Every pro photographer makes mistakes. If the job is important enough and the mistake is big enough, it could be the end of his career. Some kinds of mistakes are inexcusable for a pro, namely the kind that come from laziness or improper preparation. Others are so common they happen almost every day. One thing that separates amateurs from pros is the post-processing skill to salvage a good photo from a mistake - or a set of mistakes - that could could ruin a photo. To illustrate what I mean by "salvage," I'll explain how I processed a photo I snapped a little too hastily, realizing only afterwards that the settings on my camera were wrong.
The photo below was the first I took at a NekoMaru cat cafe in Okinawa. Having just walked in the door, I saw this adorable little guy laying on the floor. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, I took out my camera (50mm portrait lens already attached), focused and pressed the button. Then I looked at the shot in the viewer and realized my white balance was off and that it was underexposed by two stops. Damn! On the bright side, the eyes were in perfect focus and the shot was well framed, meaning that it just might be salvageable.
The white balance issue was no concern at all since I was shooting in raw mode, meaning I could set the parameter in Lightroom. I set the white balance to fluorescent because the lights above me seemed strong, but after looking at the result, I knew I'd misgauged it, so I reset it to daylight. Of greater concern was the exposure. I was shooting at f/2.2 on my 50mm portrait lens and I thought I had the camera set to Aperture Priority mode. But that was not correct. I was in manual and the shutter speed was too fast to get a good exposure. Oops!
The solution was to go into Adobe Lightroom and boost the exposure by two stops. This worked. Since I'd been shooting on a low ISO, the noise level in the image was not too bad, so it didn't appear to grainy when adjusted. The result was good enough that I decided to further process the picture, ending with what you see below.
What other processing did I do? Besides all the usual tweaks to vibrance, saturation, HSL and the like, I used a radial filter over the cat's face set to effect the area outside the circle. I pulled the exposure of the background down just a bit to bring out the cat's face. Then I took a brush tool and sharpened the eyes very slightly. Finally, I added a very subtle post-crop vignette to help further push down the background. Notably, I did not apply software lens corrections, which would have brought of the brightness of the corners of the image (the opposite of what I wanted).
That's about it. The take home point is the everyone makes mistakes. This one was small and inconsequential. When it comes to fixing mistakes, remember two things: 1) shoot raw because it allows you a lot of options in post and 2) if your focus and framing are correct, you can often salvage an under-exposed image in post-processing. The same is not true for over-exposed digital images. Two stops above would have destroyed this one.
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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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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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Pretty well anyone who views digital photos nowadays understands just how powerful a program Adobe Photoshop is. In the hands of a person who knows how to use it, the software can dramatically transform a photo. In fact, the transformation can be so dramatic that one has to wonder how much of professional photography revolves around how well one can develop photos using this or similar technology. I would go so far as to say that post-processing is close to 50% of the finished product.
I am hardly a master at Photoshop. To see a true master at work, visit the Youtube Channel of Phlearn and watch Aaron Nace transform good photos into outstanding photos. I've learned a few tricks from his tutorials and a few others. I'd be happy to share what I've learned, but you'd be far better just to get it from the horse's mouth, as it were. Instead, I intend to show you how I used Photoshop (and Lightroom) to transform a commercial photo I took from rather dreary to quite beautiful. I'll start with the before picture.
This was late in the day, shooting into a cloudy sunset. To the eye, the sky was really quite striking in a subtle way, but the gentle beauty of the sun on the clouds just didn't make its way onto the sensor. This is because the contrast was just too high. I tried to expose for the sky, but to bring out the subtleties, I would have had to grossly underexpose the subject, namely Cheers Bar&Grill, which is what the shot is all about. So, I decided to use brushes in Lightroom to paint in the sky.
That made a difference, but it was just the beginning. I did all the standard processing in Lightroom, straightening the vertical lines, bringing out all the colors, enhancing the highlights and just making everything "pop," but the photo wasn't what I'd want to show my client. Before that, I had to fix a couple of things in Photoshop. First, I used the clone stamp tool and the healing brush to remove the security camera, then painted in the clouds where it was. Note that I didn't remove the utility box on the post the camera was attached to. I could have. If this photo were about the streetlamp, I might have, but I didn't, because I thought the very tiny imperfection gave it a bit of authenticity. Finally, I painted in the frosting on the glass of the foremost lamp, and enhanced the brightness of the lights, to give the effect you see in the finished photo
The effect I wanted was that of a building pained by the sun at the tail end of Golden Hour, just as the street lights were coming on. The natural highlights in the palm leaves sell the presence of the sun and the enhanced brightness of the lamps suggest that twilight is slowly approaching.
Is this cheating? Yes. But cheating in post-processing is what photographers have done since the first camera was invented. How much of the beauty of this shot was added in post? Like I said, better than 50%. The original, even after Lightroom, is not something I'd put in a portfolio, much less submit to a client. But the finished result, after Photoshop, is something I can be proud to put my name on. Photoshop doesn't help a photographer frame an image (except via cropping), it doesn't choose what lens to use, it doesn't tell you what stop to shoot on or what ISO setting. It doesn't select which of the dozens of photos you take of a subject to work on and it doesn't know how to process them. All it gives the photographer is a digital toolbox, which, like a carpenter's toolbox doesn't finish the job all on it's own. Artistry is in the mind and the hands of the artist.
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A couple of weeks ago, I decided to go looking for a new place to take pictures. Of course, there is always a new way to shoot an old location, but it's always a good for a landscape photographer to expand his bank of photo spots. This time, I chose Gala Yomitan. There are lots of great things to shoot there, but of the greatest interest to me was the rock pier, built in traditional Okinawan style. What interested me was its snake-like shape shape, which curved out into the ocean, where it ended in a platform. Since it's located on the west coast, the obvious time of day to shoot is around sunset.
However, unfortunately, as any photographer knows all too well, shooting into the setting sun presents some significant challenges, particular with respect to controlling the under-exposure of exposure shadows. The technique is to always "expose for the highlights," but the trick is to get the sky just hot enough that it the brightest parts push up against the high end of the camera's dynamic limits, without losing detail. About the only way to do this is to bracket your exposures, essentially taking the same shot many times, then choosing the best shot in post. The problem comes in when you try to capture moving elements like waves that show well up in some pictures but not others. In this case, I was trying to convey the windiness of the day by catching the wave as it broke over the pier. Very few of the exposures ended up with beautiful wave splashes and those that did were not always the best exposure. None the less, I was fortunate enough to come up with a few that I liked and of those, I picked this one.
Doesn't look like much, does it? Fortunately, I was shooting raw, as I always do, and I knew that the necessary underexposure of the foreground could be fixed in post. After importing to Lightroom, the first thing I did (after adjusting the white balance to taste) was to bring up the shadows all the way. That worked so well I almost didn't have to do anything else. The only other processing I did was to saturate the colours and use brush tools to bring out the right colour temperatures in the right parts of the sky. I also warmed up the pier in the same way to enhance the earth tones in the rocks. Here is the final result.
Some would say this is a little overdone. Others would say I need to process it more. Personally, my goal is to make photos look as beautiful as the real-life scene did to my eye (with perhaps a bit of enhancement in the colours and contrast). The only difference between the photo and what I saw is that the ocean is a bit more aqua and the sun is a bit more yellow. Otherwise, this is it.
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This photo of the famous lighthouse at Cape Zanpa in Yomitan ranks as one of my favourite photographs of all time. Here, I show the raw file before and after processing and explain how I got from one to the other.
I took the picture on Jan 2nd when I drove up to Cape Zanpa on a whim when the clouds looked interesting. By the time I got there, the sky had clouded over and I thought I was going to be disappointed, but when I got to the spot I wanted to shoot from, I found that the clouds and mild haze presented an opportunity. There wasn't a lot of color in the sky, but I knew I could tease out all the subtle hues in Lightroom. The real problem was going to be the contrast. Shooting right into the sun and including it in the shot meant that I had to expose for the sky to prevent the details in the clouds from blowing out, so I took a bunch of exposure brackets, all on the same f-stop, so I could make a composite if I really had to, The problem was, I was standing at the very edge of the cliff, so using a tripod was out of the question, making HRD (high dynamic range) a difficult proposition.
The raw photo below was shot on my Canon 100D at f/5.6, 1/640 shutter at ISO 100. I can't say enough good about this cheap little camera (best bang for the buck of any DSLR, as far as I'm concerned, especially if you already own a bunch of EF glass).
Not exactly an award-winning shot as is, but you can see it's got the makings of a great photo. See how there is lots of detail in the clouds? See the faint colours in the sky? Notice the subtle halo around the sun? See how, as dark as it is, there is still detail in the cliff wall?
To handle the extreme contrast, I brought up the shadows as far as the software would let me, and the detail in the cliff came out right away. I found a white balance setting that worked, brought up the clarity and saturation, then went to work on the clouds. Some photographers would have you buy expensive software that adds colour to the sky, but in this case, there is no need. I just used a brush tool and brought up the saturation selectively, in addition to dodging exposure in a few places. I used a graduated filter to reduce the contrast in the sky... and that was about all. I output from Lightroom into Photoshop the applied a brightness setting (which appears to work differently than the one in Lightroom). This was my end result.
Pixel peepers will note that there is a war going on between the noise reduction I applied to clean up the sky and the sharpening I applied to keep the rest nice and crisp. I used a mask on the Lightroom sharpen tool and applied sharpening only to the major outlines. If you look very closely at the cliffs, you'll see that the texture looks a bit unnatural. But so what? I didn't shoot this for a bunch of trolls who like to find fault with pictures they could never take from their mothers' basements!
The thing to keep in mind is that the colours in the photo are all natural. I added no colours what so ever (following the policy of National Geographic, the photos in which are among the best in the world). I just brought out what was there with saturation and colour temperature tools.
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Here's are two shots, before processing and after, of a cat I saw perched on the seawall in front of the Hilton Hotel by Hamagawa Harbour. The first is a JPG from the unprocessed raw image right off the camera (Canon 100D) and the second is after processing in Lightroom. The difference shows exactly what can be done with raw images in the the right software.
You'll notice that the photo looks almost black and white. This is because the software does not try to interpret anything from the raw file the way it would if displaying a JPG. A JPG would have been a lot more colorful because the in-camera software would have cranked up the saturation. But I son't want to let a computer tell me how my photos should look, so I develop the photos myself. The end result below took about 10 minutes in Lightroom.
To get this result, all I had to do was some basic processing. I raised the color temperature a bit to warm it up (as shot was a bit too blue). I raised the saturation on the orange and yellow sliders in the HSL section, giving the red a tiny boost too. But the warm colour didn't work well for the ocean and the sky, so I used the brush tool to lower the color temperature of those two parts of the image. I used another brush tool to raise the colour temperature on the buildings, making it look a little bit more like golden hour (the sun had just gone down and the actual scene was much darker to the eye than it appears here at ISO 800). I finished off with one final brush tool with which I brought up the exposure on the cat's face and bib. The black fur was just a bit too dark.
Oh, and I almost forgot. I used another brush tool to decrease the saturation on the cement sall in the immediate foreground. The difference is very subtle, but reducing the tiny bit color information in an element that is already gray helps the cat to stand out just a bit more, without having to crank the saturation to psychedelic levels.
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My simple blog about the art and science of photography.