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7 November 2014
Post processing -- everything that happens to an image after capture -- can be as dark and mysterious as the darkroom used to be. But there are really just two main tasks in post processing. They are quite different, though, and require different skills.
But the more you do them, the better you do them. So let's shed a little light on these dark and mysterious tasks.
The first job in post processing is Image Composition.
Image Composition involves several tasks. Cropping is part of composing your image. You might also evaluate the angle of the horizon and consider the image's aspect ratio. And these days you can also tackle lens corrections (which you should do before any cropping).
Image Composition is the first job of post processing because it's when you separate the images worth working on from those that are not worth the effort.
The second job in post processing is Tone and Color adjustment.
We're lumping them together because they require a different set of skills than Image Composition but resemble each other in tools and technique.
But those are really the only two things you have to consider when you sit down to do some post processing. And post, after all, is half the fun of photography. So let's get to it.
JPEG OR RAW?
All of the Image Composition tasks can be done to a JPEG capture just as well as they can to a Raw file.
And while the Tone and Color tasks can also be done to a JPEG, JPEGs just don't have the latitude you find with a Raw file.
With a JPEG, your image already has already been "edited" for tone and color by the image processor in the camera. If you've used features like Nikon's D-Lighting or Canon's i-Contrast, you might be satisfied with the shadow and highlight detail.
But a JPEG -- which is what a smartphone or inexpensive digicam does -- is a mechanical selection of tone and color with Mrs. Dash-like enhancements thrown in (lens correction, sharpening, a saturation boost) that no one would mistake for a gourmet feast.
To get the most fun out of post processing, try it with a Raw file.
A Raw file gives you many more options in post processing. More tones to choose from, more colors than you can see. You select them, rather than some algorithm burned into the image processing chip of your camera.
Because Raw gives you a lot more options to choose from, it's a lot more fun for post processing.
That responsibility to choose is not a bureaucratic task. It's what makes photography art. The more choices you make, the more intentional your image is, the more it is art and not artifice.
IMAGE COMPOSITION CHECKLIST
The job of Image Composition in post is to optimize the drawing aspect of the image. That's everything but tone and color. It's line, crop, detail, orientation and even defect removal.
TASK NOTES Lens Corrections Physics requires compromises in lens designs but post gives us a chance to overcome them. There are optical distortions that can be warped and chromatic aberration that can be minimized. Converging verticals can also be corrected at this stage. Straightening Handheld shots are often slightly askew. Ask yourself if this image would profit from a straight horizon (try it to see). There may also be vertical elements in the image that carry more credibility when straightened. Crop Cropping in the camera relies on an unfaithful viewfinder view but in post you can definitely set the boundaries of your image. Ask if the scene demands its own crop or if a standard crop will do. And if it will, then ask if this is the best crop of that view. Aspect Ratio With digital photography you always have a choice of aspect ratios. You are not bound by the 35mm convention of 3:2, the medium format's 1:1 or the field camera's 5:4. And 16:9 is not uncommon either. Spotting Digital images don't require the kind of painstaking spotting prints from film needed. But with a Healing Brush, you can remove many distracting elements (like power lines or litter). This is the time to do that.
Consider these in the order presented. None of these task is particularly time consuming, often just requiring a click. But use your judgement on whether or not to use them on any particular image.
TONE & COLOR CHECKLIST
When you edit Tone in post production, you are considering both the range of values from dark to light (and which the darkest and lightest values should be) but also where the midtones should be.
Color considers white balance as well as color casts. Color casts can involve large corrections like changing light sources or smaller ones like warming up or cooling down a scene.
TASK NOTES White Balance A Raw file will not have a white balance set, so it should be the first thing you do to the image. It's simple enough to remember if it was shot in daylight, cloudy conditions, shade or some artificial light. But you may also want to warm up the image or bit or cool it down. Microcontrast With color in the ballpark, you'll want to adjust microcontrast or Clarity. This will shift your tones a bit, too, so it's best to do it now. For portraits consider decreasing microcontrast to minimize skin problems. Otherwise a healthy dose will considerably sharpen the image. Shadows With shadows darkened by an increase in microcontrast, consider opening them up a bit with the independent Shadow control. Highlights Next, consider recovering highlight detail. It's often the case you'll want to recover highlights and open up shadows. And this won't flatten the image. Exposure If you can't hit the target with those controls, you may have to start over with Exposure. Sometimes Exposure is so far off, you can start there but with a Raw file that isn't usually the case. Shifting Midtones You may still need to adjust the midtones, either darkening them or lightening them. You can do this with Curves or Levels. Saturation Make friends with Vibrance (which protects skin tones) and Saturation (which doesn't) to either knock down punched up camera colors or punch up dull color.
These tasks too should be considered in this order. You'll often skip a few of them, particularly the last three.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Once you've checked off these post production tasks, you'll have optimized your image. But you still have some production issues to contend with that will be determined by how your optimized image will be used.
For example, you may need to resize the image for display on the Web. And you'll want to sharpen the image as the last step but you'll use different levels of sharpening for reductions, screen images and prints.
Any particular image may need several production versions. One for the Web, another for email, another for prints, etc.
Those output files are all derived from your optimized image. And the good news is that if an output file needs a tweak or two, you can revisit any edits if you made them using a non-destructive image editor rather than a bitmap editor.
But that's a topic for another time.
"These tasks too should be considered in this order. You'll often skip a few of them, particularly the last three."
I would be interested in your rationale for this. It isn't the order I would follow, I would never skip exposure, and I would also include contrast. But I am very open to the possibility that I am wrong.
-- Ken Cameron
Oh, you're not wrong. In fact, Camera Raw is designed so you can make your edits top down, starting with Exposure.
And that's the way we used to do it. But we found certain later changes were making us re-evaluate what we'd done before. Clarity, for example, would throw everything off, especially our Shadows adjustment.
So we moved Clarity up in the batting order.
A year or so later, we find ourselves working through an image in this order. But the invisible factors are our cameras and lenses and the kind of shots we take. We almost never fiddle with Saturation, for example, but if we were 1) using a digicam with 2) the Camera Raw filter 3) on a JPEG, it might be our first move because they are almost always oversaturated.
And we wouldn't have to remind ourselves to set White Balance if we weren't shooting Raw to begin with. Without the headroom in a Raw file, we also wouldn't work Shadows and Highlights before Contrast, either. But they both affect contrast while working independently of each other, which we find more useful for a Raw capture.
Exposure (when it's in the ballpark) is usually addressed by working Shadows and Highlights on our images but occasionally not. A slight increase in Exposure helps in those cases, so it's on our list. But we always want to see where we can take the image with Shadow and Highlight recovery first. And even then, we may have to shift the mid-tones to get where we're going.
So the checklist lays out the decision you should consider in post processing but you may prefer to do them in a different order. This order is certainly not the convention but it's been more efficient for us.