When I came to edit this set, I wondered if there was a higher-impact look that would work. With the ton of back-light going on,
it felt quite cinematic already. I thought maybe I could push towards something you might see in a thriller. The RE standard look
is lovely, and very flattering, but it tends to subtract drama. Drama comes from contrast, generally- black-and-white contrast, colour contrast, local contrast and micro-contrast.
What do I mean by those things? Black-and-white contrast I mean the difference between the brightest and darkest parts of the image. So to up the drama, you need to push the highlights towards white and crush the blacks. That was my first port of call- just used the contrast slider, and made the vignette a bit more dramatic.
Second is colour contrast. The "RE look" version of this set has low colour contrast by design. The choice of a warm colour balance reduces the differences in colour between the stone and Claire's skin. I wanted to do the opposite, so I dialled the colour balance as low as I could without Claire's skin starting to look unnatural.
By the way, what we usually think of as "cold" colours- blue light- comes in nature from the hottest sources. "Warm light" with lots of orange actually comes from sources which are a lower temperature. Candle flames are cooler than the surface of the sun so candlelight is much more orange than sunlight. On your camera, if you have it, this is the Kelvin scale of white balance. Candlelight is about 1800 K or so. A tungsten filament bulb is somewhere around 3200 K. Daylight is around 5600 K. When we white balance, either in camera or in post if we shot RAW, what we're doing is scaling the red/green/blue channels relative to each other so a white object appears neutral white, without a colour cast.
For candlelight where the light itself contains lots of orange and not much blue, we have to really boost the blue and scale down the red to make a white object look white. For daylight, we have to scale down the blue and scale up the red.
In the end the effect on a picture we've already taken of sliding the colour temperature down to lower values is that everything goes blue: "cold", in our usual artistic terminology. Slide it to higher values and everything goes orange, because we are boosting the reds and cutting down the blues. "Warmer", in our usual artistic terminology. I use these terms very loosely because I know whether I'm using "warm" artistically or scientifically- this is lazy, and sorry if it causes additional confusion!
For the RE look, I had the colour temperature set to around 6000 K. This is higher than a "proper" white balance would indicate based on the actual colour temperature of the lights I was using, which I know from experience are at 5000K. So for the overall warm look, I boosted the reds and scaled down the blues- resulting in a pleasant overall orange "warm" cast which is flattering for skin tones, but which as previously discussed reduces impact.
So for the cinematic look I dialled the colour temperature down to about 4000 K. That scaled up the blues and scaled down the reds, resulting in a bluer, "colder" look. More importantly, it got me to the point where there was significant colour contrast between Claire and the stone walls. If I dialled the colour temperature much lower, her skin tones went blue. For anything other than a horror film or an action film climax, that's not very fetching. What I wanted was to have her stand out from the background, and that was best achieved by making her look like an oasis of warm skin on a background of cold stone. So 4000 K it was.
I went further. At sunset, the highlights are lit by direct sunlight which has been filtered through a lot of atmosphere. The atmosphere selectively scatters blue light out of the beam, so the direct light of the sun at sunset is very orange. Which in turn means that the highlights in a scene at sunset are very orange, too. The shadows on the other hand are lit by "fill" light coming from the blue sky- which is provided by the blue light scattered out of the direct beam of sunlight. At sunset, this is very blue indeed. So you end up with blue shadows and orange highlights.
Because I'd lit Claire so she would be brighter than the cell walls, and because her skin is orange vs. the blue the of the stone, I was already a long way towards the sunset ("golden hour") look which cinema uses ALL THE TIME. So I pushed it a bit further, using the red/green/blue channel tone curves to cut down the red and green in the shadow areas and cut down the blue in the highlights.
The effect was rather lush, in fact too lush. It looked like the climactic love scene of a movie, whereas I was after something more like a fight scene from a vampire movie. I toned it down by reducing the saturation of the image.
Local Contrast. This is a slippery concept related to how we perceive sharpness. Something looks sharper if there's a lot of contrast, especially on edges. (Contrast detect autofocus actually uses this effect to focus the camera lens). Which means we can make things look sharper and hence more dramatic by increasing the contrast. But we've already done that globally. Can we do anything to local areas of the picture to take that further? Yes, we can. In Aperture the slider is called "Definition", in Capture One and Lightroom it is "Clarity". It finds areas in the mid-tones which have local contrast between nearby areas and adds more constrast, pushing the tones further apart in that area.
The effect in humans is generally to make them look craggy and interesting. Great on men, terribly unflattering on women. But if you've got someone as gorgeous as Claire in front of the camera she can stand a bit of clarity- especially if you counterbalance the worst excesses by doing a skin smoothing pass. Skin smoothing is the same operation as clarity, except that it reduces the contrast rather than increasing it- and it usually does it by keying only on skin tones. So by applying clarity and offsetting it with skin smoothing, you can make the shot look really dramatic without making it look like your model has aged by three decades.
If you compare two versions of the same shot you'll see that there appears to be much more detail in the stone wall in the cinematic version than in the RE standard version. There isn't actually- it's the same shot, the information recorded by the camera is identical. It is just we perceive more contrast, deduce more sharpness and hence more detail.
The sharpening filter applied in the post-processing software is more or less the same effect. It just applies it very locally, on the scale of a pixel or two, to bring out local contrast especially in edges. And this difference in scale brings us to our last effect, micro-contrast. Micro-contrast is partially and impression of sharpness from edges, but it also includes impressions of texture. Claire's skin looks smooth as anything on the RE style shots- as indeed her skin is smooth as anything in real life. But drama includes more texture, so I added some to the cinematic shots. First I added some film-like grain. These small speckles add local noise but also give us the impression of more texture- a little like visual sandpaper. It increases the tension whereas a smooth effect (traditionally created with diffusion in front of the lens, for example) conveys peace, romance and calm. If you want to add instant drama, film grain is your friend.
Finally I fine tuned that effect by playing it off against the sharpening settings and the "structure" slider (which is a bit mysterious, but seems to do local contrast enhancement only on "busy" areas of the image.) Playing them off against each other got me to the final effect I was after- like something from the Underworld films. Grittier, more dramatic. More like Claire was in an underground bunker in the arctic than a lush cell on a billionaire's private desert island.
Neither of these is right or wrong. They are both entirely valid artistic developments of the original data. There's not anything privileged about the version that the camera builds in its JPEGs, or the version that appears in your RAW processing software before you twiddle any sliders. They are just versions built with a set of default sliders that some engineer somewhere things is a pleasant average for average shots of average subjects in average light. The great thing about digital photography is that all the information is in there for us to build something which suits our artistic intention so much better!
Of course all this post production doesn't mean we can be sloppy on set and "fix it in post". We have to start with lighting, model, props, clothes, bondage gear and ideas. Then we have to light and rig and tie and pose and direct to get the start of the shot we want. Post production is just painting the final colour layers over the foundation sketch and tonal rough painting we already laid down on our canvas.
But oh my it is FUN!
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