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A Memorable Moment

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In my family home, my baptismal candle sat in a prominent place in the family room. It was at least 15 high with small illustrations along its length. Each image noted significant moments expected for my journey, including first communion, confirmation, high school graduation, and marriage. I’ve never seen such a thing in anyone else’s home, so it was likely an artifact of its time and my Dominican-Catholic background. Yet, it clearly expressed the seminal moments that a young life could expect. 

As my wife and I find ourselves at the age where the children of our friends and family are starting to get married, I recently thought about that candle. It’s a strange feeling witnessing young men and women, who I still freshly remember as kids, beginning a new life together with a spouse. It’s beautiful, heartwarming, and makes me feel older than I care to admit. 

The first of these weddings occurred a few weeks ago in Pismo Beach, California. The special event provided an opportunity to reconnect with friends we hadn’t seen in years. It also offered us a welcome break from the routines and limitations of life still under the cloud of a pandemic. The outdoor venue promised a memorable location and safe conditions for people to gather. 

The wedding ceremony was conducted on a clear day beside a beautiful avocado orchard, followed by a reception held in a 19th-century barn converted into a stunning event space. Shafts of late afternoon light passed through the slats of wood that served as the barn’s walls and glinted off a chandelier made from old mason jars. 

CAREFUL EXPOSURE 

We waited for the young couple and their entourage to enter, and I noted the streaming light coming through the barn doors. It moved throughout the barn’s length and ended at the long table where the newly married couple and the wedding party would be seated. I knew that the light could provide for an incredible photograph. 

As I was a guest rather than the official photographer, I positioned myself so as not to get in the way of the two photographers whose job was to document the day. Once I found my position, I knew that I faced a technical challenge. When the couple eventually walked in, the light would be behind them. Their faces and much of the barn’s interior would fall into shadow. So, I had to consider my exposure carefully. I wanted to retain the details of the scene outside the barn while retaining enough detail that I could recover later in Photoshop. A flash or a strobe would have certainly helped, but my Fuji X-Pro3 and an XF 27mm f/2.8 lens were all I had. I chose to underexpose by approximately 1.5 stops and waited for them to walk in. When they did, I fired off several frames in rapid succession, hoping that I had made the right choice in exposing the scene. I wouldn’t know until I opened the image in Photoshop. 

Such high-contrast scenes are common enough that it’s best to be prepared for them. By understanding the limitations of your camera’s dynamic range, the choice of how to expose the scene becomes critical. It results in a file where it’s more about enhancing a photograph than fixing or overcoming a mistake. 

[KelbyOne members can click here to download a smaller DNG version of this image to follow along for practice purposes only. Also, even though we’ll be editing this photo in Adobe Camera Raw, you can easily do the same steps in Lightroom Classic (LrC).

STEP ONE: Open the file in Adobe Camera Raw, go to the Profile pull-down menu in the Edit section (LrC: Basic panel), and select Adobe Landscape, rather than the default of Adobe Color. This provides a warmer rendering of the scene, which is preferable. 

STEP TWO: Next, go to the Histogram panel and click on the triangle at the upper-left and then the triangle at the upper right. The left icon is the Shadow Clipping Warning, which appears as a blue overlay on the image; the right triangle is the Highlight Clipping Warning, which appears as a red overlay. The respective color overlays inform you of the clipping of any shadow and highlight details, respectively. You’ll also know these warnings are active when you see a white outline around the triangles in the Histogram panel. 

STEP THREE: We’ll do most of the grunt work to address the underexposure and produce the intended result in the Basic panel. First, we’ll deal with the underexposure by increasing the Exposure slider to +1.60, which causes major clipping warnings for the highlights in the sky, curtains and dress, but we’ll address that in a moment. Decrease the Contrast by moving the slider to –5. 

STEP FOUR: To recover the highlight and shadow detail, set the Highlights to –66, Shadows to +42, Whites to +14, and Blacks to –10. You’ll see a dramatic difference as compared to the original version of the RAW file. Had the image not been purposefully underexposed at capture, details in the sky and dress would have been unrecoverable even with a RAW file. The opening of the shadows would have also resulted in more noise and less color accuracy. 

STEP FIVE: While the overall brightening of the image has improved, it could benefit from some subtle improvements to the midtones using the Texture, Clarity, and Dehaze tools. Set Textures to +8, Clarity to –10, and Dehaze to +7. 

STEP SIX: Tweak the color slightly by increasing the Vibrance to +12 and decreasing the Saturation to –5. 

STEP SEVEN: The image requires some improvements to contrast. So in the Curve panel (LrC: Tone Curve), select the Point Curve (it’s the second icon to the right of the word “Adjust”). From the Point Curve pull-down menu below the Input and Output fields, select Medium Contrast. Apply a slight tweak by clicking on the control point in the upper right-hand corner and reducing the highlight Output from 255 to 252. This eliminates the blown-out highlight at the bottom of the dress. At this point, you can disable the Highlight and Shadow Clipping Warning indicators in the Histogram panel to remove the blue and red overlays. 

STEP EIGHT: Bring back some of the colors of the sky using the Color Mixer panel (LrC: HSL/Color panel). Set the Adjust pull-down menu to HSL (LrC: click on HSL in the panel’s header) and, with the All tab selected at the top, go to the Hue section and set Blues to –10. In the Saturation section, set Blues to +11. In Luminance, set Aquas to –5 and Blues to –21. 

To brighten the couple’s faces and the bride’s wedding dress, go to the Luminance section and increase Oranges to +21 and Yellows to +63. 

STEP NINE: For more significant emphasis on the couple, apply a vignette. Go to the Effects panel and click on the toggle to the right of Vignetting to reveal more options. Set Vignetting (LrC: Amount) to –17, Midpoint to 20, Roundness to 44, and Feather to 100. 

STEP 10: To personalize the overall color rendering, go to the Calibration panel and adjust the Saturation settings for each color value. In this example, set Red Primary to –12, Green Primary to +17 , and Blue Primary to –23. 

STEP 11: The floor of the barn is too bright and distracts from the couple. Use the Graduated Filter (G; LrC: M) to darken this area selectively. With the Shift key depressed, drag the cursor from the bottom of the image up to the bride’s neckline. Check on the Overlay (LrC: Tools>Tool Overlay>Always Show) and Mask Options (LrC: Show Selected Mask Overlay below the image) to see the area impacted by the Graduated Filter. To change the Overlay color, click on the color swatch to the right of Mask Options to choose your preferred color in the Color Picker and click OK (LrC: Tools>Adjustment Mask Overlay). Finally, set the Exposure to –1.00 and Highlights to –66. 

STEP 12: Though the overall image looks good, the expressions and portions of the bride and groom remain in shadow. This can be improved by brightening their faces with the Adjustment Brush (K). Set Exposure to +0.10, Contrast to –6, Shadows to +10, and Clarity to –3. Hold the Command (PC: Ctrl) key and tap the + key to zoom into the couple. With the Overlay (LrC: Tools>Tool Overlay>Never Show) and Mask Options (LrC: Show Selected Mask Overlay below the image) disabled, paint over the couple’s faces and upper bodies, and then the bouquet. Use the Bracket keys on your keyboard to adjust the size of the brush as needed. Enable the Overlay and Mask Options to check the areas you’ve painted. 

Click the Open button at the bottom right of Camera Raw to open the image in Photoshop (LrC: Command-E [PC: Ctrl-E]). 

STEP 13: As this image is intended to be shared via email and for posts on social media, we’ll apply some sharpening. Right-click on the Background layer and select Duplicate Layer. Name the layer “Sharpen for Web.” 

STEP 14: Next, go to Filter>Sharpen and select Smart Sharpen. In the dialog that appears, use the mouse to maneuver the image in the preview area until you see the bride. For the full-res image, we set the Amount to 248%, Radius to 0.9%, and Reduce Noise to 18%; but for the lower-res practice image, you’ll have to experiment with lower values. Click OK. 

The ability to recognize the potential pitfalls of a high-contrast scene made all the difference in this image. Experience with both the camera and the software, especially Adobe Camera Raw, was key to producing a great final photograph. Though today’s technology provides fantastic flexibility and control, photographers must rely on their experience to understand what they see, and know how they want their final photograph to appear.

ALL IMAGES BY IBARIONEX PERELLO