Some thoughts on reprocessing and revisiting images

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


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 |’ 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.