Monday, February 22, 2010

Retoucher's eye

I've been horrible about posting lately, in part due to a lot of time spent retouching photo orders. A few days ago I noticed that I was getting a bad case of what I will call "retoucher's eye." It hasn't made its way into the annals of medical nosology . Not yet. But I bet that I am not alone in experiencing this. Can you guess what it is?

Let me digress for a moment and tell you about the worst job of my youth. I couldn't have been much older than 14 when a friend told me about a summer job working for an inventory auditing company. You don't have a lot of options at that age (or at any age in today's economy, but let's not think about that right now), so I took a calculator aptitude test and they signed me up. We worked our way through dozens of Fred Meyer stores. We slept in seedy motels and spent 12 hours a day counting. Most tedious job: counting bins of screws one at a time. Most embarrassing for a teenager: counting feminine hygiene products amidst shopping women. The days were long, but the nights were worse. I don't know who came up with the idea of "counting sheep" as a pleasant sleep-inducing activity, but it sure as hell wasn't me. At night, the numbers marched across my ceiling like those freaky "pink elephants on parade" in Dumbo. About two weeks of that and I quit.

And then there's Tetris. Play it enough and you get "Tetrisitis"—the phenomenon of seeing block formations when you're not actually playing the game.

I bet you are starting to understand "retoucher's eye." Spend enough consecutive hours retouching people's faces and pretty soon the Photoshop tool palette follows you everywhere. I first noticed it when I was having lunch with a friend and in my mind I kept lassoing any oversized pores with the patch tool and doing other touch-ups while we talked. Frightening, isn't it? I found it hard to look at anyone (myself included) without mentally retouching. This is what plastic surgeons must do every day. And dentists. And fashion consultants. And makeup artists. etc. etc.

If you are anything like my wife's friend Jill (hi Jill, if you're reading) and you think that retouching someone's appearance is morally questionable, then this must be a satisfying cautionary tale.

What do you think? Ever had retoucher's eye or something similar?

Obviously, I'm not about to stop retouching people's faces. That's part of why they hire me. I already have my own moral philosophy of retouching, which is to keep it natural. If you look at my tutorials you will see the changes in my "before" and "after" photos tend to be subtle. But then, the more you train yourself to work on subtle details, the more you are going to notice them, so even if you achieve photos that don't look retouched, you can still get retoucher's eye.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Physiognomy and various musings

Do you think you can know a person just by looking at their face? Of course you do. "Looks can be deceiving" really just means that we think that looks are not deceiving most of the time. And when looks do fool someone, our first assumption is to blame the duped party for not paying better attention.

I'm sure most of you have heard of that scientific study about how beautiful people get better jobs?
“When someone is viewed as attractive, they are often assumed to have a number of positive social traits and greater intelligence,” say Carl Senior and Michael J.R. Butler, authors of the study. “This is known as the ‘halo effect’ and it has previously been shown to affect the outcome of job interviews.”
As if we didn't already know.

I think one of the reasons that portraits are so fascinating is that we, the viewers, are biologically programmed to read a face. Call it "first impressions" when it happens quickly, "or "physiognomy" when it's an object of study, but either way, we are mapping out a face to create a narrative.

I looked at some physiognomy site just for fun. Dataface was among the most informative. Another site used digital physiognomy to analyze the personalities of the 2008 presidential candidates (Obama rates 17% in hostility and McCain gets 94%—ouch!). I also perused an astrology site that gives the physiognomy of men and of women. I didn't fare well.

When we take a person's portrait, we are co-authoring a story. In the case of professional portraits, the client and the photographer enter into a negotiation. Sometimes, the client expresses the terms verbally ("I don't like my profile," "Don't do anything that makes me look too old...or too young," etc.) and sometimes the message is in the expression itself. My favorite photo of a client is not necessarily the one that gets ordered. The reason? It's not telling the story they're after. People paying for their portraits usually want a work of fiction—romantic, heroic, nostalgic, something they value. For the client, we use good lighting, we retouch, and we craft our fiction with the highest possible degree of verisimilitude. In my personal projects, I get to tell a different story, one that can embrace realism. Wrinkles? Yes, please. Distinguishing marks? Quirky features? Absolutely. Now that's an interesting story. Interesting, as long as I don't have to star in it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Photo Booth Face

The "Photo Booth" grid from my first Monthly Special.

My very first "Monthly Special" was a simple grid project. The example I used was a grid showing the son of a friend of mine. We played the "Photo Booth" game against a simple black backdrop. Most kids today (at least in America) have probably never used an actual photo booth, but Mac users might have played around with the Photo Booth application.

In this particular case, the family had a new iMac and the kids liked to take crazy photos of themselves using the built in camera and the Photo Booth app. Inspired by that game, I had each kid do a series of faces like they would in a photo booth. At first, it was easy to get different expressions, but when their own inspiration was lacking I just had to call of key words or scenarios. You have to practice piano. *click* Your girlfriend just called. *click* Your sister took all of your Halloween candy. *click* etc. Within just a few minutes, you wind up with a wide variety of expressions—theatrical ones, mind you, but ones that represent individual personality nonetheless.

This is a great way to explore the infinite variety of the human face, and not just for kids. Try it with one of your friends or a family member. Once you've collected a few dozen expressions, you can collage them however you like. Do individual prints as a framed series, do a triptych, do a massive grid. Whatever suits your style. The important thing is to use a blank background to keep the focus on the face. And have fun.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Complete Portrait Retouch Workflow

Not long ago, NPR aired a story about a checklist for surgery success. Atul Gawande—a surgeon who also teaches at Harvard—offers compelling evidence that surgeons will get better results if they follow a simple checklist. The biggest challenge is convincing surgeons that they need it.

Of course, when we retouch a portrait we're not exactly saving lives. Egos, maybe, but not lives. Nevertheless, following a checklist (better known as "workflow") can streamline your retouching and help you get the best results possible. This post will tie together some of my tutorials to create a start-to-finish portrait retouch workflow. I will give a brief description of each step, but you will have to click on each step for the full tutorial. [I will come back and add photos to this post, but you don't really need them since each of the links has ample photos]

Step 1. Correct your white balance.
If you work in RAW, you will want to correct not only white balance, but as many other settings as possible. If not, you can open a curves adjustment layer and use the eye dropper from the curves dialog box to sample a white, a black, and a gray (or at least one of those). Correcting your white balance can have a dramatic effect on the overall color and brightness of a photo.

Step 2. Use curves to fine tune skin tone and color.
Even though you created a curves layer to fix white balance in step one, I find it more helpful to create a new curves layer devoted to improving the skin tone.

Step 3. Whiten teeth.
I usually warm up the skin in step 2, which has the side effect of warming up (i.e. yellowing) the teeth. If you were to whiten teeth before warming the skin, you would just have to repeat your work later.

Step 4. Clear up blemishes
Take care of the big problems with the skin first. I prefer the patch tool for most large blemishes, and the clone stamp tool occasionally. Remember to do each step on its own layer. Most people save a version of all the layers in case they need to come back and adjust something later. I have to confess, however, that I usually merge down when I am satisfied with a given step. If a client wants me to change the retouch (and, this sounds vain, but they never do), I can just go from where I left off.

Step 5. Reduce wrinkles (especially around the eyes) as needed.
This step also uses the patch tool, but I do it on a separate layer because my method (as you can see in the tutorial) uses adjustments in opacity. The main point in this step is to reduce larger wrinkles. Save the smaller ones for dodge and burn.

Step 6. Overall skin improvement using either a high-pass technique or dodge and burn.
Your choice of hi-pass softening or dodge and burn retouch will depend on how important visible pores are to you, how much time you have, and the look that you want. If you want a very soft look, a hi-pass softening or even the "foundation method" may fit the bill. It all depends on the style you want.

Step 7. Add sparkle to the eyes.
A little dodge and burn can create better catch lights and help give more interest to the eyes. If you used dodge and burn in Step 6, you can still work on the same D&B layer.

Step 8. Optional contouring with dodge and burn.
If you want to contour the nose, the lips, the cheeks, and so on, you can use dodge and burn to do so. This step is not always necessary.

Finally, don't forget to sharpen!
Maybe one day I'll do my own sharpening tutorial, but until then...
High-pass sharpening is one of the most popular quick techniques.
Adobe has some great recommendations for sharpening and they'll even point you to a long tutorial that covers several methods of sharpening. I use the sharpening programs created by NIK, which I love.

Monday, February 1, 2010

February Monthly Special: The Face

(If you're a long time reader, you've seen the above portrait as part of a face grid)

The iconic film director John Ford once said that there is no greater landscape than the human face. Or at least that's what I heard quoted by one of the directors at the Sundance Film Festival last week. I googled it but ended up on the Oscar Wilde quote, "A man's face is his autobiography. A woman's face is her work of fiction." Not quite what I intended.

When considering this month's theme, I kept coming back to the human face because:
  1. I am one post away from doing a complete portrait retouch workflow tutorial
  2. I gave my students a portrait assignment and was surprised at how many people downplayed the human face
  3. The fact that interesting faces can be found anywhere has been of great consolation when I'm not in a photogenic city.
  4. A simple close-up is one of my favorite styles of portrait.
I have always loved an extreme close-up.

It's so easy to get preoccupied with clothing, environment, experimental angles, effects, colors and so on, that the actual face can become an afterthought. And then there's that problem of the mask—that smiling "say cheese" face that people make. Any parent knows that at some point in early childhood, you start to see the fake smile, like this:
It can be cute for one photo, but when you kid starts doing it in every photo it can drive you crazy. And then what do you do? If you're like most people, you start coaching them to smile "normally" and you battle of the smiles ends up reinforcing the idea that there is one certain expression suitable for every portrait.

Here are two shots of Eva prior to the "say cheese" smile:

Does this mean that by age three we are doomed to less realistic portraits? Of course not. But we might have to work for them a little harder.

This month we're going to focus on the face. Just the face. Naturally, I'll do the portrait retouch workflow I've been promising, but even more important than Photoshop tutorials will be ideas for getting simple and interesting portraits that bring out personality, that explore, in the purported words of John Ford, "the landscape of the human face."

Don't be shy. Share your favorite portraits by posting on your blog and linking back here (as explained in my FAQ page) sometime this month.