Sunday, August 30, 2009

Friends and memories

In response to JoshuaZ's comment, following up with tips for the situations where readers want to remember friends and relatives. Above is a portrait of Gerard Meijssen. Not something I shot (he's in a country where I've never set foot), but a typical snapshot portrait. Today's tips are about things to do for friends and family.

Gerard stands on a balcony, probably because the decision to take the portrait was made indoors. This was the nearest location which had enough natural light to shoot without a flash. Overcast days are good for portraits: diffuse light flatters the skin. It's best to frame the shot so the gray sky remains outside the picture. This is one reason why family photographs that mix scenery with portraiture seldom turn out well: when the light is good for the setting it's usually far too harsh on faces.

Amateur portraits tend to be contrasty. Even though the light is diffuse Gerard's face still has harsh shadows. This happens because no camera responds as well to differences in brightness as the human eye does. For this informal balcony portrait, taken on the spur of the moment, I would have directed Gerard to stand at the far end of the balcony. That would permit the use of a longer lens setting to eliminate the slight wide angle distortion and allow a framing that would have gotten more of the softer tones from the trees and the red brick building. The thing to do would be frame the shot to minimize the gray sky and eliminate the cellular phone store completely (it's colorful but it's distracting). Even a gray sky will be very bright in early afternoon; reframe to minimize sky and the camera would handle the face better.

Also this shot would work better as more of a close-up to minimize the wrinkles on his shirt. This photographer is significantly taller than Gerard. It's unlikely I'd tower over him, but if that happened I'd bend my knees to bring the shot to eye level. Photographers who are vertically challenged do well to remember this tip: it often yields charming results when photographing children.

But...this is what we've actually got to work with. It isn't bad for an amateur portrait. Let's tweak it a little. The first thing I did when I saw it (Gerard was running for the WMF board) was bring out the shadows in his face using the Photoshop shadow/highlight tool. It's a manual adjustment that helps get the facial shadows back to what the human eye would perceive. Also added a mild linear brightness gradient to reduce the shadows globally. Here's what resulted.

This type of minor change usually isn't a problem; this version ran at Meta during the latter part of the recent board election where Gerard was a candidate. Suppose we were editing for a private album? Well, for family and friends one can go a little further.

This adds a second gradient mask to put a little blue into the sky. Also brightened the whites of his eyes very slightly. Brightening the eyes is a retouching trick that makes people appear healthier. Also I'd still rather have a closer crop.

So here's what we get after ten minutes of editing. It's a little more processed than would be ideal for article space, but fine for friends and family.

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