Analysis of a Simple Glamour Photo: Lanie as the Mad Nurse

(click on any images for a full-sized version in a new window)

This shot is a bit of a departure for me, since it's lit with very contrasty lighting and highly photoshopped. The concept came from the costume; Lanie, the model for this shot, wanted to do some photos dressed up in various anime-style costumes. The nurse straightjacket comes from my collection, the nurse hat and bondage skirt from hers. We had a lot of fun with extreme makeup and lighting, trying to go for a fairly sinister effect.

Lighting Setup

Here you can see the lighting setup that was in use for this shot. There's one main light, with the large "beauty pan" reflector on it, and a secondary light with a grid that's aimed to make a hot spot on the paper sweep someplace behind where the model's head will go. As you can see from this shot, there's a lot of light and it's pretty directional. I wanted the light to come upwards at her, emphasizing her terrific jaw-line and elegant cheekbones. Also, for some reason, people find light coming from below to be somehow "sinister" looking. Anyhow, that's what I decided to try with this shot.

To compute exposure for this shot I did 2 readings - one with an incident flash meter about where Lanie's face was going to be, and another back in the hot spot on the paper sweep. The difference in contrast between the two locations was several stops, which meant that I'd have a nice dark glow behind her, to pick her off the background, but that it wouldn't become an important part of the photo.

This is the starting point for the image; you can see right away that her skirt is a bit blown out and the lighting on her torso is unbalanced. That's to be expected, since the light is closer to her feet than her face - we'll fix that a bit later. What I'm looking for (and am happy to see) is nice big interesting shadows on her face and the jacket she's wearing. There are nice highlights on her lips from the lip gloss she used. Lanie did her own makeup for this shot, after we'd decided on the costume - she felt that ghostly white with red red lips would be a nice effect. Since I knew I was using harsh lighting, I asked her to make sure her face was non-reflective but that her lips were really shiny. I don't know girl-magic (make-up) but she did a great job on this one!


Pulling up Levels, you can see that the image is in the ballpark, exposure-wise, but some of the whites are almost blown out:

The Dark Gradient

This photo is hovering right on the edge of overexposure, but I'm happy to see that there should still be detail to work with in the white areas on her skirt and stockings. So, I decided to balance the image a little bit, by adding a gradient darkening layer. I see this as pretty much analogous to doing a large edge-burn in darkroom work: you're increasing the exposure of a large area and "feathering" it upward.

The first step is to create our gradient as a separate layer. You can see here that I've applied the gradient to a new layer on top of the original background layer (Layer -> New). If you look at the layers browser in the lower right of my workspace you can see the original is still there, you just can't see it.

Once the gradient is in place, you right click on the layer in the layers browser and bring up the "Blending Modes" dialog box. This is an incredibly cool dialog box with huge numbers of options - it's worth spending a day exploring, if you're new to photoshop. I chose the "Darken" blend mode. What that does is tells photoshop to treat the brightness values of the gradient as the amount of darkening to apply to the underlying layer. You can see that now the bottom of the image is blackened out and it looks quite weird - but all is not lost! By adjusting the transparency of the darkening gradient you can control the degree to which it affects the underlying image.

You can either adjust the transparency in the darkening gradient from inside the "Blend Mode" dialog box, or via the layers browser. I prefer the latter since it gives me an unobstructed view. Here you can see I am adjusting the darkening layer so that its effects are fairly subtle. But the image's tonal ranges are now balanced and I still have the look of hard light on Lanie's face.

When the darkening layer is applied, I flatten the layers and adjust the image's levels to where I want them. You'll notice that the little cluster of hot white values at the upper end of the levels histogram is gone! The darkening layer smoothed out the histogram nicely!


Looking at the image, I'm unhappy about the distracting little flip of cloth in the lower right by Lanie's upper thigh. Rather than figure out something smart to do about it, I simply crop the image a little tighter. I bring the top in a little bit, too - I don't know why, I just think it looks better. At this point I could make up some pseudointellectual BS about how cropping the top in closer to her nursie's cap increases the dynamic tension of the photo and enhances her height - but I'd be lying. I just did it because I like the way it looks.

The Evil Layer

For the sake of experimenting, I decided to add another layer of special effects. There are a lot of fun options I could pursue from here, but my favorites all revolve around creating a blur layer and using it to control a blend mode on the underlying image. To do this, I right-click on the background layer in the layers browser, and choose "Duplicate layer" - Then, I do a simple "desaturate" operation on the new layer (Image -> Adjustments -> Desaturate, or Control-shift-U)

Next, the blur layer gets a heavy gaussian blur applied to it. This is why I call it a "blur layer" - creative, huh?

Bring up "Blending Options" and experiment! Here, I decided to apply the "Vivid Light" blend mode - intense! But don't just pick the first thing that looks good - there are a lot of options and nearly every one of them creates some kind of cool effect. Also, remember that you can adjust the intensity of the effect by changing the transparency of the blur layer. For example, this was done by changing the blend mode to "Darken" and adjusting the blur layer to 50% transparency, then using Levels to adjust the black point to where the whites in the image were left virtually untouched.

Remember, when you're working on a blurring layer, if you bring up "Levels" you're adjusting the levels in the blur layer. This can be quite fun, since it lets you effectively control whether the blur layer applies to lighter or darker parts of the image. Another trick I've used is to go in with a paintbrush or eraser and either erase or darken parts where you wish to control the emphasis of the blur layer. Go wild! Have fun! This is one area where I admit I do not know how to achieve these effects in a darkroom. We're in pure photoshop-land now, and that's not a bad place to be!

Finishing Up

After a bit of fiddling I decided that I like the "Vivid Light" version the best. Flattening the layers, I do a final adjustment in Levels to see if the contrast range looks OK.

Levels when we first opened the image

Levels when we're done with the image

Looking at the levels, our overall contrast range looks OK, but look at what happened to the image since we started playing with it!! The large cluster of mid-tones at the left has been compressed and made even darker, and the whites have been amplified and made much contrastier at the high end. What does all that mean? Nothing, really, it's just interesting. The real question is whether you're happy with the final result.

Lanie's comment when I sent her the final version of this was "Wow! Spooky!" I'm not sure if that's a compliment. Part of me always hesitates to take someone as beautiful and ethereal as Lanie and make her look anything less than terrific. But I think this resulting image fairly well conveys the "Evil Nursie" idea we started out with.

Dulles Airport, G gate lounge, Jul 20, 2005