The right light


Fifty years ago, Hollywood’s glamour photographers used dramatic studio lighting to create celebrity portraits. They weren’t the first artists to understand the ability of light and shadow to alter the mood of an image, however. The old master painters, such as Rembrandt, Rubens, and Valazquez, had a marvelous understanding of the subtleties of light and its dominance in the look of their portraits.

Digital imaging tools allow photographers to recreate a look similar to the old masters’ without complicated studio lighting setups or hours in the darkroom dodging and burning a print. Not every image should be dark and dramatic, but in the right situation, it can make powerful portraits.

By using basic digital imaging techniques you can make images more interesting by isolating elements and focusing attention on what’s most important: your subject.

  1. Start with a good exposure.
    If you start with an image that has too much contrast (or not enough), your modifications will look fake, and any imperfections will be obvious. Use burn tools to darken and give the illusion of depth and to compensate for flat lighting. Use the clone tool to remove distracting areas in the background and for touch ups.
  2. Create a new layer so you can experiment on top of your image and easily undo what doesn’t work. If your program won’t do layers, just make the selections directly on the image and be sure to save versions as you go.
  3. Make a feather of the selection.
    Depending on the size and resolution of your portrait, experiment with the number of pixels to get the broadest, smoothest transition possible. We recommend anywhere from 70 to 200 pixels.
  4. Darken the surrounding environment.
    There are a variety of ways to go about this: using the opacity controls, adjusting the brightness and contrast of the selected area, or playing with the level controls to get the density you want. To smooth out the image and make for a subtle effect, adjust the transparency of your layers so more of the portrait shows through. If you don’t get the gradation, density, and contrast you’re looking for after one try, make another selection, bigger than the first, and repeat the same steps. Now you’ll have another level of darkness built up. When you’re satisfied, merge the layers together.
  5. You can call it quits here, or go the extra mile.
    Experiment with making your image black and white, diffusing it, or both. This is the time to play with any ideas you have.

By William Sawalich, exerpts printed with permission, PC Photo, July/August 1999.

Visit the HP Digital Photography Centre

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