Demystifying Post-Processing (to an extent)

I said in the last post that I would put up some “before” and “after” images that would give people an insight into how much post-processing I do to my photographs, so here we go. As with the last post this isn’t a tutorial, but those who have a better than basic understanding of post-processing may get some ideas from this post. The “before” images which are unprocessed, as interpreted by “Caputre One”, they are on top and I have listed the key things which I have done with the post-processed “after” photographs. Click on each image for a closer view.

Timor-FireBarda-HillsAlor-WarriorSalt-workersThe above images have pretty much been worked on in the same way.

  1. Slight cropping and sometimes rotating.
  2. Multiple versions of the same image created at varying exposures, later made into one in Photoshop. The reason – bringing out the details in highlights and shadows.
  3. Curves, levels adjustment layers created, I paint inside of these wherever I feel needed, to selectively darken and lighten areas
  4. Shadows and highlights – to further bring out the details.
  5. Dodging and burning for finishing touches.

ShepherdThe image above had a little more done to it. On top of the previously mentioned processes I played around with the saturation and the white balance in the RAW file. More intense dodging and burning was required to add a bit of drama to the scene, to make the image look the way I remembered seeing it.

GrandmotherThe process for the image of this grandmother was similar to the first few and I chose to clone out a little black pipe that stuck out of the wall (top/center/right). I’m not a huge fan of cloning things out and some may argue that once things start to get modified on this level, the photograph becomes less “pure”. If it’s something small that doesn’t make or break the image, but bugs me I’ll clone it out without thinking twice, if it’s something that can radically change an image I’ll usually be a bit more cautious.

Rabari-Woman Out of the images I have presented here this one required the most work. I felt that I really needed to bump the contrasts and to dramatically darken certain parts of the photo. This sRGB conversion has a limited color range and is actually a little too dark (you loose details in the material), but you get the general idea. Same processes as stated above and just really a lot of playing around and seeing what works and what doesn’t.

That’s about it. As you can probably gather I like to keep my images looking as realistic as possible on the one side and as dramatic as possible on the other. I try to find the right balance. There are plenty of photographers who like to make their images look more dramatic, more saturated, more contrasty,  to a point of surreal. There are also those who like to selectively de-saturate parts of an image, but to keep contrasts high. Lots of particular “looks” are popular these days and many people try to emulate them. Sometimes these “looks” work and sometimes they are boring, repetitive and unnecessary. I’m not really into stylizing my color shots too much. I feel that this is a bit of a fad and at times this stylization is used to mask crap light or inconsistent color. A great image will be great regardless of whether it has been realistically processed or stylized (when this is done well). A crap, stylized image may pass off as decent at first glance because it grabs you with the dramatic, surreal color, but hang it on the wall and look at it for a few days and you’ll become very bored. Maybe I am somewhat conservative – for me it’s either the dramatic, yet realistic post processing approach or if I want to do my own kind of stylizing – it’s black and white. I do quite a bit of black and white and I will post something about that in the future.

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33 Responses to “Demystifying Post-Processing (to an extent)”

  1. Dave Says:

    Interesting post Mitchell. I love the processing on the hunter guy, his face totally looks like he’s been lit with a snooted or gridded flash.

    It reminds me of the other image you have of the guy with a bow and arrow (used to be your banner image). Was that one done using the same post processing or did you use a softbox?

    Cheers

  2. Julie Says:

    Thanks Mitchell for these two interesting posts.

  3. John Says:

    I really enjoy your work and this post is great. I’m curious when you shoot multiple images are you auto bracketing? And…if so what’s your general rule of thumb for stop increments? Thanks, John

  4. Mitchell Says:

    Dave: The guy with the bow and arrow was lit with a soft box
    Julie: Glad to be of use:)
    John: I don’t shoot multiple images, they’re images made from a single RAW file

  5. Noam Says:

    Thank you Mitchell for sharing, much appreciated, and great work you have.

    I would love to know, if you don’t mind, what kind of sharpening are you applying on your images (evident especially on your subjects faces).

  6. Mitchell Says:

    Noam: It’s simply the smart sharpen option in Photoshop. I use it only for the images I post on the internet (not on those which I will print or submit to magazines) and I use it selectively for the parts of the photo which need to be sharpened, thus you see it in the faces, hands etc.

  7. Julie Says:

    I’ll jump in with another quick technical question for you Mitchell, if you don’t mind: when you make multiple images into one in Photoshop, do you use the HDR tool or do you play with multiple layers?

  8. Mitchell Says:

    Julie: Multiple layers and layer masks – a lot of “painting” inside of those layer masks.

  9. archipelageo Says:

    “A great image will be great regardless of whether it has been realistically processed or stylized (when this is done well).” True for the images you showed here, thanks for sharing.

  10. GP Says:

    Definitely one of your best posts. Very informative and much appreciated! Keep up the good work.

  11. Craig Martin Says:

    I love your stuff on OneExposure, so dropped by here – but this is a gold-mine of information. I will be back to go through your posts slowly and carefully. Thanks sharing!

  12. Mark Says:

    Mitchell,

    First of all, thanks for your blog – your work is amazing.

    Following your recommendation, currently trying out Capture One. Love it. I do like the way it processes skin tones of my NEF files better than ACR. Also, it flies on my relatively slow PC (Intel Celeron Mobile 1.6 with 1.5GB of RAM) v. Lightroom 2 trial version. I also like Capture NX 2 better than ACR – however it is also quite slow.

    Any reason you don’t do levels/curves adjustments within Capture One? It seems like it’s a very powerful software that allows you to copy and paste your adjustments to the whole set they way Lightroom does.

    Also, would be internally grateful if you could pick one of your before and after images and do a complete post-processing walkthrough. (with screen shots)

    Again, thank you for your amazing blog – we all truly enjoy your work!

    Mark

  13. Gene Parmesan Says:

    Yes, I also hope that you’re working on a full-length tutorial.

  14. Mitchell Says:

    Mark:
    I am using curves/levels adjustments in Capture One, I try to do as much of the adjustments as possible there, but there is still some tweaking in Photoshop. Thanks for your nice words.
    Mark and Gene:
    I am considering making a tutorial some time in the future, I feel that I should make it really in-depth, with illustrations etc. At the moment I have absolutely no time for something like that, but once I free up a little…

  15. Gene Parmesan Says:

    Thanks, Mitchell. We’ll all look forward to it when you get some time.

  16. Tarun Says:

    Hi Mitchell,
    I just stumbled across your blog from 1x. I live in Chennai and have taken time off from work to teach myself a little about photography. I really appreciate your frankness in sharing your post production technique. Most of the pro photographers I’ve met here turn strangely reticent when talk of post work comes up. 🙂

    Though I didn’t come across any b&w photos in your collection, would you be able to touch on b&w conversion processes? Also, I have taken a liking to the visual aesthetic of old film through plugins. What are your thoughts on this, is it a big no-no in the professional world?

    I enjoy photographs of people and cultures, and love how you’ve so dramatically captured scenes in India that we often take for granted.
    Thanks again, and I hope your travels bring you back here soon.

  17. Jan Says:

    Mitchell,
    Thanks for this article. I will also be waiting for a tutorial on your post-processing workflow. I was just wondering if you could tell us in the meantime what books or resources you used to learn these advanced techniques. Is there something you would recommend?

  18. Ruben Says:

    Mitchell,

    A very insightful post.

    It will be interesting to see the post-processing tutorial when you finish it. Maybe you don’t have time now but hopefully you’ll put one up sometime soon when you take a break from all that post-processing you’re doing.

    Thanks for sharing!

  19. Richard Ford Says:

    G’Day Mitchell,

    Good information. One reason why I dumped digital and went back to film was the reasons you mentioned of the dynamic range. Digital is my like transparencies and has a very poor dynamic range (I have never used one of the Fuji S3 Pro’s though – they are said to be much better).

    You mentioned that you did multiple shots at different exposures, I assume that you did this with bracketing and then as fast a FPS as possible help keep the alignment consistent?

    Do you have any thoughts on using fill flash or off camera flashes as a way to lighten the darker zones in those high contrast scenes? Or is that just too much effort and fiddling to get right?

    Cheers,
    Richard.

  20. Mitchell Says:

    Hi Richard,

    Yes, digital is limited, but shooting film would be too drastic for me. When you need to have everything on your computer, send hundreds of images to an editor and dozens more to magazines, it just isn’t practical or cost effective. In any case, I think that the results, with the right shooting technique and the right post processing are very near those achieved with film, the rare exceptions are the times when the contrast is impossibly harsh.
    I don’t shoot multiple images, they’re images made from a single RAW file. I shoot one and expose it in a particular way, so that I still have enough to work with when I open the RAW file.
    Fill flash – yes, I use it quite frequently in the right situations indoors and under cover, but tend to avoid it if I am shooting in the open outdoors – looks cheesy and unnatural, there are exceptions, but not many.

  21. Richard Ford Says:

    I’ve heard of this… you make 3 different exposed TIFF’s from the same single RAW file and then blend away?

  22. Karine Ardault Says:

    very interesting post.

  23. Shrirang Khandekar Says:

    Very insightful writing on post-processing. Thanks so much.

  24. David McNaughtan Says:

    Interesting. I seem to be an odd-man-out, in almost all cases I like the original better than the end result – but have observed this with the work of others too. Perhaps I need to print the examples. Thanks for sharing.

  25. Mike McCafferty Says:

    Enjoyed this post. Before and after shots really show what you are conveying in words. Looking forward to your black and white post.

  26. Dalo 2013 Says:

    A timely post, as there are more & more people using filters and ‘quick hit’ processing programs (which are quite good), but I like hearing and reading about the detail and then seeing the results. Very well done. Cheers!

  27. Louise L. Says:

    Thanks so much for all this information. Very informative and inspiring.

  28. Sarah Says:

    Another great post. I love how transparent you are about your post processing and how generous you are gifting it! Also, I enjoyed your comments on a look or stylised, fad processing. With a huge lean towards many purchased actions, certain genres, particularly baby and child photography are becoming “same old thing”. Good, honest, well lit and composed work stands out. Your work stands out because you are not only talented, but you disregard the fads and do your own thing. I like and admire that.

  29. Samir Says:

    Really cool post. I really love this kind of content because it kinda touches the thought process of the everyday workflow as a professional photographer. I find myself brooding over the amount of details I need to have in my shadow areas. I can’t seem to get over my hunger for details but at the same time is it really adding anything to the photograph by having that detail there, is what the real question is. Were a lot of these pictures taken in the Indian subcontinent??

  30. Celine Morisset Says:

    Nice and simple learning from a Pro. Thank you for the before and after, makes it so much clearer to see what was done. Great posting!

  31. nlh835 Says:

    I read your blog for the first time today. I really appreciate your sharing the process you follow. Beautiful work. I will continue to follow your blog.

  32. Declan Says:

    How do you take multiple images on a moving subject?

    If you want to really improve your images with one click you should look at http://www.guygowan.com/webcasts/freeview.php?userid=48 Guy will teach you how to vastly improve your images from a single image – no merging multiple images – without any additional plug-in purchases. All you need is Photoshop and if you are a serious about photography you will use Photoshop.

    I wonder will this comment be approved 😉 I hope so for every ones benefit. Once I met Guy I was hooked on his process.

    NOTE: I have no connection with Guy other than I am a subscriber to his website.

  33. Jack Bunn Says:

    great stuff and very informative. the finished images are a credit to your skill in more ways than just being a photographer.

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