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This week we are featuring a guest post from Lightroom Master, Jared Platt. Jared is a photographer and educator based out of Arizona. We hope you enjoy!
Contrast & Curves
It’s time to get your contrast under control with tone curves.
A large part of photography is judging the various tones that make up an image and deciding where they should be placed in the final presentation of the print. Both in the image display of our cameras and in Adobe Lightroom, we see this tonal distribution visually represented in the histogram. The simple name for this tonal distribution is “contrast” and as photographers, we are constantly trying to control it. Reading the histogram and controlling the placement of tones within the image is one of the most important skills a photographer can master.
We actively adjust image contrast both when we shoot and in post processing. When we shoot, we do this by judging and manipulating the quantity, quality and direction of light. A softer, more diffuse, less directional light creates less contrast. Conversely, harder, more directional light creates brighter highlights and leaves darker shadows which equals more contrast. This is then shown to use on the camera and in Lightroom by way of the histogram. I constantly hear people say that a good exposure is described on the histogram when there is an even distribution of tones all the way across the graph (like in the image below), and while this statement is true for the image above and the histogram below, the advice is actually very poor advice. In reality, a good exposure on the histogram looks like the image it is describing.
On a grand scale, fog is the prefect light modifier for reducing contrast. If only we could command the elements and bring it in whenever we needed it. Fog has the effect of bouncing light everywhere and filling in all the shadows, thus everything becomes almost equal in value. No real shadows and no real highlights. We very rarely need this intense effect, but we do use soft boxes and fill reflectors all the time to help fill in the shadows and even out the difference between the shadows and the highlights. Pay attention to the histogram describing this image. When your photograph has no shadows, the histogram should display nothing on the left side of the graph. A proper exposure will avoid allowing the data to clip on the left (shadows) or the right (highlights) of the histogram, but the graph in between the either edge should be an accurate description of the tones you are seeing in the scene.
In photography, the further apart the shadows and the highlights are on the histogram, the higher the contrast will be in the image. In life, we create contrast by making friends with strange people, or having peculiar pets. The more peculiar and different the greater the contrast. I had two dogs growing up, one was a tiny little Cockapoo, the other was a big Golden Lab, who was also the fattest dog in Norther Arizona (he has an award to prove it)! Just watching them run down the road together was entertaining. As with Shroder and Uggums (my dogs), the further apart we are in looks or temperament from our companions, the more drastic the contrast will be in our lives, which results in more drama. This is not to say contrast and drama make the best images. Low contrast images, like the image above, create a sense of quiet which has equal value.
In the end, our choices in image contrast change the feeling our images produce. Because of this, post-production really matters and contrast is a critical portion of that. We use the contrast slider and the tone curve to make these final contrast adjustments. The contrast slider is the simple way to change the contrast in an image, but it is also the least subtle. It is like using an axe to cut your sandwich. You will definitely cut the sandwich in two, but you will also cut the plate and most likely the table as well. If you want to maximize your control over the contrast in your image you need to master the use of the Tone Curve panel. Take a look at the image below and notice that the contrast slider is left at zero. The major contrast work is achieved in the tone curves area of Lightroom, both in the Parametric and the Point Curve areas of the Tone Curves Panel. You can see that there are five different curves at work in this one image. The lower contrast in the image helps to soften the model’s already soft look. When you are creating a tone curve for the first time, keep in mind that you should only really need to do this once. If you like the effect you have created, make a preset for that tone curve to make it simple and efficient to apply your complicated curve in the future.
I have created a short video on Using the Tone Curve Panel in Lightroom to get you started into exploring this powerful tool in Lightroom. After watching the video, I encourage you to spend some time playing with your images in Lightroom using the Tone Curve pane in the Develop Module, and to get you started, make sure you download the free Tone Curve based presets I have created for you.
Using Tone Curves in Adobe Lightroom
Which tones you emphasize or de-emphasize can vary widely depending on the mood you want to create and where we want the viewer to focus. I may use dramatic lighting or soft lighting depending on the story I am telling — bright and happy, or dark and moody. However I light my subject, or set my exposure at the camera, I have only told half the story. The other half of the story is told when I open the image in Adobe Lightroom and make adjustments to the image. That is, as Ansel Adams said, the performance of the score (the capture being the musical score). We captured the sequence of the notes in our camera, but the way we play them out in post-processing provides infinite possibilities for performance. Mastering all of your tools (or instruments) is the first step to gaining complete control over your photographic voice.
Post Script: The contrast control in the tone curves panel is not only the superior place to tweak your contrast, but it is also a better place to create split tones and even cross processing effects. The power in the tone curve is quite intense. For this reason I use the tone curve in a lot of my Lightroom Presets. Let me get you started by giving you a small set of three great Classic Black and White Lightroom Presets that use the tone curve as the basis for their effect.
If you’ve EVER shot an outdoor wedding ceremony before, you know that sometimes the light isn’t ideal! In fact, a lot of times, it can be REALLY harsh! Especially when the bride is first coming down the aisle!
We have three quick tips for shooting outdoor ceremonies in harsh light that should hopefully make things a little easier for you!
1. Have Dad Walk the Bride Down the Aisle on the Side that Blocks the Sun
Now in an ideal world, we’d have soft, even light from head to toe during every outdoor ceremony, but that’s just rarely the case! And the sun is always the harshest at the beginning of the ceremony, when the sun is still higher in the sky. Even though there is typically a “side” protocol for the bride and the groom during the ceremony, in all our wedding experience, we’ve seen Dad walk on either side of the bride as he escorts her down the aisle. We’ve found that when we put Dad on the same side as the sun, since he’s usually taller, he blocks the light that would be hitting his daughter, putting her in perfect, even, shaded light — which we love! As you can see in the picture below. Now, again, in our perfect world, Dad isn’t getting hit by the sun either, but if we had to choose, we’re always Team Bride first! You’ll also want to note the angle (which we’ll get to in point two!).
2. Be Strategic About Side Angles
Even when the ceremony is earlier in the day, there’s typically one side that is softer than the other. It will always be the side that’s opposite where the sun is directly hitting.The shadow side. In this example below, you can see how powerful the sun is based on the way everyone’s hair is lit up. As you can imagine, if we had shot the ring bearer on the other side of his face, the whole thing would have looked harsh and un-ideal! And if we had shot him from the front, his face would’ve been spilt-lit (half over-exposed and the other half under-exposed) But shooting him from this one angle makes the light appear almost angelic! That’s why we find the best angle for the processional and stay there!
The same goes for the image above! Imagine if we had shot Kathleen and her dad coming down the aisle by standing on the side closer to the dad! Dad’s face would’ve been completely gone or Kathleen’s would’ve been way too dark! Shooting from Kathleen’s side was imperative to the shot. During portrait time, we always have full control of where everyone stands, but during ceremonies, we have little to no say at all, so angles are everything when it comes to ceremonies! Choose strategically!
3. Try Shooting From Behind the Altar
During church weddings, we’re typically restricted by the church’s rules on where we can stand, but during outdoor ceremonies, we have a lot more latitude. We always make sure that we’re respectful and discreet, but we also do everything we can to get the best images for our couples. If part or all of the front of the bride’s or groom’s face is in full blazing sun, it’s likely that from somewhere it’s not! We STRIVE for consistency in our images as much as possible even when we have no control over the location, meaning if we’re shooting the bride in shadows, we want to shoot the groom in shadows, too. It makes the images look SO much better for their blog and their album. So, a lot of times at ceremonies, we’ll walk around until we find the shadow side of both of their faces, and shoot those instead of the highlights side. We’ve found that a lot of times, back behind the altar gives us the most even light when the front angle just isn’t cutting it. Just look the difference! The first photo is what you’re used to seeing from us.
On the left, you’ll see NOT our favorite angle (this was what it looked like from the front!). Notice the harsher, more direct light on her right shoulder and Nick’s left cheek. On the right, you’ll see our favorite angle, taken just seconds later, but from the back of the altar. This is an angle we’d shoot all day long because her face is in the shadows. What a difference, eh?
In our dream world, we’d get even light from head to toe from beginning to end, but that’s just rarely the case! As the ceremony moves along, the light typically gets softer, which is why we LOVE recessionals! But when you’re in a pickle, pick your angles strategically and remember that ultimately your number one job is to capture precious memories for your couple, regardless of the light!
Okay, friends! We hope this post helps you at your next wedding ceremony! Go get ’em! In the meantime, we have another awesome resource for you! Click here to watch our 5 Secret Photography Life Hacks to learn five quick practical and applicable takeaways to bring your photography game to the next level in less than ten minutes! The best part? It’s totally free!
We’re cheering for you!
“Soft light is a thing of beauty in photography – finding it is the real trick.”
There is some information in the photography world that says diffusion can make your flash images look better by “softening” the light. Today we are going to explore this and see if it is true or false.
When we first started shooting, the first thing we bought was a Canon 580ex speedlight so we could light our subjects at dark receptions. The issue with that light was if we pointed it directly at our subject, or even moved it off-camera and pointed it at our subject, we would get lots of contrast and “hard” lighting on our subjects. Hard lighting is caused by having a small light source and the result is having “specular highlights” or bright spots right next to dark spots that create lots of contrast.
You can see when you use a small light source like the one used above, that you get a very defined line from highlight to shadow, and the skin can look worse than it really is. There are some hot spots on the right side of the frame and you can see that “specularity” we mention earlier. This lighting is not right or wrong, but it definitely is not forgiving when not used just right.
Does Diffusion Really Solve this Problem and make light softer?
Early on, we got sold on this idea that if you added “diffusion” (or something that evened out the light coming from our flash), we could then get soft light. The myth here is that there is only a partial truth in that. The diffusion itself does not actually create soft light. Diffusion only evens out the light. It’s the size of the light-source (it getting bigger and bigger) that actually does the softening.
Some diffusers do make your light slightly bigger (takes the light source from 1.5″x3″ and making it 4″ inches in diameter, for example), however, this will not make much difference at all in the softness of light.
Defining Soft Light:
(Light from flash image above was softened with a 24×32 soft box at 3 feet away)
Soft light (light that appears to “wrap” around your subject) has a painted-on effect and diffused shadows. Soft light is created when you have a large light source in comparison to your subject. Light is NOT softened when you shoot a small light through diffusion, but rather when the you use a large even light source. Soft light looks great on anyone and we love shooting our clients in this type of light (whether it’s created by a strobe or natural light outside).
The problem with the way lighting modifiers like the Speedlight ones above are sold, is that they tell you that they “diffuse” light, and because you added this diffusion, the light is now “soft.” But the truth is, they only even out the TINY light source you are using, and while that does make the light softer by making it slightly larger (and more even), it does not make the light soft enough for a light-wrapping portrait (or much else). If you shoot mouse photography, then that might be a great way to get soft light on your subject, but for people, you need a light source with a little more size to get truly soft light.
If you want light that wraps around your subject, then you need a light the same size as whatever you are shooting. Once you have that larger light source, if you move that light back from your subject a few feet, the light gets harsher (because it gets smaller in comparison to your subject), and then needs to get even larger!
The Real Solution for Creating Soft Light Portraits:
The real way to solve the problem of using difficult to work with harsh light that comes out of a bare-bulb speedlight or strobe, is to simply increase the size of that light as much as we practically can. If you take a speedlight (that is about 2×3 inches in terms of the size of the light), and make it 2.5 x 3.5 inches by adding a “diffuser” like the ones shown above, then you will barely even notice the difference in the quality of light coming out. But if you can increase the size (and evenness) of that light by 10, 15 or 20 times, then you can start taking ultra-soft lit portraits that require less guess-work and look stunningly beautiful!
For a real world example, watch the video below from our IN-CAMERA: Natural Light Photography System video workshop to see exactly what we mean.
2 great light modifiers that change harsh light into soft light that we recommend are:
For Strobes – Westcott 24×32 Soft Box (this is one we have used for years and is the one used in the video above, and in MOST of our flash images you have seen over the years. As mentioned, the rule of thumb when lighting a subject with soft light is the light source should technically be the size of the subject being lit. However, as a portrait or even wedding photographer, it can be difficult and very cumbersome to lug around a huge softbox. This softbox here gives us a great balance between beautiful, soft light and ease of use).
Hope that helps! Now go off and take some beautiful soft lit shots of your clients!
Something More than Great Imagery…
Could it be that we have spent all this time honing our craft to become better and better photographers, and the harsh reality is that having great photos alone isn’t enough?
The Truth About Quality Photographs
The truth is clients just expect their photos to be good. No one goes around saying “I take OK photos, want to hire me?” So why in the WORLD would we try and base the price of our images off of the quality of our images?
The answer is because we are artists and this is our art. We want people to value it, but the hard truth is that once photography became widely available and much easier to do, the overall quality of images went up and clients started to simply expect them all to be good.
What Else You Got?
Subconsciously, this is the question on all of our clients minds. If they are asked to pay anything over average for our products and services, then they expect something more.
So what MORE do you have to offer?
That is simple. We have to offer emotional connections to the products and services we offer.
This is done by first, telling gripping stories when we are initially meeting with clients and then second, following up with a great experience throughout the whole process from booking through the wedding day and beyond. If we can do that effectively, then clients will pay a premium for us. We saw this time and again in our wedding business where clients were willing to pay average prices up front, but once we created an emotional connection and a great experience, they paid 2x, 3x and even 4x what they initially thought they would spend!
For us that meant a $3,000 bride up front would turn into a $12,000 bride by the time we were done. And this wasn’t just some fluke with our brand. Luke and Cat saw this to the tune of over $400,000 in sales last year using this same idea, and we could go on and on of countless photographers we have personally coached that have had amazing results.
“People make purchasing decisions based on their emotional connection to a product or service.”
-Jack Trout, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing
How do I do that?
First, begin to connect to your clients emotionally and start by telling your best stories. What you need more than anything is to learn how to tell your own photographic stories in a highly engaging way. Once you learn how to craft the message of a powerful story (one you photographed), then you are at the beginning of the journey with your clients to give them much more than they thought they would get.
Value is creating through connection (Tweet this out!) and once your client connects emotionally to what you do, it’s the beginning of a great experience where trust is built which leads them to becoming willing to gladly invest back in to your business by paying you more.
One of the most common questions we get asked from photographers is, “When is it a smart decision to quit my day job?” If you’re in that position, we want to help guide you through that tough decision to make!
It was 8 years ago that we decided to pursue photography as a career. At that point in our lives, Zach worked for a company that photographed and produced images for grade-school yearbooks, and Jody worked in international sales and marketing for a record label. We learned a lot over the years about how to keep our business functioning day in and day out and one of the hardest decisions we had to make early on in our business was quitting our day jobs.
The struggle came when we were gaining huge momentum and found ourselves in the middle of shooting 30+ weddings our 2nd year into business and we both were working crazy hard. Zach had quit his job 10 months prior but Jody was working 80-90 hour weeks between her day job and photography. We had a come-to-Jesus-meeting about how much time we were spending business building vs. marriage building (business building was WAY significantly more) and sat down and decided that WE were going to take control of our future.
We sought the advice of a few different counselors including the brilliant financial mind of Dave Ramsey. We wrote out our plan, did what was right based on our marriage relationship, and what we needed instead of what we feared (losing our “security” of the day jobs) and moved forward. We ended the year with a bang and our business continued to thrive and grow each year after.
So how did we practically make the leap? What were the steps we took?