This post was written by photographer Belinda Greb. To view Belinda’s work, please visit the websites in her bio at the bottom of this page.
Every photographer has their own process that begins just before they take the picture and ends when they have a finished file ready for printing. No one process is correct, but nearly every photographer I’ve talked to is curious about how others process their photographs. I think most of us are eager to learn and refine our own processes in an effort to make our images better and more in line with the vision we have inside our head and want to express.
Some photographers believe that most everything should be done in the camera with very little processing on the back end. That is all very well if you can wait for the perfect light, the perfect moment, and if what you are aiming for is a realistic representation of what you are seeing (an arguable aim since a camera cannot yet match the amazing complexity of our eyes). While I agree that you should try and do as much as you can in the camera, especially in regards to composition, exposure and aperture, I love the post process. That is where the image becomes truly my own via selection, choice, and artistic process. I am not a fan of adding color, sharpening, saturation, etc. via the camera, but to each his own.
This post will be about my own general process. I’ve modified my process after I’ve learned new software or techniques and will continue to do so.
I rarely use a batch process. I might make some Lightroom adjustments to a group of similar images taken within a span of 5-10 minutes, but each image will be processed individually. That’s just me. I’m not doing stock photography where batch processing would be very helpful. I like concentrating on one image at a time. For whatever image I choose to work on, that image has beckoned to my sensibility in its own way. Each is a unique entity that I sit and look at and decide what to emphasize what is needed. Some need more work than others. A photograph may be technically perfect but leave me cold, and one can be flawed but still be something I want to work.
First, I shoot in RAW. My camera color and picture settings on my camera are Adobe RGB and Neutral. I prefer to make color adjustments as part of the post process as opposed to a formula within the camera that is making those decisions for me.
I try to set my ISO at the lowest possible setting and shoot mostly in Aperture-mode, but I often change exposure compensation on the fly and sometimes switch to Manual-mode as well. If I’m shooting wildlife, I set my camera to spot-metering, and for landscapes, evaluative. I am adept at changing my auto-focusing points as I go, and though I try to veer away from a center focus point, I use my instinct for composition, and don’t really pay attention to “rules” as I shoot. I will manually fine-tune my auto focusing especially when using my telephoto in low light, but generally no longer rely on my eyes to manually focus.
Unless I’m running out of disc space in the field (which has happened), I don’t delete photographs from the camera. Once I import my photographs onto my computer, I have a simple and fast method of ranking. I mark everything with 1 star. Then I go through on an Adobe Bridge slideshow. If an image is beyond help, I reset the stars to 0. I work quickly employing my first impressions and zooming in quickly to 100% to check on sharpness. Anything over 3 stars gets taken into Lightroom and then I start to work on the photographs that I’m most excited about.
Note on Lightroom
I started using Lightroom almost two years ago when I swallowed the bitter pill of subscription and decided to upgrade to the Photoshop CC from my Creative Suite 5. I don’t use Lightroom for a file management system as I was already using Adobe Bridge. I do initially title imported Raw files with the place/subject, date, and sequence number. I don’t take the time to use key-wording up front, because the sites I upload to have different formats, I’m impatient to get right into the processing, and it is a tedious process I prefer to do only for the photos I’m going to upload. Lightroom has an intuitive and streamlined RAW processing which I believe is superior to the Photoshop RAW processing which is also very good.
Starting the Process with Lightroom (LR)
For the purpose of this piece, I will be taking you through the processing of one photograph from start to finish. Right away you will see that this photo had some type of weird blue spot – a result of my lens hood and the lens being used at its widest, 24mm. This happens on occasion, but not for every 24mm shot. I haven’t taken the time to analyze why – possibly the direction of light? This was a handheld morning shot, at 400 ISO, a shutter speed of 200 and 8.0 aperture opening. It’s a shot that might have been better with a tripod, but the tripod was probably up the hill in the parking lot (a very steep hill I might add). If I had used a tripod, though, I could have reduced the ISO to 100 and used a narrower aperture setting, but who know what the effect would have been on the water, as the exposure would have been lengthened.
The fix for the blue corner spot was easy, as the sky was fairly flat and the area small. I simply used the Spot Removal Tool in Lightroom using clone rather than heal, and feathering and opacity at fairly high levels, but not 100%. If the fix needed was more complex, I would have waited to fix in Photoshop. I also like to fix any lens spots from dust or water at this point. I thoroughly cleaned my lens before my vacation, but hiking and shooting in a changing climate, you end up with spots. You often won’t see them until you zoom in at 100%.
LR is designed so that processing is done in the order of the sections. I consistently make the following LR adjustments: Basic adjustments (using sliders to adjust highlights, shadows, even exposure, up clarity ad contrast a smidgeon). Then I make finer adjustments in the next tab down, Tone Curve. I also do some preliminary sharpening in Details along with noise reduction, and finally adjust Lens Corrections (it will pick up on the lens you’ve used). In this last area, you can also straighten for horizons.
This is the photograph after initial LR adjustments. You can see that contrast, clarity, and structure have improved especially in the clouds, the smaller mountain in the foreground’s detail and the reflection. Note the change in the histogram between the last exhibit and this. Also note the tools near the top of the LR Panel below the histogram. I will sometimes use the Cropping Overlay (1st), and the Graduated and Radial Filters to adjust exposure and highlights for selected areas (4th and 5th) as well as the Spot Removal Tool (2nd).
Photoshop (PS) and Nik Color Efex (CE)
Next I will open the image up in Photoshop. A couple of years back I added the Nik Collection as a plug in to Photoshop. I really love this suite of products. I consistently use Color Efex, Define and Output Sharpening. The Nik Collection makes use of Control Points that you use to selectively apply changes. You can also adjust opacity levels, on the Control Points.
Color Efex has a slew of filters. I almost always use Tonal Contrast. This brings out detail and contrast. I can use a control point to add the effect to just one or a few areas, or the effect will be applied to the whole area, except where I add a control point to exclude an area(s). The control points also have an opacity slider. The red line seen in the next screen shot is a slider in CE that you can slide back and forth to see the before and after.
Another two effects I often use in CE are either the Dark/Lighten Center or Vignette Lens. Here I chose the Dark/Lighten Center. You can place your center to subtly highlight the area you want to be the center of your image.
Other favorites, but not used for this image are Sunlight, which softens and gives a romantic golden light to the image or Glamour glow where the glow is more subtle and doesn’t have a color cast.
Accepting the changes, I bring the image back to PS where I could adjust the opacity of the CE layer or add a mask. In this case, I did neither. The changes are subtle for this image as I went easy on the tonal contrast since the mist of the shifting clouds creates an ethereal mood that would be lost or diminished with higher contrasts.
Noise Reduction and Sharpening
Now, one downside of digital photography is that a camera sensor does create noise, especially at a high ISO (equivalent of a faster film). Other things that create noise are long exposures and applied filters via CE or HDR software. Define in CE is what I go to first to decrease noise, but if I’m not satisfied with the results, I will try Topaz DeNoise or PS noise reduction instead. Once I have a noise reduction layer, I almost always add a layer mask to the result. Any noise reduction program works by blurring pixels. If you look at your image (you should be sporadically checking the image at 100%), you will see noise is more evident in certain areas than others: blue skies, big areas of continuous colors, shadows. By using a mask, you can apply the noise reduction in the areas that need it the most and minimize the reduction or leave other areas alone.
The same goes for sharpening. I use Nik’s Sharpener Pro 3: (2) Output Sharpener, most of the time and always with a mask. However, if I’m not satisfied, I will try PS’s Unsharp Mask, Smart Sharpen or for some photos, I’ve been experimenting with the Shake Reduction Sharpener. It’s important to realize if the image is being printed, it will be a bit softer than what shows on your screen, and the larger the print is, more sharpening will be needed.
Masks and Luminance Masks
Rather than painting your own masks, it’s much faster to either use a color channel to create a mask or a luminance mask. I love luminance masks and use Jimmy McIntyre’s free action downloads. Once you add the masks, they will be added to your channels panel, right beneath the color channels. These are a series of bright, dark and mid-tone masks that are added to your channels panel. If red, green or blue works, then don’t bring them in as they increase your file size dramatically.
Click on the best mask for your image, then click on the marching ants icon, return to layers panel and add a layer mask. Remember that on masks, black conceals, white reveals. Sometimes I might choose a color mask and then invert it.
Once you’re near the end of your processing, remember to delete the luminance mask to reduce your file size.
Below, you will see the mask I used on the sharpening for this image. I modified it by painting black on some areas where I wanted less sharpening. Compare the initial chosen mask (one of JM’s dark luminance masks) and then the modified mask below.
I also added a vibrancy layer with a mask to bring up intensity of color in water and mountain.
I still wanted a bit more color intensity to match what I remembered, so I copied a layer, ran a high pass PS filter, then reduced using a luminosity mode (under Menu/Edit/Fade), and blended that layer via Soft Light. I again dialed back on this effect by reducing the opacity to 70% and using the same luminosity mask I used on the Vibrance Layer.
For this particular image, the individual steps weren’t drastic, yet the post processing not only corrected some flaws like a slightly slanted horizon line, lens spots (from water or dust spots), and noise, but also worked to bring out detail, contrast and color from the RAW file.
The first photo below shows the image as it was when first imported to Lightroom, and the second image is what I uploaded to my website. Again, the process might include fewer or more steps for another image, but I do hope this has been interesting to you.
Belinda Greb is a nature and wildlife photographer from Vida, Oregon. With years of experience capturing her environment on camera, she excels at translating what she discovers while traveling, hiking or walking through everyday life into an art for all to appreciate. Belinda also holds a master’s in English literature. If you’d like to learn more about Belinda, please visit her website. You can also follow her on Twitter.