Masking: the portrait photographer’s best friend

Ever take several photos of a group, but none of the shots show everybody looking at the camera, eyes open, with a smile on their face? The more people you add to the shot, the more likely this is to occur. Recently I shot a wedding, and although most of the shots came out well, one of the critical portraits (the wedding couple with the bride’s parents) did not turn out. There wasn’t a single frame with everybody looking their best.

The photo on the left was the best shot, but the mother of the bride was looking away from the camera. Because I knew I liked the picture except for this one problem, I hunted through the rest of the similar shots and found the photo on the right. Ordinarily, it would be a throw-away, particularly because the bride is blinking. But the mother of the bride’s expression is perfect.

Good shot, but mother of the bride is looking away from the camera
Good shot, but mother of the bride is looking away from the camera
Mother of the bride is smiling at the camera, but bride's eyes are closed
Mother of the bride is smiling at the camera, but bride's eyes are closed

So now that I have both pictures that I want to combine, how do I do it? First, I open both images in Photoshop (for this example, I will be referring to CS4, but the same technique can be used in CS3). Using the Move tool, I drag one image on top of the other image. This will create a second layer, giving the second image two layers, one with each original image.

Or, if you are using Lightroom, all of the above can be skipped by selecting both photos, and clicking the menu item Photo->Edit In->Open as Layers in Photoshop…

Now that both images are stacked as separate layers, I select both layers in Photoshop and click the menu item Edit->Auto-Align Layers. This is a crucial step in making sure everything blends nicely between both layers when I merge them later. Next, I make sure that the image I want to keep (the left image above) is the top layer, and I add a layer mask (by clicking on the rectangle with the small circle icon at the bottom of the Layers palette). I make sure that black is selected as the foreground color.

With the top layer selected, I use the paint brush tool to paint the photo in the places that I want the bottom layer to show through. In this case, I painted in the mother-of-the-bride’s head. The head from the bottom layer appeared in the top layer, creating the fixed photo below:

Fixed portrait with everyone looking great
Fixed portrait with everyone looking great

If the two photos you are merging have only small differences, the above method can be a great and more natural looking alternative the more traditional approach of selecting from one image and pasting into another.

Ring-billed Gull Portrait (Photo of the week)

Ring-billed Gull portrait in soft evening light at sunset
Ring-billed Gull portrait in soft evening light at sunset

We see these birds all the time, throughout most of North America. They invade our parking lots and strip malls, and their calls are ubiquitous. However, when I happened upon this ring-billed gull standing alone at the end of a pier overlooking the San Francisco Bay, I saw an opportunity to turn the commonplace into an interesting shot. The sun was setting behind me, illuminating the bird with a soft glow. That, combined with the fact that this particular bird was clean and quite nice looking, gave me the ingredients needed to create a pleasing portrait.

It pays to be prepared

A river otter clings to a log, submerged in an algae-filled pond
A river otter clings to a log, submerged in an algae-filled pond

“Chance favors the prepared mind,” goes the saying by Louis Pasteur. I wholeheartedly believe this is true – in fact, I would say that it is very uncommon to be lucky without being prepared. The image above demonstrates this belief.

Kerry and I were up in Mt. St. Helen’s National Volcanic Monument taking photos of the mountain and just being tourists. We were blessed with great weather and clear skies, so we decided to take a short hike out into the ash flow that wiped out the Toutle River in the 1980 eruption. I was primarily interested in gaining a new vantage point on the mountain for landscape shots, but as almost an afterthought, I decided to take a second camera body with a telephoto zoom, just in case we saw any wildlife.

Now, I almost never take a lens this big with me on a hike unless I’m going for the express purpose of setting up somewhere for a particular animal. The lens and body together was pushing over 4 lbs, so it’s not the most comfortable thing to sling over your shoulder. But the hike was only 2.5 miles, so I figured, “why not?”

About half way through the hike, we came to a medium sized pool of water, filled with bright green algae and surrounded by thick vegetation. Just as we were passing the water, two river otters burst out of the bushes and jumped into the pond. At first they watched us intently, to see what we were all about. Soon, however, they relaxed and began playing and eating clumps of algae. “Luckily” I had my second camera with the long lens ready to go, and preset to the correct settings for wildlife photography. Because of this preparation, I didn’t miss any of the action while I fiddled with controls. If I had not considered the “what if” possibility of seeing wildlife, and just stuck with my wide angle lens, I would have missed these otters completely.

So next time you’re headed out, think about all of the different situations you might run into. It might lead to bringing different gear, or just pre-visualizing a potential photograph you might be able to create. I am grateful for that extra moment that I paused to think – in this case, it certainly helped me get “lucky”.