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Christopher Grey

Creating a High-Key, Retro Look

By Christopher Grey
Published by Sekonic

Christopher Grey details a setup and technique for replicating the look of 1970s film photography.

Photographer Chris Grey is an expert on lighting. He's written seven books on the subject, teaches classes and workshops, and is a strong advocate for precise control in the studio. To see more of his work, or to find his books and DVDs, visit his Web site.




There are techniques that we used to be able to get on film that are difficult to achieve in the digital environment, and exposing for the shadows with high speed (read: grainy) film is one of them.

Retro styles are important to understand because they are always viable for sales. Techniques, as I’ve always maintained, are as important to your business as is a command of digital photography and the restraints it demands. The more you understand, the deeper your bag of tricks, and there is no limit to what the depth of the bag should be.

Back in the ‘70s, high speed color transparency film was push-processed to increase contrast and grain. Images were often made with a soft focus filter on the lens, to lend an air of mystery to the image that went with the times. Soft focus filters do not work well with digital cameras – the effect is just not the same and looks, well, awful. That puts the burden on us to replicate the effect, digitally, and to contemporize the look in the process.

For this month’s column, I will break a few rules, use Photoshop, and create a look that is both vintage and evocative. Did I mention I’ll only use one light?

My light here is a simple 3x4 softbox, and my subject will be placed right in front of it. I want the light so close to her that it will flare and wraparound her to the point that her contrast is seriously lowered. Bear in mind that the further your subject is from the light the more accentuated is the silhouette effect. For this exercise, we want as much flare as possible.

When I set the softbox, I metered the light by placing the light meter flat into the surface and popping the flash. The meter read f22. After some experimentation, it appeared to me that the correct f-stop to get the detail (or lack thereof) that I wanted was at plus 5 stops, or f4 in this case. This means you’ll need to have a flash strong enough for a big pop, but it’s not that tough because you’ll be working with the light at its source. Falloff won’t be an issue.

By itself, the image is less than stellar. It’s flared, washed out and flat. Note that, in the digital world, areas of pure white can’t be reclaimed and there’s no way to bring detail back into them. That’s a bad thing for most shots but it’s something I count on for this technique.

In Photoshop, begin by duplicating the Layer. Set the new Layer’s Blending Mode to Multiply then duplicate it again. Multiply creates density in any detail except pure white. For my shot, the second duplication was too dark, so I dialed the opacity back to a point that I liked, in this case 30%.

Flatten the three Layers, then make two new duplicates. Turn off the second dupe and select the middle Layer to work on. Use Levels to burn out more of the highlights.

Select Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur. For this sample I used a radius of 10 pixels. When finished, use Image>Adjustments>Hue/Saturation and desaturate the Layer by 75%. Move the Layer to the top of the queue and set its Blending Mode to Soft Light.

Re-select the middle Layer and use the Magic Wand to select all areas of pure white. Be sure that Contiguous is unchecked. Select>Inverse will change the selection to non-white areas and Select>Feather will give you a smooth transition with a 2 pixel feather.

Use Filter>Texture>Grain>Regular Grain to add the fake grain structure. Use my settings or adjust to your preferences.

For the final touch, remove the RGB colors of the grain by changing the Blending Mode of the grain Layer to Luminosity. Flatten and Save.

The end result is beautiful, soft and compelling. It also looks a whole lot better than any result we could get with film because the whites are so much cleaner. By the way, you can add grain to any image using the extra Layer and Luminosity Blending Mode.

Category: How-To
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