Finally we come to the last part of our 5 part series, 5 Ways To Make Your Next Photo Stand Apart From The Rest.

To catch up with the rest of the articles in this series, click below:

In this last post, we’ll be looking at the importance of proper post processing and how it can take a solid composition and turn it into something truly incredible.

Many photographers will tell you that what you do before you actually click the shutter button is the most important part of photography, and anything that happens after is essentially cheating.

This is a pretty old argument, and really it comes down to different interpretations of what photography is really about. Is it about capturing exactly what is visible in front of you, or is it more about a creative interpretation of a scene?

There are many good arguments for both sides, but it really comes down to what you feel most comfortable with. Even if you come down more on the side of the ‘exact capture’ crowd, there are many aspects of a scene that can be improved with a bit of post processing work.

Exposure Adjustments

Until you start experimenting with high dynamic range photography, you’ll rapidly notice that the range of exposure values your camera can capture doesn’t seem to match what your brain is telling you that you’re seeing in a scene.

Our brains are wonderful things, and they are capable of stitching together the various levels of brightness our eyes can detect into what seems like a continuous image – even though it’s not. Our irises are constantly expanding and contracting to capture different degrees of light, and this is why the final image in your camera may not match up with what you (seem to) see in front of you.

A little bit of careful exposure adjustment can make all the difference in the world. Curves is a very powerful Photoshop tool for adjusting exposure values, and it can be used as an adjustment layer to keep all your edits non-destructive. Best of all, adjustment layers come with layer masks, which means that you can use multiple Curves adjustment layers and control specific areas of your scene in different ways.

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One very simple and powerful adjustment you can make is to apply what’s known as the ‘S’ Curve. Load your image into Photoshop, and add a new Curves adjustment layer by going to Layers -> New Adjustment Layer -> Curves.

You’ll see the histogram representation of your image overlaid with a diagonal line that represents your adjusted exposure values. When working with an RGB image, the left side of the histogram represents black pixels, brightening to the white pixels on the right.

Click to place an adjustment point on the line in the exact middle, which will have the effect of keeping your midtones unchanged. Then place two more points, one at 25% and one at 75%, which will allow you to adjust the highlights and the shadows.

Move the left point downwards to darken the shadows a bit, and move the right point upwards to brighten the highlights a bit, creating a gentle ‘S’ shape in the adjustment line.

Play around with what exact values will work for your image, and remember that you can always edit the layer mask to confine your adjustments to a specific area of the image. Be careful not to push the adjustments too far, or you’ll wind up with blown-out highlights and shadows that are far too dark.

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Colour Balance

Much like the range of exposure values we can capture, the various colour tints that occur in images can quite often fail to match perfectly with our memory until we get into an image editor. If you’ve lost sleep to get up before sunrise for the ‘Golden Hour’ only to find out that your camera didn’t quite come through for you, you’ll really appreciate this tip.

There are a number of ways to adjust the colour balance in photoshop, and while Curves is capable of handling it by letting you adjust individual colour channels, it can be overkill for this kind of work. By all means experiment with it, but it could fill up another 5 post series all by itself.

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A Hue/Saturation adjustment layer is a great way to adjust the colours in your image to match what you saw in your scene. You can adjust the hues of the entire image as a whole, or just certain colours if you’d prefer. Just don’t fall into the trap of oversaturating your colours, because it ends up looking quite tacky and unbelieveable!

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Sharpening

Last but not least, there’s always something to be said for clarity. Sharpening is probably the most important step of your post production work, with the possible exception of exposure adjustments.

In the past, it’s usually been standard practice to apply your sharpening adjustments as the very last step in post processing, but thanks to Smart Filters it’s possible to apply sharpening non-destructively and adjust it later if necessary. (If you missed our post on Smart Objects, you can catch up on them here.)

You’ll have to experiment to determine what degree of sharpening looks best to you, but remember that over-sharpening can look even worse than skipping it altogether. You’ll see that if you apply 100% sharpening, all the edges of your objects take on strange haloes and the digital noise becomes almost unbearable to look at.

A more conservative use of sharpening can really turn your images into something that stands apart, but you’ll have to test it out for yourself!

These are just a few of the most important types of post processing that you can do with your images. If you want to go even further, you can using the Clone Stamp and Healing Brush to do more complete retouching of various aspects of your image (see our post on this here.)

This can really save a landscape shot that was ruined by an unavoidable intrusion into the frame from power lines, telephone poles or a stray bird, but be careful not to start relying on Photoshop too heavily for scene composition.

The ‘exact capture’ team does have an excellent point about the value of getting your compositions and exposures as correct as possible in-camera, even if they go a bit overboard with the rest.

Photoshop is a marvellous tool, but it still can’t reconstruct the detail you lose in blown-out highlights or the deepest underexposed shadows, and unless you’re prepared to do some heavy retouching work, it can’t fix a lazy composition.

Even then, it’s still best to use careful planning and forethought when taking your images, and then using post processing to make sure they are as striking as possible.

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