The Craft of Processing – Part 2

It’s an extension of your shooting

We left the last article on processing with the principle that it has a purpose, and that goes deeper than simply making a Raw file look acceptable. In fact, the individual purpose for each time you process ought to come from what you wanted when you took the shot.


Each time you shoot, there’s a reason and a motivation—which may or may not have anything obvious to do with exposure, colour, contrast. If it does, such as your liking the way the light flares and suffuses part of the image, as in the example below, then you’ll probably already be thinking of how you’re going to process the image to make the best of that effect. (I deliberately stepped to the right so that sun would flare, when I could as easily have stepped to the left to avoid it)….

This decision committed me to some careful processing of the flare around the sun, because shots directly into a light source always run the risk of clipping highlights. There are some ways around this, such as shooting a sequence of different exposures right down to very dark and then using HDR techniques, but that calls for time and a tripod, and in normal shooting like this is not an option. Nevertheless, there are recovery tools in all good processing software, if you know how to use them. The essential thing to avoid is banding, which is what can happen when the photo sites in the sensor abruptly fill right up and deliver total white.


Even if you’re thinking about more fundamental things than the play of light, such as the right timing to capture a gesture or expression, or a conceptual idea such as conveying a sense of emptiness in a scene, you’ll almost certainly find that processing can help (or hinder) in getting that across to the viewer in the final image. Strong photographs generally have an idea behind them, and if you can articulate that idea, even just to yourself, it will be straightforward to find the processing techniques which will enhance that idea. The results may be nuanced rather than outstanding, but that doesn’t make this kind of attention to detail any the less important.


Here’s an example of a shot that had a particular idea behind it. It’s of West Lake in Hangzhou, famous in China for its tranquility and for inspiring generations of painters and poets. It has a particularly Chinese aesthetic and I wanted to capture something of this…

It’s Spring, and the lighting is special—an enveloping very thin mist that gives what I call white light. It makes me think about shooting in the manner of a traditional Chinese painting…

Brush and ink on paper, and the white spaces are essential to the image. See also how lighter brush strokes give a sense of depth to more distant parts of the scene. I want to process my shot to achieve something like this, though in colour.

Basically, there are three planes in this picture: the foreground tree, the middle-ground boat, and the white setting of like and sky…

This is how the Raw file looks by default…

Processing to get that plane separation and look involved raising Shadows but then taking Blacks down to heighten the contrast between tree trunk and boat…


Know the look you want

There’s no established terminology about this, but the processed ‘look’ of a photograph is a relatively new phenomenon, since the invention of new digital ways of handling brightness, contrast and colour.

In film-based photography it had some meaning, based on the way different makes of film were formulated, and there were certainly different looks between Kodachrome and say, Fuji Velvia, but it was a limited choice. Film processing allowed for very little change; the most striking was cross-processing, in which typically colour negative film was processed in the chemicals designed for colour transparency film. Basically, film and photographic paper responded in essentially the same way to exposure and processing. Photographs had a generally consistent look,.


Digital colour manipulation has changed all this, and in particular, algorithmic processing of Raw files has introduced a new kind of look. In Adobe Camera Raw, which is shared by Photoshop and Lightroom, three sliders in particular work on the entire image but in a local way: Highlights, Shadows and Clarity. They use TMOs (Tone Mapping Operators) that alter brightness by means of very localised contrast. Essentially, they search around their pixel neighbourhood and make adjustments based on neighbouring pixels. The results are powerful in that they can ‘open up’ shadow areas (any areas, in fact) with increased localised contrast and crispness. This has a natural appeal to our eyes in much the same way that we generally respond positively to images being brighter and more colourful.

Processed using only traditional controls

Processed using Highlights, Shadows & Clarity

However, the first problem is that while our vision system is hardwired to like crisper, brighter, more visible and richer in colour, it may be instantly gratifying, but tends to be pushed to exaggeration. It’s something of a cheap effect. The second problem is that it takes away from the picture a ‘photographic’  look.


I’d better explain this. A traditional ‘photographic’ look has smooth tonal gradation with a full range from black to white. No sharp discontinuities, well rounded, and it’s a natural result of the S-curve response of film. That means a gradual and gentle lightening to not-quite-white, and a similar smooth descent into shadows. There’s no well-established vocabulary for this, but its opposite is hyper-detailed with tonal breaks, and an image that looks more like a hyper-realistic painting.


The pair of pictures below shows the difference more immediately, and if you might be able to find a better way of describing the difference. In any case, few people would disagree that the left-hand image looks more like a traditional photographic. You could well argue that looking like a photograph is no special advantage and that the modern way of looking accepts heightened clarity and crispness. I disagree, even though our acceptance of the photographic look comes from a century and a half of looking at it.



Highlights, Shadows & Clarity

Local adjustment for real craftsmanship

As I suggested in the last article, with an image that’s important to you (and come to think of it, if it’s not important, what will you do with it anyway?), it really pays to stand in from of the screen for a minute or so before processing and think what you want. In detail. It might be easier if you go through the basic optimisation first (see previous article ‘Industry standard optimal’), so that overall the image has the right brightness, contrast and colour balance. Then what? Often, if you pay close attention, you’ll find that some areas could do with being brighter, or darker, or less contrasty, more contrasty, less or more saturated, and so on.


This simple exercise should convince anyone that any kind of advanced processing/image-editing needs local adjustment. The alternative is using the tone mapping tools just described above on the whole image, and they have their own side issues, as well as being imprecise. Of course, committing to local adjustment means spending time, but again, if the image is worth it to you, I wouldn’t begrudge any extra time spent fine-tuning it.


Local adjustment is nothing new in photography. It was normal in wet darkroom printing, working with black-and-white film negatives and a silver bromide print. You made a base exposure overall, dodging an area to be held back. If there was more than one area to dodge, you had to split the exposures, which involved some calculation. Burning in was more flexible, because you could keep adding small amounts with no limit. The exposures were typical made with a foot-operated timer on the floor, to free your hands for dodging and burning. Like this…


Note, however, that the so-called Dodge and Burn tools in Photoshop are far too crude to compare with this way of doing things. If you first select the local area, you then have all the adjustment tools at your disposal. You can choose the contrast, and indeed any other processable quality, such as colour balance. And you can be as finicky as you like. It’s just a matter of the time you’re prepared to spend. Equally important is that with local adjustment, you can rely on only the traditional brightness and contrast controls, which I strongly recommend, and avoid the algorithmic ones. The result will be a ‘photographic’ look to the image.

Local adjustment tools: radial, grad and brush

In ACR/Lightroom there are three local adjustment tools, and the most useful is the radial, although it was the last, surprisingly, to be added to the toolkit. The other two are the brush, which works like any digital brush, and the grad, which behaves like a real-life grad filter in front of a lens, letting you set a gradient transition from one side of the image to the other, along a straight line.

They each have their uses, but in many ways the radial is the most useful, because it’s the easiest with which to get a natural — meaning unnoticeable — brightening or darkening, provided that you set the feathering appropriately You can also add to it and subtract with a brush. The brush alone is, of course, very effective in skilled hands, but working close to any distinct edge is tricky. If you’re not very careful, the effect will be obvious. The grad has special uses: one is when you want a steady change right across the image (such as with an interior shot lit from a window on one side only); the second is when you want to darken or brighten a large area of the image divided by a straight line — such as when there’s a clear and fairly straight horizon. You can also add to or subtract from the grad by using a brush.


The reason why the radial is the most natural in its effect is that you can set the feathering to shade gently inwards, and also because an oval is the simplest of all shapes. Because of the way the human vision system works, gradual changes in or out from a centre are the least noticeable. Done well, a brightening or darkening (or any other effect) with the radial filter should not be obvious at all to a viewer — and that’s what you should want. It’s the direct descendant of wet darkroom dodging and burning. Here, I’ll go through an example just with the radial filter. The others, brush and gradient, are self-explanatory and intuitive in how they work, and you can make exactly the same kind of adjustments.


Here’s an image where the face of the man needs lightening…

Choose the radial filter, and you’ll see that the full set of sliders is available. Make sure that at least one of them is set to a value other than 0 — it doesn’t matter what at this stage, but the program won’t allow you to start unless there’s some difference in the sliders. Just choose some value in, say, the Exposure slide. I suggest moving it until you get significantly more brightening or darkening than you really want (here below + 1 stop). You can fine tune it later.  The first job is to get the oval area right. Choose the area you want to alter, click in the centre, hold down and drag outward to get the oval to approximately the right size and shape…

Rotate it if necessary by moving the cursor away from the oval until you see the double-arrow rotate symbol, and turning it (here below slightly clockwise to better fit the face)…

Having the effect more than you’re likely to want it will help you to judge the feathering accurately. Scroll down on the slider window at right and you’ll find the Feather slider. Move it left for less feathering and a ‘harder’ outline, or right for more feathering and a more gradual, less precise transition inward…

Tip: check the Mask box to see the exact area that the filter covers

Now you’re ready to make the adjustment. What we have at the moment is far too bright. Start by adjusting only the Exposure until it looks right. Beware of overdoing it, a common mistake. You may also want to change the Contrast; experiment with that slider. In most situations, this is all you need to do. You can work on as many areas, small or large, as you like, and as you see, the final result will have shadow areas and highlight areas adjusted to you taste — and yet still look unnoticeable and like a photograph…

There’s a second way of doing this that’s very powerful and can even be too strong, but it’s a useful alternative. You can combine it with the Exposure and Contrast sliders if you want. With Exposure and Contrast set to 0, slide Blacks to the left until you see the blue clipping warning (if you can’t see it, make sure the top left small triangle above the histogram is checked). Next slide the Whites to the right until you see the red clipping warning. Keep both just below the point at which you see the clipping warnings, and you’ve now set the black and white points for just this local area. Very powerful…

And of course, there are other ways of making local adjustments that don’t depend on you having your hand and mouse on the image. Targeted adjustment, available in one form or another in all processing software, means clicking on a tone/colour anywhere on the image and then moving the cursor (such as left or right) to alter a chosen image quality like exposure or saturation. All similar tones across the image are adjusted. In a way, it’s a kind of fast access to a choice of sliders.


As you can see from these two articles, process/image-editing is full of endless possibilities, and there lies its potential but also its problem. It’s easy to get carried away or be overwhelmed, and even seduced by clever new tricks. The important thing is to have a reason and an end-point. Think first what you want the image to look like, and why. The rest is actually commonsense.


Michael FreemanOther articles by author

In a 40 year career, internationally renowned photographer and author Michael Freeman has focused on documentary travel reportage, and has been published in all major publications worldwide, including Time-Life, GEO and a 30-year relationship with the Smithsonian magazine. He is also the world’s top author of photography books, drawing on his long experience.
In total, he has published 133 books, with 4 million copies sold, including 66 on the craft of photography, published in 27 languages. With an MA in Geography from Oxford University, Freeman went first into advertising before launching his career in editorial photography with a journey up the Amazon.

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