We've already covered most of the technical foundations that you need to understand to underpin your creative photography. Some maybe seem boring or complicated and frustrating, but stick at it. And now we get to move onto the fun, more creative stuff. The stuff that makes an image good. Or great. Plus a little more technical (sorry!).
As photographers we get to decide what to include in each image. And, just as importantly, what to exclude. We can, or at least might be able to, remove distractions. Over to Ted Forbes again:
Post Processing Introduction
Photographers have always manipulated images after taking them, controlling the development of film to change the brightness of particular area of an image for example (dodging and burning). The digital tools available today take that to a whole new level.
You’ll ideally want one main software solution for managing your photos as well as editing them. Adobe Lightroom has long been the standard tool across the industry (along with Photoshop for more advanced editing) but has migrated to subscription-only which has frustrated many. Among other current options are the excellent Alien Skin Exposure X3 and Capture One. Skylum Luminar promises to be an interesting option too, but doesn’t yet include management tools.
For getting started and before investing any dollars, try out Snapseed on your phone or tablet. It’s owned by Google and it’s free and very well designed. Experiment with the tools it offers.
There’s always a temptation to over-process because a new effect looks different and cool. Less is usually ‘more’ but it doesn’t hurt to push those settings to the maximum first just to understand what they do to your images.
If you shoot in Raw, the images from your camera may initially look lifeless and ‘flat’ without any processing, which brings us to...
RAW vs JPEG
When you take a picture, your camera can store it in different file formats. Most default to JPEG. It’s a standard format and a finished, processed image ready to view and print. Raw formats are bespoke to different camera manufactures, but is an unprocessed format that includes as much data as possible from the camera. A Raw file is larger, but gives greater flexibility in post-processing. Most cameras also give you the option to record Raw + Jpeg, cresting two files for each image.
Which should you use? Raw is a good default, but there might be times when JPEG is a better option, such as if you’re shooting a lot of images quickly or need to give files immediately to a client.
Here’s a good summary with examples from Tony Northrup:
Raw vs JPG: Image Quality vs Speed, when to use each
(It’s worth noting though that the 24-hour import time to Lightroom that Tony mentions is an extreme example for thousands of files.)
Post Processing Basic Corrections: Crop
Most editing software, such as Adobe Lightroom and Alien Skin Exposure, is designed for a 'top down approach'. The more basic and fundamental tools are at the top of the page by default, and it makes sense to tackle those first even if you need to return to them again later. You could consider three main elements that might need to be corrected or adjusted: crop, exposure and color (white balance).
You might make some rough changes, to exposure for example, in order to decide whether you like the image enough to work on it further. In general though, I always recommend getting the crop right first so that you're not working on elements of the image that you then later decide to remove.
Usually you'll want to straighten the horizon, if there is one. You'll either rotate the image until it's horizontal, or use a 'ruler' tool to trace a line along any element that you know should be horizontal. Alternatively, if there is a strong vertical line in the image, you may decide to correct on that instead. (I've included straightening in this section because any correction naturally has to include at least a small crop to the image).
Going further is a matter of taste, judgement and maybe principles. Some photographers don't like to crop at all if they can possibly avoid it, insisting that it should be framed correctly 'in camera'. You do lose some resolution when cropping so keep that in mind if you want to create a large print, but usually it won't be an issue. Personally I do like to stick to the standard print formats if possible though, whether that's 6x4 (3x2), 7x5, 1x1 or sometimes 16x9.
Here's a famous example from one of the great portrait photographers, Arnold Newman, cropping heavily to make a more striking image:
Post Processing: Dodge & Burn
Along with lines ('leading lines') and high contrast, our eyes our naturally drawn to the brightest parts of an image. You might find that your subject, where you want your viewer's eyes to go to, is too dark or there's a bright distractions elsewhere in the image. Most editing software allows you to selectively dodge (lighten) or burn (darken) a specific area of an image using either a brush or defined area (linear or radial filter in Lightroom). Here's a tutorial for Lightroom but the tools are very similar in other software:
Workflow is how you manage your images, from your camera to the finished product whether that's a print or social media or a digital file for a client. We've talked about back-ups before (please make sure you're doing them!) and establishing a good workflow will help you keep everything well organized, especially as you start to shoot more regularly. It can be daunting to listen to some photographers who will spend thousands on back-up solutions. That might be necessary in some cases (video, high volume wedding or sports photographers for example) but for most of us there are more simple and less expensive options that can be just as effective.
There are a couple of key decisions to make upfront:
1. How do I want my files to be organized? I use one folder for each year, then one subfolder for each shoot or trip. Personally I don't rename the files themselves but I know lots of photographers do and you can use software to do that for you.
2. Where am I going to store and backup the images?
Everyone has slightly different needs and preferences so there is no right or wrong workflow. To give you an idea, or a starting point to work from, here's what I do at the moment for a new set of images:
1. Create a new folder on my main external hard drive, where the images are organized by year. e.g. Photos > 2018 > New Photoshoot
2. Copy the new images (regardless of whether they are RAW or Jpeg) from the camera card into that folder. Some people do this using their photo software, I like to do it 'manually' in MacOS.
3. I then create two backups. One starts automatically to Amazon Drive, and I also use the Apple Time Machine backup facility to create another copy on a second external hard drive.
4. Once those backups have completed, I put the card back in the camera, double-check that I have all the images I expect (check the first and last picture), then erase them from the camera card.
5. I then go through the selection and editing process, using a numerical rating system to flag the images I want to edit. (I use two stars for any I think have potential, then three, four and give stars for images I like and want to work on).
6. Any images I might want to edit on my iPad, I export in TIFF format into iCloud. Any images that need to go to clients, I export in JPEG format then upload into SmugMug. Any images for social media, I export in JPEG format then upload into Apple Photos so I can post them from my phone or iPad.
It's not perfect but it works for me at the moment so I hope that's useful and not too overwhelming!