Previsualization And Post-Processing; Enhancing A “Monte Portrait”
By
Monte Zucker
• Posted Nov 1, 2005

I've always said, "See the finished picture before you even snap the shutter!"

Well, sometimes it doesn't work, especially now that we're able to do so much postproduction work in Photoshop. Such was the case recently in Savannah, Georgia, when I photographed sculptor Bob Friedman. I wanted to do a strong character portrait because of his artistic background, but I had no idea that I would come up with something like this!

The portrait began here...

...and ended here!

For the picture I used a Canon EOS 20D and a 24-70mm lens, shooting in large JPEG format. A Delkin memory card recorded the portrait. Lighting was with two Westcott Spiderlites and a Westcott silver reflector (Monte's Illuminator). The lights create a steady fluorescent glow, not a flash. What you see is what you get. The ISO of the camera was set to 800. I shot using Aperture Priority, stopping down the lens to f/6.3, so that I would get both eyes in focus.

I used one of the lights in profile position, lighting the right half of his face. The second light was at approximately a 90Þ angle from my camera, creating the modified loop-light pattern on his face. The reflector was positioned to the left side of his face. The far edge of the reflector remained forward of his face. Had the reflector been placed beside his face it would have brought light in from another direction. I didn't want to do that. I simply wanted to help push the light around onto the dark side of his face, retaining detail in the shadowed areas. The background was the black side of Westcott's 5/6-foot black/white background.
While composing the original picture I cropped in close because he didn't have much hair on the top of his head and I didn't want the light area to take your eye out of the picture. After viewing the image on my computer's screen I decided to "go for it" and cropped in even tighter.
The crop allowed me to keep his eyes 1/3 of the way down from the top of the portrait. I knew that this is the strongest position for eyes in a close-up of this kind. I also left room in front of him in the direction he was facing. The crop also allowed me to include his incredible eyebrows and enough of his hair and head to give the viewer of the portrait a sense of his entire head.

I changed the picture to black and white, because I felt that the color detracted from the intensity of his face.
The way my Photoshop guru, Eddie Tapp, taught me to change a photograph to black and white was to go to Channels. Look at each channel--red, blue, and green--and then select the one that most closely resembles what you want to capture in the final transformation. For most strong men's portraits I usually select the green channel. Once I make my selection I need to get rid of the color that's still residing in the file. To do that I go to Image/Mode/Grayscale. The computer then asks me if I want to get rid of everything else. Yes. Finally, I bring the mode back to RGB, because I was taught to do it that way. No questions asked! After changing it to black and white I usually make refinements in the tonal range of the picture by adjusting the whites, blacks, and mid tones in Levels.

The next stage of preparation is one that I really love doing. I go into the Layers palette and click on the half-dark, half-white circle at the bottom. This creates an adjustment layer. Then you have a choice of any number of adjustments you want to make. I select Curves. When Curves comes up on the screen I take the highlight end of the line (usually top right) and bring it down. If I want the edges to go completely black, I bring it all the way down to the bottom. The resulting image on the screen turns completely black. I've basically covered the image with a layer of the same picture that has been darkened down to where you see nothing.
Now, here is where the fun begins. I make certain the colors at the bottom of the Tools palette are black and white, black being the upper (primary) color selected. Using the paintbrush, painting with black removes the dark overlay. I usually start at 100 percent opacity to clear the face. Then, I may drop the opacity of the paintbrush down to as low as 10 percent to soften the edges. Of course, you can change the opacity of the entire layer in the Layers palette in order to achieve a lighter, more transparent layer of the same thing.

If you've overdone the painting away with black, you can put back the deeper tone by painting with white. In a nutshell, black reveals and white conceals. It's as simple as that.
For this portrait I wanted to eliminate detail at the top of his head. I felt that the light forehead took the viewer's eye out of the picture, so I let the top of the picture go to completely black. I did the same at the bottom, feeling that I didn't need to show anything there either. This is pretty unusual for me, because I usually try to create a base to each of my portraits. In this case, however, I liked cropping just above the tip of the chin. The angle of the face in the composition was strong enough for me.

The crop and the blackness at the top and bottom do not break my cardinal rule: If you like the way it looks, go with it! I liked it and I did it! Of course, it takes a lot of experience to develop good taste. When one is just starting out it's easy to like something without knowing if it's really good or not. That works some of the time, but an educated opinion usually works better.

Some of the biggest changes took place at my next stage of preparation. First, I sharpened the entire image by going to Filter/Sharpen/Unsharp Mask. I set the Unsharp Mask at: Amount--100 percent, Radius--1.0 pixels, Threshold--0. This showed up an amazing amount of detail throughout his face that I didn't see at first.
Then, I had the most fun of this entire process by using the Burning and Dodging tools. Everywhere there was a highlight on his face I made it brighter using the Dodge tool at about 10 percent opacity, selecting the highlights up top (Range) where you have the ability to select whether you want to affect the highlights, mid tones, or shadows. To increase some of the definition between the highlights and shadowed parts of his face I used the Burn tool at about a 10 percent opacity, selecting up top (Range) to work on the shadows. Undoubtedly, I spent more time during this stage of the transformation process of this portrait than during any of the other stages. Every time I brightened a highlight or deepened a shadow I marveled at how effective it was. I loved the three repeating curves in hairs of his left eyebrow.

The final stage of transformation was to work on his eyes. At almost every stage along the way I was always working while viewing the image at 100 percent. With the eyes I went even larger, so that I could really see what I was doing.

Again using the Burning and Dodging tools, I cleaned up some of the white areas of his eyes, sometimes working on the bright areas and sometimes working on the mid tones. I didn't want to brighten them so much that they would look artificial. I'd seen that too many times in images that had been overworked by other photographers.
I even deepened some of the tones in the irises of his eyes, bringing out the depth of them. For comparison I've put together close-ups of the before and after of his eyes.

Finally, here is the finished portrait. Did I have this in mind when I first created the image? Yes and no. I wanted to create something artistic, something special. Did I know how I was going to do it? Not really. I knew that the 2/3 facial angle would show off his features the best. I always start out with a facial analysis. I also knew that by using two main lights--one split-lighting his face and the second one creating the modified loop-light pattern that I use for almost all of my portraits--I could create great three-dimensional lighting. I had just never worked the highlights and shadows as much as I did here. I also didn't know that I was going to convert the picture into black and white when I first began it.

Having learned negative retouching back in the "olden days" when we worked with pencils was a great help in teaching me how to brighten the highlights, work on specular highlights, etc. Yes, the experiences I learned as a kid all came back to me when I created and completed this portrait.
So, even though I thought I was seeing the finished picture in the viewfinder of my lens before I took the picture, I really had no idea that it would end up like this!