On Editing Your Photographs
It's been raining on and off since my return back to Hong Kong. Needless to say, I haven't been able to arrange a photowalk, given how unpredictable the weather has been. Since I do not have any new content, I am forced to reach deep into the archives of unpublished photowalks, saved especially for a rainy day. Fortunately, there is this one photowalk that I haven't posted yet in its entirety that might just work.
Last August, in my ode to Why Film Never Died, I shot a series of images on the Hasselblad XPan. At the time, I also shot some images on the Leica M10 and the Leica M246 Monochrom - just for fun. But since I never reached my requisite thirty images per post, I never used this set. Well, that is until now. You see, I found a suitable workaround to satisfy my obsessive compulsive inclination to reach arbitrary targets for this week's post
Specifically, I will be dealing with the subject of editing. Given my shortfall in captured images, I had to find some way to stretch out what I had - which was half the requisite images per post. But fortunately, what I had was all I needed to address the topic - that is to say, fifteen images out-of-camera followed by the same fifteen images edited. It made perfect sense. Well, that plus the fact that many readers have already asked me to address it.
To begin our discussion on the subject, I want to state very clearly that editing isn't a compulsory task in photography. Normally, most raw out-of-camera images, when captured properly, are still presentable for most general purpose use. In fact, this was the case during the film era, when the need for darkroom expertise made editing an uncommon practice. But now with the proliferation of digital technology, the task of editing is no longer as demanding.
Editing softwares like Adobe Lightroom and Capture One have made photo editing accessible to the common enthusiast. No longer do we have to dodge and burn by hand or rely on makeshift templates. Nor do we have to go through the trouble of making test strips. We don't even need to go to a darkroom anymore. Nowadays, any editing we need to do is within our fingertips - at a click of a mouse - with sliders, dials, and digital tools.
Digital technology has truly unlocked new potentials for photo enthusiasts. With much less effort, we can fine tune the appearance of an image by making it more visually appealing. If that doesn't take the cake, we can even restore a poorly taken image and make it presentable for most general purpose. And if that's not enough, we can even change the appearance of an image just to affect the way it's presented.
It's amazing what one can do with editing softwares. They're nothing short of a miracle. I mean, with increased contrast and shifts in white balance, one can turn a beige wall into a studio. With decreased highlights, one can turn bright skies blue. Or with tweaks in hue and luminescence, one can make dry foliage lush. It's limitless with what one can do with editing software. But then the question begs - does the editing ever get to be too much?
Personally, I believe there is an unhealthy over reliance on editing softwares. Mind you, this is not to say I'm against them. However, there is an ongoing misconception asserting the more one edits a photo, the better it will look. In my professional opinion, that has never been the case. To put it in perspective, think of editing like applying makeup. If one is overzealous in application, one will end up looking like a clown.
What seems to have been lost in our mad rush to make our photos look better is the traditional mindset we once took in approaching the task of editing. You see, it has never been about doing more, but rather doing just enough. So the next time you crank up the contrast, the clarity, or the saturation, thinking that a high contrast or deeply saturated image is visually better, please don't. Restraint is the key to editing.
That said, how does one properly edit a raw out-of-camera image? In truth, there is no definitive methodology to do that. However, what is generally accepted by most is the end result - which is - the final edited image has to be believable in appearance. Because of that, the task of editing is focused on enhancing what is already there in the image capture, by boosting subject details for increased visual impact.
The mainstream approach to increase visual impact is through elevating contrast or intensifying colors. But in doing so, you run the risk of making your subject look like a clown. In my opinion, a better approach is to turn your efforts to the image's tonal range. That is to say, widen the spread between extremes in tonal values without impacting midtones. In that way, contrast and colors are both enhanced, without adversely affecting the underlying appearance of the image.
With Lightroom and Capture One, there are various methods to intensify tonal values. You can choose to manipulate shadows and highlights, black and white, or dark and light values. Despite being different in concentration, they all essentially work towards the same objective - which is modify the tonal range of an image, in terms of exposure, color, or luminescence. That said, all three variables will produce slightly different outcomes.
When manipulating shadows and highlights, you are modifying the intensity of the underexposed and overexposed areas of the image. When manipulating blacks and whites, you are modifying the intensity of the colors or tonal values in the image. When manipulating dark and light values, you are modifying the intensity of perceived darkness or brightness of the image. With that established, the only question now is how much to manipulate?
That depends on the image capture. Already present in any image are areas consisting of the darkest dark (or blackest black), and the lightest light (or whitest whites). As a rule of thumb, the accepted approach is to boost the darkest dark to as close to true black as possible, and the lightest light to as close to true white as possible. Just remember not to impact the skin tone of the main subject too much, and have the image set to the proper exposure.
After that, everything else seems to fall into place. Color balance can be adjusted. The image can be leveled and straightened. Local adjustments can be made. Visual aberration can be lessened. And of course, the image can be cropped for greater documentary focus. It's truly amazing what one can do with photo editing software. That said, please remember to practice restraint and not overdo it. A visually appealing photograph must look believable.
All reference out of camera RAW images have not been edited. All accompanying edited images have been optimized fully on Adobe Lightroom.
As an added bonus, I have also included a glossary of terms extracted from the user manual of Adobe Lightroom, at the bottom of this post. Strangely, it wasn't easy to find. If you want to download the full PDF, the link is here.
GLOSSORY OF TERMS
A. FINE TUNE THE WHITE BALANCE
Temp - Fine-tunes the white balance using the Kelvin color temperature scale. Move the slider to the left to make the photo appear cooler, and right to warm the photo colors.
Tint - Fine-tunes the white balance to compensate for a green or magenta tint. Move the slider to the left (negative values) to add green to the photo; move it to the right (positive values) to add magenta.
B. ADJUST OVERALL IMAGE TONAL SCALE
Exposure - Sets the overall image brightness. Adjust the slider until the photo looks good and the image is the desired brightness.
Contrast - Increases or decreases image contrast, mainly affecting midtones. When you increase contrast, the middle-to-dark image areas become darker, and the middle-to-light image areas become lighter. The image tones are inversely affected as you decrease contrast.
Highlights - Adjusts bright image areas. Drag to the left to darken highlights and recover “blown out” highlight details. Drag to the right to brighten highlights while minimizing clipping.
Shadows - Adjusts dark image areas. Drag to the left to darken shadows while minimizing clipping. Drag to the right to brighten shadows and recover shadow details.
Whites - Adjusts white clipping. Drag to the left to reduce clipping in highlights. Drag to the right to increase highlight clipping.
Blacks - Adjusts black clipping. Drag to the left to increase black clipping (map more shadows to pure black). Drag to the right to reduce shadow clipping.
C. SET OVERALL COLOR SATURATION
Clarity - Adds depth to an image by increasing local contrast. When using this setting, it is best to zoom in to 100% or greater. To maximize the effect, increase the setting until you see halos near the edge details of the image, and then reduce the setting slightly.
Dehaze - Controls the amount of haze in a photograph. Drag to the right to remove haze; drag to the left to add haze.
Vibrance - Adjusts the saturation so that clipping is minimized as colors approach full saturation, changing the saturation of all lower-saturated colors with less effect on the higher-saturated colors. Vibrance also prevents skin tones from becoming over saturated.
Saturation - Adjusts the saturation of all image colors equally from –100 (monochrome) to +100 (double the saturation).
D. FINE TUNE THE TONAL SCALE
Use this to tweak the adjustments you already made to a photo on section B. Adobe didn't really explain the adjustment variables in this panel. As such, I'll do my best to interpret it to you.
Highlight - Adjust only the brighter tonal areas of the image.
Lights - Adjust both midrange and brighter tonal areas of the image.
Darks - Adjust both midrange and darker tonal areas of the image.
Shadows - Adjust only the darker tonal values areas of the image.
In the explanation provided by Adobe, they stated the Darks and Lights sliders affect mainly the middle region of the curve. The Highlight and Shadows sliders affect mainly the ends of the tonal range.
E. FINE TUNE IMAGE COLORS
Hue - Changes the color. For example, you can change a blue sky (and all other blue objects) from cyan to purple.
Saturation - Changes the color vividness or purity of the color. For instance, you can change a blue sky from gray to highly saturated blue.
Luminance - Changes the brightness of the color range.