Post-Processing - Ten Guidelines

June 05, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Post-processing is a reality today if you shoot digital. And it's easy, when you're just starting out, to be a bit heavy-handed with your post-processing. Those sliders in Lightroom are so powerful, and those new Nik plugins you got just blow your mind! Our images begin to look so much different (maybe even better) than they did in camera that we become enamored with the contrast, saturation, and clarity sliders. They become our new post-processing drug.

But oftentimes, especially when we're first starting out, our images end up looking a bit cartoonish. Oversaturated. Unnatural. And I know that sometimes over saturation (and other things) can be a genuine part of your creative vision. I get that. In photography, as in all art, there really are very few lines. But it's also true that many experienced photographers tend toward less obvious post-processing. They become not quite so heavy-handed and a lot more nuanced and subtle in their image processing. I've heard more than one long-time professional use the term "finishing" to apply to their post-processing work. Most of the heavy lifting has been done in camera, and all they're doing in post-processing is tweaking a few minor things.

Well, how much post-processing is really necessary? Where do you start? How much is too much? These are great questions, and one I thought I'd take a stab at answering. Here are 10 questions to ask yourself when you're sitting in front of your computer screen trying to figure out what to do. Work through them one-by-one, and take your time.

1. What’s wrong with the image as-is? This is a good place to start. Before you start moving sliders all around, study your image. What really needs changing? If you can't identify concretely what it is you don't like about the image, you have no business starting to move sliders all around. Make a list if you have to, but spend some time studying your image and identifying what you don't like about it.

2. Does the whole image need something, or only parts of the image? This is a helpful question that aims to keep us from making global changes when maybe a few local, selective changes would do the trick.

3. Is the White Balance right? Are the colors as they should be? If you're staring at an image of a person, for instance, and they look like the Great Pumpkin, you probably need to adjust your White Balance.

4. Are the highlights and shadows pleasing? Sometimes highlights are too harsh and draw the viewer's attention away from the subject of the photo. In this case, they might need pulled back a bit. Also, remember that shadows give dimension and depth to your image, so don’t try to eliminate them. In my landscape images, I want my shadows to hold some detail, but only slightly.

5. Does the image need more contrast? If you shoot in RAW, as I recommend you do, you probably need to add a little contrast. But you may not need to add much.

6. Does the image need some clarity? I confess, clarity is my post-processing drug of choice. Clarity simply enhances mid-tone contrast, and it can really make the texture of an image pop. Remember, though, that it can quickly become too much. This is especially true with portraits. Remember also that you don’t have to add clarity to the whole image. Sometimes a little bit here and there is enough. And finally, you can take away clarity (sometimes referred to as adding negative clarity) by moving the clarity slider to the left. This is sometimes helpful to soften an image (or parts of an image).

7. Does the image (or parts of the image) need more (or less) saturation? Another slider that's overused by many. My personal motto for much of life is, "If some's good, more's better." That works out great with some things (money, garlic, fun, firewood), but not with others. Saturation is definitely something you want to be careful with. Nothing can ruin a good image faster than too much saturation. So be honest about what's helpful and when you've gone too far.

8. Which parts of the image need sharpening? Again, if you shoot RAW, you're probably going to need to add a little sharpening. Remember though that you don’t have to sharpen the whole image. In a landscape image, you might want to sharpen everything. But in a portrait, maybe not. A wrinkled face, especially on a woman, is not enhanced by sharpening. Sharpen the eyes and hair, but allow the wrinkles to remain a little soft.

9. Would the image honestly benefit by a plugin (Nik, OnOne, etc.)? Ah, plugins. I am in LOVE with my Nik plugins. Color Efex Pro 4 is a powerhouse of a program. But you don't always need to use them. Sometimes (often, in fact), your image is good enough without going to the plugins. And even when you do decide to use them, you don't have to always go full strength on the filters. Often, just dialing back the strength a bit is where the sweet spot is.

10. Does the image look natural? Does it look over-processed? It's really helpful, when you're all done with everything else, to take your time and really study your finished image before you slap it up on Facebook. Compare it to where you started. Did you go too far. Does it look like you wanted it to look when you started? It's easy to get to the end of post-processing and find you're not quite where you wanted to be. Often it's because you went wild with some of the sliders. Nothing's more frustrating than sharing an image with the world that you've processed in a minute and a half only to look at it next week and find you don't like it. Make sure it's perfect before you share it with the world. We can wait. ;-)

I hope this helps. I've developed these questions after rushing through the process trying to get an image "done" and only later realizing I'd been too hasty and too heavy-handed. As a result, these 10 questions are posted on my wall by my computer and I try to work my way slowly through them with every image. I hope they help you as much as they have me.

More to come . . . 


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