Processing Images

There are a million ways to process images, in this page I describe some of the software and features I find invaluable to ‘make the most’ of my photographs. Some photographs need very little processing, most need the blacks made darker, the colours slightly corrected and a degree of sharpening. Other images can benefit greatly from  a complete transformation, the trick is to hopefully end up with a picture that doesn’t look ‘manipulated’ or ‘false’.

Most digital cameras and all Micro Four Thirds models offer the option to shoot Jpegs and RAW files. for the last few years I have been a RAW convert. RAW files allow you to extract a greater dynamic range from each file and with the right processing, result in less noise than when working on Jpeg files. I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom to convert these raw images. Lightroom is not only a versatile RAW converter, it offers superb file management facilities allowing you to organise and access all of your archived material easily. It also allows you to create multiple variations of your pictures each processed differently, without using up further space on your hard disk, in effect giving you the freedom to experiment without worrying about valuable storage space. Here are some of the main features I use in my Lightroom workflow:

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

1) Lightroom – Tone

Unless the file looks perfect, I usually try the ‘auto-tone’ option in the ‘develop mode’ just to see if or how it improves things, it usually doesn’t, but it at least tells you what the program ‘thinks’ of your exposure. Then I will normally reset the auto-tone and play with the ‘blacks’ and ‘fill’ sliders until I get what I’m looking for, which is usually a bit less severe than the ‘auto’ option would choose. I’m usually looking to have the blacks as black as they can be without losing any important detail in the shadows I may want to preserve. This is where knowing how the shades displayed on your monitor will be represented on the page from your printer is essential if you want to work intuitively. Lightroom allows you to vary the exposure in any way you need to present the elements of your image that you want to highlight. Often I’m not necessarily looking for a balanced image, I may want to emphasise an element which is particularly dark or light.

2) Lightroom – Presence

‘Clarity’ is a slider that emphasises the edges of anything in an image where light changes to dark. It’s often used far too much in my opinion, especially in portraits. I like to use it rarely and only when an image is very flat and it need a little punch, even then I’ll rarely go over +10. The clarity tool is the quickest way to give your images that “over-processed” “manipulated” look.

‘Vibrance’ is a useful and more natural way of boosting the colours in your image than using the next slider, ‘Saturation’ which I only ever use to reduce saturation levels if your looking for a slightly ‘retro’ look to an image.

Personally I rarely use the ‘tone curve’ colour mixing/conversion or split toning sections, but they are extremely powerful and worth getting to know in the event you have a problem image.

3) Lightroom – Detail

Sharpening is pretty straightforward. For most sharp correctly focused images with plenty of detail I will usually set the radius to 0.5 – 0.7 and slide it all the way up to 150 then take it back until the halos disappear, that’s normally around 120-130. Rarely do I change the detail slider from its default position of 25.

Noise reduction can end up making your lovely Raw file look like an in-camera JPEG file if over-used, but its very effective if used carefully. I’ve found the noise in MFT images at 400-600 ISO to appear quite film-like when printed at A3 and virtually invisible printed at A4.

The ‘Lens Correction’ sliders can be useful but the Panasonic lenses are partially corrected for some common lens problems in the initial RAW conversion process already (n.b if used with a Panasonic body) The vignetting tool is extremely subtle and can be used quite effectively to add an almost subliminal focus on an area of your image.

4) Lightroom – Compensating for Dynamic range

There are many ways to get around the problems of the limitations in a digital sensor’s ability to capture all of the lights and darks we see with our eyes. They fall short in this regard and when presented with a scene where the lights or darks fall outside the sensor’s range, we end up with lost details in either the highlights or the shadows. Some use ‘graduated neutral density’ filters over the lens as you’re taking the shot. I find those contraptions often appear to be a rather blunt instrument, leaving the tops of hills and mountains unnaturally darkened. Some use the blending of two files either shot at different exposures or processed differently from one RAW file. These can be blended in Photoshop to create one ‘high dynamic range’ file. HDR images often look quite artificial, its rare to see a good example of one.

I have found one of the most effective methods of getting around the dynamic range issue is to expose primarily for the darker foreground (in a typical landscape for example) maybe giving 1/2 a stop to one full stop to the sky. Then in Lightroom I will use the ‘graduated filters’ to reduce the exposure of the sky to a more natural shade. Of course there will be times when there’s just too much of a disparity between the light and the dark but for most scenes I have found it works well and most importantly, looks very natural. The graduated filters can be combined in multiple instances to overcome uneven horizons or even to balance out unevenly polarised skies shot with an ultra-wide angle lens

original file and processed version using lightroom’s graduated filters to even out and intensify the sky, I also used these filters to remove the excessively blue cast from the rocks and show more detail in the shadows

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Nik Software – Silver Efex Pro

Nik Software make programs specifically tailored to photographers. I have only been using them for a week or so and they all have their good points but of the six programs they offer, I have found Silver Efex Pro to be the most useful (so far, I expect the other five will grow on me!) Its sole purpose is to convert colour images into black and white ones. It allows you to do this in such a way as to enable you to create images of considerably more impact than the original colour file and at the same time maintain an unadulterated and un-manipulated look. Much of the work it does can be replicated in Adobe lightroom and other programs, however ‘Silver’ does it much faster and allows for quick experimentation and great A-B, before and after comparisons. Its toning options, allowing you to adjust the various colours within the original image to be mapped out from light to dark as you see fit, enables a quick and precise level of control over your final image. It also enables selective adjustments not just to any area of an image, but to a specific tonal range within that area. This represents a level of finesse which even Photoshop CS4 cannot match.

In this image the obvious main interest is the man’s face so everything has been processed to highlight that element of the shot. Overexposure has been corrected (to an acceptably realistic degree), the shot has been cropped to place his eyes in the classic ‘rule of thirds’ position. All less important elements have been toned down to give emphasis to the light falling on his face.
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Its much the same story with this shot cropping out the distracting elements to focus on the main element of interest, the girl’s face. In this shot I have also used Photoshop CS4 to add some sharpness to her eyes and sunglasses and I removed some plant that was coming out of her ear!

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With these two shots I utilised the powerful toning features of Silver Efex pro during the conversion to the black and white images below

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One Response to “Processing Images”

  1. Great article Neil. Very concise but You point to main aspects of using lightroom effectively.

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