I got a response from one of the followers of this blog (Dante) and started typing away, until I realized that to fully answer his questions the response would have to be a lot longer than I originally intended.
So why not make it a full-on post?
Let me disclose that I don't truly consider myself an "artist". I consider myself a businessperson with a knack for imaging. I like imaging (photography and retouching) and have always had a discerning eye for faces. The extent of my art studies was that I liked to draw when I was a kid. But I couldn't draw to save my life (I really sucked) and hence never cultivated that interest. At one point I thought that I might want to be an architect but never pursued that idea either. Anyway drawing stayed tucked away for the last 25 years until I recently got a Wacom tablet and rekindled that relationship.
My brother's a singer/songwriter and I'm musically inclined as well. We get it from my dad, so I suppose music runs in the blood. I think that's about it as far as I go with "art" talent. If you read my blog you'll find I often lament that I'm not very creative. My creativity stems from doing something really really well, and then asking, "what if we did... [fill in the blank]". My current work isn't groundbreaking by any definition of the word.
So how did I learn Photoshop? Well, I've been around PC's for a long time. I'm good with troubleshooting and problemsolving and I'm good at games. Basically I'm a quick study and learn well from documentation. With the advent of the interwebz, I've learned a lot of stuff on my own. David Hobby was a great resource when I first started. So was Lynda.com (Chris Orwig). Then it just became a matter of what effect I was looking for. Starting with certain role models like Dave Hill gave me a tangible starting place for certain effects instead of opening a document and asking "well, what do I do now?". Then it was just a matter of putting 2-and-2 together as far as getting from A-to-B (A being the starting point and B being the finished product with that specific effect). Reading these tutorials and online material gave me the fundamentals to work with PS on a more fluid basis, henceforth being able to manipulate layers, adjustments, and masks comfortably. But I've probably only really scratched the surface with what I know about PS.
But that being said, I've gotten to the point in my retouching career where learning is often times a process of trial-and-error. As I've mentioned many times before, I don't always know what direction I'm necessarily going to take the picture when I first open a picture in PS. I have a laundry list of stuff that I usually do (depending on the flavor of the week) and then when I'm not sure what to do, I will run through the checklist and see if those effects enhance the image at all.
But not everything comes easy. And not everyone is willing to teach. I've come across photographers/retouchers that aren't keen on sharing their secrets. So what do I do when there's something about their image/picture that I want? Well, I ask first and when they don't share, I stare at their pictures over and over again for hours at a time (over time) until I glean little bits and pieces of effects I *think* I see in their images. Then it's a matter of backsolving... going to Photoshop and trying to recreate their effects.
Sometimes it's easy. Gradient maps are easy to spot because they tend to leave a certain color cast, tint, or color difference between highlights and shadows. That's the easy stuff. Other times I'm mesmerized by a certain sharpness or crispness that I'm still looking for but can't easily recreate. So I experiment. Every picture I retouch is done just slightly different from the last and so you'll occasionally see different "flavors of the week" pop up now and then in my pictures. The same goes for my photography as well but in longer cycles because I don't shoot as often as I retouch.
As far as B&W conversion layers are concerned. I'm specifically referring to a Photoshop adjustment layer (Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Black and White). I think this feature popped up more recently in Photoshop (maybe CS3 or CS2?) and allows you to tune the different colors to your liking. So you'll get sliders for each red, yellow, green, blue, magenta channel/color and you can adjust them however you choose. The most important ones are red and yellow to me because it's all about the skin tones ESPECIALLY on the face. I've dedicated an entire post about B&W tone processing for skin here if you're inclined to read more :)
As far as composition and cropping and perspective are concerned those are more photographic elements that you should try and capture in the original frame. My pictures these days are less and less cropped because I'm getting better at composing the final shot. Sure sometimes it's .4 degrees off or I need to chop a small part of the left side off to get better perspective, but at the end of the day it's your "eye" and there's no right answer. I wasn't aware that this picture was that well composed but I guess I can understand why people like it. I dislike how the perspective makes her legs a little shorter than they really care because she's very slender and long. That's a function of using a shorter focal length (38mm) and Kendall leaning forward to the camera thus making parts of her head and torso a little larger than the rest of her body (i.e. her hips). I didn't capture all of her feet in the original frame so I made a slight mistake there. If I did, her legs would have looked slightly longer... that's my fault. :)
I deliberately left some more wall on the right of Kendall and in post-processing the "balance" in me felt it was "off" and wanted to chop that off, but upon further internal reasoning I felt that it gave the leg more attention and framed slightly better. I dunno. It's really just taste at that point. I was actually limited from cropping more wall on the left because it would at 4x6 ratio lose too much wall above her head for my liking and there was no way I was going to take the vertical space away from the bottom (her feet were already too cropped!).
So I guess there's a lot of consideration that goes on in my head that I don't really talk about in my retouch posts. The truth is I don't really think much about it because it's a process that flows for me. And when I make a decision, I typically move on and don't really look back. That allows growth and significant timestamps in my learning to be made because yes, there will be "mistakes" and those mistakes (and successes) will be well documented as a trend-line (change) over time that's visible and apparent :)
If I were using open source tools to replicate the effects of Photoshop, I think I'd have killed myself by now because it makes it that much harder to learn when you're not using the same tools as everyone else. But that being said, I applaud you for your courage, bravery, and willingness to try something different. For me, that's a "no go" because I'm trying to get from A-to-B in the shortest amount of time possible. A being a newb and B being a professional photographer/retoucher. Remember, I have no background in any of this stuff. Academically I have a BA in Economics, an MBA and an MA in Psychology. Yay me, but that doesn't help me with any of this stuff. :)
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