Inspiration from Strangers – Carlo Sa

Back in November I published my first “Inspiration from strangers” post showcasing street portrait photographers that inspire my own work.  It features ten street photographers I hugely respect, with established bodies of works in the many tens to many hundreds of stranger portraits.  Yet there was one photographer missing.

Carlo Sa is the exception.  Away from Flickr for a while it took a little longer to get his positive response to my request to show his work.  There are just seven images in his 100 Strangers portfolio on Flickr.  They’re not neatly ordered in a set.  Nor are they posted in order.  Portrait 06 is missing, in fact.  There are elements that some would challenge on technical grounds.  And I’m totally in love with them.

Stranger Portrait 04, Carlo Sa

What they have is that urgent spark of visceral presence that so many – myself certainly included – over-process or over-think or otherwise suffocate.  Portait 04 (above) was the first I came to.  I love the bright, glossy reflection in his glasses.  The weird, at once ultra-real and yet somehow fantasy play of light, especially the odd rim light on his right cheek.

Stranger Portrait 03, Carlo Sa

There’s the same feel of a sticky urban Californian night, and the same polluted wash of light in 03 (above).  The same frisson of human contact.  Portrait 02 (below) is a little more contrived, with more front, but the same fierce, dirty, real world lighting.

Stranger Portrait 02, Carlo Sa

They’re risky portraits for me and packed with lessons I’m still working through for a future post, wanting to keep the focus here on Carlo’s work.  In our email exchange Carlo noted a number of other portraits for his project and I can’t wait to see them.  There’s a raw authenticity to them which I struggle to define, but know I don’t see elsewhere.

It’s a real skill balancing that sense of real life and intimacy.  I really admire the details Carlo leaves in, and his use of found and borrowed light.  The well judged elements of imperfection perfectly catch that random blaze of half met, half missed glances, the brief confrontations and flirtations, the energy of urban life, but hit with a little cinematic supercharge that lifts it above.

 

Stranger Portrait 01, Carlo Sa

All images copyright Carlo Sa (2014), used with permission.

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Street portrait tip – Using Canon’s custom shooting modes to help test backgrounds

When I first upgraded from my Canon EOS 300D to the 5D Mkii, one of the first things I had in mind to do was to sit down and set up the three custom shooting modes.  In the end, they were a feature I barely used.  Now, five or so years on, and a camera model later, I’ve finally found a use for them.

street-portrait-background-edinburgh (1)
Unused street portrait background – Edinburgh

I should note that I typically shoot manual, with a single “one shot” AF focal point (joystick controlled, assigned to the shutter button).  I have the automatic “preview” turned off, meaning I have to press the “play” button to view each image I take.  All of this works extremely well for me when actually shooting portraits.  I find it best for control, for the appearance of control and for battery conservation.

However, before I can get to shooting those strangers I have to find a background.  And for doing that, my standard settings are a nightmare.

You see, when shooting strangers for my 100 Stranger Project, increasingly at night, I’m walking around with a light stand and shoot through umbrella in one hand, with a reflector or two tucked under it, and the camera in the other.  I can shoot one handed, with the camera on a black rapid strap, pre-focusing it on the ground, but if I recompose it’s too easy to refocus on the background and have to “reset” it by pointing at the floor again.  Moreover, with only one arm, it’s a nightmare to preview the background, juggling kit to get a straining finger tip to the preview button.

 

street-portrait-background-edinburgh (2)
Another unused street portrait background – Edinburgh

On a recent trip to Northern Ireland, I finally got around to testing custom shooting modes for this, and it works fantastically.  I now have my manual mode set up for my favoured settings – “one shot” AF, no preview, etc.  C2, however, is set up with my usual night exposure settings with my portrait lens, the 100mm f/2.8 L IS macro (f/3.2, 1/50, ISO 1600), with automatic preview on, with focusing moved to the back button and deactivated on the shutter button.

It sounds like a small thing, but it’s transformed my night portraits.  I can now whistle around freely, at pace, casually shooting and testing backgrounds whereas before I would decide not to test some on account of the juggling act of gear.  I guess we sometimes build up the custom shooting modes in significance – decide they should have some very important task or emergency application – but what I’m finding is that in fact small, apparently trivial tweaks like this are delivering massively and making my photography more enjoyable again.

Cropping choices and their impact on depth of field

Listening to recent reviews and discussion around the Canon 5DS, 5DSR and the Leica Q you find some comment around in camera cropping options; features that let you set different crops or effective focal lengths in camera.  Likewise, there’s a note to some 5DS and 5DSR reviews that with so many pixels, one can crop in post and still have decent size files.  Of course, in all these cases you’re losing pixels and image size, and that’s the main focus of debate I encounter.

One nuance I don’t see mentioned so much is the difference in depth of field between a shot “cropped” with a camera feature or in post, versus a shot “cropped” by recomposing, moving nearer your subject.  My street portrait of Czech girl Jitka hopefully serves to illustrate the difference here.

Jitka (Stranger #35/100), London Brick Lane

Above is the main shot from last year’s street encounter with Jitka.  As well as this shot, I took another closer cropped version stepping nearer her (see below).  Depth of field, obviously, is an equation with multiple facets – the width of aperture, the focal length of the lens, but also the distance from sensor to subject, and from subject to background.  Composing more tightly, a closer crop, by stepping near your subject changes an input in that equation – by getting you nearer your subject, it gives a shallower depth of field, as many people seek in a portrait.  It has a three dimensional impact on your composition.

Cropping with a camera feature or in post has only a two dimensional impact on your composition.  It doesn’t change your depth of field, or help to drop a background.  Here’s an example to illustrate.  The first image (left/top) is a Lightroom crop of the main image above.  The second image (right/bottom) is a separate image shot by stepping closer to Jitka – helping to drop the background further out of focus.

Alternate Take - Jitka (Stranger #35/100), London Brick Lane (Simulated Crop)  Alternate Take - Jitka (Stranger #35/100), London Brick Lane

As ever it depends what you’re shooting and what effect you are seeking.  If you are shooting landscapes, seeking front to back sharpness, this nuance probably needn’t enter your considerations and the loss of file size is maybe the biggest trade off to consider.  For those shooting shallow depth of field portraits, I think it’s a valid footnote to the discussion about the advantages of these new features or pixel counts.

Sometimes the advice against cropping with a camera setting or in Photoshop is overwhelmed by “purists” who simply object on ethical grounds.  That’s a shame, as it disguises some of the tangible effects these decisions have on our images.  I’m a pragmatist, I don’t care how I get the end image.  Often that’s best done in camera, and hopefully this quick examination highlights one of the situations where that’s definitely the case!

Before/After – Processing Ten Street Portraits; Workflow & Tips

SOOC zoe-1  Zoe (Stranger #87/100), Paris Bastille

SOOC greta-1  Greta (Stranger #14/100), Venezia Fondamente Nove

You hear the phrase “getting it right in camera” a lot, but I don’t think people think through what that means.  If you’re shooting on a digital camera, “getting it right in camera” is a misnomer nowadays.  There’s lots of good resources that advise one “exposes for the right” to get the cleanest, most tonally rich images.  It’s just the way our camera’s sensors work – right up to the point we blow our highlights, we’re capturing richer and richer information.  Check out Martin Bailey’s excellent podcast on exposing for the right if you’d like the full story!

That’s not exactly what I’m talking about here, but I wanted to kick off this post on editing portraits with that thought, because it’s kind of important in change our mindsets with regards processing.  In a world of digital sensors, getting it right in camera means shooting an image that will look overexposed unless we process it.  This realisation reinforced for me the notion that photography is a process that starts and ends a good distance either side of the camera.  We should shoot to get the best data, given that we should then process to get the best image.

no edits yolandi-1  Yolandi (Stranger #88/100), London Carnaby Street

SOOC freder-1  Frédérique (Stranger #50/100), Paris Montmatre

As you’ll see here with this set of before/after images from my 100 Strangers Project, whilst striving for the best data in camera I make plenty of mistakes.  It’s a learning project, after all.  I wanted to share here my process for editing my street portraits – partly for self reference as I look to improve, but chiefly thanks to the many questions I get through Flickr with regards the work I do.

In editing these shots then, I use two tools; first Lightroom for 80% of the work and 20% of the time, then Photoshop for 20% of the work and 80% of the time.

My Lightroom workflow starts along very similar lines;

– Boost sharpening to ~40/60, but push the masking slider up to >95.
– Boost vibrance by 10/20.
– Boost shadows by 20/40, chiefly determined by the subjects hair, which I want to keep looking natural.
– Turn the Chromatic Aberration correction on, with +1 in both fields, maybe more.  My 100mm L Macro lens is lovely for portraits, but can show some green/turquoise edging at wide apertures (I shoot at f/3.2 for these portraits).
– Tweak white balance, generally I warm images very slightly, or use the pipette on the whites of the subject’s eyes to test an extreme option.

Next I grab the Lightroom brush tool for a few separate operations;

– Take a -10/25 shadow brush and burn the deeper shadows, especially around the hair and neck, and collars.
– Zap the whites of the eyes with -20/40 saturation, +4/8 shadows and +.1 exposure.
– Paint in the iris, opposite the main catchlight, using a +.6 exposure brush, sometimes with a clarity and/or saturation boost.  Initially I was painting much more of the iris, but a fantastic Dani Diamond article on Fstoppers showed how light enters and leaves the eye.  Working on the opposite side of the iris from the main catchlight gives lots more drama.
– Darken the upper portion of the eye very slightly; -.1 exposure.  For these operations I usually find it easier to paint them in, straying over edges, then hold down Alt to clean up with much more accuracy.
– Emphasise a few key areas of brighter hair, sweeping along key lines with a +20 highlight, +20 clarity brush.
– Give clothing a little contrast boost, and maybe emphasise key highlights and shadows with a similar brush to my hair above.  Glasses will generally get a clarity boost on the rims.
– Unwanted highlights, especially in glasses generally get a -10/20 highlight brush at this point.

Finally, I might add a gradient filter to add -100 clarity or -.2 exposure to one side or other, starting well out of the frame and avoiding the subject. That’s usually us finished in Lightroom. I never crop yet, as I will sometimes borrow small elements from other frames and prefer to keep things in the broad scale and composition until after that stage.

SOOC lilyii-1  Lily (Stranger #69/100), NYC JFK Terminal 2

SOOC milena-1  Milena (Stranger #63/100), Sofia 

Now we’re off to Photoshop.  Whilst I use Lightroom to make non-destructive, pretty consistent edits, in Photoshop I’ll immediately create some spare layers and make permanent changes.

I start work with small corrections to the subject; fiddly things I want to get out of the way first.  I chiefly use the “patch” tool.  I’m not sure why it doesn’t get more love!  I see/hear lots of people using spot healing tools, yet I struggle to preserve skin texture with them.  The patch tool is a little slower – I zoom right in to near pixel level to correct temporary skin blemishes/spots, dust spots on clothes and some (not all) stray hairs.  However, for the extra time, I find a much more consistent grain and texture to the corrections, especially the skin.  Occasionally, I’ll use the “fade” follow up command to blend in patched corrections, but again that’s rare as it undermines the consistent skin texture.  If I’m going have to make changes to texture, I want to do them globally to a face – or you end up with blemishes replaced with excessively smooth patches which looks stranger sometimes.

When making those more global changes I have a couple of techniques.  My go to method is the brush tool, using a technique from the incredible Aaron Nace at Phlearn.  I’m always doing this after patching.  Then I will take a large, soft edged brush at 5% opacity and paint over the face, constantly sampling and repainting with tones from the pipette.  I will try to keep using shadow tones around shadow areas, etc., but will be painting heavily over and over areas.  I’ll then add a layer mask and ensure the eyes and edges of the face are cleaned with a 100% black brush, then areas of contrast around the nose, eyebrows, lips, etc. are cleaned with a minimum 50% opacity black brush.  I’ll pull that whole layer back to 30/50% opacity – usually at the lower end.

If I’m still not happy, I will add another layer at 50% opacity and redo all the patching a second time.  If things are really desperate (only once in 89 strangers) I’ll use frequency separation.  Again, the best explanation and free action for frequency separation are from Phlearn, and worth checking out here.  It’s really rare I use it – as I find the patch technique, along with a little time and patience, is the most realistic approach and works for my look!

Before moving out from the face I’ll use the patch tool to clean up any red streaks in the sclera (whites of eyes), and to de-dust/scratch glasses.  If there are big reflections in the glasses, I will try to patch them which usually works until the reflections hit the edges.  If I’ve failed to avoid this when shooting, then I will copy the other side of the glasses, paste it, flip it horizontally and use this mirror image to provide source pixels to rebuild the affected edges.  It’s slow, but strangely soothing and generally gives a good result.

Hair is edited mostly with the patch tool in tiny sections (3-5 pixels sometimes) to remove hairs that stray into eyes, or run perpendicular to the main flow.  Sometimes I will using the clone stamp here, in one of the scattered brush shapes, just a few pixels across, to blend the flow of messy strands.  Sometimes I will draw a few extra hairs in with the paint brush, adding them to a separate layer and adding a blur in a rainbow shape across the top so as to blend them better into my shallow DOF.

SOOC bajar-1  Bahar (Stranger #68/100), Stockholm

SOOC ish-1  ishma 3l high-1

Finally I look wider than the face, tidying up any major issues in the background.  I’m increasingly shooting with my lights (usually an umbrella and reflector) very close to my subject and that means they often sneak into a corner.  I’ll use contact aware fill for the main area at issue, and then the patch tool to clean up the edges of the filled selection.  Very occasionally I will add a little extra blur to the background, masking out my stranger, and then add a 0.5/1% noise to the same area.

There are a handful of strangers where I’ve borrowed a shoulder. eye, collar, top of head, etc. from another shot of them and composited – maybe to get the best shoulder pose with the sharp eyes or similar.  I’ll handle that elsewhere.  My project is 100% not a photojournalists project!  I am trying to make realistic, but Vogue-style portraits.  The final piece to that puzzle is some minor toning.  I add a curves layer and boost blue and green in the shadows (usually 3:1 in favour of blue), and occasionally boost yellow in the highlights – but never when the background is bright.  It gives a slightly more fashion tone set, to my eye.

Hopefully this set of before/after shots gives an illustration of the impact of the process.  Sometimes it can be quite major, sometimes pretty invisible.  In some the examples shown I’m using an adjacent frame for the “before” just to avoid losing editing data in Lightroom, but in all cases the camera settings are identical and the shots are taken milliseconds apart.  I really hope they answer the questions I get on Flickr and map out my work flow and the typical actions I take to get my look.  I’m not saying this is the best way, or the most efficient way, of course.  I grew up in Photoshop 7.0, and am massively over manual in my use of the tool.  However, I find the painstaking approach useful in getting to know an image, testing and reviewing it, before posting.  Hopefully the overview is of interest and offers a few tips or ideas!  Have an amazing week!

SOOC lars-1  Lars (Stranger #65/100), Stockholm

SOOC chloe-1  Chloe (Stranger #57/100), Blackpool