Brian Dukes Photography

The image begins long before and ends long after the shutter is pressed.
© Brian Dukes

The Ghost In The Machine

You may have realised something about me and my blogs by now, that I like to have a title that coins a phrase for the overall feel of the blog. This blog is no different in that respect, the 'ghost' in this case is colour calibration.

I'll get on to the 'ghostly' bit in a moment, but first to talk about the image in question - this has been a really tough image for me to complete this year. The initial photography was taken back in March, but sadly due to life taking over, pressures in my day job, my father's illness, and finally him passing away, sadly my work on personal projects took a back seat.

It was very clear in my mind from the outset what I wanted to do, and how I would achieve it; the goal was to reproduce (or re-interpret) a movie poster of the film Poltergeist - Click Here To View The Image

Photography wise, I recruited a friends young daughter, Maddison Jones - I setup a large Elinchrom Octa low down and just infront of Maddison,  this was to capture light as it would be coming from the TV,  I put a black screen behind Maddison.

It would be August before I was able to get to work any further on this image, the next stage was some further photography,  to photograph a TV,  and also to some how create the ghostly images on the TV screen

So for the ghostly figures and hands, the approach I took was very simple,  I setup my large Elinchrom Octa and Elinchrom D-Lite One RX,  and got my girlfriend Natalie to stand inside the softbox, with her face and hands pressed up against the diffusion panel - simple eh?

So with a bit of compositing within Photoshop I managed to get a collection of ghostly hands/faces together .. next step to get this into the TV.

With best intentions it was then another month (and a bit) before I had chance to work on the image again.  Next task to bring Maddison and the TV together, to then add some atmosphere and ensure the scene works as a whole.  Colour toning across the whole image, with the mystical smoke was really the answer here (which the original image used too).

Before I show off the very final image, I haven't forgotten about 'The Ghost In The Machine' - or entitled a different way 'Brian being too keen to get an image out without finally checking'.    When I uploaded the image to social media sites,  I quickly realised the overall blue-hue on the image was horrid, it was a bit too cyan, it seemed to loose some definition, but more importantly, it didn't look like it should have .. and not how I recalled it on my screen!

The left image wasn't the colour I was aiming for, the right image is what I was after - So what was the problem, what happened?  It was the Ghost In The Machine - what I uploaded looked nothing like the finished edit.   I think, in the export I had exported with a conversion to sRGB, but also between working on my Macbook Pro, I'd switched to my Windows PC and back (I share a calibrated monitor between the two computers), but the calibration had got messed up - so when I thought i'd exported correctly, in fact, the export was ghastly .. but I didn't see this because the calibration mess up.  Sadly I noticed this after uploading and allowing the world to see.  Only I knew it wasn't right :(

To correct it, I reworked the way in which I coloured the image entirely, as I had noticed I had also got some odd blue shading too.  So I took away the colour layers, and reworked, and as you might expect the final solution actually simplified what I had there before too.

Now i'm happy - kicking myself slightly, because I know the importance of taking time to release things, don't rush - what do they say about Old Dogs and New Tricks?

So there has surely been alot of pain suffered during the creation of this image, and a final bite in the tail; but I'm so glad I persevered, I'm very happy with the final image,  now to get it printed!!

A huge thanks to Nicky, Gordon and Maddison Jones :)    - see you soon!

"Breaking Bad" Habits

It's been a while since I last blogged, in truth it's been a while since I last did anything creative - this week I broke that habit, and completed my first 'Personal Project'.

So a few months ago I decided to try to focus more on my photography by taking the advice of my good friend Glyn Dewis and working on personal projects. I sat down and browsed a Movie Poster website for some inspiration,  and mapped out a few projects that I wanted to work on.

So for the first couple of projects I had in mind, I set about recruiting 'models' (i.e. friends from my facebook) who'd be willing to help out.    The very first project was an image of Walter White (character) from the TV series Breaking Bad.

My friend Steve Forster very kindly met the fundamental criteria (no hair, glasses and most importantly a goatee) and offered to sit for me - which was absolutely phenomenal, as I hadn't seen Steve and his (now expanded) family in almost 18yrs - so gave me an a great excuse to catch up and also try to get the shot I took.

It took me a few weeks, if not longer before I could actually arrange to see Steve, but it really was great to catch up with him again after all this time.

The setup for the shot was quite difficult due to confined space - it's a family home, full of family things ... so once I'd positioned the big Elinchrom Rotalux Octa 135cm softbox and stand in place (used for a white background),  and setup the Elinchrom Rotalux 70cm square softbox and stand - into both of these softboxes were inserted Elinchrom D-Lite RX One heads - sufficient lighting for this setup. 

Steve is younger than Walter, and (fortunately for Steve) doesn't have jowls nor is his forehead quite so wrinkled.  I tried to get Steve to suck in his cheeks a little, to look through the top of his glasses and try to emulate Walter's look.   This was easier said than done, Steve did the best he could .. and after alot of indecision on my part, the final image I settled on to process was this

So my challenge was to turn Steve into Walter.  But first, I needed to break another habit 'stop editing my images destructively' - not something I intentionally set out to do, but LightRoom makes it easy to just quickly apply a filter with Nik Collection - but it does this by creating a copy, and saving back to a new file.  In addition to this, i'd dropped out of the habit of editing in PhotoShop - so one habit to break, one habit to acquire. 

Glyn Dewis to the rescue again, Glyn published a video on his YouTube channel PHOTOSHOP TUTORIAL: Destructive and Non-Destructive Retouching - where Glyn shows a different way of using filters like the Nik Collection, without having to create a 'merged layer'; and thus giving the ability to go back and make changes to earlier layers!  

So now i'm on a roll, I know what I need to do;  I make some basic edits in LightRoom (predominately because i'm very familiar with it), the bulk of these changes were 'spot removals' around they eyes,  Steve's eye-lashes and eyebrows were obscuring his eyes,  and also in hindsight I should of asked Steve to clean his glasses.  Once these basic edits were made, I took the image into PhotoShop.

So here is roughly my work flow in PS.

  • Copy the image to a new layer
  • Extend the background
  • Create a Dodge&Burn layer to ease some shadows and start to work on some of the wrinkles
  • Add a further layer to create the Jowls;  there may have been easier ways, but essentially I hand drew them in by dodging & burning 
  • Then I grouped all this together to create a Smart Object (to allow me to edit in an external plugin, none destructively)
  • I then edited in Nik SilverEfex Pro 2, to create a B&W version, adding control points to help control the light where I needed it.
  • I then added a colour adjustment, to give me the yellow background
  • After that another Dodge&Burn layer - this time to work on darkening the beard, finessing the jowls and wrinkles,  adding a bit more light to the side of Steve's head and ear.
  •  Next a layer to perform some more spot-healing on, removing a few stray hairs from Steve's beard and just generally tidying up the image
  • Next the text, so this was done in stages, and then grouped together.
  • And lastly, add a light source to the top left corner - if you watched Glyn's earlier video that i've linked to above, you'll see how I did this - as Glyn showed me in his video!

After this, I left the image for a day, and because I'd been working non-destructively,  I could go back into various layers (especially the earlier SilverEfex Pro plugin) add a bit more grain, work a little bit more on some of the dodge & burn areas until I was finally happy.

The result:

 So immense thanks to Steve for allowing me 'age' him add more wrinkles, and plaster his mugshot all over the internet.  Thanks to Glyn Dewis for 'personal projects', for copious PS tutorials;  and finally, thanks to AMC for creating the awesome series *Breaking Bad* 

Behind The Lens - Blog for Wiggle

Here is a blog interview that I did for Wiggle, where I talk a bit about my background, what i'm looking for when I photograph bikes etc .. there may even be an image or two in there you haven't seen before (but no promises on that).

In other news, I will be getting another blog together shortly about a shoot I did with a rider and a Cyclocross bike; with plenty of behind the scenes photography... so keep a watch out for that! 

And finally, toward the end of January i'm hoping to organise another MTB photography shoot, time and location to be decided yet.

The Art of MTB Photography

Photographing Mountain Bikes and their riders is not the easiest thing - but is hugely enjoyable. Sure it's easy enough to get a blurry shot, or a polished stationary shot - but how do you get a shot of a MTB rider doing their thing, showing drama, action and for everything to be well lit and in focus? I'm going to discuss this a little over this blog post.

The above shot was taken at  Woburn Sands on 29th December 2015.  I'm fortunate enough that my son Patrick "Paddy" Dukes (featured in this image) is a very experienced and capable MTB rider, but he also has an interest in photography and videography.  This means that he also knows what shots work, what he's capable of doing and what he wants to see as a rider looking at images of MTB riders!   For me, it's this last point that is quite poignant - getting a shot that shows some action and everything well lit and in focus isn't enough - the action/drama needs to be engaging enough also.

At the start of the shoot, I walk sections of the track with the riders, listen to what they talk about, corners, jumps, technical bits - I'm looking for a shot that will show some drama, some action - very technical sections and very steep downhill sections do not necessarily translate well into an image.  Steepness of gradient is often lost in the final shot and highly technical sections tend to slow the action down and lessen the drama in the shot.

Shots that really work well fall into the following categories:  Jumps,  Corners (berms) and sections of track that kick up dirt/dust/water.

In the above shot, Paddy is going through a berm, directly after this berm is a left / right switch - but that would have been less interesting to shoot - the berm was quite deep, but as this is Woburn Sands, the ground is soft and sandy, so even after weeks of rain it's still easily possibly to kick up alot of dirt through the corner.

The set up of this shot initially involved Paddy and the other riders (Ross & Luke) doing a couple of runs through the corner - this allowed me to work out the best vantage point for the shot and to start to think about where I will place the lights.

Here is a quick 'Behind The Scenes' shot of me, taken by Paddy on his iPhone - although for the final shots I moved further back and got down on the ground.  The corner that is shown here is actually a different one to that featured in the final image above - but it gives an idea of position and lighting.

In the shot you can see one light stand, complete with an Elinchrom 40" reflector - inside the reflector is a Yongnuo YN560 IV Speedlite - it's held in place by an adaptor I bought of eBay, which works really well.  This is my primary light it's used to throw light onto the rider and it's bike.

Not visible in the BTS image are two other Yongnuo YN560 IV speedlites - one on a light stand behind the tree on the left - this is used to throw light on the dust being kicked up in the corner.   And a final speedlight is placed on the ground (or close to the ground) pointing back up the track to through a little light back toward the rider.

Though I do tend to take a few test shots, often with Paddy standing mid-corner (or where he believes he will be) so I can see how the lighting is working and what exposure settings to choose - remembering not shoot to fast for the sync speed.

In wooded areas, light levels can be quite problematic, it can be really dark but as you shoot up hill, if you have any broken tree-line areas the sky will be quite bright in comparison.  To a degree you can try to minimise this by positioning yourself so that the shot will not include too much bright sunshine,  and then you've only the darkness to deal with.

For the above shot I used these settings:   1/250s f5.6 ISO200 at 75mm   -  remember what I said above about remembering not to shoot too fast for the sync speed - yep, I forgot!    My Canon EOS6D will comfortably sync with the YN560IV at 1/200s - at 1/250s it's a little too fast, and as is evident of the original RAW there is a dark shadow across the bottom part of the image.

I was lucky with this shot, it wasn't a solid black bar across the bottom, just a darker area - so with a bit of selective cropping and a gradient Exposure filter added in Lightroom I was able to fix it enough to the degree that it's not noticeable.  Once I'd realised later in the day I was shooting a bit too quick, I was able to make sure I maxed out at 1/200s.

Prepare The Ground - This will be my last tip of this blog - be very aware of stray twigs, bits of fern, branches etc - especially if they are being caught by the lights or in direct sunlight.  These will stand out hugely on the final image,  some of which can be removed in post-edit, but it's much simpler if you survey the scene at the point of taking the image,  remove any stray twigs or distracting stuff from the scene,  remove the odd bit of fern, or reposition yourself so it's not in the shot - doing this could save lots of post-edit work and possibly even save the shot!

The Woburn Sands shoot, was a very successful shoot - I took over 200 shots,  and have a larger number of keepers - I try to aim to get 1 keeper per rider per setup shot.  This will depend upon alot of things, your abilities as a photographer, the lighting, getting the right angles but just as importantly the riders - MTB shots like the above are not grabbed from races, we've picked a section of track and I get the riders to repeatedly go over the same bit of ground time and time again.    As a photographer you have a split second to fire the shot, that has to coincide with the rider being in the best bit of the corner for them - riders are all different;  and to add to that complication getting them to repeat the same bit of track time and time again doesn't necessarily result in them being in the same place each time - they're human, they're pushing themselves and they're also getting tired.  As a photographer you have to learn the style of each rider and preempt where they are going to be and at what point they're going to be at their maximum through a corner or over a jump.

Anyhow, I hope the above has given you a little insight into the fun of photographing MTB riders.  It's very rewarding to watch, even as a spectator - but when you nail the photography, there is no better feeling!

I'll post some more images as soon as I can grab a moment to go through them!

"Drown-Hill" Mountain Biking

So almost a month ago my son Patrick (Paddy) Dukes invited me up to the Forest of Dean to photograph him and his friends having fun on their Mountain Bikes. I know most of my sons friends, so this was always going to be a fun day out.

Left to right, we have: Paddy Dukes, Ross Carter, Ben Lee and Will Arkle

I gave Ben a lift up to the site, and as we arrived at the Forest, the heavens opened up - torrential rain, the other guys turned up and the rain eased off.  

Given how wet it was and that the terrain was unknown to me, I decided to walk into the woods with a small selection of kit, leaving alot of my kit in the car.  I quickly bungled my camera, a spare lens, a Yongnuo speed light and trigger, a Flashbender, a camera rain-cover and most importantly some drinking water into a ruck-sack - and we wandered off into the woods.

I have to say, I'd never photographed in these conditions before;  the rain-cover that I bought from Amazon was relatively inexpensive (£6 for 2) and was little more than a polythene bag, shaped so it'll go over the camera with a pull-cord around the lens end so that it can be tightened around the end of the lens.

What I didn't count on was how difficult it would be to use the camera with the rain cover in place,  I was struggling to see the shots on the LCD back panel;  also the view-finder kept misting up so it was really hard to know how well I had a shot setup.

I was soaked, my ruck-sack I later found out wasn't water-proof at all, and despite having plenty of black bin-liners with me, I didn't get chance to put the kit into one before it was all soaked!

I have to say the Yongnuo flash dealt with the conditions admirably, and apart from one complete setup where i'd forgotten to switch on the trigger, and another setup where the batteries died - it did really well.  The flashbender, straps to the top of the speedlite and you can bend it to help shape and direct the light; this equally worked very well, was light and portable - and after getting very wet and muddy, wiped clean!

In truth I could have done with another flash with me.

There were parts of the forest, like the one above where the light falling onto the soaked ground was just so gorgeous (even without extra lighting) - so this couldn't be ignored.

What isn't visible from this shot is an 8ft drop off about 4-6ft behind me, so as soon as the guys were jumping they were hard on the brakes, trying to avoid the trees and also the drop off (I know they could all have handled the drop, but getting back up with the soaked muddy ground would have been difficult)

With all the water, I wanted to find a large puddle that they could ride through, that we could try to back-light:

This was really hit/miss, where we'd placed the light wasn't great,  and because we only had one light I could either back-light or front-light but not both :(

This was close, real close - in truth I could have done with slightly less back-light and also some front-light - but you work with what you have; next time I'll nail it!!

After a lunch break, and a review of the mornings images with the guys, everyone was in good spirits for the afternoon .. and the weather started to dry up a little, with the odd splash of blue in the skies.

Here's Will (The Pencil) - I've still not had chance to go through all of the images, for me the day was about practicing and learning - it ended up being more about dealing with the elements and trying not to fall on my backside!

But above all what came out from the day for me was the great friendship these guys have, which can really be seen in the first image above - despite being soaked, and muddy, and not really riding like they would normally (as they're all just doing one jump and walking back to do it again so that I can try to get the photo right), and despite photographic failures on my part - these guys stayed up-beat, totally enjoyed themselves and were happy to help me as much as possible -- Ross even became a human light-stand at one point!

Thanks guys, it was a terrific day - i'm still processing images - there were some awesome jumps and stylish bike riding, sadly not quite captured perfectly by myself;  but I guess this gives us another excuse to go out and do it all again :)

Me, Myself and I

How does a champion runner become a champion runner? How does a Michelin star chef become so good at cooking? A MotoGP rider like Valentino Rossi become a 9 times World Champion (and on his way to his 10th championship at the age of 36) - By practicing, practicing and slowly but surely honing their craft, their skill to the point where it's awesome, and preferably better than their competition.

The same is true with photography, the more you use the camera, the lights, the reflectors, the softboxes, the other tools of the 'digital' trade, the easier things become, the more aware of things you are, the more able you are to get things right quicker, and to be able to add that little bit of sparkle, that defines you above and beyond your competition.

Today has been one of those days, just sitting with my camera, a couple of lights and taking lots of shots of myself.

They're not all great shots, some are out of focus, some are badly lit - but it's all part of the learning process, each little adjustment, inching a light left or right, up or down, increasing power, decreasing power, adding a reflector in, moving the reflector about - all adds to the muscle memory, all helps you work out what's good from what's bad.

Space in my living room is cramped for a home-studio setup, but you make the most of what you have - in the pictures above (sorry if they're badly rotated, will try to fix) - we have:
- Elinchrom Rotalux Octa 130cm softbox - with Elinchrom D-Lite RX One
- Elinchrom Portalite 66cm softbox - with Elinchrom D-Lite RX One
- Chair for me to sit on
- Three Legged Thing Tripod, with my camera - Canon EOS 6D
- Apple Macbook Pro Retina 15" with a Tethertools cable tethered to my camera

The final product, hardly any post-processing was required - Few minor adjustments in Lightroom, mainly for the crop, and then I used Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 for the B&W conversion.