Revealing the Moment

by | 1 year ago

The greatest challenge faced by any street photographer is capturing the “theater of the street.” It’s a phrase that aptly describes a special moment that captures the relationship between the subject and the environment or another person within the frame. It’s more than creating a graphic image that leverages the presence of strong shadows or a quirky character; it’s an image that’s focused on a moment of human behavior. 

Such moments are fleeting, requiring more than fast autofocus and reflexes. It demands that the photographer be able to read a scene as it’s playing out. He or she has to understand that all moments evolve, having a beginning, middle, and end. With that understanding, the photographer can anticipate that peak moment where all the visual elements of light and shadow, line and shape, color and gesture culminate in a moment that can only be captured in a fraction of a second. 

Such was the case with this scene in Vancouver, where a woman was speaking to a man. Though I couldn’t hear the woman’s words and the man’s back was to me, her gestures and body language made it clear that she was giving him directions. The expressive gesture of her repeatedly pointing her finger provided me both a visual flourish and an important storytelling element. It was a gesture that she repeated, giving me time to find my composition and to take several frames, paying careful attention not only to her hand but to the appearance of her face over his shoulder. Only one of the images featured part of her face and the pointing finger, which was all I needed. 

Because this was a busy street, there were other elements in the frame that I had to consider. There were several distracting elements including some people on the right and the sun shining on a skyscraper in the back. I recognized that these were things that I couldn’t address by a compositional choice. It would need to be addressed later. 

Though I successfully captured the moment and produced an image that was both sharp and well-exposed, the unedited RAW file didn’t convey the moment I had experienced on that city street. I needed to work on the image in Adobe Raw Converter and Photoshop to produce an image that aptly reflected the moment. 

Though Photoshop provides an abundance of tools with which to process the photograph, I preferred to do as much as I could within Adobe Camera Raw. This allowed me to leverage the flexibility of the RAW file to refine the look of the image. The convenience of a single interface window provides easy access to all the controls that I need to take care of some critical global and isolated adjustments. With the RAW file well-exposed, retaining valuable shadow and highlight details, there was much that could be achieved before sending the image over to Photoshop. 

Note: Even though I’m using Adobe Camera Raw here, you can follow along in Lightroom Classic, as both applications have the same features. I’ll notate any differences between the two apps as we go along. 

With an image like this, I wasn’t just looking for a well-processed RAW file, but a file that helped tell the story of the moment. So, along with global adjustments, I used the various tools and controls within Adobe Camera Raw to emphasize or deemphasize certain areas of the frame. As a result, the file sent to Photoshop wouldn’t require extensive processing. Instead, I could use Photoshop to prepare the image for output as a print or for posting online. (KelbyOne members can click here to download a smaller version of this file to follow along.) 

Step One: Work begins in Adobe Camera Raw, using the Crop & Rotate tool (C; Crop Overlay tool [R] in Lightroom Classic) to address the off-kilter composition of the image. Enabling the Straighten tool (A; the Straighten tool doesn’t have a shortcut in Lightroom Classic), use the vertical line at the edge of the dark office building to straighten the image. Just click-and-drag the Straighten tool along the edge of the building, and when you release the mouse button, the image will automatically rotate. Press Enter to commit the crop. 

Step Two: The image is well exposed, retaining good shadow and highlight detail. But because the scene is backlit, the woman’s face, which is an important storytelling element, is underexposed. We’ll adjust this in the Basic panel by increasing Exposure by +0.60 (or half a stop) and the Shadows slider to +25. This increases the brightness of the mid- and shadow tones without blocking up the shadows. 

Step Three: The office building and the man on the right of the frame are brighter than the main subjects and thus distracting. Reducing the Highlights to –50 darkens those areas to a satisfactory level. 

Step Four: To increase the midtone contrast, we’ll increase the Texture by +8 and Clarity by +5. This provides the image some pop without creating an unnatural appearance. 

Step Five: Using the Color Mixer panel (HSL panel in Lightroom Classic), different parts of the frame can be made slightly brighter or darker. To further brighten the face of the woman and the man’s head, increase the Oranges slider in the Luminance tab to +55. The blue shirt on the right is darkened by moving the Aquas slider to –15 and the Blues to –14. Note that the sky and the windows of the buildings darken, as well. 

Step Six: To perform isolated adjustments, select the Adjustment Brush tool. Adjust the Exposure slider to +0.50, Shadows to +5, and Contrast to +5. Using the Left Bracket key on your keyboard, reduce the size of the brush so that it encompasses the woman’s face. Paint over her face to brighten it, while leaving the rest of the image untouched. 

Step Seven: Next, darken select areas of the image. Continuing with the Adjustment Brush tool, click on the Create a New Adjustment icon (+) at the top left of the Brush panel (click New in Lightroom Classic) to create a new Adjustment Brush. Click on the reset icon (curved arrow over a line) to the right of where it reads “Selective Edits” to reset all the sliders (double-click the word “Effect” in Lightroom Classic). 

Set Exposure to –0.45, Highlights to –14, and Contrast to +5, and then paint on the bright area of the man’s khaki shorts and blue T-shirt on the right edge of the frame, the bright part of the woman’s arm and hand, and the brighter parts of the office building on the upper right. Press K to exit the Adjustment Brush, and then click Open to launch the image in Photoshop (Photo>Edit In>Edit In Adobe Photoshop 2021 in Lightroom Classic). 

Step Eight: To bring greater emphasis to the two people at the center of the frame, and to minimize the distraction of the man in the blue shirt, select the Crop tool (C). Click in the image to activate the crop boundary, and while holding down the Shift key, drag down the upper right-hand corner of the cropping boundary until only one vertical column of the office windows are visible. Make sure you don’t cut off the woman’s index finger. Press Enter to complete the crop. 

Step Nine: To increase the contrast, click on the Create New Adjustment Layer (half-black/half-white circle) at the bottom of the Layers panel and select Curves. Create a slight curve adjustment in the Properties panel (Window>Properties), as shown in the illustration here, to reduce the shadow tones and brighten the lighter tones. 

Step 10: To selectively darken areas of the frame, hold the Option (PC: Alt) key and click on the Add New Layer icon (+) at the bottom of the Layers panel to bring up the New Layer dialog. Name the adjustment layer “Burn,” as you’ll be using this layer to darken certain areas of the frame. In the Mode drop-down menu, choose Soft Light, and click the checkbox next to the words “Fill with Soft-Light-Neutral-Color (50% Gray).” Click OK. You’ll see the layer thumbnail in the Layers panel is filled with gray, but the Soft Light blending mode renders it invisible in the image. 

Step 11: Click on the Brush tool (B) in the Toolbar and select a small, Soft Round Brush in the Options Bar. Set the Opacity to 20% and Flow to 50%. Press D to set the Foreground Color to black, and then paint along the edges of the frame to create a controlled vignette. This will increase the contrast between the center and the outer areas of the frame, resulting in greater attention to the woman and the man. You’ll see the darkened areas of the frame rendered on the Burn layer in the Layers panel as you paint. 

Save the file as a PSD and you’re done. If you were working in Lightroom Classic, save and close the file. The image will be rendered back to Lightroom as a TIFF or PSD, depending on your Preference settings.