Steve Davey is consumed by his love of photography and he’s managed to successfully make this passion his career. We asked this world-renowned travel writer and photographer for his tips on one of the more tricky aspects of digital photography, the perplexities of post-production…
“Post-producing digital images has gained something of a bad reputation. Some people think that it is time-consuming, other that it is too difficult, and some simply dismiss it as cheating. But post-production on a computer is an integral part of digital imaging. It might involve subtle changes or more significant edits. Don’t think of it as cheating though, consider it in the same way that film photographers used to think about printing in the darkroom: an integral part of the process and a chance to take a good image and make it better.
Many people refer to post-production as image manipulation, but I like to use the term correction: using post-production to compensate for the deficiencies of the photographic process and sometimes in your own photographic technique. This might be compensating for too much contrast; too limited depth of field or even stray objects in the frame.
Having said this, some people do take post-production too far, and stray into the realm of digital art. This can often make images look over processed an unnatural at best – utterly crass and false at worst. Photography itself is an abstraction, and the photographer has to develop a sense of honesty and integrity irrespective of what they do on a computer. Where you draw the line is largely down to your own preferences: I aim for reality – even if that reality needs a little helping hand.
In the RAW
One of the most dramatic changes that you can make for your photography is to switch from shooting with lower quality JPEGs to the high quality RAW format. This is essentially a digital negative, that needs to be processed before it can be used. Some more sophisticated compact cameras and all DSLRs will be able to shoot RAW. It will take up more space but then the quality will be far higher.
You can alter the white balance of a RAW file on a computer without any loss of quality. RAW is also optimised for a variety of tonal corrections that will help you to bring the most out of your pictures – increasing low contrast pictures, or lightening deep shadows that are obscuring details.
You can still apply some of these corrections to a JPEG, but this tends to be less easy – especially when correcting significant white balances – and in general you will get a higher quality result working with a RAW file.
The first stage of post-processing is editing your pictures. This is not just a case of throwing way the pictures that don’t work, it can be a great way to learn about your technique. All digital images contain a lot of information in their metadata. You can see the lens, exposure and even ISO used. As you are editing, if you see a bunch of pictures with camera shake, check what shutter speed you were using. This will give you an idea of how good you are at handholding for a given lens, and what speed you should aim not to go below. This is also a good time to decide how high an ISO sensitivity you are comfortable with before find the noise too intrusive.
Always check the focus by zooming to 100% when choosing between two pictures – otherwise you might accidentally keep a slightly out of focus shot over one that is pin sharp.
Once I have my final folder of ‘keepers’ I automatically give each one a unique number, so I will never accidentally copy it over another picture.
If your camera has the ability to shoot RAWs then it should come bundled with some simple software to allow you to open, and make simple edits to them. Whilst it will usually be somewhat limited, you can often achieve very good results.
You may well decide that you want to supplement the bundled RAW processing software with something more sophisticated. iPhoto, the image storage program for Mac OSX can read and make simple edits to many cameras’ RAW formats. It also has the advantage of being fully integrated into the system, so the processed RAWs can be available in many other programs and even on your iPhone.
Another option that works on both Mac and PC is the free Google Picasa. This can process RAWs from some of the more common cameras. Check that yours is one of these. Picasa isn’t great, but then it is free! It also gives you access to Google online storage, which is a good option for cloud storage.
The most well known of the image programs is Abode Photoshop. This uses the Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) plug-in to process RAWs. Photoshop though is prohibitively expensive, but its cutdown sibling Photoshop Elements is about a tenth of the price. Elements is optimised for photographers and comes with a limited version of ACR that is perfectly adequate for most users.
If you have a lot of images to manage then consider Adobe Lightroom which is essentially an image management program, with RAW processing built-in.
There are, of course, many other options for RAW processing and imaging. Some are free, others charge a nominal cost. It is worth experimenting, and also seeing which is right for you.
Once you process RAW files you essentially have two formats to save them in. TIFF is a high quality format, but takes up space on the computer. JPEG is a compressed format where some information is thrown away to make the file size smaller. Every time you make any changes to the JPEG and resave it you loose more quality.
I always export RAW files to the lossless TIFF format. If your camera shoots JPEGs, then convert them to a TIFF file before you start editing them. I keep the TIFFs as a high resolution archive, and then create lower quality JPEGs to upload onto social media sites, or send to friends.
This approach will take up more space on your computer, but space is cheap these days, and I don’t see the point in throwing away quality from image files, especially after you have paid for a more sophisticated camera to record it in the first place.
RAW processing workflow
Most software will offer a plethora of options for RAW processing, but it is possible to achieve a profound effect with only a few commands. These are the commands found on Adobe programs, but you will find equivalents on all programs, although the names may be slightly different.
1. Adjust the white balance using the colour Temperature slider.
2. Adjust the tones using the Blacks (shadows) and Exposure (highlights) sliders.
3. Adjust the midtones, using the Brightness slider.
4. If necessary, recover highlights that are still too light using the Recovery slider and lighted shadows using the Fill Light slider.
5. Slightly increase or decrease the Vibrance (or Saturation) slider.
6. Tweak the White Balance, as the other commands might affect this slightly.
If you are not confident with these edits, then you can try the Auto White Balance and Auto Tone commands, either as a starting point, or just to have the software’s best guess for your image.
Even if you are shooting JPEGs you can still improve the image, although you won’t be able to do as much, or achieve such as good a result as if you were shooting RAWs.
Although the commands will probably be called something different, you should follow a similar workflow for editing JPEGs as that above for processing RAW files, although the names will be different. You will often find many of the tone functions under the Levels command.
Programs aimed at JPEGs will usually have a range of auto-correction functions, and semi automatic functions, such as those for straightening horizons, cropping and even functions for removing the red-eye effect, caused by using a direct flash.
Many images will benefit from a subtle amount of cropping. This can straighten a horizon, change the emphasis or remove a distracting element. Cropping should not be seen as a bad thing, but if you regularly have to crop out a large amount of the picture then you should look to your composition when you are wielding the camera!
Always try to maintain the same aspect ratio when you are cropping so that all of your images are the same format.
Often there will be something in the frame that really doesn’t belong there. This might be cigarette packet in a landscape or an elbow sticking into the picture! If it is something that plainly doesn’t belong, then I will consider removing it. My criteria are essentially honesty: if someone were to visit the location of my picture, would they see the object that I want to remove? I will remove random people or litter, but leave in telegraph poles, or mobile phone masts – no matter how much they might affect the picture.
Retouching is quite simple: even relatively simple software should have some sort of clone feature where you can use one part of a picture to paint over another part of the picture. Don’t be too ambitious though – removing a footprint from sand is quite easy to do without it looking obvious. Taking one person out of a crowd demands far greater skill if it is not going to look obvious.
It is vital to have back-ups of digital images. If they are all on a single drive, then they can be lost in a second if you have a hardware malfunction. I maintain three copies of every shot. These are saved on hard drives. This is the cheapest way, and is much less hassle than trying to burn endless DVDs. One of my three copies is stored in a firesafe, although if you work away from home, then you can store one at work, or even at a friends house to void having everything in one place.
It is also worth considering some sort of cloud storage: a service like Flickr will give you unlimited storage of images for a relatively small amount a year! Never rely completely on one service for your back-ups. A huge amount of legitimate users lost their data when the Megaupload service was closed down last year.”
Steve Davey is a travel photographer and writer. Amongst other popular publications, he is the author of Footprint Travel Photography, which was sponsored by Intrepid Travel.
Steve leads his own unique range of travel photography tours with all arrangements provided by Intrepid Travel. You can even use your 5% feedback discount on his tours! Forthcoming destinations are Nepal in October 2012 and Laos & Vietnam at the end of November 2012. More details on http://www.bettertravelphotography.com/phototours
Photos: post-production examples © Steve Davey
1. Correct white balance in RAW (top)
Shooting RAW gives you a great deal of control over the white balance of the images, allowing you to correct colour casts with no loss of quality.
2. Recovering overexposure in RAW
Shooting RAW gives you a lot more information so that you can drastically recover your mistakes, such as a large amount of over-exposure.