Urban Night Portrait


When I saw Megan getting ready for a show yesterday (Postmodern Jukebox at Showbox SODO), I decided to take a picture of her. Because she looked great! I’m pleased with the results, so will share here a few thoughts on how I approached it.

The Envisioning Stage

I decided I wanted an available light shot somewhere in the city: an urban woman in situ. And I decided to use the 50mm F/1.8 lens, a longtime favorite but a lens that I haven’t used much recently. That way I could minimize depth of field and make the background a colorful collage of out-of-focus bokeh patterns.

To do all of those things, I’d need to find a spot with some light hitting her face, ideally from multiple angles to avoid harsh shadows, and also some bright lights in the background, preferably farther away so that they wouldn’t overpower the lighting on the subject.

Finding the Spot

On the way to the show, we drove through the Georgetown and SODO areas to try to find a good spot. There was a spot at the train tracks on Lander that looked promising, but no parking nearby. Then I saw the Starbucks Center building, with white Christmas lights in all the trees in the parking lot and the Starbucks logo and other neon signs on the front of the building behind the parking lot. Perfect. She could stand under the trees, with soft light from all directions and the brighter lights in the background.

Getting the Shot

One tip that most of us could benefit from is to shoot twice as many versions of a shot as you think you need. Just keep shooting, and give yourself lots of options to sift through later. In this case, Megan was cold without a coat in the damp wind, and in the first few shots she looked stiff and awkward. I just kept clicking and reminding her to smile, and eventually got these four good candidates in rapid succession:


Note how these photos are almost entirely shades of orange and red. That’s because of the artificial lighting – the D800 didn’t get the white balance quite right in these conditions. I wasn’t worried about that, though, and in general you should never waste time playing around with white balance issues if you’re capturing raw files (.NEF for Nikon). You can adjust white balance in post-processing, so spend your shooting time on the things you can’t fix later: sharp focus, good setting and light, and a good expression.

After looking closely at each of these photos, I decided I liked the final one best. On to post-processing.

A Bit of Photoshoppery

I use Photoshop for post-processing photos, and I also use it every day for other things unrelated to photography. If you just do photos and nothing else, you probably love Lightroom and want to give me a lecture about how Lightroom is so much better and I should use it. Save your energy, I’ve heard it all before.

In this case, the white-balance issue is an obvious first step, and that was easy. I had Photoshop auto-adjust, and then turned the temperature down until it looked good to me. Then I bumped up contrast and clarity, fiddled with highlights, added some vibrance and saturation, and got to this as a starting point after opening the raw file in Photoshop:


Getting closer to what I wanted, but it still needed a few things. For one, her eyes are much darker than the rest of her face. So I saved this version, then re-processed the raw file and bumped the exposure up to where the eyes looked better but many other details were washed out:


Then I blended these two versions, using only the eyes from the second version. After that, I used the Imagenomic Noiseware plugin to get rid of the grain (this was an ISO 6400 shot), adjusted highlights with the Athentech Perfectly Clear plugin, and then added just a touch of the Topaz Adjust “Photo Pop” filter, a favorite of mine. After cropping to a square (for Instagram, and also just because I thought that looked good), here’s the final result next to the original as captured by my camera:


Great shot, Megan!


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