So I’ve had a few people comment on my post-processing work, and I honestly don’t know how well I do it. I’m pretty much self-taught and stick primarily to Lightroom unless I need to do some sort of special effect. That’s the only time that I consider opening Photoshop anymore.
Anyway, I decided for no particular reason to take this post and step through how I got to the finished result above. It’s not as difficult as some imagine it might be. Mostly I just “play around” with sliders, though I do try to have a vague notion of what I want the photo to look like in the end.
First, let me say that
I have my camera set up to do as little processing as possible. I want the closest thing I can get to a “blank slate” before I start. In my Canon’s menu, I go to Picture Style and have it set on “Faithful,” which the manual describes as “…the image is dull and subdued.” Not exactly what most photographers are aiming for, but I was never one to go with the crowd. For a time I used Neutral, which to my untrained eye isn’t much different, but apparently Faithful is supposed to produce something close to the subject’s natural color. I also shoot in RAW format so that I can adjust white balance and exposure without creating artifacts that gum up the image.
Anyway, this is what was imported into Lightroom:
I liked it because it was sharp and I thought it was an interesting angle and background, though I did feel the sheer volume of the background was a bit distracting. All in all, however, I thought the photo was kind of washed-out, which I expect given the “Faithful” setting I use.
So my first task is to figure out what I think the photo should look like. I wanted the colors to be a bit more vibrant, but this was a pastel flower so I didn’t want the colors over the top. First, though, I had to decide on what I wanted to crop out of the picture. Sometimes this is the hardest decision for me. Normally I crop at a 4×5 or 16×9 ratio (depending on whether I think it will make good computer wallpaper or whether the increased cinematic appearance will be effective). In this case, I tried 4×5 but there was just no way to include desired elements without also including undesired elements, so I went with a custom crop. I wanted the focus to be on the primary blossom, but the way the other flowers were composed meant I couldn’t have “just” that blossom in the frame, so something was going to get cut. After a few moments of head-scratching, I decided to so fill the frame with the primary blossom that it, too, was cropped, giving the illusion that it was too big and beautiful to be contained in a camera’s frame. It also allowed for attention to be spent on fine texture and detail that would have been lost otherwise.
Now, I had to start doing something about the lighting in this thing. As the manual promised, it’s kind of dull and subdued. Also there are blown out areas on the petals and in the greenery, and the stems at the far back are just distracting and lend nothing to the image.
First things first. Went to the Clarity slider and bumped it up to 45. This slider is one I have to use the most care with, and I think if I learned more about it that I could improve the quality of my post-processing more than with any other single slider in Lightroom. By which I mean I tend to overdo clarity. It adds definition to shapes, colors and edges, but it also has a tendency to create bokeh-like artifacts if you aren’t judicious in your usage. I’m none too convinced I didn’t apply too much of in this photo, actually.
Then I head to the Tone Curve and start deepening the darks and shadows. In this case, I deepened the shadows to -39, and the darks to -12. The result of applying the clarity, shadow, and dark settings is this:
Now we’re starting to get somewhere. You’ll recall I had decided I wanted to bring out the colors a little more but not too much. I also wanted to take care of blown-out areas and mute the distracting green in back. Not too long ago I would have turned to the Adjustment Brush and painted some corrections in, but I’ve found an alternative way to achieve my goals that are almost always quicker and more satisfying. I turn to the color tool sliders.
Through trial and error, I’ve learned that colors are not always what they appear to be. For instance, if I wanted to deepen someone’s skin tone, it took me awhile to figure out the orange luminance slider was the way to go, not the red (which would just give the subject Joker lips). Pastels such as pink are always hard to get, and sometimes I’ve resorted to the little adjustment mouse button thingy. In this case, to bring out the petals I adjusted red and orange, and to further cut down on the distracting green in the background I fiddled with the yellow and green. Here are the settings I settled on:
These settings gave nice soft contrasts in a way that the contrast slider itself never would have. It also went a long way toward taking the background away from the eye, and restoring a bit of the blown out areas.
I rarely finish retouching a photo without doing some things with sharpening, even though the end result is not immediately apparent. In this case, I moved the Luminance smoothing slider to -39, the sharpening slider to 78 (a lot, I know…maybe too much) and the masking slider to 63 so that I wouldn’t add undesired sharpness to the whole flower. After all, it’s supposed to be all soft and cuddly right? Finally I nudged that Sharpen Radius to 1.6.
OK, I’m throwing a lot of numbers around and some of you may be wondering how I arrived at those numbers. For awhile I thought that understanding how to make those numbers “correct” was what separated the big boys from the amateurs. And although I am hardly a “big boy” yet, I will admit that I don’t believe there’s a magic “correct value” for these things. Remember that I started out with a vague idea in my head of what I wanted this photo to look like. I just move sliders around till I get there. The more I practice, the more confident I get about which sliders will give me the desired result, but that’s all.
Now then, here’s the image after the sharpness changes. Probably you won’t be able to spot a lot of specific differences, but I do believe the overall impression is one of a slightly more in-focus image.
At this point I was, frankly, tempted to call it a day and say that I’d achieved my goals for the image. But there were one or two nagging things about it that I wanted to adjust. Primarily, the background green is still too prominent and leads the eye too much away from the flower. I wanted it muted further still.
Long-time readers of my blog will know that I almost always apply a -10 vignette to my images. It provides a gradient that is imperceptible to the conscious mind, but which serves to draw the eye inescapably away from the edges and toward the subject of the photo. In this case, I decided to do a little more. I loaded up the vignette all the way to -38.
Because of the way the light falls on the subject, I can get away with such a huge vignette without it being immediately obvious that it’s been applied. It looks like just an interesting lightfall, with the foreground more brightly lit than the background. It also appears that the primary flower’s petals are casting natural shadows on the lower petals, which serves to draw the eye even more to the desired location in the photograph. Now if anyone is thinking, “Boy, I wish I could visualize a photograph so well that I would know to apply a -38 vignette to a specific kind of image to get this effect,” well…I didn’t know. I just tried it and this was the happy result. Experimentation is your friend, especially in non-destructive environment such as Lightroom.
The only thing left is that darn stem stubbornly hanging around in the middle of the background. Boy I’d sure like to get rid of that. I can’t pull the green luminance down anymore, or the other greens will be muted to where they look unnatural. The lighting in the rest of the picture is exactly where I want it, so I can’t just drop the exposure or brightness down. Time to get out the Adjustment Brush. I painted a few swaths over the parts I didn’t want to see, dropped the exposure and brightness in just those areas, and voila!
There you have it. What I would call a finished image, looking pretty much like I had vaguely decided on at the start of the process. Am I completely satisfied? No, that would take the fun out of it :) In particular, I’m not happy with the green buds, which are full of artifacts and I believe are the result of pushing the Sharpness and Radius dials too far (check out the difference in the green buds between images 4 and 5). The thing to really take away from all this? I guess is that if it seems like I know what I’m doing with post-processing, then therein lies the real magic. In reality, I’mjust playing around till I get something I like. If it pleases others as much as it pleases me, all the better.