Weathering the Storm

Destruction from Washington, Illinois Tornado

Destroyed ranch house I drive by everyday; only 5 blocks from my home

Monday mornings at the office should consist of procrastination, too many cups of coffee, and thorough procrastination for the projects that lie before us. That’s why many Monday mornings consist of recapping the uneventful happenings of the past weekend. This was not to be the case for yesterday’s Monday morning routine. Here in central Illinois, our discussions revolved around survival, blessings, giving thanks, and destruction unlike anything we’ve ever experienced or have seen.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, my place of residence, the amazing small town of Washington, Illinois, came under attack, not by any tangible foe, but by the sheer destructive power that is an EF-4 tornado. The wife and I have been Washingtonians for a little less than two years now, but we’ve grown to love this little town and the people we call our neighbors, no matter the distance that lies between our homes.

Sunday was a day of tragedy, but also of thanksgiving. Fortunately, we were spared and, other than a 27 hour power outage, had no damage to our home. This was not the case for many of our fellow Washingtonians. It has been a very weird time around Washington with boil and water conservation orders in place, a city-wide curfew of 6 p.m. nightly and much of the city blocked off from traffic.

Farm House Destroyed by Washington, Illinois tornado

Destroyed farm house I drive by everyday; only 5 blocks from my home

Things are getting better by the day, but there is still a long way to go to cleaning up our little town. The scars left on the land may heal within a year, but those left on our hearts, will take much longer, especially for those who were directly impacted. You can disagree with me all you want, but our little town was attacked by a force so powerful that it can wipe away the lives of hundreds of people within minutes (and did).

The worst part is that we can’t fight back and we can’t blame; how do you argue with or fight back against nature? You can’t. You are helpless in that moment, huddled in the basement in the dark, praying for the all clear signal to come fast. And, now, we are helpless to those “neighbors” from across town who are wondering where to go from here and how they rebuild or replace that which can’t be ever truly returned.

Giving Back a Little

While I don’t have much to give except for volunteering when the time is right, I’ve decided to do some fundraising of my own instead. I have two ideas… the first will start now and run for the next few months and the second will happen sometime next year when the rebuilding of lives really starts to happen.

For starters, I will be donating 100% of my profits from print sales on the website to the American Red Cross. Starting today, if you purchase a print through my online galleries, not only can you get an amazing photo print for your wall, but you can help to rebuild my hometown and the lives of many across central Illinois.

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!

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