November 9, 2015

3 Examples of Why You Should Edit Your Images (And Shoot in RAW)

Prominent celebrities and models have recently joined activists in a "War on Photoshop", arguing that  the photography industry goes too far with image manipulation software, using it to create deceptively perfect and unrealistic images used to sell clothing and cosmetics.  Photography purists from the film era have also decried the use of digital manipulation as "cheating" to create images that technology of old produced under only the most skilled hands.  Novices and amateurs are often intimidated by the complexity and learning curve of Photoshop and then hear about the celebrities and purists eschewing it and still getting great images.  I want to dispel some myths about photo editing here, and show photographers how much their images can improve just by taking control of the editing process.

And by "taking control of the editing process", this means I'm not just talking to novices and amateurs who are shooting straight to JPEG or using software like Picasa for basic adjustments—I'm also speaking to experienced photographers who may have been using software like Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop for years, but have not ventured much past presets and actions they rely on to do the heavy lifting.  Many photography enthusiasts and even professionals spend the bulk of their improvement efforts on their skills behind the camera—skills like learning how to stage, pose, and compose a subject, how to find or create the best lighting, and learning the technical nuances of exposure and their camera.  While it's critical to master the art of capturing a great image, the capture must be followed up by equal art in postprocessing to get the most out of your images.

Here are three sample images to illustrate my point.  These are images I just completed from my 18-day road trip around the American West back in July, taken at the Ingalls Homestead in De Smet, South Dakota.  When I shot these images, I knew some serious technical issues would arise because of extremely uneven, hard light, and because of the subtle golden and green tones intertwining against an unobstructed bright partly-cloudy blue sky.  If I wanted strong midday images with rich color, I knew the camera alone would not provide them, and that editing them would be a huge challenge.  On the left are the original raw images, with default white balance and sharpness adjustments from Adobe Lightroom and basic exposure and contrast adjustments so that the images aren't too dark.  On the right are the very same raw images processed 100% in Adobe Lightroom by me without any third-party presets.

Three Images Before & After Edits

For any of you who don't know how I work, I try to do all of my editing in the simplest way possible exclusively within Adobe Lightroom, only dropping into Photoshop maybe about 5% of the time when I feel motivated and need to do more sophisticated edits.  I like to capture the image right the first time in camera, because saving a few seconds shooting and getting it wrong usually translates into minutes or hours of fixing things in Photoshop—but even when the capture is right, I still have to edit my images before they're truly finished.  In order to do that, I've never been a fan of downloading presets for Lightroom or actions for Photoshop because I wanted to learn how to work with the images on my own—mainly because I want my work to look original, rather than looking like a knock-off of images created by other people using the same presets and actions.  I tend to prefer strong contrast with dramatic shadows and rich but realistic color.  To put it more simply, I usually like my images to pop, but there are times when I go a completely different direction in order to tell a story or convey a mood or to create a mix of feelings.  I often return to images I may have shot and edited years ago because I'm curious about what I might be able to create using new skills or tools I've acquired since, or because I think I might be able to create another dramatic take on it.

The point of me telling you all of this is that you understand that after I shoot my images, I edit them to draw out everything I need to tell the story I want to tell in my own style and voice.  As for these three images, you'll notice that I didn't narrow any bellies, brighten any eyes, or lengthen any legs, and furthermore I promise you that I never replaced any skies or painted anything in with a Bob Ross brush (because you need Photoshop for that).  The original image in RAW format contained everything you see on the right, but you don't see those things on the left because I did only the most basic edits.  The images on the left are nice sharp snapshots, while the images on the right could qualify as fine art.  And all I did for each of these images was create a custom color profile (which helps, but isn't always necessary) and experiment for a few minutes with the sliders in Lightroom based on everything I've learned from using it for the last five years.

I hope that right now you're thinking about images you've shot in your own photo library—and you're wondering if you could get these kinds of improvements right now from those images, just by playing with the sliders in Lightroom.  And the short answer to your wondering is yes, you can!  Chances are, a lot of you have already shot images where you captured details and tones that that you wanted to use to tell your stories in your own ways, but for some reason you haven't realized it or haven't realized how simple it is to learn to edit.  Keep in mind that I've been working with Lightroom (and without presets) for years—don't expect to wrap your brain around every aspect of it overnight—but know that right out of the gate you absolutely can get more out of your images because the basics are actually really easy to learn and apply, especially if you shoot RAW.  Let's talk about that for a moment...

We may not have thought about processing negatives or digital files much in the last 30-40 years or so, because so much of that has always been so automatic.  In the film days, we dropped our film off to be developed and printed at a lab, and that lab may have had sophisticated ways of processing our film to send back prints of a reasonable quality.  (Remember the Kodak ColorWatch System?)  In the digital days, cameras have always had tiny computers in them that automatically did almost everything photo labs used to do when we'd send them unprocessed film.  The JPEG files that come out of even the most basic cell phone camera have all had adjustments for contrast, brightness, white balance, and sharpness, and most of us never realized that.  The other thing we may not have realized is that while film processing labs almost always sent back your developed negatives, granting full future flexibility, only the more advanced cameras like DSLRs offer the ability to save the RAW data file used to create the JPEG...and that having this raw data allows a photographer to get much, much more out of an image in postprocessing.

As the photography industry grew to include many new people through advancing technology and lower prices, the idea that postprocessing was an essential part of creating a photographic image was lost to a lot of people, simply because DSLRs produced nice images straight out of the camera.  Some new photographers were overwhelmed by having to learn both a camera and software, and so many never bothered to learn the nuances of editing their images because—let's face it—Photoshop until recently has been expensive and this software still has a steep learning curve!  And for a long time, easier and less expensive alternatives were not available.  Besides that, new photographers have been discouraged by activists and purists railing against any sort of photo editing or manipulation, and now either feel a twinge of guilt at editing their images or feel a sense of pride that all their images are "real" and not deceptive or contrived.

My position is that every DSLR owner who wants to create great images should be shooting RAW either instead of or alongside of JPEG, and that they need to master editing images on their own in order to fully realize their creative potential.  After all, great photographers like Ansel Adams pushed their negatives confidently and aggressively with filters and techniques that worked just like functions in Photoshop to get the absolute best images.  When you compare the before and after of my three images above, they don't look fake, deceptive, or contrived, do they?

Chances are, a lot of you have already shot images where you captured details and tones that would let you tell your stories in your own ways, but for some reason you haven't realized it or haven't realized how easy it is to start editing.  When I got my first DSLR, I almost always shot RAW instead of JPEG, even though it took up more space and even though I didn't know much about editing.  I knew that one day I might want to get deeper into editing, and I did—so using all of that extra disk space didn't cost me much, and in the end it really paid off.  Either way, whether you have RAW files in your library already or not, I highly recommend that you start shooting RAW so you can go back and work with them.

In my next article, I'll get your creative wheels of photo editing turning by covering the easiest adjustments I made to these images and why.  To whet more advanced photo editors' appetites, I'll also share some of the more advanced adjustments I made as well.  In the meantime, I'd like to recommend some videos and a couple of books that I used to get started with Adobe Lightroom a few years ago:

  • Adobe TV:  Adobe itself hosts numerous videos to help you get started learning Lightroom. Some of the videos are geared for Lightroom 5, but the basic functionality of Lightroom 6/CC is exactly the same as Lightroom 5, so the instructions will work for either version.  My favorite videos were always the ones with Julianne Kost.
  • The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC Book for Digital Photographers by Scott Kelby:  I used an older edition of this book when I started working with Lightroom 4 and it really helped fill in some details I'd missed from watching the Adobe TV videos.  Scott Kelby does an excellent job at explaining and demonstrating every feature of every module clearly so you understand how to use the software.  This book really helped me get a clear idea of how to organize my photo library and my workflow, as well as find a few more nifty techniques in the Develop module.
  • Vision & Voice: Refining Your Vision in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom by David duChemin:  Even though this book hasn't been updated since its first edition, and is based on Lightroom 4, this book is more about ideas and principles you'll want to learn about any kind of photo editing.  David duChemin does an outstanding job at explaining what thought processes will help you produce compelling images both behind the camera and in postprocessing.  You'll learn new ways of seeing and thinking about your photography and he shows how to apply these new ways by demonstrating techniques he uses in Adobe Lightroom.  This book really helped me learn to use photo editing as a way to communicate complete ideas and feelings with my photography, rather than just enhancing the look of my pictures.
While Adobe Lightroom isn't the only software you can use to edit RAW photos, it is the most common right now, so a lot of support is readily available online.  To get the most out of your photos, you'll need to shoot RAW, and have software that edits RAW files natively—sadly, this excludes many free editors such as Picasa, which work with RAW files, but convert them to JPEG (and usually very poorly) when you start editing.

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