Editing a low-key image
Here, we discuss the key editing tips for a low-key shot to help blend the flash with existing light
Using your Abobe software, Lightroom and Photoshop – or the equivalent – it is important to make subtle alterations that further shape and control the light in the image. This give you the opportunity to perfect your shot and take care of any adjustments that weren’t possible to make in camera.
Often, the editing process on a low-key image is more demanding than a high key. Shadows are harder and more dramatic, and more detail is perceivable where there is light, which for retouching on skin specifically can be more challenging.
Although we’ve lit the image in-camera to be as close to the finished shot as possible, using the edit we can correct some of the problems we couldn’t in-camera, such as the hard shadows on the neck caused by the directional light, and the excess light spill on the t-shirt. We can also use the edit to increase the exposure on parts of the image such as the screen, which wasn’t quite as bright in-camera as desired. By isolating those parts in Photoshop, we can further make the added flash look more ‘real’ by balancing out the ambient light source with the flash.
Any image with this level of retouching will need to be done in Photoshop. I use it for the more complex tasks such as skin retouching, dodge and burning and levels. I then return to Lightroom to make some of the finishing adjustments, like cropping and adding clarity. If you have presets in Lightroom, apply those once the image has been edited in Photoshop.
And if you’re really stuck, you can check out some great online resources, such as Phlearn, which makes handy tutorial videos to help give you practical advice on specific techniques in Photoshop.
SELECT YOUR IMAGE After uploading my images to Lightroom, I begin culling by using the starring system so I can filter to show my favourites before picking the final image for editing. I select on composition, focus, as well as the models facial expression and posture.
EDIT IN PHOTOSHOP Because this is a portrait and I know I’ll use advanced editing tools to skin retouch, I open the RAW image in Photoshop to begin before making any Lightroom adjustments.
HEALING BRUSH CLEANUP To begin, I tackle the skin, which I want to correct, but not over smooth, so the image remains realistic. Using the healing brush, I work to eliminate any spots or stray beard hairs.
FINISH THE SKIN Once I have ridden the skin of any blemishes via the healing brush, I switch to the clone stamp tool to smooth the skin. This is done to look subtle, with a stroke across the face at a low flow of around 5%.
SMOOTH HARD SHADOWS The directional light creates hard shadows on the neck, which I want to smooth over. Using the clone stamp tool at flows between 5-16%, I sample lighter areas and smooth into the shadows.
DODGE AND BURN USING CURVES To lighten and darken areas of the image, I use a Curves layer. On separate layers, I increase and decrease exposure on the curve, layer mask and invert. I can paint into the desired areas.
CREATE CONTRAST To add contrast, I use
Levels, where I can increase and decrease shadows, mid tones and highlights to alter the overall look of the image.
FINISH IN LIGHTROOM I flatten the image in Photoshop so I can save it into Lightroom, where I do tweaks like cropping to eliminate undesirable background and add clarity.
“On separate layers, I increase and decrease exposure on the curve, layer mask and invert”
BEFORE LeftSTRAIGHT FROM CAMERA The RAW, unedited image is very close to how it will look finished, as we took the time to get it right in camera. There are areas that need tweaking to ensure the flash is not perceivable
AFTER BelowLOW-KEY FLASH The finished shot shows the perfected final image with hard shadows softened, basic skin retouching that’s subtle and evened shadows and highlights to create a low-key portrait that makes the subject appear to be lit by the light of the screen