“fixing it” in Photoshop

Try as we might, it’s not always possible to capture what’s needed in a single photograph. Though I prefer to do as much as possible in the camera, digital tools now allow us to create most anything. The trick is pulling the elements together to make a quality photo and not a “Frankenshot”. Luckily, my business partner (Bob) is an expert Photoshop user and enjoys a good challenge.

Shown here is an example of when we rely heavily on retouching and I thought you might be interested in the back story. This was a last minute assignment that had to be completed under less than ideal conditions. Though I wouldn’t want to run a business this way all the time, sometimes it keeps things interesting when a good client calls up in a panic and we’re forced to “shoot first and ask questions later”.

Last minute assignments are something we’ve learned to prepare for in the fall. A number of our clients use outdoor photography and this particular image is for the company that manufactures the decking material. Many companies are putting together their yearly marketing materials in November in order to have them ready for the new year. Inevitably, there will be a new product added at the last minute or a need for an image that was initially overlooked.

In this case the decking material was a last minute addition to the product line and the need for a photograph ended up late to the desk of the company art director. We’ve photographed many grand decks for the company but, given limited time, this was a nice but more modest construction done at the home of an employee.

When construction was complete we had a choice of two possible days for photography, then 48 hours to complete any retouching in order to make the print deadline. We wanted both days available as possibilities so plans were to photograph on the first day with the second set as the “rain delay day”.

Well, it rained the first day so plans were pushed to the second day. The day of the shoot was cloudy and gray but rain wouldn’t be falling. We packed everything up, including enough strobes to create our own sunlight on the deck if needed.

Taking a look at the “before” picture tells a lot of the story. You can see the corn field in the distance and a line of fairly sad autumn trees.

What it doesn’t reveal is that temps were below freezing and an icy wind was blowing across the western Ohio fields. Remnants of construction littered the yard at camera right and the rains had left everything a muddy mess. We cleaned the deck repeatedly during the shoot to remove our own boot tracks.

We set up the 4000 watt Norman strobes to create fake sunlight but it just wasn’t jiving with the overcast backgrounds. Instead we went with the soft available lighting. After photographing a number of angles, this was the one chosen by the client for the brochure.

I should point out a couple of things we had in mind when shooting, knowing there would be retouching done to the background. It really helps to previsualize where you’re going to take the image so you can think about the best way to get to the final product. While it’s fun to “play around in Photoshop”, it’s better to have something of a plan going in when the clock is ticking.

1. We didn’t use a tilt-shift lens so there’s visible distortion from the wide end of the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4.0L USM Zoom Lens. It’s fine to plan to correct distortion later but keep this in mind: shoot loose enough (leave area around the subject) to allow for the correction. If you crop too tight in the camera, squeezing the image to correct distortion may require cropping in to the subject too much.

2. The camera was high enough so grass was visually filling in between most of the deck rails. If half grass / half dirt was visible between them it would have required additional retouching of all of those small areas.

Back at the studio we arranged to photograph at a local golf course for the background image. Thankfully, the day was much nicer. Given the time allotted, this was a quick way to get a suitable background. Yes, fuller trees could have been cloned in but the client was happy and we didn’t want to risk the whole thing becoming a “Frankenshot”. Almost forgot…we checked the EXIF data on the original image to match the lens and focal length when photographing for the background.

Here are the main points we kept in mind when combining the images:

1. Color balance has so much to do with the feeling of an image. First we looked at the photograph with neutral color balance but ultimately decided to warm it up a few points (while making sure the wood color was a good match). Generally speaking, a little extra warmth makes most photos more inviting.

2. Contrast and color saturation of the foreground were boosted. Since the background was shot on a sunnier day, the original image looked too “flat” when paired with the background. The extra contrast and saturation helped liven up the original (rather dreary) shot.

3. As mentioned, perspective was corrected.

4. The side of the house at left was removed.

After all was said and done, the client loved the shot. As a matter of fact, it got more play than some of the more elaborate installations photographed under far better conditions.

While I don’t care to approach every job with the “Ready – Fire – Aim” method, sometimes it’s necessary. Our clients understand that we’ll do everything possible to create a quality photograph, regardless of the circumstances, and that‘s important to keeping them coming back.