Photographic integrity and the use of Photoshop

Even amongst photographers, I think it is very important to demystify something which has plagued the photography community and the craft in general, especially since the early days of digital capture. I’m talking about Photoshop; yes, that dirty word which has now come to be associated with over-airbrushed models, extra crowds, and general media hoaxes and fakes of all possible descriptions. I think never has a creative tool been so universally reviled and misunderstood by the general population. The word ‘Photoshop’ in itself has almost come to be synonymous with making alterations or changes to something to the point that it is no longer representative of the original object or subject.

Whilst it is, of course, possible to turn a Oprah into Britney Spears and vice versa; to do it well exceeds photography and solidly enters the realm of digital illustration. I am not going to discuss that in this article*; suffice to say that it is a completely different challenge and requires the hand and eye of a painter combined with the logical, structured thinking of a programmer.

*In the interests of full disclosure, I was taught the vast majority of my Photoshop knowledge by one of the best illustrators in the UK. He also happened to be a photography enthusiast, my neighbor in London, and also the reason why I now shoot with a Nikon instead of Canon. I also use Photoshop for illustration, layout and design purposes, but in my experience, that requires an almost completely different set of tools to what a photographer would use – another story for another time.

That is not to say the retouchers couldn’t learn a thing or two from the digital illustrators; too often a much-too heavy-handed approach is applied to any corrections that are performed on an image. It is very important to have an eye for the original subject, a sensitivity to the natural pre-existing lighting in the frame, and the touch of a feather to seamlessly and imperceptibly blend any changes made with the original image. This applies not just to airbrushing and heavy commercial grade retouching, (such as smoothing skin and removing dust or unwanted reflections) but also to normal photographic corrections during postprocessing – I’m thinking specifically of dodging and burning or saturation adjustments.

This is one of the reasons why I’m a huge fan of using an editing tablet and pen; the pressure sensitive and tilt sensitive nature capabilities of the setup allow you to have very fine control over precisely how strong the effect applied is. Both size and density can change depending on the pressure on or angle of the pen; it’s very much like drawing or painting. I suppose if one were to substitute the brush tool for the dodge and burn brush and start a new layer, the resulting image – representing the corrections applied – would almost like a sketch of the original image. (I like to use the Wacom Intuos series because of their high precision and natural feel.)

There are a few worthwhile rules that I think all photographers should keep in mind as they are retouching and postprocessing:

It is possible to overdo it. precisely how much is enough is actually not a very easy thing to determine. However, this is where it is useful to see plenty of other images; look at enough photographs and you will eventually develop a sense of those that work and those that don’t, and more importantly, an eye for just how much processing is required to achieve the desired look.

If you can see where an image was retouched/ edited/ processed, you’ve gone too far. if the corrections also obvious, then the resulting image is no longer photograph but a very poor illustration. This of course is not the intention of photography.

Do things in small, gentle increments. this permits finer control as well as better blending and integration of the changes with the structure of the original image. It is also much easier to undo things and not have to repeat signification amounts of work if you happen to make a mistake.

Any sort of documentary or reportage photography which is intended for editorial news or recording purposes should not have the contents of the image altered at all.

The final point brings me to the second half of my article. In a situation where a photograph is meant to serve as witness to an event, object or place, integrity is paramount. This includes news, reportage, documentary legal documentation, or any sort of archive or historical reference. Although it is perfectly acceptable for the color, contrast and general tone of an image to be altered in such a way as to best present the subject to the viewer; it is definitely not acceptable to change what constitutes the contents of the image. Overenthusiastic use of the clone stamp, healing brush, and most notoriously, mask, copy and paste have cemented Photoshop in the popular consciousness as the tool of choice when deliberate deception or obfuscation is the intention.

That said, I think it is equally important to define what is acceptable in the context of not altering the contents of the image; this list includes exposure, shadow and highlight recovery, curves, levels, dodging and burning, desaturation/ black and white conversion, and minor hue and saturation adjustments. Frankly, the final item – hue and saturation – is also a little bit borderline. This is because a decisive change in the color of a photograph or subject can result in very different interpretations, for example, naturally occuring blue carrots would be an event of note, but postprocessed ones would not. It is therefore the responsibility of the photographer to ensure that color is as accurate and faithful to the original subject as possible. The alternative is to shoot in black and white; this has the effect of removing the psychological aspects of color from the image.

Determining what is naturally occurring and what is the product of Photoshop skill has become more and more difficult since the increasing popularity of shooting in RAW. It is actually nearly impossible to spot well executed retouching; in fact, I actually make it a point to look for flaws in retouching in order to avoid these mistakes in my own commercial work. Even in very good work, there are two giveaways. The first is that everything simply looks too perfect; reality is dirty, rough and full of flaws; an image that is meant to serve as documentary witness should also reflect that. It is possible (but highly unlikely) that a subject will be perfect and flawless at the full resolution level; and this is where such inspection should begin. The second clue is a lot more subtle, hidden in the noise characteristics of the camera. Even by eyeball, if this texture microtexture is not properly replicated in a retouched area of an image it will be fairly obvious. Although it is possible to have images with zero noise even in the shadow zones, or alternatively add it back, it is almost impossible to perfectly replicate the native noise pattern of the sensor, or have zero noise in the shadows. It is also possible to reveal these inconsistencies either through extreme total manipulation – which amplifies the differences between the retouched and surrounding areas – or through the use of forensic statistical analysis software.

There is a big gray area between documentary photography and conceptual or artistic photography. This twilight zone is home to the commercial photographer. Understandably, it is highly desirable to make your product or service or people look as appealing, flawless and perfect as possible; however there is also the question of integrity. This is where too much Photoshop can get you into trouble. Once a photograph no longer reasonably represents the actual product or service you are going to receive; in some countries it is quite reasonable to take legal action on the grounds of misrepresentation. One very good example of this is fast food; in the hundreds of times I’ve at McDonalds, I can’t recall ever having received a burger which actually resembles anything on the menu. Natural lettuce is simply not that green most of the time, nor are the burgers that big! (I also remember an oldish article circulating on the Internet which shows just how much effort and preplanning is used in the preparation of a burger for one of these shoots; there were spare parts for everything and a huge pile of discarded ingredients that would be perfectly edible, but due to a slight blemish were rendered unsuitable for photography. This was obviously in the days of film, before Photoshop retouching.)

I personally deal with this issue on a fairly regular basis. As you know know, I’m a commercial photographer whose work covers subjects that are meant to be desirable – expensive watches, gourmet food and avant-garde buildings. There is therefore some degree of retouching required to ensure that the subjects look as perfect as possible; you can reasonably expect there to be no loose drips of sauce around your entree, or dust and scratches on your new watch. But just where do you stop making the tomatoes redder, and the meat more golden brown? To complicate things, it’s also a tough balance between finding a unique and aesthetically pleasing angle (a commercial photography requirement) against representing a perspective that a normal person might reasonably expect to experience. I honestly don’t have an answer for this question; the personal guidelines I generally work to are that the images I produce must look natural, even if they are conceptual in nature and require compositing multiple images (which frequently happens to manage reflections, deal with large dynamic range while maintaining shadow image quality, or photographing prototypes that might not be representative of final finishing). A dedicated and careful viewer should not be able to tell which part of the images has been retouched or composited, oh where the break points used were.

For my limited documentary work, I do absolutely zero retouching or airbrushing on any portions of the image and seek to deliver as faithful color to the original scene as possible. Adjustments are limited to curves, dodging and burning and sharpening; hue and saturation adjustments are made solely in the quest to deliver more accurate color. Personal or artistic work is basically open season; however, if I want to do illustration, I’ll do illustration; since I’m focusing on the photography, and my style these days is predominantly natural, I try to do as little retouching as possible. (It also helps me to speed up my workflow and throughput.)

By no means am I saying these guidelines are a hard and fast set of rules for every photographer to follow, however they are worth keeping in mind depending on the intended usage and purpose of your photographs. In the interests of maintaining the reputation and integrity of both the profession and the individual; working photographers should be open to fully disclose if an image has been edited or retouched, if it is ever called into question. The editing and retouching of images has been around for many years before Photoshop – there were even services for adding color to black and white images – but during the film days, retouching was never perceived as a threat to integrity, perhaps because the tools available were rudimentary, and it was nearly impossible to achieve a perfectly natural looking result. Today, it is very much our responsibility as photographers to do our best to restore public trust in the integrity of documentary images, as well as faith that what you pay for is actually going to be what you receive. MT

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If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the site via Paypal (mingthein2@gmail.com); Ming Thein’s Email School of Photography – learn exactly what you want to learn, when you want to learn it or learn how to achieve a similar look with our Photoshop workflow DVDs.  You can also get your gear from Amazon.com via this referral link.  Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Two new Malaysian workshops: 3 & 4 November 2012

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After the success of the last session in Kuala Lumpur (Making light, and Finding light) I’m pleased to announce another two new workshops for 3 and 4 November 2012:

The streets of Melaka: Saturday, 3 November 2012 (Melaka)
Intermediate street and travel photography techniques; from 10.30am to 7.30pm
All you need is a digital camera. Any camera; even a compact/ point and shoot is fine (bring it if you have one). I’ll show you how to see, how to translate that into an image, and how to make images where the equipment doesn’t matter – you’ll be liberated. The day concludes with an assessment of images and debrief.

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Introduction to Photoshop Workflow for Photographers: Sunday, 4 November 2012 (Kuala Lumpur)
With digital photography, shooting is just half of the story: the other half is in both how you shoot to make the most of the output of your camera to maximize image quality, and how you optimize those images afterwards. Photoshop doesn’t have to be intimidating or slow – I spend less than a minute per image on average, but each one is individually optimized. Bring along your problem/ difficult images or images from the day before. I’ll cover the entire basic desk workflow from assessing/ editing and sorting to adjustments and output. You’ll need a laptop with Photoshop CS3 or higher plus an editing tablet – I like the Wacom Intuos series. Note that you can use the trial version of Photoshop for 30 days before deciding if you want to buy it or not. But, once you see what it can do, it’s not a lot of money to spend when you consider that you use it on every image.

Each session is RM1,000 per person, or book both for RM1,800. Please note that payment is due on confirmation to reserve your place.

Please email mingthein2@gmail.com for bookings or information. Places are strictly limited for both sessions (max. 6 for Melaka, and max. 10 for Intro to Photoshop) in order for me to help you get the most out of the session. MT

On Assignment: A small matter of retouching…

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Finished shot. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon – composite of three images

This post is for those of you who are curious about how much work exactly goes on during an architectural/ interior shoot. (And yes, the company whose boutique is featured here is one of my clients, as is their parent company.) It’s not quite as simple as it looks. First, let’s look at the original, unedited shot again – this is what you get out of camera with the raw file converted straight to a JPEG, all ACR adjustments zeroed out. This is about as good as you’re going to get straight out of the camera. Light was available ambient, and I used the excellent Gitzo GT5562LTS 6x Systematic carbon tripod for support.

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The same shot, straight out of camera, NEF>JPEG via ACR with all adjustments set at neutral.

Can’t see any issues with this image? Let me point them out to you.

  • There’s a bit of sombrero distortion in the horizontal lines; this is a lens issue. Minor, but obvious when you’ve got this many parallel lines.
  • The horizontals run to the right slightly; it’s almost impossible to get this perfect in camera, even using the built-in level guide – as with the in-focus indicator, there’s a bit of ‘dead space’ around the null position where the camera might report perfect levelling even though things are a degree or so off.
  • The highlights are gone. All gone.
  • The shadows are also all gone…oh dear, this is turning into a tonal nightmare: very dark wood on the storefront, extremely brightly-lit illuminated displays…
  • Very distracting reflections from the store and the boutique across the hallway – we couldn’t get them to turn off their storefront lights (obviously) – so there was no choice but to retouch them out.

Now you know what I’m up against, let me explain how the issues were solved. Distortion is taken care of using ACR’s built-in profile for the lens; note how everything is straight again in the finished image below. Slight issues with levelling are taken care of using Photoshop’s distort tool – select all, then Edit>Transform>Distort. Use guides to help you line up your horizontals and verticals, and then pull the corners a little bit to make everything line up.

Dynamic range is a bit more of a challenge. Although the rough image above has had zero highlight and shadow recovery done and perhaps represents about 8 bits of tonal information, I wouldn’t want to push this image too far in post. The extreme highlights will posterize slightly and the shadows will get noisy, though I might be able to recover 13-14 stops this way. The image above was actually exposed for the midtones. The shadows and highlights had separate images three stops apart. I overlaid one on the other, and erased out the bits I didn’t want – so that would be putting the darkest image on top, then erasing around the highlights to reveal the images below. This is the correct way to do HDR – and perhaps the subject of a future article. The tonal transition between layers was made smooth by feathering the opacity and hardness of the eraser brush, as well as using curves on the individual layers afterwards.

Two more steps – dodge and burn of the flattened image to give it local pop; and the hardest bit: retouching out the reflections of the opposite boutique. Note that the reflections overlaid some very complex textures and structures in the image; it definitely wasn’t a simple clone or healing brush job. (Originally, the images were done in the morning; the boutique opposite proved to be extremely bright, so I came back at 10pm once most - but sadly not all – of the lights in the neighbouring boutiques had been turned off. ) The solution? Get creative with replacement textures. The left hand window is actually an inverted clone of the right hand window; everything was nearly perfectly square geometrically, so it wasn’t too much of an issue. Small differences in alignment were sorted out using the Distort tool again, matching up the corners. It also helped that the interior of the store itself was mostly symmetric, of course. Some strategic erasing around the left-unique features and some healing brush later, and voila – finished.

As much as I like to get it right straight out of the camera, there are some times when it simply just isn’t possible. MT

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Finished shot again.

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If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the site via Paypal (mingthein2@gmail.com); Ming Thein’s Email School of Photography – learn exactly what you want to learn, when you want to learn it or learn how to achieve a similar look with our Photoshop workflow DVDs.  You can also get your gear from Amazon.com via this referral link.  Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the Flickr group!

Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Teaching update: Photoshop workflow DVD, August Email School intake

1. By popular demand…presenting Ming Thein’s Introduction to Photoshop Workflow DVD!

Thank you to everybody who participated in the earlier survey on whether a DVD covering my Photoshop workflow would be useful – it seems that nearly a thousand of you thought it would be, and that’s more than enough justification for me to produce one. I’m just sorry it’s taken this long – commercial work and everything else gets in the way…

However, I’m pleased to announce that the DVD is finally complete and available for sale; it covers:

  • A basic explanation of the working environment of Bridge and Photoshop, following CS5.5 (CS3,4, 5 and 6 are similar; I don’t use any tools here that aren’t available in the other versions, so it’s a very flexible workflow)
  • A runthrough of the functions of Camera Raw
  • My personal workflow – if you’ve ever wondered what my postprocessing process is, or how I get the style and look you see on the site and in my commercial work, this is for you.
  • Several end to end processing examples – I’ve picked a number of files that I’d consider difficult or processing-intensive to use as step by step walkthroughs.
  • The Camera Raw portion – where about half the work is done – also applies to Lightroom and Photoshop Elements, too. The buttons may be different, but the fundamental principles of tools don’t change between software – dodge is dodge, burn is burn, and curves are curves.

Total runtime is about 1h 15min.

Checkout now via PayPal

This will be the first in a series of many DVDs in which I’ll spend more time detailing and explaining the various functions of Photoshop and their application to photographers, but it makes the ideal starting point for anybody who would like to get started in serious postprocessing, or perhaps are wondering why their images lack that punch and sparkle.

Please note – for KL residents, happy to do MEPS – please send me an email to make arrangements.

2. Email School of Photography August intake

I’ve now cleared the pipeline somewhat, which means I can take on a fresh batch of students for my Email School of Photography – more details here. It’s a unique, fully-customized correspondence course tailored to your skill level and photographic objectives – learn what you want to learn, at your convenience. So for all of you who were on the fence, now’s the time to sign up.

The course is just US$800 for ten sessions including a detailed portfolio review; once again payable via paypal to mingthein2(at)gmail.com.

Thanks in advance for your support – all these little things help me keep producing content and keep this site running. MT

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Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Some thoughts on reprocessing and revisiting images

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The difference of seven years of Photoshop skill: 2012 (left) vs 2005 (right). Mandarin duck; Nikon D2H, Tokina AF 80-200/2.8

From day one, I was told by every serious photographer two things: one, don’t delete anything because opportunities never come twice, but storage is cheap; two, shoot raw, and keep your raw files somewhere in an archive. Or at very least, keep your original jpegs if your camera doesn’t do raw.

I only recently started doing the former: I keep all of the raw files from a commercial shoot, and then send a contact sheet off to the client to let them pick the ones they want retouched – usually between 10 and 50%, per whatever the commercial agreement was. The rest stay in the archive in case they come back later and want to license additional images, or I need to composite in bits during the retouching. For my personal work, I cull ruthlessly – the rationale and the methodology was previously covered in this article.

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Venice, 2004. Nikon D70, 24-120VR

One of the more popular justifications given for being the image-hoarding equivalent of a packrat is that you might want to go back and reprocess your files later once technology or your technique improves, so you can get more out of the original image. This makes sense from a logical point of view, but from a practical standpoint, if you’ve improved that much as a photographer it’s probably because you’re out there shooting new stuff and refining both the shooting and processing portions of your technique. In short: I’ve never gone back and reprocessed anything. Well, there might have been a couple of exceptions when an image was licensed to a client and adjusted for print or to the client’s taste, but nothing more than that. I honestly don’t have time to reprocess my personal work.

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Venice, 2012

However, I suppose we could all find time to do things if we thought they were important enough. And this brings me to the biggest argument against reprocessing images: your artistic vision for that particular image, or what you saw in that particular scene, will never be stronger than at the time of shooting. It just fades gradually as time passes; this is just a consequence of the way the human brain works: we forget things over time. And unless you suddenly look at an image again later and find something that bothers you hugely, you’re probably just going to go with whatever you thought was best at the time.

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Courchevel cloud, 2005. D2H, Sigma 70-300/4-5.6 APO

However, in the interests of academic curiosity, I’m going to do some reprocessing for this article. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out: I’m writing this philosophical portion of the article before doing the work. Frankly even finding shots that meet my compositional standards is tough, because I (hope, at any rate) have moved on significantly in my photographic abilities since these images were shot. There’s no point in reprocessing something from last month, because I don’t think you’ll see any difference in the before and after – one’s style changes slowly, like a tree growing. But one’s style is also defined by the way you shoot, and there are things I do routinely now – for instance, cinematic, very shallow DOF in low light – which I couldn’t physically have done back then, because the equipment didn’t exist.

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Courchevel cloud, 2012.

The archives have been raided, and yielded a number of images. In some cases I’ve had to use the original JPEGs as a starting point because I didn’t have raw files; this is obvious in the lack of file quality and noise. There’s not a lot I can do about that, unfortunately; 8 compressed bits of tonal information can never be made into 16 complete ones. You’ll also see in some places I disagreed with my original processing choice of B&W vs color, and even the final crop – I guess as one’s style and eye evolves, we see different things in the same image. The eagle-eyed of you will also notice small corrections to composition via distortion, cropping or stretching; I normally do these things today, but I’m sure I wasn’t doing any of it at the time. Similarly, dust/ speck cloning was something I never bothered with. I’ve picked a wide range of subjects, too. I’m going to post the final state I arrived at back at the time – usually a mildly edited jpeg – and the reprocessed, 2012-version. I would highly encourage all of my readers to share their thoughts on which they prefer, and why; let the comments section be a forum for discussion. I’ve also provided some thoughts below on each individual image.

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Nikko station, 2007. Nikon D200, 17-55/2.8

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Nikko station, 2012. There’s a lot of empty space in the top portion of this image, especially the overexposed window at top left; it threatens to imbalance the composition – hence switching to a 16:9 crop. The original colors in the scene were delicate and tonally interesting, so I opted to rebalance for true color instead of do another monochrome conversion.

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Piazza San Marco, Venice, 2004. Nikon D70, 24-120VR

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Piazza San Marco, Venice, 2012. This is one of the very early images from my DSLR career; up til this point I’d been using a super zoom compact. If I’d known any better, I’d have used a different exposure time to retain more suggestion of people in the scene, or better yet, stacked many exposures. And f10 isn’t exactly the optimal aperture on the first-generation 24-120VR. Aside from the obvious color fix – this is much closer to the reality I remember than the original processing – verticals, horizontals and tonal maps have also been tweaked. I don’t think the composition is particularly fantastic, but gimme a break, I just started at this point, okay? :)

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Kinkakuji, Kyoto, 2007. Nikon D200, 17-55/2.8

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Kinkakuji, Kyoto, 2012. You’ll notice there isn’t a lot of difference between the two; this was from a later period in my photographic career where my processing was both more refined, and I was shooting RAW (with all of the associated available adjustments) to hand. I didn’t change the composition, though I’m not 100% happy about the positioning of some of the edge elements in the frame; the majority of the change was to sort out the dayglo colors, and the horribly inaccurate foliage. It was a particularly hot summer that year; the image was shot in August, and the trees were looking a little dry and wilted – I think this is much closer to the reality I remember at that point.

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Scarlet Ibis, 2007. Nikon D200, AI 500/4 P

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Scarlet Ibis, 2012. Not a lot of change; I punched up the color a little, because these birds are pretty darn striking in person. I don’t remember the color of the swamp, so I left it much as-is. Again: a late 2007 image.

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La Tania sunset, France. Nikon D2H, Sigma 70-300/4-5.6 APO

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La Tania sunset, France. WHOA! You’re probably wondering what happened here – of all the images, this is the one which is the most different from the original. Aside from the obvious change in crop, I’ve now got the shadow recovery tool at my disposal, and better yet, an intimate familiarity with it. The problem I faced at the time was the sunset was a) both not very punchy and b) the native dynamic range of the scene was already quite challenging, meaning that making the highlight portion punchier would have sacrificed tonal detail in the shadows. At the time, I had no clue how to unblock it. I don’t remember the exact color of the the scene, but I suspect it was probably somewhere between the two images. Which one do you prefer?

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Venice, 2004. Nikon D70, 24-120VR

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Venice, 2012. At the time, I was influenced heavily by a number of ‘classical’ monochrome shots I’d seen in magazines; as a result, this street scene was instantly converted. What I failed to notice in the original – until now, fortunately I still have the original color jpeg – is that the light spillage from the shop windows at left actually give the image an interesting structure that’s lost in black and white because of the similarity of luminance values between the warm-lit stone and the regular stone. I’ve attempted to bring this back, however the limited dynamic range of the jpeg has led to less smooth tonal transitions than I’d be able to achieve with a raw file. Actually, working this ‘vintage’ jpeg reminded me a lot of dealing with iPhone files – imperfect color, blocked shadows, blown highlights, and a decidedly averse reaction to resizing.

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Canal reflections, 2004. Nikon D70, 24-120VR

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Canal reflections, 2005. To me, reflections are juxtapositions. Our minds invert them subconsciously anyway, otherwise we would recognize them as the mirror images of their own selves; I usually take this further by treating the image as the real subject, and the subject as the abstraction – what’s the difference anyway, since all images are subjective and facsimiles of the real thing? Aside from that obvious flip, the verticals have been corrected, and the tonality smoothened out – especially in the water, so it looks more like liquid and less like a block of color.

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Mandarin duck, 2005. Nikon D2H, Tokina AF 80-200/2.8. For some odd reason Flickr won’t let me re-upload a modern duplicate of this image with the right border and matching image size, so I apologize. However, the original image remains the same.

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Mandarin duck, 2012. Improved color accuracy and worked on micro contrast a little.

With all of the reworked versions, I’m not sure I can say that I 100% prefer the 2012 version over the originals – photography is very much the sum of the parts, and the interaction between the original framing and the processing is very much a large component of that. The processing methodology I currently use doesn’t really fit the vision I had back then, and vice versa. Score one for the argument against do-overs: you really can’t fix it in post; you can enhance an image, but not fix something that’s fundamentally wrong with the composition or lighting. Here’s another interesting idea for a future article – reprocessing somebody else’s raw files. Might provide an interesting insight into how much difference Photoshop really makes…MT

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Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!

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Workflow

I get two questions regularly:

1. “What camera should I buy, or should I buy X or Y?”
2. “I have the same equipment as you. How do you make your images look the way they do? Why can’t I do it?”

I’m not going to address the first question here. As for the second question, there are two answers and one fundamental underlying question: assuming the problem isn’t with your composition, what is it about your workflow that creates that very visible difference in the final image?

Workflow is very important to professionals, because if you’ve got a very high image throughput, then you can take on more work, deliver better quality images to your clients, and at the end of the day, make more money. So it’s in our interests to be as efficient as possible, without sacrificing quality. Good workflow should have the absolute minimum number of steps, be fast and easy to execute, automated to the greatest extent possible (but recognizing that individual images are like children: you have to treat each one differently) and most importantly, be camera independent. The latter requirement is so that you are free to use the best tool for the job without worrying about what to do with the files later. There’s no getting around the fact that different cameras and lenses require different amounts of editing or correction to achieve the desired results; it’s just something that has to be built into your process.

A common misconception is that workflow just covers the post-shoot editing process: it doesn’t. Workflow affects the entire way you execute an assignment, from preparation to final image delivery. What follows is a high level overview of the way I work, and some of the key steps.

1. Prep
- Make a list of equipment you’re going to need.
- Charge batteries, and bring 2x the number you think you’ll need – s*** happens.
- Ensure you have spares: cards, batteries, flashes, bodies, RF calibration spanners…
- Unless you’re shooting a run-and-gun stealth photojournalist assignment, or are going to be carrying your equipment for long periods of time, take everything you think you might need. Better to have it and not use it rather than miss a shot for want of a lens.
- Pack with plenty of time to spare, in case you find you’re missing something or can’t decide which configuration to use – at least you’ve got time to think it over or go out and buy anything critical that’s missing.

2. Shoot
- Turn up early so you can set up (if required) and be relaxed. Nervousness means jumpy hands which means blurred images.
- I always shoot RAW, for maximum latitude later when processing.
- Write-protect your keepers in camera to prevent accidental deletion.
- Shoot bursts where possible, both to get duplicates (insurance) and a choice of material to work with later.

3. First edit
- Delete the ‘obvious fail’ shots in camera when you have downtime – but ONLY when you have downtime. Missing a shot because you were staring at the back of your camera is an amateur’s mistake. I’ll probably dump about 50% of the images at this point.

4. Post-shoot
- Unpack
- Clean equipment – lenses, filters, eyepieces, LCDs etc.
- Recharge any depleted batteries
- Put everything back where it came from, so you can find it again next time.

5. Dump cards
- I will dump all cards to my primary processing machine at this point, and leave the cards unformatted back in the camera – just in case a file gets corrupted or I need the original, I know it’s still there.

6. Backup
- I use a Mac. At this point, I’ll run a time machine backup on my primary processing machine.

7. Second edit
- Delete the images that don’t really work at larger sizes – see my previous article here on editing. I use Adobe Bridge to delete and rate images. Another 50% of the images will go.

8. RAW conversion
- Depending on your machine, figure out how many RAW files you can open before it starts to slow down (use the ‘efficiency’ display in Photoshop; it’s in the bottom left of your image window. 100% means that everything is being loaded to RAM, which is the fastest way of editing). I can open about 15 12MP files in 16 bit before things start to slow down. This means I’ll probably load 20-30, because I also delete some at this point.
- Load bunch of files (20-30) into Camera Raw.
- Make primary exposure adjustments; I will adjust white balance, exposure, shadow/ highlight recovery sliders, vignetting.
- I only crop to aspect ratios that are non-native for my camera. If I’m using a multi-aspect ratio camera like the Leica D-Lux 5, I won’t crop at all.
- I have created a color profile for each camera I use so that I can get consistent color and the same look out of any camera I use, this is applied to the raw file in ACR.
- And same for the tonal response curve.
- Open the files in Photoshop (I’m using CS5.5 Extended now) at maximum quality: 16bit, full resolution.
- B&W conversion: depending on what final look I want, there are many options: gradient map, desaturate, channel mixer…to be the subject of a future article.
- Make curve adjustments – sometimes up to four or five times.
- Any retouching is done at this point – e.g. dust removal for product shots, or color enhancement using brushes and masks. I use a Wacom Intuos4 6×9″ tablet for this, nothing else so far gives me enough fine control.
- Local dodge and burn where applicable.
- Finally, sharpening: do this last, so you don’t land up increasing image noise/ grain. Must be done after curves.
- Convert to 8 bit and desired color space.
- Save final file. I generally use a maximum quality JPEG unless the client demands otherwise; you really can’t tell the difference unless you’re going to do future manipulation on it. (Revisiting old files will be the subject of another future article).
- Optional: do an incremental backup again, if it’s a big conversion job you can’t finish at one sitting, or if each file is time consuming and will take a lot of effort to duplicate.

9. Final edit
- Go through the set again. Keep only the unique, essential images. By the time I’m done, I keep only 1-5% of the initial shoot volume.

10. Portfolio selection
- I keep a portfolio of images for the subjects I commonly shoot; this gets updated after every shoot, especially if I feel there are images that should be added. It’s my aim to have at least one image to add to the portfolio (and replace an old one) from each assignment; this way, I force myself to continually improve.

11. Backup and format
- Dual duplicate sets of images with all raw files to external hard drives, one of which is kept offsite
- Keep finished files only on main processing machine
- Final backup: time machine of main processing machine
- Only now will I format cards. Where possible, I keep at least two copies of the original files – just in case something goes wrong. It’s happened to me in the past, and I’ve been very, very grateful that I did remember to backup. I’ve been doing it religiously ever since, and highly recommend you do the same.

A note on filing: I store images in hierarchal folders by Subject>Event/date>Subset. This allows me to find things easily. I have a separate folder for work on assignment, which is named with something sensible and a date. I don’t like database-based programs for image management like Aperture, because it’s very difficult and unwieldy to manage if you have a lot of images.

12. Delivery
- Send off the images to clients; either over the web, or via DVD.

Now, repeat! MT

10X10: 100 ways to improve your photography: Processing and Editing

Today’s post is the final one of 10 in the 10×10 series. While the previous posts have dealt with the during-shooting part, today’s post is appropriately going to deal with the last thing you do after shooting: processing and editing.

Photoshop is a fix all for everything, right? It’s also come to represent a dirty word; when something has been ‘Photoshopped’ it’s no longer authentic or original, and the skill of the photographer has been severely diminished. Wrong, think again. Photoshop is the equivalent of the darkroom from the film days: sure, you can add things to the scene, but they look odd and unnatural. The main thing you did in the darkroom was finalize the exposure: adjust the density and brightness, and fiddle with the contrast. Maybe some dodge and burn. How? Chemical mixes, timing and cutout masks. We do the same now – except the chemicals are your raw converter and curves layer, the fixer is your save button, and dodge and burn is a brush tool.

So what is editing exactly? The process of removing unwanted material – in this case photographs – to leave a more coherent story or narrative; being selective about what you show is just as important as having something to show in the first place. There’s no point in having technically brilliant but boring images – but you can make a story out of perfectly timed moments, even if they’re a little noisy or blurred.

Disclaimer: As with every other article in this series, I’m assuming you know the basics already.

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The flying Vianney Halter for Goldpfeil. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G

10: Keep all of your raw files. You never know when somebody might ask for a color version of a B&W image; don’t lose that sale because you were trying to be cheap on storage. Storage IS cheap.

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Sinister chitty chitty bang bang. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

9: Sharpening should be the last step. If you sharpen too early on, you’re to end up with extra noise and less tonal information, especially for images with a lot of fine detail. Why? Because of the way sharpening works. It increases apparent acuity between adjacent areas of different luminance by increasing the difference in luminosity between them. Making something brighter or darker – with images containing a lot of fine detail, this means a change to a large area of the image – will inevitably destroy some tonal information, especially at the extreme ends of the tonal range.

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If the G-P F1-047 was titanium and on a blue strap…it’s really aluminum and on a tan strap. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G

8: Let your images mature before deleting. Look at your images immediately after a shoot and pick out your favorites. Then do this exercise again two weeks later. You’ll probably find that there’s been a big change. Why? Immediately after the shoot, you remember how difficult it was to get one shot; that effort put in affects your artistic judgment. Two weeks later, you’ll probably not remember as clearly, and you’re more likely to go with your first instincts. Go with the latter selection.

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A tale of two frames. I initially preferred the first frame; but a month later, I think there’s more of a story and more contrasts in the second one. M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

7: Calibrate your monitor. Whether you use one of the Spyders or the built in utility in OS X, it’s important to adjust your monitor to produce as accurate color as possible – this is important for both print and screen; you want to make sure that other people see the same thing you put in so much effort to create. For print, you can attach the color profile to the file; a good printer will be able to match the print to what you see on screen. It’s also important to know the gamut of your monitor; I’ll never do any serious editing on my 11” MacBook Air because the screen has terrible color. On the other hand, the 27” iMac/ Cinema Displays are fantastic, as are the 15” and 17” MacBook Pros.

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Intentional color. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

6: Do most of your adjustments in the raw converter. This is important, because the data is in its highest bitrate form – which means making large changes to the file at this stage has the least impact on image quality. If you do highlight recovery on a 16 bit raw file, you’ll probably have a decent stop or two (assuming a good sensor) before you get posterization or false color. Now try doing the same to a jpeg and you’ll see what I mean. By the same token, keep your files in the highest bitrate form until you’re absolutely sure you’re not going to change anything again – and that might be a Photoshop file in 16 bit with all layers, or it might be a quality 12 jpeg. I generally don’t edit again, so I save my finished files as a maximum quality jpeg. Remember that print doesn’t have as much dynamic range as a computer screen, so if it looks fine on a calibrated monitor, it’ll probably look fine in print.

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Sunset shadow. Nikon D90, 18-200VR.

5: Buy a good tablet. I like the Wacom Intuos 4. It will help you immensely to lay precise masks and control your dodge and burn; the tip is pressure and tilt sensitive to control brush size and density. It’s much faster than doing things with the mouse, too – once you get used to how the entire tablet area maps to your screen. Get one that suits your screen size. The medium 6×9” is perfect for my 15” MacBook Pro.

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The Beach. Leica M8, 50/1.4 ASPH

4: Don’t overdo anything. Turning it up to 11 works for some shots, but not most. Too much sharpening leaves haloes. Too much contrast loses tonal detail. Too much saturation makes it feel unnatural and cartoonish. Etc. And don’t even get me started on overuse of HDR; overlapping tonal values are jarring to the eyes.

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Turning it up to 11. Nikon D90, 105VR

3: Always have backups of your backups. I’ve had a situation where a new OS caused some serious issues with my primary computer; the upshot was that none of the files were readable. My primary backup drive – a Maxtor; I’ll never buy one of those again, just too many have failed – started making the click of death when I connected it, and I was able to get most of my data off in time before the drive crashed and died. Good thing there was one more backup copy. My current management strategy is to keep all finished jpegs on my editing computer; there are two duplicate backups with all the raw files (in the same file structure) on external drives, one of which lives in my bag and goes with me everywhere; I also time machine the primary drive whenever I do a backup to the externals. Generally I’ll do a backup once I finish editing a batch, which might be 50 or 100 images or thereabouts. Storage is cheap. Lost files are priceless.

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Blue water. Nikon D3, 24-70/2.8 G

2: Integrity matters, especially for photojournalists. Whilst I’ll have no compulsion removing dust from a watch product shot or litter from fine art street photography, I absolutely will NOT touch the content of the image for photojournalism. This is because once you do, and if you get caught, your credibility is instantly nonexistent.

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Panerai Mare Nostrum, on a GuB Marine Chronometer. Clean well, because even at this relatively low magnification, it’s very visible. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G

1: You can’t polish a turd. Don’t think that you can rescue a compositionally weak image ‘in Photoshop’. You can’t. You can’t change the lighting. If you didn’t get it mostly right in-camera, you’re not going to be able to fix it in Photoshop. You can fix exposure, color, contrast and the way the image appears; you can’t change the content. If an image is good, however, you can make it extraordinary. MT

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Color palette and tonality hugely affects the feel of an image. But the content must be there to tone in the first place. Nikon D700, 28-300VR

Note: Observant readers will have noticed different frames/ watermarks on my images. They date to different eras in my photography career. The very latest set (Feb 2012 onwards) has a black frame and watermark at the top left – because I found that the Facebook buttons obscure it if placed at the bottom. Slightly earlier images have black frames and ‘Ming Thein | mingthein.com’ in the bottom left. Those date from early 2010-Feb 2012. Mid to late 2009/ early 2010 have ‘Ming Thein | AGENCIA VM’ and black frames; anything before that is frameless and ‘Ming Thein / *photohorologer MING’. I stopped using that last tagline after numerous people copied it. Just in case any of you were curious.

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