Post-processing and editing of photographs is very much a part of any modern-day photographer’s craft. Last month Marette Bennett of Refined Edges Wildlife Photography and Training chatted briefly about this element and goes into more detail in this issue.
Living in the digital age with our digital cameras, we have to accept that post-processing is part of the creative process of modern-day photography. Of course, the aim is still to take the best possible photograph in the field and only enhance the image during editing. It’s not something every photographer likes, but for me it’s part of the trade and to keep up with today’s artistic and technological standards, it is something that every photographer should embrace and grow comfortable with.
The software is a personal choice and with the many options available, from free entry-level to professional processing software, there will be a software package to suit you. I use Photoshop extensively for my photography and graphic designing but started out using Lightroom – and often fall back on it, especially when I’m in a hurry. The principles of basic post-processing stay the same across software and with these five steps you can improve an image dramatically while also enhancing the appeal to viewers.
Step 1: Straighten, compose and crop
When shooting out-of-hand, it is easy to take a slightly crooked image. My pet peeve when judging images for competitions is horizons! Water horizons must be perfectly level and buildings (or trees) have to be perfectly straight up. In some cases, I will even level a natural slope in the horizon, because the image only represents a fraction of the scene, and a slight descent will confuse the viewer’s perspective. For instance, when I have a tree leaning to the right and a horizon dipping to the left, I will find the sweet spot level where my eye is happy. Remember, the viewer wasn’t with you when you took the image and though your memory fills in the complete scene, the viewer will just think your image is crooked.
Once I’m satisfied with the eye-level of my photograph, I look at the composition of my image. I aim for the best possible composition when shooting, but sometimes I see a slightly better composition when the image comes up on screen. I might want to enhance the ‘’rule-of-thirds’’ or ‘’golden-ratio’’ or decide to discard these rules completely and crop accordingly. A good image will have balance and by cropping correctly, I can enhance that.
Remember, though, that heavy cropping will reduce the image resolution and quality and will magnify the imperfections drastically. In wildlife and bird photography, it is very tempting to compensate for the lack of reach of you lens by cropping too much. If the eye of a bird or animal is not perfectly sharp, it will be clearly visible when you apply a drastic crop on the image.
Step 2: White balance and temperature
Next, I focus on the white balance. The correct white balance in an image is what you saw in the field when shooting. But it doesn’t always translate to what you see on the screen. In post-processing, you can adjust the white balance to what you would like to see. A warm white balance will have a warm tone, or a yellow feeling. A cooler image will be the opposite, a cold tone (or a blue feeling) and will balance out a warm colour cast.
The temperature of an image will set the mood and feelings the picture evokes. Snow, ice, cloud cover and rain in a photograph will typically demand a cool white balance, dragging the temperature slider to the left (blue side) and the tint slider to the right (magenta side). The opposite will be applicable for desert, beach or sunny photographs. If you took a photo on a cloudy day, and your vision was a warm feeling, simply adjust the temperature to be warm, to balance out the cool feeling. I shoot in both RAW and JPEG, and in both you can apply white balance settings successfully. With a RAW image you have less chance that the adjustments will degrade the quality of your image.
Step 3: Exposure, Contrast and histogram
After adjusting the white balance, I scrutinise the exposure. Is it too bright, too dark, or just right? If you are uncertain, the histogram in your editing software can be of help.
Look for blown-out white pressed up against the right of the histogram and crushed blacks against the left. Use the general exposure slides to adjust these levels, as required. To refine the exposure even further, adjust the highlights, shadows, whites and blacks slider. It is still better to expose correctly in camera when taking your photograph, but post-processing gives you a bit of leeway. If an image is too far overexposed or underexposed, I analyse my settings, make a mental note, delete it and move on. The amount of degradation in quality while trying to recover a failure is just not worth it.
Contrast is the visual ratio between tones and colours, the difference between the lights and darks in an image. In postprocessing the goal will be to either increase or decrease the contrast. When you increase the contrast, you create more punch and excitement, filled with drama. By decreasing the contrast, you make the image calmer and softer, creating a tranquil mood. Contrast is a personal choice. By overdoing contrast adjustments, you can destroy the image, so only use in moderation.
Step 4: Vibrance and saturation
Next, I look at the colours. Saturation allows you to increase the intensity of all colours in the image and vibrance allows you to increase the intensity of the less saturated colours only. When you adjust these settings, it can add punch to your images. A word of caution, though – adjust these settings in moderation. Oversaturation can overcook your image by screaming at the viewer, making it artificial looking. Use these slides in extreme moderation to enhance your image and not to destroy it.
Noise appears in long exposure, high ISO, low light photography, especially in the underexposed areas and is essentially part of the image. Increasing the exposure in postprocessing will increase the noise level. In post-processing you can lessen or eliminate noise, but it will soften the entire image. Again, moderation is key. I started off disliking any levels of noise in an image but have learned over time that it is part of the creative process, when to accept and work with it and when to lessen or remove it.
Often, I find when judging photographs for competitions, the photographer tends to over-crop a subject (this lowers the resolution dramatically) and then attempts to compensate with over-sharpening, leaving jagged edges and high contrast, resulting in a low-quality, unnatural image. A blurred or out-of-focus image cannot be saved – you need to shoot it correctly in the moment!
These steps represent a minimalist post-processing workflow, that should only take a few minutes per photograph. Importantly, use these steps in moderation. Your eye will learn what works and when it is enough. For any photographer worth his or her salt, the aim should always be to capture the best possible image in-camera, in the field. Post-processing should just be a tool to enhance a good image by a small percentage to produce a great photograph, keeping up with current artistic trends and quality. I teach my students not to try and save a failed capture, the huge amount of time you will spend on it will still not produce a quality image. Learn from your mistake and move on.