I think the biggest step forward for me in advancing my photography came when I realized how important it is to process one’s images. Using the term processing as a general reference for the various stages of image manipulation is what I like, though others may call it developing, editing, even photoshopping–though that usually references something a little different. It’s old news that you must refine your image to truly make a great fine art photo; the darkroom was the original image processing venue. While it was done with chemistry and physical manipulation instead of software, the essence is the same.
The key to that with a digital camera is of course shooting in RAW, as it gives you the most data to process. But once you take the step of shooting in RAW, you’ve just started down a path that can go pretty far. Though great photography can happen with a simple camera and simple software, the vast majority of things I’ve learned about photography in the last ten years have almost all happened in Lightroom and Photoshop.
It has gotten to a point for me that I’ve begun to go back and pick out favorite images of mine that I had processed one way — usually with simpler techniques than I’m capable of now — and take another swing at the RAW. Lightroom and Photoshop RAW have changed their processes since I first started shooting in RAW almost a decade ago, so the data you can pull is often different just from the start. Too, my understanding of photoshop has grown exponentially, so I often find it worth that second swing at a final JPG from a RAW. And color theory and other concepts have entered my thinking. I find most often images that I processed originally as a black and white I get the most value from reprocessing in color.
In that vein, I’d like to share a couple images that I’ve recently reprocessed and a few details about my technique. This isn’t a straight tutorial but rather just a discussion about where I’ve come and a look at a RAW “zeroed” in lightroom to create a straight out of camera (SOOC) JPG, my first process and then my second and any bits of information I think someone might find useful. I hope this helps anyone reading this to move further down that path of refining your images!
This series of images is from a trip of mine to the Olympic Peninsula, where the Pacific Ocean meets the very northwestern corner of Washington. I was shooting the RAW to try and catch the waves with just the right amount of blur, which was tough in the post-sunset light without introducing too much noise. I think I settled on about half a second, ISO800 f/8. As you can see it’s still a bit dark, but that’s the joy of RAW, especially with a full-frame Nikon — I can pull it a ridiculous amount of stops up without too much quality issues.
The black and white version captures the feel to a degree but it’s a bit too dark and is missing something, or so I felt. I don’t have issue with black and white photography, and I enjoy it very much but I made a choice a year or two ago to focus on color. That’s part of the reason I’ve gone back and reprocessed black and whites to color. I find I mainly processed in black and white at that time because it was easier to manipulate the image to get what I wanted — I was working almost exclusively in lightroom and hardly ever kicked an image out to photoshop. Main techniques here were pretty simple. Manipulation of the exposure sliders and the single curves layer that lightroom gives you, as well as the blacks slider and the whites slider.
As you can see the color version is much brighter and clearer. Techniques include probably 10+ curves layers, masked onto appropriate areas. Sampling from other shots from this same vantage point (I took many exposures in an effort to time the waves right), hue/saturation layers to shift color slightly, color balance layers to adjust shadows and highlights, soft light layers to fine tune luminosity and color. Patch tool to remove some distracting lights on the edge of the frame. I have a bit of a routine but the basis of most of my processing is just going through and establishing a flow and then reinforcing it by removing distracting elements that don’t add to the photo.
In this case I prefer the color version pretty strongly. While often over time I will look back and cringe at the level of color I introduce (and I’m sure I will here as well), I think it’s becoming a hallmark of photos I prefer. While I may lay a -10 saturation adjustment layer on this eventually, I think I’ll always like those strong colors.
Next is Baker from Heliotrope.
Here is one of my long time favorites — I shot this image in 2009 at the end of a long melt but before the first snows — mid October. It’s tough to see Baker this melted out, but I really enjoy the texture of the rock. The SOOC is pretty flat though not as rough a start as the previous image. This was shot on my Canon 50D when I was still invested in that brand, so I didn’t have as much dynamic range to work with. Thankfully the shot is fairly evenly exposed and doesn’t need too much manipulation in that regard.
The black and white version is still pretty enjoyable for me. Again, just as with the last image, I mostly worked this over with the basic sliders — exposure, blacks and whites and the curves adjustment panel. I further manipulated it by having the B&W conversion panel push blues towards the blacks to make the sky empty and further highlight the crispy, high-contrast look of the mountain. At this point I was exclusively in Lightroom — I think it was Lightroom 2 or 3.
The color version is also done in Lightroom, but with Lightroom 4’s brush adjustments utilized heavily. I still pushed blues towards black, but this time in color — I brushed exposure / saturation / contrast adjustments all over the image, including the glacier and sky. I pushed the individual color saturation sliders around a bit instead of using the universal adjustment, trying to highlight the color contrast between the reddish rock and the aqua glacial ice. Also, as on all my images now, I made sure the lens profile adjustment was on to even out the distortion.
This is a case where I still really enjoy the black and white version — if I had to choose a favorite, I might go with that one. My portfolio on this site is exclusively color now, because I feel that’s where I had the most to learn, but this is one that I would have in my landscapes portfolio if it wasn’t for that.
It’s an interesting journey, working on improving and adapting your photography. There are a lot of paths to explore. Often, I explore an area of photography that fascinates me for a time, only to back up and resume doing things the way I used to. Other times I go so far down a path of technique that I almost can’t remember what it was like before I did it the way I do now. I hope this retrospective has helped someone, somewhere, start thinking about how their own photos have changed!