There are many types of photography, where you really don’t want to be messing around “editing” things post-capture (I mean other than the usual tone and colour adjustments to compensate for any technical shortcoming in the camera), images where the content is the main element – life, travel, social commentary are “of the moment” and show something real. This is not what I’m talking about here. What I’m presenting involves the use of a camera, to capture all of the “assets” required to make a final image that is more at the “art” or creative end of the spectrum. I find it useful to think about this in terms of movie making. The techniques are very similar in many respects, although there are things we can do to a still image, post production (ie after we shoot), that are more difficult to do in a movie. There are also practical effects on-set that are much easier and cheaper to produce for a still photograph.
Whether I produce an effect on-set or in post, depends on how difficult each approach is, and how much time it will take. However! Time as a value on a photo project is in more than one currency. There’s shoot (or production) time and post-production time. Typically for these personal projects with no client and no deadline, shoot-time is worth much more than post-production time: I’ll have 8 hours in studio with a model, but much more time to work on the final image in post. Ok, in reality, most of the time, the model is providing their time in return for the images and a license to use them at the end of the project so there is a deadline of sorts as I owe them some results, but I know I’ll have days of post-production time versus one day of shoot-time. To balance that, I get a kick out of producing effects on set, practically, so sometimes I’ll just do it that way for fun anyway.
On this project, for example, I knew I’d run out of background with the classic sword-above-head pose, and there’d be lighting & grip in the frame. I also know though, that it’s relatively easy to remove these in Photoshop, rather than spend ages on-set fighting the geometry and physics of the space – especially as any physical solution, would also have many other effects on things like the lighting, which is much more difficult and time-consuming to fake in post production. So let’s get into what we did at each stage of this production of “She-Ra – Princess of Power” (and queen of cringey, badly animated 80’s kid’s TV!)
Now, it’s not my intention with this article to give you a step-by-step recipe for each change – it would fill a book. If you know Photoshop, you’ll recognise what I’m describing, and if you don’t, this really isn’t the place (or the medium tbh) to explain all of that in one go. Video is a much more effective medium to learn Photoshop from and I highly recommend Unmesh Dinda’s Piximperfect channel on YouTube if you want to get started with Photoshop. I’m aiming to show the general approach to making a creative image from start to finish.
My friend Kerry had this costume made by a very talented costume maker – Martin Okereafor. Here’s a complete run-down of what’s involved with creating the finished image. We shot this in a small studio on a white background with some fog, and some chilled fog on the ground. I use a fairly standard £40 fog machine with dense fluid (more glycerine, less glycol) to make the fog. We let the background fog marinate for a bit to even it out. To make the ground fog, I run the dense fog through a one-metre, foil, extraction-conduit packed with freezer blocks. This cools the fog and makes it sit on the floor, until it heats up: usually in the presence of a modelling lamp or a warm body. This is a great example of a practical effect we can do on-the-cheap for stills as we only need it to last a few seconds. There are two backlights pointing back towards camera to light this up, one on the floor with a blue gel, and one behind Kerry with a yellow gel. Other lights on the set: the key light up above on a boom-arm, is a small “beauty dish” (a fairly wide-angle beam, and small enough to make some nice, defined shadows on the outfit). This is spilling onto the background too as I wanted a fairly light-and airy look to this which suits the character’s “champion of goodness” vibe…. I also have a pair of red-gelled edge lights left and right in the back. These have standard 7″ reflectors on, with barn-doors and a 40 degree grid.
This orange looking frame is as-rendered by Lightroom using the flash white balance that was dialled in on the camera and the Adobe Color profile. . I really do recommend this profile for work with strong colors – especially working with gelled lights – it pulls out more tones than the camera standard profile implementation which tends to posterise the magentas especially. I also shot a frame with the sword lower, as it’s out of the light in this one.
Note – I don’t use the phrase “out of camera” for this. It’s a meaningless term as a jpeg produced in the camera is no more a valid version of the image than one you make from the same raw data later. You cannot view what the camera captured,. That is the raw data. When you look at the image on the back of the camera, it processed it there and then (or made a processed image just after you shot the picture) applying some defaults and some values you selected at capture time such as white balance. These values do not affect what the camera captures – they are just applied to make an image for you to look at on the camera’s monitor. <end of soapbox preaching :-/ >
The first task is to get the exposure, contrast and colour where we want them. You should do this using the raw file, in something like Lightroom, where you have all the data the camera captured available to make each area of the image the way you want it. In Lightroom then, I set a more effective, cooler white balance, adjusted the tone using the basic sliders to introduce a bit more contrast and bring out the colours. I also corrected the tilt and rotation. I do this with the sliders by eye rather than the “auto” or “guided” functions as these crop the image too much, and knew I could fill in the gaps in Photoshop in the next stage. Here’s the result of this first stage:-
I’ll then right-click and open the image for editing in Photoshop. This process causes Lightroom to create an image file using all of the values I set in the Lightroom Develop module and open this in Photoshop. I have Lightroom make a 16-bit TIFF file for this purpose, but you can also use a PSD or something else that can contain layers. Over in Photoshop then, the first job is clean-up. First I’ll use the polygonal lasso tool to draw a rough selection around all of the junk, one piece at a time, and use content-aware fill to remove it. Then I worked on the background. To do this, I’ll duplicate the layer, use “select subject” – which actually works pretty well now – and cut out the figure from the duplicate layer. I then paste it back onto its own layer above. This leaves me free to play with the background and I’ll typically smooth it out in places with some blurring, and for this one I added a blue color layer (color blend mode) masked in with a gradient from the top).
Next, I lifted the sword blade from another frame shot for this purpose as the sword is out of the light in this shot. Bit of free-transform to rotate, scale and shift it to the right place, and then some masking to blend it in with the sword in the main image.
Then I worked on the figure using the Liquefy tool – pushed the knees out a bit into a more powerful stance, and because the costume is rigid, and had next-to-no waist, I pushed it in a bit using the forward warp tool. This is one of those things that is just easier to do in post – we tried for 20 minutes to pull, clamp and tape the outfit and we made some progress, but in the end, I decided we would get a better result in post production. I also moved the cape out a bit, to give the impression of a bit of movement.
After a bit more cleanup on the costume, healing over joins and seams, removing stray straps and ties etc., and cloning out the speedlight behind the low fog, we have the base image complete.
Next I sprinkled on some effects using BorisFX Optics. You could do these things in Photoshop, with brushes, overlay images and so on, but again, it’s a question of time, and which tool will get the job done effectively in the least amount of time. Optics is a stills bundle of pretty much every digital movie effect BorisFX makes. Each one of those effects is licensed for movies at a rate of many thousands of pounds. JJ Abrams used the lens flare engine to great effect on his Star Trek movies. Optics costs around £100 for a perpetual license. On this image, I used one lens flare for the orange flash, and another for the flare effects down the image. Added the lightning here too, along with the star field. I did use flare brushes in Photoshop to add the little sparkles on the sword
Last, I thought it might look good as a movie poster, so downloaded a free She-Ra font from Joanna-Vu fonts, and used that to form the logo. I then added the usual shizzle you see on these posters down the bottom along with some “sponsors”
I think I prefer it without the logo tbh – it makes the image look a bit top-heavy, and it’s a bit overpowering.
In Photoshop, I saved the image as two files, one without the logo and movie poster stuff, and one with. Back in Lightroom I see both of these in the film-strip and then apply final tweaks to the black, and white points to maximise the dynamic range of the image, add contrast, vibrance and saturation , colour temperature and tint. I do this after Photoshop as ramping up contrast and saturation destroys detail – and I’ll always try to keep as many options open as I can for as long as I can during the development process. (You can’t really take contrast out and expect to get the detail back). I just do these tweaks to one of the files, and then sync those to the other one. Finally, fire up the export function in Lightroom, and check all the boxes for each version of the file I need. Typically, a generic website size, a desktop sized one and some specific sizes for websites I use, and a 4×5 Instagram size – with padding if required.. I may also output print-ready sizes, but tend to do this as a separate exercise. If you have a Facebook page then I recommend outputting an 8 bit PNG as well. For some reason, facebook does not molest PNGs when posted to a page (but will mangle any jpeg you post). This only works on Pages (not regular posts on your stream or in groups). I would urge you to adopt this workflow if you use Lightroom and Photoshop. Photoshop is not a great tool for exporting the final images – you can do it there for sure, but it’s clunky and time consuming if you need multiple sizes and formats and it’s full of legacy process with no clear winner for outputting a jpeg. Lightroom can automate all of that.
I hope you find this useful, and gives you starting point for creative image-making. Please do post any questions in the comments below.