Lessons Learned

Lots to discuss. Mostly photography nerd stuff, but some other odds and ends as well, so let’s get to it.

On the tutoring front, things are going well. Surprisingly, I have enjoyed working with my two new elementary-school students (grades 4 and 5), so much so that I plan to pick up more younger clients down the road – I just haven’t done it yet as I currently have 5 clients total and am happy with my workload for now. But when I am ready for another wave of networking, I am going to send out my information to the elementary schools in the area, which I have not done yet, and offer my tutoring to the older-level kids; I don’t think at this point I want to work with emerging readers at all, but by fourth grade kids in general are definitely reading on their own, which is the point at which I can step in and help.

And on the art project front, a longtime blogger and follower Charlotte Hoather presented an idea to me in a way that really made sense to me, and gave me a path to follow with some of the opportunities that are on the horizon.Not that I’ve actually put a package together yet; I am still working out the kinks of functioning productively with my new schedule (meaning for the most part, I am still wasting WAY too much time goofing off as opposed to working on projects) but even that is getting better. It’s been almost a year now since I left my former school, after all, so at some point I was bound to get used to my new life; it seems to finally be happening.

So now, on to the photos:

antionette1

I have been in a SERIOUS photo-taking mood lately; partly because I have had whole days to myself here and there, partly due to making some cool purchases lately I’ve been excited to work with (of the prop, costume, and software variety), and also due to learning some new techniques I am still perfecting. The results of all this have been mixed for various reasons, but the photo above is one example of a slam-dunk I’ve pulled off recently. Everything about that shot just works for me, and I’m really happy with it. Let’s get down to the specifics, for those that care. Or if you don’t, stop reading and just scroll and view the pics.
lion1a

There’s two wigs on my head in this shot

As far as props and costumes, back in December I purchased a few of these face crystal sets from Free People and I loved them, but they ran out and didn’t replace the few styles they had with anything new. The brand name FP was selling was called Body Baubles, and a quick Google search turned up a website where I could buy more sets to work with. I had a hard time choosing, but in the end I picked up 3 or 4 more sets to use (I can’t recall off-hand exactly how many). These first two shots above are using some of the “baubles” from that purchase. They are really great little accessories; the adhesive is pretty tacky (although I haven’t found them wearable more than once, and haven’t researched if there’s a way to extend their shelf life) so they definitely stay on for the duration of a shoot. I do wear them with a ton of makeup on, so maybe with lighter makeup they last for more than one wear. When editing photos, they are really easy to manipulate and move to different areas of the face, which is fun – I can put them on once and use them for several different looks, then change up where they are placed on my face via editing later. Sweet.

bighair1

A processing issue I’ve been addressing lately is my ongoing struggle with skin retouching. It’s so difficult to get it right, and for the most part the skin in my portraits has always come out too soft. It’s been bugging me for forever, but a few weeks ago I finally decided to do some internet research to try and add something to the skills I’ve already acquired via YouTube that could up my game. I found a pretty easy, albeit tedious, technique from another photographer that was pretty astounding in its simplicity – basically, you take a section of the skin that has good texture, copy it, run it through a few filters, and then paste onto sections of the skin that have lost texture and look too smooth. Not sure why I didn’t think of this before, except for the fact that it is very time consuming and boring to execute.

The idea is for the skin to be retouched so that unwanted wrinkles, shadows, and pores are minimized, which is what loads of filters will already do, but to keep the texture that makes skin look like, well, skin. Here’s an example of really amazing skin retouching, of the sort I still cannot do:

skin-retouching

And here is an example of ‘bad’ retouching  – no offense to the lovely ladies in the photos, of course. This is also what most skin smoothing filters will do to your skin, such as the ones you can use in a phone app or a basic photo editing program.

portraits1

I always say that portraits like this look like the subject has been sculpted out of butter; when you lose all the skin’s texture, and yes, even all the lines and pores, you end up with a photo that looks unnatural and blurred. So how to keep the lines and shadows and textures that you want, while still getting rid of the wrinkles, blemishes, and large pores that you don’t want? Well, that’s been my question forever; usually I end up somewhere between the good photo and the bad ones, but still too close to the latter for my liking.

The first thing I realized was that I needed to soften the photo less when working with the raw file, so I have more texture to work with from the beginning. The tendency is always to soften a portrait because in general that’s more flattering, but if a RAW file is softened too much you can end up without enough texture to use later. So, in my last batch of shots I was sure to keep the original sharper than I usually do, even though that means my original shots of my 47 year old skin are less complimentary than I would like. No one but me ever sees those, anyway.

The second thing I’ve been learning to do is add the right sort of texture back into the skin after attempting to retouch OUT the textures I don’t want. As I said, this can be tedious, especially if I have only really small patches of texture to work with and re-distribute over the face, but once I get this down I think the end results are going to be worth it.

fuzzyscarf1boa

Some early attempts; I keep them bigger so hopefully you can see the skin. I think the second one is better than the first. I actually really don’t care for either one of these shots all that much. Nothing wrong with them, I just think they’re both kinda boring.

By the way, back to props: in the two photos above I am wearing this faux alpaca-fur scarf I saw a while back at Nordstrom; it really is that bright, and it is huge – when throwing it over my shoulders it looks more like a big, long fuzzy vest than a scarf. I saw it at the Galleria store and was dying for it, but it was too pricey for me at the time; later on I saw it on sale half off online and snatched it right up. I am glad I did, even though we have had NO winter here this year and I have had no reason to wear it out of the house.

All of this skin retouching stuff got me excited about working with portraits, so last Friday I decided to try another shoot and give myself some newer stuff to work with. I’ve got my Portrait Pro software down to the extent that, in most of these photos I’ve already shared, I had nothing but foundation, highlight and contour, and powder on my face in the actual shots. ALL of the color on the face, including the mascara and the eyebrows, has been added digitally. This really helps me with prep-time for taking self-portraits, as so often the amount of time putting on a full drag face is so long that by the time I am done applying, I don’t much feel like doing the work of posing for the shoot. Now I can slap on the basics fairly quickly and get to work, although applying more makeup on the front end is always going to be preferable  – something I REALLY learned in this last shoot.

face16

So, my basic idea was this: I’ve had some luck in the past taking half my face from one shot and layering it over another face to get the “perfect”look – in one case, for example, I loved the movement of the hair in a shot, but there was so much hair in my face it wasn’t usable as it was. I figured out how to take a section of my face from another shot and paste it over the hair-covered one, and not only did it solve the problem, it actually created a new-looking face that didn’t much look like me, but was still cool:

badwig4a

You’ve seen it before, but here it is again

I am always looking for ways to make me look less like me, so I got this idea to take a bunch of shots of myself standing in the same exact position, wearing exactly the same thing, but making a ton of different faces, with the plan being to use my facial features like a digital Mrs. Potato Head during editing and just steal a nose here, a mouth there, and create all these different-looking people out of them. However, this did not end up being nearly as cool as it sounded.

The basic ‘pose’ was like the one above where I have on the head scarf: I wanted to be looking straight ahead as that is the easiest way to edit using Portrait Pro as well as being the easiest way to pose in general, which I thought would help me keep all the different shots uniform. It didn’t though – you’d be amazed how much you actually move your damn head around even when you think you’re being perfectly still! So, there was actually a lot of variation among the different shots as far as exactly where my head was positioned, which altered the light and shadows hitting the faces, too.

But that could have been worked with – here was the real problem: these shots, even though they served their purpose of having at least somewhat interchangeable facial features to play with, were basically, well, boring. I am not sure why I decided to go with a head scarf instead of a wig, except that I must have thought the presence of wig hair would either be too limiting visually or just get too much in the way of the face. That makes sense, but then I should have gone on to do some shots looking at the camera wearing some sort of hair, because while it was interesting to mix up my facial features on different shots, the end results were just lame. Just me staring at a camera with a head scarf on, period. Very little color and no point of interest, unless like me you are able to look at them and appreciate the subtle differences in my face taking the Potato Head approach renders. Which, honestly, wasn’t even THAT interesting to me! So, I found myself spending a TON of time Potato-Heading myself only to end up looking at a pretty boring photo. As a result of that, I started to add a ton of weird textures and overlays just to cure my own boredom, which isn’t really something I care to look at in the end. I love filters and overlays, but I prefer to use them subtly so that the end result still looks somewhat ‘natural’ – in other words, the filter enhances the photo without overtaking it. In these shots, I got so bored that I let the filters take over.

face16

You’ve already seen this one, but I’m showing it again because it’s the best example of the problem I created for myself. Although, I WAS briefly interested in the fact that I inadvertently made myself look like Ivanka Trump. 

One other thing I did during the shoot to liven things up, but that also didn’t work out all that well: a few times I held up some props to my face, thinking I could edit those elements out of the shots and apply them to my experimental faces as well – sort of like Mrs. Potato Head bonus features, if you will. But even that was primarily a fail; even though there wasn’t much going on in the initial shots that I had to deal with when compositing later, there was enough that it made it hard to use the props without them being obviously pasted onto my face. For example, I thought sticking a peacock feather over my eye would be kind of awesome; on its own it’s not such a grand idea, but if the peacock feather could look like it was actually growing out of my face it could be kinda cool. Except, when I held the feather up to my eye I didn’t center it properly, and when trying to move it around on another head shot, all the places in the original photo where the head scarf and parts of my face showed through the spines made it impossible to work with without looking totally ridiculous and I am not talented enough to highlight and copy something this intricate without screwing it up royally. To compensate for that, I filtered it to death, and what I ended up settling for in the final version was pretty much laughable and lame – when I look at this, I just think, and why does this photo even exist, exactly? It literally serves no purpose whatsoever, except to confuse the viewer as to why the photographer even wasted her time on such foolishness:

face16a

So, Ivanka Trump, in what appears to be a swim cap, sticks a peacock feather in it and then, what, takes a shower? Gets caught in the rain? WHY AM I LOOKING AT THIS?! And why is that peacock feather looking so much like a fish skeleton – I NEED ANSWERS!

Then there’s this beauty – that’s a Christmas tree ornament I held in front of my face in one shot, that once again I failed to put properly over the eye and had to adjust for that error:

face18a

For fun, I actually took the pink center of the star, stretched it out into a lip-like shape, and stuck it over my real lips. Then I stretched it out even more and put the glitter pattern of it into the head scarf. All of this took a crazy amount of time, and in the end helped the photo not one bit. Still boring. Although, I continue to be impressed with how good I can make fake makeup look.

face18ab

Over-edited heavy filter compensation photo. There are actually elements of this one I like, but still, they don’t go together at all. Once I got the idea to use these different wall textures on it, I wished I hadn’t worked so hard to get that star placed on my face, because it literally makes no sense with what else the picture has going on.

Now, this next one I think was somewhat more successful. The placement of the silver tree branch was more workable, and the end result of putting it up against my face in a different shot is more interesting. My goal was to make it look like the branch was actually growing out of my face, but I’m not skilled enough at Photoshop to have made that happen in any convincing way, so I kind of abandoned the idea and decided to just say, hey, here’s me with a silver branch in my face. Enjoy.

face17

At the time of editing, though, I wasn’t as satisfied with this as I am now, because I actually kept going with the filters until I’d gone WAY too far. Remember, I’m still getting used to the novelty of being able to use all my software on my new laptop, so I do tend to get carried away. Thankfully I saved a copy of the version above and didn’t totally trash it without having a backup to that previous, much less chaotic version.

face18

Sinead O’Connor hiding out in the forest? Stop, already. Just stop. 

However, all hope was NOT LOST! Apparently I’ve learned something over the years I’ve been doing this (well and now, I’ve actually learned more, namely, that taking 50 photos of myself standing in the same spot wearing a swim cap is a bad idea) because I did take the time to throw on a few wigs, and some of the new Goodwill costume purchases I’ve made lately, and get some interesting shots before I packed it in for the day. So at least I can have fun editing those. Although – I can’t say editing this one was an easy ride:

clown1

It seemed I was just determined to make life hard for myself on this day, because right before I called it quits I decided to throw on some crazy makeup and take a few shots with it – I managed to draw those thick black lines onto my face PERFECTLY, then decided to try and blend them out a little with black eye shadow and effed that one over the eyebrow COMPLETELY. I was able to fix it in Photoshop, but it was a huge pain in the ass and took forever, so I’m not sure I’ll edit any more shots from this part of the shoot. That’s probably fine, though, because this is a pretty distinctive look, and I don’t think anyone needs to see more than one of this. Not sure I should have kept the brick wall effect on the orange and yellow eye shadow, but I am a bit obsessed with that particular texture and how I can cleverly incorporate it into shots without allowing it to take over. And that top is AMAZING for photos – it’s big and sheer and very caftan-y and it was only $3.99 at the Goodwill up the street.

Now, last but not least – from the ashes of a basically failed photo session comes this lovely Phoenix!

oilslick1

BOOM! Take THAT, Mrs. Potato Head! In reality, this wig is a dishwater-looking blond with a very drab green, although a bit of teal and yellow shows up in the underneath side of it. But using Photoshop I was able to draw out a ton of beautiful color, plus I feel like I really got the skin texture right here, if maybe a bit TOO textured. All of the makeup was added in PS, and the hair is actually taken from two different shots of it while I was blowing it around with a fan (the bit where it’s curling up towards the ceiling is from one shot, as well as the bit that is swooping over my forehead and back over my shoulder; that big swoop at the top is from another shot where it was almost falling back off my head, as well as all the strands coming forward onto my shoulders). Even the cheap cotton-knit yellow dress I’d just picked up at Goodwill and put on backwards (since that’s where the interesting detail was) really worked with the wig far better than I thought it would. I absolutely love this shot, at least as much as the very first one I posted in this long-ass thread, so, lesson learned – when it comes to portraits, I really need to start with some color, and some movement and interesting poses that I can enhance in Photoshop, rather than starting so basic that I have to rely on editing to do ALL the work. A little bit of PS magic is fine and fun for me, but if it’s ALL the photo has to work with to make it successful, it just isn’t my bag. Some people are really great all of that image manipulation, but it turns out that I do have my limits. So, onward and upward; more wigs it is!

Speaking of wigs, I did buy three new Rene of Paris ones over the weekend – a Zuma, a Sonoma, and an Evanna. I got one of them in the new pastel blue, then the others are in some of the new brunettes they came out with. The prices are very nice, which helped me decide to make the purchases. I should have them in to review soon!

8 thoughts on “Lessons Learned

  1. Hey Cynthia. I’m glad all is well with you. I was wondering where you were! I’m fascinated with your portraits–they are more like works of art and I love looking and studying them. I swear you can go into business doing portraits!

    Thank you for such an interesting read. And I can’t believe it was almost a year since you left the school! Wow! Time flies!!

  2. These pics are works of art. I love your creativity…the outfits, the makeup, the poses are just fanciful and full of whimsy. Your shots reminds me of the feeling you got as a child when you looked at an illustration in a book that just mesmerized you. Almost magical. The shot with the rainbow colored top and the curvy black lines you drew on your face is my favorite. Just spectacular.

  3. Pingback: The Art of the Spiel | mareymercy.

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