How to do a high-key portrait

Greetings photo buffs! I have had a little hiatus from my blog, but now I’m back with a little tutorial, namely ‘How to do a high-key portrait’.

This technique should be in every serious photographers bag of tricks, if it aint already, so here is the lay-down:

1) Use a good camera/ lens combination for portraiture. I used the full-frame Canon 5D Mark II and a Canon 85mm 1.8 at F/2.2.

2) Use soft, diffuse light. I shot these photos with natural light in-doors by a west-facing window in the middle of an overcast day in early April. Generally, you want very soft light for this effect, so use plenty large umbrellas/softboxes/diffusers, or north light, or an overcast day, or even shade. You do not want direct light or sun. Also, you want the background to be very bright – these were shot in front of a south-facing window.

3) Use low ISO. While you want to overexpose a tad (‘expose to the right’), use as low an ISO speed you can get away with for ultimate image quality. I shot at ISO 200. I’m applying the actual high-key effect later in Camera RAW, to avoid clipping the highlights in-camera. Your mileage may vary, though, so if you prefer, aim for the overexposed look directly, by dialing in ~ +2 stops of exposure compensation.

4) Use a large aperture. You want to get good seperation from face to background for that 3D effect, but you also want to nail sharpness on eyes. On a shot like this with the 85mm 1.8, f/2.2 was a good compromise.

5) Get at least one eye in focus. Rule of thumb. Eyes will draw the attention first, so make sure you focus on an eye. With portrait lenses and shallow Depth Of Field, often you won’t be able to hold both eyes in focus, particularly if the subject’s face is at an angle, and close to the camera. As long as one eye is in sharp focus, you’re OK. You should only break the sharp-eyes rule for artistic expression. (The first picture in this article actually breaks this rule, but I feel it gets away with it. Sofie was swaying a bit back and forth, so critical focus ended up on her eyebrow, while her eyes falls a bit out of focus, showing just how little DOF there is to work with).

6) Once shot, select your best frames and process expertly. Post processing is what makes a good picture a very good picture. I spared nothing in Camera Raw on these ones. First, I pushed the shots about 2 stops to overexpose them, but kept highlights in check. Then I turned down Saturation by a large amount, and increased the Vibrance by about the same. Those steps will give you this high-key, neutral, soft look. I did some skin spotting with the heal tool in Camera RAW. Finally, I added effects, such as Vignette, Split-toning and Film Grain to give the shots a ‘film-like’ appearance. I added a bit of skin diffusion (duplicate layer, large gaussian blur, Overlay blend mode, low opacity) and monochromatic contrast in Photoshop at the end.

And thats about all there is to it! The rest is up to you. Happy shooting 🙂


Photoshop: Magic Numbers?

Perhaps you already know what I am talking about. With the plethora of necessary dialogs and sliders in your daily Photoshop work, combined with a busy schedule and 600 photos to postprocess, how do you determine rational choices for each image, without batching everything with the same values?

From more than a decade of Photoshop work, I have noticed that I have settled on a few ‘magic numbers’ that at least eases my perfectionist mind as to what the ‘just right’ figure may be in several of Photoshops dialogs. Rationality is a very small part of these choices, they have more to do with making quick intuitive decisions that I won’t later regret.

The dialogs in question are in particular dialogs such as filters, for instance sharpening and blurring, the Fade dialog (which I use often), Layer Opacity for blending etc. and the magic numbers I always seem to settle on are these:

In percentage dialogs: 33% and 66%, in sliders, values of 90 and 127.

Why? This is magic, and magicians never devulge their secrets. Or, as we learn from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the answer to everything is… 42. No idea in arguing, just try it. The values of 90 and 127 are based on image dimensions (detail frequency) though, and are tailored to images in the ~6-15MP range.

Do you find that you always settle on the same figures in % and value dialogs? You don’t need to rationalize, but it would be very interesting to hear about your choices in a comment on this post. Don’t forget to include the general image size you are working with.

Adobe release Camera Raw 5.3 and Lightroom 2.3 updates

Adobe has released final versions of the Camera raw 5.3 and Lightroom 2.3 updates, now including support for

  • Nikon D3X
  • Olympus E-30
  • Links:

    Camera Raw 5.3 for Windows
    Camera Raw 5.3 for Mac
    Lightroom 2.3 for Windows
    Lightroom 2.3 for Mac

    Adobe posts update to Photoshop CS4

    Adobe posted an update to Photoshop CS4 today that covers these bugs and more:

  • A number of issues that could cause slow performance have been addressed.
  • Pen barrel rotation with Wacom tablets now works correctly.
  • Photoshop now correctly recognizes 3D textures edited by a plug-in.
  • The quality of the results of Auto-Blend Layers (Stack Images) has been improved.
  • A problem that could result in a crash when pasting formatted text has been fixed.
  • A crash that could result from a corrupt font no longer occurs.
  • Link (Or just use the updater from within Photoshop).

    Expanding the dynamic range of a single RAW file

    This tutorial will focus on a technique tailored to expand the visible dynamic range of a single RAW file (as opposed to creating a HDR file or masking a bracketed sequence).

    Most RAW editors has several tools to do just that built-in, but often you can not achieve your desired end result without complicated Photoshop work and masking techniques. In this tutorial, I’ll share some of my secrets for expanding the dynamic range of a single RAW file.

    Observe the following photograph:

    Single RAW file - developing for the shadows blow the highlights.

    'Say cheese' Single RAW file - developing for the shadows blow the highlights.

    This image is from a Canon 40D RAW file developed with Adobe’s Camera RAW 5.2. As the original image was underexposed, out of necessity to keep the highlights in range, I’ve added a positive exposure compensation to brighten the shadows, in turn leading to a clipping of the highlights. Even with tricks like Curves, Fill Light and Highlight Recovery, I cannot both expose the shadows as I want them, and also get great highlights – at least not without an unintentional hit in contrast in the process. My opinion is that neither Fill Light or Highlight Recovery are perfect in ACR, as by affecting the left or right third of the histogram respectively, they are both too broad, and don’t go far enough. – And they don’t give you precise control over the tonalities you effect.

    Let’s look at my technique for dealing with this problem. For this tutorial we will be using ACR 5.2 as our RAW developer on a PC, as well as Photoshop CS4. The beauty of this technique is that it offers a more or less automated, lets call it ‘intuitive’, way of expanding your dynamic range without delving into Curves and complicated masking for every problem shot.

    1 ) Develop your RAW image in ACR only for the shadows (left side of histogram). That is, concentrate on getting good shadow separation, and let the highlights blow for now (that means do not even try to recover the highlights, don’t touch the Recovery slider, better to let them blow out).

    2 ) When satisfied, hold Shift key, and click ‘Open Object’ in ACR to open the image in Photoshop as a Smart Object.

    3 ) In Photoshop, right-click the SO layer, and select ‘New Smart Object via Copy’.

    4 ) Double-click the thumbnail of your new SO layer, to bring up the ACR dialog again.

    5 ) This time, develop for the highlights (right side of histogram), and ignore the shadows (left side of histogram). Typically for this technique, there’ll be around 2 stops of difference between the two versions. Essentially this is just a matter of dragging the Exposure slider to the left.

    6 ) Click ‘Done’ when satisfied that all highlights are recovered.

    7 ) In Photoshop, now hide the top layer, then go to the Channels Palette and Ctrl-click the RGB channel thumbnail to select the highlights of your lower, lighter layer. What you’ve got now is a so-called Luminosity Mask.

    8 ) Go back to the Layer Palette, turn on your top darker layer (select it if it isn’t selected), and click the ‘Add layer mask’ icon.

    9 ) You should now see a composite of the two layers that will have expanded dynamic range, but also will look a bit lifeless and with poor contrast.

    10 ) To add local contrast, you need to select your Layer Mask, and add Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur. How much depends on a number of factors, including file size and detail frequency in your image. Typical key figures for Amount are in the 90-127 range. However, for some images, such as the sunset example in the end of this article, you may need to go as low as 1! This is up to your best judgement, and needs some experimentation and careful examination to set right for every image. You’ll want to achieve natural contrast and at the same time avoid visible halos and artifacts. Note that what you are doing here is essentially how Unsharp Mask worked in the dark rooms of yore. Only this digital equivalent is much, MUCH easier.

    11 ) Finally, you may need to adjust the tonalities affected. You can do this by adding a Curves adjustment (Image>Adjustments>Curves) to the Layer Mask. Typically, you want to darken the mask a bit, by creating a point in the middle of the curve and dragging down about 2/5th of the way. You may also use other tools and adjustments on the mask to localize the effect – all non-destructively.

    12 ) For a final kicker, now press Ctrl-Alt-Shift-e to create a new composite layer on top of the others, then add Filter>Sharpen>Unsharp Mask, Amount: 6-12, Radius: 90-127, Threshold: 0, to add a bit of extra local contrast. Typically I overdo this a little, then immediately go Edit>Fade to 66%. Alternatively, you can set the layer opacity of this composited contrast layer as you like.

    End result:

    The final result - highlights have now been smoothly recovered.

    The final result - highlights have now been smoothly recovered.

    Disclaimer: What you see above is no miracle cure for blown highlights. You will still need to expose your photo in a way so that all data can be recovered, and you might have to take care of increased shadow noise from pushing the shadow end.

    Here’s another example comparing ACR’s Highlight Recovery to this method:

    my method

    Dynamic Range expansion - top: image developed for the shadows, middle: Recovery at maximum in ACR*, bottom: my method

    * Recovery at 100, with positive exposure compensation of +2. A closer approximation of ‘my method’ could be achieved by maxing out both Recovery and Fill Light in ACR, leaving Exposure slider at 0, but doing so introduces nasty edge artifacts and very low contrast.


    I’ve compiled this technique into a Photoshop action, which you may download and study here.

    Copyright 2008 Mathias Vejerslev

    Camera RAW 5.2 released

    Adobe’s Camera RAW 5.2 contains new support for the following cameras:

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
  • Canon PowerShot G10
  • Panasonic DMC-G1
  • Panasonic DMC-FX150
  • Panasonic DMC-FZ28
  • Panasonic DMC-LX3
  • Leica D-LUX 4
  • Plus these new features:

  • Targeted Adjustment Tool (TAT), for intuitive local adjustments of Curves, Hue, saturation for example.
  • Output sharpening for print or web
  • Snaphots feature, to save image-specific versions of your RAW image
  • Camera profiles – the previously mentioned camera specific profiles are now included
  • Download: For Mac For Windows

    Random photograph #3

    Mathias Vejerslev

    What do I have in common with the great David Lynch? Probably more than I realise, but at the very least both of us have done a commercial stint for Nissan Micra. The strange pattern on 'my' car is supposed to disguise it as a leather handbag - this posed an interesting challenge to portray! There is no artificial light on any of these photos, and the entire shoot took only a couple of hours - postprocessing a bit longer. HDR merge via Photoshop and Photomatix. Click photo for more. Photo: Mathias Vejerslev.

    David Lynch Micra commercial on YouTube

    Adobe releases Camera Raw 4.6

    Adobe has today released Camera Raw 4.6 with added support for the following cameras:

  • Canon 1000D (Digital Rebel XS/EOS Kiss F)
  • Canon 50D
  • Fuji FinePix IS Pro
  • Kodak EasyShare Kodak Z1015 IS
  • Leaf AFi II 6
  • Leaf AFi II 7
  • Leaf Aptus II 6
  • Leaf Aptus II 7
  • Nikon D700
  • Nikon D90
  • Nikon Coolpix P6000
  • Olympus SP-565 UZ
  • Pentax K2000 (K-m)
  • Sigma DP1
  • Sony A900
  • Download page:

    Adobe Configurator for Photoshop CS4

    John Nack, the Photoshop product manager with a background in web design, has always (as long as he’s been in office) pushed for more extensibility and custom configuration of the Photoshop interface.

    As a result, in Photoshop CS4 we now have flash-based panels that can be built from scratch by third party developers.

    But it gets better. Very soon now, you can ‘roll your own’ Panel in a snap with Adobe Configurator.

    Adobe Configurator

    Adobe Configurator

    The application lets you pick and choose (literally drag and drop) among Photoshop tools, menu items, scripts and actions, and it even lets you include stuff like instructional videos, before it ‘bakes’ a new Panel that you can import into Photoshop CS4, and share with the world. Presto! All of your most used tools in one customized Panel. Pretty damn cool.

    Adobe announces Creative Suite 4

    Adobe has announced Creative Suite 4 on September 23!

    New features in Photoshop CS4 of interest to photographers include:

    Completely revamped interface
    The Photoshop interface has had a major overhaul this time. Palettes has been replaced by tabs and panels, which you can group as you like. The GUI is accelerated by modern GPUs in a number of ways, and non-destructive adjustments now has its own panel. Flash-based panels are possible, among the included examples are the Kuler application for color harmonies. Image zooms at odd intervals, such as 66,6% and 33,3% are now sharper and less ‘pixelized’.

    Photoshop CS4 interface

    Photoshop CS4 interface

    Content Aware Scaling
    You can now scale an image, and intelligent code will ‘invent’ new data for enlargement or remove data intelligently for reductions, without altering important elements of your photo.

    Camera RAW 5.0
    Camera RAW 5.0 has many improvements. Of most importance are the new and improved color profiles for all cameras. It is now possible to choose color profiles that closely match that of your camera vendors, such as Canons ‘picture styles’. Adobes own color profiles has been updated to give more accurate and pleasing color. Local corrections are now possible via brushes or gradient masks, and most of the image editing options of Lightroom has now made its way into ACR.

    Non destructive masking
    PSCS4 has a new Mask panel for non-destructive masking. You can control feathering and density, and use the Refine Edge technology of CS3, all non-destructively.

    Improved stitching and blending
    Photomerge has been further developed, and now also feature lens distortion correction. A new feature is focus blending for extended depth of field from several source images.

    64bit support
    On the Windows platform, you can take advantage of the larger RAM address space in 64bit.

    Bridge CS4
    Bridge is now faster and more useful than ever. Task-based workspaces increases efficiency, and new web galleries and PDF contact sheets are welcome additions. Auto-stacking analyzes and sorts your images in sequences for HDR or panoramas.

    … And much more. Visit Adobes website for more juicy details.