Category Archives: Tips & Tutorials

Portrait Retouching: Brian & Kirsten

It’s been a very long time since I’ve featured some of my portrait retouching skills and techniques and I thought it was about time to get that ball up and rolling once again. Whether you are a client or another photographer just dipping your toes into the water, it’s important to understand the power of portrait retouching and how/when to use it properly. Here’s a breakdown of the simple edits I’ve done to this couples portrait of Brian and Kirsten from a few years ago.


Portrait Retouching - Kirsten & Brian (Original)

Kirsten & Brian (Original)

To start, I do a quick inventory of the image and make mental notes on things that could be “tightened up.” The key to a good portrait retouching is to keep it subtle.

Unlike those in the media who have recently come under fire for totally reshaping bodies and faces in Photoshop, I aim to bring out the best in my subjects without destroying that which makes them unique.

Right out of the gate, there really wasn’t all that much to this image to retouch. Here’s my quick list:

  • Minor blemishes
  • Hair over Kirsten’s forehead
  • Noticeable part in Kirsten’s hair
  • Eyes in shadow


After making the mental inventory, I dive right in. Here’s my usual order with the Photoshop tools used for

Portrait Retouching - Kirsten & Brian (Retouched)

Kirsten & Brian (Retouched)

each. For the sake of brevity, I’m leaving out some minor things I do with eyes, teeth, skin, etc., but here are the big strokes.

  1. Whiten teethhue/saturation layer
  2. Remove blemishes – healing brush and patch
  3. Remove hair from forehead – healing brush and patch
  4. “Darken” part in hair – Curves layer, set to Darker, Luminosity blend mode, opacity around 10-20% (may do this more than once to reduce even more)
  5. Brighten eyes – duplicate layer, Screen blend mode, opacity around 10-25%
  6. Smooth skin – duplicate layer, Gaussian Blur filter set to 25, opacity around 15-25%, and masked to those areas that need to be smooth; avoid eyes, nostrils, lips, and detail areas


Portrait Retouching - Kirsten & Brian (Before & After)

Kirsten & Brian (Before & After)

When the portrait retouching is all wrapped, I look at the overall product and ask myself, “Does this tell the ‘story’ I want to tell?” If I feel the story could be told even better with a little artistic polish or technique, then I go for it.

In this case, I felt that the background, while out of focus, could still distract the viewer from Kirsten and Brian. That’s why I used one of my favorite techniques to throw a subtle, but effective vignette around the edges (tutorial to come).

By darkening the colors in the background, the viewer’s eye is drawn to the brightest part of the photograph. In this case, that would be Kirsten and Brian’s faces and eyes… perfect!

How to Choose a Wedding Photographer

Wedding SignI’ve been working on this post for more than a year now. It’s been sitting in my drafts folder as an idea that I’ve wanted to tackle, but I’ve never really had the time or energy to dive in… until now.

What is it that gives me special knowledge when it comes to choosing a wedding photographer? Yes, I’ve been behind the lens at a few weddings, but more importantly, I’m 28 years old and today is my one month wedding anniversary. Being in your mid-twenties means I’ve been in a lot of churches, ate a lot of buffet-style meals, and drank my way through more open bars than most see in their lifetime.

While I count my passion for and knowledge of photography a blessing on most days, weddings are when I wish I could enjoy sweet ignorance about what the wedding photographer is, or should be, doing. It might sound like I’m going down the negative highway, but I assure you, I’m not.

I’ll be the first to admit that there are thousands of talented wedding photographers in the world, and plenty of them live within driving distance of you now, but there are  lemons out there as well, who, unfortunately for photographers and brides alike, still get hired and paid!

And, honestly, that upsets me. As photographers, we are tasked with capturing moments in time, and wedding days are some of the most emotional, sacred, amazing days to capture so why would a bride want nothing less than the best and why would a photographer want to give nothing less than the best?

Bridal Party

What I hope to do is to share what I’ve learned about not only picking a talented and able wedding photographer to capture one of the greatest days of your life, but how to pick the right photographer to fit your style and meet your expectations for the day.

  1. Get Referrals
    A good place to start your search is by tapping into your inner circle of married friends, family, and contacts. This is where social media and a great wedding planner can really be useful. Do your own research, of course, but to get a leg up, start gathering referrals from folks you already know and trust.
  2. Bride & Groom First KissNever Trust a Portfolio
    I often tell my friends and clients, “Anyone can take a million photos and get lucky 30 times.” You don’t want a wedding photographer who gets lucky from time to time, but is consistently shooting the same quality over and over. After you have looked at the portfolio, start browsing the “B sides” on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, 500px, etc.
  3. Variety & Style Ain’t Just Magazines
    When you are browsing through their work, I urge you to look for variety. If you see a range of work, from landscapes to weddings to portraits to still-life’s and more, there’s a better chance that your wedding photographer is pushing the envelope creatively and not just doing the “same old thing.” Also, make sure that the style of images they are capturing are consistent, but more importantly, match your vision for the day.
  4. Get Your Money’s Worth
    Make sure you completely understand what you are receiving in return for payment. There are a lot of options from CD’s to prints to photo books and keepsakes… make sure to get it all down and don’t be afraid to say “no” when you need to. Which leads me to the next point…
  5. Ask Questions
    Have a face to face meeting with all of your finalists and “interview” them the way you would a new employee. Make sure to bring along a list of questions and be sure you ask them, no matter how stupid they might sound. It’s better to be informed upfront than not at all. Talk to them on a personal level about how they approach the day, their expectations, and get to know their personality.
  6. Get References
    Most wedding photographers will have a list of past clients you can contact as references. Make sure to get that list and call them.
  7. Bride & Groom HandsMake Sure They Have the Skills
    You might be fairly confident that they do already from their online work, but make sure you ask them about their style, their equipment, etc. Everyone has a friend who is a photographer so if you are unsure of what to ask to assess their abilities and if they can “walk the walk,” ask your friend to come up with some questions to send along with you.
  8. Seek Out Flexibility & Preparation
    Nothing means more to you on your wedding day than having a photographer who will be flexible and prepared – trust me. Knowing that the photographer has a back up plan for locations if it rains, has an assistant to help with gear and run errands, and carries duct tape and safety pins around with him or her is something you’ll really value when the time comes.
  9. Be Wary of Packages
    This is my own personal preference and you are free to ignore it, but when I see a photographer who won’t give me a couple more hours of coverage because I don’t want three more canvas wall prints and two more albums, I know they aren’t there to capture moments, but to make money and that’s not the point of a wedding. Packages can be nice and lead to better discounts overall, no doubt… just be careful not to get boxed into something you don’t want or don’t really need. Again, state this upfront and any self-respecting wedding photographer should be willing to work with you on it.
  10. Choose the Right Fit for You
    This is probably the most important rule of all. As most brides and grooms will tell you, the day will go by faster than you can ever imagine. Your wedding photographer is there to capture everything from the outside of the storm so you can go back years later and remember the whirlwind, moment for moment. Make sure the person you choose is the right fit for you – your style, your personality, and your vision for the day.

Have a tip to choosing a wedding photographer you’d like to share? Leave a comment below!

What Makes Great Photography? (Part 2)

My fiancee, Caitlin, standing in a field at sunset

Caitlin (2010)

Do you ever have a great idea, one that consumes you and eats at you and makes you so excited that you can’t wait to get started on it, but then when you do, you realize you never really figured out what the plan was to make the idea come to life? That’s how this series of blog posts has been. When I came up with the idea to share my thoughts on “What Makes Great Photography?”, I had a few general guidelines in my head that I wanted to touch on.

But, as any great author can tell you, general guidelines only take you so far. So every time I went to dive into this post and write a follow-up to the first element of great photography, the element of “story,” I was at a loss and my ideas fell short.

When I sat down to finally get this thing out, I wrote a few notes on a pad to truly outline what I was wanting to say, but I had that nagging feeling that I was missing something. So, I asked the one person that has no trouble giving me her opinion: the fiancée.

I asked her right out… “What makes a great photograph for you?” She brought up the recent viral image of Champ, the world’s happiest dog, and said how a great image makes you want to know more about the subject. That’s when it hit me: I shared the importance of “story” and had “emotion,” the topic of this second part, but that nagging feeling was because I missed one of the most important pieces to the great photography puzzle: character. We will save that for another time, but I thought it would be good to understand the three parts as we start to dive into the topic of “emotion” this time.

Turn on Your Heart Light

Toddler flower girl in a cute pink dress walking with her mother during a 2012 wedding

“Step by Step” (2012)

Not only is it a great song by Neil Diamond, but it should be the goal of every photograph. In order for an image to go above and beyond the average, we know that it needs to tell a story first, but how do we guarantee that the story is told and those who see it are truly connecting with it? Emotion.

Whether it causes someone to laugh or shed a tear, emotion is the driving force behind any great story, and in that same regard, great photography. Take the image here of the toddler with her mother. I captured this during a wedding that the fiancée and I were at last summer. I recently posted this same image on Facebook and asked my fans to “like” the post if this was an “awww” moment to them. As expected, there were a number of “likes” on the post.

So what is the emotion here? Why do we immediately see a cute toddler in an adorable pink dress, holding mom’s hands, and say “awww?” That’s right… emotion. We obviously know what the story is here without me having to say it, but it’s truly the emotion that we feel, happiness, that truly makes this a great photograph from that day.

Good Emotion vs. Bad Emotion

Here’s a question to ponder for a moment – if you can’t stand looking at a particular photograph, does that mean it can’t be great photography? In my mind, absolutely not.

Row of tombstones from the U.S.S. Maine Memorial at Arlington Cemetery in Washington, DC

“Remember the Maine” (2012)

It’s been said countless times before, but let’s remind ourselves once again: all art is subjective! Personally, I find Whistler’s Mother extremely boring to look at (I’ve actually seen it in person), but I can’t argue with its place in the canon of American fine art.

What does this mean for your photography? It means you shouldn’t be afraid to explore every type of emotion when capturing an image. The images we saw from Darfur, Cambodia, Somalia, and others can be extremely upsetting to look at, but they have brought about an awareness of issues that needed to be addressed and both stories and emotions that had to be told and experienced. That’s the key to great photography.

Great photography isn’t always about smiles and rainbows and it definitely isn’t about getting as many people as possible to love your images (even if it can be a nice side effect); truly great images aim to create an emotional response of any kind in the viewer.

If someone were to pass by one of my photographs hanging in an art gallery and spent a few minutes explaining to a friend how much they don’t like the photograph or the elements that turn them off from it, I’d be happier than ever. Fine art isn’t about pleasing the masses, but to make them question, analyze, explore, and, inevitably, decide.

Shooting for Emotion

So if emotion is one of the fundamentals of great photography, but how do we capture it? Luck, patience, and experience, as happens in all great photographs. Sometimes it’s being in the right place at the right time; sometimes it’s knowing exactly what you want to capture and planning meticulously to get it done.

All I can say for certain is that every image, every single pixel or ounce of light you expose on film, should be looked at from the emotional angle. In fact, if you got into a shoot, whether it be a portrait session or a photojournalism assignment or even your daughter’s Sweet 16 party, you should have the stories that you want to capture already “sketched” out in your mind and the emotions you are hoping to share with the world playing on your mind as you put the viewfinder to your eye. This will get you as close as possible to the “great photography zone” so when a truly human moment arises, you’re already there with the shutter release clicked.

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