After more than 4 years of posting to this blog (thanks to all of you for reading my posts) the time has come for an article regarding photo editing. It’s not meant to be a general purpose tutorial (there are countless on the web) but more like a personal opinion regarding the art of adding a personal touch to pictures. During years I developed a work-flow that helped me improve the quality of my photos. This was done in more steps, starting with simple editing in ViewNX2 and ending with processing in Lightroom and (since recently) using Photoshop.
So let me share with you my findings regarding photo editing. But first a few words about selection.
The selection process
First, I need to select the photos that I want to edit. After returning from the shooting session, I can have hundreds (or even thousands) of RAW pictures on the card. And yes, you read right. I always shoot RAW (14 bit for best quality) to have greatest flexibility in editing. Only when I’m 100% sure I won’t edit the frames I shoot JPEG.
So many pictures can’t all be edited. As I probably mentioned before, my motto is “shoot as much as you can, keep as few photos as possible”. The idea of shooting is experimenting, probing, changing framing, composition and other settings, trying different angles until … the perfect situation arrives. And then one knows what to do.
Why keep only a small part of the pictures? The reasons are obvious. On the one hand photo editing is very costly. I can spend even an hour editing A SINGLE PICTURE. On the other hand not everything is worth keeping. In fact only a small part “deserves” this.
To sum up, I make a thorough selection using the “ten percent rule”: maximum 10% of the taken frames will be edited. Usually even less arrive in the editing tools, especially when shooting insects (maybe 4-5% remain in the optimistic scenario). For selecting the photos I use ViewNXi (OS X version) as it helps me manage the selection easily.
Once the selection is finished I can start the actual editing process.
Second, after I finished sorting the photos, I import the ones marked for editing in Lightroom. In fact here I do most of my work. The editing takes place in three sessions.
In the first round I take each photo individually and perform three steps:
- Step 1: I crop the photo and adjust the tilt angle if necessary. For example if a building looks like the tower of Pisa I need to adjust the angle. And regarding cropping it’s the easiest way to get rid of unwanted objects that are located at the margins of the frame. It might also be required in order to better emphasize the subject, e.g. if the focal length was not long enough. Ideally no cropping would be required, but this is only … ideally.
- Step 2: I use the spot removal tool to clear the picture from unwanted spots (e.g. because of dirty sensor) or other tiny objects. I don’t use it for removing larger objects, as in my opinion it is not efficient (see Session 3 for details regarding the alternative). I can hear you ask: why do this step from the start? The answer is because otherwise Lightroom might become very slow in this operation. Lightroom uses the so called “non-destructive editing”, meaning that all change operations applied to a picture will be kept on a stack. If the stack becomes larger, the tool might become sluggish, especially when performing compute-intensive operations like this one. So better do it from the start!
- Step 3: If required, I use the adjustment brush for removing noise from certain areas of the picture. One caution: don’t use “auto-mask” unless you work at the borders of the area you desire to select. It will slow your computer and you will have to work more to ensure the desired surface is 100% covered. Use it only near the borders so you don’t exceed them. To see the selection clearly, I usually set an exposure compensation of +2EV after clicking the brush starting point on the desired area. When the whole area is selected I change it back to 0EV, adjust the noise to the desired value and close the brush.
- Step 4: I make some “global” (read “initial”) settings to the first picture and then apply them to all pictures by using the Sync button (obviously I deselect the settings from the first 3 steps before syncing). These settings are:
- contrast: I usually set it to 50
- vibrance: 25
- remove chromatic aberration
- increase sharpness to 50
- adjust noise reduction (luminance to 15-25, color to 50-100 depending on the ISO value I usually used for shooting this batch of pictures)
- enable profile corrections (profile of the used lens, e.g Nikon 16-85mm is applied). Usually I put distortion correction to 0 (unless I shoot architecture or other objects with straight lines) so I don’t lose resolution and set vignette correction to maximum (200) in order to have as much light as possible on the edges.
In the second session I start fine-tuning the settings mentioned at Step 4 for each individual picture until the results are satisfactory. In addition I adjust other parameters like:
- exposure compensation
- camera calibration settings (R/G/B channels saturation/hue). I only use these if absolutely necessary (this happens usually in landscape pictures). I rarely touch the blue channel hue as it might have some unwanted effects.
- white balance
- tone curve (usually I don’t touch it)
- de-haze (for landscapes only – a very powerful feature which I recommend to any landscape photographer)
- (global) saturation (only if required and only in small values like 5 or 10, otherwise the pictures might look unnatural – better increase the vibrance if you require more vivid colors)
I perform more iterations on the pictures in which I fine-tune all the above mentioned settings. When I’m satisfied with the results I step over to next session.
The last editing session occurs in Photoshop. After all processing has been finished in Lightroom, I take a look at each photo and check if any items need to be removed (other than those already erased with spot removal). This is done to ensure that the viewer’s attention is not distracted from the subject. Good examples are: a garbage can sitting near a beautiful piece of architecture, a plastic bottle thrown in the river by an uneducated folk.
If anything needs to be taken out I export the picture in Photoshop (a TIFF file is created based on the RAW). Then in PS I use either the Clonestamp tool or the Content Aware Fill to remove the unwanted object. The choice of the correction tool depends on the area surrounding the item but in some situations it might be a combination of both.
Before making the first change I duplicate the background layer. Then I start editing and from time to time I create a new layer (by duplicating the current one) and continue with the changes until the photo has been corrected appropriately. After all modifications have been done I save and close the TIFF (in Lightroom it will appear next to the RAW file) and proceed to the next picture.
When the Photoshop session is done I can say the whole editing process is finished. I go to Lightroom and select all TIFFs (for photos handled in Session 3) and RAWs (for all other photos from the batch) and export them to JPEG files. End of story!
As mentioned before, this work-flow has been developed over years. It is not final and probably some changes will be done in the nearby future. I am open to suggestions from your side and would like to hear your comments and opinions.
Hoping that you will find this post useful I wish you good luck both with photography and the editing process! And above all…good light!
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