Self Editing

I frequently get questions here on this blog regarding photography- what kind of a camera to get or how to make photographs look so good- so I have every once in a while taken on an aspect of making images to talk about here. Last time it was lenses and light. Again I must preface that the camera doesn’t so much matter- it is just a tool- you have to know how to USE the tool. Additionally (and what I am going to talk about here), one of the biggest differences you can make in your photography is having a good editing tool. By Editing I mean software that allows you to adjust and improve your photos. Bare minimum, iPhoto and Picnik are a few free options, however remain pretty limited. The other extreme is full-fledged Adobe Photoshop. Beyond the generally common misconception that the gear is a primary factor in the quality of a photographer’s images, second is that there is a ton of fancy Photoshopping done to make it ‘good’. I see two sides of things here: One, is that I see a great majority of “Photographers” (and by that I mean people who have in recent years picked up a DSLR, taught themselves, now charge a ton of money to people for their services and don’t fully understand the basic technical aspects of the art enough that they have to ‘Push’ their images really far to make them decent- more on that later) who’s images are so heavily manipulated they both look fake and by doing so many effects in Photoshop they have had to sacrifice a ton of information in the image. Second, I see a lot of well-composed and well-exposed images that simply lack some nice finish and pizazz because they are un-edited or incorrectly edited. In this later category, I think a lot of times the shooters are using the in-camera options for things like Black & White, Sepia and Vibrancy.

Pretty much all the time I find myself in the middle ground here. I shoot RAW images, so exempt my pictures from any additional effects my camera’s software would otherwise put on them. I very rarely open an image in full-fledged Adobe Photoshop (though I do own it). I don’t spend a ton of time sitting in front of my computer fine-tuning my images (not enough time, I have 3 young kids), so I use a tool that allows me to increase speed and productivity in my workflow (10-30 SECONDS max on most photos then a bit more finish work on select images) for the average Hundred photographs I go through every day. Between Free and $1000 are several editing software options. Of course, personally I am pretty sold on one, I have also used and liked Adobe Photoshop Elements ($100), Aperture ($200) and Nikon Capture NX ($150). For the cost of a cheap lens you can drastically increase the overall finish quality of the images you take. I use Adobe Lightroom ($300) for it’s ease of cataloging, workflow and powerful editing tools that are easy and efficient to use. I am just scratching the surface here, but it is essentially just like Photoshop for adjustments of contrast, levels, exposure, color in a slide adjustment interface with the added benefits of having Presets (just like Photoshop’s Actions) and increased workflow of batch editing (awesome) in a much lighter application than heavy duty Photoshop. What it is lacking is that it is NOT a full photo retouching tool (dodging and burning, removing blemishes, fancy artwork, whitening teeth, layers, etc. though there are a few toned-down aspects of things you can do in Lightroom).

Now, on the subject (this is a semi-side note and this is totally just my opinion) of Presets and Actions (which are saved steps in the software which apply dramatic edits to a photo with one easy click of a button; you can create and save your own actions/presets or download/buy ones others have created) While there are tons and tons of Photoshop Actions / Lightroom Presets available for free or fee on the web, (which I actually have a ton of the free ones) lend themselves to “Push” images much farther than they really need to be pushed, hence the more you push an image, the more information (detail, depth, tones, realism and dynamic range) you have to sacrifice. Therefore, I don’t think I would ever use on of my downloaded Presets to print an image larger than 5×7, simply because nearly every single Preset/Action I have in my library takes the image too far, to the point it looks fake. I think most of the people who really dig these actions (at least the before/afters I have seen on blogs and to the point now I have started to recognize the actions by names in portfolios) start off with an image that is poor, if not nearly unusable (in the sense of being able to present it to a client) unless they do something fancy and extreme to the image to differentiate it. In the real world of, Photoshop/Lightroom/Editing it doesn’t take too much of it to see quite a difference in the image. Like a lot of small, insignificant plastic surgery procedures, it can become quickly easy to lose perspective after a few, as you loose sight of the natural reality and characteristics that make the photo subject and intent beautiful. More and more, I’m realizing how disciplined I can be when it comes to Photoshop, aiming to only use it only to bring out the inherent aspects that are already present in a photo—not to turn or manipulate the photo (or subject) into something it’s not (though that can often become an art form on its own, which is yet another different subject). All of the “Presets” I use are ones I have made and saved myself, but mostly, I love LOVE Lightroom for the Copy/Paste function where you can take how you edited one photo and apply it directly to another. Hands down I use that aspect the most, far more than saved Presets.

When I edit photos, I use mostly 3 tools: Exposure, Clarity and White Balance. Now, to use my examples, the image of Pia below was taken on Friday in our living room, the only light coming from our large, front windows on an overcast day.


This version is Straight Out of Camera (SOC), which I never show (in fact, I never do anything with a SOC shot, every single image I upload and use has had some editing adjustments). Overall, it is a pretty good picture of Pia. However, just as is, it’s lacking some oomph that would otherwise make a good picture a great picture. This is a type of image nearly anyone could take- I used the cheapest lens I own (Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 DX VR) and I would say the image is a slight bit under exposed (dark).

I start out looking at the Histogram (below). This shows me the exposure. Ideally, there would be generally a more even Bell Curve showing the range of the image from Darks (Left) to Whites (Right) a bit more centered (you want to see grey curve from edge to edge, mine falls sharply in the lights on the right side). It also shows me that I traded a bit of exposure to gain a lower ISO, here it is 160, and I could have pumped the ISO up to 400 or above and gotten a better exposure, but that would have been at the expense of the image being more grainy (or having ‘noise’) which I hate. I shot this image at a focal length of 55mm, so zoomed in all the way for this lens and as open an aperture (f/5.6) as it will allow me to go. The shutter speed was 1/45th of a second, which is as absolutely slow as I will allow it to go, and only in this case because Pia was sitting relatively still. I can notice a bit of softness in the focus likely due to camera shake, but the VR (Vibration Reduction) in the lens does a pretty good job, though overall this image is not as sharp as I would like.


So what you see in the finished image below is me tweaking 3 overall different things by adjusting in 6 steps: 1.) I increased the exposure almost a full stop to make it brighter (one click). Note I did not increase brightness, which is a common (and different) function and almost always results in washing the entire image out. The exposure slider is the one that should do the heavy lifting regarding the brightness of your image. The brightness slider primarily only adjuts the mid tones while exposure lightens the whole image, so the darkest areas remain dark, the mid-tones don’t get too lost. Essentially I am seeking to shift that entire bell curve in the Histogram to the left which I can do the most effectively by over exposing the image. I also gain brighter, whiter and (on babies and children) softer skin tones without having to go into Photoshop for full retouching or pushing the image until she looks fake. Plus I adjusted the Curves (which deals with shadow and highlight tones) and switched the curve from “linear” to “medium contrast” (two clicks). This gives the curves a slight “S” shape and adds contrast to the image. 2.) I increased the Clarity of the image- this makes edges pop and things look more defined (three clicks). It’s different than Sharpening, which when over used can make an image look really rough. I typically like my images super duper crispy for that added pop. The thing that achieves that the best when shooting people is clear eyes with bright, crisp lights. In Lightroom, there is a brush function that I have saved my own preset to add sharpening, contrast, exposure, etc. in a circle, so I select that function and click on the center of each eye (four and five clicks). 3.) Finally, I thought that the white wall in the background of the original SOC version was a bit on the blue side, so I adjusted the White Balance a hair warmer to get that void to the right of her head to read a true white. I almost never use the Auto White Balance functions, but prefer to slide the Light Temperature warmer or cooler to adjust white balance to taste (six clicks). I typically do this last, as Nikon’s for some reason have a tendency to bring out more reds when increasing exposure during editing.


So that’s it- 6 adjustments, 6 clicks of the mouse : Exposure, Curves, Clarity, Sharp Eyes Brush, Sharp Eyes Brush, White Balance. Done. I think it took me all of 30 seconds.

An additional 7th click on “Grayscale” would get me here:


Then if I were to get really picky I would take the Clone tool and clean up some spots, a scab and a few boogers around her nose.


Here are the results, side by side with the original SOC shot:

breakfast-21 breakfast-22

Pretty crazy, huh? So a decent shot has just made it into my top-rated portfolio bank and collection of images to get printed professionally. If you are interested in exploring editing tools, I would suggest downloading a free trial of Lightroom or Aperture, which allows you to test the software out for 30 days. See if it makes a difference for you too.


~ by gdesign on January 25, 2009.

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