Taking the life of a pixel can be a daunting task and my hope for this article is to serve as encouragement to those starting out with image post-processing when practicing figure photography.
I’d like to point out that this post uses my own thoughts and experiences and should not be seen or treated as rules set in stone.
Charged with DIY
One curious argument I’ve seen when it comes to image post-processing is that it involves effort and should therefore be disregarded. Like with any other hobby, the more effort and practice you put in the better the results. A painter doesn’t cheat by using a different brush but rather a different approach to the task at hand.
When taking pictures with a digital camera you have the option to save them either as a compressed file format like JPEG where the post-processing is done in the camera or the uncompressed format RAW in where all the image data is preserved, giving you complete freedom to adjust them later on. The latter also means that when you open up RAW files in photo-editing software the images will appear washed out and will leave you, the photographer, to handle values such as color temperature, saturation, contrast and sharpness. I highly recommend that you’re always doing image post-processing using RAW files as compressed files such as JPG or PNG won’t let us work with enough image data.
Do I consider post-processing a necessity in the world of photography? No. Is it an invaluable tool for any photographer to have? Absolutely. Getting the perfect image straight out the camera is a noble thought but I think it strays from the bigger picture; as the artist you are creating something based on your own vision and through all the tools at your disposal with the camera merely being one of those means.
Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself is why you should use post-processing (tip: it’s not to acquire multiple stars across the internet) in the first place. My own answer is to accomplish what I have set out to do in my mind. Improvement and satisfaction will come from thirst for knowledge through experimentation and failure.
So where do you actually learn the basics of image post-processing? These days it’s hard to come up with an excuse for not finding a good source as they are all around. There are literally thousands of free articles online be it YouTube or taking part in online courses, not to mention the endless amount of books targeting this very topic. We all start on square one which is importing our images while fiddling around with sliders and values in photo-editing software.
Opening up any photo-editing software for the first time can be both intimidating and discouraging. Do take the time to explore, slider by slider, section by section to grasp the basics of the software used. Learn not only how to perform tasks but also why you’re doing them.
We’ll use Lightroom and its exposure slider as an example. As you drag the slider left or right, the image becomes either darker or brighter. This tool is extremely helpful when working with either underexposed or overexposed images, bringing forth subtle detail in the picture thanks to the RAW image data.
While taking the shot shown above I thought it was slightly underexposed through the camera’s viewfinder, something that was even more apparent after importing the image into Lightroom. Post-processing is partially about correcting flaws as you see them and the more knowledge you possess the easier the job to tackle them head on.
Weapon of choice
Photo-editing software are a dime a dozen with free options in GIMP and Paint.net (though they may require additional plugins to handle RAW files), heavy value in Lightroom and Aperture and expensive but highly robust options such as Photoshop. While Photoshop is regarded as one of the best photo-editing programs out there it’s certainly not needed when getting started. Alternatively there’s a stripped down version of Photoshop called Photoshop Elements that’s easier on the wallet. If you’re a Canon or Nikon owner you also get a supplied photo-editing software with your camera that may be worth looking into.
I personally use Lightroom for organizing all my images as well as most of the post-processing; it’s a software I highly recommend because of its low cost and high capabilities. Because both programs are from Adobe, Lightroom also serves as a bridge to Photoshop in where all my images are receiving their final touches before being published.
Getting your hands dirty
Get to the cropper
Cropping your images is not only about excluding areas that are unwanted but also serves to strike a good balance when composing an image. Following the rule of thirds is a good place to start.
Leaving traces behind
Objects have an amazing ability to attract dust when placed out in the open which is why I seldom take figures out of their boxes until I’m ready to shoot them. Despite taking this approach, dust does manage to crawl its way onto figures which my eyes may miss while the lens will not. As I find dust particles to be very distracting a majority of them will be removed during editing.
On occasion you will spot oddities on your figures such as color scratches or specs and peculiar looking bumps. Some of these may be pointed out to the reader but as a photographer I want to minimize the amount of distractions from my subject, hence they are almost always removed.
Every now and then something unwanted finds itself into your scene that’s caused by your own actions. It may be an unintended reflection, light spill or any kind of item not meant to be in the frame. These scenarios are usually harder to deal with as they may go unnoticed during shooting and affect a larger area.
The most severe of distractions, at least to me, is glare in the figures’ eyes. So what causes glare? It’s basically light hitting the eyes from a specific angle and the shot taken in a specific angle.
Dealing with glare is tricky because you’re dealing with dead pixels in the sense that there’s nothing to recover from the affected areas. These days when I shoot I always zoom in on the eyes to get an idea on just how reflective they are as this varies from figure to figure based on the material used.
One way to deal with heavy glare is to make use of multiple exposures. Simply put, take more than one shot of the exact same frame and angle by using a tripod. The idea is to maintain all the lights not causing the glare and use additional light to light up the eyes without causing any sort of reflection. Once this is done, one may combine the images in photo-editing software and mask in the good pair of eyes in the original image.
Executing an image is not only about knowing your tools but also understanding the basics of photography. It’s very easy to ruin an image through various means in photo-editing.
I find manufactured visual filters to be a hindrance rather than an additional tool. A filter basically being a set of image values that you automatically apply to your pictures takes away the aspect of learning by doing; post-processing should never feel like a chore, it should be as fun as taking the pictures themselves. There is no superior filter that makes all your images look amazing as each shot is unique. Values such as color temperature, exposure, contrast, clarity, vibrance and saturation should be handled manually.
One area in where I feel that a filter is acceptable is sharpness in where the filter (based on the method of your choosing) is improving sharpness across all areas of the image.
Cleaning up the mess
Adjusting contrast is perhaps the most convenient way to make an image look “better”, by increasing contrast you get dark shadows and bright highlights, something that is normally welcomed when taking pictures of figures to bring out more detail. Again, this is not a rule set it stone but based on what you’re going for with your work.
Exposure is another area in where moderation is key. An overexposed image uses too much light, producing a too bright result while an underexposed image that uses little to no light produces a too dark image. Heavy under or overexposure also means that you’re losing actual detail in your image, effectively killing off texture with light or the lack of it. This is more apparent in overexposed images where detail is lost to pure white. Just like with contrast there’s a fine balance to exposure to make it look just right in your eyes. Cranking values up or down without knowing why you’re doing it will not yield satisfying results. As seen in many of my own pictures I often choose to underexpose images due preference in shadows and low-light conditions.
Do strive for perfection but don’t let it become an obsession. Image post-processing should be another fun aspect of (figure) photography rather than feeling tedious and repetitive. If you find it to be the latter simply don’t use it as an additional tool. It’s not for everyone and it certainly wasn’t for me when starting out, it felt both overwhelming and too time-consuming to deal with. Once you get the hang of the basics however it becomes a routine in improving your work, a routine that shouldn’t be so easily neglected when having photography as a hobby.