Mar 20 2011

Reality is what you make it. Photography & the art of seeing.

How an artist interprets a photograph during processing can dramatically effect our emotional response and understanding of an image. Understanding the impact of various treatments on the eye and emotions can help an artist communicate the message they wish to get across to their viewers.

Consider these three versions of a photograph recently shot at a “Goth” photoshoot (click any image in this post to see larger versions):

How do they make you feel? How do you feel about the subject? Our perception changes with the various treatments. In the first image, we see a picture of a pretty young girl. The second image is warmer and more bohemian- youthful, vibrant & wistful. The third image achieves a more “Gothic” feel- colder, harder. The look on the girl’s face which in the more bohemian treatment seems contemplative becomes a baleful glower in the third treatment.

In this post, I am going to take you through the processing of the image and the thought process behind it and try and show off some of the pretty much infinite processing options we have available to us. That stated, we’ll keep the mood relatively appropriate to the shot, or we might find it hard to find an end to the post.

We’ll begin with the original photo as shot side by side with the lightly retouched image (color correction, sharpening, a bit of blur in the background to get rid of distracting elements):

Our young model doesn’t have a lot of rough edges and this was a “Goth” shoot so I wanted to add a darker, harsher feel to the image. The following set represents a variety of treatments aimed at achieving that goal. Note that the level of severity of our model’s look can be dramatically impacted by the different treatments. We can take her from a little “gothy” to downright malevolent.

Consider the four images below (right-to-left, top-to-bottom). In this first photo, I used a bleach bypass to wash a bit of the warmth out of the image. She already looks a little harsher as the treatment also takes low-lights down a notch. (You could just alter the temperature of the image, but I wanted the added harshness that the blown-out darks would accomplish, so I used the bypass.) This still wasn’t looking rough enough for me, so in the second image below, I went ahead and sucked most of the color out of the background to give the image a more bleak feel. But, with the goal being a gothic look, our model was still looking a bit too vibrant against that bleak background for me. I added yet another bypass to the stack to really bring out dark lines and add harsh shadows in the third image. This is where I would probably stop with the image, but taking it yet another step farther, I did a black and white conversion and sharpened the heck out of it and the result is that now we have a very dark, angry looking young woman.

But now, to change gears a little. The particular outfit our model is wearing and the setting both lend really well to a couple of different looks that may at first be a little unexpected given the intended Goth nature of the photoshoot. I admit, I am a sucker for a more romantic, bohemian look and our subject is in every way perfect for this treatment. The next set of images might come straight out of a “Free People” catalogue. We move from warm (warming filter), to dreamy (warming filter + soft, diffuse light on the edges of the image), to vintage (that classic yellowing of the image we see in images from 70s film cameras):

We’ve transported our model back in time a bit with our “Vintage” photo treatment, but her outfit allows us to crank that time machine back a little farther if we so please. This black and white image utilizes a variety of edge and blur treatments to achieve the look of a Holga toy camera.

While Holga cameras in actuality weren’t released until the 1980s, cameras such as they and their predecessors (e.g. the Diana) have been widely popular to create images with a funky, and in many cases very “retro” feel. Below: Consider L’Atelier de l’artiste by Daguerre (1837) for comparison. If we really wanted to achieve this look with our image, we could warm the image up a touch, add more blur, some film grain and/or a texture effect that would create the effect of a damaged print.

Aging our old-time black and white look a little more:

Another classic old-time look is the sepia print, which also works wonderfully well with our image:

If we want to make our subject look a little more world weary or hardened (as so often those folks do in old-time images- you can’t blame them, they had to sit still for a half an hour at a time!), we can combine these effects with our heavily bleach bypassed image. The black and white feels almost Film Noir:

Again, note the complete difference in feel between the two images when placed side-by-side:

A few notes and comments on processing:

The number one most important thing you can do to produce great images is to get a good capture to begin with. Start with an image that is properly exposed and work from there. (My example wasn’t perfect by the way. To begin with, it could have used fill flash, but I didn’t have mine handy.) The amount of processing you want to subject an image to is tied to the effect you are trying to create, but the rule is probably “less is more”. Heavy processing can tend to give an image an artificial look and in many cases may introduce artifacting and create other problematic issues. As an example, although I personally like the effect of the bleach bypass on the image we have considered here, it does have an effect on the technical quality of the image. (In “blowing out” the lowlights- destroying the details in the blacks- in our image.) While we may violate some of the basic rules generally applied to producing a great photograph in the name of artistic license, we should not do it without awareness and intent. One should always consider alternative methods which can be utilized to accomplish what you are trying to achieve. (E.g. I could have cooled off my image utilizing a blue filter rather than a bypass which would have created a cleaner look and not blown out my lowlights had I wanted to preserve them.)

For a full slideshow of the images seen in this post click here.

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