The Magic of Processing

I started dabbling in Photoshop for fun in 1997. I was just a kid. Later, in college, I got my first job at the University library. One of my job duties was working in Photoshop to restore damaged historic photos from the library’s collection. At that time, I built the real foundation of the processing skill I bring today. I didn’t get much instruction, but I learned how to layer, how to blend well, and how to fool the eye.

Fast foward a couple decades or so. When I began to sincerely invest in my education as a portrait photographer, with that new formal knowledge based on the foundation of all those years of experience… suddenly, I could see the Matrix. Does that reference date me?! hahaha

But really… Images: they are all. just. pixels. A photo is a painting made out of pixels. Photoshop makes an image into modeling clay in technicolor. You can do anything you want with it. It is such an amazing, sophisticated tool.

I know I talk a lot about processing on my blog, and my experience in that realm is definitely on my A list of skills. But I don’t use processing to make boring images interesting. My goal is to use processing to make amazing images spectacular.

Processing and retouching conversations usually center around “perfecting” a client’s appearance. I do correct the posture and retouch impermanent blemishes, as a mundane matter of course. But to me, the real gold of processing is not about making people thinner or fixing skin. It’s about creating magic.

Straight out of camera.

What if her hair flew up just a little higher and spread out just a little more? What if she had pointed her foot more gracefully when she kicked it up? What if the sunset that night had been more colorful? What if the sun set right behind them instead of off to the right somewhere?

Magic. That’s what.

With magic.

Look for this image at the Amador County fair next week!


The Relish Store

I’m very excited to announce that I’ve been invited to participate in Amazon’s Influencer program. This is a HUGE deal for my quality of life, you guys. HUGE. And it’s going to make styling sessions a lot less work for my clients, too.

I always try to collaborate with my clients for wardrobe, and I spend countless hours scrolling Amazon since that seems to be the most universal and affordable option for most people. I have a lot of idea lists on my Amazon account. I. Mean. A. Lot. And there’s not really any easy way to share or present those ideas as a whole.

Now that I’m an official Amazon Influencer, I can have my own curated Amazon storefront. Rather than constantly searching though everything for what I think a client might like, I can just show my clients *all* of my ideas in an organized set of boards. There is a small commission for any sales made through my account, which is just icing on the cake. Really, I’m so excited for the collaboration opportunity.

You can see my storefront here:

One big thing on my to do list is creating whole family outfits, because that’s something I know clients really stress over. I’ve established wardrobe boards for women, men, boys, girls, babies, and newborns. I also have a section for photogenic toys you can surprise your little one with at your session to help get them liking the idea, and I’m going to make special collections based on style and theme.

My American Summer 4th of July shop is my first themed pop-up, and I’m so in love with all of it. My 4th of July sessions will feature a beautiful handmade wood flag by Patriot Woodsmiths and other rustic props in a beautiful setting. I can’t wait to see these images! Shop my 4th of July picks here:

As always, and even more so now, I’m so excited for the future of this grand adventure.

Working With Kids And Animals

“Never work with kids or animals”…said so many people, always, forever…..

But kids are my wheelhouse, and there’s nothing cuter than kids with animals! I see their point, though. Kids=chaos. Animals=chaos. Kids x Animals = whoa…….

Sessions with kids and animals can be super cute and fun! For little kids though, it can end up being more of a lifestyle session than portraits. That’s fine if it’s what you’re after! I’ve been enjoying doing some animal composites this season though, and I’m finding the results are sometimes a bit more magical than the real deal could have been.

girl and rabbit meet at sunset
Could this kind of calm, thoughtful interaction really happen outside of fairy tales–no less in front of an audience of kindly coaching parents and an imposing camera lens?

I shared this image (the girl in the yellow dress) on the Relish Facebook page, and I received a handful of requests for similar shoots. Folks were disappointed when I told them, “yes we can do this, but just so you know, there wasn’t really a bunny at the shoot!” I get it–it’s a super cute thought to see your kids get to play with a real bunny and have pictures of that. But in reality, that situation can be more stressful than cute. A real bunny can easily get scared and run away. She needs careful, gentle treatment, and may get nervous and nibble fingers or have an accident on that beautiful little dress. When real animals are in the shoot, I find that tensions can run high.

With a real bunny, we had to be confined to make sure she didn’t get lost, and both bunny and child were in constant motion. Daddy was trying to keep Evi from standing up and the bunny from jumping out of the wagon.

My daughter got a bunny this spring and I wanted to do a photoshoot for Easter. I made a nice flat spot in a grassy planter for her to hold the bunny. I set up my reflector. But I put her in the grass and she pitched a fit. She didn’t want to sit in the planter. The bunny climbed up the grass and wanted to chew on the tree bark. It was not picturesque. Plan B was putting them both in the wagon–not my vision for a nice color palette, and I had to quickly improvise the backdrop by changing my angle to something less than ideal. The bunny ate grass, and Evi petted her. It was cute. Super cute.

But these shots have barely a hint of the aura of wonder I was able to create in that first image, where I didn’t have to worry about the bunny escaping, and the little girl could be given a simple task without being distracted by the erratic activity of a live animal.

I asked that sweet little girl to look for ants in the bright yellow leaves that the sun was backlighting. She was calm. It was mellow. When I got home, I saw that shot and thought “that’s a perfect spot for a bunny!” …I had a perfect pose from her, and I was able to blend in a bunny in a perfect pose, in a perfect position.

I love this lifestyle image of a little girl with her new baby sheep. Images like this have more of a documentary feel, and are a lot more difficult to achieve with smaller animals.

So… yes, we could bring a bunny out for little kids’ sessions. I do have a real bunny, and she’s super sweet and friendly. But it wouldn’t be very fair to that timid little creature. The reality of live animals in a session is a lot more chaotic and less picturesque than it plays out as in the mind’s eye. I’m not saying I’ll never do it–I gladly will any time if folks have their own animals they’d like to include! But to make something like the really magical composite above, I need to be able to have more control than a real “kids x animals” experience can usually give.

Even when the animal really was at the session, those shots are also often composites. The animal and the child so rarely do the right thing at the same time that I often blend multiple shots to create one final image. With over 20 years’ experience with Photoshop and photography, I can create a full composite that is even more magical, and nobody has to get tinkled on.

Understanding Image Quality: Part 1

I want to take a little time to explain some different aspects of image quality in a way that’s not too technical for non-photographers to follow.

The images you see in a Relish proofing gallery are very low-quality previews of the final processed images. I’m not gonna pretend that watermarked digital proofs aren’t a bummer. I hate showing my work like this. But the high pressure of in-person-sales is not my style–I want people to have the opportunity to spend some uninterrupted time looking over the images before they buy. I sincerely do not want to sell anyone an image they don’t love.

But this means I have to do something to protect my investment in these images for the proofing process, because unfortunately image theft is rampant online. These proofs won’t print larger than about 1″ tall without looking like a child’s drawing, and the watermark makes it very clear these previews are proprietary and are not to be shared or saved.

I have to ask my clients to trust me about image quality, because these low-quality proofs don’t show the depth of detail in the final images. That’s part of the reason I’m writing this post! The image quality I explain here is the image quality you can expect from every Relish gallery. I operate on the standards established for commercial photography by Adobe Stock and Getty Images. If for some reason I ever couldn’t deliver that on a session, I would offer a complimentary reshoot rather than deliver those images.

So, what is the recipe for great image quality? How do you know it when you see it? I’ll be writing a series of posts over time to delve into this in a way everyday folks can understand. The short answer? Great images are made by leveraging precise knowledge on great equipment to uplift free-spirited creativity.

There are many factors that make up the prevailing assessment of image quality. In portraits, focus should be sharp on both eyes. Exposure should be correct. The image should be free of excessive artifacts like noise, dust, chromatic aberrations, and color separation. There are times to break the rules, and I’m happy to do it for good reason. But quality standards exist to help us create the most rich, real, and beautiful images the state of our art will allow.

Poor Quality: Exposure Issues
Highlight Clipping: BIG RED NO!

To put it more plainly, here’s a poor quality image. I’ll tell you why it’s bad. The highlights are clipped. See how the side of the building is WHITE where it seems like it should probably be yellow? Those parts of the image are so overexposed that the camera’s sensor recorded no detailed data. The same thing happened in the shadows here. There are no details in the blacks.

It’s kind of like when you walk into the sun from a dark room and you can’t see anything until your eyes adjust. You’re not capable of seeing both the extreme dark and the extreme light at the same time–you have to adjust for one or the other. In the same way, this scene went outside the range of what my camera could capture.

To the left is what the same image looks like to me when I’m processing. BIG. RED. NO. The red is Lightroom’s highlight clipping indicator, and the blue is the shadow clipping indicator.

My friends, I do not turn these indicators off when I’m working. Ever. Because a quality image should look identical whether they are on or off.

Below is an example of a successful image. There’s no difference between the with/without indicator images. Even though this image was also shot in dramatic light, there is no clipping anywhere–detail was captured throughout the entire frame. I was able to do this by adding light to the shadows (a flash positioned off camera), therefore reducing the range of light to dark that my camera needed to capture.

It’s so hard to talk about this stuff without getting a little technical! Here’s the long story short:

Detail of 100% Zoom

If an image package includes full resolution digitals, this is what you can expect to see at 100% zoom.

The images behind those proofs are crisp, clean, detailed, and beautiful.

Dream Big Dreams

See that it’s possible.

I feel pretty lucky that I was born to live in this time. The age of global information brings a lot of new complications to our lives, but it also allows light to fall on a lot of things that used to stay in shadow.

When I was in college, I was the first woman to arrange music for our University’s marching band. A friend was the first female drum major. When we were kids, the band didn’t allow female members at all.

We blazed through these firsts without giving them much thought, and that is amazing. We didn’t feel like pioneers, it just felt normal. Thank goodness for change! It has become much more widely accepted for all of us to follow our hearts, even if we don’t fit the traditional mold.

My little daughter is in love with airplanes. When she goes out wearing her tiny bomber jacket, people call her a cute little fella. Female pilots are still considered somewhat remarkable–women aerobats actually compete separately from men even now.

So, we watch a lot of documentaries about women pilots and we go to air shows whenever we can. I want her to know that people like her can do that–that it’s not reserved for someone else. Maybe as she grows older, her interests will change. But we’ll always be there to support her vision and help her find ways to follow her ambitions, even if there’s no example before her to follow.

Times keep steadily changing, and by the minute, it becomes less and less remarkable for anyone to do just about anything they want to do. It’s pretty exciting. And knowing where we came from, I’m so happy when I can lend a little boost to help her envision herself following her dreams.

“She believed she could, so she did…”

Giving The Gift of Legacy Photography to your Parents and Children

a large family portrait session in amador county, California by Relish Photography
A recent Relish family legacy session

Day to day we all go along, busy, immersed, often overtaxed. We take a lot of snapshots. We give lots of hugs. Maybe not as many as we’d like. If we’re lucky, a lot of people lean on us for what they need to get through life, and if we’re REALLY lucky, they’re there for us to fall on when we need it, too.

Family, right? We love them and they drive us crazy. But they’re always there.

A selfie of me and my husband on our first anniversary. This is a beautiful memory, but I wish we had some nice portraits from this year!

Stuck in our regular routine, it’s can be easy to put our folks on the back burner. We all have obligations and there’s a limit to the energy we can spend in a day. But as life has unfolded, I’ve realized how important it is to make time for family.

In the past I’ve always found ways to make our own family portraits here and there, usually by handing off the camera to a bystander for a snapshot. We all have bills to pay, and a portrait session doesn’t immediately rank as necessary. But this year, I made it a priority to invest in a portrait session for my family.

It felt right to honor my mom with a quality portrait of our three generations of women together, and I wanted my daughter to have a beautiful visual legacy to hold onto throughout her life. A professional portrait gives a level of honor to the family that the dearest snapshots can’t match; and there’s a transformative quality to seeing your family through the eyes of an outsider.

Two sisters throw dry leaves in the air while mom and dad steal a kiss in the background.
A Relish family session. This is more than just a pretty Christmas card. What a gift this image will be to these sweet girls as they grow older!

I’m so fortunate that I can give other families the opportunity to create family legacy portraits. These images are are so beautiful to create, and fill my heart with love and reverence. If you haven’t had a family portrait made lately, it’s time! Get everyone together, get dressed up, and celebrate your family’s legacy. Do it for your kids, do it for your parents, and do it for yourself.

How I wish we’d done this with my dad, too. I have mostly snapshots of my dad. He left us before I became a serious portrait photographer myself, and we never really knew the value of professional family portraits until the opportunity was gone. I can’t go back and recreate those legacy images for my dad. But going forward, I can honor my family with professional portraits regularly. And, as a photographer, I can give others the same opportunity to create a lasting, visual legacy for their families with every family session I schedule.

Me and mom. ZAMS Photography by Zita Makkos

Why I Don’t Use Presets

One of my images with a popular preset applied. The white patch on the right is burning my eyes! that highlight was not blown out in the original image.

My feed’s always flooded with ads for photography presets, also known in the social media world as filters. These pre-made sets of editing actions can be mass-applied to a whole photoshoot at once. Some photographers use presets as a tool to save time and give all their work a consistent look.

When a stylized preset is applied, the image can become more about the preset than the actual image itself. For this reason, presets can help increase the impact of images that are lacking in interest or quality. But they fall far short of hand editing when they meet with great image quality and attention to detail.

Clients and colleagues have complimented my processing and asked if presets are a part of my workflow. So, I wanted to take a few minutes to write about my approach to processing, and explain why I don’t use presets.

If you’ve ever followed a photography feed or even talked about photography near your phone, you’ve probably seen preset ads. Brixton film, Jake Olson, who else sells presets? There are so many out there. The example photos look dreamy–bright, rich, deep and intense, or soft, muted, and tranquil. Surreal in a really good way. It’s easy to think that mood was created by the preset alone.

But, no. A professional photographer shot those images, and although the preset was applied, many other actions were also taken to create that final product. When presets are simply applied wholesale, one-and-done style, the effect is not always so dreamy.

Left: My hand edit; Right: a popular preset with no other edits

When I began studying as a photographer, I was incredibly fortunate to have a very patient and technically-minded mentor who taught me in depth how to shoot and edit for the best possible image quality. It was a major milestone for me in my path to begin shooting professionally when I was accepted as a contributor for Adobe Stock and Getty Images–two separate commercial image sources, each with a strict insistence on impeccable image quality. My artistic editing springs from that foundation of technical excellence. I start with a clean image, and branch out to create a little fantasy in my editing without losing that integrity.

Consider the images above. On the left, in my hand edit, I kept the blacks dark and the whites bright, making space for the midtones. I clipped the blacks gently to give a soft matte look. I softened the green but left it a natural hue. I augmented the direction of the light. I removed some distractions from the background and minimized the prominence of the textures in the road and grass. I pumped up her hair and subtly straightened her posture, and I processed her skin first by hand and then by applying my custom look with a sophisticated skin texture algorithm.

Left: My hand edit; Right: the same popular preset as above.

In this detail crop of the same image, you can really see the difference in the level of detail between the hand edit and the image with the preset applied. The preset made her white shirt look blue and her face look orange. Her hair is not flattered, and her eyes are darkened so much that the light in them is almost totally lost. The preset brought out unwanted detail in the background and flattened her face, making it appear more broad. The same broadening and flattening effect can be seen in the preset-applied image below right. The skin tone is unnatural, and popped details in the gate steal attention from her face.

Left: My hand edit; Right: another popular preset–her face is flattened and broadened by detail loss.

I love an artistic, stylized edit, but presets don’t give me that. For my workflow, they remove detail and rob the processing experience of its intention and artistry. There’s nothing a preset can do that I can’t create by hand, which gives me so much more freedom to create.

Left: My hand edit; Right: original image straight out of camera with no edits

Presets do serve as a great reflection of popular culture. In 10 years, we may look back on them with nostalgia the same way we look back now on Glamor Shots, In Living Color, and JNCO pants. SO cool at the time, right? So NOW. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the love may not last.

As much as I enjoy being gently swayed by the changing tides of style, it’s important to me that I stay rooted in classic beauty. I want to make sure the work I’m creating will still be relevant and just as enjoyable in 10, 20, or 50 years. And, above all else, I want my portraits to be about the person, not the processing.