Have I got enough?

Better to get it right in-camera but ‘enough’ is OK when you know what you need.

Posting a shot of a wedding couple I shot a few months back out in an urban setting prompted a lot of comments on the Flickr and other places: ‘I want that lens’, ‘great focus’, ‘wow that’s sharp’ etc etc. Reading them and knowing what I knew about the shot made me want to put it online as it was out of the camera. And to explain a few things.

No job ever goes 100% according to plan. Nope, not ever. Get used to that if you plan to shoot as a serious hobbyist or as a pro. Being ‘professional’ means walking away with what you need, not necessarily what you thought you’d get before you started shooting. Or what you thought you needed, in that ideal-world of pre-shoot planning. As long as the client gets what they want, that’s all that matters and part of being professional is about delivering under pressure or – at worst – getting the next best thing to what the client asked for and being able to still make them feel they got what they paid for. That’s not to say you need to ‘do the hard-sell’ on them to convince them you didn’t fuck up. It’s about managing their expectations from the get-go, through the shoot and out the other side. And, about using all your skills on-site to get the best raw materials you can, knowing exactly what you can do with the shots in post-processing.

That’s right, the ‘job’ is a job of two halves: the shooting half and the post-processing half. Always was, even with film, and it is now. The sum of your deliverable parts comprises what you do with the camera on location and what you know you can do afterwards. Better to walk away knowing you have ‘enough’ than to stay on-site flogging a dead horse for hours, getting yourself all stressed, tiring out your clients or models and gradually exhausting your creativity until you can’t see the wood for the trees. That situation benefits no one.

So, we’re shooting pre-wedding photos for a couple in town from Hong Kong. First of all we manage their expectations in terms of suggesting a realistic itinerary of locations, based on knowing that there will be certain clothes they’ll be wearing, shoes they’ll have on, gear we’ll all be lugging around…. and a timeframe to work within. On the shoot you’re doing the same thing all the time: how are we doing for time, everybody feeling ok, anyone need to eat or drink, toilet breaks, clothes changes, dare we get the train or should we get a cab?

After various setups in Asakusa, we do some shots on the train on our way to Hibiya Park. There are two more cuts there and we’re off to Shibuya for some evening/night shots on the crossing.

We do some flash shots with blurry crowd and static couple and then we tackle the bokehed-out city and nicely-lit people shots that they really wanted and that they had seen on my website and Flickr stream before: one of the reasons they booked with me.

It’s getting late. It’s totally night now. Everyone has been shooting and shlepping around town for about four and half hours by this stage. The couple are still into it but they are reaching their limit now.

We’re at the scramblecross in Shibuya. I’m at a spot I shoot ‘the public’ and wanting to re-create that similar atmosphere for the client. The lady is in her wedding-dress and lots of people are sort of interested and watching. That’s nice but I need to get a clear-ish background in order to make these shots work and gawking members of public are not helping. I get into place, the couple are ready… then every few seconds someone stands right behind them, also waiting to cross. You can’t exactly have a go at them cos, after all, a zebra crossing is where you cross the road, yeah? It’s not a frikkin photo studio. Patient preparation, checking settings, getting the framing and grabbing the moment as soon as it presents itself…. these are what you have to do.

Add into all of these variables, the following;

  • The client wants that ‘dreamy bokeh’, which means – at the distance you need to be away to get a decent amount of the couple in the shot – shooting at f/1.4 or f/1.8
  • Because of that distance, 30 or 40ft, getting AF-lock wide-open is a nightmare even with a lens supposedly as great as the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 AF-D
  • The focus is hunting. Bad when you need to capitalise on a gap in the crowd and nail the shot in a split-second.
  • So you go manual-focus.
  • It’s dark and the good light is coming and going in waves, because you’re basically using the TV screens in the main square to light the couple’s faces with a nice rim-light.
  • There’s a moment, a gap in the crowd… then the picture on the TV screen changes and the couple’s faces are almost 2-stops darker than they were 1second ago. Fuck!
  • Try again…. everything’s perfect, AF seems to be dealing with it so I’ll switch back from MF. Yes, perfect collusion of elements: background, crowds, couple, light…. shoot!!! Check screen, zoom to 100%. Bollocks, it’s not 100% sharp. The lens front-focused.

Get the picture?

I did. Not the exact, perfect, ‘god that just made me wet downstairs’ sort of shot…. but the ‘good, got it, got enough of it, nothing that 10mins of post-pro won’t put right’ sort of shot.

But, I hear you cry, surely one should strive for perfection for every client? Shame on you for settling on anything less!

No.

Good on me for walking away with 50 shots that I know are good enough. Shame on me if I’d made everybody spend another 30mins or an hour there as I strove for that perfect shot which, in all honesty and with so many random variables [light, crowds etc], probably wasn’t there.

My 100% is not about ‘ok, we need to stop shooting and I’ll be/I hope I’ll be able to rescue the shots afterwards. Hope is not a factor. Rescuing is not what we’re on about here. There is a point where I KNOW that I have enough. Not HOPE that I have enough.

And here is one of the shots, before and after processing. Click on it for a larger version.

Pre wedding photogra[hy in Tokyo: before and after post-processing

What did I do to it and how long did it take?

  • RAW was processed out from Nikon ViewNX with a tiny bit of ‘shadow protection’.
  • WB was a mess from all the various light-sources and not even taking a grey-point sample from her dress gave it a clean feel, so I left that alone in ViewNX.
  • Saved out as TIFF and into Photoshop.
  • Cloned-out the artifact that you can see on that blurred-out green face top left of her head.
  • Nik Color Efex Pro3 [Nik] ‘Remove Colour Cast’ filter, three consecutive times, to get rid of the worst of the yellow/green cast in the shot.
  • Nik ‘Photo Stylizer’ filter, set to ‘Varitone, 1, and faded back in the plugin to 0%’. This was used to clean up the last of the cast from their skin and the dress.
  • Faded that Nik layer back in Photoshop until I got a nice blend of tone.
  • Layer Mask applied on that layer, erase through the parts of the city that had gone too far with the previous effect.
  • Nik ‘Darken Lighten Centre’ to put a bit of light into their faces and slightly darken the BG to pull them out from it a little.
  • Imagenomic Noise Reduction across the whole shot to get rid of some of the worst of the noise.
  • Nik ‘Dynamic Skin Softener’ to smooth out areas of their skin which had artifacts left from the NR.
  • Nik ‘Tonal Contrast’ filter applied as brush to the floral details of her dress.
  • Output Sharpening in Nik to suit the output medium [print, screen etc – to make various versions for different media].

Done.

Stop the watch, what’s it say? 12 minutes. That’s outside my usual post-pro window of 10mins, but it’ll do. When you are shooting loads of frames for a client, you have to know you can get the post-pro done in 10mins or less per shot. When I say ‘it’s a wrap, folks’ on the shoot it is with this 10min-post-pro-per-shot rule in my head.

To those of you who commented on Flickr or elsewhere about the lens and the focus, maybe now the ‘before’ shot will make you revise your comments. That’s cool. Realism is what I am after when I teach people, so now you can hopefully bear the following in mind:

No lens is a magic-wand but good gear can help people with a good eye get what they need quicker and better, if they know what they are doing.

Know exactly what 100% means for you; i.e. what mix of getting it on-location and finishing it off in post-pro you are happy with.

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Japanorama is run by British professional photographer, Alfie Goodrich, and provides practical photography teaching in Tokyo. Weekly workshops, group and one-to-one lessons bring together photographers of all ages and abilities.

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