The Right Touch
A chance event led Catherine Hall to start her business. Now she’s a sought-after wedding photographer with a unique approach to bringing her artistic vision of each gathering to fruition.
Sometimes the journey that culminates in a beautiful wedding photograph begins with a change of luck. When Catherine Hall was starting out on her path in the world of photography, she found work as a photo editor at Tommy Hilfiger and seemed headed toward a successful career. But a sudden turn of events altered her course. A competitive skier, she broke her back on the slopes in Vermont and found herself out of a job and off her feet for a lengthy recovery. It was a situation that she came to see as a blessing in disguise, because it gave her the time to take a hard look at the direction she was moving in. "In the end," she recalls, "I decided I didn’t want to spend my career editing other photographers’ work instead of my own. It was a difficult decision to give up editing, but I felt that what I was really destined to do was shoot."
Hall resolved to throw her energy into developing a career as a photographer, and spent her recovery time editing and retouching her own work. "I could retouch and then lie down and retouch and lie down," she says. "So that’s how I built up my portfolio." After getting back on her feet, Hall continued to do part-time editing work while assisting a wedding photographer who began to refer clients to her. "I realized I loved shooting weddings, which I hadn’t thought I would," she says. Word of mouth about her talents spread, and Hall gave up photo editing when her schedule started to fill up with wedding jobs.
Retouching is done with a two-step approach: first cleaning up imperfections, then applying artistic effects.
Now a sought-after photographer who shoots weddings across the country as well as abroad, Hall has gained a reputation for her sophisticated yet natural style. Many of the gatherings she photographs are destination weddings held in lush outdoor settings like California’s Wine Country and the Hamptons—spots favored by the affluent clientele she attracts. "They’re people with a taste for casual elegance," she says. "They appreciate art and have the means to afford it." Hall attributes her appeal for her clients to the authentic approach she has cultivated from the beginning. "I shoot in a style that’s really, truly me," she explains. "photographing a wedding is like shooting a personal project. I consistently shoot in my style which naturally attracts my ideal client."
Hall currently shoots with a Canon eoS 5D Mark III, applying her technical skill with lighting judiciously to maintain a clean, natural look. "If you were to compare my style to architecture," she explains, "it would be a light, airy Art Deco with a lot of room to breathe." By setting an uncluttered scene, she’s able to let the viewer focus on the narrative aspects of her work. "I’m really interested in storytelling and drama" she says, "but when it comes to directing people, there has to be a feeling of authenticity and realness. I’m authentic with my clients, so it’s easy for them to reciprocate that." Bringing out the natural also imparts a timeless quality to her images. "I want my work to be as beautiful in 50 years as it is today," she reflects.
Of course, Hall’s skill at capturing the wedding day is only half the story. "When I shoot a wedding," she explains, "it’s like I’m a chef and I’m going to make you an amazing meal. photographing the wedding is like going to the market and getting all the best ingredients possible. But retouching and creating the final product—that’s the feast." once Hall is in the kitchen, the first thing she does is apply the skills she learned as a photo editor. "I’m really kind of a tough editor," she admits. "I don’t just go through the images once. I’ll go through three or four times on different days." She edits her image captures down to about 700 of the best shots to give to her client in digital form, then sits down to select the 100 images she’ll retouch and refine to tell the story of the wedding day in a printed album.
As a retoucher, Hall works to bring out the natural flavors of her ingredients. "I really don’t look to retouching to transform an image," she says. "I use it to take something I’ve already created to the next level. And I
think that’s why people hire me. There are a million great photographers, but it’s the patience and attention to detail involved in those final steps that let the image develop to its full form."
Working in Adobe© lightroom© and Adobe© photoshop©, Hall also uses Nik Software and Kubota Imaging Tools and hand-retouches each image, never batch processing or applying overly gimmicky effects. "The last thing I want to do is have someone look back at their album and think, ‘oh, that was done in 2000 when plastic skin was really in,’" she says. Hall takes a two-step approach to each image, first cleaning up imperfections and distracting elements and then experimenting with artistic effects. "I use my Intuos for all of it," she remarks. "I can’t retouch without it. regardless of what I’m doing, I need the fluidity and pressure sensitivity that a mouse can’t give you."
The intuitive feel of the Intuos is a key element of her process, allowing her to bring the same naturalness to retouching that she cultivates during a shoot. "What’s really great is that I don’t even think about it," she says. "I don’t say, ‘I want this to be darker so I’m going to press harder.’ It’s like drawing with a pen or a pencil. And if I retouched an image without my Wacom, I would be at least five times slower."
As in every aspect of photography, time is an essential element in Hall’s retouching work. "It’s fast and easy to over-retouch," she explains. "There are software programs that will fix a whole face in a minute. But at the end of the day, there’s no shortcut to retouching a portrait well. It takes patience and a lot of little steps. I don’t have recipes. each individual piece requires something different."
Images that have been handretouched with the Intuos. Hall believes it is patience and attention to detail that allows an image to “develop to its full form.”
One of the things Hall loves most about her new Intuos5 is the way it allows her to use her retouching time focusing on the artistic instead of the technical. "They’ve made it so that you rarely need to take your hands off the tablet or your eyes off the image to go to a keyboard," she says. "It allows you to spend your time being an artist instead of a technician navigating things." Its combination of eight programmable buttons, a touch ring, and multi-touch support means that Hall rarely has to look away from the image she’s retouching to type keyboard shortcuts or adjust tools, even if she’s forgotten how she’s programmed a button. "If you rest your fingers on a keystroke," she explains, "a guide will pop up and tell you what all the buttons do. It makes the learning curve a lot quicker because there’s a dummy-proof visual reference any time you need it." Hall was surprised to discover that it took her only about 15 minutes to set her new Intuos5 up and get accustomed to its features.
Another pleasant surprise was how natural the Intuos5 felt. "It feels good to touch it," she says. "With the earlier one I had, the buttons felt like buttons when I pushed them. Now the buttons are flatter and more subtle, and there’s more space between them. It’s incredibly well engineered." The tablet’s multi-touch support lets her pan and zoom seamlessly as she retouches with the stylus, and she uses its wheel to zoom and adjust brush sizes. "That’s astronomically more fluid than having to go and press buttons," she explains.
Liklewise for these two: Hall strives to bring to life the vision her clients see in their mind’s eye when they reminisce about their wedding day. She says retouching is about making an image the best it can be without completely transforming it.
The intuitive design of the Intuos5 lets Hall keep her focus on bringing out the natural beauty of each scene. "There’s a disparity between what the camera can see and what your eyes see," she points out. "I’m always trying to bring the image back to what your eyes can see." But part of her craft is also bringing to life the vision her clients see in their mind’s eye when they reminisce about their wedding day. "When you photograph a wedding, you’re actually shooting people’s memories," she says. "Twenty years from now, they’re not going to remember their wedding exactly as it was. They’ll remember your rendition. I want them to look back and think, ‘What a brilliant day. There were blue skies and we looked great.’ So retouching is really about taking an image to the place where it’s the best it can be, without transforming what it is."
And her clients’ reactions to her retouching work? "I don’t think they see it," Hall observes. "They’re just so happy with the final images. But it’s not like they know exactly why. They just see beautiful photographs of themselves and their family, and they’re thrilled."