Sunday, December 28, 2008

Every picture tells a story:

Finding unexpected value

Backlighted photos you don't have the time to set up properly might end up in the discard pile a lot. But with some work and care in post-processing, sometimes you can come up with wonderful silhouettes or beautiful portraits with such images. This is a story about one such photo; the image might not be very spectacular, but it is one I'm glad I didn't toss.

I strive to shoot available light when possible, even for indoor family gatherings. I did so on Thanksgiving, and although the end result from those pictures was satisfying, I didn't arrive at the "end result" until after a lot of post-processing work with editing software. Even using an ISO of 1600 and a lens with a wide aperture (f/1.8), I still had difficulty getting enough light for optimum exposure in the living room, dining room and the grandchildren's playroom on Thanksgiving. With 150+ pictures, it entailed considerable work.

I wanted to avoid so much post-processing editing for the Christmas get-together. So on Thursday, I decided to use Gary Fong's "Puffer" light diffuser on the pop-up flash on my Canon 30D. I knew I'd miss that natural look in ambient-light photos, but the Puffer delivered decent exposures, didn't white-out people's faces from using a straight-on pop-up flash, and left me far less work afterward. Oh, it also helped that I shot about 50 fewer pictures than on Thanksgiving!

One image I did spend a lot of time on afterward was a shot of my 3-year-old grandson Jakob, who I had noticed positioned in front of bright sunshine, streaming in from a dining room window, as he examined one of his Christmas presents. I knew I wouldn't have the time to set up a candid the way I really wanted, or to shoot many frames before Jakob would move on to other things. So I simply pushed down the pop-up and fired off an available-light frame in hopes I'd have something usable.

The color picture above is the original, unedited shot. I didn't feel strongly about it, but I did notice interesting spot illumination on Jakob's cheek, nose and forehead that I thought would be worth emphasizing in a grayscale (black-and-white) conversion. So in post-processing, I made a copy of the jpeg, converted it to grayscale, cropped it to eliminate the tiny stray light on the bottom left, fiddled with the facial shadows and highlights to play up the spot facial illumination, and tweaked the contrast. I left in the two tiny lights in the right background of the image to retain some balance and a representation of the holiday. The lights were on a garland decorating a living room wall. The result of the edit is the black-and-white version you see above left.

Then I made a copy of that b/w image and recropped it as a tight horizontal in pursuit of a dramatic, moody feel (below). On the crop, only the bottom of the two background garland lights showed up, and at this tight of a crop, that tiny light became more prominent and, hence, a distraction. So I cloned (erased) it out. The tradeoff going from the vertical to horizontal crop was a considerable loss of size -- my guess is that this version will lose quality printed at anything larger than 5x7 -- but I do like the effect, and all in all, the two-grayscale copies gave me value out of an image I might otherwise have discarded.

Gary Fong, by the why, markets a variety of flash diffusers; most are for electronic flash units; the Puffer I mentioned above is for pop-ups and is among the least expensive. You can check out his full line at ... and no, I don't know Gary! I'm simply providing this in case anyone would like to explore it further.

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