This is the start of a new series on my blog that I hope to add to at least once a month that I’m calling “You Asked”. At the moment, I get dozens, if not hundreds, of emails a month from aspiring photographers and people that follow my work asking me a multitude of questions. I don’t mind at all answering: after all, you don’t learn what you don’t seek out. However, since I find myself responding to a lot of these questions in a similar manner, I thought it would only make sense to put them someplace that’s public, where they can be read by all.
Over the past few years, I’ve learned much of what I know from creeping the blogs of other photographers. It’s amazing how a little insight can lead to your own “for the love of God, I finally get it” moments. I remember reading a Zach Arias blog on how to photograph on white seamless a couple years back. At the time, I was really struggling to make white seamless images that popped. This tutorial really laid down the foundation, for me, on how to do decent seamless work. And I’ve built upon what I learned there and morphed it and finessed it into something I can now call my own. Which is the nature of learning, and studying the work of others: not to copy, but to grow.
So today’s theme is editing. Not in the sense of a Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 on how to edit an image: there’s trillions of bytes online already dedicated to that subject. Rather, I want to talk a little about my editing process and what programs I use for editing. Every photographer has their own process, and it’s usually the result of hundreds of hours of mucking around in programs way over your head, making millions of mistakes, until things start coming together and you come up with a process that works for you. I’ve never taken formal training on this – I’ve just stumbled along, hit my head a few times while tripping, and come across a process that gets me by.
My Editing Process:
Decide What You Want To Do With Your Image – this is important. I don’t open up each and every image I process with the thought “Shit, I have to do a bunch of Photoshop on this, where do I start?” Rather, editing, for me, is an outcome of what I’m trying to achieve with each particular image. For most of my creative photoshoots where big or small flash are involved, there’s remarkably little Photoshop used (Note: I use the term Photoshop for any editing; truth be told, 95% of my processing is done in Adobe Lightroom). That’s the beauty of using light effectively….it does the Photoshop for you, in the field and in the camera. Take the following image, “A Warrior’s Soul”, one of my personal favourites. With the exception of a tiny straightening of a horizon line and some dust spot clean-up in Lightroom, this image is 100% straight out-of-camera with no other adjustments.
Photograph With The Post-Processing In Mind : Other images, I photograph with a certain Photoshop process in mind. This maternity image, of my friend Nicole, was photographed with the intent of adding the birds in after-the-fact in Photoshop. But again, the core image hasn’t been Photoshopped basically at all: those were my colours and my composition to begin with: using lighting in the field can allow you to get some pretty rich colours and some pretty stylistic, soft, or moody images (depending on your preference).
So about when I shoot “natural light”. This is the ironic thing to me: for me, personally, when I shoot natural light it often leads to much greater post-processing than when I photograph with lights in order for it to look natural. Go figure. Very often, I find your camera chooses a white balance for you that is really off to what your eye is seeing. Or colours are just duller than what you know to be true. So when I shoot an outdoor portrait session with natural light, I find I have a system that usually involves:
- Import into Lightroom (actually, all my images are imported into Lightroom as a first step)
- Correct any exposure issues. This usually means using the exposure and brightness sliders in conjunction with the tone curve (mainly touching the shadow and light sliders). Essentially, looking for adjustments that represent what my eye thinks is an image with a nice exposure. Nothing more, nothing less. A powerful tool that I often use is the fill light slider. I’m not a fan of images that have extreme contrast. This helps lighten your shadows enough that you can see a little detail in the blacks.
- Correct my white balance. Again, a powerful tool. Cameras are often wrong with the white balance they choose, and this is where shooting in RAW format had huge benefits: you can change your white balance after the fact without harming the overall file. Using a slight warming or cooling of an image can give it a much stronger feel if you’re not completely happy with the colour out of camera.
- Vibrance/Saturation. Barely ever use these, and not a fan of overly saturated images. You can almost always tell an image that has been punched up in Lightroom/Photoshop. If you’re going to use these, use them with caution. Gentle strokes. Being subtle goes a long way.
- Aside from the above, which represents most of what I do in Lightroom, I occasionally use the Luminance slider (colour selective) to powerful effect, and some selective sharpening. What don’t I do with pretty much all of my natural light images? Open them in Photoshop. Why? It’s not because I dislike Photoshop….it’s more because that’s just an extra step that takes more time. Time is my most precious commodity, and anything I can do to keep my editing/processing streamlined is a huge benefit to me. And Lightroom is such a powerful tool that I rarely have to go that far with an image.
In this following example, here’s a before and after on a typical natural light photo showing the result of some very basic adjustments in Lightroom which likely took me no more than 20 seconds to preform:
The above is the jist of what I use 95% of the time. However, there are always exceptions. When I shoot beauty/fashion, there’s always a small amount of skin smoothing involved. I’m not a fan of the magazine ad “plastic” look and try to stay away from it as much as possible. When I see photos posted that have plastic skin or eyes that are completely unnaturally saturated, there’s nothing about the image that screams “oh, beautiful” to me. I’m more of a minimalist when it comes to my editing process. But then again, at risk of sounding like a hypocrite, there’s always exceptions. Take the following image, for example. My intent with this image was to have a very bright, white, high-key look to it…but with contrast. My lighting only went so far, and then Photoshop took over. And I loved the end result….and that’s the key thing, here. It’s all subjective. What I hate you might love. What I love, you might hate. That’s okay. That’s art. We’re all allowed to form our own opinions and methods.
Finally, it terms of other programs I own, the only other one that I use from time-t0-time is Nix Color Efex Pro 3.0. Great little program with lots of cool features. My favourite settings in it are “tonal contrast” and “glamour glow”. But there’s dozens of others that I haven’t even scratched the surface of yet.
So that’s a very quick run-down of my thoughts to processing. As a rule, I prefer less rather than more when it comes to processing, but not always. Joel Grimes and Aaron Nace are huge examples. Both are photographers whose work I greatly admire whose process includes boatloads of post-processing. But it works for them. Which means it works for me.