Behind the Camera: Post Processing, My Thoughts

· Reading Time: 26 minutes

Welcome back to another installment of my Behind the Camera series.  This monthly feature here is a chance for me to discuss some different things relating to my photography while not having to deal directly with a specific photo shoot.  I have discussed my motivations with photography as well as some theories that I have adopted over the years.  Most of the time, I pick a question that has been asked of me through the previous month as a springboard for the topic, or I just talk about something that has been weighing on my mind recently.  This time, well…my mind was blank and no really fantastic questions had been asked.  Well, that is not entirely true.  My mind is actually quite full and full of something that I am really looking forward to sharing in this feature…just not quite yet.  That news will come on September 1st, and believe me, that will not be a post you want to miss!  But I digress a little bit.  I was at a loss for a topic so I put it out there on Facebook to see if there was anything that might be suggested that would work out for this entry.  Within minutes, I had a suggestion from Sherry who will be attending my Landscape Workshop at the end of the month.  She left it rather open ended by saying “Post Processing.”

My first thought was, that won’t work.  There is way too much to go into talking about post processing and so many of the readers here will get that glazed look in their eyes similar to when Toni reads what she refers to as the “Red L Paragraph” in my stories.  These are the paragraphs where I talk about my equipment and get a little technical.  Her reference is because I used to talk a lot about my “L Glass” for my Canon and that didn’t interest her at all.  However, the more I thought about it, the more I really thought that I could do something special here that would appeal to photographers as well as those who just appreciate my photography.  I am going to avoid talking about specific methods that I use in Post Processing, and focus more on the reasons behind why I do what I do.  This will segue nicely into another suggestion from Kelly who wanted to know how I decide on my color scale and how much I use black and white.  This should be a fun little read and hopefully will give you an idea of where I fall in the whole “Post processing debate.”

 

The Debate….

At what point does an image become something beyond a photograph?  This is the crux of the debate that has been raging since before digital hit the scene.  Back in the day, photographers would shoot their images on an 4×5 field camera and create a negative based on certain material and chemicals.  Then there were prints made from the negative that went through a whole process where other chemicals were used, and areas were lightened and darkened depending on the photographer’s vision for the image.  The debate raged on with a new vigor when digital cameras hit the scene and you were able to process an image using software.  The comment “that is definitely Photoshopped”  started to come up all too often.  So the question is, when is enough enough, and what is too much when it comes to processing images?

Spring at Big Creek“, RAW file straight from the camera, saved as a low res JPEG

Here is one of my favorite images from my trek to Big Creek recently.  It looks pretty nice, but it is flat and doesn’t have much life to it.  That is because this is a RAW image, or a digital negative if we are being rather specific.  This is what the camera sees when you open the shutter regardless of what you think it sees.  This is not exactly what our eyes see when we look at the same scene.  That is because our brains are better than an image sensor and interpret what our eyes see differently than a camera does.  I know what you are saying, because I said the same thing once before.  The images come out of my camera so good and they are ready to print.  Yes, you might be right about that if you are shooting JPEG images.  Look at the settings in your camera real quick.  You have it set to “Landscape”, your saturation is boosted, the contrast is punched up a bit, and there is sharpness added.  Not to mention a different color profile is assigned to the image.  In short, your camera is doing the post processing for you.  So, what’s wrong with that?

Well, the camera is making arbitrary choices for you based on algorithms put in place by the maker.  It is global, and not designed for the image specifically, but rather all images in a specific genre of photography.  In short, you are taking a lot of the artistic element that you bring to the picture out of the equation by letting the camera do it all.  I was one of those folks when I got started because I wanted to be a “purist” with the camera and do it all at the time of capture.  I didn’t need the “crutch” of the computer to make an image good.  What I found was my images were just not as polished as I would like, and that directed me down a rabbit trail which has brought me to where I am today.

Spring at Big Creek“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

This is the same image that was posted above, but it has been processed through Lightroom.  I’ll go ahead and get it out of the way, and say that the processed image is much closer to my impression of the scene that I saw with my pwn eyes.  It was vibrant, colorful and dramatic.  The RAW image never held a candle to what I was seeing standing on that rock.  Is this too much processing?  Could I have gone further with it and still stayed true to the scene?  These are all valid questions and ones that I would like to try and answer with this entry.

 

My Journey…

When I started out in photography I shot JPEG images and they were ready to print right out of the camera as I said.  It wasn’t long before I started seeing things that could be improved in the images because the camera had gotten it wrong.  I started to use a free program called Microsoft Picture It! which was a basic image editor.  I now took pride in saying that I was only correcting color casts, and adding a touch of contrast here and there…but only globally!  Global adjustments refers to the change you are making which affects the whole image, not just specific parts.  I felt that this was as far as I should go with my post processing to avoid losing the photograph and creating a digital art piece.  I did this for a while, and realized that I was mainly making excuses for my lack of understanding of post processing.  I was seeing images that I could tell had a digital touch to them, but they still looked amazing.  I didn’t know how they were done, and I didn’t have the software needed to do anything like that.  So, instead of trying to learn more, I sat back on my high horse and said that I was a true photographer and didn’t need high tech programs to make my pictures better.

I was wrong, of course, but at least I was making myself a better photographer in the field.  This was a nice side effect to my reluctance to branch into the world of serious post processing.  I was getting very good with filters on the camera, and I was getting my images really close to perfect without the need for anything further.  I still wasn’t at that level that I wanted to be though, and that was a source of depression for me when it came to photography.

It wasn’t until I started shooting with a DSLR system in 2008, that I decided to get into Photoshop for the first time.  I was going to be shooting RAW because that was just what you did with a DSLR.  Anything less would defeat the purpose of getting a camera like this.  At least that was what I was hearing.  I did get a Canon 40D which I only used in RAW, and then I processed the images in Photoshop.  I was really disappointed with the images when I first saw them come out of the camera.  Imagine all of your images looking like the waterfall above when you are used to something nearly final coming out of the camera.  I never liked Photoshop as it was just too complicated, but I forced myself to learn it as I could.  I got good with making those global adjustments, but never really figured out the layer thing at all.  It was just too much for my simple mind to really process, plus it looked like a lot of work.  I dismissed it by calling that digital trickery with a photograph and it was something to be avoided.  As with everything else, I got decent with Photoshop and managed to get the images really close to what I was looking for, but they just weren’t quite there….yet!

Down to Earth

I still ran into a lot of images that I just couldn’t make work in Photoshop.  I had recently added Lightroom as part of the Adobe Creative Cloud Suite (which I highly recommend), and I thought I would give it a try.  It was designed for photographers and not graphic designers like Photoshop.  It was quite a bit simpler, but there was a steep learning curve.  I watched  a few videos on Youtube on the subject and decided to give it a shot.  I pulled one of those images that I had shot and kept the RAW file just in case I learned a new way to process it where I would like it.  I imported it, and started to make adjustments like I had seen on the videos.  Within about 15 minutes, I had this image which just absolutely amazed me.  For the first time, I felt that I had just joined the ranks of the photographers I had wanted to be like for years.  There was no digital trickery here, just the ability to change the RAW image to a view that was what my brain perceived when I looked at it in the field.  This started a whole new chapter for my photography.  In fact, I am still in that chapter today because I have been on a roll since I edited this image in the Summer of 2016.

Obviously, my opinions have changed a lot on post processing over the years.  Have I gone too far?  I don’t think so, because to me, the images that I am creating are still faithful to the original scene and how I perceived it.  The post processing doesn’t make my images any less of a photograph, it just helps me to achieve my vision when I release the shutter button.  The question has been asked so many times over the years “how far should a photographer go with post processing?”  My favorite answer was one that I heard not that long ago.  The final image that is printed out to be hung on the wall is a product of your vision and the tools you use to achieve it.  My mind and my eyes work together to create the image.  I then use the tools at my disposal to make that vision a reality.  Those tools include the camera, the lens, any filters, and yes, the software that I use to post process that RAW digital information.  As long as it is faithful to my vision, and I am not fundamentally changing an image then I am operating well within my own boundaries for the art.

Recently, I was discussing this with the owner of Singh-Ray Filters and we got to talking about the National Geographic standard for post production.  I was a little nervous to see what they would allow, but was very happy to see that what I am doing normally falls well within their standards.  For those who are interested, here is what Nat Geo sees as being faithful photography.  In short, this is the list that they have compiled:

  • Dodging and Burning are allowed within reason
  • Cropping is allowed
  • Cloning is not allowed.  This I will fudge on a bit as I will remove a distracting object if it is not a predominant piece of the image on occasion
  • Converting to black and white is acceptable
  • Stitched Panoramas are allowed
  • Composite images are allowed as long as the images are taken around the same time and location
  • High Dynamic Range images are allowed
  • Filters are allowed (referring to digital filters)

This is what one of the premier photography magazines allows before being included in their publication.  I can live with that as being a good litmus test for how much is too much post processing.  A quick word on cloning, or removing elements in an image.  I will use the cloning tool to clean up an image from time to time by removing trash from a landscape shot, or maybe a power line.  I never remove anything that actually impacts the image one way or the other though.  Most of what I clone out, wouldn’t even be noticed by most viewers in the first place.

 

How I Make My Decisions…

I have gone on enough about the debate and my evolution inside of that debate.  Now, lets talk about the decisions that I make when it comes to post processing.  From the RAW file you saw in the opening of this feature, you can tell right away that the image is far from ready straight out of the camera.  Now, if you look closely, you will see that the crop is exactly the same in both versions.  That is because I will crop my image the way I want it presented with the camera and lens.  If any crop is done in post processing, it was considered at the time of capture and will only affect either the vertical or horizontal boundaries of the image.  I don’t like to remove any more pixels than I have to, but I do recognize that the standard 3:2 crop of the camera is not always the most effective for an image.  This is a relatively new position on the topic to be honest.  In the past, I would rarely crop an image at all.

Since I view the camera as a tool, I use it to capture data in the field.  Going back to the waterfall shot, I wanted to make sure that I had plenty of tonal information in both the shadows and highlights.  It might not look like it in the picture, but RAW files have so much more information in them than we can see which is where they are so valuable.  This point alone makes shooting RAW a better choice than JPEG.  By checking the histogram at the time of capture, and with the actual exposure in review, I can see where my pixels are allocated.  The goal is to not have any bunched up on the right or the left side (highlights, and shadows).  This gives me much more information to work with.  At this stage I am not really thinking final product just yet.  I am just thinking raw materials which will be used to create the image that I have in mind.  The exposure is just a step towards the final image which is why I am so happy that I spent so long relying on the original exposure to be ready to print.  By the time I bring the RAW file into the computer, it is already so close to being final that there is rarely much work to do on them.

A Glorious Destination“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray, Galen Rowell 2-Stop Hard Edge and 3-Stop Soft Edge ND Grads

The way I process images differs a little between Landscapes, Waterfalls, and my Decay subjects.  They each require a little bit of specific attention to the details.  With my Landscape shots I tend to break the image up into sky and ground.  Each are worked separately for the most part in order to get the image to blend together as a human eye would see it.  You have to keep in mind that when you look at a scene, you are seeing about twice the tonal range of what a camera can capture.  Your eyes can also color adjust on the fly as you are scanning an image.  Most importantly, you will automatically hone in on what is important to you in the scene and distractions won’t even register to your mind.  All of these things I have to keep in mind while processing an image because there are tricks that I can do with an image to correct these shortfalls of the camera.  In the end, I want the image to appear to have the depth that I was seeing in person.  I want the colors to all render as our eyes would see them whether in sunlight or shade, and I want the tonal range to be reduced, but still accurate to the scene.  Most importantly, I want your eyes to go through the scene as mine did when I saw it.

With Waterfalls, most of that is still the case, but since the emphasis is on the flowing water, that is where I really focus most of my time.  The textures are the most important thing here, followed closely by the dynamic range of the tones in the image.  Again, it is easy for our eyes to see detail across a wide range of tones.  This is not all that possible with a camera, no matter how good it is.  By shooting RAW, there is more information to be had on the edges of the tonal range though.  You can recover information on both sides in post processing which is so important in a high contrast scene like a waterfall.  Of course, shooting on overcast days also reduces the contrast in the scene which aids in the creation of a final image.  With the water already a highlight in the scene, you have to be very careful to expose in a way that doesn’t blow out the exposure in the highlights.  If you avoid that, you will be able to recover the highlights which will give you texture in the water.

For my Decay subjects and rural settings the processing is all about presence.  The emphasis is on the subject being photographed so I will usually reduce the exposure of the surrounding areas and bring the subject back out with a little bit of dodging.  I will focus on the textures and colors of these subjects, as well as emphasizing character points by dodging and burning in those specific areas.  Dodging and burning are basically adjusting the exposure of local areas in an image as opposed to the global adjustments that I used to prefer.  This is particularly helpful to draw attention to the different elements within an image, or subject.  Clarity is something that I really work with a lot in these images which adjusts the midtone contrasts.  I find that this gives a lot of bite to the main subject and it keeps the eyes right where I want them.

In general, my post processing is all about subtle changes to the image.  I will work with the contrast, saturation, and fine tuning the exposure all in small increments which then add up to a large change to the image.  I do continually toggle back and forth between the original RAW file and where I am going with the processing so that I am sure to stay true to the scene.  It is all too easy to go overboard with images and over cook them.  Some images stand up well to the heavy handed approach, but most do not.  While I used to be all about the global adjustments, I have changed my position on that in the past few years.  Global adjustments are OK for getting a starting point, but I have found out more and more that local adjustments are where you really find the potential in an image.  Of course, local adjustments are those that are done just to sections of an image and don’t affect other areas at all.

For me, this is where Lightroom really shines over Photoshop. It is so difficult to do a local adjustment in Photoshop as you have to start doing layers and such.  With Lightroom, you just select the tool and apply the effect you want where you want it.  It is non-destructive, and easy to reverse if you don’t like it.  You can even go in a tweak a local adjustment that you have already made at any stage in the processing.

The idea here is to get the image as close to your intention as possible.  We all have an idea of what an image will look like when we capture an image.  This is your chance to make that vision a reality.  Sometimes it can’t be done because the image was just never there to begin with.  Other times, you will be amazed at how close an image will get to your mind’s eye.  Just remember that until the final print is created and you are holding it in your hand, you are dealing with a string of ideas and tools designed to make that idea a reality.  Take advantage of what is there in order to get your vision in front of others.

 

The Color and Black or White Choice…

Spoke of the Past“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk 2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Converted in Lightroom

When we are talking about processing my images, it is only natural to look at the decision between color and black and white.  I would love to say that each picture I take is carefully thought out beforehand and I know whether it will be one or the other.  In some cases, that is exactly what happens.  As with the image here, I knew that I was looking at a scene that was pretty much just shades of brown.  The subject was interesting, the light was great, and I just knew that it needed to be a monochrome image from the start.  My decision there is made on the fact that color is really not a viable element to the image, but there is still a lot of interest in the composition.  If color doesn’t help, it will usually distract from what the image is.  If that is the case, remove it!

Bookends“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Converted in Lightroom

In the case of this image, I shot it as a color image because the grille had a nice warm tone to it from the aging process.  I was going to accentuate that in the post production stage to really make it pop.  However, when I got to that stage, the image just didn’t work.  It was too yellow, and nothing about it looked right to me.  As I was looking at it, I realized that the color that I was so inspired by was only important when seen with the entire car.  What excited me about this grill was the high contrast of the image and the symmetry.  The best way to accentuate those elements was through a black and white conversion.  With this one, I bumped up the contrast throughout the image and really brought attention to the brightwork.  It was not my intention to capture this as a black and white image, but I have to say it would not have worked any other way.

Salem’s Skiff“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Mor Slo 10-Stop ND Filter

Another determination that I use for what makes a good black and white image is the sky.  I love drama in a sky, and part of that is due to the contrast in the clouds.  There are times when the sky looks fantastic, but if fails to deliver in the photograph.  It is much easier to work with the contrast in monochrome than in color, so for those images where I really want to up the drama, I will do a conversion.  It works really well with a blue sky and white puffy clouds.

Something to keep in mind when making a black and white conversion is the use of digital filters.  In the film days, black and white photographers used color filters to change the tonal relationships between certain colors.  This is what will make a blue sky go nearly black.  With Lightroom, and also Photoshop, you can apply these same filters digitally with varying strengths.  It will do a lot to help create the relationships between the tones in your image.  A black and white conversion is not just simply removing the color.  There is quite a bit more to it actually.  I have read a really good book on the subject which I will provide a link to at the bottom of this entry along with a great book on Lightroom techniques.

It takes a special kind of image to make a really good black and white shot.  So many times, I hear of photographers rescuing a bad image by converting it to black and white.  I think that this gives a bad name to monochrome photography, but sadly in a lot of cases this is true with many examples I see online.  However, if it was a bad image to start with, it will be a bad image after converting it to black and white.  My theory behind doing a conversion as an afterthought is that I am not rescuing an image that turned out bad.  I am accepting that an image that I shot was never meant to be done in color.  I might have a certain expectation of an image that is carefully composed and shot to have the reality not quite live up to that ideal.  When I look at the image a second time, I see the clues that lead me to believe that it would make a good monochrome shot and I do the conversion.  Sometimes it works, others it doesn’t.  When it doesn’t, it was just a bad picture and never needs to go any further.  If it does work, that particular scene was just meant for black and white.

The vast majority of my images are shot with the intention of being color images.  A small percentage are shot with the intention of being black and white, and about double that turn into black and white after I start post processing them.  Do I like one over the other?  No, not at all.  I love vibrant color images, and I also really adore a good gritty and moody black and white image.  It just all depends on my mood and the scene.  The conversion is but a tool that I use to get to the final product.

 

Talking About Vibrant Colors…

As you look through my catalog of images, you will find that there is a theme among the majority of them.  There are a lot of vibrant images with some deep contrasts added in.  I’m not sure exactly how this started, or when, but this has become my signature look I think.  When I was learning photography nearly 15 years ago, I was reading books that were designed around film cameras, and had many examples of what was possible with different films.  The look that always caught my attention came from shots captured with a film known as Fuji Velvia which was a super saturated film with a lot of contrast.  The images that I saw seemed to jump off of the page with the vibrant greens and radiant reds.  Everything just looked so alive.  I found myself looking for scenes with bright colors, and then as I started getting into post processing, I worked on finding ways of mimicking the Velvia look in my own digital images.  Looking back on some of my images from years ago, they were rather garish and over cooked.  They all also had a overly warm color temperature applied to the scene.  That came from reading that warm tones were appealing, so I made the images warmer than they needed to be.  I have since learned to ease off of that look, and go with a more neutral look to a scene.  I still love to have vibrant colors in my images, but there are certain images where that is just not called for.  I have found that subtle colors can have just the same impact when used at the right time and on the right subject.

Silent Echo

This is an example of a secondary edit that I did to the Mabry Mill image.  In the first attempt, I had done my typical saturated image and was really liking how the colors were looking as I was working the image.  I got it all finalized and it had a great presence to it, and lots of life.  I was happy with it.  When I came back to it after resting my eyes for a bit, I wasn’t nearly as happy with it.  In fact, the colors were just wrong for the scene.  I worked on tweaking them, and ultimately found that the image was getting worse and worse.  I started over with the processing and went about it with a more subdued look.  As I worked the image it started to really look wonderful.  The muted colors fit the day, and the subject.  It was essentially a gray scale image with touches of greens and reds which was perfectly balanced.  The texture of the wood really started to show up at this point.  The funny thing was, this was actually quite close to the RAW capture with some added texture.  It is still one of my favorite images I have shot of the mill.  Part of that impact is it breaks away from my normal look.

Early Glow, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2

This is more of a typical treatment to an image for me.  I look for the vibrant colors and then really accentuate them.  The warm light hitting the nose of the plane worked so well with the blue sky, and the yellow tow bar really stood out against the pavement.  The colors were nowhere near that vibrant in the RAW image, but by doing some local adjustments I was able to bring it out and achieved a much closer connection between my vision and what the camera captured.  For me, color gives an image drama and tension which keeps the viewer engaged with it.  Color is a very powerful element in images and you do have to be careful with the overall balance.  Without the blue sky and the dark tarmac, the plane would look over the top in the color department.  However, having that balance with the cooler tones allows the plane to settle in very nicely with the whole scene.  This one would have been so easy to overcook, but I think that by taking it right to that line, I was able to create something quite special with this image.

Blue Wagon“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

There are still other times that the colors are already vibrant and saturated in a scene all on their own.  This recent image from Old Salem looked just like this when I saw it.  The RAW image was a bit flat, but it didn’t take much at all to bring it back to this very faithful rendering of the scene.  This is a great illustration of that color balance that I was talking about.  Take the wagon out of the scene for a moment.  The remaining elements are extremely warm with the exception of the windows which are kind of neutral and give a nice contrast to the image.  It would need to be done as a black and white image because there is too much warmth in the colors and it lacks color balance.  However, when you add in the blue wagon, that pop of cool tones bring a great balance to the image.  It is still primarily warm which catches the eye, but the blue gives your eyes a rest and something to focus on.

It is all part of the design of a photo, and this is where I determine most of the time how I will process an image.  There are things called presets that can be used in most post production programs, and you can buy many of them online from other photographers.  Basically, you would buy the settings that I use for a specific image that will get you the same basic look to get started with and then you tailor the specifics to your image.  I don’t really subscribe to this concept for landscape photography because I really think that each scene is something completely different and requires an individual edit.  However, if you are learning post processing, it would be a good idea to use presets and then see what adjustments are being done to an image.  At the very least click on “auto” adjustments and see where the sliders go.

 

Conclusions…

I hope that you have enjoyed this little trip down post processing lane.  I hope that whether you are a photographer or not, you have come away from this with a better understanding of how I achieve the look in my images.  I also hope that you don’t have that same “Red L Paragraph” glazed look in your eyes that Toni probably has right now.  I want to thank Sherry and Kelly for offering the suggestions that made this entry possible as well.  This turned into a very good idea, and I hope that I answered your questions.

My views on post processing continue to change, as do my views on photography in general.  I am finding that as I go further in this art, I want to try different things.  While I used to think that a photographer was somebody that created an image with a camera, I am now seeing it a little bit different.  These days, I see a photographer as somebody who uses a camera as a starting point for a piece of art and utilizes the tools that are available to create something that hopefully wows the audience.  Can a photographer go too far?  Yes, but what is that line?  I think that line is very fluid and depends on the photographer.  I do recognize that there is a point where a photograph becomes digital art, and that is not something that I am interested in at all.  What I mean by that is, taking multiple images and creating a composite image of something that never existed.  I’m talking about removing or shifting elements within an image that change the look of the scene.  In short, for it to be photography, it needs to be a scene that existed.  When you leave that definition, you are going into the realm of digital art.

Digital art is impressive, and those that are good at it, are true artists.  I just think that the role of photography is minimized when compared to the roll of the computer and software which makes it a different art form.  That is where art is so wonderful though.  There are so many ways to create art, and that makes it accessible to so many different people.  There are also so many different ways to enjoy the different art forms out there.  I’m just happy that I have found a type of art that I am relatively good at where I can share my own visions.

Until next time…

 

Some Recommended Reading on This Topic

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