a before-and-after: processing summer

I'm at Shutter Sisters today for the summer solstice, telling Evan all about mother nature's scrub brush and prompting for captures of new and proud green things. Over there it's all inspiration and camera joy. A perfect opportunity, I thought, to share the same image here but from a different angle—a practical one. Many of you asked processing questions for the kitchen table, so let's dig through a few.

What's your favorite go-to post processing tweak? ~ Maria

The first and most important post-processing step is a good crop. It distributes the weight of a shot artfully, eliminates distracting elements, helps to focus the eye and encourages a pleasing visual cadence. It's the photographic equivalent of an edited sentence -- words always benefit from being tighter. A thoughtful and precise crop has the same effect.

In order to keep the proportion of my images consistent for printmaking and general tidiness, I crop for composition and then trim each to 9x14. It's just a size I like, and it gives me the resolution I need.

I’ve started working on composition, a little work on light and so on. I really love some of the work on color you have in your pictures. How do you suggest I can work on that? Do I need photoshop, or can I make colors look differently only through exposition? ~ Laura

Photoshop is great, but it's expensive -- that's because it's a behemoth, capable of doing much more than most of us need. I've heard good things about Photoshop Elements, which is under $100, and great things about Photoshop Lightroom, which is around $300 (many professionals I know use it quite happily). That said, there's a lot you can do in-camera and with free or near-free programs such as Picasa or Flickr.

Use processing effects sparingly, though. Heavy-handed processing can overwhelm an image in the same way that makeup can overwhelm a face. I've been guilty of it, in that wanky sort of OMG THIS IS FUN phase of learning. As you advance, you'll learn to appreciate subtlety and the importance of getting the best possible image in-camera.

Get out of automatic mode. Just read the manual and dive in (I tend to shoot in aperture priority mode, which lets you adjust the depth-of-field while the camera compensates with shutter speed). Try under- and over-exposing. Play with white balance (I wrote about this here at the Atlantic Photo Supply blog). Change your position while shooting -- the sun streaming towards you, then the sun at your back. Changing the direction of the light relative to your subject (and relative to you) changes the image dramatically. All these are creative controls that are already available to you regardless of Photoshop. Which can save you one million billion dollars. Or thereabouts.

I never photoshop. Tell me why I should learn to. ~ m

Because regardless of how you do it, kickass photo editing is to a photograph what a kickass title is to a poem.

Can you explain what draws you to the blue in many of your photos? I tend to lean toward less saturated photos, what would the best setting be on my borrowed Nikon D80 and/or is that look just in the editing? ~ Heather

In the same way that I cringe to think of people reading old blog posts because of the immaturity of old writing, I cringe to think of people seeing my two year-old images that were subjected to rookie processing. But you've got to embrace the possibility of a little public wanking if you're ever going to get the hang of processing play.

I do still prefer cooler tones over warmer, especially for nature shots. Cooler tones tend to keep greens in check, or more true to what you see with the eye.

There are all kinds of ways to desaturate images in post-processing. There are actions you can layer on top to achieve this, and there are curves to play with, and probably a dozen other avenues. As you're shooting, light at your back plus a normal exposure will make colours more saturated. Pointing your lens toward the light -- and overexposing to add more light to the foreground -- makes colours less saturated. Light in your lens will get flarey, depending on the angle, and will most certainly wash out colours in that lovely ethereal way.

I remember you posted a helpful tutorial one time (someone else's) on changing the color of an image, I mean really dressing it up… ~ Jen/LA

I might have, yes... I even did one once, but the neighbour's dog ate it last year and it hasn't been seen since.

These days, I point people towards Pioneer Woman's photography blog for processing how-to. It includes a lot of step-by-step tutorials. She's great. And Shutter Sisters too, of course, but we tend to cover a broader array of topics leaning towards the evocative. In the new Shutter Sisters book that's coming out this fall (I wrote the nature chapter), we get more technical, in that very female and non-cock-swingy sort of way. In the meantime, hit the ranch.

 Before processing

Before processing

 After processing

After processing

Kate, do you have full-suite Photoshop? Do you use any other programs, i.e. Aperture, Lightroom, etc.? I would love a quick rundown on what your workflow looks like.

I always wonder if the pictures I'm looking at and love are as the camera took them or post processed. How do you achieve the bright saturated colours of your subjects while seeming to have over exposure? Did someone teach you or did you learn all your tricks for post processing by trial and error? ~ misty

Do you use photoshop or any of the other programs for your photographs? Do you find that you use those to 'fix' your photos or do you use them more for enhancement? ~ tanya

What post-processing/editing do you do? ~ Jules22

I have full-suite Photoshop. Please don't make me tell you how. I'm still stinging from those flaming hoops.

I learned by trial and error, as described above. And, eventually, by taking note of how the processing of inspiring and accomplished photographer friends always seemed to be more of a subtle gloss than a distraction.

Again, I am indebted to Pioneer Woman for her free actions, which are fantastic. First, I crop and size. Then on most shots, I use her 'boost' action as a basic contrast fix, sometimes dialed down to 50-75% opacity. This helps both blacks and whites to pop, which is probably the saturation and bright backgrounds you're thinking of. It makes an image feel clean, in terms of colour. I often use her 'seventies' action on top of that, as I did with the image featured here, but only at 40% or so depending on the shot (I love what it does to blues, but it washes out the detail in greens). For the desaturated look that Heather asked about, I might soften things up a bit with PW's 'sunshine' action, at 10-15% opacity.

Some people get snooty about actions. I don't. Along with curves (another way of tweaking contrast), burning and dodging (selective exposure adjustments), and cropping, actions are just another indispensible tool, a shortcut. The trick is to combine them and customize them (by softening them, often as much as 90% or more) for a result that's uniquely yours.

Processing has a lot to do with making an image, but the most important thing is to start strong with a solid image in-camera. You can tell when someone shot an image with intention, I think. When you add thoughtful processing to a shot like that, it sings. Softly. WITHOUT YELLING. And without looking like one of those old western brothel girls with the clowny rouge and the serving wench bosom. Most of the time.

How about you -- what are your processing tricks? What would you add to all this, both questions and answers?