Post-Processing Example #1

This is the first in a series on post processing (for more go here). It is not about making digital art or other wild & crazy applications of post-processing “artistic filters”. It’s also not about taking a poor snapshot and attempting to fix the errors made during image capture. It is about taking a reasonably well crafted image (the best the camera was capable of producing) and making it better.

The post processing steps demonstrated with this example image are those needed to take a somewhat “flat & lifeless” image (due to “less than great” contrast and color) and bring it to life – nothing more. This is a common image editing requirement. A step by step illustration of the adjustments is shown in a slide show at the end of this post. The post ends with some notes on the making and the composition of this image.

________________________________________________________

Here are the before (left) and after versions. Click to enlarge. The color and tonal contrast increase is obvious.

The image is drab & needs some “pop”. Individually, the five adjustments that I made are relatively simple & minor, but their overall effect is significant. (Note: part of the reason for the “drabness” is that I keep the camera’s settings for color, contrast, sharpness, etc. at the “low-end” of the scale, preferring to add rather than subtract in post-processing; just a personal preference.). Shooting everything in RAW makes post-processing adjustments easy. This image took about 2-3 minutes from start to finish.

________________________________________________________

I used Nikon Capture NX2 for the RAW to JPEG conversion. The left image above is the result of the RAW to JPEG conversion (retaining my in-camera “low” settings). From there I made 5 simple adjustments using Nik’s Color Efex Pro 3. The same steps could be performed in Photoshop or any similar photo editing software.

  1. Set Black & White control points to bring about a full tonal range from black to white (improves the low contrast of the captured image)
  2. Brought back the color to the rocks & leaves in the lower right corner that I saw when making the image.
  3. Adjust color contrast throughout the image; this produced the single greatest change of all 5 steps.
  4. Adjust the tonal contrast (this step complements step 3 – one handles color contrast and then the next deals with tonal contrast; I find this approach better than trying to do both at the same time).
  5. Brighten the center (elliptically following the falls) slightly while at the same time slightly darkening the edges of the frame ( a compositional device to help keep the eye from straying outside the frame).

You might ask – where’s the sharpening step. There was none. Sharpening, if needed, depends on your intended output media. Electronic (monitor, projector) has different requirements than does print, for example. Further, print sharpening requirements depend on several factors including print size. Just remember, when it comes to sharpening one size does not fit all. Perform sharpening as needed, when needed – when you know how the image is going to be displayed.

That’s it. Nothing was added that wasn’t there before and nothing was removed that was in the original scene. I just tried to take what I captured and give it a bit more “pop”. The following slide show illustrates each of the steps.

________________________________________________________

Click on the slide show center to open a new window. At the new window, choose “Full Screen” and in full screen choose “Gallery View”. Here the captions will not overlay the images and also you can easily step through the images manually if you want to examine the step-by-step effect of each adjustment. Also, note the histogram displayed along side each image to see how the tonal range is affected by each adjustment.

NOTE – The changes seen from slide to slide are cumulative (and not the just the effect of the noted adjustment on the original image).

________________________________________________________

A few notes on the composition –

  • The main point to note is the line taken by the falls – across the diagonal of the frame. This may seem obvious, but it was a conscious choice (that involved some wading). As an example of another choice (poorer in my opinion), I could have moved to my left and had the falls come straight at me down the center of the frame thus forming a vertical line instead of the diagonal shown here.
  • It was important to show the bottom of the falls (a destination so to speak).
  • The lower right foreground elements are very important. They anchor the image and help to create the illusion of depth in this 2-dimensional image.
  • Eye movement – the design of the image suggests several eye movement choices.
    • First, everything starts at the base of the falls where the largest & brightest area of the image immediately “grabs” the viewer’s eye. From there, two paths suggest themselves –
    • 1. A triangular path in the bottom half of the image following the spray across the frame bottom (not out of the frame notice) to the right hand foreground boulders; up the boulders to where they touch the lower falls and then back down the falls to the bottom.
    • 2. Up the falls from bottom to top and then back down through the woods on the left.

Nikon D300, Gitzo tripod, Tokina 16-50 2.8, 1.6 sec, 22mm, EV0, ISO200, water proof footwear

________________________________________________________

A final note – I didn’t just stumble on this scene in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This was made this spring on my third visit to the park over the past three years, but I had photographed it on earlier trips. The point is that early shoots weren’t as successful because the situation wasn’t right. One problem in both previous trips was there was almost no water – obviously a problem when photographing a waterfall – but the beautiful setting was obvious. This is an example of having to be patient and return to a scene as often as needed. It’s also an example of why most of my best images were made close to home.