Sunday, August 12, 2012

You Can Always Fix It In The Computer Later

"You Can Always Fix It In The Computer Later" is a phrase that is all too common these days amongst all different experience levels of photographers. Casual shooters and non photographers believe it to be true. Amateurs rely on it. But experienced and professional photographers know exactly what can really be fixed and the techniques to get it done. Before you rely on the computer’s ability to save a poorly captured image, let me remind of another expression: "you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear." If the image is really poorly captured, no amount of computer work can save it. Period.

Regular readers of my blog know how I feel about this subject. I refer you to my former blog post "Why I Like To Get It Right In Camera" to learn why I feel that way along with some tips to ensure that your in camera capture is as close to "finished" as possible. Over the years I discovered some mistakes that I was making while shooting and learned to avoid those mistakes in the future to save myself time at the computer.

But there are also some things that can be done in the computer that can’t be done in camera. The computer is a powerful tool and when used correctly it can help shine up images that just need a bit of help. Also there are special effects and tools that can be used as part of your signature style. In this post I discuss things I regularly do in the computer to take my images from original capture to final vision.

Here are the things that I regularly do in the computer to finish my images:

First, I do my Raw Processing. This is something that is done in the computer but is something that I consider to be part of the in camera technique. Between what I do in camera and the RAW processing, it will take an image from 95 to 100% finished for me.
The subject of RAW processing really deserves a post all its own so I will post about that next. In the meantime if you want to learn about when and why I choose to shoot RAW, read my older post entitled "RAW, JPEG, or TIFF?"

In these 2 photos you see an image I RAW processed twice. The image at right is the more natural version. The image at left is a cooler, bluer rendition.

JPEG & Tiff adjustments:

After converting a RAW image and saving it to either JPEG or Tiff I then take the image the rest of the way in Photoshop Elements. Other imaging software also offer similar features. While the order of the techniques do vary from image to image, I have arranged them in the order I most often use. This is not detailed tutorial on my techniques, but more an overview of my post processing workflow with a few tips thrown in.

Because I shoot with a low pixel count camera, I often try to frame the image as close to perfect in camera. But this is not always possible either because I can not get close enough to the subject or because I later see a better cropping option once the image is on the computer screen. When cropping an image, you should also save an edited but uncropped version in your files in case it ever becomes necessary to have extra room around the subject. For this reason you may choose to do the cropping as one of the last things you do to the image. I usually prefer to do it first however, but that is just a choice based on my own past experiences.

The "Brightness" adjustment command can be used to increase or decrease brightness. I usually use this command to increase brightness and not to decrease it as I find that decreasing brightness with this option makes images appear muddy to my tastes. I like using this command to increase brightness as it will brighten an image without increasing contrast unlike "levels." I don’t generally use the "Contrast" slider, I prefer using "Levels" to increase contrast. If an image does have too much contrast I may use the "Contrast" slider to decrease it a bit.

To adjust brightness and contrast I choose the "levels" command. The left slider adjusts image shadows, middle slider adjusts midtones, and right slides adjusts the highlights. This tool will not help you recover lost details, but helps to darken or lighten tones and make the image pop. It also adds contrast while adjusting the tones, so be aware of that fact when using this option.

Color Adjustment
I prefer to make my color adjustments in RAW processing, but if I capture in JPEG or if a RAW converted image still needs further adjustment I will do so using Photoshop’s filters. There are many other ways of adjusting color but the filters seem to work for me most of the time. Other ways to adjust colors can be via levels, curves, and a few other ways. Read your software’s manual to discover its features and then experiment to decide what works best for you. After adjusting color, you may need to readjust brightness or levels again.

Here I increased the saturation a bit to more clearly

reflect what I saw when I photographed this building.

I rarely use this comand but when I do I am very careful in using restraint with them. With "Saturation" you can make colors appear more or less saturated than they already are. But be careful as if you go too far with adding saturation, the colors can become posterized and look unatural. With "Hue" you can alter the colors but this can lead to unnatural looking results and sometimes banding and posterization can also appear. If you like your images look like real photograps, then restraint is necessary. But if you are going for a far out arty effect, then go wild!

I used the clone stamp to get rid of the distracting line in the
background. It took a lot of effort to get rid of it, no easy task
and one that took me 4 years of getting my cloning skills up
to par to finally do it. My first attempt 4 years ago did not
work out well for me. I also cropped the image.

Cloning And Healing
Sometimes it becomes necessary to clean up background distractions or flaws on the subject. I fix them using either the "Stamp" or "Healing Brush" tools in Photoshop. Results vary, and it can be time consuming so I recommend that you try to avoid those problems before pushing the shutter button if possible.

Selective Darkening & Vignettes
This is one of my favorite postwork techniques to finish off my images. Much like classic portrait and landscape shooters who would add vignette filters or burn in selective parts of the background in the darkroom to make the subject pop, I like to selectively burn or darken parts of the image in the computer. For many of my flower images I often selectively darken parts of the background and edges of the image to make the flower pop off the page and keep the viewer’s attention where I want it. I also use this technique with some of my landscapes by darkening the edges or around certain parts of the image to make the main focal point of the landscape pop off the page. I will also occasionally, but much less frequently, use the dodge tool to lighten certain features.
There are many different ways to do this. I generally prefer to use the dodge and burn tools in PSE. But you can also use levels or brightness commands with layer masks or combine duplicate layers with different layer blending modes such as lighten or darken. There are many tutorials on line on how to do this. All methods work well and it’s just a matter of experimentation to find the one(s) that work best for you.

I selectively darkened parts of the background to make the flowers pop off the page better.

Noise Reduction
I use Imagenomic’s plugin "Noiseware Pro" to eliminate or lessen digital noise as necessary. I refer you to my past blog post
"What’s All The Noise About Noise"
to learn about digital noise and ways that I deal with it.
This is the one thing that should always be done in the computer rather than in camera. Digital images by nature are slightly on the soft side. This is a fact that is independent of what brand or type of camera you use. Yes, camera sensors, lenses and general shooting technique also do play roles on how soft the image will be. But even if you do capture the sharpest images that your camera is capable of, your photos will still need some sharpening before printing or publishing to the web.
I recommend that you do this sharpening in the computer because you can optimize the sharpness for multiple sizes or needs such as print or web. If you do this in camera and you decide to resize your image later, either larger or smaller, you may find some digital artifacts in your photos. This is also the reason I avoid sharpening my images during RAW conversion.

There are many different ways to sharpen an image. My preference is for Photoshop’s "Unsharp Mask" too. Yes, the name sounds counterintuitive, but it is named after an old darkroom technique that was used to sharpen film prints back in the day. There are three separate sliders that are used in conjunction to sharpen the image which give you control on how much sharpening is applied. That is why I prefer this method as opposed to just using the "sharpen" or "sharpen more" options available in Photoshop. I apply the sharpening to images just after resizing the image. This sharpened image is then saved as a new file. I save a copy of the original unsharpened file for future resizings.

In addition to Photoshop’s standard sharpening tools, there are also many 3rd party software plugins and programs that also offer advanced sharpening and resizing options. There are also other sharpening techniques that can be done in Photoshop, such as using the "high pass" filter and using layers, but I don’t use that technique. I recommend doing a search online for articles on the surprisingly complex subject of sharpening images for more information and options.

Those are my standard techniques that I use on most of the images I shoot. It is most likely that it took you longer to read my descriptions of them than it takes for me to actually apply them to an image. I like to keep my computer work to a minimum if possible. Occasionally I do like to play around with a few other techniques.

Here are a few favorites that I use less often than the above techniques, but do apply from time to time to selective images:

Bring Back Detail In Shadows & Highlights
Using the Shadows/Highlights command can sometimes help to bring back some detail that has been lost in shadow and highlight areas in high contrast images. But keep in mind it does not always help and sometimes create over the top, overly processed looking images. Trying to bring back detail lost in shadow areas can result in shadows with lots of digital noise. Trying to bring back detail lost in the highlights can render areas with unnatural color and banding. It is best used with restraint. I also recommend viewing your images at 100% zoom after using this technique to check for problems with digital noise and banding. If you are capturing images where there is a lot of high contrast that is beyond the capability of your digital sensor to record, it is best to capture a few different images and use HDR techniques as briefly discussed next.

Here I used a combination of the shadow/highlight command along with a bit of burning and dodging to bring out some of the lost details in the image. I also bumped the saturation up a bit. Levels and Brightness commands helped brighten and add a bit of pop to the image as well.

HDR Processing
HDR, or high dynamic range, processing is a technique that blends several different exposures into one image with a high dynamic range from shadows to highlights. If you are unfamiliar with this concept, a brief internet search should bring up several examples as well as tutorials on the subject. Basically, you expose for different exposure values of a scene ranging from the brightest highlights (such as the sky) and the darkest shadows (in the foreground usually) and then bring them all together using either a special program. Or you can combine them in Photoshop and use layer masks to selectively paint in the parts of the image you either want to be hidden or revealed. It can be a time consuming process and hit or miss, but when done well it can render some very stunning images. It can also make for some highly unnatural, over the top imagery. How much restraint you use with this technique is up to how natural or unnatural you want your photography too look. Many HDR images can appear to be more like a painting than a photograph.
Black & White Conversion
I rarely create black and white images, but when I do I prefer to use the "convert to black and white" option in PSE rather than use Hue/Saturation to desaturate the image as I find I have more control over the way the final conversion looks. There are also many other options available in different programs as well as plugins that are also available. If you do a lot of black & white imagery, you should look into the various black and white software that is available as they offer the greatest control and highest quality conversions for serious b&w photographers.

Composite image of the two images below. Took some time do blend the images well, but well worth the effort.

Art Effects
I admit, these days I don’t bother much with them. Composites, special filters, enhanced colors or lighting effects, and more. There is nothing wrong with it really, but for my own work I generally prefer a more natural photographic look to my images. I do experiment with it from time to time though. There are lots of books and articles on the complex and varied subject though, and if you are interested in computer effects I recommend exploring them. Check out articles online and various books.
This image was created by adding a layer of clouds and adjusting color and contrast selectively. Part of my original "Dreams" series.

So there you have it, my favorite techniques for computer post processing. As you can see I prefer to keep it simple. You may prefer more arty effects, and there is nothing wrong with that as long as you are doing it as a form of self expression and not as an attempt to disguise sloppy photographic technique. You should always start with a well composed, and ideally well exposed image and then take it from there. Don’t waste time trying to sew with that sow’s ear, go out and shoot some "silky" images and work those instead. And most importantly, have fun!

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