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Colour processing Madam Tussauds photographs in Aperture

Yesterday I published several photos from Madam Tussauds, Sydney and mentioned the lighting at the museum was challenging. I briefly explained that I’d done the post-processing in Aperture by using a Portra preset and a lot of fiddling with white balance.

A few people contacted me asking if they could see the before and after photos. I think it’s a great idea, so here we go. Let me explain the process in a bit more detail.

Taking the photographs

As I mentioned yesterday, the photographs were shot in RAW with a Fuji X100S. I kept the aperture wide open at f2 for the most part and even with that the ISO was hovering between 1600 and 3200.

The lighting was extremely varied and obviously I couldn’t influence it much. Flash is not allowed in the museum, and it probably would’ve killed the atmosphere anyway. Obviously, I couldn’t change any lights either. All I could do was use my body to reflect a little bit of light off my light coloured shirt.

The overall ambient light was almost red and not bright enough. Some sculptures had blue and violet lights coming from the sides which made them look really cool in the museum, but a pain to photograph.

Post-processing the photographs

As soon as I got back home, I imported all 211 photographs into Aperture. I did a quick edit to pick my favourites and from there did a second pass to select the ones I published yesterday. Most of the photos are of my daughter playing with the props and interacting with the sculptures. The museum is very kid-friendly and they encourage people to touch and experiment with things.

Once I had narrowed it down to about 20 photos of sculptures, I went in to the Adjustments pane in Aperture and tried to colour correct the photos.

This is what they look like straight out of the camera:

Aperture Presets Before

The first thing I tried was the Skin Tone control in the White Balance brick. It often works really well. Just click on the eye dropper icon and then click somewhere on the skin. I find selecting the cheeks works best.

That instantly made it a lot better. It removed the redness and brought out other colours. But it still wasn’t right.

Right, of course, being subjective. What looks right for you might not be what looks right for me. And since I don’t know what Einstein’s skin looked like in real life, I’ll just have to pick what looks good to me.

After toying around with the Skin Tone slider a bit I decided to try the Neutral Grey control. I clicked on his shirt, which is supposedly white, but that didn’t work. Then I clicked on the grey line behind him on the left side of the photo and that got me really close. A little fiddling with the slider got me 95% there.

I then put the Black Point down to zero in the Exposure brick. The default was 3.

After that, I applied the beta version of the Portra preset for Aperture from Rob Boyer that I mentioned yesterday. It’s very subtle but does an amazing job. As a side note, I haven’t had time to experiment with the final version, but going by the beta I’m sure it’ll be awesome.

I honestly never used Portra in the film days, so I have no idea what it looked like. What I do know is that this preset makes the images come alive in a very natural way.

For most of the photos, that was it:

  • Fiddle with White Balance
  • Reduce Black Point
  • Apply Portra preset

Here’s what Einstein looks like after the tweaks above.

Aperture Presets After

Some photographs had mixed light and weren’t as straightforward. For example, Bruce Willis was under red-orange ambient light but had purple, pink, and blue lights around him.

For these, I followed the same process except I manipulated the colour a bit more with a Curves adjustment. I went into the RGB channels and adjusted them until it looked right. For some, I also reduced Saturation a tad.