Where Do You Start?

Second in a series of Post Processing 2022 articles.

Two weeks ago I wrote about converting your raw images specifically, not generically. The first question I usually get next is the “where should I start” question. That’s actually not actually the right question to ask. The proper question is “why am I post processing?”

Today’s software offers an overwhelming number of sliders, controls, brushes, and other options. So many, in fact, that most of us with 30+ years of processing experience will tell you that there are multiple ways of doing anything in Photoshop. Literally. (An article for another day: why you’d use method A over method B over method C.)

Most people get hung up on that overwhelming complexity, but the way you break through it is knowing what it is you’re trying to do in the first place.

  • Flat-looking areas? Probably needs contrast adjustment.
  • Dark-looking areas? Probably needs exposure-type adjustments.
  • Wrong color areas? Probably needs white balance adjustment.

In other words, the thing(s) you want to change drives the “where do I start” question, because there’s something specific you notice you need to do. Note how I used the word "areas" instead of "overall": specific. The three items I just listed are simple and easy to understand, thus have simple directions as how to proceed. It’s when you get into the more complex statements that things get more muddled.

  • Doesn’t pop? Probably micro contrast, saturation, and the need for specific, attention-drawing elements.
  • Looks like it was taken with a camera? Did you tilt up or down, because often this impact is caused by geometric/perspective elements we personally don’t notice without the camera. 
  • Doesn’t hold you in? Probably not enough vignetting ;~). Seriously. I can describe a whole series of things our eyes do when taking in an image, but if people’s eyes are going away from where you want them to and out to the edge of the frame, vignetting is one of the tools you can use to fix that. Ditto burning and dodging. Ditto a lot of things. 

What’s micro contrast? Long-lived and divisive Internet arguments have thrived for years about this, but I have a simple view of the contrast world: I use the same ideas I learned in MBA school about macro economics versus micro economics. Macro is the big picture, basically the overall categories the Fed and the Government react to and control, and how the economy works in general. Micro is what you and I do as individual consumers or business owners, or how the economy works at the piece by piece level. 

Thus, macro contrast is the general impression of the overall image, while micro contrast is what’s happening down in the individual pixels. So yes, you can have high macro/low micro, low macro/high micro, and all the other possible combinations happening in the pixels of your image. Sometimes I play with that intentionally, but generally I want what I decide is the proper contrast at both macro and micro levels.

Thus, answering the question about why you think you need to perform post processing is a very good thing to do before you actually try to start doing so. I will sometimes go so far as to print—or leave up on my desktop—an image without post processing so that I can stare at it for awhile. What I’m doing is trying to figure out what the image needs. What’s wrong with it that I might be able to correct? (There’s very little I can’t correct for these days, but your mileage may vary, particularly if you’re just starting to explore post processing.) 

So let’s look at a before and after scenario for a moment (warning: I’ve gone to 11 on the post processing here):

bythom preandpostprocessing

The left image is at it was recorded in the camera (out of camera JPEG). It’s flat and lacks color for a bunch of reasons, the biggest one being that the window on the plane severely reduced contrast, as did some atmospheric haze. 

Having been through the area on the river and on the plateaus, and even walking down from the rims, I know what the colors really are. Up close there’s a lot of contrast going on in the middle of the day (actually mid-morning here). The answer to the question as I started post processing was simple: I needed to restore contrast, color, detail, and attention to many different areas in the image. The plateau, cliffs, and river needed color. The plateau needed macro contrast. The cliffs needed micro contrast (detail). Even in the "finished" example on the right you should still notice something wrong: an imbalance of brightness between the left and right side of the image. When I write about "correct specifics," this is what I mean. An overall brightness adjustment doesn't fix that problem, does it? You have to run a gradient adjustment to do so. 

For what it’s worth, macro contrast was easy to restore on the plateaus, but the micro contrast on the cliffs was much more difficult. Color became a lot of piece by piece work. While there is not much color difference shown in the original, I knew there was a lot of nuance that wasn’t showing up. I ended up processing four specific areas on the plateau slightly differently to bring out the color change I knew was there. 

The toughest issue, however, was getting the color of the river right, as I had very little useful highlight information to manipulate, and getting colors right in the brightest region of an image is often the most difficult job you’ll encounter. Even the deep shadow colors are a little easier to lock in (note the clear color in the cliffs). 

I’m working on a couple of videos that show how I attack problems like this, so I’ll eventually help you get down into the details the way I do it. For now, though, the thing I want you to start asking yourself long before you press D (to invoke the Develop module in Lightroom) is "what specific things do I really need to change in this image?" Make a list of how you think individual components in the image fail. That list will determine what you need to do. Very few of those things will be a slider moved for the entire image (such as Exposure, Highlights, Shadows). In the above example, the one slider I did move for the full image was the Dehaze filter, for obvious reasons: the plane window took out contrast across the entire image. From there, I addressed specific needs, not general needs.

Even sharpening (and its cousin noise reduction) should generally be thought of as a specific area correction. Yes, I still subscribe to Fraser's multi-step sharpening philosophy, but that initial sharpening is solely to remove the anti-aliasing the digital process generated in the pixels. In the above image, the cliffs are where I did most of my sharpening, and some areas farthest from the camera are where I didn't sharpen but used a bit of noise reduction. Remember, our eyes think soft is a depth cue for something far away.

So with all that said (actually: written) I need to circle back to the “where do I start” question the headline asks. I just answered that: make a list. I’ll bet that list isn’t one overall item, but many specific ones. Which means that another article in this series will have to address the “in what order do I do things?”

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