On Assignment: Retouching, and the difference between amateurs and pros…

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Maitres du Temps Chapter Three in white gold. (Larger version) There are panels at 6 and 12 that drop down into the dial and retract to uncover day/night and second time zone indicators; there’s a moonphase indicator at 4.30, date at 2 and small seconds at 8. Like all watches designed and made by famous independent ACHI members – this one is the offspring of Kari Voutilainen and Andreas Strehler – if you have to ask the price…

An image like this requires a surprising amount of work: I’ve already talked about the mechanics of lighting horological images in this three-part series (beginning here). To be honest, I originally intended to photograph the set up and other b-roll for another on-assignment post, but the simple reality is that I’m usually so busy on the shoot that I just don’t have the time. Instead, I’m going to talk about the amount of work that goes in behind the scenes.

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On Assignment: A small matter of retouching…

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Finished shot. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon – composite of three images

This post is for those of you who are curious about how much work exactly goes on during an architectural/ interior shoot. (And yes, the company whose boutique is featured here is one of my clients, as is their parent company.) It’s not quite as simple as it looks. First, let’s look at the original, unedited shot again – this is what you get out of camera with the raw file converted straight to a JPEG, all ACR adjustments zeroed out. This is about as good as you’re going to get straight out of the camera. Light was available ambient, and I used the excellent Gitzo GT5562LTS 6x Systematic carbon tripod for support.

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The same shot, straight out of camera, NEF>JPEG via ACR with all adjustments set at neutral.

Can’t see any issues with this image? Let me point them out to you.

  • There’s a bit of sombrero distortion in the horizontal lines; this is a lens issue. Minor, but obvious when you’ve got this many parallel lines.
  • The horizontals run to the right slightly; it’s almost impossible to get this perfect in camera, even using the built-in level guide – as with the in-focus indicator, there’s a bit of ‘dead space’ around the null position where the camera might report perfect levelling even though things are a degree or so off.
  • The highlights are gone. All gone.
  • The shadows are also all gone…oh dear, this is turning into a tonal nightmare: very dark wood on the storefront, extremely brightly-lit illuminated displays…
  • Very distracting reflections from the store and the boutique across the hallway – we couldn’t get them to turn off their storefront lights (obviously) – so there was no choice but to retouch them out.

Now you know what I’m up against, let me explain how the issues were solved. Distortion is taken care of using ACR’s built-in profile for the lens; note how everything is straight again in the finished image below. Slight issues with levelling are taken care of using Photoshop’s distort tool – select all, then Edit>Transform>Distort. Use guides to help you line up your horizontals and verticals, and then pull the corners a little bit to make everything line up.

Dynamic range is a bit more of a challenge. Although the rough image above has had zero highlight and shadow recovery done and perhaps represents about 8 bits of tonal information, I wouldn’t want to push this image too far in post. The extreme highlights will posterize slightly and the shadows will get noisy, though I might be able to recover 13-14 stops this way. The image above was actually exposed for the midtones. The shadows and highlights had separate images three stops apart. I overlaid one on the other, and erased out the bits I didn’t want – so that would be putting the darkest image on top, then erasing around the highlights to reveal the images below. This is the correct way to do HDR – and perhaps the subject of a future article. The tonal transition between layers was made smooth by feathering the opacity and hardness of the eraser brush, as well as using curves on the individual layers afterwards.

Two more steps – dodge and burn of the flattened image to give it local pop; and the hardest bit: retouching out the reflections of the opposite boutique. Note that the reflections overlaid some very complex textures and structures in the image; it definitely wasn’t a simple clone or healing brush job. (Originally, the images were done in the morning; the boutique opposite proved to be extremely bright, so I came back at 10pm once most – but sadly not all – of the lights in the neighbouring boutiques had been turned off. ) The solution? Get creative with replacement textures. The left hand window is actually an inverted clone of the right hand window; everything was nearly perfectly square geometrically, so it wasn’t too much of an issue. Small differences in alignment were sorted out using the Distort tool again, matching up the corners. It also helped that the interior of the store itself was mostly symmetric, of course. Some strategic erasing around the left-unique features and some healing brush later, and voila – finished.

As much as I like to get it right straight out of the camera, there are some times when it simply just isn’t possible. MT

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Finished shot again.


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One man’s detail is another man’s retouching nightmare

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The editing suite. Maitres du Temps Chapter 2, Nikon D800, 60/2.8 G Micro

At 100% view on a 15″ MacBook Pro, (1440x900px) note the little red box in the navigation pane at top right: this is how much (how little?) of the whole image you can see at once. Let’s just say that retouching takes a lot longer when you’ve got this many pixels, and the product has to look perfectly flawless. I of course have to remove my reflection from the watch crown – you could probably tell what lens I’m using, since the 60/2.8 G has a fairly distinctive front (small element, big vanity plate, no markings). MT