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Retouching Photographs – Massachusetts Portrait Photography Tip of the Day

Shrewsbury, Massachusetts – Someone had emailed be yesterday about doing a Senior Portrait at St. Johns, and wanted to book a date, but said that their son was nervous because he had a large pimple that he was furiously trying to clear up. They thought it was a crazy notion to have to schedule senior portraits around teenage blemishes, but I assured then that they weren’t the first parents with a similar request! In fact, one of my first inquiries was from someone who wanted me to do some senior portraits at Algonquin Regional High School and was explaining that their daughter and her two friends were hoping for a weekend when all their faces were clear. Really guys, you can relax and worry about the important things in life, thanks to the amazing portrait retouching software that exists out there.

We’ve come a long way from the days when a team of artists used to literally airbrush everything from family portraits to glamour models, and now the tools available for professional photographers have enabled us to do the same miracles tight here on the computer that magazines have been doing for years. The more I play around with those retouching tools, the more jaded I become realizing how all of us fall victim to comparing ourselves to those gorgeous people we see in the magazines, only to find that none of them actually really look like that. Well, very few of them do anyway. I will say that I took my kids to see Lion King on Broadway years ago and would up sitting next to Christy Turlington, and she was prettier in jeans with no make-up than you might imagine.

Truly the things we can do are just amazing, and the challenge is sometime to focus on the theory that “less is more” and not get carried away with retouching. When I first purchased one of my many software tools, I started playing around with Sam’s senior portraits, and next thing I knew he had bluer eyes than Liz Taylor! Looked really cool, but of course that wasn’t him. Suffice it to say though that all of us, at least those of us over 10 years old, can sometimes use a little touch up now and then.

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Behind the scenes of an 8 hour family portrait session…

Today was an amazing day, as it marked the official opening of my new photography studio, which was so exciting.  It seems like it’s been coming for so long, and to finally cut the metaphorical ribbon and welcome our first real customer.   Fortunately, it was an amazing family session, with two couples and two kids, and they were probably one of the sweetest groups I’ve photographed.  Everyone was right on the same page….get the pics with the baby first, while he’s smiling, then we’ll do this group, then that group, etc., and it all was innovative, adaptable and most importantly it was fun, even though it was 9AM on a Sunday morning, which isn’t usually my prime time of day.

Anyway, I thought you might be interested in just what goes on behind the scenes, of the so called “One Hour Photo Shoot” that I have so far spent at least five hours on, and which has so much yet to go.  In many ways, it’s much like my real estate business, where so few realize just what goes on behind the scenes. The good news is that at least the client was only there for one hour of it!

So todays shoot was at 9AM….. at 8:00, I was in the studio setting up, picking out the appropriate backdrops, laying the turf, and setting up the lights.  By 8:30, it was time for equipment testing, and making notes of settings, so that when the family arrived we were ready to jump right in while the baby was smiling, without any fidgeting around on my part.

Fortunately for me the folks were running a tad behind, which meant I could have another cup of coffee and get ready. I think we finally got rolling around 9:45, and it was a solid hour of shooting, perhaps a tad more.  We swapped out backgrounds, props, and did a host of different groups and outfit changes.  Really I should realize that coming with “two families” really takes twice as long, so I should schedule, and probably bill, accordingly, but as I said these guys were just so fantastic that I was in no hurry for it to end, and I was having fun experimenting with some new techniques that I now know I’ll use again.

By the time they left, I had taken over 400 Photos, a few of which I deleted on the spot, but I still had 350 to work with.  Try and imagine for a moment what 350 pictures means.  That is a LOT of photos.  Of course, as the clients headed home to spend a relaxing day together, the photographers work begins.

The first step is to import all of the photos into a temporary storage file on the computer, and begin doing a “first culling.”  At this point, you go through and eliminate all the ones that might be out of focus, or where someone moved during the shot, and that whittles it down to 300.   Next, you enlarge the viewer to 50%, and go through a second culling, picking out any that have weird facial expressions, eyes going the wrong way, perhaps some glare, and deleting those, and not we have it down to only 175, which is far less onerous.

At this point, it’s time to move from the basic folder into a true photo processing system, which in this case was Apple’s Aperture program.  It’s at this point, with a few hours behind me, that it starts to become challenging. Imagine that you’re looking at 7 photos of the same group of six people, and what you need to do is pick which one is the best, examining each persons eyes, knowing that in each shot, one person may be looking off center while the others are all great, flipping back and forth like an optometrist…..is THIS better, or is THIS better….and then gradually getting it down in this case to 81 really nice photos.

Next comes a very quick retouching of all 81 in Aperture, fixing the color balance, maybe a few shadows, the overall exposure, and most importantly cropping them to the best possible dimensions like a diamond cutter.  Some will be square, others in a 4 :5 ratio (8 x 10, 16 x 20) and others will look best as a 3:4 ration, such as 8 x 12, 16 x 24.   Still others are going to be panoramic, 10 x 20, 20 x 40 shots, and so on.

Finally, we’re getting close to the halfway point of our photo shoot day.  Those last 81 images are now moved into Adobe Lightroom, where they are modified further, and then a sampling of those are moved into Adobe Photoshop and edited with a pricey Portrait Retouching program that can do everything from shrink your pores, to turn your eyes blue, and everything in between.  Each image that you do a real retouch on takes about 20 minutes, as it moves from Lightroom to Photoshop to Portrait Professional and then back to Photoshop and back to Lightroom where it lives in the file system.

At last we are getting close to the end, of the beginning, as Churchill said.  Having spent about four or five hours on them so far today, and with my neck sore from staring at the screen, the 81 photos, 5 or 6 of which have been retouched, are then watermarked, and uploaded to the online system for the client to review. Once they pick the images that are of interest to them, it will be time to go back and retouch those by hand with a dose of love, something that most photographers outsource to an offsite “retoucher.”  I choose to do it myself, because in the end, it’s my name on the print, and my reputation on the line.

Next it’s time to meet with the client again to review their choices, and go over the many different options available from the printer, in terms of size, and the various mediums from canvas, metal to custom gallery wraps and so much more, and then get order in to the lab itself for printing.  Of course, the best moment will be when they arrive, a few days later, I get to hand deliver them to my client and hopefully see a huge smile on their faces. To a photographer, that is the greatest joy of all.

So next time someone asks why the photo session was over $100, and “only took an hour” (which mind you nobody has ever asked),  I will be able to share with them this story of the other 8 hours that go into it all behind the scenes.

Thanks again to today’s wonderful family.   I can’t wait for the next.  Perhaps that’ll be you?   Feel free to email me at steve@stellarimages.us and let’s chat.













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Why bother with a real student portrait session?

If you, like me, have a drawer full of photos like this, you will quickly get my point.

If you, like me, have a drawer full of photos like this, you will quickly get my point.

SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – One of the big questions that people in the photographic field hear, comes from people asking why they should bother doing a student portrait session, when they get school photos done each year anyway.  On this one I can speak from personal experience as a dad, more so than just my years as a photographer.  Somewhere upstairs in my dresser, I have a plastic baggie, and in there is a stack of school pictures for each of my three kids, that dates back 18 years. The process of doing them really hasn’t changed much since I was in grade school 40 years ago.  The kids let you know that “Tuesday is class picture day,” they wear a nice shirt, someone comes into the gym and snaps a few pictures on a blue background, and then you get an envelope with the photo of your class, and your individual portrait.  When they arrive, you smile at how cute your child it, and then you cut the 5 x 7′s and wallet sized pictures out and send them off to your family, where they hopefully will find a place on grandmas refrigerator door. As I said, not much has changed. For all I know, 60 years ago my parents did the same with their grandparents.

With all of the innovation that we have seen over the decades, the technology has gotten so much better, yet the process itself is still hampered by the simple fact that (a) when you can only spend 45 seconds with each child and need to get 2 shots in, it isn’t exactly a unique and personal experience, and (b) the majority of the people that work for the large “school picture houses” are not photographers. In fact, a quick search on one of the job boards had over tons of jobs for such folks, all with “no experience required.”

The funny thing is that the one part that has changed over the years is that the cost of getting the typical school pictures done has grown exponentially.  Suddenly you get the envelope home, and as you’re looking through the “packages” that they offer, you’re seeing prices that are close to $100, and at those kind of prices, you’re practically paying for a professional shoot anyway, which would actually give you something you would treasure for decades to come, instead of just tossing them in a drawer.

Eventually, I got to the point where I finally stopped buying the school pictures, and sent back my empty envelope.  After all, I thought, this photo they were going to send me doesn’t really seem like it reflects my kids unique personality, and if I know it’s just going to wind up in the drawer anyway, I would rather save the money an do something else with it.

Instead, the two questions I posed to myself, and would ask people reading this site, is first how you want to remember these special moments in your child’s life, and secondly, are you getting your moneys worth for what you buy. This week, I had the chance to invite one of my neighbors over to do some pictures while I tested out my new lighting system, and we had such a great time. I don’t think we spent more than 20 minutes for the whole session, but what came out of it was a set of photos that I know they will really enjoy.

Here are some of the photos from that session, which they gave me permission to post.  Call me crazy, but I don’t think these are going to wind up in a plastic baggie in the dresser.  I think they’ll actually get hung on a wall, and treasured as the years go by.

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Here is another one from last week, with one of my favorite photo subjects, again posted with mom and dads permission of course. Can you see this as something that might be treasured in the years to come?  I know I can.

The ironic thing is that the cost of doing portraits with this level of quality is so affordable now, that it’s almost the same price as the typical “photo package” I was getting back from school anyway.  It becomes even better when you combine your kids together into one session. Some of the difference in quality can probably be attributed to using great equipment, and other to the fact that I’m actually a trained photographer. The biggest element though, is just being able to take the time to get to know the subject a little bit, in more than 45 seconds, and try to bring out their individual personality.  That’s where you come upon the difference between equipment, and being an actual artist.

In the end, I suppose the old adage has always been that you get what you pay for, but in this case, I think you actually get far more for more your money by doing it right the first time. Check out some of the photos on our site, and you be the judge for yourself.




























































































































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