Michael Pilkington
Michael Pilkington

 

Nothing beats seeing in the field the wonderful colour and light, textures, shapes and many other things that make the image you want.  Setting up the camera, finessing the composition, selecting the right exposure and then click.  Once you have the killer image in the bag what then?  The job is far from done.

Post processing is the second part of the photographic journey of an image.  It is equally important and warrants as much time and attention as the capture stage.

We have to acknowledge that the correct exposure for a given scene can be defined as capturing light and dark areas without clipping by retaining detail in these areas. This also implies that your film or digital sensor has limitations in the differences between extreme light and dark areas. This is called dynamic range or latitude. A negative or the camera RAW file is simply an averaging out of the light seen at the time the image was taken.  We have to bear in mind that the camera can only capture one exposure. By setting a combination of aperture, shutter speed and ISO.   By contrast your eyes scan a scene and your pupils dilate and contract to adjust for different light intensities and by doing so produces multiple exposures and amalgamated in the brain to create a single and coherent ‘image’. This sets out the fundamental difference between what the camera records and what you see.

Secondly, your other senses come into play. Your sense of smell, touch and hearing all make up the mental image you record. Tony Kuyper (Tony Kuyper Photography) states, 'the first time I see the digital file on my computer monitor it appears perfunctory, almost totally devoid of the aesthetic potentials that prompted me to take the picture in the first place.'

The raw file you have on your flash card is raw in every sense of the word.  It is simply a collection of bits registering the light and colour in different parts of the image.  These have to be translated into an image.  More than that they need to reflect what you saw or the vision you had for the final image.  This where post processing and image editing come in. 

 

Raw file by Michael Pilkington

We need to bring back the life to the image captured in the field. The different intensities of light and dark need to be recovered. Using software such as Photoshop, Lightroom or Aperture (to name a few) gives us the mechanisms to achieve this in the modern day digital 'darkroom'. Equally, we need to recreate the experience of that moment in the field and communicate it to the viewer. Emotional connection in the field should inform the mind at the printing stage and it is this emotional awareness that should influence what is done at the post processing stage. After all, as pleasurable as it is being in the field with one's camera, is only part of the job, so we must learn to embrace and enjoy printing to truly be photographers, and by doing so, offer the viewer the finished visual statement of our experience.

Tony Kuyper goes on to say 'the process of recreating the visualization often requires a great deal of creativity. But it is an enjoyable process. As I revive the image I frequently find myself reliving the joy of being present with the light when the image was taken. Far from being a mechanical process, printmaking is every bit as creative as actually being in the field taking pictures. It's a different situation, but it requires the same level of focus and attention.

I couldn't agree more. Some people lament the time spent behind the computer screen post processing their images. They see as time taken away from being behind the camera. This could be a fair comment if as a commercial photographer time is money. As Ansel Adams said, "The negative is the score, and the print the performance.  For me, this part of the photographic journey is as important and enjoyable as capturing the image out in the field, perhaps more so. The performance is the recreation of the visualization or indeed the experience you had in the field with your camera.

Let’s look at some of the key actions we have to undertake. 

Firstly and before we do anything we need to think about what we are trying to achieve.  We don’t just start moving sliders around in Lightroom or Photoshop and making adjustments to different parts of the image as the fancy takes us.  We need to plan and systematically and progressively develop the image.  There are two stages to post processing.  The first attends to the general exposure that includes adjusting whites, blacks, highlights, shadows and mid-tones.  We will also clean up dust spots, implement lens corrections and pre-sharpen.  Secondly we will make targeted adjustments to the image trying to realise our prevision of the image.

 

Stage 1 – Setting the Stage

Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) comes as a plug-in for Photoshop and Lightroom.  If you open a RAW file from Adobe Bridge it will automatically launch the ACR plug-in in Photoshop for you.   The develop module of Lightroom is exactly the same in terms of functionality and capability as ACR but presented as an integrated module within the Lightroom package.  It is fair to say that the interface is a little more user friendly and pretty!

There are a few key objectives that we want to address in the first stage of post processing:

  • Get the correct white balance
  • Establish a good tonal range in the image
  • Make corrections for lens limitations
  • Clean up dust spots and other artefacts
  • Perform some sharpening of the RAW file

 

Essentially we are creating a good foundation for applying the post processing in stage two.

 

Getting the correct white balance 

I have the white balance on my camera permanently set to cloudy.   I do this for a few reasons.  Firstly I want predictability and consistency across all the shots I take (in fact every setting on my camera is set to manual).  Secondly, I find that the settings in the main do not render correctly anyway (especially for long exposures) and lastly it is so easy to adjust it in post processing.   The slider we are looking for is temperature.

It is worth noting at this time that during this process you will be making a lot of judgements around tonality and colour so it is imperative that you have your monitor properly calibrated

 

Setting the tonal range and exposure

Now comes the really interesting part.   We have to set the tonal range for the image and manage the exposure at the same time.

Raw file by Michael Pilkington

Firstly, we set whites and blacks.  Select the slide for the blacks and whilst holding down the ALT key, move the slider to the left.  Initially the screen will go black, but as you move to the left specific areas will be highlighted.  Bring the slider back to the right until these disappear.  Repeat the process for the white slider, but this time you will be moving it to the right.

This particular image has some bright highlights and the snow on the mountains to the left of the image that was illuminated by the sun.  Whilst the exposure is technically correct, by increasing the whites it seems over exposed so I have decided to bring exposure down by half a stop and move the highlights slider completely to the left to reduce the brightness of the sky and also bring out the cloud detail. I have also moved the shadow slider to the right to bring out some details in the foreground.

Lastly, by reducing highlights and increasing shadow lighting we have effectively flattened the image.  To counter act this I have increased clarity.  You will see from this image that I have been quite aggressive with the sliders.  It is important to note that they are all changed in harmony with each other.  Move one slider and go back and readjust the others. It is an iterative process.

 

Correcting Lens Distortion and Chromatic Aberration

Every lens can suffer from barrel distortion, in particular wide-angle lenses.  ACR and Lightroom have the capability to dial in the lens you used for the image and make the necessary adjustments.  

What is essential is to remove chromatic aberration.   Where you have dark areas against light areas for example, trees or mountains against the sky, you will get some level of green or purple fringing.  Simply checking the ‘Remove Chromatic Aberration’ gets rid of it.  ACR does a great job at this.    If, on the odd occasion it isn’t completely successful then you can manually adjust green and purple defringe sliders.   Correcting this at this stage is important, as it will require an enormous amount of work to achieve in Photoshop.

 

Pre-Sharpening

It is essential to sharpen your RAW image.  Digital cameras inherently create slightly soft images.  The sharpening function in ACR is very adept at sharpening RAW files.  We will need to sharpen the fully processed file once we are finished with it in Photoshop, but then sharpening will be relative to the size and resolution of the media we which to display the image on.  There are some good pre-sets recommended by Martin Evening in his book ‘Photoshop for Photographers’.

 

Stage 2 – The Final Act

We still have a very unbalanced image.  The sky on the left side of the image is very bright.   There is also no detail in the snow covered mountains.  The image is also much darker on the bottom half versus the top half.  Contrast and colour have yet to be brought out and we have more work to do in managing the high lights in the water channels in the fore and mid grounds.

So the first thing to do is balance the sky.  I do this by going back into ACR and using the graduated filter and reducing highlights and exposure.

 

Raw file by Michael Pilkington

Then using a lasso in Photoshop I make a curves adjustment layer and bring down the mid ground.

Raw file by Michael Pilkington

And so we continue, making different selections and adjusting the highlights and shadows slowly bringing out different details and balancing the image.

Raw file by Michael Pilkington

Now it is time to address colours.  It is important to point out that all adjustment curves that have been made using a blend mode of luminosity otherwise you will see a colour shift or intensifying of the area selected.  I think the image is still quite blue and the red in the sands in the foreground (which first attracted me when taking this image) are not intense enough.

Raw file by Michael Pilkington

My final task is to ensure that my white points are still set and make sure that the mid tones are correct.  For this, I take the image back into ACR.

Raw file by Michael Pilkington

You can see that I have increased the exposure slightly as the blacks were clipping, increased shadow detail and clarity to really make the image stand out and again bring down highlights.  When back in Photoshop, I apply an overall curve to bring about a moody atmosphere to the image.

Overall, this has taken about 15 minutes.  It doesn’t take a lot of time and keep in mind that you only post process a fraction of the images you take.  So the ‘complaint’ that sitting behind the computer takes away time from being in the field with your camera is not really true.  Also look at the Raw image at the start of this article.  It is clearly not finished.  A little bit of work will make your image look outstanding.

Raw file by Michael Pilkington

Lastly, realising the challenges of post processing improves your photography in the field. Capturing a high quality image, both technically and aesthetically becomes more important.  So hopefully, my photography improves in the field and my image or printmaking improves in the digital darkroom.   Post processing, for me, is a joy as I reveal and recover the light hidden in the Raw file.