Murphy’s law states that anything which can go wrong will go wrong. Murphy (Edward Aloysius Murphy, to be specific, an aerospace engineer with experience in safety systems) knew what he was talking about. Although he was not a photographer, his prophetic words are no less applicable to what photographers deal with on a daily basis than they are to any other system with moving parts.
I use the term ‘moving parts’ in photography not so much to refer to the gears and electronics of the camera so much as the interaction of all the different elements that go into a photograph. Even if the photographer is at the top of his game and executes everything perfectly, a huge number of shot-ruining events can go down, all in the blink of an eye.
Speaking of blinks, closed or partially closed eyes are one of the most common shot destroyers. They are largely avoidable with adult subjects (or kids old enough to have a decent attention span) by counting down before you press the shutter button, but with babies, toddlers or animals, all bets are off. Facial expressions are another potential stumbling block, and countdowns can actually hinder a photography by making hard-to-hold expressions look wooden. Then there’s posture, head position, hair flyaways, wardrobe malfunctions and more. And these are just the problems relating directly to your subjects. There are also wind and weather related mishaps, changes in sun intensity, cloud cover, background and more.
Even if your subjects nail it, the sun cooperates and all the other elements come together, there are so many other photographer-side problems that can arise. Perhaps there’s a bit of camera shake. Maybe your flash doesn’t go off (most likely when you are shooting rapid sequences at high power), or you miss focus in the dark on a backlit subject. Or perhaps the processor in your camera has senior moment and the file is corrupted. Or you have a card failure (which is why pros like dual card slots, even at the expense of other appealing features). The bottom line is that every shot that is useable (let alone perfect) is in some way a gift.
So, what do you do when you’ve finished the shoot and you’re working in Lightroom culling your gallery and you notice something different that’s wrong in all of the photos. For example, say you’ve got five people in shot with a baby and the baby only smiles on one in the series. However, in the shot with the smily baby, of the adults blinked and another has a goofy expression. You look through the others in the series and find one in which the all the adults nailed it and everything else is technically perfect. Can you find a way to take the best elements of each image?
More to the point, what did I do when confronted with this exact situation for the image above? I did what any reasonably competent pro photographer would do these days and photoshopped the baby’s smiling face from the image with the imperfect adults onto the photo with the perfect adults. This actually wasn’t hard, since the baby was held in the same position in all the shots. I just used the marquee tool to select the face, copied it and pasted it onto its own layer in the new image. Next, I reduced its opacity to half so I could see both faces, then lined them up using the Transform functions (scale first, then rotate).
When you’re Photoshopping in a face, the size is not as important as the direction relative to camera. Rotation is okay, as long as the axis of the nose is not different in either case. If the axis of the nose were different, I would have had to photoshop the whole head and since the new head wouldn’t map perfectly over the old, I’d have had to reconstruct the background around where the unwanted parts of the old head were in the target photo. Fortunately, the eyes and mouth lined up perfectly, so all I had to do was mask out the unwanted parts of the new head (using soft brushes at low flow and opacity rates) and blend it in so there was no give away line.
It was important to match the color of the face and the exposure. I did my best to match the two shots in Lightroom, but given the minor differences in the clouds between the two images, the new face color was a bit off. I was able to correct this with two adjustment layers clipped to the face, namely brightness and contrast plus hue and saturation. I usually use a curves layer in this situation because it offers finer controls, but I was happy that a simpler approach worked.
If you’re fairly new to photoshop, you might be surprised to learn that this is a relatively simple operation. It takes a bit of skill but it’s really only a matter of one content layer, a mask, two applied adjustment layers and some brushes.
Other operations include removing people from the background. This can sometimes be done with a simple stroke of the blemish tool in Photoshop and sometimes it needs a bit more work. Larger objects can sometimes be removed by using the lasso tool to draw a selection, then using the Content Aware Fill tool in the edit menu. If the software gets confused as to what you want the space filled with (which it often does), you can use the clone stamp tool to manually graft some part of the background over the part you want replaced, then mask out the edges.
Sometimes corrections in Photoshop are just a matter of adding a simple, tiny element that makes a world of difference. In this photo, I added the catch light in the baby’s right eye, which was missing in the original. Its absence was particularly conspicuous and adding it was a simple matter of creating a new layer, sampling the color of the centre of the catch light in the baby’s other eye and using a relatively hard brush at 100% opacity to paint in the catchlight so it matched the real one. The difference is night and day in the finished image.
There are many more corrections a photographer can make, including the use of the liquify tool to add a bit more smile or close a kid’s mouth that is missing teeth. I’ve also painted over tattoos, removed wrinkles and crows feet and erased skin moles the client was uncomfortable about.
Is this “cheating?” Maybe. One famous photographer, Jason Lanier, once griped on YouTube about how the line was becoming blurred between photography and graphic art. He’s right, it is. But (up to a point) I see it as something to embrace rather than reject. I’m thrilled to have these tools and I feel the time I spend applying them (and learning to use them) is time well invested.