A great photo can be ruined by poor editing, so if you respect your models you will make sure you have done your absolute best not just during the photoshoot, but also in post processing.

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What is the difference between a pro snapshot and professionally editited portrait photo

In short, about 2 to 3 hours, because this is how long it takes to retouch a portrait photo on a professional level. Photo retouching is not a skill, it is an art, and for me it is a valid and essential part of my photography service. Not everyone can appreciate the importance and impact of photo editing because this is something that is done behind the scenes. It is a process you most likely will not witness personally as a model or a client, but it is always greatly appreciated when compared and explained.

Portrait photo retouching is a complex process of refining tonal shifts, removing color casts, redirecting or emphasizing the main subject or area of interest in the photo, removing distractions, reorganizing and tiding up shadows and highlights, finalizing the artistic vision of the photographer, amplifying the existing feel or creating a completely new mood in the photo, creating a completely new image via composite photography or an artistically enhanced creation though photo manipulation (fantasy, sci-fi, abstract, etc.), and so on.

I am an artist, not just a photographer. I do not capture images I create them, and pressing a shutter on my camera is merely a part of the entire process. Portrait photo retouching is my passion just like photography, Japanese calligraphy, book writing or any other artistic endeavor that I am engaging in. I love photo editing so much that I can easily take an hour only to look through already pre-selected photos from a given photoshoot to choose the one I think is the best in terms of body language and quality of light for editing. Time wise, photo retouching is far more time consuming than a photoshoot itself and can take several times longer than image capturing. I will give you an example. Let us say a photoshoot lasts for 5 hours and 600 images are taken. Now if I pick 10 photos for editing and spend 2.5h on each, that sums up to 25 hours in photoshop alone. That is 5 times longer than the actual photo shoot. A single complex photoshop manipulation can take over 24 hours to complete.

In the era of digital photography photo editing options are limited only by the skill and imagination of the artist, and it is a never-ending journey of discovery and learning. Every photo is different, every person ha sits own personality and mood. I do not use any ready made presets in my workflow and each photo is manually retouched, toned and finalized. Every photo is yet another day of the great journey.

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How to retouch a male portrait in photoshop - a few quick tips & speed art video

First thing to realize is that you should usually retouch women and men differently. Most of the retouching techniques are identical, but they are applied with different strength or in a slightly different manner. For instance, the most obvious would be skin retouching, which is a huge part of any portrait editing workflow in photoshop. In most cases, for girls, you will emphasize smoothing not only tonal transitions but also invest lots of time on skin texture smoothing, preferably via the taxing process of micro dodging and burning. Now, men usually look better in hard light and with rougher skin texture. Sometimes you will even want to enhance that roughness, it all depends on what sort of effect you want to achieve. Since women look better in soft light (although not always), naturally you will want to make therm appeal softer. That leads to the contrast (for example though macro dodging and burning) and micro contrast intensity issue (it is a rather vulgar comparison but think here in terms of clarity slider), which can be easily cranked up when you work on male portraits. Even tonal transitions can be harsher in male portraits, but this is not always the case. You will also spend more time on removing imperfections and skin blemishes in female portraits. For men, you can either remove them, or reduce their visual impact, or leave them as they are. Regardless on what you decide, always pay attention to the mood and light

quality in the photo, and the purpose the photo will serve. This applies to both sexes. For instance if you are shooting a headshot for an actor, you will want to stick to the original as close as possible, where in a promotional portrait for commercial website, you will want to make your model look as good as possible, and draw the attention of the viewer to their personality and aura, rather than face features. Below video is a speed art of a portrait edit in photoshop that I did for a friend of mine, a fellow photographer John Becker. The aim of the photo was to display him as a professional with a really sunny and outgoing personality (a mixture of confidence with accessibility), which is exactly who he is in reality.. Black and white high contrast edit allowed me to redirect the attention from the face features to face expression and the eyes. I also lowered the tonal value of the background. The light was very soft, so soft you could call it dull. I had to be really careful with skin retouching and I did very little of micro dodging. At the end of the video you can see a RAW file and final image comparison, so you can easily assess how soft the light was (only ambient light was used, no modifiers or reflectors). If you would like to learn more about professional portrait editing techniques watch my full length in-depth 5.5h long tutorial. Here is a link to a quick guide video.

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Understanding complexity of the art of portrait photo retouching in photoshop

Professional portrait editing is a very complex and taxing work, and requires a set of unique skills. One not only has to master photo editing program like photoshop on a technical level, learn numerous tricks and methods of targeting specific issues in the photo, being able to deal with any and all problematic areas, but also be a true artist. If you cannot see or feel the balance and composition, if you do not appreciate the light and its quality, do not know human anatomy and how light affects shapes, have no patience and you are not a perfectionist, if you do not have an artistic vision and a direction you want to follow during editing process, then you will never make a great portrait photography retoucher.

model: Diana (final edit)

model: Diana (final edit)

Portrait editing is there to bring balance between all elements of the photo, regardless whether they are the main point of interest or not, but also to imbue an image with personal vision that will be a continuation or a complementing element to the original photo. There should be a seamless symbiosis between the image and the post processing. That is what defines professional portrait photo retouching. That is why technical skills and outstanding knowledge of the software is not enough. The same goes to photography. Being a geek and knowing all that there is to know about your camera will never be enough to take great photos. That artistic edge is something that cannot be learned, but it has to be developed. There is also the question of passion. I love editing photos, it relaxes me. I enjoy immensely the sheer joy of creating something unique. I actually like it so much, every time I shoot I look forward to editing my images. Without it they would feel incomplete to me.

I have create a series of 5 videos, in which I edit one of my images and give detailed explanations of what I am doing and why. 5.5h of in-depth portrait editing that covers most of the issues that you will come across when working on images in photoshop. Below is a short video guide that summarizes the whole process and it serves as a reference to quickly find areas of interest. I will be adding interactive links to this video that connect directly to the full length tutorials, which you can find on my Youtube channel. I hope that this will cast some light on the importance and depth of professional photo editing, the work that is done behind the scenes long after the photo shoot.

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