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How to get perfect detail and tones in environmental portraits

Making pictures of people who are good at their craft while they are doing their craft is one of the best subjects you can ever find. They are passionate, you are passionate, and the pictures always turn out well. When I make environmental portraits, I do my best to control the light. However, since I’m invading someone’s space and interrupting their day, it’s best to be as quick as possible. That means that I never get to set up four lights with gels and grids to highlight and isolate the interesting stuff.

Fortunately, you can use tone mapping and selective edits to finish off the picture the way you wish you could have lit the picture. Using Aurora HDR on a single image allows you to bring out the best of each setup without ruining the whole picture with crazy detail and glowy edges as other HDR tools can do. Aurora lets you selectively enhance the photo and it’s powerful. Let me show you how it let me go from the picture on the left to picture on the right.

One light, balanced with the ambient

If you practice being proficient, there’s always time to set up one light. This portrait used a speedlight through a white umbrella on a light stand that was held by my assistant. I used the steps in this article to balance the brightness of the speedlight with the shutter speed to allow the room to be the proper brightness so we can still see details. After all, if you can’t see the environment then you’re not making much of an environmental portrait.

Tone mapping is automatic

Now launch Aurora HDR and open your single file. Normally in HDR processing, we use a bracket of several frames to create an HDR merge. Opening a single image file in Aurora HDR 2019 automatically tone maps it. In this case, tone mapping means your picture will have more visible in the dark and bright areas. You’ll get the best results if you shoot RAW files. In my picture, it’s brightened shadow areas and reduced the brightness of the brightest areas.


Make global adjustments

Next, make adjustments that benefit the whole picture. You might adjust overall brightness and color settings, but remember that we’re about to do very selective local adjustments, so keep that in mind as you make the global (affecting the whole picture) adjustments. I brightened the Whites slider, used a little HDR Denoise and used the Polarizing Filter to enhance the blue colors.

Make selective adjustments with Adjustment Layers

Aurora lets you make selective adjustments to particular parts of the picture with adjustment layers. Click on the + at the top of the Layers tab in the side panel and choose Add New Adjustment Layer.

To see the details in the jet engine, turn up the sliders in the HDR Enhance filter. The engine looks good, but it’s ruining the rest of the photo–too much detail is not flattering for people’s skin. So now let’s selectively apply that HDR Enhance filter by clicking on the Brush icon next to the name of this layer. Adjust the size and hardness of the brush edge at the top left of the screen and then paint on the areas you want to see more detail. There’s a visibility button in the brush settings, too, so you can see where you’ve painted, which you can see as the red mask below. After you’ve painted the area, you can still adjust the sliders to create the right amount of enhancement. Click to view the pictures larger.

Use the Gradient Brushes

Not only can you paint freehand, but you can also use the gradient and radial brushes where appropriate. In this picture, I used the gradient to make a straight line of the adjustment coming off the window in the background. I wanted to make sure that area wasn’t too bright and also warmed it up, reduced the detail and added some glow. The gradient and radial brushes can save you time with the paint brush.

Consider multiple Vignettes

The Vignette filter helps guide your viewers eye to the important areas in the picture. In order to shape and position the vignette just right, start by making it very dark so you can see it clearly. Then shape it and position the center over your subject. In this case, the important stuff is where my subject is looking. Now reduce the Amount slider until the vignette is just a suggestion. You’ll find that turning up the Inner Brightness looks better, too.

Here’s a little secret about vignettes: if one is good, two is better. Add another adjustment layer and add another very subtle vignette to the very edges of the frame. This way, you cover any empty edges of the frame left when you positioned the center of the first vignette.

Use Luminar for touch-ups

I made another adjustment layer and painted his shirt to make it a little bit darker. All that’s left is to touch-up the spots on his shirt. Aurora HDR 2019 doesn’t have a touch-up tool, so we’ll use Luminar to do it. Just go to the Filter menu in the menu bar and choose Luminar (which you can purchase right here). It’s the perfect companion to Aurora and I often use it this way to complement my photos with more filters that Aurora doesn’t offer.

After erasing the spots in Luminar, the picture comes right back to Aurora and there’s now a layer for whatever you did in Luminar.

The takeaway

If I had the time and tools, I could have used multiple lights and scrims and window gels to create the perfect lighting in this picture right at the time of capture. But that never happens when I’m working for a client. There’s always a tight budget and an even tighter timetable. Fortunately, I use Aurora’s powerful tools to enhance the picture and direct the viewer’s attention to important details without increasing the noise and without making it look cartoony or over-processed. Give this a shot on some of your past pictures and you’ll know what it can do for the future so you’re ready to shoot more quickly and keep your client happy.

Aurora HDR 2019 has a free trial, special savings, and bonus videos, Looks, and LUTs as well!

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