Why SOOC still isn’t really workable

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Of all the 1500+ posts I’ve made here, I can’t recall ever exploring why SOOC (straight out of camera) images are – let’s not say ‘bad’ – but inherently compromised, at least given the current state of technology. No matter how ‘natural’ a company claims its out of camera rendition to be, something will always be missing for the simple fact that no current camera can read your mind.* Every situation/ scene/ composition is different; every photographic intent is different and every single set of ambient parameters (light, subject position, etc) varies from image to image – maybe not very much, but enough that it doesn’t take a whole lot of change to make a very different image than the one you intended. Two things here: intention, and uniqueness. And uniqueness is at the core of why we find ourselves compelled to make a photograph at all: something stood out enough to make us sit up, take notice and either want to remind ourselves of it again later, or share it with the world.

*I am leaving myself room for some seriously heavyweight machine learning algorithms in case this article is read in posterity. And more on the machine learning later.

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Repost: HDR, the zone system, and dynamic range

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My eyes, my eyes! I had to work quite hard to make this as a) I don’t own any of those filter programs and b) I don’t do this kind of hyper toned, overlapping HDR. The actual, final version of this image is at the end of the article.

Note: I’m reposting this article as a refresher before I talk about something a little harder to define in the next one.

HDR/ High Dynamic Range photography is perhaps one of the greatest blessings and curses of the digital age of imaging. On one hand, we have retina-searing rubbish that’s put out by people who for some odd reason celebrate the unnaturalness of the images, encouraged by the companies who make the filters that make doing this kind of thing too easy – and on the other hand, there are a lot of HDR images out there that you probably wouldn’t have pegged as being anything other than natural. There is, of course, a way to do it right, and a way to do it wrong. I use HDR techniques in almost all of my images – I live in the tropics, remember, and noon contrast can exceed 16 stops from deep shadows to extreme highlights – we simply have no choice if you want to produce a natural-looking scene.

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A digital B&W epiphany

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With the previous article on HDR, the zone system and dynamic range as background, I can now explain exactly what my B&W discovery was: it’s mostly to do with the highlights, but only in certain areas. And to make things more confusing, creating a natural-looking – perhaps even filmic image – required me to take processing steps that were both highly counterintuitive, but also go against everything else I’ve done and used successfully in the past. Read on if you dare; I can’t promise enlightenment, but I can certainly try for insight.

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Demystifying HDR, the zone system, and dynamic range

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My eyes, my eyes! I had to work quite hard to make this as a) I don’t own any of those filter programs and b) I don’t do this kind of hyper toned, overlapping HDR. The actual, final version of this image is at the end of the article.

HDR/ High Dynamic Range photography is perhaps one of the greatest blessings and curses of the digital age of imaging. On one hand, we have retina-searing rubbish that’s put out by people who for some odd reason celebrate the unnaturalness of the images, encouraged by the companies who make the filters that make doing this kind of thing too easy – and on the other hand, there are a lot of HDR images out there that you probably wouldn’t have pegged as being anything other than natural. There is, of course, a way to do it right, and a way to do it wrong. I use HDR techniques in almost all of my images – I live in the tropics, remember, and noon contrast can exceed 16 stops from deep shadows to extreme highlights – we simply have no choice if you want to produce a natural-looking scene.

[Read more…]

To process or not to process?

_RX100_DSC2614b composite copy Ginza dusk.

This is the photographer’s analog of the classic fisherman’s dilemma: fish or cut bait?

I’ve always, for as long as I can remember being serious about photography, shot RAW and done some form of processing afterwards. The more potential the file had, the more processing; conversely, I’d also spend time trying to save files that probably weren’t compositionally worthwhile. And as much as I hate to admit it, in the early days, trying to hide photographic mistakes behind punchy processing. In effect, the processing was taking center stage instead of the image. One of the hardest things to do is create a strong, but natural looking image – both from a perspective and processing standpoint; in order for it to stand out well from reality, the light, subject and composition all have to be exceptional. The image has to tell a story – but that’s another topic I covered here and here.

Note: all images in this article are a half-and-half composite of Sony RX100 shots; the SOOC JPEGs are on the left half (especially obvious for the B&W images) and the processed RAW files on the right. The RAWs were converted to DNG first then run through my usual workflow; CS5.5 doesn’t natively support the RX100. Where the finished file was cropped to a different aspect ratio, I’ve followed the finished file. Some noise reduction was one on the high ISO files. As usual, go by what I say and not what you see – there’s web compression involved in the mix, and you aren’t looking at the original files on a calibrated monitor.

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And a 100% crop of the above – a huge difference here, but aside from tonal density – not much in it at web sizes, is there?

For argument’s sake, I’m going to assume that you’re able to see, compose and execute the image you see at a particular scene when pressing the shutter. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to exclude conceptual and commercial work – there is simply no way you can achieve some frames in a single look, and it’s impossible to have a perfectly dust-free product in others – even if you can get the lighting perfect. We’re talking about creative, personal and documentary work only. The reality is that a lot of photojournalists and reports never leave the JPEG – and some even SRGB JPEG – realm as it is. There are many reasons for this; speed and throughput being the first, the display medium being the second – there’s no point in supplying a beautiful file that uses all 16 bits of the Prophoto gamut if it’s going to be printed on a halftone CMYK process on newsprint. It’s a waste of time. (That of course doesn’t mean you can’t shoot both a JPEG and a RAW and deal with the latter if you find yourself up for a Pulitzer.)

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Giant chef. Either rendition works, frankly – I don’t mind the overall tonality of the SOOC image, even if it’s lacking the pop of the actual scene.

A recent email exchange with a hobbyist photographer friend has spurred me on to think about this topic a bit more. The question: is Photoshop really necessary? Shouldn’t a good image be able to stand on its own? Yes, but don’t good ingredients taste better when skilfully prepared and cooked? (The Japanese may disagree with the cooking part; I can’t blame them.)

To answer this, we need to backtrack a bit. In the early days of digital, JPEGs were simply not an option because cameras lacked the required processing power. Raw output was something that was simply a direct data dump off the sensor itself; the data stored (perhaps lightly compressed to save space) for later processing. JPEG file quality was simply, unusable compared to the standards of the day: film. It didn’t have the tonal subtlety, the dynamic range, the detail; to make things worse, there was an inherently blocky “digital-ness” to it that made images feel, well, unnatural. RAW processing was a way to partially get around that and reduce the gap – we could alter the conversion/ output algorithm to create an image whose shadow and highlight response more closely matched that of film. It was also a way to overcome some of the limitations of early sensors; notably color response, chroma noise and tonal accuracy.

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Imperial Palace East Garden, Tokyo. The SOOC image is too green – the needles definitely didn’t look like that after a warm summer and heading into November.

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100% crop. There’s quite a lot more detail and tonal subtlety in the processed image.

Postprocessing my raw files was a habit I acquired since shooting with a DSLR in 2004, and I haven’t shaken since. I don’t discount JPEG-only cameras, but I’d definitely take the availability of a RAW file into consideration when buying one. And I certainly don’t feel like an image quality evaluation is fair or exhaustive until I’ve run some RAWs through my normal workflow. However, recent experiences with first the Sony RX100 and more recently, the Fuji XF1, have made me revaluate this: in fact, the XF1 has such good JPEGs and such crappy RAW files (perhaps ACR is also to blame here) that I don’t think I’d ever shoot RAW on this camera; but I will still postprocess the JPEGs. However, this is not a RAW vs JPEG debate; it’s something a bit more fundamental: for non-critical applications, is it still worth spending time processing or not?

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What happened here is perspective correction – nope, you can’t do this in-camera. Not much to fix with tonality, though.

Yes, the processed RAW files clearly look better at the 100% level, but you’d have to make a 120cm wide print to really see that. And for practical viewing purposes, the only difference was in the overall tonality (and sometimes not even then) of the image, which could easily be fixed by altered JPEG output settings. Downsizing hides all manner of dirty pixel-level flaws. Could it be that I’d been creating some unnecessary work for myself for some time, and hadn’t realized it? It was the same case with the JPEGs from the Nikon D600 I was testing around the same time; they looked great at typical display sizes, but started to fall apart at the pixel level. (Before you worry that I might have gone all Hipstagram on you, note that I’m always open to finding new ways to balance image quality and throughput – and that includes shooting Ilford PAN F in my F2T and then ‘scanning’ the negatives with a D800E. I’m just saying.)

Suppose you weren’t super-anal about image quality, though. Suppose you didn’t pixel-peep, or print large. Suppose you shared your images online or at most made 8×12″ prints. Remember the points of sufficiency; if your display medium is going to be that severely limited, then the reality is you might not see much of a difference if you set your camera up correctly. The strength of the image and its contents is of course going to make more of a difference; the camera is just a tool and medium.

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Facebook break from shopping. Near zero difference in tonality, just a bit of shadow recovery and perspective correction. Again, the SOOC JPEG would be fine for 99% of uses.

The basic reason for shooting RAW and postprocessing is that there is no one-size-fits-all for camera settings; therefore it’s impossible to have these baked in to the JPEG development algorithms of a camera. Fair enough; however, these algorithms have been getting increasingly clever over time as processing power increases. (A lot of RAW files aren’t even composed of truly RAW data anymore, but that’s another topic altogether.) To push perfection with every frame, there’s no way around RAW and postprocessing, end of discussion. You simply cannot have a camera that’s smart enough to recognize when some parts of an image need to be dodged and burned; the day that happens, I think I’ll retire as a photographer.

There are cases where the format-imposed limitations can actually force you to make stronger images – spot metering for subject or highlights can result in more powerful compositions and fewer distractions, especially when you have very contrasty lighting. Alex Majoli’s early work with the Olympus compacts is a good example of this. I frequently use this technique to strengthen the mood of an image, regardless of what camera I’m using.

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Port of Tokyo. The AWB got this one horribly wrong; it could have been the window I was shooting through that threw things off.

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100% crop. Not as much extra detail as you would have thought.

Once again: pick the right tool for the job, and that includes your file formats. I think what might be useful is a set of guidelines as to when each method is useful; even for a person who can run through their entire RAW workflow for a file (excluding heavy duty retouching) in about 30 seconds, I’m considering moving to JPEG for some things. Firstly, I don’t need perfect files for everything; social/ personal/ family documentary etc. is one such thing. Secondly, I’ve been spending more and more time processing files as my workload increases and camera resolution gets higher; I simply don’t want to spend any more time in front of a computer than I have to. I’d rather be out shooting and meeting people. (An obvious solution would be to shoot less, but this somewhat defeats the point of being as photographer. And yes, I’m trying film again at the moment, too.) Client and professional work will always remain shot RAW of course – there’s no point in going to the nth degree to ensure pre-capture image quality with the best lenses and supports then throwing most of your tonal space away with a JPEG. And you never know what post-capture manipulations you might need to do later on.

The biggest downside of shooting JPEG is that your settings are pretty much baked unless you’re willing to change settings on the fly from scene to scene. (Some cameras offer bracketing for this, too.) In real terms, you have to make a conscious choice at the time of shooting whether you wan high key portrait color or low key B&W. On top of that, you have to deal with limited dynamic and tonal range, and that you have to get your exposure as close to perfect as possible in-camera. This is very different from shooting RAW with the aim to post-process afterwards; in this case, you always expose to the right (and even clip highlights slightly) to maximize tonal range in the low-noise highlight and midtone portions of the image. My RAW files look flat and a bit too bright; this is normal because matching exposure to the desired tonal map is a critical portion of the processing flow.

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The camera got this one spot on – all I did was straighten out the perspectives a bit, and sharpen.

It’s important to note that you need to spend some time figuring out what the best JPEG settings are for your camera and shooting style; the rest of this article is meaningless if you’re shooting with the wrong settings. And regardless of whether you JPEG or not, I would always shoot RAW+JPEG – you never know when you might need the file later. Storage is cheap; do-overs are often impossible.

When it might be best to use a straight-out-of-camera JPEG (or film + minilab):

  • When file quality is secondary; anything intended for facebook or social email, for example. These distribution methods compress the hell out of the images, strip color information, and then to make things worse, viewing is almost always on a non-calibrated device. You can spend all the time in the world tweaking, but it’s going to look like crap if the display can’t make the required color.
  • In very high throughput situations, like sport or news or reportage. And dare I say it, wedding factories.
  • I’m cringing as I write this, but if you camera has a style preset you particularly like (and are okay adopting as your own style) then go right ahead…so far, I haven’t seen anything that fits the bill personally.
  • When you don’t have the time. If I go away for a week, I’ll shoot an average of 1,000-1,500 images a day; of this, perhaps 100 will be saved to review on a computer later; I’ll throw away another half, but the problem is now I’m stuck with 350 images to process. At say 1 min per image, that’s around six hours. A lot of what I shoot is documentary/ observation/ personal, and these don’t need processing. I am now being even more critical with my editing, but it’s still a lot of time to carve out when you don’t have any spare to begin with.
  • If you enjoy photography but don’t want to deal with the hidden back end that comes with it – the computers, the storage, ensuring you have enough power to run photoshop and that your converters are up to date…the list is endless.
  • What you see is pretty much what you get: if you’re learning, it’s much easier to see the effect of exposure or setting changes. With RAW, you have to use experience to visualize what you can get. This is probably the most common stumbling block I see amongst my students who are just starting to discover the power of Photoshop.
  • If your camera puts out lousy RAW files but amazing JPEGs – the XF1 is a great example of this.

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I’ve never used SOOC B&W before, though I doubt it would have been able to retain the slight tonal variation in the man’s trousers. I had to do quite a bit of dodging and burning to bring that out.

And in favor of RAW + Photoshop (or self-developed and printed film):

  • No question: when image quality is the first priority.
  • When you want to do something that can’t be done in camera; compositing, for instance.
  • When you don’t have many images to process
  • When you have no choice – either the JPEGs are crappy, or there are no JPEGs at all…
  • When you have to do perspective correction (and don’t have a tilt-shift lens).
  • In extreme lighting situations that can’t be handled out of camera.
  • When you need to make tonal/ exposure changes to part of the image only, and not the whole image; this is where dodging and burning comes in.
  • If you’re a control freak…

But wait, there’s a middle ground:

  • You can shoot RAW but batch process; I think Aperture and Lightroom are a good example of these halfway houses. The problem I see is that you’re spending nearly as much time as a full-blown individual Photoshop workover, but without the same control or output quality. And this somewhat defeats the point. That said, I do keep presets for various things – usually to do with color calibration for flash work or for certain types of lighting or cameras, or high ISO situations.
  • The other option is to have the camera output a very neutral JPEG and postprocess that; you can skip the RAW conversion step (although it is possible to open JPEGs in ACR and have the same adjustments, but not the same latitude of course). This actually frees up quite a bit of time; that minute can get down to 15 seconds or less if you have a fast computer – dodge and burn, curves, color correct, sharpen, save. And it does of course help that the files are much smaller, too. This is actually not a bad option – whenever I review a camera without RAW support, this is the method I use – but if you start to do any extreme tonal manipulations to the files, it will become obvious, especially at the pixel level.

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Standing nap. Yes, it’s two files. Look carefully.

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100% Crop. More noise, a smidge more detail, and slightly smoother tones; not a lot in it. And that’s with me looking at the full size files on my calibrated monitor, not the web crop; there’s even less difference here.

My currently preferred JPEG settings

Important note: currently, I’m using my JPEGs as preview images either for quick client contact sheets after a job. When shooting RAW-only, the JPEG settings apply to the preview image but not the RAW file  so I generally try to make them as close as possible to be representative of the tonal range I can get of the RAW file, i.e. flat and not saturated, but sharp. If I was shooting JPEG only, I’d run similar settings with the anticipation of doing some light processing work on them afterwards – the halfway house.

  • My current style is neutral and natural; I look for or create light first and foremost (though the latter doesn’t apply here; if I’m creating light, I’m also shooting RAW to maximize image quality). I want to retain a decent amount of the tonal range; however there’s no way to control the output curve for most cameras, which results in large dynamic range images appearing very flat. This means contrast is set to the lowest option, or close to it – depending on the camera.
  • It’s very easy to have individual color channels blow; thus reduce your saturation a notch or two.
  • Sharpening is a mixed bag; some cameras do this well, some don’t. But I don’t use zero sharpening, as a lot of the time this setting does actually affect the in-camera RAW conversion and the amount of detail extracted. It also helps you to determine if critical focus was achieved – I’ll usually run somewhere between neutral/ default and maximum.
  • White balance is on auto, but I will override it where necessary to avoid blown highlights.
  • Maximum quality and size, of course – with an extra RAW file saved, too.

There are still many reasons to shoot RAW – and even exclusively RAW – but I can’t help but feel those are eroding slightly; and for the vast majority of users – even serious hobbyists – it might not be necessary all the time. Admittedly, my main reason for revisiting this topic is in the interests of curiosity and efficiency; I don’t think there’s as much of an image quality penalty as there used to be, especially for smaller output sizes. I haven’t decided just how much SOOC JPEG I’m going to use at this point – edited JPEGs are probably as far as I’m going to go – but you can be assured that I won’t use it at all until I feel that I’m getting the image quality I want. And in any case, I can still apply my normal workflow to the JPEGs – the tradeoff is significantly shorter processing time against a bit less latitude. Moral of the story: get it right out of camera; if it’s not there, you’re not going to be able to add it in afterwards. MT


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

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 | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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.