What “photo processing” means

In the comments to my last post, Mindstalk asked:

So what does editing consist of? Are you doing major adjustments to each picture, or eyeballing each one for need for any editing, or doing batch edits?

The answer is long enough that I figured it deserved a post of its own.

First of all: no batch editing, in the sense of selecting ten or a hundred pictures and saying “Lightroom, do the following to all of them.” It wouldn’t work: what each picture needs is individual, so I’d just end up changing whatever I had done. Instead, my workflow goes roughly like this.

Step 1: Initial cull. This is where I go through and delete things wholesale. Pictures that are blurry or boring or very much like another one I already have that turned out better. Rating doesn’t come until later, but it figures in here; if I would rate something 2 or 1, then I delete it — unless it serves another purpose. I keep bad or uninteresting photos if they’re meant for reference purposes, e.g. a lot of my museum shots from the London research trips. Ditto shots of signs; I’m keeping them for their informational value rather than aesthetics.

This step, by the way, is a large change from the past. I used to keep every photo. But that was in the days of film, when I’d already paid to develop them, and also was taking fewer pictures overall. Now that I’m shooting digital, I am free to take as many shots as I like . . . and boy howdy, do I. ๐Ÿ˜› On our recent trip to Monterey, that meant six shots of the same cluster of offshore rocks, trying to catch a good wave breaking against them. The first five of those can go away, because the sixth one is the one I was aiming for. Could I keep the others? Sure — but at this point, that means either investing time and energy in doing things like tagging and rating them, or else leaving them untagged and unrated, which means they won’t be in the system I use to find things, which means I’ll never look at them again. Might as well just get them out of the way.

Step 2: Editing. There are a lot of components in this stage — one of which is that I continue to delete things. Sometimes it’s not until I start editing that I decide a picture isn’t worth keeping. This is especially true if I have two or more that are similar; I edit to see which one produces the better result, then dump the other.

Almost every photo (even sometimes the terrible reference shots) gets straightened and/or cropped. I’m pretty good at shooting things on the level, but even stuff that looks level can often benefit from a bit of tweaking. And it’s amazing what cropping can do to improve an image, especially once you let yourself out of the straitjacket of the original shot’s proportions. Now that I know I’ll do this, I can also spend less time trying to perfect my framing in situ; I just leave more margin of padding around the edge, then tidy it up later. (God, I wish I’d known to do that when I was in Hawaii. I took eighteen million shots as we were leaving the U.S.S. Arizona memorial, because the ferry kept shifting beneath me and tilting my photos. I could have taken one with no zoom, and straightened it in post.)

After that, there is a vast sea of things I can do to photos, many of which I don’t bother with (yet). The basics, however, get used regularly. Probably the most common is Exposure: by raising it, you can bring out details that weren’t clear before, and by lowering it you can do the same (if stuff got washed out), not to mention making the colors much richer. There are limits to this, of course, but it’s amazing what a simple tweak on that front can do. Other sliders I make frequent use of are Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, Blacks, Clarity, and Luminance. Highlights and Shadows are particularly awesome; they’re kind of like selectively adjusting Exposure, affecting either the brightest or the darkest parts of the image. I can adjust Temperature (the blue-to-yellow scale) or Tint (green-to-purple), which is good when the color seems a little off-balance. I can also adjust colors directly, though I rarely do that unless it’s something like the sky being inexplicably aqua.

Extra tools: Spot Removal (good for dealing with flecks of dust on my camera lens that show up in the sky, or annoying bits of lens flare against a dark background, or whatever), Gradient (lets you make some of the above adjustments gradually across some selection of the image), Sharpening (does not work like it does on TV, alas), and even some Transform options, which are limited in how well they work, but can sometimes balance out a shot that’s ever so slightly askew. They’re basically rotation operating outside the plane of the photo itself: you can pretend you moved a bit to your left or right, or up or down, when you took the photo. If you try to do too much of this the picture ends up strangely warped, but in very small quantities, it can help.

Finally, Lightroom has all kinds of preset filters, like sepia or eight different black-and-whites or what have you. It can also do “vignettes,” where it whites out or blacks out the edges of the image in a curve, making it look very old-fashioned. At least one of the shots I’m likely to post this year will show that effect; in the right place, it looks very nice.

I don’t use all of this on everything. Reference shots usually don’t get touched, because they aren’t worth it unless I need to see a detail in the photo later on. Three-star photos tend to get Auto-Tone (where Lightroom makes its best guess at what it should do), and then if I don’t yell “Lightroom, what are you smoking?” at the screen (it has a tendency to be hilariously wrong under certain conditions, like low light) then I may just shrug and move on. But five-star photos get a lot of fiddly little adjustments, trying to make them look as good as I can. Something like this gets massive adjustments; because it started out so terrible, but is so simple in its makeup, I hauled Shadows to -100, Clarity to +100, Blacks to -71, Temperature to -38, Whites to +37, Highlights to -35, Contrast to +29, and Exposure to -5 (that last must be from Auto-Tone, because otherwise I don’t know why I would have bothered). Plus there were gradients (four of ’em) to clean up the edges of the image without affecting the pot at the center, and some spot removals (two) to get rid of visual artifacts from the glass of the display case. If I were more inclined to be uber-nitpicky, I could remove the last bits of halo from the glass, but that’s more work than I actually want to go to. And this is an outlier: it’s rare for a picture to get so many sliders moved so far to the extremes.

Step 3: Tagging. Lightroom has several organizational systems, one of which is keywords. Here I mark photos with their location at a minimum, and usually a host of other tags. I’m erring on the side of over-tagging because it’s a lot easier to say “sure, I might as well have a tag for bells/horses/doors” than to later say “oh god, which of these eight thousand photos have bells/horses/doors in them?” I will occasionally delete a photo at this stage, but it’s rare; when it happens, it’s because I took a bunch of photos of one thing at different times, so they’re not in sequence with one another for easy comparison. I tag them, make a collection for that tag, and then judge which ones I want to keep.

Step 4: Rating. Like I said, this comes last, but it’s in the back of my head the whole way through. One star is for signs and “photocopies” — my research trips involved enough texts old enough that they shouldn’t be shoved in an actual photocopy machine that I got in the habit of just photographing pages as needed. Two stars is for museum reference shots, etc. Three stars is nice enough, but not terribly memorable. Four stars is good enough to be put into the digital photo frame. Five stars are photos of which I am truly proud; that’s what you’re getting during the Year in Pictures, and I’m considering the possibility of putting some of them for sale on a stock photo site when all of this is done.

As you can see, it can be a lot of work. Some photos get five seconds of editing; others get several minutes and me asking my parents for advice. ๐Ÿ™‚ And of course I keep fiddling with pictures that are “done,” because I keep doing things like going “right, Luminance, I forgot that slider existed” and then going back to fix shots that could benefit from it. Individually, though, they usually don’t take that much time. It’s just in the aggregate that my head explodes.

Comments are closed.