Anatomy of a Photo

I’m home today from work with a cold, sigh. But because, as usual, I can’t sit still even when I’m sick, I thought I’d use this time to catch up on blogging (in between naps).

This past weekend, Maggie and I hosted an 18th century “picnic.” I put picnic in quotes because it was raining, so we had to move to an indoor location, the function room of our friend Janine’s apartment building. (Thank you, Janine, for offering such a great space!)

The room was nice and big, offering a perfect place for the party, but a somewhat challenging setup for photos. There were not that many areas that had “non-busy” backgrounds. However, Mike found a nice solution that I wanted to share.

Recently, I’ve gotten some questions from other historical costumers as to how portrait-style photographs can be captured, even in a situation where there are lots of other people around, and when the setting isn’t period-appropriate. The first point I’ll make is that you don’t actually need that much space to get a nice photo. An area that doesn’t have anything distracting in the background and is only a few feet wide can be enough for a waist-up shot. Secondly, light that is good in terms of amount, direction, and color is often more important than the background. Diffuse, neutral-colored light that can be focused on the subject rather than the surroundings will draw the eye to the person and make the background less noticeable. (This is particularly true if you can shoot with a wider aperture, and thus blur the background a bit with a shallow depth of field.) Look for natural rather than artificial light, as most lamps and light fixtures produce beams that are too concentrated or have a noticeable yellow tint.

Let me break this down with an example. Below is the final edit of a photo that Mike took last weekend. It looks like it may have been taken in a studio.
18th C Party

In reality, it was taken in a corner of the party room we were using for the picnic. There was a narrow stretch of wall (maybe 5 feet wide) that had wood paneling on it, extending into a corner. Perpendicular to that wall was another wall that was largely made up of big plate glass windows. The dark wood panel provided a background without distractions, while the windows provided ample natural light.
Photo Process

Here is the unedited shot, straight off the camera. It was shot on a Nikon D7500 camera with a 35mm lens (which translates into about 50mm after adjusting for crop factor), at f/3.2, 1/60th of a second shutter speed, and 500 ISO. Mike exposed for my face, letting the dark wood fade into the background. You can see the curtain that was hanging in front of the window to my left. I tried to pose in order to maximize the light falling on me and not on the wall behind me. Specifically, I stood a few feet away from the wood paneled wall, not right up against it, so that the camera would focus mostly on me, rather than the background. I also turned slightly towards the window, so that the light would be more even on my face and my chest. If I had faced straight ahead, the right side of my face and body would have been much more shadowed.
Photo Process

Here is the shot after some editing in Adobe Lightroom. I use Lightroom to do basic adjustments like cropping, color, and exposure. In this case I cropped down the photo, increased the contrast, and adjusted the color to be less yellow. (Although the primary light source was the natural light from the window, there were overhead lights in the room that had a warmer tint.) Even after cropping, some of the curtain still shows in the photo, but I addressed that in the next step.
Photo Process

Then I moved the photo into Adobe Photoshop for some more involved adjustments. The artificial light from the room caused my cap to throw a distinct shadow line on my face, which I softened using the healing brush. Also, the waistband of my petticoat was peeking out below the bodice of my dress, so I cloned that out. Finally, I removed the curtain using the content-aware fill tool.
Photo Process

And here, again, is the final photo!
18th C Party

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6 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Photo

  1. This is a great example of how a little (or a lot, lol) of editing can make a regular, well-thought-out photo appear more perfect than it did in reality. I love that you’ve pointed out that you edited out your waistband, for example. I hope this helps other realize what is possible with editing, but also that before editing we’re all just regular people with little things we want fixed.

    Best,
    Quinn

    • Thanks Quinn! Most times about half the work is in the taking of the photo and half is in the editing. When Mike and I are working with others and showing them raw images, we always have to remind them that editing will happen too!

  2. I’ve finally managed to give this a proper read. Thanks so much for breaking down the process, this makes it really accessible! And I hope you’re feeling a lot better by now!

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