Contrast & Curves
It’s time to get your contrast under control with tone curves.
A large part of photography is judging the various tones that make up an image and deciding where they should be placed in the final presentation of the print. Both in the image display of our cameras and in Adobe Lightroom, we see this tonal distribution visually represented in the histogram. The simple name for this tonal distribution is “contrast” and as photographers, we are constantly trying to control it. Reading the histogram and controlling the placement of tones within the image is one of the most important skills a photographer can master.
We actively adjust image contrast both when we shoot and in post processing. When we shoot, we do this by judging and manipulating the quantity, quality and direction of light. A softer, more diffuse, less directional light creates less contrast. Conversely, harder, more directional light creates brighter highlights and leaves darker shadows which equals more contrast. This is then shown to use on the camera and in Lightroom by way of the histogram. I constantly hear people say that a good exposure is described on the histogram when there is an even distribution of tones all the way across the graph (like in the image below), and while this statement is true for the image above and the histogram below, the advice is actually very poor advice. In reality, a good exposure on the histogram looks like the image it is describing.
On a grand scale, fog is the prefect light modifier for reducing contrast. If only we could command the elements and bring it in whenever we needed it. Fog has the effect of bouncing light everywhere and filling in all the shadows, thus everything becomes almost equal in value. No real shadows and no real highlights. We very rarely need this intense effect, but we do use soft boxes and fill reflectors all the time to help fill in the shadows and even out the difference between the shadows and the highlights. Pay attention to the histogram describing this image. When your photograph has no shadows, the histogram should display nothing on the left side of the graph. A proper exposure will avoid allowing the data to clip on the left (shadows) or the right (highlights) of the histogram, but the graph in between the either edge should be an accurate description of the tones you are seeing in the scene.
In photography, the further apart the shadows and the highlights are on the histogram, the higher the contrast will be in the image. In life, we create contrast by making friends with strange people, or having peculiar pets. The more peculiar and different the greater the contrast. I had two dogs growing up, one was a tiny little Cockapoo, the other was a big Golden Lab, who was also the fattest dog in Norther Arizona (he has an award to prove it)! Just watching them run down the road together was entertaining. As with Shroder and Uggums (my dogs), the further apart we are in looks or temperament from our companions, the more drastic the contrast will be in our lives, which results in more drama. This is not to say contrast and drama make the best images. Low contrast images, like the image above, create a sense of quiet which has equal value.
In the end, our choices in image contrast change the feeling our images produce. Because of this, post-production really matters and contrast is a critical portion of that. We use the contrast slider and the tone curve to make these final contrast adjustments. The contrast slider is the simple way to change the contrast in an image, but it is also the least subtle. It is like using an axe to cut your sandwich. You will definitely cut the sandwich in two, but you will also cut the plate and most likely the table as well. If you want to maximize your control over the contrast in your image you need to master the use of the Tone Curve panel. Take a look at the image below and notice that the contrast slider is left at zero. The major contrast work is achieved in the tone curves area of Lightroom, both in the Parametric and the Point Curve areas of the Tone Curves Panel. You can see that there are five different curves at work in this one image. The lower contrast in the image helps to soften the model’s already soft look. When you are creating a tone curve for the first time, keep in mind that you should only really need to do this once. If you like the effect you have created, make a preset for that tone curve to make it simple and efficient to apply your complicated curve in the future.
I have created a short video on Using the Tone Curve Panel in Lightroom to get you started into exploring this powerful tool in Lightroom. After watching the video, I encourage you to spend some time playing with your images in Lightroom using the Tone Curve pane in the Develop Module, and to get you started, make sure you download the free Tone Curve based presets I have created for you.
Using Tone Curves in Adobe Lightroom
Which tones you emphasize or de-emphasize can vary widely depending on the mood you want to create and where we want the viewer to focus. I may use dramatic lighting or soft lighting depending on the story I am telling — bright and happy, or dark and moody. However I light my subject, or set my exposure at the camera, I have only told half the story. The other half of the story is told when I open the image in Adobe Lightroom and make adjustments to the image. That is, as Ansel Adams said, the performance of the score (the capture being the musical score). We captured the sequence of the notes in our camera, but the way we play them out in post-processing provides infinite possibilities for performance. Mastering all of your tools (or instruments) is the first step to gaining complete control over your photographic voice.
Post Script: The contrast control in the tone curves panel is not only the superior place to tweak your contrast, but it is also a better place to create split tones and even cross processing effects. The power in the tone curve is quite intense. For this reason I use the tone curve in a lot of my Lightroom Presets. Let me get you started by giving you a small set of three great Classic Black and White Lightroom Presets that use the tone curve as the basis for their effect.
Classic Black and White Preset:
My first experience in photography, probably the moment I fell in love with it, was when my sister taught me how to develop a black and white print in the glow of the red lamps. I watched a blank piece of paper slowly drop below the developer and waited, not knowing what to expect. Suddenly, splotches of black began to grow across the face of the paper, like someone had spilled ink and it was running slowly across the face of the print. But the inky spill gave way in areas to a relief of white where the lamp of the enlarger had not exposed the paper and I began to see an image appear. Honestly, I don’t recall what the first image was that I saw printed. I am sure it was a meaningless high-school yearbook photo, but the experience is forever burned (exposed and fixed) in my memory. In honor of those experiences in the black and white darkroom, I have created three Adobe Lightroom classic black and white presets for you to enjoy. They won’t give you the magical experience I had in the darkroom, but they will give you the beautiful tones I was able to create after years of study and practice.
Of course, unlike in the darkroom, with digital images, we start with a color image. The images I am using here is the original color RAW image directly from Lightroom. What you will see in each subsequent image is a one click application of one of the three black and white lightroom.
Classic Black and White Preset:
One thing that was lost in the digital world of high contrast, smooth, textureless images and poppy colors and has only been brought back by digital nostalgia, was the beauty of seeing all the zones in a black and white print on fiber paper. If you don’t know what I am talking about, Ansel Adams (I sure hope the name rings a bell) developed a method for seeing and printing identifiable zones from pure black to pure white (Zones 0-10). High contrast prints on glossy or pearl paper could never really exhibit all of those zones because they would invariably skip a zone here or there and head directly from black to light grey or white. This was something my film students would get a bad grade for doing, and now almost every photographer on the planet does daily because they are in love with the contrast knob in Lightroom and they print only to glossy or pearl papers. Well, I have created a Black and White Lightroom Preset for you that will take you back to the Classic Black and White era, and if you have a proper exposure, you will feel the the beauty of a full tonal range black and white print on beautiful fiber paper, even if you are using a pearl surface paper.
Ultra Contrast Black and White Preset:
And for those of you who still want your contrast, you can get your fix with a truly high contrast black and white preset that comes from a place of subtlety and beauty rather than the brutish, blunt force of the contrast slider. That’s right, there are other places that provide much better contrast than the slider that bares the name! The tone curve is where contrast was born, the contrast knob is just a cheap imitation! Well, give it a whirl and see what you think. I’ve also added some rich and toothy grain to complete the look that you might get when you push your B&W film (which is where you would see such contrast emerging). I like to think of it as a bit of a TMAX grain. It always felt a bit like sandpaper. Very beautiful sandpaper.
Toned Black and White Preset:
Finally a bit of warm toned black and white for those who can’t stay away from color. Now in the olden days of film, we bought warm tone paper, or cool tone paper. Or we dropped our silver prints in a bath of sepia, or selenium toner. This was very different then adding a wash of color over the top of our prints. True print toning doesn’t stain the paper, it stains the silver (the dark parts of the print), which means that the paper stays white while the shadows change colors and do so a rate somewhat proportional to the amount of silver that is congregating together to make a deeper shadow. The easiest way to accomplish a toned print in Lightroom is to add color to the shadows in the Tone Panel. But I have taken you into a deeper, more robust realm… the tone curve. Oh, yes, it seems I am in there a lot. It is a very powerful tool. Here I can change the response of each color channel to respond to the tone curve independently. This give me complete control over the colors and allows me to create subtle toners that create depth and contrast in my toned black and white prints. And I give you a taste of a warm toned preset from my upcoming collection of toned black and whites. Don’t just use it. Study it and play with it. Get to know the Tone Curve panel in Lightroom.
Learn More About Lightroom Tone Curves:
Each of these presets are heavily based in the Tone Curve pane in the Lightroom Develop module. To learn more about using the Tone Curve, make sure to watch this free video about using Lightroom’s Tone Curve pane.
Linking Speed-lights together is a fantastic way to increase the volume of your shot, dramatically emphasise your subject and tell a better story. When shooting events, frequently you are in a place with poor lighting. It’s your job as a photographer to make your subject look amazing no matter what the available light is like. This video will show you the basics of linking your speedlights to all fire in sync with your camera and how they can be controlled from your master speedlight.
Shooting receptions and parties can be a lot of fun. There is usually a ton of action not to mention poignant emotions like love, and humor. Lot’s of shots from these events look like snapshots – overly contrasty and lit from a single source. Bouncing light off a wall or ceiling helps, but can only take you so far toward your ultimate goal of rich vibrant images. By placing speedlights at various points around the room you can greatly enhance the drama of your shots.
Try linking speedlights to create different effects.
Hair-lights separate the subject from the background, cross-lights bring out detail by building contrast; background-lights fill in the background adding it to the story — especially in large open environments; and fill-lights soften the light on subjects, adding to their beauty. You can use a number of tools to place the lights where you want them, including a variety of stands and wall mounts. A photograph taken while linking speedlights properly will emphasize the natural drama of, say, a bride and groom’s first dance.
Start with a master speedlight on your camera rather than a transmitter only. This will provide syncing capability, a backup light in case you have to grab a quick shot away from your setup and equally important the focus assist beam on your speedlight makes it possible for you to focus in very dark environments.
Using the link button, you can slave your disconnected speedlights to your master flash and once you have them linked, from your master flash you can set up your groups, change their mode, or turn them on and off. When shooting an actual event like a wedding reception, plan ahead for your most important moments such as cutting the cake or tossing the bouquet. Discuss with the bride or DJ where these events will happen and plan your vantage and lighting accordingly.
The best way to become skilled at linking speedlights is to get ahold of a few speedlights and go out and practice with them. This video shows you how to set up your speedlights to be in sync with each other, but being ready to shoot requires rapid deployment and changes to the settings. So, once your lights are set up, familiarize yourself with rapidly changing the settings on multiple lights. Learn to turn them up or down and on or off light – that way you can adjust or disable any lights that are causing you problems, or turn up lights that are making an effect you want to emphasise. Practice, practice, practice is the key to success with this technique. Pretty soon, making adjustments becomes natural, and you will see a significant increase in the drama and beauty of your photographs. Your audience will ask you again and again “how did you do that?” and “how come my shots don’t look like that?” and that, my friend is what makes you a pro.
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Adobe Lightroom CC
It’s official! Lightroom has joined Adobe Creative Cloud. To this point, Photoshop, Indesign, Premier, Illustrator, and others have been a part of the Creative Cloud and enjoyed the constant and simple updates and the inter app connectivity of the cloud. But Lightroom has always felt like the outcast from the group.
Today, though, it’s official; with Adobe’s release of Lightroom CC today, Lightroom is now a legitimate part of the family, and that means the future is very bright for Lightroom.
With the designation CC, comes more frequent and automated updates to the program, which will be a welcome change. It also means we can expect greater inter app connectivity in the future. Some apps are already taking advantage of the Lightroom Mobile sharing, like Adobe Slate, which can draw from any of Lightroom’s mobile shared images. I think the CC designation was long over due, so I am glad Lightroom has finally gained its spot on the Creative Cloud.
Here is a list of the most notable new features and upgrades to Lightroom CC:
Import, export and general computing speed has been increased by allowing Lightroom access to the graphics processor with GPU Acceleration. This is not a toy kind of feature that people get to play with, so I suspect it won’t get the face time it deserves. It is no small feature and will improve the entire experience of using Lightroom.
Import Directly to a Collection
A simple little feature like this one, makes a lot of difference in simple speed of organization.
Auto Size Standard Previews
Previews based on the size and need of your monitor.
Small Adjustments in the Quick Develop Panel
The quick develop buttons have finally been given a dose of subtlety.
True RAW HDR and Panorama Editing
This one is revolutionary! No more going to Photoshop to merge TIF versions of your RAW images and round tripping back to Lightroom. Lightroom CC will now merge your RAW images into Panoramic and HDR images and maintain the images for true RAW manipulation. This will open up new worlds of possibility for photographers everywhere. It means I will actually start to use HDR and Panoramic techniques in my work.
Movable Brush Pins
I have been waiting for this one for a long time, and it is finally here. Brush pins can now be moved, which allows for far greater synchronization of the local adjustments between images.
Refinement of the Local Adjustment Tools
Now, with the introduction of a modification brush tool inside the radial and gradient filter tools, working on images feels a lot more masking in photoshop. Now I can make broad strokes with the gradient and radial filters and then erase back the areas that have over stepped their bounds.
The People View in the Library Module
This is one of my favorite features. Lightroom CC has facial recognition built in! Imagine the ramifications of this for event photographers who need to identify the people in their images for more accurate and faster image tagging. Suddenly massive amounts of key-wording is something that can be done literally in ones’ sleep.
The slideshow module also gained a few new features, including the Ken Burns effect and synchronizing slides to the music.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. Matt Kloskowski and I will be reviewing these and more features today on creativelive.com and I will be going into incredible depth on these tools and more during my new CreativeLive course, Lightroom Crash Course, featuring Lightroom CC. During this course we will not only show you what is new in Lightroom CC and how to use it, but also how how it fits into the overall post-production workflow.
I am truly excited about the release of Lightroom CC with its list of new features and all that the CC designation offers now portends for the future of Lightroom. Lightroom’s future looks bright.
I had the opportunity to shoot a wedding in Ripe, England with the Panasonic GH4. This camera is a compact, light-weight camera with lenses so small you can fit them in the pocket of your jacket. I have always carried around a little Canon point and shoot that takes RAW images, but no point and shoot can match the experience of a SLR style, through the lens viewfinder experience. So the GH4 made for the perfect traveling companion. I kept it with me throughout the wedding, and as I traveled throughout the country before and after the job. While I shot, I has little experiments in mind, like latitude experiments and macro experiments, low light and motion experiments. I have posted the results here in the blog. The incredible thing about this little camera is that it also captures 4k video as well, but we will stick with the still photos for this post.
My total experience with the Panasonic GH4 was wonderful. It’s small and lightweight body and lenses make it the perfect camera for hiking, and traveling. The quality is quite good and when compared to any small sensor camera, is absolutely fantastic. One could use the camera as their only camera and carry four times the lenses in half the space. Using it in conjunction with my smart phone was helpful as well. Rather than taking decent photos on my iPhone to post on social media, I was able to take superior images on the GH4 and send them to my phone for social media purposes.
The only draw back on the camera is the increase in depth of field due to the chip size and lens lengths. But that is a standard issue with micro four-thirds cameras. For those of us who like to live on the edge of focus, it feels like a limitation. But you get used to the feeling of having all your photos in focus and after a while, it stops feeling like a limitation and starts feeling like a blessing.
Panasonic is making exciting things for photo enthusiasts and pros alike. My good friend and photographer, Isaac Bailey, shoots with a Panasonic micro four-thirds camera and here’s what he has to say about it:
“I love my Panasonic mirrorless camera. It has opened a new realm of fun in personal photography for me. Using the control I get from my big DSLR with tiny size and weight, I can really go anywhere with this baby and make great shots” -Isaac Bailey Photographer Phoenix
Traveling with a camera is the only thing I know. I have never been able to go anywhere without needing a camera with me, but there is always a battle between high quality and compact size. The micro four-thirds market has opened up a new world of possibilities for compact PLUS quality and Panasonic is leading the charge. Heavy cameras may be a thing of the past in the not too distant future. Hurray for that!
Office Hours LR Aperture Import from Jared Platt on Vimeo. Finally, there is a way to take your entire iPhoto or Aperture library and import it into Lightroom. This video will show you how to accomplish this task. Now you can take all those photos that have been held hostage by Apple’s ridiculously bad photo software and get them into a system that makes sense. You will need to download the latest version of Lightroom 5 and Adobe’s Aperture Importer plugin for Lightroom, which I show you how to do on this video.
This interview with me from Blurb Books just ran via PDN. I thought you might be interested in the content of the interview as well as the great discount for blurb books. Enjoy the interview…
Jared Platt is a commercial photographer, portraitist, and educator based in Arizona who regularly runs workshops and webinars for Profoto and CreativeLive. He’s also an Adobe® Lightroom® devotee and a strong believer in the power of photography to tell stories. When he recently appeared on a CreativeLive segment, he impressed us with his thoughts on music, rhythm, and the photographic story arc.
Why is storytelling so important to you as a photographer?
Photography is storytelling. Some people tell a story in one image, which is always awe-inspiring, and some people tell stories over a series of photographs. But, all photographs have the aim of telling a story. Whenever I am taking a photograph, whether it is at a wedding, on the street, on a commercial shoot, or of a child, I am always looking for the story I want to tell in that one image—or series of images. I have an intense need to tell these stories that I see to everyone who will see my images, because I believe those stories will touch them, matter to them, and make some kind of an impression on them.
How does Lightroom help you with that aspect of your work?
Lightroom is essential to the process of selecting and editing the extreme volume of work I have in front of me constantly. A photo historian, the late Bill Jay, used to remind me that a project (no matter how perfect it was) was of no value until it was completed and available for people to experience. Lightroom helps me get superior work completed efficiently, so I can share it with the world and get busy telling the next story. Companies like Blurb, who connect with Lightroom, have made the process of sharing stories with the world even easier. Producing a masterful photo book is within any photographer’s reach.
How do you use books in your professional life?
As a photographer in the digital age, I transmit images via Facebook, blogs, websites, iPads, and FTP servers. But there is something extremely special about quality paper, printing, and binding. My clients receive physical proof books made by Blurb, which I create directly in Lightroom. I never tire of hearing the exclamations from my clients about how beautiful their books are and how much they love them. Books are also essential in selling my services to future clients. Photo books and magazines are so comfortable and accessible to the client who is relaxing in the studio showroom, and as the client is looking through the book, the book is selling them on my vision and educating them on my style.
Take 20% off any print book order. Use the code PDN11 at checkout.*
And naturally this is related to storytelling…
Making a book takes the opportunity for storytelling to a whole new level. With multiple images spread over days, months, or years, it can come together to make extremely poignant statements. Add titles and graphics and text to the mix and you have limitless opportunities to connect with people and help them see what you see. I think when people say, “This is beautiful,” they are really saying, “I see what you see, and what you see is beautiful.”
How does your personal work differ from your client work?
There is no difference between my personal work and the work I do for my clients. I let one inform and alter the other, so, as my personal work shifts and expands, so does my commercial work. I am simply a visual storyteller. I tell stories about my clients’ lives, products, and events, and I tell stories about my life. I hope they are all interesting to the viewer. If they aren’t, I need to improve.
If money and time were no object, what project would you most want to take on?
I find creative people fascinating. Money and time are always an object and yet I am still on a quest to photograph and interview creative people of all types, from all genres of creativity, to experience their energy, understand their methods, and tell their story. So if money were no object, I would continue full steam ahead telling the story of the creative mind. In a creative way, of course…
At Blurb, we celebrate creativity in all of its myriad expressions. Photographers like Jared embody the creative freedom that our self-publishing platform enables.
Learn more about Jared Platt
Photography by Jared Platt
Tell your story with photography in a beautiful book and save
Take 20% off any print book order. Use the promo code PDN11 at checkout.*
*Offer valid through December 31, 2014 (11:59 p.m. local time). Valid for printed books only. A 20% discount is applied to your print book product total with no minimum purchase required. Maximum discount is USD $100, AUD $100, CAD $100, EUR €100, or GBP £100 off product total. This offer is good for one-time use, and cannot be combined with volume discounts, other promotional codes, gift cards, or used for adjustments on previous orders.
We went out along the Salt River in Arizona for our webinar on TTL lighting control with Profoto equipment. In our first shots, we had our model wear a fantastically non-traditional wedding dress by Simply Bridal. Samantha, our model, was a an absolute champ. Balancing in that form fitting dress was quite a challenge in our out of the water. We had a great time and got some fantastic images. Here are the images we used in the webinar, and you can see the full webinar online, just follow this link to Profoto’s webinar page.
For this month’s webinar for Profoto, we took our crew and a kit of Profoto B1 off camera flashes out to the lakes in the desert of Phoenix, Arizona. This time, instead of shooting Canon, we were shooting with a Nikon D800 on the Profoto Air Remote TTL for Nikon. Now Nikon users can also take advantage of the TTL abilities of the Profoto B1 lights. Join me on our Profoto webinars on September 17, 2014 for a free webinar on shooting in TTL and Auto Camera Modes.
Register now: www.profoto.com/int/webinar
We spent the morning in a boxing club and event venue in downtown Phoenix, Arizona called The Duce for a complex lighting webinar for Profoto (the light shaping company). In this webinar we wanted to create a difficult lighting scenario where we had to build the lighting completely from scratch. Our boxing motif was a perfect opportunity to add a little incongruous wardrobe change, and that was a fantastically non-traditional wedding dress (provided by Simply Bridal. Although this was a stylized photoshoot, I think it proves an interesting point… that couples could do a better job at thinking outside the box when it comes to their wedding and engagement portraits. If you are a couple that is hiring a photographer or a photographer who has been hired by a couple to shoot an engagement session or a wedding portrait session, work together and encourage each other to get a little more inventive on the photo session.
Here are the favorites final images from our stylized portrait session.
You can see the entire photoshoot and a discussion about it in an hour long webinar here. Watch he brief trailer for the webinar below.
Coming up on Wednesday, August 27 at 10 am Pacific time is the latest Profoto lighting webinar with myself and the Profoto B1 off camera lights. Register online at www.profoto.com/live and tune in as we build a complex lighting scenario from scratch.
Music on this teaser is courtesy of Triple Scoop Music.