Strange how I feel the need to defend myself every time I go to post a highly processed image. This is because it was drilled into me very early in my photographic career that a photographer's job was to get it right in camera. Processing was for sissies, wusses and incompetents who didn't know which end of the camera to shoot out of. Yet the best photographers, including the true greats such Ansel Adams always insisted that darkroom skills were every bit as important as camera skills. I won't try to second guess what Adams meant when he said "You don't take a photograph, you make it," but I suspect he was at least in part referring to the importance of post processing in the art form.
Yes, it's great to try to get it right in camera, but sometimes that just isn't going to get you a good result. While some photographers might be inclined to give up and go home when conditions aren't perfect, I prefer to approach my photography in the field with an understanding of what colors and details can be coaxed out of a photograph with patience and the right software.
Take, for example, the image below. I took this photo while sitting on a rock with my legs spread out wide to keep out of frame. I was holding the camera right in front of me, inches from the ground, thinking about how so many Youtube photographers insist that you can't take good landscape pictures without a tripod.
I liked the placement of the rocks, the flow of the water around them, the reflection of the setting sun, the scattering of the clouds and the tonal gradient of the sky. But I hated the total lack of detail in the foreground owing to the fading light and the direction of the sun rays. I was also dealing with the relatively limited dynamic range of the camera sensor, much less forgiving on a Canon than a Nikon or a Sony, and the need to under-expose in order not to white out the sky. My only option was to expose for the sun and the clouds and try to bring up the foreground in post processing. I knew I could squeeze a few stops out of the rocks and the water in Adobe Lightroom, so I framed up as best as I could (shooting on live view it is very hard to see the orientation of the horizon) and pulled the trigger,
Not exactly an award-winning effort. But after about half an our in Lightroom, it was looking a lot better. I started by correcting for lens distortion using presets (I was using the kit lens on my Canon 100D, so it was an easy automatic fix. Next I leveled the horizon and cropped. After that, I brought up the shadows and crushed the highlights in order to compress the dynamic range. I chose an appropriate while balance for the image as a whole, applied a gradient to the sky, selectively painted spot white balance adjustments with brushes on the ocean and rocks and tweaked all the colors. The result was worth the effort.
The differences are subtle and the image doesn't look as highly processed as it is, which was my goal. That said, there's no way could have achieved this result in the camera, no matter how much I played with the settings.
The takeaway point is that processing is, without a doubt, at least 50% of the art form. Rather than walking away from a photograph that didn't quite make it in camera, I chose to see what could be done in post processing, and I'm glad I did. I'd hang this in my house. Would you?
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If you were the owner of a restaurant located in a highly competitive tourist area and you wanted to promote your establishment to potential customers at hotels and weekly condos in the vicinity, you might consider paying for advertising in one of the local things-to-do guides, or listing on some of the popular websites targeting the tourist market. Of course, if you did that, you'd want to include a pretty snazzy picture of your restaurant, ideally the kind of photo that makes hungry travelers say, "Let's eat there tonight!" Of the two photos, below, which do you think would serve that purpose better?
I really hope you picked the one on the right. Sure, the photo on the left is well framed, in focus, properly exposed and artfully framed... but it lacks the depth and color that are the hallmarks of good advertising, not to mention good photography. The photo on the right features that depth and color in spades. The difference is all about the sky behind the subject of the photo (the neon sign at the entrance to Decker's Kitchen in American Village, Okinawa). That sky was not part of the original photo. It was added later in Photoshop.
If you consider that cheating, try to see the situation from the standpoint of the proprietor, who is paying good coin for the add space, not to mention the photo. Does he care that the photo on the right is a technically a fraud? Should he? Of course not! He just wants the photo of his restaurant to be as beautiful as possible and he doesn't care how it is made. He also doesn't want to pay a photographer to sit around, possibly for days at a time hoping the clouds and the sun will give him what he wants. And that's precisely what a photographer who insists on the purity of producing all his work photos "in camera" would have to do. Unless the proprietor is willing to pay a hefty fee for the picture, the photographer might have to find other means to give him what he wants and expects - or someone else will.
Naturally, there are means of capturing awesome photos that don't involve stitching together unrelated shots in Photoshop. One such method in this case would be to wait for twilight to fall so that the sky behind the building would turn a deep lustrous blue, like in the photo below.
However, that is an imperfect solution, because, unlike the buildings in this photo, the tower, which is a key component of the photograph in question, is not illuminated and the delicate interplay between natural and artificial light would be absent. If the method is more important to you than the final result, then go ahead and be a purist. If the result matters above all else, then why would it matter if the photographer "cheats."
Lest you believe that cheating is easier, consider the time and skill that goes into making a composite that is as believable as the one above. It is not a matter of using the magic want tool to cut out the sky then slapping in another picture in it's place. For starters, it's about carefully extracting the areas of bland whiteness, searching though many potential photos of sky and clouds, choosing the best one and lining it up so that the horizon and perspective are correct. Next is adding layers upon layers of modifications involving tweaks to color, brightness, contrast, sharpness, hue, saturation and all kinds of parameters, each relating to different parts of the photo. All in all, there were about 12 layers, each making judicious use of clipping masks, blending modes, opacity settings, etc, etc. If you want to blend two pictures in a way that looks like it was done in camera, you've got to know a lot not only about Photoshop, but about the behavior of light and shadow and how we perceive color. It may not be photography in the purest sense, but it is artistry of the highest order.
But in the world of commerce, that doesn't matter either, does it. It's all about giving your customers what they want, and if that means "cheating" with Photoshop, so be it. If you don't think that delivering the best image possible to your client is at the core of what being a working photographer is all about, then maybe you'd better choose a different line of work.
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Most people who shoot digital photos are used to working in an entirely digital realm. That is, their photos are captured, processed and shared entirely on computers. This means, for the most part, that they are working in RGB colorspace as opposed to CMYK, which is used in the print world. Photographers and graphic artists who want to make prints, be they postcards or fine art images for a gallery showing, are almost certainly going to have to become familiar with the differences.
For those who don't know, RGB stands for Red Green Blue and CMYK stands for Cyan Magenta Yellow Key (key just means black). Although volumes of books have been written on the subject, it is still very poorly understood and no matter what I say on this blog, somebody out there will stand up and tell me I'm wrong. For that reason, I won't say much. I'll just show you the two images I processed from the same photo for a poster I'm working on. The first is RGB and the second CMYK.
If you can't see a difference, it's because I worked so hard in Photoshop to hide it. I'm sure you'll see that the green in the foreground is a lot more vibrant in the top image. The difference was more pronounced when I first converted the image. The green was flat, boring and ugly and I had to do a lot to it in Photoshop to bring the "pop" back into it. Mostly, I just selected a colour from the picker on the green channel and played with the hue, saturation and lightness sliders until I got the look I wanted. I had to do this on a few layers, each with it's own layer mask so that I could target various areas of the image.
I'm happy with the digital result. These are processed for printing, which means they are brighter and a bit more contrasty than they would be if they were meant to be viewed on a screen. I can't wait to see what the final image looks like when it's printed.
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I read and watch a lot on the web about how to market photography and photographic services. Some bloggers and Youtubers will try to convince you that they have the secret to selling gazillions of prints and all you need to do is take their course. These guys are mostly charlatans. Fortunately, most commentators are much more realistic about what your expectations should be when it comes to selling your work. The consistent message is: don't quit your day job.
While that's good advice for any creative professional, it's particularly important that aspiring photographers take it to heart. Why? Because there are so many photographs out there and so few buyers, most of whom have very specific tastes and are willing to spend only so much. If your business model depends on selling lots of fine art prints, get ready to starve.
That is not to say you should give up trying to sell. I haven't. The strategy I follow is to try to find specialized markets that fit the kind of photos I take, like the one below, which you've seen before if you read this blog regularly.
My point is that in order to get your work out there, it pays to think outside the box. How many copies of this poser (or a future version of it) will be sold? I have no idea. I only know that by designing posters like this, I have a way better chance of getting my work in front of people who will enjoy it than if I just tried to sell prints through conventional channels. Perhaps in a future post I'll let readers know how many sold. If all goes well, there will be a series of posters of the same design, all based on my photographs of famous Okinawan landmarks. If you are interested in buying a copy of this poster when it comes out, contact me and I'll hook you up.
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My simple blog about the art and science of photography.