Behind the Scenes: A Breakdown of One Image

Today I thought I'd so something a bit different and give you a first-hand, "behind the scenes" look at just one image, from start to finish. I will show you how the image looked straight out of camera, the lens used, which settings I chose and why, and even how I edited it!  Hopefully by looking at some "real life" examples of images you'll be able to see some of the things that go into making an image - and also the mistakes too! This is not a perfect image - there are many things I could have / should have done differently, so of course, I'll talk about them too :)  

Take a sneak peek behind the scene of one image - the gear used, the camera settings, the light and composition, editing - and even what could have been done better!


One thing I want to point out before we start is that this particular photo also had a lot more done to it in processing than I would normally do (i'm usually just a clean and simple editor!) but it's a good example of how images can look  different from their "straight out of camera" counterparts. 

With that out of the way, let's get cracking! First off, here is the image as it looked straight out of camera, alongside the final image.

Camera & Lens Used 

This image was taken with the Canon 5D Mark III and the Canon 85mm F1.8 lens - my absolute favourite portrait lens.  It's long enough to give you a soft blurred background and flatter the features, but still allows you to be relatively close to your subjects.  It's also super sharp and quick to focus, so for all these reasons I find it ideal for working with both children and adults.

One point to note is that when this image was taken, I'd actually just changed from using my 200mm lens to the 85mm lens, and I probably would have preferred the 200mm here since that gives you a really soft dreamy background, which would have been perfect for this image.  It's one of those situations where you get a perfect expression at not quite the perfect time! 

Camera Settings

The settings were as follows:

APERTURE F2.2 / SHUTTER  1/800 / ISO 400

Let's break that down.  I love blurring out the background slightly in any kind of portrait shot, since it helps bring the eye to the area in focus, which is the subject itself, and using a low aperture number of F2.2 helps achieve that (as does having the subject a little distance away from the background - this would have been better if I had been closer to my subject)

Shutter Speed is 1/800, which may seem high since my subject isn't exactly running around, but she's actually dancing at this point (although it may not look like it) so I kept my shutter speed higher so as not to introduce motion blur, which you might have started to see in places like the hands. 

My ISO is at 400, which is about right considering it was an overcast day, and my higher shutter speed, and it effectively "balanced" my exposure. 

All an all, I would say my settings are good, and I have a good overall exposure with them.


The light on this day was overcast, so it doesn't have any real strong direction. This is often referred to as flat light, since there are no shadows to help give depth.  It's not the most exciting light to work with, so it can leave images looking a little flat and dull. 

However, you might be able to see that the light is coming slightly from above - this is not ideal since it creates shadows in the WRONG areas. Add that to the fact that her head is lowered, her face has a little shadowing in the wrong place, under her brows. It's very slight though, but does mean that I will need to lighten her face a little in processing. In an ideal world, I would have had a reflector underneath, shining some light back up onto her face. 


Rather than use the rule of thirds, this image uses symmetry instead.  Although both sides are not identical (and therefore it's not truly symmetrical) there is a balance there with the tree on the left and the fence on the right which makes symmetry a better choice.  The tree overhangs here a little which gives a very soft framing too, and also helps gives balance from the top to the bottom. 


I really played a LOT with this image, far more than I normally would, but this was due to the fact the image looked a little flat straight out of camera, and I was in the mood for a play :) 

As you can see from the SOOC image at the top of this post, the image is technically fine - the exposure is good, the white balance is good (perhaps a little cool but nothing major) and there is no clipping in either the whites or blacks - in other words a good straight out of camera shot. The only "basic" thing I changed considerably was to crop in a fair bit to make a more pleasing composition. 

After that it's onto making the image a little more interesting.  First, I converted it to black and white, before adding in some overall contrast,  then darkened the area around my subject using a radial filter and also a vignette, just so that she popped a little more in the frame. I also brightened her face a little, to make up for my being too lazy to dig out the reflector :) 

Here's the image after I have done all that.

At this point the image looks fine, and I'm relatively happy with it  (I probably would have lightened it a little more if I hadn't gone on to do the rest though, it's a smidgen too dark but my next steps lighten it a little) 

However, when I edited this image I was obviously in a playing mood since I took it a bit further by adding both a sun glow and a snow overlay in processing. These are two things I hardly ever do because on 95% on images I want the scene to be "as is",  but sometimes it's fun to be more creative! Not everything has to be documentary or "real", and I think that is part of the fun of photography, however, that is entirely up to you! 

(As an aside, the girl in the picture LOVED the fact that I made it snow, just like in Frozen!)

Here's the final image after my two final little tweaks: 

What I could have done better

As I said at the beginning of this post, this image is far from being perfect. Here's some things I should have done that would have made the image better overall. 

#1 - Shot earlier in the day

The first thing I could have done better is schedule the session a little earlier in the day (or a lot later) so that the sun is lower in the sky. Although the image was taken at around 10am, the sun is still high enough in the sky to have a slight overhead direction, which caused shadowing where I didn't want it.  Either that, or bring along a reflector to help shape the light more. 

#2 - Paid more attention to the colours 

Secondly, the colours is the image just don't "pop". The light blue against the green is a bit "meh" so a different background would have been helpful, or a different dress. (But you try telling that to an 8 year old Frozen fanatic and see how far you get) That's one reason this was converted to black and white, since the colours weren't doing anything for me - they are not bad, just not great. 

#3 - Been closer to my subject

Getting closer would have meant I didn't have to crop in so far in processing, which although fine,  is not ideal since you are effectively losing pixels.  In real terms, this means I wouldn't have been able to order a huge print from this image, which might be limiting in some circumstances. For me in this instance, it's really not a problem, but it might be in some cases so it's something to watch out for. 

That's it! I hope that you have found it helpful to see everything laid out in one place - both to see what I did in camera, how it was edited, and what I would have done differently if I could do it again!