Anatomy of a Portrait

I’ve often had people come up to me and say, “Wow, you take great pictures. Your camera must be awesome!” That is true. As I have said before here on the blog, we shoot with Nikon equipment, specifically the Nikon D700 and D90 cameras, both of which are very good. But there is more to a photo than just the camera. There’s the lens, the flash, the settings, the post processing and the photographer’s vision. What finally gets printed is often very different from what the camera initially saw.

Let’s see what I’m talking about. We’re going to take an image from this past Saturday’s photoshoot with the lovely Miss Kristi and go from the image that the camera produced straight through to what I would send to the printer. We’ll go through every step and I’ll try to explain what was done in order to enhance the image and make it better.

So let’s start at the beginning. The first shot below is straight from the camera. No changes, no enhancements. It was shot with a Nikon D700 and a Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at the full 200m zoom, ISO 320 and at f/5.6, which is a standard f-stop for portraits. It allows the background to go out of focus to put the emphasis on the subject, but the depth of field is deep enough to get most, if not all, of the face in focus. Now this shot was obviously taken at dusk, and in order the the subject not to be totally dark, we used a Nikon SB-900 flash off-camera to the left about 6 feet. The flash was contained in a small softbox, mounted on a modified paint pole and held by my assistant Wayne. It was triggered wirelessly by a SU-800 unit mounted on the hot shoe of the D700.

The resulting photo is nice, but sort of flat, which is typical of these kind of shots. The camera meters for the entire scene and tries to even everything out. Not a bad place to start, but obviously not what we are looking for:

I do all my file management and basic image processing in a program called Photoshop Lightroom. It does a great job with the basic editing of an image and that’s always where I start. This image got a small exposure boost, and I turned up the black areas and the contrast. I also enhanced the colors in every area except skin tones. This is what we get:

Better, but we still have some work to do. Time for Photoshop. First, that white piece of fuzz on her hat is very distracting and has to go first thing. Then we take away any obvious skin flaws (not that Kristi has many). Next, we enhance the eyes and whiten the teeth. If Kristi were wearing any gold or silver jewelry in this shot, they would get a dose of sharpening to make them stand out. All that gives us this:

Part of the charm of this image, to me, are the little whisps of hair coming from around her hat. But to me, there are too many of them, so let’s get rid of several of them:

Next is skin work. Now Kristi has very beautiful skin which doesn’t need a lot of work. However, almost all women have uneven spots on their faces that need to me smoothed out. That’s the next step, which gives us this:

Now we are ready to go into the final stages. Even after our enhancements in Lightroom, the image is still a bit flat. Let’s add some “Wow” to it, throw in some overall sharpening and just the slightest hint of a glow:

We’re almost done. The last step is to add a slight vignette, or darkening of the edges, to draw the attention to Kristi’s beautiful eyes:

At this point, I would consider this image finished and ready to be printed. Of course, we might decide to add some grunge to the edges or turn it Black and White, or do some other kind of enhancement. But I would have no problem sending this to the printer at this point.

And that’s it. This is, for the most part, the process that we go through with every image that you choose when you have your portraits taken with Studio P. Some images need more work, some less, but we do whatever we can to make you look at good as you can in your images.

Filled Under : Philosophy , Photography

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