Monday, January 9, 2017

White Balance Adjustments with the Histogram

White Balance Adjustments with the Histogram

Today I'll show you how to use the histogram to make smart white balance adjustments, so that you'll have the confidence of a visually consistent color temperature across your photos.

What'll you need:
  • A gray card
  • A histogram
  • A reference photo

The Problem

When shooting with natural light, the light varies as time progresses. Often the color temperature drastically changes even if the exposure is maintained across the whole shoot. In this example photos, I was shooting multiple gowns for an Indian bridal catalog look. The shoot started in the morning and ended up in the afternoon. One of my main goals is to ensure that the photos are consistent color-wise.

Warm and Cold
Here are two photos that I took hours apart. The camera settings and composition are relatively the same, but the color temperatures are worlds apart. The photo on the left, our reference photo, has a warm cast overall; whereas, the photo on the right has a depressing bluish cast overall.

Reference photo

Bluish cast

Gray card
I used a gray card midway this shoot to maintain a baseline color temperature across the whole shoot. Here's the gray card image which gave me a 5400K reading.

gray card

Using Lightroom I applied this white balance reading to both photos. There was a slight warming up on the reference photo but not a game changer. There was also a slight improvement on the second photo though, but the bluish cast is still quote obvious. I need to make the second photo very warm to match the reference photo.

Before gray card application
After gray card application

The Key
I eyeballed the temperature slider until the photo is warm enough. The problem is half the time my eyes fool me. The first two adjustments were slightly off. So I thought maybe I can use the histogram to verify my color adjustments. The theory is if I bump the histogram to match the reference photo, I should arrive at the same overall color temperature.

Histogram Comparison

Let's compare the histogram of our two photos. The histogram on the reference photo doesn't show any blue areas on the far right side of the graph, but there is a slight yellow area peeking almost at the right side of the graph. However, on the second photo, the blue area is very obvious. This is a signed that the photo has a bluish cast.

Reference photo

Bluish cast

The Process
To arrive at the target color temperature I moved the Temp slider towards the right until the blue area on the far right of the histogram is gone. I pushed it farther until I see a slight yellow area peeking at the far side of the graph again. The numbers gave me a 9100K reading. Notice how similar the histograms and color temperatures on both photos now.

Adjusted white balance

Often a histogram is used to verify if photos are properly exposed. But it can also be used to verify white balance adjustments. With a proper histogram-based adjustment, we can ensure our photos look consistent across the whole shoot.

Note: These photos are not retouched except for the RAW adjustments.

Photography by Mark Serrano
Models: Desteny Castaneda and Jordyn Volanti
Makeup by Jacqueline Meller-Vogt (Makeup By Jacquee)
Hair by Mariefel Lagatuz Westa
Wardrobe styling by Lupita Castaneda (AbbyBella Couture)
Wardrobe by Nesreen Abulaban (Style Me Couture)
Henna Tattoo by Healing Henna

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Retouching Feedback

As an artist it's important to get feedback from your work before it's shared to the public. As a photographer this means getting feedback on your retouched images.

I don't mean the usual CC (constructive criticism) requests you see in photography forums. The problem with this request is the image is already complete. It is open for public viewing. On one hand the CCs tend to become just random out of context suggestions or stylistic criticisms. On the other hand the photographer maybe really just looking for a pat in the back.

(c) Mark Serrano
Image preview on Google Nexus, Macbook 2013, and iPhone 6 Plus

If you want to make an actionable improvement, request the feedback while you're on your post-processing stages. The simple reason is you still have control to change the final look of the image without ruining the surprise to your audience. 

This feedback process is no different when writing a thesis or a book. It undergoes numerous proofreading and revisions from editors and reviewers before it's shared to the public. So why should our photos be excluded in this process? They should not.

Here's a quote worth remembering:
"It takes two artists to paint something, one to paint and the other to hit the first artist" - Sue Bryce

Here's what you can do:

1. Ask a friend. 
  • In most cases I ask my wife for feedback because she's a makeup artist, and I trust her critical eye
  • Lately I'd been asking my makeup artists to tell me what part of the makeup needs to be fixed, so I can address them in the retouching process

(c) Mark Serrano
Google Nexus

2. Preview your images on multiple devices. 
  • Uncalibrated devices render the colors on your photos differently. It helps to see what you're sharing to the world
  • It helps you catch details you've might missed on your computer. Different screen sizes tend to show varying level of details that might not be apparent on some devices. 
  • The smaller screens let me see better what I've missed in my dodge and burn process.
  • The brighter screens help me see quickly how my photos look if blowned out.
  • The uncalibrated screens help me see color variance that I missed on my calibrated screen. This is probably because my eyes have become accustomed to my calibrated screen.
  • Juxtaposed screens help you see the big picture

(c) Mark Serrano
iPhone 6 Plus

3. Sleep on it. Take a break.
  • The more time we spend our eyes on the screen, the more our eyes become accustom to the screen. This has a negative side effect of making you miss important details on your photos.
  • Taking a break helps you combat this acclimatization
  • Previewing your images on different screens also helps you fight this acclimatization

Here's the final image by the way:

(c) Mark Serrano
This is lit with a single beauty dish


Photography by Mark Serrano
Model: Octavia Chan | Factor Chosen Model Management Chicago
Makeup and hair by Ula Sz (Shades of Makeup by Ula)

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Less is More Always

In the art world we are often told, "Sometimes doing less is more." It means we don't need overcomplicated setups to make a meaningful impact. But why are we told it works "sometimes"? Can't it work every time? Certainly we've seen great works of art with convoluted processes. "Less is more" is an oxymoron that works sometimes--most of the time.

(c) Mark Serrano

I've probably lost you there. Here's my main point: "less is more" works every time. It doesn't just work sometimes. It works every time. This is a key fundamental concept in producing great works of art. Doing less for more is a skill exhibited by people who know their craft. These are people who've burned the midnight oil numerous times.

For example, the photo on the right was shot with a single beauty dish with a foam core acting as fill. The retouch was simple heal and clone, dodge and burn. No color correction was even done. No frequency separation as well.

Here are some quotes that echo the same message:

  • Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory - Coco Chanel
  • If you want something to look interesting, don’t light all of it. - Joe McNally
  • It takes two artists to paint something, one to paint and the other to hit the first artist - Sue Bryce
  • The best makeup artists knows when to put the brush ... have one thing missing, and it'll be more beautiful! - Rae Morris
  • I would also say that bad retouching is retouching that took longer or did more than it should for a particular intent. - Michael Woloszynowicz

Notice the similarity in the quotes. Reduction is a key concept in making great works of art.

How does this translate in practical terms? As a photographer and retoucher I have two tips that will help you:

  1. When you plan a lighting setup, take a step back. Reduce the lights, the props, the people.
  2. When you're applying a Photoshop effect, take a step back. Reduce the effect by 20%, by 30%, by 50%. 

As humans we tend to exaggerate on things because we think by magnifying things, it will be noticed more and it will be more convincing. But it's not. When you think your work is great, take a step back. You might be exaggerating things. Reduce and simplify your process.


Photography by Mark Serrano
Model: Angelika Rol
Makeup and hair by Vanessa Serrano (Makeup by Nessa)

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Non-Agency Signed Models

It amazes me when people think that I only shoot agency-signed models. This is far from the truth. If you do your research and navigate around the people I work with, you will be able tell who are agency-signed and who are not.

This collage is a good example of photos I've taken within a year. The models portrayed in this collage are not agency signed models as far as I know WHEN I WORKED with them. Some of them were just starting out and trying to build a portfolio. 

The lesson is don't be afraid to ask your photographer. But don't also sour grape if you got rejected. We all get rejected at some point in our lives.

Note: My collage app only allows 20 photos so I picked the random 20 I can put on my set.

#chicagophotographer #photography #model #chicago #photographer #mua #art #fashion #beauty #retoucher #hair #makeup #stylist #chicagomua #chicagohair #chicagostylist #agency #collage #notsigned #portfolio #learn #rejection

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Outdoor Shoot with Godox and Westcott

Over the weekend I did two shoots in my studio. I'd been wanting to shoot outdoors though because it was sunny. I live in Chicago where winter seems forever. I also wanted to test my Godox AD360 outdoor.  So the weekend shoots was a perfect way to hit two birds with one stone. Today I will be sharing my experience on those two shoots. Take note: this is not about posing, hair, makeup, or retouching. Think of it as my personal journal.


I started my weekend with a shoot with the talented Ashley Brielle of Modelogic Midwest. After shooting three looks in the studio, we went outside at around 3pm. I brought my Godox AD360 (version 1) and Westcott Halo, along with my Canon 6D. It was a bright afternoon. According to the TPE iPhone app, the sun's elevation is at 46 degrees at the time of my shoot. To give you a perspective, golden hour is about at 6 degrees elevation (probably around 6:40pm).

Figure 1: The TPE iPhone App

Below are some of the images I captured in this session with a comparison of off-camera flash and natural light:

Figure 2: Lighting comparison.
These photos are not retouched except for basic Lightroom adjustments.

Notice how bright the scene was. I had La'Yanna, the hair stylist, held the Westcott Halo, while my wife, the makeup artist, blocked the sun from hitting the model's face.

Figure 3: BTS from Saturday's shoot

 Thought Process

  1. Take a photo of the scene without off-camera flash. I tested how much ambient light I should cut off. I chimped and settled for my camera's max sync speed of 1/4000 (I wish I could go higher though).
  2. On my LCD I can tell the ambient light is too strong at 1/160. So I set my shutter speed at 1/2000 and still looks bright. I set my shutter speed to the max sync at 1/4000. It looks acceptable.
  3. I turned on my Godox and placed the Westcott Halo as close as possible to my model.
  4. I took a test shot. The model is barely noticeable because my light's power is at 1/4. I decided to increase the power to 1/1. Now I see my model.
  5. I took more test shots without looking at my LCD.
  6. I reviewed the photos I took. A lot of shots didn't fire my Godox. I forgot at 1/1 power the recycle time is SLOW (even with the power cable splitter). The recycle time can vary from 2.5 seconds to 4.5 seconds. I guess I'm shooting faster than a second.
  7. I took a couple of shots again. I got some good ones but still missed a lot. Then I learned my battery is about to die. It was my mistake to start with an almost 25% batter power. 
  8. After the battery died, I decided to end the shoot.

Lessons Learned

  • Bring extra battery packs
  • Shoot during the golden hour so the ambient light is more pleasing
  • Use a more effective modifier to concentrate the light, so I don't need to shoot at 1/1 power. Probably a Colt 45 from CheetahStand will do the trick
  • Shoot at a slower pace


The following day I worked with Kara Quinlan, also from Modelogic Midwest. After doing four looks in the studio, we went outdoor for the finale. This time I was "supposed" to be more prepared. I brought two fully charged battery packs and shot near the golden hour where the sun's elevation is at around 10 degrees.

Here's a comparison shot I took:

Figure 4: Lighting comparison.
These photos are unretouched except for basic Lightroom adjustments.

I had Lupita, the wardrobe stylist, held the Westcott Halo, while Nini, the makeup artist held the white foam core (not sure if that thing helped the shot).

Figure 5: BTS from Sunday's shoot

The thought process is the same as before. However I still missed a lot of shots. This is because of the slow recycling time of my light at 1/1 power and I was clicking the shutter really fast.

Lessons Learned

  • Shoot slower 
  • Get another Godox, so I don't need to shoot at 1/1 power
  • Use a more effective modifier to concentrate the light
  • Use a more powerful strobe like Einstein but at the hassle of using ND filters.  It's not terribly bad though

Here's a photo I took last year with my Einstein and an 11" Long Throw Reflector. I had a 4x ND filter here. The Einstein was probably using 90 watts of power.

Figure 6: Bonus image


Saturday shoot
Photography by Mark Serrano
Model: Ashley Brielle
Makeup by Vanessa Serrano
Hair by La'Yanna Kai

Sunday shoot
Photography by Mark Serrano
Model: Kara Quinlan
Makeup by Nini Jenkins
Hair by Regina Borsilli-Brown
Wardrobe by Lupita Castaneda and CiCi Colbert-Rich

Steampunk shoot
Photography by Mark Serrano
Assistants: Jesus Zendejas and Jessica Campoverde 
Model: Marta Monica 
Makeup and hair by Mariefel Lagatuz Westa
Wardrobe Styling by Q Phia Sherry / Ugo Serrano / Crisiswear 
Event Organizer: Amie Hana

Check my portfolio to see more of my work at

Friday, April 15, 2016

Debunking the Frequency Separation Myth

Frequency Separation aka "FS" is an overly abused technique among photographers and retouchers alike. It is an easy path to excessively retouched images because it gives us a false sense of safety.

What is Frequency Separation?

Frequency Separation (FS) is a Photoshop technique that splits an image into two layers: a high frequency and low frequency layer. The high layer is supposed to contain just the texture of the image, whereas the low layer contains the colors and tones of the image.

FS allows you to even out the tones and correct colors while preserving the texture of an image. It allows you to remove blemishes without affecting the tones and colors as well.

FS in action

Debunking the Assumptions

FS is overly abused. Simpler but standard retouching techniques like healing on a blank layer and dodge & burn are neglected as a result.

Look at Figure 1 below. Do you see any major difference between the top and bottom images? I don't. In both cases the texture is preserved. So why are we abusing FS when cleaning up blemishes?

Steps to replicate:
  • Heal via FS: I ran FS and then created a blank layer on top of the high frequency layer. On the blank layer, I used a healing brush to remove the blemishes
  • Heal only: I created a blank layer on top of the original image. Then I used a healing brush to clean up the blemishes.

Figure 1: Heal comparison with FS

Assumption #1

The low frequency does not contain any texture.

This isn't true because it varies per image. What is texture by the way? Texture in FS is often the fine, grayish lines you see in the high layer. If you do another FS using the low layer as your base image, you'd find it still contains texture. See Figure 2 below. There is texture in the low layer.

Steps to replicate:
  • FS round 1: I set my Gaussian Blur at 1.8 pixels. I added a curve so we can see better the texture in the high layer (otherwise all you see are gray images)
  • FS round 2: I deleted the background and high layers from the previous round. I used the remaining low layer as my foundation for running another FS. Again I set my Gaussian Blur at 1.8. Notice there is still texture in the low layer.
  • FS at blur 16px: This one I used the original background as the foundation for FS and set my blur settings at 16px.

Figure 2: FS comparison

Assumption #2

The texture of an image is uniform.

The texture varies within an image. Sharper parts of the image have more visible texture. Less sharper parts will contain less texture, but it doesn't mean there is no texture. See Figure 3 below.

Figure 3. Exaggerated high frequency layer to show details

Assumption #3

You only need one round of FS.

Again if we go back to assumption #1 and #2, different parts of the image have varying levels of texture. So if you really want to maximize your FS experience, you'd need to set different blur values per part of the image you're targeting of. That means running FS multiple times.

Assumption #4

Dodge and burn in the low layer produces better results than doing dodge and burn separately.

See Figure 4 below. Do you see any difference? Again I don't see any difference. In both cases I dodged the shadow near the nose and the contour near the cheek for the sake of demonstration

Steps to reproduce:
  • d/b method 1: I applied FS on my image. On the low layer, I created a dodge and burn curves. 
  • d/b method 2: I created a separate dodge and burn curves

Figure 4. Dodge and burn comparison


Should we use Frequency Separation? Yes, but don't abuse it. Mastering the simple heal brush and the dodge and burn techniques will offer better mileage in the long run than FS alone. So when is FS best utilized? I'll leave that question open to my readers. Please comment below to answer.


Photography by Mark Serrano
Makeup by Vanessa Serrano
Model: Nikki Sterlinski

Check my portfolio to see more of my work at

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Results from the Out of Chicago Portrait Conference 2016

Over the weekend I got the opportunity to be one of the speakers in the Out of Chicago Portrait Conference 2016. The conference was a three-day event filled with creative artists in the field of photography. The opening talk was presented by rockstar fashion photographer Lindsay Adler.

I taught a 90-min session on how to do practical retouching and a full day session that involves a beauty shoot and more intensive retouch demonstrations. For those who are not able to attend the conference, I'll give you a taste of the things I have taught. Some of the key things I emphasized in both sessions are:

  • Retouching is not a solution to bad photography
  • You need to know your lighting, composition, and how to build your team
  • Master the basic tools in retouching: heal, dodge and burn, and color correction
  • You can't fix what you can't see

Nikki Comparison Image
Figure 1: Comparing different modifiers

Beauty Shoot Results

On the full day session I am supposed to demonstrate how to do a beauty headshot. I gave my students a treat by showing them how various modifiers can give varying looks.

We tried four setups. I used the following gear and settings in all setups:

Note:  I usually shoot with a Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L II, but I used a Tamron here because the Tamron guys were offering lens trial from the event. I had to bump the ISO to 200 with the speedlite because I'm too lazy to manually adjust the speedlite's power.

Setups (see Figure 1):
  1. Cheetah QBox 24" with Einstein E640 
  2. $7 shoot through umbrella
  3. Bare bulb Einstein E640 
  4. Yongnuo 560-III with Rogue Flashbender XL
We were expecting the images would look horrible on setups 3 and 4, but we were mistaken. The results were better than we expected! Also the $7 dollar umbrella performed really well. Most people I asked liked the umbrella a lot.

Retouch Results

After the shoot, I asked the model to choose the photo she likes from the shoot. My students narrowed it down further, and so we ended up with the following image. This was shot with the Cheetah QBox 24".

Before and After with Nikki
Figure 2. First version: Before and After with Nikki

The process:
  • We identified first the problems with the image
  • In Photoshop, we applied the basic techniques in retouching: heal, dodge and burn, and color correction
  • It took me an hour to retouch the image. This includes responding to questions and giving feedback.
  • After the retouch we agree the image looks great and still looks natural
  • We know there are still flaws that can be fixed. The idea is to take a break first. Ask a friend to review the first retouch. Take the feedback. Do another cycle or two more cycles until we've refined the image. 


Photography by Mark Serrano
Makeup by Vanessa Serrano
Model: Nikki Sterlinski

Check my portfolio to see more of my work at