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.

Motive

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.

First-time offender

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.

“Well, crap.” This is me firing up Lightroom back in 2011. So many sliders, so little time.

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.

RAW file from camera in the top image, adjusted exposure in the bottom image.

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.

RAW file from the camera on the left, adjustments and an aggressive crop on the right.

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.

Dust particles are circled in the top image, these are removed in Photoshop shown in the bottom image.

Production flaws

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.

Self-produced flaws

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.

Glaringly obvious

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.

Top image: First acceptable shot, bad glare. Middle image: Identical frame with an adjusted light source to remove affected area. Bottom image: Masked the other two images in Photoshop to remove the glare.

Execution

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.

Gimmicks

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.

The top right image has synced adjustment settings with the top left one, making it appear overexposed and washed out. The bottom image shows the result with manual settings.

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.

Overexposure and underexposure shown in the top and bottom image respectively. Lightroom will indicate where detail is completely lost in bright areas (red) and dark areas (blue).

Aftermath

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.

8 Responses

  1. Brwn Fedora

    Very nice article. I just recently got into figure & scale model photography and I have yet to explore photo editing.

    For my photo shoots I have been using a point and shoot camera I have owed for the last couple of years. However, because of the smaller scale of figures and models I see the importance of having manual focus and aperture controls as I have to constantly trick the camera to focus on a desired point. Furthermore I haven’t performed any post image processing on my photos. At a bare minimum I probably should be applying the rule of thirds.

    I am still new to this hobby. So for the time being I have just been having fun taking photos and posting them. However, your article gave me a nice starting point for looking into photo editing software. You also gave some clear examples of what the software can do.

    BTW I just posted my Shizune Fuutou Figure photos. You can check them out on my site if you are interested.

    Reply
    • Nightmare

      Welcome to the wonderful world of figure photography.

      Manual focus may indeed be a necessity when working with objects of this size in where our desired focal point may be lost to a number of reasons. It’s usually a good idea to always ensure that the face of the figure is in focus but that also depends on what you’re going for with your shot.

      The rule of thirds is a helpful guide when composing images and could rather than should, be applied when applicable. I wouldn’t worry too much about it when learning figure photography but it’s a good thing that you’re taking it into consideration.

      Do take the time to enjoy what you’re doing, having fun is a vital aspect to any hobby and when it comes to (figure) photography there’s a lot of ground to cover from the start. My advice would be to take small pieces from various topics and piece them together at your own preferred pace. When I started out I didn’t touch post-processing until I was more or less satisfied with what I was producing through the camera. Light should be hitting where it was supposed to based on the vision I had, shadows should not cover undesirable areas and the white balance should more or less agree with my eyes. The more you shoot the more attention you will pay to detail and through that experience also how to deal with anything you deem unfit for the shot.

      Your pictures takes me back to a time when I enjoyed figure photography the most in where everything was new and everything had to be explored be it practical or technical. Every now and then I tend to grab a figure off its display and just go experimenting with light and settings in order to see and learn a new approach that I may find valuable for future shootings, it’s one of many things I thoroughly enjoy with this hobby of ours.

      Reply
  2. Tian

    Good info here! For the eye glare thing, if you use a recent(ish) version of Lightroom, you can use the adjustment brush to selectively lower the exposure of a photo. If eye glare’s a problem for me, I adjust it down a stop or so. It’s less precise than your method but is non-destructive and pretty easy.

    Anyway, I totally agree that post-processing should just be part of the workflow (that’s why we shoot RAW after all). Applying various corrections, dust removal, etc. all contribute toward a great image. I usually don’t go too crazy with the Photoshop effects unless there’s a specific visual I want to accomplish. Otherwise I just try to get everything right in-camera and tweak in post.

    Reply
    • Nightmare

      I get the feeling that I’m being overly anal when it comes to glare but I see it as a technical flaw that should, if possible, be prevented or fixed later on in post. As much as I like the adjustment brushes in Lightroom I would personally only lower exposure in an affected area if the glare was barely visible. For that purpose I think it does the job pretty well.

      To me there’s a big difference in using every tool at your disposal to create something in your mind rather than applying a few solar flares because they “look cool”. I do not believe there’s a single effect or filter that will automatically make any image look good, HDR being one example.

      At the end of the day post-processing is an amazing tool to any photographer and regardless if you want to learn the very basics or go in-depth it will serve you well in your photography.

      Reply
  3. Chidrack

    Hello, this is Chidrack of Boku no Project. We are a hobby blog that specialize in figure photography. I was wondering if I could feature your site on our blog. Allowing us to do so would mean a lot to me. I speak for the entire blog when I say that we admire your work and we like the direction you’ve chosen in regards to your site. Thank you for taking the time to read this and I look forward to your response.

    Our site is at http://www.bokunoproject.com/

    Reply
    • Nightmare

      Hello Chidrack,

      If you see a feature as a contribution to your site and readers then by all means.

      Reply
      • Chidrack

        Also, just making sure there are no complications or misunderstandings, would it be fine if I could have permission to use some content from your site for the feature? That would be really helpful. Thanks in advance

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