A Workman’s Portrait

by | 1 year ago

My father was a pressman. He worked at a print shop on a massive and thunderous four-color press. As a boy, the machine was like a huge metal beast whose body was made up of fast-spinning cylinders and formidable handles, levers, and buttons. The constant k-thunk, k-thunk sound it made as it spit out sheet after sheet of paper on a wooden palette was hypnotic. Seeing him astride the machine as if here were taming it filled me with awe and respect. 

His work clothes were blue jeans and a work shirt, the latter which bore his name in embroidered cursive. The clothes were covered in chaotic patches of color from the heavy inks that he applied to the printing plates. 

It’s one of the reasons why workmen, people who work with their hands and bodies, have fascinated me. It’s not just the clothing they wear, but the way they carry themselves, often free of pretensions and self-consciousness. The years of hard labor can be both obvious and subtle, resulting in a combination of elements that reveal the uniqueness of the person. 

It was that quality that drew me to this construction worker I encountered in downtown Los Angeles. I approached him and asked him a few questions about the construction project on which he was working. He generously answered my questions after which I asked if I could take his photograph to which he kindly agreed. 

Even before asking him, I had already noted the quality of the light. Though the sun was coming from behind him in the east, sunlight was being reflected off skyscrapers behind me. This resulted in a hard-fill light that illuminated his face and the older office in the distance. I placed the sun purposely along the edge of his construction hat, creating a sunburst. 

The reflected light provided naturally occurring fill light for his face, preventing him from being rendered as a silhouette. I recognized that the high-contrast scene, however, posed challenges, especially concerning exposure. 

I underexposed the photograph to retain as much highlight detail as possible in the sky, but still retain good quality shadows that I could tweak in Photoshop. Though the image didn’t look ideal on the back of my camera’s LCD screen, I knew from experience that I had all that I needed to produce a quality photograph. 

Photographing with Challenging Light 

When photographing under circumstances with challenging lighting, and one doesn’t have the benefit of a reflector or strobe to control contrast, exposure is a primary consideration. It’s important to be familiar with the dynamic range of the camera, beyond mere specifications. The experience of photographing under such circumstances and processing the images later in Photoshop provides the photographer valuable insight into the capabilities and the limitations of the camera. Even the most advanced cameras have their limits, and it’s important to be well versed on what those are. This results in choices that ensure the resulting file maintains as much information throughout the entire tonal range, even when shooting and saving images as RAW files. 

By making such informed choices when taking the image, the work in Photoshop is more about enhancing the photograph, rather than repairing problems and mistakes. Note: The following Adobe Camera Raw steps will also work in Lightroom Classic. KelbyOne members can click here to download a downsized PDF of this file to follow along. 

Step One: After opening the image in Photoshop’s RAW converter, Adobe Camera Raw, click on the black and white triangles in the upper left- and right-hand corners of the Histogram. When enabled, clipped highlights appear as a red overlay over the photograph; clipped shadows appear as a blue overlay. 

Step Two: To address the overall underexposure, go to the Basic panel and increase Exposure by +50. This results in brightness on the face, vest, and dark T-shirt. 

Step Three: Darken the highlights and eliminate the blown-out highlight in the upper left-hand corner by reducing the Highlights to –60. The red overlay disappears, and subtle highlight detail is revealed in the sky. 

Step Four: Reveal some shadow details by setting the Shadows slider to +16. 

Step Five: To increase contrast, adjust the Blacks slider to –14, until you see the blue overlay on the lower half of his vest. Though some detail is lost here, it doesn’t negatively impact the overall look of the image. 

Step Six: Increase the contrast by setting the Contrast slider to +25. This largely impacts the midtones and doesn’t result in the clipping of shadows or highlights.

Step Seven: To increase the punch of the colors, adjust the Vibrance to +10. Click Open to launch the image in Photoshop. If you’re working in Lightroom Classic, go to Photo>Edit In>Edit in Adobe Photoshop 2021. 

Step Eight: To eliminate the distraction of the sawhorse leaning against the sign on the left, use the Crop tool (C). Depress the Shift button while dragging in the top-left corner of the crop boundary to retain the proportions of the frame. Press Enter to commit the crop. 

Step Nine: The image could do with some more contrast enhancement, but you don’t want to increase the color saturation, especially with the vest. Create a Curves adjustment layer (Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Curves). In the Curves Properties panel (Window>Properties), go to the Preset drop-down menu and choose Increase Contrast (RGB). Then in the Layers panel, select Luminosity for the blending mode and reduce the Opacity to 35%. 

Step 10: The color of the vest is too saturated and is a distraction. To reduce its prominence, create a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer (Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Hue/Saturation), and then select Yellows in the drop-down menu below the Preset drop-down menu in the Properties panel. Reduce both the Saturation and Lightness to –15. 

Step 11: Consolidate all those changes into a new merged layer at the top of the layer stack by simultaneously pressing the Shift-Command-Option-E (PC: Shift-Ctrl-Alt-E) keys. 

Step 12: To make adjustments to the sky, go to the menu bar and choose Select>Sky. This creates a selection around the sky that appears as marching ants at the top of the frame. 

Step 13: With the selection enabled, create a Levels adjustment layer (Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Levels). The adjustment layer will use the current selection to create its layer mask. Adjust the Levels control in the Properties menu by dragging the shadow slider on the left to 52 and the midtone slider to 0.65. 

Step 14: To soften the edges of the mask, click on the layer mask thumbnail in the Layers panel to make it active, and then go to Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur. Set the Radius to 4.5 pixels and click OK. 

Step 15: To darken the street on either side of the subject, create a burn layer by holding the Option (PC: Alt) key and clicking on the Create a New Layer icon (+) at the bottom of the Layers panel. In the New Layer dialog that appears, select Soft Light for the Mode and click on the checkbox for Fill with Soft-Light-Neutral Color (50% Gray). Name the layer “Burning” and Click OK. 

Step 16: Press D to set the Foreground color to black, select the Brush tool (B) with a soft round brush, and set its Opacity to 30% and Flow to 70% in the Options Bar. Then paint on the area of the street until darkened slightly. 

Step 17: To brighten the face, create another new layer while pressing the Option (PC: Alt) key. As before in the New Layer dialog, select Soft Light for the Mode, and click on the checkbox for Fill with Soft-Light-Neutral Color (50% Gray). Name this layer “Dodging” and click OK. 

Step 18: Press X to set the Foreground color to white, and with the Brush tool still set to an Opacity of 30% and Flow of 70%, paint the face until sufficiently brightened. To refine it, reduce the layer Opacity to less than 100%, such as 42% as shown here. 

And we’re done! If you started out in Adobe Camera Raw, press Command-S (PC: Ctrl-S) to save your document, set the Format to Photoshop to maintain all the layers, navigate to where you want to save the file and click Save. If you started in Lightroom Classic, save and close the file, and your image will be sent back to Lightroom.