Entries in how to (13)


How to Retouch Portraits Without Photoshop

You probably do not have an access to Adobe Creative Suite, nor are you interested in buying this two thousand dollar bundle of creativity tools. In this second article of my HOW TO series, I will explain how you can improve a portrait without having to use a professional photo editing software such as Adobe PhotoShop.

The technique I am going to show you uses a free software called Picnik which can be invoked directly from Picasa or Flickr. One drawback worth mentioning is that this technique does not scale to a large number of photos. Professional photographers therefore have to use other more powerful tools such as Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Lightroom. I use Picnic only when I need to edit a handful of images. For batch jobs, I use Adobe Lightroom. For even larger jobs, I outsource the editing to professionals at Photographers Edit, who can cull and edit 2000 photos in a fraction of a time it would take me to do it. Such services are helping photographers to focus on what they do best -- meeting clients and taking photos.

Picasa is a free software from Google and I am naturally biased towards it. It has all the basic editing tools for everyday use, and I encourage all my friends and family to use it. Since Google bought Picnik and integrated it into Picasa, Picasa became even more attractive.

Above is a portrait of a client I photographed yesterday who graceously allowed me to demonstrate the post processing on one of her photos. This successful business woman needed photos for a professional publication she is going to appear in. Let's play a game now. Can you list all the things I have done to the original photo? Take your time, look at the above image carefully. How many different changes do you see? Then compare your number to what you are about to read.

Change 1: Remove certain wrinkles

It is important to remove wrinkles only partially. The photo would not look natural if the thirty-something year old subject would not have any wrinkles. I used the "wrinkle remover" tool and lowered the strength to about 50%. Do not forget about the neck and hands.

Change 2: Airbrush uneven skin surface

The airbrush tool is very strong. Lower it's intensity to only about 30% for a more realistic look. If a person has a nice set of freckles, try to preserve them. Remove only unwanted zits and other skin flaws.

Change 3: Apply mascara

This quick fix increases the contrast between the eyes and the lashes without increasing the contrast of the whole photo.

Change 4: Whiten teeth

This is a no brainer. You almost always need to do this step, but again, please lower the intensity of the tool to only about 60%.

Change 5: Apply lip gloss

The lip color tool offers a variety of lip hues. I picked a dark pink and decreased its intensity. Please make sure to use small brush size and avoid coloring the gums.

Change 6: Apply blush

Blush adds a vitality to a person's face. Add a bit of pinkish hue and decrease its intensity by about 70% for a more natural look.

Change 7: Increase contrast

You are almost done. Before you save the file, increase a contrast just a bit. It whitens the eyes and teeth even further and makes the photo look more crisp.

How much post processing shall you apply?

If you are working on an image that would be looked at as a close up, you need to take it easy with post processing, especially with the airbrush tool. Photo that would look fine from a distance will look too post-processed if looked at with magnifying mirror. Therefore always keep the end use in mind when doing the edits.

Voila! The editing is done and the subject hopefully looks better than when you started editing. Please ask your questions and add your comments in the comments section below. If you have a suggestion for the next post in the HOW TO series, I'd like to hear it.


How To Save a Bad Photo (Without Photoshop)

I dare to say it. Most of the bad photos can be made into good ones. It takes a little creativity, some free tools, and time.

In this episode of "How To Save a Bad Photo" I'll try to illustrate how to save a dark photo with distracting colorful elements... a picture that sucked so bad I almost deleted it. But I'm glad I did not. 


Start with the original photo. The photo is way too dark, you can barely see the people in it, and the colorful banners are distracting.

Convert a photo to black/white. It still looks dark, but you solved the problem with the distracting banners.

Now lighten up the photo a lot. Do not worry about the background beeing too light. Focus only on the skin of the subjects. I used the "fill light" feature in Picasa (download for free here). Picasa is very easy to use and has just the right amount of features to do simple photo editing.

Now fix the problem with the superlight background by adding shadows. Make sure the subjects won't get too dark.

Once the darks look good, add a little bit of punch to the photo by adding highlights. Do not go overboard with the highlights, or else you'll loose the detail in the lightest parts of the photo, but sometimes it's worth adding a little bit more if it helps to make the faces more contrasting.


 Age the photo by adding a little bit of warmth (use "color temperature" slider in Picasa).

 Add a little wignetting to direct the eyes to the middle of the photo.

In the next episodes of "How To Save a Bad Photo", I'll talk about how to save camera phone photos, badly composed photos, bright photos, and other products of photographer's misfortune. If you want me to write an episode about a specific bad photo you have in mind, send me the photo and I will do my best.


Photography Terminology For Dummies

If you are a pro or a are pretty good at photography as a hobby, you can stop reading now. This stuff would just annoy they hell out of you if you continue to read. Really... go ahead and close the browser window.

.... waiting ....

.... waiting ....

Alright. If you are reading this far, you are either a photography newbie, a dummy, or one of those pros who did not listen to me in the first paragraph! Welcome newebie or a dummy! 

Although I wrote a similar post a while back, learning by watching never gets old. This is my attempt to not only list the basic photography terminology, but to also show you what these things look like.

You will notice that this list explains the items in a "for dummies" style. When I started learning about shooting, I had to google for the expressions mentioned by other photographers... and list like this would have helped me a lot.

  • hot shoe -- the thingie on top of your camera, where you would slide the flash. It has metal parts that touch another metal parts at the bottom of the flash which will allow your camera to close an electrical circuit that triggers the flash
  • exposure -- amount of light that hits the camera sensor while the shutter is opened
  • shutter -- a thingie that is in front of the image sensor that opens and closes, allowing the light from the lens to hit the camera image sensor
  • shutter speed -- how long is the shutter opened (should be long enough to have correct exposure -- enough light should get in to paint a nice picture onto the image sensor)
  • aperture -- how wide your shutter opens when it opens, determines how wide is the beam of light coming from lens to the camera sensor
  • F-number -- a measure of how wide is your aperture, a measure of a "lens speed" (smaller F-number means that the shutter is more opened and more light comes in)
  • aperture priority -- a setting on a camera that allows you to specify a fixed aperture (and let the camera adjust all other variables to make a correct exposure)
  • ISO -- a measure of sensitivity of light (use higher ISO number in darker room, low ISO outside in the daylight)
  • strobe -- flash, speedlight, a thing that emits light
  • light stand -- see the below photo
  • umbrella adapter -- click on the below photo and see the notes (picture is worth a thousand words)
  • focal length -- a measure of how strongly the optical system focuses or defocuses light; the distance in air from the lens or mirror's principal plane to the focus
  • focus -- a point of convergence of light
  • auto-focus -- a feature of an optical system that allows you to obtain a correct focus on a subject
  • wireless flash triggers -- a.k.a. "pocket wizards", these are devices that tell your strobes to fire when the shutter is pressed on the camera. You mount one trigger on the hot shoe of your camera and another below your flash (flash mounts on a hot shoe of the second trigger). See photo below.
  • wireless flash receivers -- these devices listen to the signal from the flash triggers and send an electric impulse into the attached flash which triggers the flash.
  • bokeh -- blurry, fuzzy background, see examples
  • composition -- an arrangement of elements that you are taking a picture of
  • lens -- a photographic objective -- a device that contains optical lens (or lenses) and other mechanics allowing to focus, to zoom, all while projecting the not-distorted image at the image senso

If you think of a term I missed, please add a comment. I will be happy to add it to the list. Hope this helped all you newbies and dummies out there and you now feel more confident in your photographic abilities!


You only look good for one hour a day

Many of you are familiar with the term "golden hour". It is known as the best time to shoot things and people. But what is so special about that one hour of a day that everyone keeps talking about? Is it even legit? Let's look into it.

I first heard about this from an awesome blog post about "Don't be ugly by accident". Yes, that was the name of the post. It examined the differences between the perceived attractiveness of people whose photos were taken by camera phones versus SLR cameras, with direct flash versus off-camera flash, and also photos taken during and outside of the golden hour. The results were staggering. To sum it up, you basically look like a superstar if you get your photo taken with SRL using off-camera flash during golden hour. And if you do the opposite, well I'm sure you've seen plenty of vanity self portraits taken by camera phones to get the idea of why that is bad.

Cairo during golden hour (notice the two little peaks of pyramids, all the way to the left):

Golden hour is the main reason I recommend my clients to shoot with me in the evening. Shooting during the golden hour is challenging for both the subjects and the photographer. You have very little time to get it right while the lighting conditions are constantly changing -- getting worse. These are the challenges:

  • You need to worry about getting to the location well before the sunset.
  • You have to setup your equipment and position the subjects, then take few sample shots, examine them for issues and distractions, remove all negative elements you saw in sample shots. This usually means asking the subjects to readjust their pose, move to the side, change the angle of the light, or the angle of the camera.
  • You need to keep readjusting the aperture and exposure about every two minutes to match the yet darker sky.
  • You need to get your subjects to pose well in a very short amount of time. This is often the number one challenge.

By the time you get everything right, it might be well after the sunset. That's why you need to be pretty much ready before the sunset. It's better to hang out for few extra minutes than ending up with your best shots at the end of the shoot when it's way too dark. I've done this many times so you might want to learn from my mistakes.

San Francisco Bay Bridge photoshoot during golden hour:

The whole thing blazes in front of your eyes and before you know it, the shoot is over. The customers are usually little sweaty by now, and little worried that there weren't enough good shots in such a short time, but there always are few good ones if you timed it right.

How exactly do you need to set up your camera and light?

The goal is to keep a good balance between the naturally lit background (a sunset for example) and the subjects. If one is too dark or too bright, the whole image is bad. You are only in control of the light pointed at the subjects. You are not in control of the ambient light coming from the sunset or other sources such as street lamps. That's why you set up your camera according to the ambient light and only then add the strobe.

  • You start with the widest aperture your lens allows. Let's say F 2.8. You want to capture as much of the precious ambient light as possible.
  • Now set the shutter speed at the longest speed that you can steadily hold without moving the camera. I can go as low as 1/30s, but you can start at 1/50s.
  • If the image is still too dark (the sunset is not bright enough), you increase the ISO a bit. Let's say ISO 800.
  • If the photo looks dark, increase the ISO even more, or lower the shutter speed if you think you can hold it steady.
  • Once the scene looks great with just ambient light, work on adding the flash. Ask your subjects to stand approximately at the same place you want them to stand in the final shot. Tell them you are just setting things up so that they don't pose just yet. (Yes, I'm telling you to lie.)
  • Set the strength of the flash to something low, like 1/32 power. Take a test shot. Look at it. Bright? Lower the strenth of the flash. Dark? Increase the strength.
  • You are now all done with the setup and ready to shoot. Hurry, your setup is probably already getting messed up by the yet darker sky.
  • Keep checking the photos on the camera display to see if you need to change the settings again.
  • Once the sky gets too dark, open the aperture even more, lenghten the shutter speed, or (what might be your only option) increase the ISO even more. And don't forget to lower the strength of the flash to match this new more light sensitive camera settings.
  • After about 5 - 10 minutes you can't get any ambient light using high ISO and the shoot is over.
  • Pack your gear and go home.

Shooting during golden hour without flash:

If you do not have human subjects to shoot, the instructions are the same, just ignore the strobe part. It is best for you to practice without subjects first. It removes the extra stress of having to keep them comfortable and setting up flash. After a couple of times you do this, you will even find it relaxing to shoot sunsets by yourself. You get into the habit of "adjust => shoot => view" cycle and won't find it stressful any more.

This photo of Santa Monica pier was taken about 10 minutes after the sunset: 

I wish you happy shooting and want to hear your thoughts in the comments section below. 


I let the light paint the picture

I let the light paint the picture.

The technique:

This is one of the easiest things you can do as a photographer. All you need is a camera that has adjustable exposure. You might or might not need a tripod. All you do is point at something that moves, and press the trigger (ehm... I meant shutter). Like in this photo, I sat on a bus and shot cars on the freeway. The bus moved, the cars moved, everything was moving and painting the light on the camera sensor. The result is unpredictable and fun. You can try it million times and it always comes out different. Play with different exposure lengths and different apertures.

This is a four second shot of Las Vegas Strip at night:

You probably noticed that the first two photos are very different from the last two photos. It's because I used a tripod, which allowed me to capture the areas surrounding the light sources. Only light sources were moving in those first two photos. The thing on the left is an elevator in a city of Graz, Austria (the home of Arnold the Governator). And many of you American peeps will recognize the photo of Austin, Texas on the right.

Do you have your own "let the world paint itself" technique?