Barely a week goes by without somebody enquiring about whether I do digital workflow videos of if there is an eBook in production on this subject. I think that there are already plenty of this sort of thing out there on the web. Truth be told, much of it far more advanced than what I can offer at this point as my post-capture processing is incredibly rudimentary by comparison. Yet it seems that not too many people have levelled criticisms about the way my images look. Nor do I feel that I’m missing any special techniques which are going to be transformative to my portfolio. Does this mean that I can afford to sit back in self-satisfaction and ignore the rapidly-growing advancements in digital enhancements? No. New tools open the imagination to greater possibilities.
I often see images presented by photographers who obviously have a better grasp of digital techniques than myself yet observe that the results are hamstrung by glaring flaws such as overzealous application of contrast, funky looking colours in landscapes or going overboard with flavour-of-the-month-type processing styles.
The way I see it, there are two resources at play in photo finishing, both equally important. First there is the ‘roadmap’ which I regard as a mental picture of how the end product should look like. Now this does not have to be an exact representation of the final image but rather, a rough range of the possibilities in mind. Integrated into all this is some idea what the boundaries are as to what is natural, optimised, artistic or over-the-top. I believe that this concept of developing one’s mental roadmap is generally neglected in favour of developing the second part of the equation, the digital ‘bag of tricks’, workflow techniques which bring vision to fruition on physical media. While the latter can be readily learnt through classes, videos and books, this in not the case for the former.
So how does one develop one’s roadmap? Essentially we are talking about producing the best version of somebody’s vision and what looks right or wrong. There’s obviously a lot of subjectivity at play here. Perhaps the best way to approach this is to find a respected peer willing to give an honest opinion and then being open to their critique.
Something that I have noticed from teaching workshops is many people tend to form a sort of tunnel vision in various aspects of photography. In the field, I see this when participants set up their compositions at the start of the shoot, but persist with the same framing even when the light changes and their first idea no longer works. The same applies to the post-capture process. People get so used to rigidly following a particular formula that some of the variables and imagination are taken out of the equation. I think that a more individual and thoughtful approach to each file helps us to exercise that mental roadmap a little more.
Here are two examples where conceptually the treatment was quite different, although both utilised the same basic tools in Photoshop.
Canon 5DMkII, 16-35mm 2.8L, ISO 100, f14, 1/30
This is a seascape which I recently rescued from the oblivion of my hard drive archives. It’s a sunset at what I consider one of the world’s best coastal locations for photography, found in Cornwall. I’m quite delighted with the result you see here now, hence the reason for my title.
The scene obviously shows a pretty large dynamic range to be captured, with sun on view, crepuscular rays and some shadowed areas. A graduated neutral density filter was used to allow a satisfactory amount of the necessary information to be captured in the one exposure. Due to the level of difficulty, I took some insurance shots from dynamic range but in the end did all my processing from a single RAW file. I processed the same file a few times for highlight, midtone and shadow detail, blending them by hand. Contrast work was achieved by multiple adjustment level layers with fine tuning using Tony Kuyper’s luminosity masks. Finally, some extra detail was brought out using Nik’s Viveza. Overall nothing fancy by today’s standards and the result is a combination of relatively simple digital workflow tools and artistic judgement. A lot of consideration went into aspects such as how bright and dark every inch of the frame should be, making sure that the lighting source falls in a natural way over the landscape and that the hues are optimised rather than over the top.
Canon 5DMkIII, 16-35mm 2.8L, ISO 50, f16, 15s
Images of Milford Sound, probably the most iconic view in New Zealand, are a dime a dozen. And there’s not a whole lot distinctive about this composition, I’m finding some zen from the softness and ethereal appearance of the peaks partially covered in low cloud. Rather than crank up contrast as is fashionable nowadays, I’ve kept the processing understated. In contrast to “Discovery”, I only needed to process the RAW file once for dynamic range. Some gentle contrast work using levels layers and finally the gradient tool to darken the reflections to match the top half. All up less than 10 minutes.
“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus”. Mark Twain
The digital tool kit is important but it’s the direction your mind takes that will have most influence on how the final image looks.