Return to the Streets

by | 1 year ago

After being vaccinated, I felt comfortable about practicing street photography in Downtown Los Angeles, which has been one of my favorite locations for decades. The mix of modern and classic architecture and the density of tall buildings provide a unique place to chase light and find moments. 

The majority of Los Angeles is flat and expansive. It possesses an openness that distinguishes it from cities such as New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. It’s a quality that on a clear, warm day contributes to its magnetic allure. 

Despite the myth of perpetual idyllic weather, a high percentage of life happens inside homes, offices, and cars. It’s a culture that takes people more time getting somewhere than they spend at the destination. At least it feels that way. 

The song “Walkin’ in L.A.” by the band Missing Persons makes fun of the idea that having a pedestrian life is for those without fame, wealth, and privilege. It’s something that happens out of necessity, like when your car runs out of gas and you’re left to walk the streets with an empty gas can. Walking is something best avoided. 

Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) is the antithesis to that. Though countless cars, trucks, and buses make their way through its congested streets, DTLA is a place for walkers. Its sidewalks provide some of the greater offerings of a diversity of class, race, ethnicity, and culture. Other locations draw large numbers of pedestrian traffic, such as Hollywood, Universal CityWalk, and Venice Beach, but these locations are designed specifically for diversion and commerce. Downtown is a community where life of all types exists, mix, and sometimes clash. It’s a place where the unexpected is commonplace. 

Downtown Los Angeles possesses its restaurants, apartments, government buildings, and retail stores, but the people who make and sustain this community aren’t hidden behind facades and closed doors. Lawyers, cooks, bus drivers, police officers, street sweepers, construction workers, food vendors, security guards, homeless persons, and office workers share these streets. Its proximity makes for great street photography, and results in a level of interaction that makes it easy to approach a casual stranger and strike up a conversation. 

That’s what I did when I approached this young man, who was working as a security guard for a jewelry store at the corner of Broadway and 7th Street. I complimented him on the charm at the end of his chain and we began a conversation. I asked him how things were changing in the neighborhood with the loosening of restrictions because of COVID. He explained that things were picking up and that activities would reach their peak in the afternoon if I wanted to take some good photographs. I thanked him for the tip and asked if I could make his portrait. 

While speaking to him, I assessed not only him but also the area that would serve as a background. He was working, so I didn’t want to take up much of his time by moving him to another location. I chose to photograph him where he was and to use a relatively shallow depth of field to create a contrast between him and the background. This was easy to do with the Fujifilm GFX 100s on which was mounted a GF 32–64mm f/4 zoom lens. 

It was an overcast day, which provided flat even lighting across the entire scene. I knew that I wouldn’t have an issue with exposure; however, there were several color elements in the frame, specifically the red awning, that would be distracting. I knew that the image would eventually be rendered as a black-and-white photograph. (KelbyOne members can click here to download a smaller DNG version of this image for practice purposes only.) 

Note: We’ll be processing the RAW file in Adobe Camera Raw before heading into Photoshop, but you can just as easily follow along in Lightroom Classic. 

Step One: Begin in the Basic panel by processing the RAW file as a color image. For the profile, click on the icon of four squares at the top right of the panel to open the Profile Browser. Expand the Camera Matching group and select the Camera NOSTALGIC Neg profile. Click Close to close the Profile Brower. To rein in the highlights and increase the contrast, set the Whites to –40 and the Blacks to –48. 

Step Two: There’s more detail that can be restored to the highlights, so move Highlights to –85. You’ll see increased detail on the building facade in the upper right-hand quarter of the frame. Also increase the contrast of the shadow tones by moving Shadows to –20. 

Step Three: The midtone contrast will be essential for the black-and-white rendering of the file. A good place to start with this is by adjusting Textures to +26 and Clarity to +8. 

Step Four: Along with some minor color corrections, there are shiny spots on the subject’s skin that need to be eliminated. This is easily achieved by going into the Color Mixer panel (the HSL/Color panel in Lightroom Classic) and choosing the Luminance tab. Increase the Reds by +1, Magentas by +1, Blues by +1, and reduce the Oranges slider to –14. Next, click Open to open the image in Photoshop (in Lightroom Classic, go to Photo>Edit In>Edit in Adobe Photoshop 2021). 

Step Five: Create a duplicate of the Background layer by pressing Command-J (PC: Ctrl-J). 

Step Six: Convert the new layer to black and white by navigating to Image>Adjustments>Black & White. This will launch the Black and White dialog. 

Step Seven: There are several presets available in the Black and White dialog that can provide a solid starting point. Select the Darker preset to begin, which creates a darker and higher-contrast image. 

Step Eight: The key contrast is between the subject and his surroundings. To enhance this, the changes need to focus on his jacket and skin tone. In the Black and White dialog, adjust the Reds to –10%, Yellows to 74%, and Blues to –37%. Click OK. 

Step Nine: The background is brighter than preferred. To contend with this, create a Curves adjustment layer (Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Curves). In the Properties panel (Window>Properties), click to add a point in the bottom half of the curve, and set the Input to 77 and Output to 52. This global adjustment results in a good look for the background, but the subject is now too dark; but this is easily corrected. 

Step 10: From the Toolbar, select the Brush tool (B). In the Options Bar, choose the Soft Round brush from the Brush Preset Picker, set the Opacity to 30%, Flow to 70%, and Smooth to 10%. With the layer mask thumbnail active in the Curves layer in the Layers panel, press X until the Foreground color is black. 

Step 11: With the layer mask still active, use the Brush tool to paint the subject and reduce the effect of the Curves adjustment layer on the face and body. Darkening the mask reduces the impact of the Curves adjustment in those areas. Use the Bracket keys ([ ]) on your keyboard to adjust the size of the brush as needed. 

Step 12: There are still small areas of the subject that need to be brightened, particularly beneath his neck, brow, and eyes, so let’s create a dodge layer. While holding the Option (PC: Alt) key, click on the Create a New Layer icon (+) at the bottom of the Layers panel to open the New Layer dialog. Name it “Dodging,” set the Mode to Soft Light, and check the box that reads Fill with Soft-Light-Neutral Color (50% Gray). You’ll see a gray layer appear in the Layers panel, but the Soft Light blending mode renders it invisible in the image. 

Step 13: Select the Brush tool, and press D then X to set the Foreground Color to white. With the Dodging layer active and using the same brush settings we used in Step 10, paint the areas of the subject’s face and neck that are too dark until important details are revealed. 

Step 14: A vignette can often be used to darken the edges of the frame and draw more attention to the subject; however, this image contains elements a good distance from the edges. A normal vignette would not do this. Instead, create a layer for burning. While holding the Option (PC: Alt) key, click on the Create a New Layer icon (+) at the bottom of the Layers panel to open the New Layer dialog. Name it “Burning,” set the Mode to Soft Light, and check the box that reads Fill with Soft-Light-Neutral Color (50% gray). Again, a gray layer will appear in the Layers panel, but you won’t see it in the image. 

Step 15: Select the Brush tool and press D to set the Foreground color to black. With the Burning layer active, paint around those background areas that are too bright. You can refine the overall look by adjusting the Opacity of the layer in the Layers panel. In this case, it was set for 74%.