More Tips and Tricks – Post Processing

Continuing on my “helpful” tips and tricks, this post will concentrate on a few post processing techniques that have served me well over the years. Some of these may already be part of your editing workflow, but some you may not have tried.

Camera tricks.

This debate seems to go on and on, dating back to the origination of RAW files. Jpeg vs RAW. This to me is a no brainer, but I still run into folks who set their image capture type to create JPG images. Your images will never contain more photographic information than a RAW file generates. Using any file format other than RAW as your camera’s default image type is going to degrade your image and editing capability, plain and simple. Your computer can make a JPG image from a RAW file that is far better than your camera can make a JPG image. The only reason you should be shooting JPG images is if you are REQUIRED to do it, meaning you have no choice. If you have a choice, shoot RAW file format.

Letting go of the past.

Many of you may be vaguely familiar with the “Zone System” created by Ansel Adams. I’ve heard many an amateur photographer talk about it and want to preach the benefits of using it. It seems to be a popular topic of discussion in photography clubs from my experience. Asel’s zone system was a photographic dark room technique he perfected and preached for making black & white prints in his dark room. He created a set of general rules and techniques to create black & white prints that looked the way he wanted them to look. It was based on the types of film, papers and chemicals he used back in the day. Forget about the zone system. Why? Because it was based on the types of film, papers and chemicals he used to get the results he wanted to see back in the day. We live in a more advanced world of digital imaging and nothing Ansel did in his darkroom translates to the modern digital darkroom, except for the concept of learning to process your image to reach your desired look. Film isn’t digital. Film doesn’t have the dynamic range or resolution of modern digital cameras. What he did then doesn’t apply to digital post processing. If you want to generate a specific look to your black and white images, learn to do it yourself and save your processes as presets. You may find that it approximates the type of look he processed for, but more likely, you’ll find your own look and that is what will make your work more unique. You’ll also find that modern digital RAW files have a lot more latitude for tweaking than any type of film used by Ansel Adams ever had. Let go of the past and stop talking about Ansel Adams so you can impress people with your worldliness. It’s an amateur approach to getting professional results.

Adobe Lightroom Classic

Keywording your images is critical to identifying the image content of your photographs. Adobe Lightroom is a very powerful keywording tool. It allows you to create a multitude of keyword sets for different subject matter, which you can apply to images at time of import or export. Stock agencies require keywords on images. Most have a limit of 50 keywords and you will find some minor variations between the agencies as to how a keyword is defined, but by creating keyword presets, you’ll save hours and hours at the computer manually entering keywords to your photos.  Keywording is also critical to making your images more visible to search engines for those who publish their photos on the Internet. Adobe Bridge is also fairly flexible with working with keywords. Any photo editing software that doesn’t allow you to efficiently work with keywords in your photos would not be my first choice of photo editing software.

One of the features I make regular use of in Adobe Lightroom is Smart Collections. Smart collections will allow you to organize your Lightroom Image Catalogs in a very flexible way. With close to a half million images to organize on my computer, I often find the need to segregate images based on specific criteria. For example, I know that most stock agencies I submit images to have minimum or maximum file size limitations on what you can upload. Some stock agencies have requirements for images of a certain resolution. I have created a smart collection that will analyze my entire catalog for any image that is less than 5 megapixels in resolution. A quick look at this smart collection and I can identify any image that I don’t want to submit to stock agencies due to having too low a resolution. That’s just one example though. Smart collections are capable of analyzing and displaying only images that meet a very wide range of characteristics. You can create a smart collection for just about any combination of data. Say for example, I want to look at images made with a specific camera, and a specific lens, a smart collection will perform that task easily. Smart collections are like the toolbar selections in the Library module that allows you to filter images by Text, Attribute, Metadata or with a combinations of criteria, only as a defined, more permanent, collections set that can be used with only one click. Smart collections are a seriously powerful tool for organizing and displaying your images with a single click. If you are a user of Adobe Lightroom, you should most definitely familiarize yourself with the smart collection function.

Lens corrections.

Most of the better photo editing software solutions offer the ability to correct your images for lens distortions, chromatic aberrations, vignetting, etc…
When the software makes these corrections, it resamples your image. When it resamples your image, it’s going to have a adverse affect on resolution. Yeah, the pixel count will remain the same, but it will throw out some data and create fake data in the process. I’ve found that it isn’t always necessary to correct lens distortions with software. Probably the most problematic distortion is the chromatic aberration. You can spot these easily in your photographs by looking for blue, green or red blurs on the edges of the details in the images. I correct anything visible, as that type of distortion is blatantly visible to the viewer. Lens distortion though is not always noticeable. Vignetting is also a notable image anomaly from time to time. I always look at the image for vignetting and only correct it if it appears to be severe enough to have a negative impact on my photo. Particularly with landscape photos, but in portraits and others images as well. I don’t always correct for lens distortion because it isn’t always necessary. This preserves my image detail without applying a correction that isn’t needed by the image. The bottom line, don’t correct a problem that isn’t visible in the image. Secondly, and quite important in this regard, is to learn to identify the problems in the image that may be a result of the lens you are using. All lenses are different and some will produce more visual anomalies than others.

Post processing workflow.

I generally import my photos into Adobe Lightroom and apply a base develop setting to the file at the time of import. What I don’t do is apply an “Auto” setting, allowing my computer to decide what it thinks would be a good place to start. Auto to me means you automatically have to change the develop settings to get the image looking like you want it too. My default import contains just enough develop tweaking to give me a RAW file with enough hue, brightness, contrast, noise reduction and sharpening to get me past a flat and dull looking image on my display without applying a blanket correction to everything for every camera. My basic premise is “the less editing I have to do, the better.” I work my way up from the original in small increments in order to arrive at my final edit. This is the best way I know of to eliminate over-processing.

Now that I’ve preached lightly about not over-processing your images, I’m going to tell you a little secret. Over processing, if done correctly with intent, can actually make for a better selling image. Most notably, color saturation. Despite the disdain many of us have to images that have too much color saturation, the fact of the matter is that over-saturated images sell better than images with color saturation levels that look more natural or true to reality. I don’t know why this is, but it is true from my experience. Maybe it’s a result of several generations of people watching misadjusted, highly saturated television images or what-ever. So, if you like the look and are selling your image commercially, don’t be afraid to bump the saturation up a little. As with anything though, too much isn’t a good thing. If the image looks absurdly saturated with color, it better not come across as over-processed to the viewer. Find the sweet spot.

Sharpening your images.

Just about every photo you make with a digital camera will require a little sharpening. Particularly RAW files, which typically look rather dull when viewed without any adjustments. There are many sharpening techniques out there, I’m not going to compare them. The bottom line is this though. Don’t sharpen your images until the final step in your post processing workflow. The reason, sharpening early on in your workflow can result in amplified abnormalities getting multiplied as you move through the post processing process. Sharpening is for making the image appear to have adequate detail and acuity at the time of output. Output being displaying on a screen, or making a print. Adjust your sharpening for the display medium you intend for your image to be displayed with. I’ve found that images created for viewing on a computer screen generally require less sharpening than images being made to make prints. Myself, I usually apply more sharpening to image files that I intend to use for print making, almost to a level of beginning of looking over-sharpened at magnification on a computer monitor. Print sharpening techniques are different from monitor sharpening techniques.

On a side note, I’ve been working with Topaz Labs Sharpen AI software for the past few months. It’s excellent software for sharpening your images, maybe the best method I’ve yet to come across. If you can afford it, buy the software. My workflow generally has me exporting a TIFF file from Adobe Lightroom into the Topaz Sharpen AI application and making my final sharpening edit using Topaz. What I’ve found works very well is to do very little if any sharpening of the image in Lightroom. I normally import files into Lightroom using a very very light sharpen of about 10 clicks in the import setting. I don’t tweak the sharpening of the image before exporting it to Topaz Sharpen AI. When the file imports into Topaz Sharpen AI, I choose the sharpen model that give me the best detail without going overboard and looking raspy. Once I have the Topaz Sharpened image imported back into Lightroom, I’ll reexamine the image and may make a slight tweak to increase or smooth out the sharpening before I create my final output file. This is always the last thing in my workflow. Keep an eye on the Topaz result too, because on occasion it can do serious damage to areas of your image. It’s rare but not a perfect solution. Check those edges and background areas for weird artifacts when using Topaz Sharpen AI.

That will be it for today. I’ll share more tips, tricks and techniques at a later date.