Behind The Scenes - Collaborative Beauty with Retoucher Jordan Hartley




To give a little bit of background on this shoot, quite a while ago I was introduced to the work of Jordan Hartley through our mutual friend and talented photographer Clay Cook. Jordan is based in Toronto, and for that reason we had never met or spoken in person until a few months ago when he came out to visit Louisville for a while. When he was here we had a chance to chat and decided we should collaborate on a beauty project of some kind. By collaborate I mean I would shoot the photos, and he would have full creative freedom with all aspects of the post production.

This isn't something many photographers do often, because as creatives most of us are control freaks and know that it can be a very difficult thing to completely give up control with your raw files. Photographers that hire retouchers tend to handle the color grading and toning of the images themselves once the retoucher has gone in and cleaned everything up. I was actually very much looking forward to not handling the post process on these after the shoot and was really excited to see what direction Jordan would take with the overall look and feel of the final product.

When I got the photos back, I was impressed to say the least, and i'm thrilled to be able to share the results of our work with this behind the scenes look at the whole process. Before I go any further, I would also like to say thank you to my good friend and extremely talented makeup-artist Isidro Valencia, assistant/photographer Hunter Zieske, and our model Katya Estes. These photos wouldn't be what they are without the effort and creativity of everyone involved, and if there is one thing i'd like to be taken away from all of this, it's that collaboration is key.




Our initial plan going in was to create something that had a very clean, high-end look while maintaining some edge, drama, and a touch of color. I have a lot of respect for photographers who specialize in the commercial/editorial beauty genre and have their own distinct stamp on all their work. Yulia Gorbachenko and Hannah Khymych are two inspiring photographers that come to mind whos work has that polished quality but is still unique and interesting to look at.  When deciding how to best approach this shoot technically, a number of different set-ups, lighting, backgrounds, etc. went through my mind before I decided to shoot on pure white. I think I have only intentionally shot on white a total of three or four times in the past. I stay away from it in general because I typically prefer darker images, but I thought i'd give it a shot anyway and see if I couldn't make something interesting out of it that still fit the initial vision. I think in the end it worked out far better than any dark seamless or canvas would have and it really lent itself well to the style of image we were aiming for.


Gear, Lighting, & Technicalities:



Lighting equipment list:



Background Light:  

To light this shoot, I started with the white background. Using the white walls of my studio as the surface, we used one small white umbrella on either side of the wall and angled them inward. We also used some black fabric on the right side to block any light that was spilling back from the wall onto the back of Katya's hair/shoulders. We metered the light to 255 white all the way across the top to ensure there was no fall-off or gradients across the top of the image where most of the white would be showing.




Key Light: 

For the key light, I wanted something soft with a lot of depth and contrast. I ended up choosing a small 36' Photek Softlighter on a Profoto head, placed close to the subject on the right side at a 45 degree angle. I used a small Matthews flag to cut any light that was spilling onto the back wall. It was also there to act as a negative fill to define the edge of the face slightly. I placed a black v-flat to the left of Katya to block any unwanted bounced light and again to add some shadow definition on the left side opposite the light. One thing I wish I focused more on in the past is how important it is to pay attention not only to where you are adding light, but also to where light can be removed to add more drama and layers of depth to an image.



Fill Light:

Fill light, regardless of where it's coming from, is something I rarely ever go without. In fact, this light is what I think about first a lot of times, and I don't think of it as a fill as much as I think of it as added ambiance. It could be as simple as adding a silver reflector to create a more interesting catchlight, or a large double diffused light source to give a bright, soft, and natural look. I try to approach studio lighting the same way that would with location lighting. Consider what light is already there (the sun, or what can be created as a base), to which you will then add to and accent with other lights. Sometimes, I will first build a base light that's indicative of the mood i'm after, and that will serve as the first layer. I will then add the "key" light to place emphasis on the subject. Depending on the number of lights, placement, and/or what modifiers are used, the possibilities with what you can create are endless. I'm not saying this is how you should light your all of your own shoots. This is just one of many ways to think about things, and sometimes trying a different approach can open a lot of doors creatively and provide you with some new ideas.


In this case, the fill was a large octabox, right behind me and on-axis with the subject. I removed all diffusion and added a blue gel covering the bulb. Removing the diffusion prevented any loss of color from the gel and the silver interior of the octa created a crisp and very natural looking light close-up. This light was at about half the power of the key light, just enough to give the shadows a soft blue tint. Placing it on-axis with the camera/subject ensures that any shadows created by the key light that are visible from the camera's angle will be filled in. A light placed straight-on to the subject will also create some shadow separation around the edge of whatever you are shooting due to the light fall-off. The effect can be made even more drastic when working with a ring flash (Dan Winter's work is a good example of this). As you'll see in the behind the scenes photos, I had a constant LED ringlight in front of me, this was mostly there so I could focus accurately in low light, it wasn't affecting the image in any way.


That's about it for the lighting on this one. I think it's important to remember that every light used should have a specific purpose, and the ratios of each light in relation to the others should be carefully considered. Learning to use light in a subtle but purposeful and natural way will take your work to an entirely different level. Details with any light should never be neglected or underestimated because the smallest alteration can completely change the look and feel of an image. Take the time necessary to craft a light that suits the overall vision and end goal, and most importantly, have fun with it. Aside from the lighting, as always I shot with a Canon 5d MKiii, tethered to Capture One Pro. Funny enough, everything was shot using a trusty Canon 50mm 1.8, I love the depth that you get when you work with a 50 in close to the subject. There is also some distortion, but I do my best to use it to my advantage by shooting at flattering angles and emphasizing certain features. Also, most distortion can be toned down later on during raw conversion, so if the situation allows don't let distortion deter you from experimenting with lenses you wouldn't normally use.



Post Production with Jordan Hartley:

As Jacob mentioned, we had first met when I visited Louisville for the first time at the beginning of the year. Once we started talking, we had decided to collaborate on an image set that we both could get creative with and add to our portfolios, something a little different. I was excited when ideas started forming, and got even more excited once I saw the photos for the first time. The lighting was beautifully crafted and the concept was perfect for the direction I was hoping to take them in. A huge thanks goes out to everyone involved! Katya, Isidro, and Hunter killed it as usual, and I was blown away by the amazing job Jacob did before the files made it to my desktop.

The direction I had planned, even before seeing the shots, was something contrasty, with subtle hints of an interesting colour palette. Something with yellow/greens and purples that would add a nice colour contrast along with the contrast in luminosity. Aside from colour and contrast, I wanted clean, detailed skin that was almost hyper-realistic.

My process on any fashion or beauty shot is (almost) always the same: toning test, cleanup, dodge and burn, colour correction, and toning application. Each step is 100% non-destructive so that any changes can be made at any time when clients request it. Keeping to the same guidelines for every file also means that time is saved and each photo typically doesn’t take any longer than 2 hours for the actual retouch (not including bigger, detail oriented client projects). I went ahead and recorded a time-lapse video of one of the retouches for this project. It's recorded at 10x normal speed, so I’ll break down the steps I took to retouch the file below.

Toning Test:

This is where I will take the unedited file and try to get a feel for where the image needs to go, colour and contrast-wise. Once one photo is looking good, I bring the toning folder over to other images and make sure they all match. Almost always some tweaking of the masks and adjustment layers are needed, but if the lighting is the same then it’s usually not too much. To apply the colours, I first needed to make two masks, one for the hair and one for the skin. Since the background is white this can easily be done with luminosity masks. I made a luminosity mask that targets the darker part of the image, applied it to a curves adjustment layer and masked out the remainders of the unwanted skin. To target just the skin I made a luminosity mask that only selected the white of the background, subtracted the hair mask from it, and then inverted it so that only the skin was selected. At this point I clipped my toning adjustment layers to the base curves layers that had the masks on them, so the colour would only be visible where the appropriate mask was white.


Probably the easiest part of the process, this stage is where the foundation of the image is laid down to create a polished final product. The clone stamp and healing brush are used on an empty layer to clean up and major blemishes and texture issues. After all the major issues are dealt with I’ll do another pass using the clone stamp on blank layers set to lighten and darken blend modes. This technique is used to further even out texture where the first cleanup step failed. Typically these areas are rough textures that grab too much attention, and are easily fixed by filling in the dark areas with more texture and reducing super-sharp highlights to a more natural midtone.

Dodge & Burn:

Now it’s time to smooth out distracting transitions in the skin by selectively lightening and darkening specific areas. This is done by setting up two curves, one with a raised curve and the other with a lowered curve. Once those are set up, you can invert the masks to black and paint on them with a white brush to reveal the effect on areas that need lightening or darkening.

Colour Correction:

Colour correction is a rabbit hole that goes on forever. I personally just stick to curves and think about it logically. If something is too red I will mask a curves adjustment layer over the problem area, and then either reduce the amount of red, or increase amounts of green and blue, depending on if the issue is that there is too much red or not enough green and blue. Google is your friend on this topic and there a ton of brilliant articles written on colour theory.

Toning Application:

The final step that I take is actually two steps. The first part is adjusting the contrast using curves, and the second is actually applying a colour palette to the image. If you did the toning test then this part is super easy because it should already be done for the most part. Usually the only thing I need to fix is any luminosity masks that I used for the tones, as the masks were made for the image before any retouching was done.

It all sounds like a very monotonous process, but it’s actually exciting, especially when you’re working on files like the ones for this project. There is so much room for creativity when you’re working with like minded people that you can’t help but have fun and get excited for the next project to come along. If there’s any advice I can give to anyone learning retouching, it is to never stop learning and have fun with it.


Final Results: