Post Processing & The Creative Process

January Morning at Marshall Point
January Morning at Marshall Point This version is my final edit, and available on my website.

At the top of this post is an image I took last Saturday at Marshall Point. While it was bitterly cold, the rising sun painted the scene with warm tones as sea smoke rose from the waters of Muscongus Bay and clouds moved across an azure sky. The sun caused soft warm tones in the sky, with hints of orange and pink in the clouds.  Tall grasses poked out of the snow with light brown tones that contrasted nicely with the blue sky and white of the snow and ice. The image above is my final edit. I adjusted the color and contrast of the image in Photoshop to get the image to most closely resemble not only what I saw with my eyes and what I felt when I came upon the scene.

This is the histogram from the RAW image of January Morning at Marshall Point. Notice the room on the right hand side of the histogram. The far right represents whites in the scene, and mid-right, where the graph ends, represents highlights. This means I have not lost detail in the snow or the sky, the brightest areas of the image. And while the shadow side of the graph extends to the end on the far left, the very end represents a very small portion of the image where I would not expect to find much detail anyway. This small section represents the islands and darker rocks in the distance. Using this histogram I was able to tell exactly what I could bring out when processing the RAW file.

Below, are five versions of the same file, processed as the camera would have had I used the noted picture style. Notice how flat they are, how lacking in color. Notice how the sky lacks pop and even loses detail. Picture styles are good for general use, but I find they kill more images than they help. Personally, I am not content to settle for images that do not convey my vision. The total time spent post-processing this image for me was less than five minutes.  I did not manufacture elements of the scene. I simply brought out the most in the information I captured.

Landscape Preset
This is the file as would have been rendered in-camera using the Landscape preset. Notice the detail lost in the rocks in the middle ground, and the detail lost in the sky with the whispier clouds having disappeared.

As seems to crop up every now and again, lately, one social media group I am a member of has been debating the merits of the post processing of images versus taking what the camera gives you. I am very firmly planted in the post processing camp.  I firmly believe that post processing of images, whether in a darkroom or in digital form, is an integral part of the photographic process. It is the difference between being someone who shot their own film and used their own darkroom to process and print it, and being someone who shot a roll of film and took it to the local one-hour photo lab and settled for the prints they were given.

Standard Picture Style
This is the image if I had used the “Standard” preset in-camera. I’ve still lost a ton of detail, and the color is still flatter than what I saw as I was on site.

If you went to the lab, you might get some nice prints, but you’ve given up a huge amount of control over the final look of your image.  You might not even realize the amount of creative choices available to you when making prints- things like dodging a shadow to bring out detail here, burning down a highlight area to get better detail in clouds, or even using a detail enhancer on the negative to bring out finer details. It’s the difference between a snapshot and a photograph.

Vivid Picture Style
This is the image using Nikon’s in-camera “Vivid” picture control. The colors pop a little more, but the contrast is still way too high and I’m again losing detail in the middle ground.

I have seen people call the use of images straight out of the camera (SOOC) as “pure” and “true”, as if those of us who do process our images from RAW files are somehow lying. Now, I have seen my share of photo composites that couldn’t possibly be real, but most times the artist has stated that the image is a composite. I have also seen plenty of overprocessed and overdone images (in my opinion). Perhaps some even feel mine are overprocessed and overdone. That said, I don’t feel the need to stand up and proseletyze in a public setting and state that only one way is correct. If I see an image I don’t like, be it due to composition or exposure or processing, I move on without a word. Photography is a subjective and creative process and others are more than welcome to do as they please with their own images, but to call images “pure” or “truthful” because they were taken straight from a digital camera is simply misguided.

Neutral Picture Style
This is the image using the “Neutral” picture style. Neutral makes very little attempt to color correct, leaving less color than was visible through my own eyes.

Without getting too technical, today’s digital cameras do just as much processing to an image as I do. The difference is that they don’t know what it is they were looking at when taking the photo. Digital cameras have various presets- called “Picture Styles” on Canon cameras, and “Picture Controls” on Nikons. These picture styles determine how color is reproduced, how shadows and highlights are rendered, and how fine detail is handled. So, who told the cameras how to do this?  Most likely, a Japanese software engineer. This guy is today’s version of the photo tech who printed your images at the one-hour photo lab. He determines how your photos will look. Yes, you can choose your picture styles in camera yourself, and you can even customize them. But that picture style still starts where our aforementioned engineer says they do.

When you shoot RAW files, the image you see on the screen is still subject to those picture styles. The camera has to start somewhere, so when I photograph with my Nikon D810, I use the “Camera Flat” picture control. This setting is the least contrasty, meaning I can capture the most amount of highlight and shadow detail without losing any. To judge this, I use my histogram to make sure I’ve properly exposed my image. If you’re unaware of what a histogram is, it’s a graph that shows the distribution of highlights, midtones, and shadows within an image. On the left is shadows, the right is highlights, and midtones are in the middle.  The peaks in a histogram simply show how many pixels are at a given tonal level.  Using a histogram is akin to using Ansel Adams’ zone system. You should be able to look at the scene and know where in the histogram a particular part of the scene will land, and even plan for that part of the scene to be in a specific section of your histogram.

Camera Flat Picture Control
This is the Camera Flat picture control I use on my Nikon D810. It produces a lower contrast file with less color saturation than any of the other picture styles and is ideal for post processing.

Adams also used a technique called visualization, meaning he would look at the scene, plot certain sections to fall at certain zones within the zone system, and then know what could be done in the darkroom to get the best final print. I use the histogram in a similar way. By knowing where certain critical areas of my scene fall on the histogram, I know what I can do with those tones in processing, so even if the image on the screen doesn’t look the way I want it to based on the scene I see with my own eyes, I know I can get it. Quite often I’ve heard people complain that they can’t get the image to look in camera the way they saw it with their eyes. This is how you do that.  In-camera picture styles are generalizations.  They will work well for average scenes but as soon as you challenge them just a bit, you will find they fall short.

One last thought: If you truly want an image straight out of the camera, shoot slide film. Different emulsions have their own characteristics, so you choose the type of film you shoot based on the look you want.  Fuji Velvia is contrasty and has saturated colors, and was always a personal favorite of mine. Kodak Ektachrome had more neutral color balance and less contrast. Depending on the emulsion some photographers felt it skewed to the cool side of the color palette. But the bottom line is, when shooting slide film, what you see is what you get.

I’m not here to argue one way is better than another. Photography IS very much an art form, and it’s up to each individual to choose how they fulfill their creative needs. What I will argue is when someone states that one approach is “pure” or “true”. I will again state my opinion that those who argue that side don’t really understand the complete photographic process.

Feel free to comment, but please keep it civil.


Why I Shoot RAW

LIPG_RAW_ClassAs a photographer involved in not only selling my images, but also educating other photographers, I’ve often heard other photographers state unequivocally that their images are “straight out of the camera.” They generally follow this up with a statement that what the camera records is “the true image”, or it’s a “more realistic image”.  This is said for one of a few reasons. It could be that these photographers don’t understand exactly what it is the camera is doing, or they don’t understand how to process their images. Or it could just be that they don’t want to put the work in on the post processing side of things. Now, I don’t have a problem with that last reason. As the artist, it is your choice as to when you consider your work complete. I do, however, take issue with the insinuation that processing a RAW file is somehow untruthful, especially if there is no understanding of what the camera does to a file recorded as a JPEG- i.e. “straight out of the camera.”

Montauk Point Sunrise
Montauk Point Sunrise, December 2015

Without getting overly technical, when you set your camera to record JPEG files, you are telling the camera to make decisions about brightness, contrast, and color saturation, that are then baked into the final image. JPEGs are 8-bit files. What this means in practical purposes is that your camera will record 256 shades of grey for each color in the image, from bright white, to deep black. All tones in the image get squeezed into this range. By comparison, a 14-bit RAW file can support over 16,000 shades of grey for each color, making the tonality smoother and richer. For web display, you’ll end up at an 8-bit file anyway, because for display on the web you’ll be using JPEGs. But if you intend to print at all, you want to be able to start working with as much information as possible, which means working with the RAW file.

When you’re shooting JPEG files, you generally will select a picture style for your camera to use on the photos. These can include Standard, Landscape, Portrait, Neutral, Faithful, Flat, or some variation of those, depending on the brand of camera you’re using. When you select a certain picture style, you are telling the camera how to process the image. For instance, Landscape picture style will use more vibrant color and add more contrast to an image, while neutral will have more muted colors and less contrast. Standard is somewhere in between, with good vibrant color and contrast without being overblown. But the camera is making the decisions as to which colors to saturate and what tones are recorded. Generally speaking, the camera won’t record the scene as you saw it, because it simply cannot record enough tones (remember, only 256 shades) to adequately capture a sunset.

Sunset Over the Icy Shores of Fire Island

Now all of that brings me to the RAW file. A RAW file, in the simplest explanation, is actually a pair of files. One file is a recording of each pixel’s brightness (one of over 16,000 shades).  The other part of the file is a data file that tells the RAW processing program, such as Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW, what color each pixel was, what the contrast should be (based on the camera’s picture style setting) and more. The beautiful thing about the RAW file is that all of the settings can be adjusted. You can adjust the white balance, either to correct your mistake, or for creative reasons. You can adjust contrast, individually adjust highlights, shadows, and individual colors to be more how you would like them to appear.  The brightness of the file can be adjusted. For instance, if for some reason you underexpose the file, you have the ability to increase the exposure by 4 to 5 stops in Lightroom. By the same token, if you slightly overexpose, you can pull back the exposure by the same 4 to 5 stops. And the beauty of all of these adjustments is that they can all be undone if you decide you want to start over. All editing on a RAW file is non-destructive. You can’t save over a RAW file unless you actively find the file and delete it from your computer. Think of it as a digital negative, if you recall what it’s like to shoot film. This kind of control allows me to get the image to look EXACTLY as I want it, whether I am trying to achieve an exact match of what I saw, or convey the feeling of what I saw, rather than a literal interpretation.

So, the point I am making, at the end of all of that, is that I shoot RAW because it gives me greater control over my final image. I don’t allow the camera to make the final decision on anything in the image. It can all be adjusted later when I process the file. Just my opinion, but if you really want to make the most of your images, you should be shooting RAW files and learning what’s possible in processing a RAW file.

If you’d like to learn how I work with RAW files, I will be teaching a class on Saturday, March 26th at 10am at the Long Island Photo Gallery in Islip, NY.  For more information, visit the Long Island Photo Gallery.

Staying Local

Sunset at Horton Point, NY
This was the last shot I took. I was walking back to the stairs to go back up the cliff and spotted this composition. When I viewed the three shots on my camera's LCD, I was pretty sure I had a winner.

So I love to go to exotic locales- specifically US National Parks- as much as anyone.  They are my favorite locations to shoot.  But sadly, I don’t live anywhere within 3 hours of a true National Park.  So when I’m just itchin’ to make some pictures, I have to look closer to home. Thankfully, living in New York, specifically on Long Island, offers me a few opportunities.

I do get bored with Long Island tho. I’ve scouted out my favorite locations, shot them countless times, and quite honestly, I’m scared I’ll get stale.  So last night I went to a location I’d been to before, but had never truly photographed properly. This spot is a sunset spot, thanks to the high cliffs, on the the north shore of the North Fork of Long Island.  At sunrise, the entire area is in shadow.  The location? The beach at Horton Point, looking out onto the Long Island Sound, in Southold, NY.

Thanks to the bright sky and some backlighting, the huge amount of contrast put these scenes well out of the dynamic range of the camera. A Neutral Density Grad helped some, but was an imperfect solution.  Still too much contrast, and the rocks got a weird gradient on them.  So, the next solution? HDR.  I have slowly gotten more and more into HDR, as I seek to find ways to render the scenes more as I saw them, rather than simply as the camera is capable of.

Long Island Sound at Dusk
Horton Point at Sunset

For these shots, I took 3 images. One at even exposure, one at -3 stops, and one at +3.   I was using the EOS 5D Mark II, and EF 24mm f/1.4L II lens.

For some more great Long Island Photos, click here: long island photos

For this one, I knew it was going to be tough, thanks to the sun being directly behind the rocks. But I wanted the color in the sky, AND detail in the rocks, so again, taking three shots, with a range of plus/minus 3 stops, I was able to get this. I'm using Nik HDR Efex Pro to blend the exposures.

Photoshop Replaces Talent?

This is an image of Mount Brooks as it would have come straight from my camera, using the Landscape picture style. Not bad, but definitely not complete in my eyes.
This is the same image, processed from the RAW file, using Digital Photo Pro and Photoshop. This image does a much better job of capturing the emotion I felt, flying up to this mountain. The same elements exist, and my exposure had to be perfect, but using Photoshop to bring out elements, dodging and burning certain areas, and enhancing color rendition, brings the image to a new level.

I have been struck recently by the number of people who seem to think that using Photoshop to enhance photos- or do post-processing of any kind- is somehow cheating. Recently, on my trip to Alaska, I was in a store that had photos from a local photographer who did an amazing series on the northern lights.  The shots were beautiful, but a comment from one of the staff when I asked about the prints struck me: “He doesn’t do any manipulation in Photoshop- everything is just as it came out of the camera.” I shrugged and walked away. First of all, I believe the statement is a bit disingenuous- there is post processing done on every shot taken with today’s digital cameras. Either you’re doing it yourself, or you’re letting your camera do it for you.

Then this morning, I was reading George Lepp’s column in Outdoor Photographer. A reader wrote in, railing against “post-processing” and wondering whether Photoshop has replaced photographic talent. George very nicely dispels “the myth of the simple, good old days of photography, where photographers were judged on their skills behind the viewfinder.” George then explains that it was the print that was judged, and whether you or someone else made the print, darkroom work- yesteryear’s “post-processing”- was still an essential part of photography.

George then sites Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez, NM” as a perfect example.  In the book “Ansel Adams: Some Thoughts About Ansel And About Moonrise“, by Mary Street Alinder

The finished "Moonrise, Hernandez, NM" print, by Ansel Adams

(Copyright 1999 Alinder Gallery), Mary Street Alinder explains:

“Moonrise, the negative, was far from perfect. It took me two years to convince Ansel to make a ‘straight’ print of Moonrise. He printed it without his customary darkroom manipulation as a teaching tool to show the basic information contained within the negative. Comparing this print with a fine print, one is struck by the immense work and creativity necessary for Ansel to produce what he believed to be the best interpretation of the negative. His final, expressive print is not how the scene looked in reality, but rather how it felt to him emotionally.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- clicking the

The contact print for "Moonrise" by Ansel Adams

shutter is only half of the process. And asking “Is that what it really looked like?” is somewhat misguided is well.  That’s what it looked like to

ME.  All of the elements were there, but it’s my skill in Photoshop, and my skill at the moment the moment

of exposure, as well as my eye for composition, that brings out everything I saw.