Postprocessing: Robin’s approach

I do minimal post-processing and very quick edits for images used in articles published here and on my own blog. Strangely, many readers have asked me for my “secret sauce” that I apply to my images and requested for a video showing my usual post-processing routine. Before making that video, I asked for specific requests from my readers via a post on my own Facebook Page. Taking into consideration the numerous questions, I have made a short video.

A quick disclaimer: I am not associated with Capture One Pro, the only reason I am using this software is the efficiency of handling Olympus RAW files. I still prefer Olympus Viewer 3 to optimize my Olympus RAW files (color balance, sharpness/details, noise reduction, etc) but that software is just unbearably slow for anything practical. I found the Capture One Pro to work significantly faster than Olympus Viewer or Lightroom. You can see how short the previewing and processing time of Capture One software is in the video above.

Disclaimer #2: Let it never be said is not democratic even though one of us works for C1’s competitor 🙂 In all seriousness, workflow is a very personal and goal-oriented thing: depending on the task at hand, I might make one pass through PS, tether/convert in Phocus, use a combination of Autopano Pro and/or Helicon and PS, IG’s filters, LR mobile, or even Olympus SOOC JPEG. Best tool for the job as always… -MT

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On the curation of a book

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Though a book of photographs is something that I’ve been asked for time and again – I’ve honestly felt that it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to do, both because ultimately the audience is quite limited, and because the economics are a bit of a disaster if you care the slightest about quality. Speaking to many possible publishers, printers, and photographers who’ve done it (including those considered to be highly successful in this game, such as Nick Brandt) – it’s clear to me that any sort of photographic-only book is only worth doing if somebody with deep pockets is funding it for you. For example, Brandt doesn’t break even on any of his books – because his required standards for printing are so high; the problem is once you’ve seen what’s possible, it’s very difficult to compromise. Yet…I’ve not only decided to do one, but my editor and I are well into the process of putting it together already. Why? Let me attempt to rationalise – and share some of the frustrations…

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Curate curate curate (and, coincidentally, post #1,000)

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Tribute to an American painter

I’ve never really talked much about what is probably the most important process in photography other than conceptualisation and capture/execution of the image itself. Even though it isn’t directly part of the photographic process, curation has probably the greatest impact out of all of the possible things you can do to control the way your work is perceived. Coincidentally, we’ve been running for a little over three years now, and this is also post number 1,000excluding the reposts. At an average length of 1,500 words per post (and many well into 4,000-5,000 range, plus the mammoth Camerapedia), that means there’s around ~2,200,000 words of primary content on the site, not including the comments. Not bad considering an average paperback is in the 100,000 word range. I suppose it’s therefore also somewhat fitting (and perhaps a touch ironic) that I celebrate being prolific by discussing the opposite. It seems it’s simpler to do it than talk about it, but equally important to do so in order to understand why…

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Objectivity, subjectivity, time and deleting images

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How many of you have given serious thought to how you evaluate and delete images? From repeat experience, I find that it matters more than you might think. Today’s article examines this in a bit more detail: surprisingly, this is one of the very few times when producing better final images has nothing at all to do with the actual image capture…

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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

The process of editing

Let me clarify: by editing, I mean the process of selecting which images to keep, which make the final cut, and which aren’t wroth bothering with. I’ll generally do three edits: one almost immediately after shooting, in-camera; one when I get home and dump the cards/ start converting raw files; and the final cut after I’m done making finished files, but before I archive or deliver complete sets to clients.

As an example, let’s take the contact sheet I used in an earlier article on how to use contact sheets. For the purposes of this exercise, assume that this set is one that came fresh out of the camera (in reality, it’s already been through the complete selection process, and no, I don’t shoot jpeg unless I have no other choice.)

First cut (in camera)
I’ll delete images which are:
– Clearly out of focus
– Incorrectly exposed
– Compositional failures/ experiments that didn’t work
– Clearly meaningless/ no obvious subject
I’ll leave duplicates or near-duplicates of good shots; you can’t judge fine detail or critical focus off the back of a camera screen.

For the example, I’ve already taken out the first cut in camera, so let’s move on.

Second cut (before raw conversion)
I’ll delete images which are:
– Not critically sharp
– Didn’t work as well as expected when viewed at a reasonable size (full screen, usually)
– Compositionally weaker than the rest of the set
At this point, I also pick the best image if there are a series of duplicates or near-duplicates. (Duplication is something I do where possible to give me the best possible selection of raw material to work with.)

Final cut (before delivery)
– Eliminate similar images, so that what you’re left with is a series of individually very strong photos, each with a clearly different character
– Chose only the best X images, where X is your delivery target/ agreement

Final cut. Notice how each image in the final set is distinctly different from the other, yet I haven’t ‘lost’ any critical shots, and manage to capture the essence of the movement of the watch.

I’ll leave you with one final thought: the mark of a truly good photographer is not how many good shots he produces, but rather how many good shots the audience remembers: if you only show good shots, nobody is going to think you’re capable of producing a dud. Furthermore, if you aren’t your own harshest critic, your skill level is never going to improve. This is why editing is so crucial to the entire photographic process; I force myself to keep only the best 1-2% of everything I shoot. 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 |’ 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.