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“Secrets of a top retoucher” by Popphoto



This Popphoto magazine article recently ran, a rather candid interview that I did a few months back and I thought it would be fun to post it here for those of you who don’t know me personally.  It says a little about how I got evolved in retouching / digital capture and wee bit about how i work.  The whole article is long-ish so I included a few of the more major excerpts.

-written by Aimee Baldridge

Sagmiller remains a great believer in being guided by core artistic concepts in his digital work.  “I know the inside walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as I know the controls on a camera,” he notes.  Sagmiller describes this balance between technical ability and artistic understanding as a requirement for high-quality post production work.  ”Photographers come to you not just for your technical know-how,” he explains.  ”they’re really after you because of the specific decisions that you make. “You’re only as good as what you decide to retouch and decide to not retouch.”

Like his general arts eduction, the technical training Sagmiller received acquainted him with basic principles and tools, instead of focusing on particular software brands or products.  Although the training process could be tough at times, he insists that it gave him an ability to pick up new software easily, which has always paid off in his professional life.  ”We were expected to know a piece of software within a few days. They just threw it at us, ” Sagmiller recounts.  ”You had a project you had to finish, so it was kind of trail by fire.”

While Sagmiller began his studies with a strong interest in 3D graphics and computer animation, and feels that he has benefitted from his experience with the complex software used in those media, he found that spending all of his creative hours in front of a computer monitor didn’t suit his outdoorsy nature.  ” There was this moment when I just sort of cracked,” he recalls.  ”I took a film and video class that had digital photography components, and I was so excited to touch a piece of steel.  I took one of those C stands and tweaked a knob.  I got to move it and see the light actually change, as opposed to moving a light in my three-dimensionally rendered computer image.  That was just it for me.”  Combining on-set digital capture work with postproduction work allows him to balance his interest in digital tools with his need to interact with the physical world.

But working on location doesn’t just suit Sagmiller’s personality.  He feels that being on location not only enhances his value to the photographers he is working with, but also improves the quality of his retouching..  ”There are all kinds of problems that I can solve being on set that were very difficult to solve with post effects alone,” he explains.  Understanding postproduction techniques and printing allows him to make stronger recommendations about lighting, processing, and exposure during the shoot.  He also notes that just being on set and hearing the comments of art directors and stylists gives him information that helps him meet client’s retouching needs.  ”All those little comments don’t always make it into the notes for the retoucher,” he remarks.  And by being on the spot, Sagmiller can answer questions that the photographer or other techs can’t necessarily address about what can and can’t be fixed in post how much it will cost, and how making changes to the set can reduce the postproduction costs.  That not only makes him more valuable ot the photographer bust also makes the photographer more valuable to the client.


© Tema Stauffer

palmaire by Tema Stauffer

Artist and master printer Tema Stauffer is teaching a color printing course at ICP (International Center of Photography) this fall.  A short look at Tema’s work either in person at the Daniel Cooney gallery, or on her website will tip off her uncanny sense of color and her firm grasp on american photography.

Tema also writes a wonderfully personal blog which accounts her work in progress and a bit of critical dialog and news about the photo community.  She is the assistant curator at culturehall, which is a hot bed of all kinds of interesting contemporary art, which is worth checking out.

I’ve spoken with Tema about the class and it sounds like it will be a healthy mix of printing practice, critique, history of color photography, and dialog about contemporary artists.

Tema comments, “I want to make the course more interesting that just printing, printing, printing … though the emphasis will be on producing work.”

If you’re intrested in more info about Tema’s course head over to ICP,  you can download their course catalog here.  The course name is COLOR PRINTING: BIGGER AND BETTER.

It starts mid-October, sign up quick this one will fill fast!

Shoot: Interview Magazine June/July 2009



We spent a day on the beach working with the talented Stephen Rose, for this awesome swim story in Interview Magazine. (see above.)  Stephen had us join the team to help carry over and refine his film based style  using digital capture.  We set up a great location tether and download station on location for digital capture and delivered final retouched art direct to Interview.   It’s was a blast working with an all star team.. can’t wait for the next one!

Photography STEPHEN ROSE

Styling LAETITIA DE L’ESCAILLE  ( she is clearly a genious.  Look at those knit combos! )

Art Direction M/M (Paris)

Funny Caption: “That loincloth-and-fur look works. Conan knew it, Pocahontas too. Skin on Skin is definitely in”


ColorChecker fever


The 24 Patch Classic ColorChecker has been in use in photography since 1976 and sometimes I would swear it just came out yesterday because very few professional photographers and retouchers have a clue how to use it and read it. I’ll go over the most popular uses of the ColorChecker in detail below.

The Classic ColorChecker has 4 main uses, White balancing (neutralizing/color correcting) images, Judging exposure, setting highlight and shadow points, and confirming correct monitor profiles. It can also be used to create camera profiles and to set key and fill light ratios. However the 24 patch target is best used as a reference color check. We recommend the ColorChecker SG for building critical digital camera profiles.

Save yourself the headache! Color Tips that will serve you well:

White Balance: click on the 3rd grey square from the left, Patch #21
To further neutralize color shifts: color correct (not using the temperature and tint sliders) the white and black patches to read Equal RGB values 243, 243, 243 and 52,52,52 respectively.

Note: Perfectly neutral images can be great for color reproduction and still life imagery but I’ve found that with portraits and landscapes I prefer images with color shifts. Our split-toning tutorial Covers creative shifting of highlights and shadows in ACR.

Signs of color balance issues, from X-rite: ( formerly Gretagmacbeth )

- Check patch numbers 6 and 11.  If there is a problem in the blues or the yellows, these two patches will reverse.

- Check the blue patch number 13.  This patch will turn purple very easily if there is too much red (warmth) in the lighting.

- If the greys remain neutral but the above patches have changed, then you have either a blue, yellow or red problem.

Checking exposure/ highlight and shadow points:

This is done simply by comparing the color checker numbers with the readout numbers in photoshop or your digital capture software. Examine the photographed ColorChecker’s white and black patches to see if your exposure is close to their values 243 and 52, if not adjust the exposure on the camera to get closer to those values. Again these are only guidelines and you may aesthetically prefer the image darker or lighter than these “correct” values.

Note: That i listed RGB numbers for ease of use in digital capture software. Whenever possible I recommend using LAB. This is the data pulled from the GretagMacbeth L*a*b* D50 data instead of the sRGB values they put on their pamphlets.

RGB/LAB numbers and Reference images

For a full list of ColorChecker numbers check out these handy digitally rendered ColorCheckers in RGB and LAB from Bruce Lindbloom. ( click on info, then RGB reference images)

Babelcolor Also has corrected LAB values for 16bit Profoto color space for all you high-end retouchers out there. download here

Note: all colorchecker values are relative to D65 illumination. So if your chart is lit heavily with another color temperature, like tungsten, your numbers may stray from the target values. This is why using spectral data is important. Because spectral information gives you the ability target the numerical color values more presisely no matter which type of light you’ve lit your ColorChecker with. Warning, this can be a little confusing if you’re not familiar with color management. You can download the spectral data here

Happy color checking !!

The Classics

My new friend Kate recently posted some beautiful drawings of classic cameras.  Like this wonderful Polaroid land camera which looks to be a early 70’s vintage Highlander model 80A.

See more on her blog

Polaroid Highlander

Polaroid Highlander

Black&white Mastery

There are over 12 different ways to convert a color photo to black and white using photoshop. All of which pale in comparison to the 3 methods of converting a Raw image to B&W using ACR or Lightroom.

At my last seminar,”RawTalk” I briefly mentioned my two favorite ways to convert to B&W.  I also said that I don’t like to use the Grey Scale mix / convert to grey scale button as much and prefer to use HSL controls instead. After seeing a number of bewildered expressions I thought It was high time share a bit of my B&W workflow.

How do i convert to black and white using the HSL adjustments?  

Simple, Instead of using the grey scale mixer go straight to the HSL tab:

- Drag all Saturation sliders to zero in the HSL tab.

- Adjust the Luminance sliders in the HSL.   *notice they respond similarly to the grey scale mixer but with much smoother gradations and less noise.

- Shift the temperature and tint sliders in the basic tab.

- Optionally increase saturation/vibrance sliders. * increasing saturation will give you more isolated control with the luminance adjustments.

- Use color sliders in the calibration tab to further enhance separation.

Those basic steps are a great place to start for most images but lets take a look at a real world conversion to give you a better idea of how this works:









I started off with this landscape I snapped in the Dolomites.



At this point I set saturation to zero in HSL and adjusted black and white clipping points in the basic tab.

















Here I built up more contrast to help the landscape feel more dramatic. To do this I used the luminance sliders, darkening the blues in the sky and lightening the green trees. I also adjusted the temperature and tint sliders in the basic tab to balance the tones overall.  Lastly I made a few minor moves in the color calibration tab…. but why stop there.


I felt that the image was well balanced and processed but a bit too boring for my taste. So since it was a mountain range in Italy after all, I wanted it to feel more expansive and have a sense of history.  In the past I studied the work of Carleton Watkins and was very impressed with his Albumen silver prints and his seemingly tireless fascination with the landscape in the west so I went about creating that kind of look.  BTW, if you’re in New York, don’t miss the American West photography exhibit at the MOMA, they have some beautiful Watkins prints.

Here was my process:

- Clipped Highlights a Shadows
  *seriously, sometimes you have to break the rules a bit.
- Readjusted shadows and greens in the calibration tab
   This enhanced local contrast *more volume in rocks.
- Used Luminance and curves to add atmospheric perspective
   i.e (Haze) to mountains and darkened forground rocks for depth.
- Added subtle brownish split tone ; shadows only
   this gave the image that Albumen printed look.

*Note screen grabs are from ACR but all techniques work identically in Lightroom.

As you can clearly see, using the HSL technique is extremely flexible, more so that just using the grey scale mixer.  Sure you can argue that you may be able to get bit more contrast out of a grey scale mix in some cases.  But in my experience this causes blocky tonal transitions and chunky noise, especially in the sky.  With any conversion to B&W, be sure to examine the edges,skies, and transitions at 100% zoom for noise and posterization.  You woulden’t want to get your prints back from the printer looking like you shot them with a Sony Mavica!

RAW Talk with ASMP NY






April 22nd, 2009 - 6:30pm

For all you lurking blog readers out there……  ASMP as invited me to do a Lecture in NYC.  It’s this Wednesday night, it should be a good one so come on out and say hi !

-  Details below -

RAW Talk is an insider look, “under the hood” of RAW processing tools giving photographers both in-depth technical understanding and the aesthetic groundwork to use those tools to create powerful new images. Senior Retoucher, Stephan Sagmiller will discuss advanced RAW development technique using Adobe Lightroom and CS4.

Topics Include:

-Using camera profiles for better gradations.
-Creative color with camera calibration
-Figure ground - Local adjustments
-Using gradients
-Retouching in RAW
-Emotive color adjustments
-Developing styles with presets
-Saturation vs. Vibrance
-Zone targeted curve adjustments for detail
-Depth, Point curves vs. parametric
-Raw processing Workflow

When: 6:30pm, April 22, 2009

15 White Street (between Church Street and West Broadway)
New York City, 10013
pizza and drinks at 6:30pm
event begins at 7pm

FREE - ASMP Member
30.00 - Non-member
0.00 - Student with I.D.

Split Toning with Lightroom2

The often overlooked split tone adjustment tab could be just what you were looking for. Sure split toned black and whites can look nice, especially when used sparingly, but I have to say that i find split tone adjustments in Lightroom/ACR far more useful for creating unique color looks and simulating film stocks.

Although the adjustments are pretty simple there are a few key points to take note of that will having you wielding these adjustments like a seasoned pro.

- Split toning does not effect pure (255) whites or pure (0) blacks.
This is often most challenging in images with bright highlights, especially in a near blown out area of skin tone.
From my experience, if you want a heavily toned highlight you’ll be better off reducing exposure slightly which will decrease contrast a bit. If you want you’re bright highlights back without loosing your color, a curve in photoshop will do the trick. Of course you could also just leave exposure alone and just do your toning in photoshop but the toning process is not quite as flexible non-raw files.

- Adding a split tone to a color image will decrease global saturation. Shifting color schemes to more analogous like palettes and increasing local saturation. If you need some of you’re original color back and don’t want to spoil your new look use split tones in combination with the vibrance slider. ( read all about using the vibrance adjustments here )  Although I find that the reduction in palette is most often quite nic and has a rich filmic look.

- Low saturations make it difficult to judge the hue you’re toning with.
Yes it does make a difference.  When selecting a hue hold down the alt/option key which will show you the full saturation of the color you’re choosing.
-If you’re trying to get a better feel for how you’re color will effect the image. Select the color box right above the hue slider. This will allow you to see your adjustments in real time and to experiment with more subtle tones.

- Its easy to be lazy and leave the balance slider at 0.
You can achieve a more fine tuned result by checking the distribution of highlight vs shadow tones. When shifting highlights warm for example you would want, in most cases, to set balance to the right to warm the image overall.


you can see how the balance slider controls the range of tones that are effected.
Balance Shadow
Balance Center
Balance Highlight

In this color test you can see how some colors saturate while others desaturate





Real world examples
After Toning
Before Toning


If you’re in New York March 26-29th, don’t miss aipad

There will be some amazing prints both classic and contemporary from some very notable Galleries. I hope they have some nice Weston’s. I’ve been reading his day books again, which I highly recommend reading if you haven’t already, but the reproductions just aren’t doing it for me. Weston gallery is coming to the show from Carmel so it looks promising.

There are also free lectures with admission on saturday!

My money is on this one:
What Makes a Photographic Print a Masterpiece?
Malcolm Daniel, Curator in Charge, Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan
Museum of Art

Show Hours

Thursday, March 26 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Friday, March 27 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Saturday, March 28 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Sunday, March 29 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

Location: the Park Avenue Armory


$25 daily
$40 for the run-of-show (includes catalogue)
$10 student daily admission

Saturation distribution

So I made some exiting new discoveries with saturation in Lightroom that I can’t keep to myself.  It’s important to know exactly what both the saturation and vibrance sliders are doing in order to get how this works.

-  The saturation slider takes all colors and saturates them at even increments regardless of their current saturation.

-  Vibrance on the other hand takes the least saturated colors and saturates them more than the other colors.

With aggressive use of the vibrance adjustment you can see how it can bring all colors to the same saturation point.  By decreasing the saturation and increasing the vibrance you can smooth color transitions and create much more pleasing color overall as a result.  Very cool.

 After applying this new technique to a number of images I started to play the sliders in opposite directions and discovered that combinations of the two sliders could either isolate saturated colors to specific areas or in the case of full vibrance spread color throughout the image.  So as you start to visualize the two sliders as one relationship, local vs global color intensity, you are much better able to control how viewers respond to an image by directing their attention with saturation. It’s all about control.

below is an example of the two extremes and how the color is redistributed.
Notice how the branch has been given more isolated saturation, creating separation which makes it appear to have more depth.