Studio photographers are often admired for their lighting skills, and for good reason. Creating compelling portrait lighting is not only extremely difficult, but requires lighting gear, backdrops, and a shooting space. Editing can play either a small or large role in the final image. Have you ever wondered how much of what you see was created in camera, as opposed to in the editing room? In this article, I will show you some before and after images from my own studio work and lift the veil on my editing process.
As a portrait photographer, I love to gain knowledge and improve my lighting skills. I have studied with many photographers I admire, in order to grow in my knowledge of lighting in an attempt to find my own personal voice as a visual artist. I often experiment, holding late night studio sessions with photographer friends where we explore different lights, modifiers, and even replicate lighting from some of our favorite portrait artists.
I mention this to lay the groundwork for this article and dispel any misconceptions, because there is no substitute for understanding how to manipulate light in the studio. There is no shortcut past the fundamentals, and as great as technology is today, you still can’t fix bad lighting in post-production. This means that my primary concern is to create an image in camera that has the raw materials I need for the editing room.
Another concern for me is the kind of image I am attempting to create and the purpose it will serve. When I create a head-and-shoulders headshot, generally I keep it clean and simple, avoiding a post-processed look. Therefore, the headshots I create are 95% finished in camera. This is especially true with business clients who are looking for a headshot to use on social media that represents them on their best day. I save the drama for my portrait work, and offer this in addition to clean and simple headshots.
So, just how much editing is done in post? For me, it varies depending on the capture, subject, and goal. There is no “one size fits all” approach, although most of my portraits are color graded and employ dramatic shadows with a varying degree of intensity. Let's examine some before and after images and discuss the process I used to create the final result.
Take this image of Lee. It’s easy to see that I’ve not changed the lighting in any major way from the original capture. The most notable difference between the two images is that I’ve color graded the final photo and moved away from the warmer tones in the original capture. One common technique I use is to paint in shadows just a bit using curves layers. This adds a touch of drama while preserving the original image. If you look closely, you may notice that I have darkened his hands just a touch as well, in order to help draw the eyes to the face, which is the focus of my portrait work.
Now, let’s go on to something that required a bit more post-production. In the image of Tarik below, the most noticeable difference, as with the image of Lee, is the use of color grading. The original image was also underexposed, which I sometimes do purposely, since it’s much easier to pull detail from the shadows in post. In this case, I was a bit more under than I would have liked, but I still had room to up the basic exposure before I began editing. The other difference here is that the overall drama of the lighting has been enhanced in post. Look at the shadows on the camera left side of his nose, for instance. The edit is quite a bit darker than the original. The same can be said of the highlights on his camera-right cheek. There is a much more distinct pop in the highlights than on the original. This was accomplished not only by simply raising the exposure, but as before, but utilizing a number of curves layers and painting in the shadows and highlights. I also added some textured layers to aid in color grading and the overall look I wanted. As with the first image, the bulk of the lighting work was done in my studio and not in post.
In the next image of my son, I used the same basic editing technique as I did for the two previous images, although this time, I added a lighting effect in post. After color grading the image, I painted in the shadows and highlights, as before, except with a heavier hand. This is most noticeable in his camera left cheek, which is considerably darker than in the original image. Next, the background vignette was painted in using another curves layer, in order to give the illusion that I had a background light hitting the canvas. Finally, I increased the contrast and crushed the darks and lights just a bit using the Levels slider to give the image the extra pop it needed to match his expression.
In the next image of Katherine, in addition to the techniques I already discussed, I have also retouched her skin. Personally, I prefer the “less is more” approach to retouching, although almost every image that leaves my studio is retouched to some degree or another. Sometimes, that means removing a single blemish or stray hair, but it depends on the person’s skin and the context of the image. I will not rehash what I already explained, since it should be clear at this point that the editing style was done in almost the same way as the previous images. I will add that here, as I often do, the image is cropped in from a 4x6 format to a 4x5. Although I realize I can set my camera to photograph in 4x5, I prefer the wider format for a variety of reasons. There are times where I feel the composition calls for a 4x6 crop in order to convey the message properly. In a practical sense, I also like having a bit of wiggle room in my images for cropping, since more often than not I will prefer to crop in, as I did here. Regarding our topic of lighting, another thing I like to do is paint in some light in the eyes and around the eyes. This not only brightens the eyes, but can help remove dark shadows from under them. Keep in mind that I used a very light touch for that, since it's very easy to overdo it.
Next, let’s talk about the image of John below. It was created as an exploration of Dan Winters’ style, and although I did my best to replicate the lighting in my studio, I also relied on editing to bring the image to life and dial in the hard shadows, as well as the vignette. Unlike the previous images, the editing plays a more crucial role in the final result. The unedited image consisted of a key light, fill light, flag, and background light, which can all be seen in the unedited version. In post, however, I greatly enhanced the hard shadow on the camera right side of the subject’s face, and also brightened the background light to enhance circular glow. I also crushed the blacks and popped the highlights, although the overall feel of the image is still muted. The main thing to take note of here is that the importance of post-processing is now more integral to the final image. In the previous examples, the editing played a smaller role in creating the actual shadow density and light shape. Even so, I still did my best to remain faithful to the original lighting, without adding or creating completely new shadows or highlights that were not in some way already present in the raw file.
The final image I want to discuss also represents the most aggressive editing. Unlike the previous images, this one was created primarily in Affinity Photo during as an experiment in editing. The original image employed the standard Peter Hurley key-fill-kick lighting method, which is still apparent in the edit. I used a multiple texture layers, however, to give the image a gritty look, as well as curves layers to paint in the darks and lights. I also added the vignette and punched up the contrast detail to further the grainy texture and rawness of the image. As with the rest of the images, I added a color graded curve as well. In general, I rarely go this heavy in the edit room, but this image can serve as an example as to what you can do with a skillful hand in post. As with every image in this article, however, the original lighting is left largely unchanged.
Although some photographers use post-processing to create the bulk of their “look,” I have found that most of the photographers I am drawn to use editing as a way to enhance, rather than create, their vision. Instead of relying on a “fix it in post” mentality, they get the exposure, lighting, and final style very close in camera and use editing to polish what is already an excellent capture. I will also add that if you shoot tethered as I do, it's important to show your clients an accurate rendition of what the final image will look like. When my clients see the images pop up on my screen, it inspires them and helps to create positive energy during their session. It also affects your bottom line as a photographer. I am not, however, against using post-processing extensively, as I trust this essay has made clear. I hope that this glimpse into my editing process has been insightful, and as always, I would love to hear from you in the comments section.