Post-processing in photography
by Nigel Cooper
Post-processing – or post-production – is the process of editing the photographic data captured by camera during the picture-taking stage to enhance the image.
During this article I’d like to discuss this process, the post-processing software that I use and some very important things that I do, and don’t do, during the post-processing stage of my images.
There is one school of thought that suggests that the better the data captured during the picture-taking stage, the greater the possibility of post-processing enhancement. That would suggest that if the data captured during the photo-taking stage were to be perfect, there would be no need for any post-processing work. This isn’t far from the truth, but if you shoot RAW like I do, then all images need to be processed, even if it is simply to convert them from the RAW data into a tangible photographic image that everybody can view.
A LITTLE ABOUT RAW
Essentially, RAW is a file format that captures all the image data recorded by the camera’s sensor during the picture-taking process. The RAW file contains minimally processed – and uncompressed – data and they are named such because they have yet to be processed and are not yet ready to be uploaded to the web or printed out.
Unlike the JPEG format, which is compressed (sometimes aggressively) at the sacrifice of image quality, the RAW file format is uncompressed and retains 100 per cent of the data recorded from the camera’s image sensor. Because of this, the RAW file contains far more colour information, more latitude and much more detail in the highlights and shadow areas of the image.
When it comes to post-processing images RAW files make the job so much easier as you can make major adjustments to blown out hightlights, bringing the detail back as well as bringing out detail in dark shadow areas of the image. Pushing and pulling colours around is also much easier. If you were to carry out these adjustments with a JPEG image the image would quickly deterioate and fall to pieces due to the compression of the JPEG image and the way it throws away lots of informatio – colour, tonal range and latitude for example.
When it comes to post-processing my own photographic images I follow a strict set of rules. The first rule is that I try to get the photograph as perfect as it possibly can be during the picture-taking stage, rather than relying on post-procesing software such as Photoshop, Lightroom, or Capture One (more on these later) to fix issues.
When I take a photograph, be it a family potrait, a bride and groom, a landscape, a photojournalist shot for a local newspaper, a corporate shoot or editorial, I’m always careful and considered with every aspect of the photograph being taken.
I will conpost the image to perfection (or as close to perfection as I can achieve under the circumstances) rather than ‘crop’ the image in post-production. I do this for a couple of different reasons. First, if a photographer relies on his/her software to crop the image then they are a lazy photographer who are giving no real thought to the art of composition. I consider myselt an artist as well as a photographer. If you look at Leonardo da Vinci’s half-length painting of the Mona Lisa (not some of the dodgy cropped ones on the internet, the full original painting) you’ll see that is carefully considered in composition. Just the right amount of head room, just enough space at the bottom of the photo so’s not to have her fingertips anxiously close to the bottom edge of the frame and just enough room to the right and left so’s not to cut into her elbows while the background is – although not thrown totally out of focus – not distracting. I can assure you that Leonardo did not just ‘slap-dash’ that painting onto canves and then do some post-proccesing work by taking a knife and slicing away the top, bottom, right and left edges of the canves to achieve that compostion.
I often tell people that if they want to learn about composition – the rulf of thirds – to look at the great artists such as da Vinci, Rembrandt and Constable for example. Anyway, I digress. The fact is, you’ll always end up with a better photograph if the composition is carefully considered at the picture-taking stage rather than cropping in post production.
If a photographer crops an image in post production then they are degrading the image quality as, essencially, you are zooming in on the pixels, making them more obvious and during this cropping process you are losing resolution. For example, if a photographer were to crop a 24 magapizel photograph down to 25 per cent of it’s original size it would become a 6 megapixel image, which is fine for viewing on the web, but not nearly enough for printing out a quality 12x16-inch print. Also, many photographers seem to forget about the rule-of-thirds and aspect ratios while cropping in post production. I rarely have to crop because I get the composition spot on during the picture taking stage, but on the rare occations that I do need to crop it is minimul and thus does not effect the final image quality. Also, if I have to crop I still make sure that my rule-of-thirds composition remains in tact along with the original aspect ratio. Ok, so regarding the aspect ratio, most full-frame DSLR cameras shoot in an aspect ratio of 3x2. For those who are not familier with this a widescreen TV has an apsect ratio of 16x9, meaning there are 16 equally sized sqaure blocks going horizontally across the top and 9 blocks going virtically down the side. 4x4 would be 4 blocks down and 4 blocks across hence square. 3x2 is the standard ‘aspect ratio’ of a full-frame DSLR camera.
I’ve seen so many photographers do retarded crops during post-processing, meaning they do not retain the original 3x2 aspect ratio, instead they might simply crop a bit off the left hand edge of the frame leaving the aspect ratio at some non-standard such as 2.74x2, which just looks awkward to me, and to anybody who is used to looking at standard ratio images from all those famouse painters of yesteryear. There is a reason that when you go to a picture frame shop to buy off-the-shelf pre-made frames that they are: 5x7, 10x8, 12x16, 16x20 for example, because these are standard aspect ratios that just look ‘pleasing’ to the eye. So when an inexperienced photographer crops ‘awkwardly’ and does not retain the original aspect ratio it retards the image and makes buying an ‘off the shelf’ pre-made frame impossible, you’d have to have a custom frame made instead.
Next up, I don’t rely on post-processing software to air-brush out unsightly litter – a discarded Coke can or crisp packet for example – from the forground of the scene. Again, the more air-brushing and pushing and pulling of sliders you do in post-production the more you degrade the quality of the image. Instead, I deal with any unsightly objects while I’m at the scene. I’ve often had my camera all set up on a tripod to take a landscape photo and noticed some litter in the forground and it has only ever taken me a minute or two to remove it.
I was a photographer before the word ‘digital’ was ever associated with photography and it’s because of this schooling that I am more considered with my photography and what I do, and don’t do, during post-processing. If I want a beautiful warm yellow hue I will wait until the ‘magic hour’ (about an hour before the sun goes down) before shooting any given outdoor shot, rather than drag the hue slider around during post-processing. Again, I do this for artistic and quality reasons. As I’ve already mentioned, if you have to start dragging hue and colour sliders up and down – more than a tiny bit – then the image quality will start to take a hit. If a photographer is aggressive and starts to pull back an overexposed shot more than two stops it will become apparent in the final image as noise (grain) gets introduced into the picture.
This way the work on my RAW images typically requires little by way of processing (just like the old days with chemical developing and printing). Working this way maintains maximum image quality, authenticity and, in certain cases, ethics. I try to think like some of my favourite photographers of yesteryear: Bob Carlos Clarke, Patrick Lichfield, Terence Donovan, David Bailey, Beverley Goodway and Ansel Adams, by striving to achieve a great shot to start with.
Personally I use Capture One software for majority of my post-processing work. I also have Adobe Photoshop, but I rarely use it for photo editing. I know a lot of photographers use Photoshop and Adobe’s Lightroom, but the main reason I chose to edit with Capture One is because it has superios skin-tone editing capabilities, way more than Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom could ever manage and, for me at least, most of what I do involves people, be it a street scene, a family portrait in a studio, a fashion shoot or a boudoir beauty shoot. Capture One is absolutely the professional potrait/people photographer’s software of choice for this – and manay other – reason alone. Adobe simply fed in a ton of pantone colour charts into their software to tell the software what colours were. Capture One, on the other hand, did this also, but they then went above and beyond by loading in thousands of photographs – taken by hundreds of professinal photographers on their one high-end Phase One cameras – into the software also. This way the Capture One software has all the standard ‘scientific’ colour pantones in it’s arsenal, but it also has thousands of other ‘natural’ colours that sit in-between all those pantone ones, which yeilds more natural skin-tones when you have to do any post-processing on skin.
So, it is a fact that all RAW files have to be post-processed to produce an actual image that the client can view, be it online or printed out, but I believe that it’s best to achieve the best picture possible during the picture-taking stage and not rely too heavily on post-processing software to fix bad photography.
As a professional Cambridge photographer who undertakes wedding photography, corporate photography, family portrait photography, editorial photography, to name a few, it’s important for me to produce the best quality of photographic work as I can for my clients and it’s for this reason that my post-processing work is minimul, unless, of course, the client requests something specific in post-production.