Like most photographers, I like to play around and constantly explore Photoshop. Each time you use it, it seems like you discover some new trick or wonderful way of accomplishing something quicker than before. But I’m a businessman too, so I need to be careful about how much time I’m spending in front of the computer. The more time I spend there, the less I have for taking photos and marketing my services, and that’s where I make money. So I’ve always adopted the philosophy of ‘get it right in the camera’ even before Photoshop was born. With that in mind, let’s see how we can get beautiful files that require either none or very little manipulation after the shoot.
One: Shoot a custom white balance.
I’m going to use a recent shoot I did at the beach as a good example of why you should shoot a custom white balance versus shooting on ‘auto’. I started this shoot with about 45 minutes to go until sunset. The light, and the color temperature of that light, changed rapidly during that time. I shot the same model against green grass, blue water, and white sand. Oh, she also changed her clothes in the middle of it. By taking about 30 seconds every 15 minutes to shoot a new white balance, I was able to get consistent color and pleasing skin tones. And if I wanted to make a color correction, I could do it globally with all the files, since the color is consistent from file to file. If I shot on auto, my camera would be trying to make sense of the wide variety of conditions and colors presented before it, and even though they may be ‘acceptable’, they will vary widely. That means you have to correct each file individually, not a fun way to spend the night. I’d rather be watching ’24′! You would even be better off to ‘guess’ the color temperature and lock it in your camera, even if it’s not all that close, since you could once again ‘globally’ effect the change. These changes are more easily accomplished in some of the RAW converter software packages but I don’t want to bring up the old ‘RAW vs. JPEG’ debate in this article, it’s been done to death and you should have your mind made up on that subject by now.
I use the BalanceSmarter tool (www.balancesmarter.com). It’s the perfect ‘carry everywhere’ little pop up reflector with a white and gray side. The thing that makes it unique is the TARGET they made in the middle of it so you can focus on it. DUH, why didn’t I think of that! I’m sure you’ve never turned your auto focus off to shoot a white wall and then forgot to turn it back on. Right? I’m not talking!
Two: Use an incident light meter.
I know some photographers who boast that since digital, they’ve ‘thrown away’ their light meters. Big mistake, because now you need them more than ever! I know you can see the photo, and I know you’ve got a histogram, but bear with me here for a minute. Let’s compare digital to film for a minute, it’s great fun and everybody does it. I’ve been totally digital for several years now, but when I was shooting film, I knew it like the back of my hand. I used the same film at the same ISO everyday. Doing outdoor portrait sessions, I really didn’t even need to look at the meter because I was so familiar with my film. Now let’s look at a typical outdoor shoot with digital. I may shoot at anywhere from an ISO of 100 to 800, which makes doing exposure ‘in my head’ a little difficult, so a meter comes in pretty handy. What about the in camera meter? I’m amazed at how good they are, you’d think there was a little guy in there figuring out what was in your scene instead of some tech stuff trying to make everything gray. That means the wedding dress is underexposed and the black cat is overexposed. The obvious solution is to meter the light itself via an incident meter instead of measuring reflected light like our camera meter.
Of course, the reason we need to be so careful with our exposure is because when we went ‘digital’, our latitude disappeared! Current color negative films are good for probably a stop underexposure and you can probably overexpose them until they’re ‘bulletproof’. Or at least three stops. Compare this with digital. The current crop of digital SLR’s are probably good for 1/3rd of a stop over and 2/3rd ‘s of a stop underexposed. Yikes! So much for shooting from the hip! And while I’ll admit to doing that on weddings because you have to, why shouldn’t I take the time doing a portrait to get it perfect?
While beyond the range of this article, make sure you calibrate your incident meter. I use a Polaris brand meter that I’ve had for many years and bounced off several sidewalks. I find I have to open a half stop over the meter reading for a ‘perfect’ exposure, so do your own testing. The best way to do that is to get a ‘Calibration Target’ to test on under even light, varying exposures. Take photos of it and open in Photoshop. Your ‘info’ numbers should read about 20/127/245 for black/gray/white. Match those numbers up to your meter readings, adjust ISO if needed, and you’re good to go. This also eliminates variables between different camera bodies.
Got all that? Good! Now let’s add five more ‘tips’ that will have you shooting perfect files and spending more time watching ‘The Soup’! (OK, so now you know two of my favorite TV programs! I have two DVR’s! I’m all about TIME!)
Tip One: Use fixed f/stop lenses. I know they cost more but we’re talking perfection here, so we don’t want to be using lenses that change the amount of light entering when you change the focal length. Say goodbye to those variable speed lenses unless they’re ones you use sparingly.
Tip Two: Watch the brightness range. You can have perfect exposure and white balance but a superior image need details in the highlights and shadows. Watch the background especially for ‘blown out’ highlights. Small dots are fine but large expanses, like a blank sky in a scenic photo, just won’t do.
Tip Three: Learn the histogram. A meter will give you perfect exposure and a custom white balance will lasso that color for you, but the histogram is a graphic interpretation of the scene in front of you. It will tell you if parts are over or underexposed. It will tell you how much of each ‘brightness level’ is included in the scene. If you take a photo of a ‘gray card’ properly exposed, you’ll get one spike dead center on your histogram. Get use to using it and you’ll be able to tell just where each part of your photo lies in it.
Tip Four: Check exposure and white balance on wedding gowns! I do it all the time! After metering my exposure, I’ll walk up close to the bride and pop a quick close up of a detail section of her dress! If it’s got detail and my histogram isn’t crowding the right side, I’m good. Of course, if brides wear red dresses where your from, this won’t work, but I’ve seen so many wedding photos with no detail in the wedding gown and there’s just no excuse for it!
Tip Five: Use a pro lab. Even if you do all the above, you need a closed loop system with color calibration at every step to insure perfect color and density. You may want to do that, I choose not to. 95% of my files are sent to my lab (www.lustrecolor.com) with NO color or density correction on my part. They come back perfect. There’s no secret to it. Like I said at the beginning, ‘get it right in the camera’.
About the Author:
Steven M Bedell, Photographer
Steven M Bedell has been a photographer and writer for over 30 years. He is a regular contributor to Shutterbug magazine where he has written over 100 articles. Steve also published EPhoto, a photography ezine, every two weeks. It is an opt-in newsletter with about 2000 subscribers. His specialty is natural light portraits.
Steve holds the Master of Photography Degree and Photographic Craftsman Degree from the Professional Photographers of America. He is also a PPA International Print Juror and 7 time New Hampshire Photographer of the Year.
To see Steve’s educational products, please visit http://www.ephoto-photo-school.com/