You Photoshop, Right?

You Photoshop, Right?


That’s a question I get asked by most people when they review my work, “you use Photoshop, right?” The answer is always the same, “no.” I then explain how all of my work is done at time of capture and with lighting. Then comes the, “well…well, how did you get the sky to look like that.” I reply with something like, “with lighting I can control the ambient light.” That’s when most people’s eyes glaze over and I can tell I’ve lost them. With a decent set of lights, modifiers and the know-how, you can work a lot of “magic” that most people automatically assume is done in Photoshop. Some don’t even bother to ask if I use Photoshop and move right to the classic, “so what kind of processes do your run your photos through in Photoshop to attain this look?” Amazingly, these are usually photographers who are asking me these questions, the very people who should damn well know how I was able to produce these images. Pretty scary, right? Tis our industry as of late. A lot of “fix it in photoshop” mentality floating around. Most “photographers” spend a fraction of time capturing and infinitely more time salvaging sloppy work in Photoshop, so this is why I get asked a lot of misdirected, uneducated questions by the very people in my field. I think there is a nasty trend as of late, people entering the field think of photography as 10% capture, 90% Photoshop skills, and it’s just not true. Photography is all about capturing light, making light, controlling light.

What I Do

It takes a lot of learnin’, a lot of time, a lot of gear, and a lot of practice to get good at nailing a photographic concept while using lighting. To say, “I do all my work at time of capture” does not mean I know how to simply spin the dials on my camera better than most out there. It’s quite the opposite, and a ton of work. It really has little to do with my camera and a whole lot more of understanding and working with light. It’s walking into a location and viewing it with the foresight of light placement and how it will effect both my environment and the subject I place in it.

I don’t ALWAYS have to light my compositions but I’d say about… 95% of the time they are. The world really isn’t filled with a lot of glamorous, beautifying light, us photographers have to make it. Of course, if a situation arises that is already lit in a way that properly conveys the style or mood I want to capture without any need for my lighting that’s awesome, my job just got a whole lot easier. But… that just doesn’t come along very often.

More often than not on this site, you guys just end up seeing the end result of the photographs, and more or less you just have to trust me when I say I worked some magic with lighting. Of course, not being there on-location with me, it’d be hard to imagine what my shots would look like without lighting, and how much influence all of the time I spend focusing on the lighting really pays off. I’m going to try and get a little bit better about posting BTS photos of the locations as they look when I arrive, and then you can compare them to the final product. Often times I am working alone and I just either don’t have the time or usually forget to take pre-lit shots. Luckily, I have a good example here for our discussion.

The Gist

I set out to create a Snow White concept. Obviously this is a very location centric photograph, it needed to be in the woods (duh), and ideally those woods would be a little more interesting than just a few vertical trees and a bare forest ground. Nothing wrong with that simple woods shot, but I wanted something with a little more eye candy. I’ve found over the years that I love location shooting more than anything else. I also tend to include a lot of the surrounding environment in my compositions, I guess I feel it tells a better story, so I put a lot of effort into location selection. Of course there will be times where a portrait will look great with a silky smooth blurry background, but more often than not, I like to show off the location the subject is in, preferably with a lot of drama via dark shadows, moody skies, etc. I didn’t set out to attain a certain “style,” it quite simply boils down to the fact that when I take a picture and look at it on the back of the camera and go, “oooo I like that,” it tends to be like I previously described. I also take great joy in that I found a location, lit it with anywhere from 1 to 8 lights to attain the look, and it will never be duplicated. Ok, back to Snow White….

I scouted this a couple days prior to the shoot so I knew exactly where I wanted to shoot. I will always scout prior to a shoot if I have the option, it’s just a good idea (for many reasons). Day of shoot, I arrived to the location early so that I’d have an hour to spend lighting this shot (yes, it took me over an hour to light this and get a look I was happy with, plus walking in and around trees and bushes slows the process down a lot).

Overall look for the image concept – Snow White, alone and wandering around in the woods, dramatic, maintain a bit of fairytale style.

Picture Before Lights

Here is our image of the location as it looked with I walked up and took a picture. I’ll often do this to see how ambient lighting levels are playing out, and it gives me a foundation to build my lighting setup off of. Pretty yucky, right? Like I said earlier, I envision locations with my lighting in-place, so I kinda mentally break the location down with how the lights can play with the environment. Here I especially liked the fallen, arched tree, which some kids had previously built a fort underneath it, creating a little tree cave. I knew instantly when I saw this that I’d put a light in there to add a mysterious/storybook feel to the image. And from this perspective there are lots of layers of ferns and tree limbs to create depth with lighting. In this “before” image, everything is just kinda mushed together, and that’s why it’s so bland and uninteresting.

Pictures With Lighting

So below we have our pictures with our scene all lit. It took a long time to get it all setup, tested, and fine-tuned, but it was worth it. Five lights in total to make this happen, and I promise they are almost exactly what they looked like on the back of the camera. I import to Lightroom, make sure exposure is spot on (maybe adjust it a tenth of a stop or so), ensure proper white balance, etc. and I’m done. No Photoshopping – i.e. dodging and burning the entire landscape, layering, blah, blah. I’m sure this post may rub some the wrong way, but honestly, if you are taking pictures and looking at them knowing what you’ll have to do to those pictures in post to make them look good… then something is wrong with your photographic approach, right? I really don’t want to get into all the obvious disclaimers here, so please don’t take the information out of context and try to say I’m applying it to live wedding photography or something. Let’s keep this on track – we’re talking about staged/conceptual photography.

Here is a fun little side-by-side comparison of before and after.


For those photographers out there curios about the light setup, here is it. (BTS shot below as well)

1. Beauty dish, high camera left just out of frame lighting model.

2. Umbrella just behind camera, slightly camera right, providing fill light for foreground ferns, giving detail

3. Light tucked in fallen tree, lighting up “tree cave”

4. Light far camera left, side light for tree limbs above/behind model

5. Back right, you can see it in the picture, providing more back/side light, left it in some images ’cause I liked it.

So in review… no, I don’t use photoshop in order to make my images, I do all my work at time of capture (and there is a lot of it), and I use light. In that regard, I feel proud to be a professional photographer, and know that I do my very best to make that ring true in my work, rather than hunched over a laptop photoshopping and trying to make sense out of rather uninteresting, what-ya-see-is-what-ya-get photography. I hope this post has given some of those who have asked how I do my work a little better peek at that. Lots more to come to the blog. Sit tight!