You have just bought your new bright shiny camera and you are sure that it is just the thing that will help you create better images. You’re shooting JPG with the camera’s automatic program modes, but you’re not getting the results you wanted. You keep upgrading your cameras thinking that will do the trick, only to find that the quality of your imagery isn’t getting any better. What’s going on?
You may be missing an important part of digital photography, post-processing, with a state of the art processing program like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.
Before and after
This image of a lighthouse in Iceland was taken on a bright yet overcast day. In a matter of moments with the help of Lightroom, it became a favorite.
The role of post-processing in photography is not new
There are several integral parts to digital photography. The technical and creative aspect of using your camera, and the technical and creative application of post-processing your images. Each part is equally important and when all the pieces are put together, that’s when the magic starts to happen.
Unfortunately, many people are still thinking about the days of film when you took it to a lab and the post-processing was done for you. You never had to think twice about how the image was processed. Did you ever notice that different labs gave you different results? That’s because of their level of post-processing.
Now it’s time for you to understand the importance of post-processing if you are going to create better imagery. It will take some time and some dedication to learn, but it will improve your photography by ten-fold.
The first step – shooting with post-processing in mind
First of all, start shooting in RAW format and stop letting the camera make the decisions for you. When you shoot JPG format, it will automatically process your images in camera, even though you may even not be aware of it.
Have you ever taken a JPG and a RAW image and compared the two photographs? The JPG may appear bright and saturated and the RAW file looks flat. That’s because the JPG has been processed by the camera and the RAW file is an unprocessed digital negative.
That RAW file is ready for you to make your own creative adjustments and apply your photographic vision in Lightroom or Photoshop. Only then can you start to recreate that scene you saw when you first took the image.
What kind of post-processing decisions will the camera make for your JPGs? Depending on your camera, it can automatically increase saturation, sharpness, and contrast, but it will also compress your image. There are settings in your camera where you can make blanket adjustments for every JPG (Picture Styles), however, the camera is still making the decisions for you. That gives you zero creative control.
Raw format gives you control
RAW files contain more information and will allow you to have a wider range of tones (called dynamic range) to work with when you bring your images into Lightroom or Photoshop. When shooting in the JPEG format, image information is compressed and lost forever. In a RAW file, no information is compressed and you’re able to produce higher quality images while correcting problem areas that would be unrecoverable if shot in the JPEG format.
Once you start shooting in RAW, it’s very important to be conscious of the histogram. You can bring up the histogram on your Live View shooting screen or after you have taken the shot in your image review screen. Check your camera’s manual for the location of the histogram.
Note: If you shoot with a mirrorless camera you may be able to see the histogram on the screen before you shoot. Check your settings this is very handy.
Why is the histogram important for your photographic success?
If used correctly while shooting, the histogram will give you the information you need to know to bring up the shadows or bring down the highlights and pop out exposure and detail in an image.
The histogram shows you the brightness of a scene and it can be measured as you are shooting, or after you have captured the image. When look at the histogram and see the bulk of the graph pushing towards the right, this means you have an image that may be overexposed (or a really light toned subject).
If the data is mostly on the left of the graph, it’s an image that might be underexposed.
If the graph spikes on either the left or right “wall” of the histogram, that means that “clipping” has occurred. Clipping happens when you have areas in your photo with no information as a result of over or underexposure. When an area has no information, it is either pure white or pure black which is often referred to “blown out”.
Generally, it is undesirable to have large areas of your image that have highlights or shadows clipping. See the image below. The red areas show highlight clipping, and the blue areas show shadow clipping.
Because of the limited dynamic range of a camera’s sensor, the area registering as clipped usually leaves the image with no information in the shadows or highlights. A spike touching the left edge of the histogram means that there is shadow clipping. A spike touching the right edge of the histogram means that there are highlights clipping.
What is possible with post-processing?
Many photographers have frustrating results with their images because they don’t embrace digital editing and post-processing. They are doing everything right when they shoot and are good at composition. They know how to expose correctly for the scene, but don’t know where to go with the image once they get home.
For example, maybe they are in a high contrast area and have taken an image with the histogram in mind. Then they open the image on-screen and throw it out because it looks over or underexposed. They don’t know what the post-processing possibilities are even though they may have a viable image. This is where they are missing a large part of the potential in their digital photography post-processing.
Here’s a great example. This image was taken in the Eastern Sierra in California.
It is obvious that the shadows are way underexposed and it creates an interesting silhouette. But, if you look at the histogram, you can see there is space on the left side of the graph which represents the shadows. This means there is more information there, and a good possibility of bringing up the shadows to create a whole different image.
Here is the result after brightening shadows in Lightroom. This adjustment took just seconds and creates a whole new scene.
Start with Lightroom
Almost every image needs post-processing. Some people think that’s “cheating”. It’s not, it’s all part of the digital artistic process.
With post-processing, you can create the image you saw when you photographed the scene. Your eyes have the capability of seeing a wider range of light and color than your camera does, so the images need help in post-processing to duplicate the full range of light and shadows. The problem with a lot of beginners, is they tend to oversaturate or over-sharpen an image. So this talent comes with time and practice, practice, practice.
Once you have mastered the basics, there is a lot more you will be able to do with your digital post-processing that will add drama and interest to your photos. The above image of Bridal Veil Falls in Yosemite looks rather flat in the RAW version (left). Once you add saturation, sharpening, and a vignette to the whole picture it starts to pop. Then you can enhance the brightest areas by “painting with light”, and it now becomes a much more interesting image.
Start your post-processing journey with a full featured program like Adobe Lightroom. It is the standard in the industry for professionals, but it is also user-friendly for beginners and helps with both post-processing and image organization. Just be sure that your computer has enough memory and RAM to run these full featured programs. Check the requirements at adobe.com.
Check out our guide to LR: The dPS Ultimate Guide to Getting Started in Lightroom for Beginners
Nothing is more satisfying than when you have a catalog of 30,000 images and you’re able to find your favorites in literally seconds by entering a few keywords and star ratings. Take some time to set it up, add a class or two, and you’ll be up and running!
Photo editing or post-processing is an integral part of the digital photography puzzle. Don’t think that you can skip this part and come away with satisfying images. It’s just as important to learn photo editing as it is to learn the basic functions of your camera. Only then, will you be able to bring that intentional photographic vision into post-processing and create great images
How are you going to start your post-processing journey? Is shooting in RAW and learning Lightroom in your future? Please share your thoughts with me on this subject.