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Editing: The Unseen Art

People expect to hire a photographer and receive pictures but many times, not much thought is given to that period of time between snapping the shutter and delivering the image. When I tell a client the amount of work that goes in to editing an image, they often walk away with a better understanding of the entire photographic process and a deeper appreciation for the depth of skills that we as artists possess in order to produce world-class imagery.

Since this is something I've found myself explaining time and again, I felt it would be useful to post a series of images taking you from an untouched image to the finished product. Also, this is just an example. Sometimes we do less editing and sometimes more...this is just to give a general idea of what go into a headshot portrait session. 

1. First of all, we have to take our picture. If you're hiring a pro, you're paying for years of experience, resulting in someone who has learned to properly expose an image in all sorts of settings and under the pressure of time and - sometimes - an overbearing mother of the bride (but not your mother, of course!) Here's an image I took today while shooting for the UConn School of Business. This is no editing, straight out of camera. Confident and natural pose.

2. The first touches are adjusting the exposure and lighting. I like my ambient exposure to be 1-2 stops below my light, so I dropped the exposure in lightroom and upped the highlights. I also started to drop the contrast to preserve some of the darker areas in the image. I also use a gradient filter to drop the exposure of the concrete to our subject's right (camera left) because as I upped the highlights, it was competing with the highlights on her face and I wanted her skin to be the brightest spot in the image, so as to draw the viewer's eye. Lastly, I did a basic rotate and crop to have our subject take up more of the frame while keeping her hands (interesting pose) and head within the image.

3. In the next image, you'll see that the contrast was dropped more, so we can preserve her jawline and some of the details in the brick. This is also the step we did skin retouching. We use a custom brush in lightroom to soften the skin. This isn't a reflection on her skin, but is a typical part of the process we take with any commercial shoot. This is in part because it helps distribute the light more evenly across a face. Some people take offense thinking there's something wrong with their skin but it's just part of our retouching process that ultimately results in a more pleasing image. We also zoom in to 200% and make some adjustments on the eyes. Here, we brought up the highlights/exposure of the white and did a separate brush for the iris to bring out the natural eye color but adjusting clarity and highlights. From a distance, this really makes a difference. We also did a slight increase in overall sharpness at this point.

4. Our last adjustments are personal color/style preference. We chose this image because it has that semi-serious CEO-look to it, so we dropped a bit of the overall warmth by reducing vibrance. We brought overall clarity up just a touch to give a slight push to the edges and called it a day.

Here's a comparison photo for you to review. You can see the image we began with and the final image to the right. This isn't the same treatment we would use on any image, it just happened to be the feel we were going for in this photo.

So there you have it! Not every photographer takes the time (or has the skillset) to do this, but it's an integral part of my workflow. Not for nothing, but this is why we don't deliver RAW images...you're getting something that is only half-done in my eyes and doesn't represent my brand or your photos in the best possible way.