Travis Isaacs

Father of two. Fitness & food junkie. Co-founder of Front Desk. Creator of Keynote Kung-Fu. Grapevine, TX.

The Isaacs Family Christmas Card

13 Dec 2008

This post is ancient history. My apologies for any dead links or broken images.

When planning our family Christmas card this year, my wife and I discussed the option of hiring a professional photographer to take photos of our daughter. However, we thought it would be much more fun and rewarding to do it ourselves.

Here is how we did it:

Setting up the shot

Luckily I have a friend with an extensive collection of video gear and lighting equipment. Normally, strobes (you and I call them ‘flashes’) are the preferred light source of choice for photographers mainly because of their output power and that the fact that they stay cool (you don’t want sweaty models, usually).


In the diagram above, you’ll see a large Lowell Rifa EX softbox, a bare Lowell Tota, and a bare Lowell Omni w/barn doors, and a reflector. These are all tungsten lights, meaning the light that they emit is similar in color to household incandescent lamps (actually, they are a little more yellow). However, the color wasn’t an issue because I can correct the white balance later.

lowell Images from B & H Photo/Video

The Lowell Rifa EX softbox emits gorgeous, pillowy soft, wrapping light with a gentle fall-off. I’ve shot with it before and have always had excellent results so I knew that this would be my main source of light.

The Tota and Omni were used to light (nuke) the background (a plain cotton sheet) out of the shot. By over-lighting the wall behind the shot, I’ll have a clean, pure white background to work with. The cleaner the background, the less time I’ll spend in post-processing.

The Keeper

Not a day goes by that I don’t realize how blessed I am to have such a good child. Luckily she loves to be in front of the camera (and believe me, she’s had tons of practice). We really lucked out in this case, she was a complete ham and really cooperated for us. After a few hours of whittling down the shots, here is what we decided to keep.


I love that it captures her kind personality, smile, and bright eyes that my wife and I get to see and experience every day. This is exactly what we want to share with friends and family.

Aside from my insanely cute child, this photo is a wreck, right? Well keep reading.




The first step was to set the white-balance to compensate for the yellow color of the tungsten lights. Luckily I had a WhiBal card on hand to give me a good reference shot to work with so it was a matter of grabbing a reading and twiddling a knob in Aperture.

Getting a pure white background

After correcting the white-balance, I exported a 16-bit PSD file out of Aperture and got to work in Photoshop. My first step to a pure white background was some simple Levels and Curves adjustments. The goal was to lighten up some the already light areas to pure white, but I had to be carful and not blow out any detail in the dress and furry hat.

I was hoping that my adjustments would have been sufficient to white out the background, but that wasn’t the case. Instead of finesse, some brute force was in order.

First, I loaded the RGB channel as a selection (under the Channel’s palette):


This gave me a rough selection of the brightest areas in the photo that I filled with white:


Scary, right? Not for long. Next I grabbed the eraser tool (‘E’ if your keyboard inclined) with a large (100px) brush and began to erase the areas of the photo that I didn’t want to be pure white:


You can really start to see the photo come together at this point. Now that I had a rough outline of the white background, I went in with the pen tool (‘P’) and restored the detailed edges that my large eraser covered.


Now that the background was white, I was able to focus on the details in the foreground, including:

  • Adjusting the skin tone and other light color correction
  • Removing the glitter on her lips (those ornaments were apparently tasty)
  • Some light skin smoothing
  • Giving her eyes some pop
  • Cleaning up some of the edges and blemishes on the box
  • Sharpening

The Result

These last few details are what took the most time. I spent a few hours cloning, masking, and smoothing to get everything just right, but in the end the attention to detail was worth it:


I couldn’t believe it. The trial-and-error, the planning, and the patience all paid of. I can’t tell you how happy we are that we took the chance and did this ourselves.