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Artur Kayukov Makes Amazing Portraits Without Any Photoshop

Artur Kayukov Makes Amazing Portraits Without Any Photoshop

“You can say I go strictly by the definition of the word Photography,” says Artur Kayukov about his skill set behind the camera and his reluctance to post-process. Not someone who likes to spend hours editing at his PC, he finds a certain charm in unedited images. Believing beauty is flawed and asymmetry is what makes us unique, he tells me what made him start a ‘No Photoshop’ portrait series and why he embraces this ideology more these days.

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The topic of whether to post-process your images or not is heavily polarizing. I don’t judge a photographer’s skills based on whether they can produce a good image without editing. We pick up post-processing skills over time and with a lot of trial and error. But it’s wrong to expect good pictures to always have some post-processing behind them. Many talented photographers can and have made amazing images without Photoshop. We’ve done multiple pieces on this, and we love shining a spotlight on people who can make stunners entirely in-camera. Nowadays, the technology in cameras allows us to do a lot more without loading up our files in our editing software of choice. I wouldn’t say post-processing is an extra chore, but I enjoy photography when it’s minimized or avoidable. Artur aims to produce some of his best work without sitting behind his computer. He’s out to change the assumption that a fantastic photo can only be achieved with Photoshop usage. And in this detailed interview with us, he narrates his reasons for doing so.

The Essential Photography Gear Used by Artur Kayukov

Artur told us:

As you can see, for portrait shooting in the studio, you do not need to have super expensive equipment, all the magic happens in the studio itself.

The Phoblographer: Hi Artur. Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.

Artur Kayukov: Hello. First of all, I would like to thank you for your work; for what you are doing is hard work, and it is noble. You unite people, help exchange experiences and opinions, show different philosophies, different approaches, different styles, and different directions. This is very important; it allows you to expand the boundaries; someone can get inspired or make something for themselves. Thank you again for doing this; it is very important.

I will be happy to answer your questions; I will try to tell you about my philosophy and the methods that I adhere to when I take a new picture, let’s get started. I am a bad storyteller, but I will try.

Some of my friends call me a “master of light and shadow.” I don’t consider myself a master; I’m still far from such a high status. But I liked how my friends called me; this hides the essence of what I do and what I strive for. I even took a selfie on my phone in a low-key. I apologize for the quality of the picture; I have a 0.3Mp camera on my phone. I do minimalistic portraits and a little nude photography. I try to grab what I want to show the viewer with the light and hide in the shadows what I would not like to show.  Then nothing distracts my viewer from the main thing, from the person in the frame, and the viewer sees only what I wanted to show him.

That’s why I liked the way my friends called me. These are pretty accurate words. I try to play with light and shadow, highlight something, hide something. You can say I go strictly by the definition of the word “Photography.” I hope everyone remembers that in Greek, “Photography” translates as “phos, photos” – light and “grapho” – I write. Photography is a light painting, and this is exactly what I strive for, what I try to do. This is what I like to do, but I am far from the “master of light and shadow,” but I am grateful to my friends for such words.

If we talk about how I came to this, then everything is simple. I once took some damn bad photos. These were important photos for me, but they were spoiled and bad. But it was possible to fix everything easily, suggest how best to get up, where to turn, adjust the location in space, set the mood with a pose, and support with accents.

At that moment, I looked around me and saw that many people with cameras treat their work as a kind of craft, using the situation, the moment, the importance of the event, or just the need for a person in photography. They just fix the picture, not paying attention to the details, callously, like a car pressing the camera button.

At that moment, I wanted to change something, at least for myself, among my surroundings. I wanted to learn how to make the most ordinary, simple, but pleasing to the eye photos so that it would be pleasant to look at the hero of the frame. To try to make the most ordinary person, who had never been photographed before, look harmonious.

And when I plunged into the world of photography, I was glad at how many photographers in the world and around me who were trying were worried about their results. Apparently then, many years ago, I was just unlucky with a photographer who took photos of me, but it was thanks to him that I got to know a lot of good, creative, and talented people.

The Phoblographer: What types of camera gear do you use for your work?

Artur Kayukov: I use a Nikon D750 in conjunction with AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G and AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G lenses. This is the most optimal set that covers almost all needs and at an affordable price.

The Nikon D750 camera was announced back in 2014. It does not have everything that can be found in modern cameras: autofocus on the eyes, matrix stabilization, improved bayonet that allows you to use better optics, high-quality 4k video recording, improved processing algorithms, noise reduction, exorbitant ISO operating values, and so on. But the Nikon D750 shows itself perfectly in studio photography, has a good dynamic range, a good matrix, shadows stretch well, and today this camera copes with its job 100%. For me, choosing a camera was the easiest step since I already knew that I would be photographing people in the studio, so I went to the DXOMARK website. I looked at which cameras have the best sensor for taking portraits and their cost. The Nikon D750 camera at that time turned out to be the best option, and today it completely suits me. I would like to note that for studio photography with pulsed light, the characteristics of the camera are no longer as important as, for example, in a reportage, concert shooting. If you plan to take photos only in the studio, you can save a decent amount of money on buying a camera by taking a simpler camera because shooting in the studio takes place slowly, in ideal conditions for the camera. The studio does not need fancy sensors and algorithms for autofocus, sensors that are able to produce high-quality results at high ISO, sensor stabilization, a large buffer for storing images, and fast processors for serial photography, and this is just the most expensive thing in the camera. Yes, of course, there will be differences, but they will not be critical, and many will not notice the difference at all. But with lenses, everything is more complicated. For each task, for each style, its own lens, fixes are convenient for someone, zooms for someone, macro for someone. Someone likes to take shots at a wide-angle, someone on the contrary; everything is very individual here. I settled on the AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G lens, a light, cheap and good lens with good contrast and good detail. Sometimes for a female portrait, such detail is even excessive, photosensitive. At the same time, this focal length forgives some mistakes when composing the frame, so it’s easy to work with this lens. It’s like a best friend; it will help if you did something wrong, does not act up and does not tell you off, does not introduce strong distortions into the geometry. For its cost, this is probably one of the best lenses.

But I don’t like the AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G lens, maybe I just got a bad copy, but it makes a bad picture. The picture is boring, with low detail, up to f2.2 strong chromatic aberrations. I use it as a backup lens if I don’t have enough space in the studio or I want to rejuvenate the model and introduce a little distortion. That’s all my kit, which I take with me when I go to the photo studio. Sometimes a laptop is added to this list if it’s some kind of complicated shooting, where the light is complicated when I need to immediately see a large-size photo with full color coverage, contrast, and brightness, in order to assess how well everything was set up. Or if I need to give the footage immediately after shooting.

The studio is our workshop, where we can already create, create our own photos, and paint with light, and the final result will depend on how the studio is equipped and what kind of equipment there is. Therefore, the choice of a studio should be approached carefully. Not every studio will let you get what you want. Each studio has its pros and cons.  Before choosing the studio you will go to, you should have a clear picture in your head of what you want to get and, what you need for this, what equipment you will need.

Everything matters here, from which light sources are presented in the studio, their characteristics, how many sources, which light-forming nozzles are presented, whether there are reflectors (what they are in color, size, shape), whether there are limiters for light, additional racks for suspensions, mounts, photophones and so on. This list can be continued for a long time, even when you don’t know what you might need in the next shoot.

But no matter how wonderful a modern camera is, it’s just a tool in the hands of a master.

The Phoblographer: “No Photoshop” – a self explanatory title, but tell us what prompted a series of photos with this as the theme?

Artur Kayukov: My laziness prompted me. I am a very lazy person; I am too lazy to sit at the computer for several hours to process a photo, I like to sleep at night, and photoshop takes a lot of time.  

But seriously speaking, I was motivated by my love for frames that were not processed in Photoshop. Such photos have a unique charm; you want to look at them, you believe them, trust them, they are unique, they feel life, a moment, such photos are much more beautiful, livelier, richer in perception, which can not be said about the cleaned pictures in Photoshop, and most importantly, in such frames, we have a living person, not a doll or a mannequin, but a person.

Here’s an example for you:

If I processed these photos in Photoshop, cleaned the skin, and removed the hair, then this would have a negative effect on the picture. The viewer would stop believing the frame, and the cleaned skin and face would cause questions and indignation; these flaws added drama.

Beauty is flawed. Take a photo of a person, divide the frame in half, select the half of the frame where you think the most attractive face is, copy this half of the photo, reflect the image horizontally and combine the two obtained halves to make a single whole. In theory, you should get a portrait without a flaw, where we took only the beautiful half of the face, but such a photo will repel you. The person will not be natural to you, and you will never call such a person beautiful; this is a scientifically proven fact. That is, we can say that we consider a person beautiful, he is visually pleasing to us just due to those very small flaws, asymmetries that we sometimes don’t even notice. Asymmetry, not ideality, is exactly what makes us all beautiful and unique.

The series “without Photoshop” actually turned out by accident.  The photos accumulated, and over time I began to forget which photos were corrected in Photoshop and which were not. Therefore, I started making a signature “without Photoshop” this was done primarily for myself so that I would not forget that this or that picture was not processed in Photoshop.

For example, I forgot about this picture, whether Photoshop was used here or not.

Since there is makeup here, and I don’t think I did skin cleansing here, there is really a lot of makeup here, and I don’t know what else could be done here. It is quite possible that this picture is really without Photoshop; I honestly forgot. And when there were more and more such cases, I decided that it was necessary to make a signature.

The second factor was that now a lot of girls use masks, and filters in photos, to rejuvenate themselves and change their proportions. It has come to the point that many already believe that a good frame is obtained solely thanks to Photoshop. Often such photos even look cheap and artificial.  With my photos without Photoshop, I show models and their friends and their loved ones how they can look good and transform without using Photoshop. And such a transformation is much more spectacular than a mask or plugin.

The third factor is the expediency of the action. There are situations when it simply makes no sense to process a photo in Photoshop when everything is fine without it, or the labor costs will be unjustified.

Look at this frame:

It was enough just to hide the leg so that the viewer could not see that there was no nail there. A matter of seconds, and there is no need to process the photo in Photoshop.

The Phoblographer: Are you not a fan of editing images? Or is editing images a necessary evil?

Artur Kayukov: It depends on what you mean by editing. Editing always goes on, even if you shoot in JPEG format; just in this case, the RAW file was edited for you by the manufacturer of your camera, according to the algorithm specified in the camera profile. There are cases when this is enough. To put it simply and very conditionally, we can say that the RAW format in which you shoot is your “digital film,” your digital fingerprint. This print, as well as the film, must be developed, just like in the days of photographic films. Only if earlier you could change the tones, contrast, color, saturation by choosing one or another photographic film, now, you do it in Lightroom / Photoshop. Still, the logic of development remains the same. Look at the designations of the tools in Lightroom/Photoshop; for example, the lighting tool is a hand-folded into the letter “O” previously, when printing in this way, they blocked the photo paper from excess light, leaving a small space for light to locally lighten the selected area in the photo. And vice versa, a black die, an instrument dimmer, they block a certain area of the photo so that less light falls on it. If you look closely, you will find many more references to the times of film photographs.

Therefore, I would not say that I am an opponent of processing because at least the RAW file needs to be developed. But again, it all depends on the situation. If you are doing a reportage, covering an event, then the editor should have photos immediately after you made them; otherwise, the publisher will be late with the news, which means there will be no citation, coverage; the publisher simply will not be able to be the primary source, with all the consequences. But I am definitely against it when processing in Photoshop comes to the fore in photography when first of all, you see not a photo but Photoshop. And as practice shows, often such processing looks disgusting and not natural. Or, when using Photoshop, they try to fix a badly taken picture.

I would recommend those who are just starting to take pictures to give up Photoshop. Try to make a good frame at once, and there are not so many components of a good frame. How well the photo will turn out in 50% of cases depends on how you have prepared, decided on the model, what she will do in the future photo, what clothes will be, what location, and whether she will convey some idea to the viewer with the help of photography. A 40% good shot will depend on how you worked on the set, how you interacted with the model, and the environment. As you can see, the share of Photoshop is not so great. The time you spend getting to know Photoshop is better spent on preparing for photography, studying photography and techniques. And a well-made photo does not need Photoshop, and if you still have to use Photoshop, then these will not be significant details that will not require a lot of time and a lot of knowledge from you. Remember that any action in Photoshop removes individuality, naturalness, and life and makes the picture more artificial and less truthful. If you want to leave life, truth, and naturalness in your photo, you need to either abandon Photoshop or minimize its impact.

The Phoblographer: We’re strong proponents for minimising the time spent on photos in the computer too. Do you think digital cameras these days make it easier to shoot great photos in-camera?

Artur Kayukov: Yes, of course it is. Modern cameras can shoot at high ISO values, have gorgeous autofocus on the eyes, sensor stabilization, and fast serial shooting. In addition, modern cameras will show you the final image even before you press the button. And the built-in algorithms, and fast and powerful processors will allow you to get good colors and contrast by default. The screens of modern cameras have better contrast, color reproduction, and a larger number of pixels, so they are more informative.  With a modern camera, you can think more about creativity about photography, and pay more attention to some little things, the shooting process, and the construction of the picture. Instead of focusing your attention on some technical points, you will have less marriage in photos related to the technical characteristics of the camera. But no matter how wonderful a modern camera is, it’s just a tool in the hands of a master.

The Phoblographer: What are some techniques you utilise to create a great image without Photoshop?

Artur Kayukov: The answer to this question I would like to start with an Arabic parable, which will be the answer to your question.

“In ancient times, there was a lame king in one of the kingdoms, who was also blind in one eye damaged in childhood. One day, this king gathered all the artists of his kingdom and ordered them to draw a full-length portrait of him without flaws. All the artists began to draw, but none of them could draw the king without flaws. They apologized to the king for drawing his flaws and explained to the king about their helplessness, weakness, and inability to imagine how he would look without flaws. All the artists said with one voice, how will they depict a king with two eyes when he has only one eye? How can he be depicted with two healthy legs when he is a lame Yemeni?

But in the midst of this collective rejection, there was one artist who painted bright and beautiful paintings. He was accused of insanity because he could draw something that was not possible. The king ordered this artist to be brought to him, and when the artist came to the king, the king said to him: “Draw a beautiful bright picture on which I will be without flaws.”

And the artist painted a bright and beautiful picture where the king appeared in the form of a warrior, accompanied by a dragon. The king holds a bow in his hands and pulls the string, squinting his damaged eye, and he drew his leg, which was shorter, bent, thereby hiding this flaw of the king.”

The technical component is not so important. The most important thing is preparation. When preparing, I look through the photos of the model on her social pages, see what difficulties may arise, what I need to pay attention to, look at the wardrobe, and what can be used to solve a particular problem.  This stage allows you to solve the greatest number of difficulties.

The second is the interaction with the model. Not all models know how to pose; many come for the first time, the model does not see herself from the outside, so the model always needs to be corrected, guided, shown what you want from her, advised, shown what happens. I try to pay attention to every detail, bend, look at what I like, look for what I don’t like, and if I find it, I try to fix it. Almost everything can be corrected by posing, hand position, body rotation, head position, foreshortening, and framing.

And the third is light. It is thanks to the light that we see. It is he who helps to fix the picture. It is with him that we draw. With the help of the account, we decide what to highlight and show, what to leave in the dark and hide from the viewer. With the help of light, we can soften the texture of the skin or, conversely, emphasize it. The cleaner the light that you use, the better you set it up, the fewer requirements there will be for your camera and lens, the better the colors will be, the wider the tone range and more volume. This means that you will have to spend less time processing photos. The camera sensor is your canvas, your mind, your future painting, and the light is your brush with which you will paint your picture.

As an example, look at this photo:

There is no makeup or styling. The hair has no volume at the roots. We just needed to throw the hair from the back to the top of the head and add volume with our hands. We worked with the edge of the light so that the hand located closer to the source did not interrupt the brightness; with the other hand, we balanced the picture. And we took the shooting point a little higher to capture the cleavage area. Just a couple of actions, and we got a good picture without Photoshop. By the way, this frame in the bnw version was sent to a contest and entered among the 300 best photos out of more than 25,000 photos.

The Phoblographer: Can you share some of your favourite lighting setups to get fantastic photos without having to edit them? Lighting aside, what are some other tips photographers can use for this?

Artur Kayukov: Yes, of course. If you are just starting to take photos and you do not have the opportunity to rent a photo studio, then take your photo from the window. You will get a wonderful, soft light, with good filling, balanced. This light is well suited for a female portrait; it will make the texture of the skin softer. The chiaroscuro pattern will be smooth, without sharp transitions from light to shadow, which means your model will have freedom in movement; such light forgives a lot. In addition, if you have a high-power lens, you can make a very small depth of field in your picture, so you do not have to retouch the texture of the skin. The main condition will be that the window does not get direct sunlight.

Approach the window as close as possible and turn your back to the window. Place the model in front of you, but not far away. In this case, the face of the model will be evenly illuminated, you will keep the contrast, and the room, if it is large, will be in shadow.

If you want to make the face more voluminous, ask the model to stand at the very edge of the window, shoulder to the window, and yourself sit at the other edge of the window. Then one half of the model’s face will be illuminated more, and there will be a more expressive chiaroscuro pattern. Due to the fact that the light is soft, it will not critically affect the texture of the skin. If you think that the second half of the face is too dark, then ask the model to turn to face the window or use a white sheet of paper as a reflector.

If you are on the street, then look for analogues of windows, doors, bridges, and other structures that will allow you to get directional light.

Look at this photo; it was taken on a sunny day:

We found an arch that faces the opposite side from the Sun. This made it possible to make a soft portrait and avoid the panda effect, when shadows under the eyes may appear when shooting on a sunny day. 

When shooting in the studio, I would recommend using softboxes of the largest size, and preferably an octobox (usually they are very large), which will be available in the studio.

An example of a photo where an octobox was used and was located on the side of the model, the model was at the edge of the octobox. Analog of shooting at the window

Imagine that this is your window, only this is an adjustable window to which you can set the direction, rotation, and tilt. Only there are usually fewer windows, so they will give a harsher light, and the shadows will be sharper and more distinct. Therefore, in studio shooting, you will have to follow them closely; the pilot light from the flashes will help you. As an introduction to studio equipment, I would recommend putting the source 2.5 meters in front of the model, tilting the source 45 degrees down, and raising the height slightly above the model. Be guided by the glare from the light sources in the eyes of the model. They should be slightly higher than the pupils, so you will understand at a suitable height the light source is located or it should be raised or lowered. Take some shots. See if the shadows seem deep to you; use reflectors by placing them in front of the model. And do not forget to take a step to the left/right; remember that we do not see falling but reflected light. By shifting the shooting point to the left or right, down or up, you will see the differences. This will be enough to get acquainted with the studio. And then only experiments, tests, searches.

Editing always goes on, even if you shoot in JPEG format, just in this case, the RAW file was edited for you by the manufacturer of your camera

The Phoblographer: Who are some of your favourite portrait photographers that you’re inspired by?

Artur Kayukov: Definitely Peter Lindbergh. His words “Beauty is the courage to be yourself,” as well as the way he turned the world upside down and dropped the fashion for Photoshop, are admirable. He has wonderful works.

Annie Leibovitz – and her composition in the frame, courage, is very beautiful.

Sergei Sarakhanov is a portrait photographer who shoots mainly on film and also does not use Photoshop. Makes wonderful, cinematic pictures.

These photographers inspire me very much. And also many others that I meet when viewing Instagram, but I can’t name their names right away. I save them all in a bookmark and review them in the evenings, thus developing a lot of viewing. Being seen is also an important skill; surround yourself with good photos, regularly review the masters of painting their collections of photos that you liked, and delete what you were not interested in or what you no longer like. So you will develop taste and vision.

The Phoblographer: With Artificial Intelligence in software being able to manipulate people’s faces in such a realistic way these days, do you think Photoshop has lost the original ideals upon which it was founded?

Artur Kayukov: At the moment, no, I don’t think artificial intelligence will throw Photoshop into the background. Photoshop has extensive image editing capabilities. Yes, to remove pimples, blur the background, make the colors beautiful, juicy, make a contrasting picture, a neural network can. Now phones do it very well. But, Photoshop is not for that.

Photoshop is used to emphasize the artistic component; to place accents, it is possible to strengthen them or balance them. The neural network is not able to do this because artificial intelligence cannot get into your head and see the picture that you have planned. Skin cleansing and figure correction this is not the main and not the main purpose of Photoshop.

The Phoblographer: It must be incredibly tempting to use Photoshop at times. What are some kinds of images you take where you find the need to do this?

Artur Kayukov: In fact, it’s not very tempting; about 1 hour of time is spent on 1 photo if there are no serious problems in the picture, but it can take more than 3 hours. I don’t want to sit in Photoshop and spend so much time on 1 photo, and I don’t like to do it. But of course, I have to do this if the photo is sent to a contest or if the model asks me to change something, but usually, it comes down to cleaning the skin from temporary phenomena. Although someone asks to rejuvenate. But I really don’t like doing this.

The Phoblographer: Have your ’No Photoshop’ images inspired some of your friends to do the same too?

Artur Kayukov: I saw several photographers trying to copy and do the same. I have a positive attitude to this since I very often take this or that picture as a foundation for building my image. But I don’t think they were influenced by the fact that they were without Photoshop.

There are a lot of people in my environment who use Photoshop; I don’t blame them, especially since they all try to minimize their actions. And it’s worth noting that if a beginner in photography appears, he is forbidden to use Photoshop at first.

All images by Artur Kayukov. Used with permission. Check out his Instagram and Flickr pages to see more of his work