The making of an image: How I craft a magical portrait

More and more often people are asking me about unedited images or RAW files.  What's the difference?  Will I sell RAW files? It never bothers me to answer.  In fact, it’s a darn good question.  My answer is typically no, and there's a reason for that.  The RAW file is not finished.  So what is the difference between an edited and unedited file?  What does an image gain in the editing process?  I thought I would share my steps for editing a single image - start to finish.  The image I’ll use as an example was created during a recent mentor session with another photographer.  When I do this for paying clients, these sessions are planned weeks in advance so that I can create or commission props.  But since this was simply an educational excercise, there was considerable less planning involved.  Here’s how it all came together.

2 days before the shoot:  

I began scouting for models.  I am in a several area moms groups that have proven to be great places to find lovely children.  Because this was an educational shoot, I was specifically looking for a sitting baby.  When I saw this little guy’s eye lashes and smile I was hooked.

The evening before the shoot:  

Hooked.  Hmmmm.  I liked that idea.  There’s a stream with a creek bed that’s lovely and green this time of year.  I liked the idea of doing something with a bit of a “gone fishing” undertone.  I was photographing a baby, so there was no need to go overboard with props, but I wanted the image to have a boy-gone-fishing feel.  Jackpot at a local housewares store.  This little galvanized boat was probably meant for drinks but it’s just the right size for a sitting baby.

At the shoot:

We met at my studio and then wandered down to the creek bed.  With mom and dad nearby for safety and me on the far side of the creek, we began to coo and play to elicit smiles.  

I shot roughly twenty frames with the goal of creating three fantastic finished images for mom and dad.  After I was back home and had downloaded my cards, this is one of the images I selected.

 

This is the image I selected SOOC (straight out of camera).  I loved this baby's little crooked smile.  The boat and overalls were classic.  It had nice bokeh.  A good place to start.  

This is the image I selected SOOC (straight out of camera).  I loved this baby's little crooked smile.  The boat and overalls were classic.  It had nice bokeh.  A good place to start.  

If I were to deliver a raw photograph, this is what I would be handing a client.  But it’s just the start of what my mind’s eye sees.  It's a diamond in need of polishing to achieve the luminous image that I’m planning.

So…..on to Lightroom.

In Lightroom I make some adjustments.  I adjust my white balance to warm the image up.  I add contrast, reduce noise, add vibrance and adjust the color and luminosity of the skin.  I immediately see some bright spots in the background that distract me from his precious little smile, so I eliminate those.    And there’s that stick.  I debate keeping it and decide that it’s too distracting, so it’s gone too.  I want to highlight him even more and his little face was in shadow from his hat, and so I use brushes to darken the background exposure and slightly lift the exposure on his face.  In effect, I’m creating a bit of vignette.  We’re getting there.

This is the image as I took it into photoshop.  Already, it's much better.  The color is warmer and richer.  But I want more depth and drama.

This is the image as I took it into photoshop.  Already, it's much better.  The color is warmer and richer.  But I want more depth and drama.

Now, I take the image into Photoshop.  My first adjustment is to soften baby’s skin.  We all have uneven skin tones and I soften his skin enough to eliminate any blotchiness but retain texture.  Nobody wants a plastic baby.  Next, it’s on to dealing with the difference in skin tone created by shadow.  That rear arm has a touch more magenta than the front arm and face and so I paint a light peach sampled from his skin and a light pink onto the affected area at a very low opacity.  

I’m starting to like what I’m seeing, but I really want a rich vibrant background.  So I mask out the little guy and the boat and increase the contrast of the background and the depth of the shadows without affecting baby.  

Now, it’s time to lift the eyes.  The whites of his eyes are a touch blue because they are in shadow, so I’ll desaturate them a touch.  Also, I’ll use a filter to sharpen them a smidge and to enchance the catchlights in his eyes.  

We’re almost done.  It’s time to crop my image to a 5x7.  In my ideal world, I’d have a bit more space on the left of baby, but I’m satisfied with this image.  I think mom and dad will be happy.  

So here's an image that I'm happy with.  I tweaked it a bit more as I tweaked it for social media.  But this is the image that I'll find and deliver to mom and dad.

So here's an image that I'm happy with.  I tweaked it a bit more as I tweaked it for social media.  But this is the image that I'll find and deliver to mom and dad.

So there it is - the image before and after editing.  I hope that helps shed some light on just what goes into creating each image.  It’s more than fiddling around with adjustments.  Editing should be the realization of what’s already in my mind when I click the shutter.  

Want to know more about how I edit or create images?  Don’t be a stranger.  Email me.  :-)