Teaching & Seeing

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There came a time in my photography when I didn’t think about what I was doing. The process became intuitive and spontaneous. The division between the moment and my making the photograph became so abbreviated that the entire experience was as natural and invisible as breathing. 

It wasn’t until I began sharing my approach with others that I considered how and why I did things. I had to find words that clearly conveyed how I saw moments that played out in front of me and how that informed what I did with a camera. Seeing and making photographs had become an innate experience for me. Teaching others that same process was a challenge of its own. 

If all that was required were teaching the fundamentals of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture, the process would be relatively simple. When asked how I effectively translated the chaotic world around me into a small rectangular frame, it wasn’t so easy. I had to consider my method for taking innumerable unrelated elements and contextualizing them into a compelling photograph. It’s a lot easier to do than to explain what happens in the deep recesses of my mind. 

Nevertheless, I made my best effort, especially when out on the street leading a photography workshop. It’s there where I shared my process out loud while practicing. I not only brought attention to a scene that drew my attention, but I explained why its lines, shapes, color, and lighting offered me the potential for something interesting. 

Even without bringing the camera to my eye, I guided participants to evaluate a raw scene and gauge its potential for a photograph. By taking the reins of their seeing, I directed them to consider the contrast of light and shadow, or the way lines and shapes played off each other. I emphasized the visual elements to pay attention to and which to ignore. 

Lines, Shapes, Colors, Lighting, and Waiting 

On this particular day, I stopped the group as we walked down Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles. I pointed out the various elements that were in front of us. To our left was a graffiti-covered fence that secured a construction site. To the right was a rainbow-colored umbrella, a part of a food cart selling freshly cut fruit. There was also a yellow fire hydrant, and a sidewalk made up of two-color rectangles. 

Lines and shapes were also in abundance, including the triangular pattern created by each color of the umbrella and the strong graphic lines of the surrounding street and architecture. Even the security fence provided an implied diagonal line that led the eye toward the center of the frame. 

These visual elements provided an ideal setting for a photograph. Though a moment had yet to present itself, I recognized that the scene possessed the elements for a good composition. I raised the camera to my eye and explained how and why I composed the scene, paying particular attention to the edges of the frame. I made conscious choices of what I wanted to include and exclude from the frame. 

After doing this, I pointed out the family about to cross the street. As they were likely coming in our direction, I wanted to use them as subject matter for the image. They were close to each other, and the father holding his young son’s hand would provide a storytelling gesture. I just had to wait for the light to change and for the family to cross the street. 

As they reached the curb, a skateboarder turned the corner, past the family and toward us. With only seconds to react, I made a series of images in quick succession of him entering and leaving the frame. Though unexpected, he provided a wonderful element that made the resulting photograph better than I’d imagined. It served as a perfect example of how I work and how it prepares me for the beautifully unexpected. 

I still recognized that the raw file didn’t do the scene justice, though. The overcast lighting resulted in dull illumination that reduced contrast and color saturation. The featureless sky was also an issue, as it could result in a blown-out highlight if I weren’t careful with exposure. The exposure compensation I’d applied underexposed the image, which would need to be corrected in Adobe Lightroom Classic. (KelbyOne members can click here to download a smaller DNG version of this image for practice purposes only.) 

STEP ONE: In Lightroom Classic’s Basic panel, adjust the Exposure slider to +0.80. This increases the overall exposure a little more than 2/3 of a stop. 

STEP TWO: To reduce the brightness and the overcast sky and to open up the darker shadows in the photograph, adjust Highlights to –90 and Shadows to +56, respectively. This protects essential highlight values and reveals shadow detail. It also flattens the image but that can be quickly addressed by controlling contrast. 

STEP THREE: Increase contrast by adjusting Contrast to +16, Whites to +20, and Blacks –15. This is already a significant improvement from where we started, but the results are still lackluster; however, there’s still more we can do in the Basic panel. 

STEP FOUR: The controls in the Presence area of the Basic panel provide tools for increasing microcontrast and boosting the appearance of colors. Adjust Texture to +20, Clarity to +11, Vibrance to +21, and Saturation to +8. The results are a pleasing pop to the image that appears natural rather than overly processed. 

STEP FIVE: While the overcast lighting made for an exposure that provided a wide dynamic range with good shadow and highlight detail, it also delivers an image that feels dull, even with the adjustments that we’ve already made. The Tone Curve panel provides the means to increase contrast, but in a much more controlled and refined way. For this image, use the Parametric Curves option and adjust Highlights to +11, Lights to +14, Darks to –1, and Shadows to –8. 

STEP SIX: Colors are an important aspect of this image and, while the Vibrance and Saturation sliders in the Basic panel boosted all the colors, we want to be more selective in this phase. In the HSL/Color panel, we’ll make changes to specific color values using the color sliders in Hue, Saturation, and Luminance. Depending on the color selected, you’ll see small significant changes to some aspects in the scene, such as the fire hydrant, the skater’s skin tone, and certain colors in the umbrella. 

Click the All tab at the top right of the HSL/Color panel to expand all three sections of the panel. In the Hue section, set Yellow to –31 and Blue to –5. In the Saturation section, set Red to +4, Orange to +3, Yellow to +10, Green to +10, Aqua to +24, Blue to –17, Purple to –9, and Magenta to +20. 

STEP SEVEN: Still in the HSL/Color panel, go to the Luminance controls. Adjust Red to –27, Orange to +7, Yellow to +6, Green to –9, Aqua to –8, Blue to +6, Purple to –16, and Magenta to –8. 

STEP EIGHT: This image was shot at an ISO of 1600 to leverage both a fast shutter speed and a moderate aperture, so it possesses a modest amount of noise and could do with some slight sharpening. In the Detail panel, set Sharpening to +40, Radius to 1, Detail to 0, and Masking to 70. In the Noise Reduction section set the Luminance amount to 8. 

STEP NINE: To emphasize the central part of the image, use the Vignetting control within the Manual tab of the Lens Corrections panel. Set the Amount to –22 and the Midpoint to 0. 

STEP 10: The top and bottom 1/8 of the image are brighter than necessary. To selectively darken both areas, use the Graduated Filter tool (M) to reduce the exposure. Select the Burn (Darken) preset in the drop-down menu at the top of the panel, and then create the first gradient beginning from the top of the frame until the midline is just above the ONE WAY sign in the background. Adjust both the Highlights and Whites to –6. 

STEP 11: Next, click on New at the top of the Graduated Filter panel to create a new gradient. The Burn (Darken) preset should still be selected. Drag the gradient up from the bottom of the image until the midline is just below the young man’s skateboard. Adjust Contrast to 6. 

STEP 12: To enhance the presence of the skateboarder, use the Radial Filter (Shift-M) to create an oval around his body. Select the Dodge (Lighten) preset, and adjust the Shadows to 18 and Whites to 12 to finish the image of a skateboarder cruising down a city street.