Portrait processing in Lightroom

Up until recently I had been processing most portraits in Portrait Pro Studio.  Portrait Pro does a great job for 80% of the retouching work – especially on hair and skin as long as you don’t go too wild with the sliders.  However, one of the things I don’t like about it is the way it handles exposure and contrast of the image generally – I can never get beauty style shots light enough and so always end up applying a custom preset to the resulting tiff files in Lightroom afterwards.  It doesn’t do a great job on the eye sharpening or iris contrast either, so I started applying fairly blunt adjustment brushes to the eye area in LR too.  Having read Scott Kelby’s “Light it, Shoot it, Retouch it” (which is excellent by the way) I’d played around in Photoshop replicating Scott’s approach with great success – however, I don’t like to use external editors such as Photoshop or Portrait Pro if I can avoid it as this generates manual steps in my workflow and intermediate tiff files.



On the last shoot I did, I thought I would try to process some of them purely in Lightroom, translating the techniques Scott uses in Photoshop.  Here’s what I did to the image on the left:-

Most of the work is done with the adjustment brush.  However I started by making global adjustments to blacks, whites, shadows and contrast and then using the healing tool to remove obvious blemishes.






I then created a series of brush presets that I could use going forward:-

  • -90% clarity – applied with a broad brush with no auto-mask to the skin to soften it.
  • Increase exposure and highlights, reduce saturation on the whites of the eyes, with a small increase in white balance to compensate for the de-saturation.
  • Increase contrast, saturation, clarity and exposure on the iris and pupil only.  Apply with auto-mask and no feathering
  • Apply generally over the eye area: increase sharpness, clarity and contrast with small uplift in exposure (0.19)
  • Increase in saturation, slight decrease in exposure to lips.  Sometimes I’ll add a tint to this.  Apply middle without auto-mask or feathering.  Apply up to edges with auto-mask and no feathering
  • Big brush over hair area, increasing highlights, small decrease in sharpness and clarity and playing around with vibrancy, tints etc



_DSC2372A final crop and I’m done.   I really like the clean result this gives.  The downside is that Lightroom really starts to creak under the weight of all the brushes, and healing clicks and collapses occasionally requiring a restart.   More memory would most likely cure this though as my current OS can only address 4Gb.

I have also created presets for toning the image, used on the image to the right which was processed in Portrait Pro and then finished in Lightroom.  This was a revelation to me when I read it somewhere, a while back:  using the split toning tool in Lightroom to tone the highlights and shadows instantly gives your high key beauty style shots a print magazine style.  Use the yellow preset colours for the highlights and the blue preset colours for the shadows – and then adjust using the sliders on the split toning tool.

On the whole, you can get very good results purely in Lightroom up to a fairly advanced state of re-touch.  Where it’s not so good, is in actually editing pixels.  Anything more complex than a simple skin blemish heal and it will struggle.  You are better off doing these in Photoshop:  the clone stamp and healing brush tools are far batter for removing stray hairs.  Of course you can also make other adjustments in Photoshop such as adding hair, altering the shape of the face with the pinch and liquefy tools and so on.    What I like about working purely in Lightroom though, is that at any time, I can branch off a virtual copy to try something out, and the catalogue manages all the various versions.  Sure, you can create copies of images in Photoshop, however it’s not as slickly managed.   I can also then sync the global adjustments to all of the shots from that set and then get to work with the brushes again…..


See the images full size in the People gallery








My equipment journey

Digital dawn

First of all, before I get into why I have this or that bit of kit, note that none of this involves chemical film.  Negative print film still has bags more resolution than digital, and handles highlights better.  However, I would never have taken up photography if you still had to send away rolls of exposed chemical film.  By the time I’d have seen the results, I’d have forgotten what I was trying to achieve, or what I did to take the shot (and hence what I probably messed up).  The instant feedback of a digital camera allowed me to see very quickly the difference between several shots, all of the same scene, but done with different light, aperture, focus etc.  Yes I know some film cameras record a sort of EXIF equivalent that you could match up with each frame later, but even so.  Now I know a bit about how to expose and focus an image, I could put up with the wait, however, as this isn’t a full time occupation for me, and I don’t need bags of resolution (nobody does to be honest – you don’t look at an A0 print from 10 inches away) and time is more limited now than ever, I still can’t see me taking up a film camera any time soon.

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Landscape Photographer of The Year – book 5

2011 is the 5th year for the Sunday Times/Network Rail Take-a-View landscape photography competition and the winners have just been announced.  The winning shot by Robert Fulton is stunning and can be seen here.  The 5th book in the series will be published on 31st October.  You can order it here.

I am pleased to be able to add that my image of the seaweed in evening light on Mawgan Porth beach, below was commended and appears in the book, and in the free exhibition at the National Theatre, London  until 28th Jan 2012:-




How its made – studio insect macro

Metallic paint extra.

As my legs are in an unserviceable state right now, at least as far as Landscape photography is concerned, with the 4am starts, treks over all kinds of terrain with 40lbs of gear etc., I’ve had to confine my photographic activities to my house and garden.  After some time chasing bees around the garden, first with a ring light, and then with a soft-box and umbrella (I didn’t like the flat light from the ring light) I thought I’d try and bring some flies into the studio and make some graphic images against a plain white background.  There are a number of problems and constraints to overcome in making these close-up shots:-

First, catch your fly.

I used a plastic box with lid to capture my subjects, either on flat surfaces sliding a piece of paper under the upturned box, or on a flower or leaf, placing the leaf between box and lid.  There is always some collateral damage to the plant with this method and you must be careful not to squash the fly!  Hover flies are quite easy to capture, helpfully staying in one place in mid-air allowing you to place a box and lid around them.


Getting the fly to stay still

People often assume all kind of gruesome methods for keeping the model on the set when they see these images.  I can assure you that no hairspray, super-glue, or pins were used and that the subjects are alive and well and flew off seconds after each shot was taken.  The answer is temperature.  As cold blooded creatures, flies get very lethargic when they get cold and if you cool them enough, they will stand still for anything from 10 seconds to over 2 minutes.  Having captured a fly in the box, I put the box in the fridge for 40 minutes or so, tipping them out gently onto the stage and offering them the end of a match if they landed upside down.  They will stand there quite happily for a while, cleaning eyes, wings etc, while you spring into action taking pictures.  You need to get as much of the work done before you place the fly on the stage though (makes sure the flash is on, at the right power for the aperture you are using, and the remote cord or wireless trigger is working) as you don’t know how long they will stay put.


Eliminating shadows

I finally found a use for all those Lee translucent white lens caps!  As most standard lens caps will fit on a Lee filter ring, these things serve no purpose but to clutter up your backpack. They are approx 10cm in diameter and made from a white translucent plastic.  I place the fly on top of one of these caps, which is in turn placed on top of a white reflector on a table.  The light is provided by a Speedlight fitted with a small soft-box shining directly down on top of the fly.  Light passes through the lens cap, bounces back off the reflector and back through the cap, illuminating the underside of the fly and eliminating any shadows under it.



I wanted to get the fly as big as possible in the frame whilst getting all of it in.  I practiced with a dead fly I found on a window sill to get the angle of the shot right as I knew I wouldn’t have much time once the model was placed on the stand and in warm air again.

I tried some manual extension tubes as these have the advantage of adding no additional glass, and so no chromatic aberration etc.  However, having to manually open up the lens to compose and focus, and then stop down manually, using the aperture ring on the lens before taking the shot, was not really compatible with a subject that could fly away any second.  In the end I opted for a +2 dioptre close up lens on the end of a Sigma 105mm macro lens, focussed to its highest magnification.  A nice side effect of a fixed focus is that the subjects are always exactly the same distance away from the front element – and so all these shots are to scale.



I had my camera mounted on a dual axis macro rail allowing me to make very small movements back and forth and side to side with the whole camera.  I would move the Lee lens cap that the fly was standing on to roughly the right place whilst looking through the finder, and then use the macro rail adjusters to get the final focus.  Depth of field is very narrow at this level of magnification and most of the time I would focus on the eyes, although for the shot at the top of this article, I shot seven images stepping gradually through the fly front to back.  I used CombineZP to focus stack these images to produce a fly that is almost all in focus.  Of course you need your fly to stay still while you take all these shots.  These shots were taken mostly at f/16 with some at f/18.   This is really pushing the limits of diffraction for the sensor on my D200 and normally, I would never stop down more than f/11 on this camera, and usually no more than f/8 is required.



Flies get covered in dust and pollen and I spent some time gently blowing this away with a lens blower, whilst being careful not to blow the model off the set 😛



How its made

This is the first of a series of articles which I suppose could be titled “how do they do that then?”.  I often find myself trying to reverse engineer pictures, and more recently, trying to figure out why the picture works too, however that’s a more subtle art.  For these pieces, I’ll be going through the technique more than anything.  Seeing the picture in your head first is up to you – that’s what really makes you a photographer; not knowing what kit I used to make this image.

Anyway – enough of the philosophy.  First of all – just what is this an image of?  Is it bubbles on the surface of some water?  Where did the idea come from?

It’s like this.  I’m short sighted.  very short sighted.  Without my glasses on, I have macro eyes. My range of focus beats any macro lens you can buy today from 3cm to 6cm.  When I lift my glasses from the shelf in the shower and look at them close enough for my eyes to focus (or “eye”:  at that range, only one eye at a time can be used really)  the image below is basically what I see (maybe with a bit more DOF).  And that’s exactly what this image is – water droplets on my glasses.

If you’re wondering how I took the image without the glasses on my face:  the answer is pretty boring I’m afraid, I have a second pair:  when you’re more or less blind without these contraptions, you have more than one.

The light is natural light from a window behind, through a diffuser.  The colour gradient in the top half was added in Lightroom.

I had the glasses resting on a box on the window sill and the camera on a tripod.  Now, I say it was on a tripod and that sounds pretty simple.  However, looking at it now, its apparent that the top 20% of the “tripod” is actually one sort of mount or adjuster bolted on top of another.  I have a set of Giottos legs and ball head, with Wimberley C12 clamp, Giottos Arca plate screwed into the bottom of a dual axis macro rail which is in turn bolted to the Kirk L-bracket that never leaves my D700.

Happily it all fits together to allow for adjustments in tilt, rotation, left-right and forward-backward.  Its that last one that matters most for macro shots.  You don’t focus by adjusting anything on the lens: you position the tripod so the subject is roughly the right size in the frame, and set the focus on the lens manually to roughly where it needs to be.  The actual focussing is then done by using the geared adjusters on the macro rail to move the whole camera back and forth.  I bought my macro rail from HT Photo in China and it’s a solid piece of kit.

Live view is invaluable here, especially with the magnification function on my Nikon that crops the LCD display to a moveable window on the scene.  Zooming in using this function on live view and using the macro rail adjusters to move the camera allows for very precise focussing.  To take the shot, I then drop out of live-view, lock the mirror up, blank off the view finder and take the shot using a remote release to avoid any vibration or movement of the camera which would knock my focus off-target.

The water was added by my shower – holding it in the water until a suitable pattern of drops was formed – I had around 10 goes before I got drops of the right sizes and roughly spaced how I wanted them.  Post processing Lightroom added the graduated colour, some global and mid-range contrast, some saturation boost and selective sharpening (with an aggressive mask to only sharpen the droplet edges)



I recently went up through the highlands to the Isle of Eigg.  More on this trip later.  For now I’ve compiled a short video with my selection of the images I made.  There is a also a gallery



photocrati gallery


As a born tinkerer, engineer, and all round nosy person, photography has held my attention for a number of years.  The challenge of getting a better image than before, or better than everyone else (this is a tall order), and the challenge of overcoming the limitations of the current technology and techniques have engaged me in this activity for some years now.    I’ve learnt a variety of techniques over that time, from portrait to landscape.  Whilst I wouldn’t claim to specialise exclusively, Landscape photography is what I’m currently working on.  Landscape photography is one of the most challenging forms of photography, as so much is beyond your control, and so much effort must be applied to get the results.

This web site hosts the images I’ve selected from my catalogue that I like the most, some articles about how some of them were made, and anything else that comes to mind.

I hope you enjoy looking around, and that some of my observations and methods are of use.