Piet Van den Eynde is an Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Certified Expert who teaches workshops worldwide and through his eBooks. We asked Piet about his most recent trip to India, the portraits that he made there, and his choices behind making those portraits and in post-processing.
What is it about India that speaks to you photographically?
If I had to sum it up in one word, I guess that word would be patina: from the patina on the walls of the houses that makes for an excellent backdrop to the patina in the people's faces. It seems like behind every corner, there's a new photographic opportunity waiting to happen. Add to that the fact that most people don't mind having their picture taken and many even appreciate it, the place quickly becomes a people photographer’s favorite playground.
What are your three top sources of inspiration in making portraits?
For me, there are three types of sources. The most obvious is other photographers. Like many travel photographers, I have been influenced by the work of Steve McCurry. I know he recently has gotten some flack with regards to the amount (and the quality) of post-processing on his images, but to me, he’s still an icon and a true source of inspiration. What I really like about McCurry is his use of natural light, his composition, and the “decisive moment” feel that's in his images, even if some of that decisiveness was decidedly staged. I prefer a natural-looking staged image to a badly composed natural one. I guess I'm more of an aesthetic than I am a photorealist. I also admire Joey L; I love his use of artificial light and shallow depth of field. At age 20, he already had a portfolio that some photographers haven't achieved by the time they retire. Finally, along with Matt Brandon and David duChemin, I share the love for wide-angle lenses because of the way they really draw you into the picture.
My second source of inspiration would be the old Masters of painting, like Rembrandt and Caravaggio. I love their dramatic use of light and how it can give a three-dimensional feel to what is basically a flat surface, be it a painting or a photograph. Finally, I draw a lot of inspiration from contemporary television drama and movies, mostly with regards to the post-processing part of my photography. I really love how the use of colour, contrast, and tone can help convey a particular atmosphere in an image and turn a dull raw file into an engaging photograph.
As an Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Certified Expert, when you are setting up to make portraits, are you thinking about choices you might make in post-processing?
I love Lightroom for the post-processing leeway it gives me: with a well-exposed raw file, I can do just about anything I want and what's even better, if I don't like what I did a year from now, I can just change it because it's all nondestructive.
I do think about the look I have in mind and I will use a number of precautions while photographing to be able to achieve that look. First of all, I will always shoot raw + JPEG. On my Fuji, I really love the look of the Classic Chrome film simulation but I prefer to apply that look via the raw profile in the Camera Calibration panel in Lightroom. I have my camera set up to use the much flatter Pro Neg S film simulation with slightly lifted shadows and less bright highlights. I do this because the preview I get on the LCD or in the electronic viewfinder is based on the JPEG settings, and if I were to apply a rather contrasty simulation like Classic Chrome, this would make the histogram (which is also based on the JPEG) show blown-out highlights more quickly, causing me to meter more conservatively than I should. Using a more conservative and less contrasty film simulation allows me to expose more to the right, which gives me more post-processing leeway in recuperating shadow detail afterwards.
I want the dynamic range of my images to be as large as possible. I will always use the lowest ISO possible and I always try to maintain highlight detail, especially in the clouds. I don't like blown-out skies in my portraits because those bright patches are distracting. Plus, I love clouds because they bring mood to an image. To that effect, I use a lot of flash on my subjects who would otherwise be underexposed. I like my images to have a three-dimensional feel and therefore I will often use so-called cross lighting, where my subject is on a diagonal line between an artificial light (generally one of my SMDV softboxes) and the sun, which acts as a rim light. In post-processing, I will then enhance that three-dimensional feel by dodging and burning techniques and the selective use of Sharpening and Clarity.
Which of the photographs in this post is your favourite and why?
That's a tough one; I am a very bad judge of my own work. Emotionally, I would say the one with the three girls (below) because of the way they look or, rather. the way two of them actually don't look at the camera. This is quite a typical “Piet” shot because it combines a lot of what I like to use: the use of soft flash light, a relatively wide-angle lens, leading lines and something that I've been paying more attention to recently—some sort of background interest and storyline (in this case, the men in the background who were doing the laundry).
Walk us through the making of one photograph, from inception to post-processing (idea, preparation, camera, lens, lighting, directing the model, choices in post-processing, etc.).
The image below was taken during the annual Varanasi workshop that I co-teach with Matt Brandon. We saw this man walking around and so we asked if we could photograph him. Rather than just doing so where we spotted him (on a busy street lit by unflattering, harsh midday sun), we walked a couple feet into a shaded alleyway and looked for an interesting background to pose him in front of. Although the light in the alleyway was nice and soft, we added a flash in a gridded softbox to literally and figuratively put him in the spotlight, resulting in the image below. I did very little to this image in post-processing (which is very unlike me) other than darkening the left side of the image because I left my ugly camera bag lying there. I also darkened the highlights on the pillar a little.
I would have been very happy with this photograph a couple of years ago. But now, I felt like there was something lacking: a foreground element. Occasionally, there were people walking between us and our subject in this very narrow alleyway. At first, I found it annoying until I tried to find a way to incorporate them into the picture. Then there were these young kids on their bicycles returning from school and I knew I was onto something. In the image below, I like the little bit of motion blur and the contrast in colour that was enhanced during capture by putting an orange gel on the flash. But on top of that, there is the contextual contrast between sitting and moving, young and old.
This image was an exercise for me in adding contrast, something I'm trying to get better at. Not the contrast between light and dark, but rather a contrast in content or emotions. It's an example as to how working a scene can improve an image.
For more on Piet's lighting methods, check out his eBook, Pushing Light, one of several titles from him in the Craft & Vision library.
Piet Van den Eynde is a Belgian freelance photographer, author, and trainer specializing in Adobe Lightroom. When he's not teaching or writing, he travels the world on his bicycle photographing the people he meets along the way. Find him online at morethanwords.be.