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Anatomy of an Image: To the End of the World

I received some questions in the Beautiful World Facebook Group about how I created this image. As you know, since the Pandemic, we’ve stayed close to home. I let my imagination do the roaming to create visions I see in my head safely, both in terms of the pandemic and also because my little model is a brand-new four years old. Here in Southern California, it’s hot and full of snakes, so I stick to well-worn trails that help me to not add “snake bite” to my 2020 Bingo card.

I should mention that the adorable dress (and boots) are from Joyfolie*.

This photograph was taken in the morning about a week ago. It had been overcast but as soon as we rolled up to my location in the Minivan of Destiny, the clouds parted, revealing a blistering SoCal August sun.

Now, I don’t want to exaggerate — I don’t exactly do a lot to get Vivi ready for our shoots in general. We usually pick out a dress (okay, she picks out a dress. And if her pick happens to be Elsa’s dress from Frozen we begin an intense negotiation to get her in a non-Target costume). But here’s the thing, if I’ve gotten her all bucked up and into the car and arrived at the location (not to mention, I myself have actually put on pants that day), I’m not going to just give up. I live with the very real threat of Vivi hiding my camera, her dresses or cutting her hair, so crappy lighting conditions are not going to deter me once I’ve mentally committed to a shoot.

Now about the hair… Sometimes I curl her hair a bit, but that day, I just pulled it into loose piggy tails. I struggle with getting the hair evenly parted, but it is what it is, lol. I was a boy mom for 13 years before her. It shows. Plus, she has my super-fine hair which just loves to fall out of pony tail holders. But again, whatever. If you’ve ever shot with me, you know that for better or worse, I’m not one to spend a ton of time prepping, particularly with primping a four year old who will likely ruin her hair in the carseat while I’m driving. If she wants to take pictures, my job is to move with the quickness to get her to the location and start snapping before she loses interest.

So anyway, the light was dappled and very contrasty. When I was learning to shoot in natural light, I would often hear people say that dappled light was no good, that you should only shoot in soft, even light. And they aren’t necessarily wrong! Dappled light CAN be challenging. Particularly with a little girl who likes to run, won’t hold a pose and cares not where you’d like for her to stand. She’s a triple threat on these shoots: Dancer, Model and Director. My job is to focus as fast and as accurately as humanly possible. And since I like to shoot wide open and she likes to run serpentine-style (Serpentine! Serpentine!) I generally come out of these sessions filthy with my ass chock full of dried grass and stickers.

So anyway, I’ll be honest, I was not super happy with the contrasty dappled light but she was dressed and I was parked. Best case scenario is that Viv will give me 15 minutes of focused shoot time. I decided to try to make the most of it.

As things have tended to go lately, Viv lost interest in the shoot about as soon as I found a suitably shady area for her to sit. She was excited by some stairs and a little trail she found though so I followed her up with my camera. The trail was only flat for a little bit. There were the stairs we’d just walked up, and then just past the tree, the path went down a hill. Viv immediately started running from me to the tree, then back again. “One, two, THREE!” and boom, she’d go to the tree. “One, two, THREE!” and she’d be running back. I did notice that she’d pause for a second before coming back after a few rounds. I used these opportunities to get in some focused images.

When I got home, I downloaded the shots. This is the SOOC.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with them. I actually ended up really loving the dappled light. There was something magical about the leaves and their shadows on the path.

But try as I might, I just didn’t love the background behind her off in the distance. I wasn’t a fan of the shapes or the tones. I also felt that since she was rather small in the frame, she was getting lost against all of that detail. Shooting in harsh light tends to flatten out an image. She felt very flat to me in the frame.

Step One:

I made some simple contrast adjustments in Adobe ACR — recovered a little detail and added a touch of clarity and vibrance. I also added a touch of the QuickFlow tint Bay Leaf to make the greens a bit bluer and the browns a bit redder.

Step two:

So as I pondered the image, I started thinking about adding a cloud overlay. I was loving the trees and the path and the dappled light… but the background, not so much.

In this pandemic, the idea of a portal has been something that keeps re-appearing in my work. A magical spot that allows us to escape this reality and visit another. A window into a different world of kindness, decency and sharing, where the everyday magic of our world is protected and appreciated. Clouds are a gateway to another world to me.

Cloud overlay shown here is from Stunning Skies, Set 1.

Let’s talk technique: I don’t have fancy ways I add clouds in situations like this, where I’m using clouds not to fill an empty space, but rather to change an environment. There are tons of tutorials on how to mask and how to composite. But here is the thing: So many of those tutorials are about easy (or relatively easy) best-case scenarios or studio situations. In the image above, I’m shooting wide open in contrasty light with similar tones between my subject and background. Photoshop needs information to make decisions. It uses information like edges, blur, color and value to make determinations. When that information is not easily understood by artificial intelligence, it fails. I have a certain look I want to maintain. I have blurs I want to transition in specific ways, I want to have overlap in certain areas and no overlap in others. So I hand-paint in my masks. I do not believe there is any substitute for making the mask yourself. I demonstrate how I do this in a variety of videos, but it changes a little each time because this is doing art, not just clicking buttons in Photoshop. When people want fast, I tell them to embrace the time it takes to make and perfect a mask. I use short cuts as I’ve demonstrated here, here, and here (actually, there are even more if you search my channel, but these are the latest three), but at the end of the day, you create a believable image with the loving details you self-apply in a mask.

Step three:

So once I’d added in my sky, I began to build what in my head is the foundation image. This foundation image is about creating a nice base to build on – making areas brighter or darker where I want them to be, sharpening, retouching, shaping the light. This is where the QuickFlow actions come in. I use them to create a certain consistency in the image, then re-build my light and shadow where I want it. The actions also add options to sharpen, retouch, add richness, adjust saturation and warmth (see a demonstration here and here). Once I’ve locked in the basics, I “turn on” one or two of the set’s built in instant overlays to help me add drama and shape the light. For my portal-inspired image, I wanted to keep the center bright and not allow the edges to distract focus from my subject, Viv.

I know this is a little hard to see but I also made some Green Tone Corrections on this image. I painted in Coffee Greens to the foreground bush so it didn’t stand out so much and added a little Kelly Green into the branches above her.

Step four:

I wasn’t fully happy with the horizon line so I added in some of my own grass brushes. I’d created them when I worked on this quick speed edit of a Beautiful World Group members’s art and thought they might come in handy here. And they did 🙂

When I make stuff for myself, I don’t label it nicely or fine-tune it so that it’s easily accessible for others. I’m now making a mental note to return to these grass brushes to make them available for those who might find them handy (and they are handy!) I expect them to be in the shop by early next week. Please come back! 🙂

Step four:

I finished this off with the Tiny (Movable) Flare and Golden Left Corner Flare from Lightscaping Instant Overlays. I masked out the corner flare from the upper left corner and cloud area, instead using it soften the right side of Vivi, the tree, and my grass. The last step here was using the QuickFlow Tint Allspice (and just a tiny touch of Bay Leaf, too). I masked off some of Allspice tint on the edges as it tends to brighten and warm and I wanted the edges to be darker and cooler.

And there you have it! The complete steps to this edit.

Now, I bet you’re going to ask how long did it take me to edit this image. Great question. It’s a bit hard to mentally minus the time I spent being a mom to three kids as I tend to work, get called away, work, get called away, then work again. But once I realized a cloud was needed (and that was truly the big “Aha!” moment) it probably took me about 1.5 hours to create this image.

Products used:

Here are the products I used to create this image. The sale for the Beautiful World Magazine is still on, so save 25% off any of these products for the next 15 days! Code: Magazine25

Don’t Forget — Inspiration from Fellow Photographers!

Check out the NEW Beautiful World Magazine, August 2020 Edition, created to showcase the work from my photographers and digital artists using my products and tools! If you’d like to order a print copy, you can do so HERE

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Anatomy of an Image: To the End of the World

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