background check ..

A recent wedding I posted on my NJ wedding photography blog, elicited this interesting comment from a reader of the Tangents blog:

One thing I always loved (actually awed) from your photos in the blogs are how effectively you use flash (among various other ways) to balance the bright backgrounds with the subjects to catch the details and colors in both.   However the images above seems to been blowing out the details from the sky. I am sure you would have had a reason for doing so.  But would you mind sharing it to your readers?

I thought I would rather answer the question here.  But taking it a step back …

Where I can, I really take care about how I frame my subject or what my background looks like.   And this would be typical of what I like to do, where I have a background that really pops, and adds a lot to the impact of the image.

I specifically chose the background and the position of the sun shining through the trees .. giving that warm tint to everything.

Here is another example of how I let the background blow out to an extent, giving a softer romantic feel to the image.

With this image there are more bold highlights in the background, but they don’t bother me, since the background here just acts as a frame for my subject – the bride.  The reason why it doesn’t bother me to lose highlights like this in the background, is that I am a portrait and wedding photographer, not a landscape photographer.  Not this time any way.  So my concerns for the various elements that make up the final image are different than it would be for a landscape photographer who might try to retain detail throughout the image.

Back to the image at the top, which was one of several on that blog entry where the sky was a bland white because of how bright the overcast sky was.

There are a number of reasons why I let the sky remain over-bright and blown-out like that.

If I had decided to expose for the sky, and then used on-camera flash to balance the exposure for the subject (the bridesmaids), the results would’ve looked very flat, and “flashy”.  That isn’t ideal.

The ideal would’ve been one or preferably two lights being held aloft by assistants walking behind me as the bridesmaids advanced towards the camera.  Keep in mind that I’m not in a static position, but that I am moving backwards as well as the bridesmaids are walking towards me. Their pace is faster than mine, so they do overtake me during the sequence of images.

So to get perfect studio-style lighting on them on-location here, would’ve meant a whole production with one or two assistants.

This just isn’t practical.

The third alternative, would be to process the image and bring back detail in the sky … and this certainly has potential:

Here I went back to the RAW file, and pulled down the exposure by 2 stops, created a JPG from it … and then combined both exposures as layers.  This definitely looks better and adds some drama to the sky which didn’t exist before.  However, this  does take time.

So in there somewhere one has to find the balance between what looks great, what takes time .. and what is practical.


18 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1Arun says

    I am a regular reader of your blogs from planet neil. But first time to visit this site. The photos are amazing.

    One thing I always loved (actually awed) from your photos in the blogs are how effectively you use flash (among various other ways) to balance the bright backgrounds with the subjects to catch the details and colors in both. However the images above seems to been blowing out the details from the sky. I am sure you would have had a reason for doing so. But would you mind sharing it to your readers?

  2. 2 says

    But the fact remains that Arun was basically right here IMO!

    Regarding your use of two Jpgs with different exposures for the ‘third alternative’ I think one should use the Place command instead if one uses Adobe Photoshop.

    Open your RAW file from Bridge with ACR and next go back to Bridge and use the Place command with the very same file. You will find it under File on the top menu. This will open a new instance of the ACR where you may change any attribute you want.

    Once in Photoshop you can always revert to the ACR for this second version of the RAW file and adjust or fine tune any parameter there, if you need so.

  3. 3 says

    Luis, yes, Arun is correct there in that the sky is over-bright.

    For a fast efficient workflow, I am quite okay with letting it be, since the alternatives in dealing with it at the time in shooting the sequences of images, are either not practical or pretty.

    And that is the gist of my reply to Arun.

    Neil vN

  4. 4Terence Kearns says

    I think that is the perfect answer to a reasonable question.

    I would go as far as to say that pulling the cloud back in is more distracting in this particular case because it’s difficult to do it in a way that looks natural. It would create some confusion in terms of the intent of the look (IMO).

    If you were gonna invest heavily in post-production time, then you could pull the clouds back in using the gradient tool in Lightroom and really punch it hard to assert artistic intent. I would pull in the grad at the same angle as the camera tilt and pull up a short grad from the bottom at the same angle – focusing the perception to the content (subjects) sandwiched between.

    I would also play with some kind of tint in the gradient for artistic accent. I would warm up the image overall.

    But as Neil has said, this whole business is about striking a balance. And doing the above would often be an overcommitment of time.

  5. 5 says

    Excellent images as usual Neil.

    Perhaps a quicker way for the 3th method would be to underexpose the entire shot in Lightroom or ACR so the sky looks good, and then use the exposure brush to bring back the foreground. Probably takes 30 secs to 1 minute.

  6. 6Thorsten says

    Is it really necessary to always have detail in the sky in images such as the example presented here? Indeed, extending that, one could ask is it really necessary to strive for technical perfection in each and every image we take?

    Sometimes there just isn’t the time to get it all right, without losing “the moment”. Sometimes, just getting “the shot” is more important that getting it right.

    I agree with others that say you could have fixed this in Photoshop (as you so ably illustrated yourself) but I also couldn’t imagine doing this to a whole batch of images simply because of the extra time it takes. Even if it only takes an extra 30s to 1m, multiplying that by however many images you might have to do this for really adds up. And quite apart from that, if one has a highly automated workflow, even a single image requiring special attention of this nature can disrupt that.

    Oh and there’s one other thing too. So many photographers out there shoot their studio images against a clean white background (and some struggle to light it correctly!). IN this instance nature has provided that background.

    If I had to make one criticism, it would simply be that I think it would have been nice if the bridesmaid on the far right had white behind her as well. But I don’t know if a move to the right, to reframe the subject would have been possible.

  7. 7Albert says

    I agree with Thorsten. Not stepping on anyone’s toes but I find it a littlefrustrating sometimes when the first comment someone makes is “The sky is washed out.” Considering the 1st photo, I actually like how the background is split evenly with white and green (ie. draw a diagonal line from the corners). This gave a sense of balance to the photo and it never once distracted me from the subject.

    As Neil said, sometimes the sky is just dull and theres not much you can do about it.

    Sorry again this wasn’t aimed at anyone here!

  8. 8 says

    Neil, try this – (for once maybe I can help you :-)

    Open your image again in lightroom (your first version) then select the adjustment brush (k) when you click on it there are many options that appear. The one your looking for is the automask – makesure that is ON then just set the exposure to -2 for example.

    Then pain over the sky (using a bigish brush with a bigish feather) DONT worry about the feather part of the brush going over the faces of the girls, the auto mask on the background will create an almost perfect clipping path around them – you will end up with a perfectly exposed sky, no missed spots and no bleed into the girls – this will work also with the trees on the right hand side.

    The adjustment brush has changed my workflow and makes for saving a TON of time.

    You can turn the effect on and off without having to undo it and you can after the fact go back and make changes to exposure etc without any destructive effects.

    pretty cool,



  9. 9allan says

    I agree with Thorsten. Enough already with seeing every single detail in the shadows and every single highlight. Sometimes I find that boring and flat.

    The presence of clouds does not change the expression on their faces.

  10. 10 says

    Thorsten .. I like how you think! :)

    As I mentioned earlier there, my approach and mindset as a portrait photographer is different than if I had been a landscape photographer.

    And in this instance, the white sky doesn’t bother me.

    David .. thanks! I didn’t know about the Auto-Mask feature. It would make the task a lot simpler. Even in my edited image, you can see that slight halo effect that you get with quickly brushing in the detail from the other layer.

    So your tip will save a lot of time and look better.

    Neil vN

  11. 11Stephen says

    I don’t like the third alternative at all. It makes the whole scene too dark, and conveys a totally different mood than the original photo. I can’t imagine too many wedding clients that want to remember their wedding scene as depicted in the third alternative. Do you want a “realistic” memory or a more “favorable” memory? The original shot makes the scene appear more cheerful. The third alternative would require additional creative or lighting effects to make the mood not so dark. I strongly feel Neil made the correct call.

  12. 12Jonathan Williams says

    I personally prefer Neil’s original not the photoshopped image. I’d much rather see a slightly over-exposed sky than a grey sky that looks like it’s going to pour down! If the photos were for my wedding I would much prefer the brighter sky. I’m also quite sure had Neil posted the photoshopped image (not necessarily on this site) that someone would have said “you could have used photoshop to brighten up the sky and get rid of the grey clouds”! Like Neil said, if it were a landscape then yes you would want the dramatic sky, but people don’t want to remember the grey clouds (and possibly rain) on their wedding day.

    David – Thanks also for the tip about the auto-mask, I’ve just tried it after reading your comment and it works perfectly. I’m fairly new to photoshop so enjoy helpful tips (that aren’t about adding fake lightning/moons or removing trees/people or completely re-doing a photograph! like on so many forums).


  13. 13Donald says

    The original shot is good. Good expressions, the details on the bride’s dress are visible and not washed out.

    I think someone was just asking why the sky was a bit blown out. It’s not blindingly white as we all have probably seen or experienced before. In short, … “the image didn’t burn retinas”, but shooting an entire event without taking note of white skies and compensating for it would be a different story :)


  14. 14Paul Pomeroy says

    it’s probably also worth remembering that what is noticed on a photography-focused blog is significantly different than what the bride and groom will see a month or two post-wedding. Chances are high (almost certain) they won’t spend even a second considering what is or isn’t over-exposed in this shot.

    You can spend all sorts of time and energy post-processing wedding photos. When you’re just starting out it’s a good idea to do exactly that as this is how you learn to use the tools of the trade quickly and efficiently. Past that, though, you’re just lowering your hourly pay rate when you spend time “perfecting” a shot the client isn’t going to buy anyway.

    There are shots worth spending time on but group shots almost never are. A shot like the one being discussed here might end up in an album (in which case that “washed out” sky might actually work well as a background for other photos) but the client will never order an enlargement of it. Yes …, I understand what the original question was about and why it’s of interest to photographers but if you’re in the photography business it pays to be more selective about where you spend your time.

  15. 15 says

    Paul, you’re spot on there!

    To keep a wedding’s post-production workflow from being overwhelming, you do need to keep it efficient.

    For me, that means not opening an image in Photoshop unless I absolutely have to. I want to do pretty much all my editing with the raw processing software. (ACR / Bridge CS4 in my case.)

    Neil vN

  16. 16Robert Flores says

    First off I need to tell you that part of my daily morning routine is checking my email and reading your blog . . . dude you ROCK. I have noticed on several accasions you mentioned using an ACR/Bridge CS4 workflow. Any comment on using Adobe Lightroom? I’ve used the ACR/Bridge workflow for years and resently switched to LR.

  17. 17 says

    Robert .. thank you! :)

    Honestly .. and this is quite sad in a way .. I haven’t properly checked out Lightroom yet even though I have the latest version installed. It’s been a matter of being too busy to actually get to properly get to grips with the program … and it being easier for me just to use what I am familiar with.

    But most of the controls that LR offers in editing a RAW image, is also available in ACR / Bridge CS4.

    Neil vN

  18. 18Sheri Johnson says

    I totally agree with your line of thinking. In the case of the image in question, I actually prefer the version with the sky blown out since it keeps your attention on the subjects of the image and not on the sky.

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