How to compose with light in order to create stunning portrait photos

Difference between a good portrait photo or headshot and an amazing one is almost entirely down to the quality of light. Yes the background is essential, and so is the body language, but if light is poorly directed and its quality (hard, soft, diffused, focused, etc.) is not complimentary to the rest of the image then all will fall apart. To create an outstanding image you not only have to know how to operate with light, but also why and when to use specific techniques that will result in a natural and undisturbed energy flow through the whole image. In other words, when you look at it it has to feel natural, and you should not see any element that stands out to the extent that it dominates the photo in a negative way.

 model: Nata

model: Nata

When I work with a new model and I have no idea how to light her face yet, I experiment and search, the I discover and conclude. Everyone has a different face features, and they come with various types of personality. This will require different lighting each time for each person. If you mount your light on spot A and place yourself in spot B every time you shoot, only because it is your safe spot and you know you captured decent images last time and 100 times before it, you will learn nothing and remain medicore at best. Think of your photography as a boat and your model as the wind. Set her lose and don't force posing, and let her steer you in a general direction of what she feels is natural in terms of positioning and body language. Then become a sail and adjust your course. Sailing against the wind is possible but why on earth would you do that.

 model: June

model: June

Light should not only direct the eye around the photo but it should be an integral part of the entire composition. If you think about it, there would not be a photo without light. On the other hand even the most amazing model placed in a bad light will look terrible. So you have to be sensitive to body language, yes, but poses and angles that you capture those poses from have to be in symbiosis with the light and its quality. Do not copy and photograph what you can, capture what you feel you should in a given moment. Do not photograph what your eyes see, but follow your heart instead. If you appreciate the subtle differences of light angles, intensity, direction, and so on, your portraits will look much more rich, defined, and peaceful at the same time, regardless of how dynamic the message or subject of the photo is.

 model: Saari

model: Saari

Editing is essential for your progress, and I cannot stress this enough. Forget Lightroom and leave it for lazy people. Diving into Photoshop will not only allow you to refine what you have captured in much better and more professional ways than Lightroom ever could but also will do something outstanding- it will slow you down and let you gaze at the image for longer time. You will improve your sense of composition, lighting, understanding body language and help you to narrow down and target your own shortcoming as an artist. Just like a tripod is great for studying architecture photography, Photoshop is amazing for improving your portraiture. Do not mass produce your images but create them. Not only that, if you start working with frequency separation techniques, which are the only way to professionally edit a portrait image or a headshot, you will discover how you can fix issues with shadows and even reshape face features. This is a superb way of learning the light and how it works.

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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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What are the key elements of a great portrait photo

Photography is all about light. That is it. Light determines composition, mood, colors, depth, and so on. Without light, all you would see is a black rectangle. However, once the light is cast, more elements come into play. Portrait photography is not about photographing faces. It is about photographing emotions, moments, personalities. If you focus on the face only, you lose depth and story. Face is not the subject here, the moment is. Just like when you photograph dancers, you capture movement, energy, gesture and composition, balance and grace, power and momentum. You do not photograph legs or arms.

 model: Anna Mitzel

model: Anna Mitzel

Psychology plays massive part in portrait photography. Your job, as portrait photographer, is to search deep under the surface of social masks that everyone wears. They make people feel safe and invulnerable. You have to learn how to strip them off even just for a moment. Similarly to how street photography is about waiting and predicting a happening, portrait photography is about capturing and evoking split seconds of feelings and moods. Knowledge of body language is as important here as the ability of connecting with another human being. That connection has to be sincere so they feel comfortable and loosen their guard. This cannot be done in a haste, so do not rush your portrait shoots. This is also why I do not agree with charging per hour. It feels like mass production to me. I charge per each final image, and yes, post processing is the second reason here. 

It is said that the best portraits are taken when people do not realise they are being photographed. True, but for me this is a bit too invasive. One of the reasons why I am not comfortable with street portraiture, even though I do appreciate it's raw beauty, is because it feels unfair and even vulgar to invade other people privacy. It does not feel fair to me to steal those moments. I want to witness them, evoke and experience them, be a living part of them. Only then I can truly understand who is that I am photographing. In portrait photography the model knows that she or he is being stalked with a lens. And yes it is way more difficult to take a natural looking photo this way, but that is why a specific set of skills is required.

 model: Anna Mitzel

model: Anna Mitzel

Key elements of portrait photo for me would be complementing light, natural body language, undisturbed flow of energy through the photo, and impeccable post processing. Perfect exposure has nothing to do with image being good. Far from it. Mindless following of "photography rules" will also get you nowhere. Photography is an art, not a science, even though there is science behind it. The energy flow relates to all elements including the background,, which is often overlooked and yet so important. Post processing is huge and I would never allow to be photographed by someone who does not edit their own photos. They are either lazy, too focused on squeezing more shoots to make more money, or simply lack artistic vision. I do not just shoot and edit, I shoot with a vision of editing. When I am asked to pass RAW unedited images to a client I am actually being insulted. I do not produce snapshots, I create photographs.

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How to take portrait photographs of professional artists and performers

This is by far one of the most demanding and yet the most rewarding type of portrait photography that you can get into. Most of the people have no idea what portrait photography is all about, hell, they even do not know what they want. Everyone has their own style and they know what they like when they see it, but have difficulties with envisioning it. Just like you buy furniture in a store, when you see a sofa on its own it may not do much for you, but if you see the same sofa in a context of other complementing furniture, then it may make you think - oh wow this would be perfect for my house.

See Artists are different. We do not see trees, we see light synchronizing with amazing maze of shapes and shadows. We do not see city streets and cars, we see art in motion, a happening of movement, a game of kinetic energy and 100s of unique face expressions passing by. A true artist will never tell you, "man, just make me look good", most of them have a vision of what they want, but they are more than excited about bouncing ideas on the go with you. It feels like long vacations on Maldives for the soul.

So how do you shoot artists, performers, singers, and so on. Well, first do not get intimidated, get excited instead. This is the time when you can let your creativity go mustang. Remeber that it is essential to go outside your comfort zone EVERY time you shoot, otherwise you will not grow. On the other hand you need need to stay composed and know exactly what your client or model is after. Do a research on what they do and ask them all questions that you need to know regarding why and what for they need a portrait photo. It is challenging because you have to take their specific or abstract and loose ideas on board, and then imbue it with your own style. Photographers are, or should be, chosen by their portfolio. You are not going to book a photographer whose style is not appealing to you. It makes no sense.

Above is a portrait shot of Dobolo, a hip hop artist from Tokyo, who needed a photo for promoting his new song About to Blow (you can see the video clip below, created by a really talented videographer Jeremy Rubier. Dobolo needed a metro / urban portrait shot, that will be powerful but at the same time simple in form. It had to be a photo that will go well with the theme, message and vibe of the song. I used natural lighting only, breaking all rules of what you will learn when you start with portrait photography, which are to avoid hard sunlight, and always position your subject face towards the light. Well soft light would not work here at all. I had flash guns with me but I figured that the massive contrast between dark and light tones will actually bring this photo closer to black and white, making it way more impactful in terns of tonal difference. I needed space for the text but I did not want it to clutter the breathing space around him, so I was shooting with 16:9 ratio in mind. Also, I knew how I willl do the toning of this photo inside of photoshop and also that bringing down saturation and shifting tones in the photo will only emphasize light qualities.

Tiny angle change of the portrait gives it a bit more energy and modern look. It is a slight tilt, nothing too aggressive. It it were, then it would overpower the model, and since this is not high fashion, the model is actually important. It is not that in high fashion models are not important, it is just that the message being conveyed usually overpowers all other elements, and the model becomes an integral part of the image. In fashion photography it is about the art, not about models. Last but not least, notice how the fence behind Dobolo imitates a keyboard. It is not supposed to be evident but subliminal in a way.

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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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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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Harmony between soft and dramatic light in balck and white portrait photography

Two extremes co-existing together in perfect harmony. Symbiosis in dichotomy. This photo is from a recent shoot with an American artist and model Mandy Jane. We set the shoot for 7 am in Yokohama. It was gloomy, rainy and cold, so we had to shoot anywhere with a roof over our heads. Most of the shots are from the underground tunnels in Minato Mirai. We searched for any place with good light, be it natural from outside, artificial or mixed. There is no perfect weather, light or place to shoot. If you understand how light works and how to control it or use it to your advantage, then you can shoot anywhere and anytime. But you can go even one step further, and reshape the light or change the quality of light in photoshop. This is why the skill of shooting with a vision of post processing is so important in my workflow.

Taking a great photo is as complex as sensing how to post process it. This shot was lit by natural light, with delicate influence of artificial ambient light. Light is soft and supple. It was coming through a huge entrance to the underground passages. Now, the light on Mandy's face is soft and delicate, just like her distant and remote expression. Light on the metal blinds at the background, is also soft, but their shape creates dramatic conversation between light and shadow. I purposely softened the light hitting the model even further, because I knew that I want to change the light quality of the background to much more powerful and hard. Parallel horizontal lines create another contrast, because they introduce stability and harmony. This photo expresses a quite intimate moment in a powerful and dramatic setting, but cocooned in a strong vignette which encloses the scene. This is also why I photoshopped out the bottom line which was too bright, and darkened the top one, and also warped the whole left hand side of the photo outwards.

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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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Finding a composition for a portrait photo in the chaos of shapes around you

For me portrait photography is about balance between body language of the model, quality of light and harmony of background elements. All pieces of the puzzle have to live in symbiosis. When I am out shooting I look for spots where one element is missing, and that element is my model. Just like in street photography, where one finds a place and then waits for that special moment to happen. That moment is the missing element of the composition or a story that I am trying to convey. Finding that balance and harmony is the most difficult thing to teach, because it will depend on how artistic or sensitive a person is. The same goes to everything in photography really, it is all about finding e perfect balance. Even more difficult is to understand, or be able to feel rather, how to introduce imperfections into the composition to create a perfect harmony. It really is a matter of sensing and weighting all segments of a photograph together. A great exercise to do is to pick one location, and without moving much try to find as many photographs as you can. Then , go back home, open them on your PC and think which elements fit and which do not. What mistakes you made, which elements you have not noticed when you pressed the shutter. Model: Nami

 model: Nami

model: Nami

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The art of portrait photography retouching in photoshop - full length video tutorial series

Portrait retouching is a complex and time consuming process, and requires not only very advanced technical skills and knowledge of Photoshop or any other professional software for image post-processing, but most importantly artistic sensitivity and vision, understanding of human anatomy and proprieties of light and how light behaves in real life, and tremendous amount of patience. There are many plugins and ready made solutions that cut corners, but if one wants to achieve stunning results it is all down to manual work in a digital dark room. Every photo is different, has different toning, lighting, mood and composition. Consequently every photo should be approached individually with care and understanding. When I capture portraits with a camera, I envision how I will edit them. For me a great photograph is a harmony between the body language, captured emotions or moment, quality of light, compelling composition and complementing retouching. All elements are absolutely essential.

 model: Diana

model: Diana

I am currently creating a series of videos showing my full portrait editing workflow. You can watch parts 1 to 3 on my Youtube channel already. Part 4 is currently being edited, and I will be recording part 5 this week. The entire series will be about 5h long and it covers not only retouching but also my thought flow on choosing a photo for editing and reasoning behind my choice. It is an extensive guide to high-end portrait retouching including various techniques and photo editing methods. I will be posting videos part 1 to 5 below.

How to crop your images to make them look balanced and appealing

 Image after completing compositing and editing

Image after completing compositing and editing

Cropping images is an art and it is the final touch to your photo just like the seal of a Japanese calligrapher pressed at the very end on the work. There is a saying that goes "印鑑までの作品", which means "a (perfect) work (is one that goes) all the way to the (author's) seal". The same in photography, cropping is a very powerful tool in your photo editing arsenal. Most of my portraits are cropped in camera during shooting, but sometimes I create composites or change the background, like in this photo of Katie. She was cut out and placed on a new background, and since she wanted a circle shaped final shot I had to place her in the dead center of the frame (see the photo to the right). Now I would never shoot a portrait this way, unless it was for a poster with some promotional materials or texts waiting to be added, then I would make space for it. So, I had to go in and crop the image to make her really shine. Below you can see 5 different crops that I created and all of them have a slightly different feel. Crop 1 would be sliced in the headshot style for corporate use or for a bio on a website. Do not be afraid to cut tops of the heads, but when you do that make sure it is balanced with the space below the chin and around the face. Also pay attention to the background texture, it is important that it does not overpower the face, which is the main focus (scroll down to read more).

 Crop 1

Crop 1

Crop 2 is a perfect square, which is a common format used by social media pages. Two things you need to remember when cropping images for such sites. 1. the are in square shape, and 2. they are usually tiny, so make sure that the face is filling the frame as much as possible. I placed her a bit to the left hand side of the frame, to create asymmetry which is perfectly empowered by the intersecting diagonal lines (created by both shoulders and the eyes). This creates an illusion of a triangle shape, and goes well with slanting lines of the background. Dynamic crop introduces movement and since she looks dynamic and jolly it fits perfectly.

 Crop 2

Crop 2

Crop 3 is what Katie wanted for her page. Here I placed her eyes along the center line and cut off part of her right shoulder. The leading lines of the jacket going up and then curving with her face outline to the right forces eyes to circulate, which supports the shape of the crop. Note that Crop 1,2 and 3 have a corporate feel with emphasis on Katie but there is enough space for the background building to be registered by a viewer as an important element of the photo, even though it is out of focus. Background can be a powerful ally. 

 Crop 3

Crop 3

Crop 4 is more centered and looks it gives Katie more powerful image. Her being in the center suggests control, but at the same time her cheerful smile makes her approachable. This is a cross-over between a corporate shot and a more casual profile photo for a webpage. This could also be cropped lower, which would cut the top of her head and showed a bit more of the neck. I cropped it this way to move her eyes to the center.

 Crop 4

Crop 4

Crop 5 has a corporate feel again, but it is in a vertical orientation. I sliced the right shoulder and emphasized the other one which is in perfect alignment with the building. The part of the building to the left frames her from the other side and it creates a narrowing effect which pushes the viewer's eyes to her face. Those buildings also create a natural vignette which introduces contrast and redirects the attention to Katie. She is a bit off center to the left, which balances the way she stands, the direction she is facing to and mirrors the direction the light is coming from.

 Crop 5

Crop 5

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