Laura, shot August 2005 in Lexington, with the 10D and 24mm f2.8 lens, 1/4000th at f/5.6 and ISO 200. 24" print, developed April 2008.
Now, to be clear, this certainly isn't my proudest work of art. To my mind, it far too strongly resembles Eye on the Prize - similar angularity and, of course, the same outfit from the same shoot - but it's clearly a runty little cousin compared to one of my greatest works. If I were a recording artist, this one would be included on an outtakes album.
But is this one of my proudest-ever technical accomplishments? You bet your shapely ass it is!
Wait until you see the original.
It's almost like you've seen this shot before, isn't it? The most classic mistake in amateur photography, shooting our subject with her back to the sun.
And a problem I was obsessed to solve.
Years ago, my sister sent me a shot of her family on the beach, with this exact same issue, and wondered if I could do something with it. And I quickly realized I didn't have any idea how to approach it. Which meant I needed to learn.
One thing I'm really proud of is that most of my greatest technique achievements didn't just stumble along, but rather resulted from recognizing a specific need and resolving to figure out the solution. As I've inched forward on my book over the years, I've raised the bar several times and felt that the book wouldn't be legitimate if it didn't show how 'development' could address those problems.
For example, needed a technique to smooth skin (and overdeveloped JPG cruft) while sharpening eyelashes, and it took me over a year to develop my Finishing Rinse. Really admired the silver quality of old film photography, and felt that there must be a way to evoke it digitally, but required a couple of years to finally create an easy technique for Silver Lining. And though it's still a tiger by the tail (to my great frustration), have made a lot of progress on Depth Charging. (In fact, Silver Lining and Depth Charging both "broke through" while working on Eye on the Prize itself, and the relevance of the image to my own resolve is one reason that it's so dear to me personally.)
So once I had this other shot of Laura, and inspired by the shot my sister had sent me, I spent three years trying to beat this scenario. Just counted on my hard drive and have got twelve different draft attempts from tackling it over and over. And generally failing.
It's certainly not hard to brighten an image, or to darken one, but to pull both directions at once (without precision masking) inevitably either produces indistinct mush or creates horrible threshold edges between them. (And one early way that I raised the bar for my techniques was to solve as many problems as possible without any precision masking whatsoever.) In this image, every approach seemed to radiate icky halos around her hair, the telephone lines, the trees, her arms, but worse, even the edges themselves would be lined with black. I'd made one decent stab with Silver Lining (saved on my hard drive as bestAttempt.psd), but it was too flat and formless to feel successful.
Over and over again, I'd be out and about somewhere, usually taking a smoke break and thinking about Photoshop, and I'd get some bright new idea for solving this problem, come home and attempt it, and it wouldn't pan out. The edges always went to hell, even when everything else would shape up pretty well.
So this Spring, I was sitting out in front of school, coming down with a cold, pondering a completely different problem in Photoshop, and recalling Deke McClelland's "difference sandwiches" from his Adobe Photoshop Bibles. And suddenly it hit me that if I could apply them to the different purpose in mind, maybe I could apply it to this backlit problem too? I didn't get my hopes up.
But got home, ever more sick with the cold, and immediately gave it a try. And the edges didn't go to hell.
You might seem some subtle haloing, but that's from rinsing it, not from the technique itself. And jacking up such a dark JPG certainly required some rinsing. A RAW shot probably wouldn't have.
The technique isn't limitless - couldn't make the clouds any darker without the edges going black again - but it gave me a basis by which I could put a lot more form back into Laura and get away with it.
So, to the extent that I share all this stuff to be inspirational, the lesson here is that our goals are drastically more likely to be achieved when we envision them and their hurtles as clearly as possible, and then resolve to leap them, one attempt after another.
And yes, incidentally, having licked this (to an adequate extent), I am quite fired up to get kicking on the book again. I really felt like this challenge was a stumbling block, and thus the title, once again, has a relevance to my own life as well as fitting the image itself. Even sick with that cold, it was an amazing feeling to have finally beaten this.
But I'd be interested - how do you think it stands up as its own image? I wonder if some people might feel more strongly positive about this on its own merits than I do.