Four Steps to Better Post-Processing

I’ll frankly admit that in the past I’ve failed to use a steady, and studied, approach to post-processing my images.  My practice, such as it’s been, was to make changes that looked good and seemed somehow better than the original.  The problem, of course, is that while this practice sometimes leads to pleasing results, it’s random and unpredictable.  Since I’ve set no clear goals for my images, my approach has lacked discipline, order, and, ultimately, effectiveness.

I figured there must be a better way.  And as it turns out, there is.  Several resources have led me toward a more practiced and reasoned strategy for enhancing my images in post.  First of these is Guy Tal’s essay entitled “Obsession, Joy, and Torment” in his recent book, Another Day Not Wasted.  Tal argues that color and luminance, which are processed in separate parts of the brain, can and should be used expressively.  As he says, the purpose of editing images is “to elicit some meaning, rather than just to illustrate an appearance.”  In other words, both color and luminance, if thoughtfully managed in post, can enhance the meaning conveyed by an image, rendering it more than just a pretty picture.  Tal’s essay inspired me to seek out practical ways to portray such deeper meanings in my images.

Marc Muench’s recent book, The Art of Luminosity, is a valuable resource on post-processing techniques.  This short volume, available for free from the Muench Workshops web site, examines how to capture luminosity effectively in camera and then how to manage it when processing images.  Muench gives good illustrations of the way he edits images of different types, and they’re both inspirational and instructive as a guide to altering luminosity levels to achieve more effective results. 

Another excellent resource teaches color theory, how different colors affect the brain, and how to use them to best advantage.  It’s See It: Photographic Composition Using Visual Intensity, by Josh and Ellen Anon.  This book, the best on using color I’m aware of, does for color what Muench does for luminosity. 

The question then becomes how to apply this information to my images.  Drawing on these resources, I developed a set of practical actions to help me reveal more meaning, the purpose set out in Tal’s provocative essay.  I’ve boiled them down to four steps.  I’ve applied them here to images I made while participating in Irene Hinke-Sacilotto’s fall color workshop in the New River area of West Virginia.

A small waterfall on Glade Creek in Babcock State Park, West Virginia, before cropping.
The same image after cropping to remove unnecessary areas from the edges of the image.

I start by examining each image to visualize the concept I wish to illustrate.  Visualization may be an overworked term in photography, but it’s basic to creative work.  What it amounts to is this: I must have a clear idea of what I want each image to achieve.  Of course, visualization needs to start before the shutter is tripped.  A poorly conceived image is difficult and probably impossible to recover in post-processing.  There must be good material to work with.  But if I have good raw material, I then need to imagine how post-processing can enhance my meaning and bring it into clear focus for the viewer.  This step is neither easy nor quick.  But it’s important that I take the time to establish a clear conception of what I want to achieve.  Only after I’ve done that can I usefully proceed to subsequent steps.

As I visualized this scene on the New River, I knew that I wanted to contrast the broom sage in the foreground with the softly-flowing rapid in the center and the reflections of the trees on the opposite bank at the top of the image. I increased the luminosity of the white rapids, darkened the water at the top, and sharpened the image to highlight the weeds.

The question naturally arises, how do you carry out a visualization process?  Are there some practical steps you can take to facilitate it?   Can the process be structured so the chances for achieving clear concepts are increased?   Guy Tal comes to the rescue.  In another essay entitled “The Mindful Photographer“ he urges taking time to meditate to prepare the mind for openness to creativity.  But recognizing that this will not work for all photographers or in all situations, he suggests some alternative practices that are as valid for visualizing in the studio as they are in the field.  First, he suggests making a visual inventory.  In post processing, this means clarifying your impressions about the image, identifying things you like, those you don’t, where it’s strong, where it can be enhanced.  Then, conduct a second inventory, this one emotional.  What is your emotional response to the image?  How does it make you feel?  How can the image be altered to bring it into better alignment with what you felt when you pressed the shutter?  Take your time in making these inventories.  If need be, write down your observations, as they will guide your editing.  Then, after you’ve completed the inventories, use them to build a roadmap for making changes to the image that will bring it into line with what you noticed and what you felt.

Once I have a plan, I’ll look at cropping the image.  Although I try to crop in-camera as much as possible, some creative decisions may be needed in post to focus attention on the most important elements in the composition.  Also, if I plan to convert a 3 X 5 full frame image into a different aspect ratio, such as the one needed for a 16 X 20 print, it’s best to do that cropping now.

The initial image of a waterfall on Glade Creek before cropping.
The same scene after cropping slightly to emphasize the whirlpool effect of the water. Additional editing to this version sharpened the details somewhat.

Then I turn to luminosity.  My visual inventory will have identified any distracting zones that draw attention away from the principal subject.  Usually these are bright spots.  But dark areas might also need to be brightened to reveal details important to the overall conception.  After fixing these problem areas, I’ll make subtle adjustments to luminosity throughout the image to enhance my compositional concept.  The intended result is an image that avoids unwanted intrusions, emphasizes the subject I wish to highlight, and is complementary in luminosity throughout.  Though I want well-balanced images, I don’t want images that are bland or, worse, muddied.  Instead, depending on the subject, broad ranges in brightness may be desirable.  The goal is to use luminosity as a creative and expressive tool to enhance the image’s underlying mood as I conceived it in my visualization.

This scene of Sandstone Falls on West Virginia’s New River was characterized by early morning fog over much of the falls. I visualized that as a critical element in the concept I had for this image and in post-processing it I lightened the fog to make it more prominent. I then darkened the water at the left to create greater contrast with the white water in the falls and the hanging fog. A sepia treatment gives a somewhat nostalgic look to the scene, as though it were an old postcard.
My concept for this image was for the leaves on the tree to stand out against the darker foliage in the background. To achieve this, I increased the luminosity of the yellows in the leaves and darkened the greens slightly to create more color contrast.

Finally, I turn to color.  Adobe Lightroom and other post-processing software packages allow local adjustments to the hue, saturation, and luminosity of individual colors.  These controls let me bring out the tones I saw when I captured the image or those I now wish to reflect in implementing my current visualization.  Color adjustments are intended to emphasize the principal subject and reinforce the image’s overall composition.  However, because the human brain makes different emotional responses to individual colors, the color adjustments I make will also affect the deeper meaning the image ultimately conveys.  I need to keep this in mind as I work with the colors. This is when the emotional inventory can help me interpret my feelings about the scene.  How I approach the use of color will affect the mood evoked by the image.  My visualization will guide me in rendering the colors as subtle and subdued or vibrant and intense.

My goal for this image of the Glade Creek Grist Mill in Babcock State Park was to put attention on the mill in the background and the waterfall in the foreground. I did this by cropping the image to emphasize these elements. But the red leaves were also important to the image, and they seemed dull. To rectify this, I increased the red saturation and luminosity to give it greater emphasis. The challenge was to emphasize the red without making it unrealistically vibrant.
I wanted this detail of the rapids in the New River to be both sharp and to reflect the vibrancy of the colors I visualized. I chose a higher shutter speed to stop the action. In post-processing, I lightened the white of the rapids and deepened the remaining tones to create both contrast and bring out the bold colors in the scene.

This may seem like a lot of work.  And frankly, it is.  But capturing raw images is less than half the process of creating high quality images with sensitivity and meaning.  Thus, to achieve my hoped-for impact, I will need to give my images thoughtful and careful attention in post processing.

Published by Norman Reid

I worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 27 years in the field of rural community and economic development. I retired a few years ago and have been devoting my time to photography and writing. I've been a semi-pro photographer for more than 25 years and sell my work on the Web. I live in rural Virginia not far from the Shenandoah Valley.

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