The Photoshop Discussion…Take Two!


I tend not to see things like most people. I’m not taking anything away from how most folks see, but I typically look at a scene and try to find ‘the shot’, even when I’m not working. I think I got this way when I assisted Enrico Ferorelli back in the early 80’s. He was always about finding the one perfect shot…and in a lot of ways I’ve been looking for that perfect shot ever since. But in the past tens years or so…a time frame that just also happens to coincide with how long we here at Damn Ugly Photography have been Photoshop-compliant…the way I look at just about everything is in some way based on how I know it will look after I’ve finished working on it in post. Before Photoshop I could, of course, alter reality in subtle ways with film choice or by employing some nifty darkroom tricks & techniques, but my style and the way I shoot has changed as my proficiency with Photoshop has improved. Choosing Kodachrome over Velvia over Ektachrome 100 is fine, but you don’t know color control until you’ve fully mastered the Selective Color tool in Photoshop! And while I’ve never crossed over to the dark side and become one of those guys who has to shoot 20 or 30 elements in order to make one final image, very early on I recognized the amazing potential and the options that were now open to me as long as I was able to reconcile what I believed was possible. I now scout locations and very easily see what can fall away or what can be modified. And while cosmetic changes are an obvious first step, I can alter the reality of a scene in extremely subtle ways to make it better…more appealing…while still keeping the ‘integrity’ of the portrait intact. But I can say this because I maintain that my ‘vision’ as a photographer isn’t held up to the same journalistic yardstick that others find themselves judged by. I’m chosen for an assignment by clients who know up front that my interpretation will not be based on a real color palate or a literal translation of a scene. This has been on my mind since I posted that link last week about the disqualified entries to the Pictures of the Year competition. And even today another discussion started up on The Huffington Post about how the Washingtonian Magazine altered a shot of President Obama for it’s recent cover…the Ethics of Photoshop is becoming a real hot-button issue.

But since a bunch of you wrote to me over the weekend (and why some of you still don’t get how easy it is to post a comment on the blog instead of e-mailing me is makin’ me shake my head!) because you know the amount of post work I have done on some of my images…or at least you think you do…I thought I would pull away the curtain on a few of my shots so you can see exactly what sort of thing goes on after hours at Damn Ugly Photography…..

*Click on any image for the full-size preview*

Here is the RAW file of Jon Bon Jovi…


…and the final, retouched version…


This is probably the simplest example I’m showing. Aside from some color-shifting and contrast work, there is just a bit of cosmetic ‘fixing’ to get rid of a few wrinkles and bulges better left unseen.

A much more involved photo was this one of Cornelia Guest. Here is the RAW file…


…and the final image…


With this one I removed the lights over the paintings, the unfortunate wall-socket and the heating duct…then brightened the entire image. Next I shifted the color palate from green to blue and highlighted some areas (the window, gave the dog a bath!) and darkened others (the floor, the corners). But the real heavy lifting came with the cosmetic retouching on the subject…I built a contrast layer that allowed me to highlight her arms and face by putting them in kind of a glowy light. Then I cleaned up any wrinkles and slimmed down the line of the front and back of the dress.

Joe Rosenberg, RAW…


…and retouched…


This is just one of the ‘Less is More’ situations…by simply getting rid of the ceiling lights and the heavy black bars in the windows, the shot takes on a completely different feel. And while the color shift looks extreme, this is one of those cases where the RAW file isn’t really showing ‘reality’ either…the original scene wasn’t nearly as muted and murky as the unretouched image leads you to believe. I find that often a RAW file is so much lower in contrast that without a good dose of tweaking in Photoshop you’d be left with a pretty unappetizing image!

Sheila Nevins, RAW…




There are a few of you out there who know the story behind this shot of Sheila Nevins, the president of HBO’s Documentary Division…how I only shot this one single frame when she bolted off the set because the bright explosion of light from the ring light I was using destroyed her eyesight and gave her an ‘ocular migraine’…! I hoped her eyesight was back to normal by the time she was back in her office, but after I checked to make sure my one image was intact, I still had to remove the ugly stainless steel power strip and microphones that ran the length of the boardroom table, as well as brightening the whites and desaturating the pinkish-red skin tones. Oh yeah, then I had to regenerate a reflection of her in the glass table top…

Toxic House, before…


…and after…


This BusinessWeek shoot about a family who bought a house sitting on a toxic waste site was definitely made infinitely better by pulling out the Photoshops tricks. To get a feeling of ominous doom, I dialed up the contrast a ton, even for me, and went heavy on the Hi Pass and Multiply layers, so much that it left a glowing halo around the edges…almost like the house was vibrating. Then I highlighted their faces in the masks with sort of a spotlight effect to pull detail out of their faces. I also oversharpened the living daylights outta the thing to make it look even edgier, and finally darkened the sky to further add to the sense of peril.

Steven Spielberg and the scary tree, before…


…and after I made the tree bigger and scarier…


I shot Steven Spielberg just before his remake of ‘War of the Worlds’ came out, and for one of my three set-ups I placed him in front of a huge tree in front of the Amblin offices on the Universal backlot. The way the tree looked with it creepy shedding bark, reminded me of the scene in the original 50’s film where the aliens crawled outta the crater that was caused when they crashed, so I lit him with a monster-light from down below and finished it off in my computer. As big as the tree was, I still wanted to dwarf him a bit more, so I cloned the trunk on the top and left of the frame, then I shifted his baby-blue shirt to grey and went about desaturating and increasing the contrast overall. Finally, I darkened the whole shot overall and brightened the light on his face to separate him and give the appearance of something glowing off-camera….in a crater…..with the aliens!


10 thoughts on “The Photoshop Discussion…Take Two!

  1. I like what you did across the board, really I just want to type in the comments section so you can stop scratching your….

  2. Ummm…Trent, wouldn’t a Big Red Kiss on the Box-o-Photoshop be a more appropriate graphic for this blog post than the Circle-Slash?

    Ummmmm….B Dub….it wuz more a comment on what some others are sayin’ about P-Shop, not so much about my own feelings…

  3. Although I feel there is a level of integrity that should be maintained when the image is for strictly journalistic purposes, however I see no reason not to tweak images which are in a great part meant to “tell the story.” I suppose as a photographer you are probably always trying for the perfect shot, but as an artist you see potential beyond what is the obvious and that’s why you make the big bucks! 🙂
    Nice shots and thanks for sharing the process.

  4. i agree with everything Alison said, about the level of integrity should be maintained for journalistic usage.

    nice work btw!

  5. I really don’t understand why someone has to twist reality to produce an interesting photo. Maybe cause it’s so easy nowadays to play around with some sliders. But is this what photography is all about? Sliders?
    I know everyone can set his own limits but i don’t believe reality needs to be twisted to be interesting. Just look at “the masters of photography”.

    @…’s not about twisting reality, but rather interpreting it on a different level. I can pull hundreds of examples from some of those ‘Masters’ you speak of who used tricks and techniques available to them at the time to alter whatever ‘reality’ was in front of their lens. Putting a red filter on your lens when shooting Black & White twists reality! Shooting infrared film hardly produces a ‘real’ representation of the scene. And as I said in my original post, even something as simple as choosing one particular color film over another will produces dramatically different results, so what exactly is this normal you’re searching for? Photoshop is simply a technology that’s being employed by todays photographers. Photographers throughout the history of the medium have always been a pretty open-minded bunch and I can guarantee that had Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Eugene Atget, Walker Evans or (Insert Famous Name Here) had a chance to work with a tool such as this, they would see the value it affords the user.


  6. Sorry to chime in late, but on the subject of photoshop vs. “real” photography… Ever see one of Richard Avedon’s test prints? You can hardly see the image with all of the notes to his printer about burning and dodging. What is real? What is done in camera? Hell, even Ansel Adams did work in post… he’d photograph a scene one way knowing he could modify the way he processed the film to achieve the results he was after. How is working in photoshop any different? Are photographers suddenly supposed to abandon post because of digital… Get over it.

  7. Photoshop is just a tool used as a means to an artistic end. Does using a router to sculpt some dovetails negate the aesthetics of a nicely crafted piece of furniture? Do we suggest the user is not a real craftsman because he didn’t hand cut them?

  8. Brad,

    I love your editing style. It seems to be a popular style and I really like it. However, I’m having difficulty nailing down the “technique.” Google hasn’t been a help. I thought I’d go to the source and see if you’d be willing to share some technique with a rookie. I realize the technique may be a lot of things combined with salting to taste, but a starting point would mean the world to me.

    P.S. if you’d rather not share it with the world, I’d be happy to receive an e-mail with some “hints.” Thanks.


  9. Hi , I would also like to see you make a youtube video of how you do ONE of these photos… ( Obviously edited, It takes me two hours or more) I am particularily interested in the high pass effect usage and the sharpening applied. When ever I try to “pile on” these effects it all seems to go to hell. While yours seems to go past this to attain a “GRITTY” level I cant seem to get…. To the point where a mans pores look like the surface of the moon. Maybe I should just get some better lenses…? 🙂

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