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An Interview with
Glenn Honiball Master Photo Retoucher
By Larry Berman and Chris Maher

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Retouching artist Glenn Honiball has an old masters eye for understanding light and knowing where the shadows should fall. Coming from a family of commercial artists, he has spent the last 20 years developing both an eye for subtle detail and style that is so natural the images donít appear to have been retouched at all. Combining skillful use of basic Photoshop tools with an intuitive understanding, he can transform an image into a clientís vision in almost less time than it would take for the client to explain to him what needs to be done.

Visit Glenn's web site to see examples of his fine work

The Interview

Chris/Larry: When you first started doing serious retouching, you worked on dedicated systems that in some cases cost millions of dollars. When did you begin doing all your work using Photoshop and a desktop computer?

Glenn: I think it was around 1985. I remember doing an Apple Lisa ad on the Chromacom system.

Chris/Larry: At that point they had introduced Photoshop 2.5. Did you always work on the Mac?

Glenn: I worked on the Chromacom system for about 8 years, until the bitter end. Initially, when the Macís first came out everybody thought they were a bit of a joke, they wouldnít last. They didnít have the power the proprietary systems did. From the Chromacom system I moved onto the Silicon Graphics Indigo 2 Machine which was quite powerful and fun to work on. On the SGI I worked with software programs; Barco Creator and Alias Eclipse. After about four years on the SGI I moved onto the Mac and Photoshop version 4.

Chris/Larry: The reason weíre pursuing this particular line of questioning is weíre curious about when, in the eyes of a professional, desktop type equipment began to have serious promise and could actually compete with the major systems.

Glenn: I think Photoshopís biggest plus in competing with proprietary systems was the introduction of layers and the addition of multiple undoes. Prior software programs I had worked on did not have either of these functions.

Chris/Larry: What is the current version of Photoshop that youíre using?

Glenn: Iím using version 7 and havenít seen the need to upgrade to CS yet. I use basic tools like the Airbrush, Clone Tool, History Brush and close cropping for most of my work. My impression is that a lot of the tools seem to be designed to make everyone an instant artist. I donít find that tools like the Healing Brush for instance work as well as manually going in and air brushing like an artist would. I just donít find that I need to use these 'automated' processes. I would find it more useful if Photoshop would beef-up their basic tools like their Selective color correction tool to allow one to pick their own color as opposed to their pre-set colors.

Chris/Larry: you had mentioned the Air Brush and the History Brush. How would you use the History Brush as a retouching tool?

Glenn: Iíll use it for just about anything; when I need to correct color, add sharpness or blurring. Iíll do the correction I require, take a history snapshot, and then undo it. I'll then go back in with the History brush and brush the areas where I want the effect, or color correction to occur. I find that saves me much time because I don't have to create a mask and itís much more natural looking. With a History Brush, I can physically go in and brush exactly where I need it. Letís say for example I had to add a blush to a cheek, if one makes a mask and alters the color that's fine, but what if itís in the wrong spot? Youíd have to go back in and remake the mask. You have total control if you make corrections with the History brush. If a mistake is made, I can just undo it quickly and brush it again. I always use a very low brush opacity so I can softly brush in corrections and build it up until achieve the desired result.

The position Iíve always been in working in a prepress house is that time lines are very demanding. Art directors want the work to look great in a timely fashion. There is very little time to sit and try different techniques.

Chris/Larry: Do you typically use layers so as not to affect the base layer itself?

Glenn: Iíll always make a copy right off the bat in case it is necessary to go back to the original file if. Iíve been given Photoshop files that have contained layers for every conceivable correction, some with well over 100 layers! This makes for much work and I think it shows lack of confidence in one's ability if you are keeping every change you make. What I do in my work flow is give each layer a short descriptive name that makes sense and keep them well organized. Creating a layer set is helpful for grouping multiple layers. I try to keep it to a real minimum in terms of layering because if anyone else has to work on the file and it's not well organized, it will take more time to get the job done.

Chris/Larry: The tools you mentioned would be good for manipulating tonalities within an image. How do you separate part of an image from its background cleanly?

Glenn:It depends on what the image is. If the item to be cropped is a car or a man made object they usually have hard lines to follow and I would use the pen tool to close crop the object on to separate layer. Typically, Iíll add some edge softness to a close cropped item, but it really depends on the subject and the overall 'look' of the rest of the image. If it's an object that is fast moving or an item that is soft or furry Iíll create a soft mask with the brush tool to crop the item out. It really depends on the object. Sometimes Iíll combine the use of the pen tool and the brush tool to create a mask. Again, depending on the item to be cropped, I might crop an item very quickly with the lasso tool and use the erase tool to blend the item in to its new position or background.

Chris/Larry: Is there a third party tool that you use for masking?

Glenn: Iíve seen a few of them, especially for hair, but I have always found many ways in Photoshop to get the job done. I try to encourage clients to shoot items on a background that lends itself to achieve the final results if possible. If itís going on a red background, Iíll suggest shooting it on a red background. At least that will help to get the color into the same family. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. Youíll get a shot where the background is different. If for instance we have a person shot on a white background, I'll blow the background out to zero with a correction adjustment, without a mask. If part of the hair or image starts to go as well with the correction then Iíll take a history snapshot and brush around the hair with a low opacity until Iíve made the background disappear taking care not to delete fine hair detail. I now have something that I can quickly paste onto the required background. I then create two layers, one for the hair that is 'multiplied' onto the new background and a 'normal' layer for the rest of the image except for the edges of the hair.

Chris/Larry: If we understand, youíre actually working with the background and two layers, one of which acts as a go between the background and the subject that youíre putting in.

Glenn: Exactly. If the background has been adjusted to white and you multiply it on to any background, itíll just blend in with whateverís there. Iíll erase away part of that 'normal' top layer to expose the multiplied layer around the edges of the hair so the two layers blend in softly together. A color correction may be necessary on the multiplied layer to lighten the hair to appear more natural.

Chris/Larry: Our next question is about when youíre replacing colors. Iíve seen a few examples on your web site where the subject has had a radical color transformation. How do you do that so that itís so naturally looking color and still retaining the texture?

Glenn: There are a few different ways you can do that, but I usually use the Channel Mix to alter color without losing texture or shape. I will look through the color channels to find the color with the most shape. I will then 'Channel Mix' that color into the desired channel to achieve the color I am looking for. Having been in the pre-press environment I can usually get into the ballpark just by looking at the color value numbers. Another way I may change color if shape is limited, is to create a black and white image of the color image and copy that image or the part of the black and white image into one of the color channels of the color image. That will give me a good base to start with for changing color.

Chris/Larry: A number of pieces on your web site were excellent examples of how you can bring out detail in areas that were obscured by poor lighting of shadows. Do you fabricate that detail or do you reach into the image and pull out detail? How do you do such an excellent job of opening up the dark spaces?

Glenn: Sometimes it is a simple matter of picking up a second shot done specifically for that item or area. I may pick-up an area from another part of the image and change it just enough so that it doesn't look repeated in the image and replace the problem area with it. Typically what Iíll do is go through the color channels and see which one has the most detail in it. Again, I'll use the Channel Mix. I'll look for the color channel that has the shape I am looking for and move color to where I want it to be. I may take a History snapshot of the correction and brush it into the area that I am hoping to improve upon. Another thing I do on occasion is to take the image and make a black and white of it. Iíll then play around with a curve adjustment, even if itís a crazy looking curve in order to get lots of shape. Iíll then take that black and white image or part of the black and white image and paste it back into one of the color channels. It's typically the black that will help improve shape.

Chris/Larry: You have a pre press background so you obviously work quite a bit with CMYK. Do you normally work in that color space when in Photoshop?

Glenn: Typically yes, because at some point in the print process itís going onto paper. It's great to see all those pretty colors in RGB, but the color space in CMYK is so much smaller than RGB that there is no point in teasing yourself! I am comfortable with RGB so that isnít a problem, but at some point almost everything goes to print. There are so many different print applications, it may be a billboard, a backlight display, magazine or newspaper, and the specs are so different that I'll create one 'master' image and spec images from that. I have put together a couple of color conversions that do a great job of converting RGB to CMYK, but depending on the colors in the image, some of the those brilliant RGB hues will be lost during the conversion process from RGB to CMYK regardless of what you do. Some files will stay RGB if that is the client requirement.

Chris/Larry: You seem to have an intuitive sense about how to create shadows. Your shadows are just right, and your glossy surfaces have just the right sheen. How do you come up with such an excellent deduction about how it should look, uniformly throughout an image?

Glenn: To be perfectly honest with you, I actually see the image finished before I even start. I guess Iím very good at visualizing things. I'll look at the light source(s) and go from there. Clients don't always anticipate what may be involved in creating effects. If I crop an image, change its background or add a shadow to an image it may impact on how other parts of the image may interact with the change. Maybe thereís a highlight that was in the original studio shot that shouldnít be there anymore because youíve cropped the image out. A reflection no one though about is no longer needed or a subtle color change is now necessary because the background color cast is different. These are all little things your eye will pick up on. I am always careful to look over the entire image to make sure there isnít anything odd or that looks obviously retouched. It has to look like it hasnít been retouched. The best compliment I can get is that somebody looks at an image and doesn't say much.

Chris/Larry: What kind of advice would you give someone who is looking to increase their skills in retouching photographs?

Glenn: I think the best thing is that the person really needs to be artistic to begin with. Thatís probably the biggest factor. Anybody can learn Photoshop or any other retouching program. But to be successful at it, I believe that you have to be artistic. I may not know every single tool in Photoshop but being artistic is the primary factor. Years ago, when working on the Chromacom system, people wanted to go on it because they thought it was really neat, but they were technical people and they struggled to achieve results. I remember sitting there with someone who was really good technically on the machine, but I could see right away that he was putting the shadow on the wrong side of the image at the wrong angle. Obviously when an art director sees it, it won't fly. If somebody really wants to pursue it they should pay attention to how items are lit, and how shadows and reflections interact with objects just as a photographer would. Go outside and see how shadows are cast from objects. I remember arguing with a sales person because he felt the car image should have the brick wall reflecting on the hood of the car in the image as it was dropped onto a new background. I had him pull up his car up to a brick wall to prove my point. One of us was right and it wasn't the salesman! Donít be afraid to move something and see how the shadows and reflections affect it. Strive for that extra realism. Itís the little things that people pick-up on.

Chris/Larry: You come from an artistic background, from a family of creative people. Do you ever engage in purely creative projects with your artistic skills?

Glenn: To be honest with you, not really. I do spend a lot of time retouching so when I come home I like to relax with my family. Iím married and have two daughters. If I were single, Iíd probably sit there all day long doing it. I love technology and gadgets. I do some video editing, but basically family stuff, nothing too heavy. It's more for fun. I have a digital camera and enjoy photography, but not at the professional level.

Chris/Larry: Let me go back to something we had touched on earlier. Right now youíre using a Macintosh. Can you tell me the configuration of the machine you work on, how much RAM, how big the hard drives are, the speed of the processor? Just a general of what you have chosen to work with.

Glenn: I work at a pre press house and theyíre using a Dual 1.2 GHZ, G4 with a 2 GIG's of RAM. But the machine I use for my freelance work is a single 450 G4, and a GIG and a half of RAM. I have 2 drives and about 80 gigs of hard disk space, recordable DVD, CD and FTP for dealing with clients worldwide. I am hoping to build on my current freelance client base and may require more hardware in the future, but for now, it appears to fit the bill!

Chris/Larry: Well that doesnít sound like a fire-breathing machine.

Glenn: I have found that on a faster machine the error messages come up that much faster. But apart from some of the filtering functions, there isn't a huge difference in speed when doing retouching. Sure, I'd take a faster machine, but my current machine does not limit my abilities. I just don't feel a great need to upgrade for the sake of upgrading. Iím using OS9 as well. At the shop theyíre using OSX.

Chris/Larry: Have you found any difference in working with the two different operating systems?

Glenn: Well the filters are a little faster if itís a really big image. But I spend more time thinking about the project and donít find the processor speed to be a big problem or a limiting factor. OS9 gets its share of crashes just like any other computer, but overall I find OS9 quite stable. For some funny reason I have had Photoshop on OSX just disappear without warning with no opportunity to save. I've learned to save frequently on either machine.

Chris/Larry: What about your input? I assume you use a digitalizing tablet of some sort?

Glenn: No I donít. Iíve tried different mice, but I have settled on a little tiny mouse I found at one of the Mac stores, I think I liked it because it glows red. Although, just between you and I, I wished it glowed blue.

Chris/Larry: Wait a minute. Youíre telling us you do all your selections and all your masking using a mouse?

Glenn: Thatís right. (Laughs) I used a tablet and pen on the Silicon Graphics Machine for four years. On the Hell Chromacom system I used a tablet system that was very accurate. The Chromacom system was also capable of page assembly and needed the precise co-ordinates of a tablet. When I moved on to other machines, I used what it came with. So Iíve used the mouse since. I think you get used to whatever comes along.

Chris/Larry: You donít have any need for pressure sensitivity?

Glenn: No, I just change the opacity level on the brush within Photoshop. I just wish Photoshop would stop changing the occasional short-cut keys as one does get used to their positions.

Chris/Larry: That could be conceivably a reason why you could move to the new Photoshop CS which allows you to set up your own keyboard shortcuts.

Glenn: That may be reason enough for me to change right there, but my needs have always been quite simple, I have always used the most basic of tools to achieve what I do.

Chris/Larry: You had mentioned one other thing earlier about a customer who would want noise reduced. There are a number of programs on the market that are specifically designed to reduce noise. How do you go in and use your techniques to reduce noise in a photograph whether digital noise or analog grain?

Glenn: The thing about noise filters I donít care for is that they typically create a mild blur and, depending on the image, the noise just becomes blobs of noise. In a lot of cases this isnít acceptable. I will typically go in with a low opacity clone brush set at about 20% and brush back and forth over the problem area, changing the positioning of the brush often so that I donít get any repeat patterns. The idea is to 'message' the area until the degree of smoothness is achieved. I usually add a touch of noise after the brushing to break it up a bit.

Chris/Larry: But where are you cloning from, directly where are you placing the tool?

Glenn: Let's suppose there is a fold in a shirt and it had a noisy, low resolution look to it. I would align my brushes along the length of the fold, set a very low brush opacity, and brush through the fold in a back and forth motion. I would change the positioning of my brushes just a little bit so that I donít get repeat patterns as I brush through the area. It is very tedious to do it this way, but itís a lot more natural looking than using a mechanical filter. Sometimes the Smudge tool works well at a very low opacity, I will actually just draw around shapes and the various details in an image with it to define these small details and get rid of jagged or low res looking edges. I typically go back and add a little of bit of noise with a History Brush or mask to break up the smoothness of the newly brushed areas.

Chris/Larry: Just to get a little more of that original texture?

Glenn: Exactly, it can start looking a little plasticy. You have to be careful how you do it. Itís a purely visual thing.

Chris/Larry: When you bring in color or tone are you using one of Photoshopís pallets?

Glenn: I always pick up color that is in the image with the eye dropper. I find it to be much more natural to use something that is already in the image unless there is a color in particular I must use.

Chris/Larry: What is it that you do to really understand a clients needs, because a lot of times clients are not very good at articulating their vision. How do you go about the process of understanding, before you start, exactly what you need to accomplish to be successful?

Glenn: I donít always expect a lot of fine details from clients. I basically ask the client about the final look and feel they want to achieve. Iím looking for more of their feeling of what they have in mind. Iíll instinctively know what to do based on what they have said and I donít need them to hold my hand through each step of the process. I prefer it if the client tells me what the end result should be and then lets me take it from there. I realize that this approach isnít for everybody and a lot of people may have trouble with the lack of direction. Sometimes there are obvious things the client wants to have retouched. I guess that Iím fortunate in that I have a good sense of what the client wants. Having an artistic background enables me to pick up very quickly on what the client wants as I am primarily dealing with art directors, who can be, quite...well, arty! It's really hard to describe because it's more of a feeling than physically saying what to do. Itís more of an art than it is technique.

Chris/Larry: So youíre beginning with an end conception in mind which cuts out all the misunderstanding of how you get to where they want to end up.

Glenn: Exactly. Nothing slows me more than having to explain every step I am going to take.

Chris/Larry: How about time frame. How long does one of your meticulous jobs take?

Glenn: I am sort of used to having to produce things quickly. Most jobs may take me an hour or two. If something is taking me more than a few hours I consider that a long time. The most time consuming image work is when I have to make low res images appear to be a higher res image.

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