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The Art of Processing - Making the most of your Images

a look at the theory, practice and ethics

This text applies to the processing of digital image files in general, not with any specific program. And to be quite clear from the outset, I don’t consider myself any kind of ‘processing guru’. I probably use only about 5% of what Photoshop CC is capable of doing, I don’t use layers, I don’t use masks and I know just enough to get the results I need. Most software packages have a million ways to get the same result, I tend to use the most direct approach.

When people talk about ‘learning a workflow’, its a term which I feel can be a bit misleading. Sure, if you’re working on a series, project or job which requires each image to have a universal look, then it pays to process them all the same way, and in the most general sense, the order I do things in and the tools I use could be considered a ‘workflow’, but every image is unique and should be treated as such.

Image processing is, like editing and like shooting, all about decisions. Very often some of these will be staring you in the face and the more images you work on, the more obvious they become. In the past 4 years I’ve been using a few programs which have improved a lot in that time, the tools they offer and the speed they work at. And although I have only scratched the surface in many respects, I’ve learned enough to get half decent results. More importantly, just like using a camera, when you know what the tools and settings can do for you, you start to work more instinctively.

Now, when I look at a picture I want to work on, the first thing I ask myself is, “where do I want to go with this?” With the exceptions mentioned above, to just apply the same look to all of your work is really not making the most of your pictures. A fashion magazine filled with desaturated, cross processed images may appeal to the Instagram generation, and if you shoot for such an entity you probably won’t have any choice, but if you don’t, your images deserve individual attention to make them as good as they can be. Processing all your files to give them the same ‘look’ may feel like you’re giving yourself a ‘style’ to be ‘known for’, but its a whole other world from actually having a recognisable and unique view of the world which comes through in your way you make pictures. Photographers who take this shortcut are sometimes lacking in creativity.

“How important is processing anyway?” you may ask. As has often been said, possibly mostly in Yorkshire, ‘you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’, but if it’s done right, it can mean the difference between an image that would be considered good to one that is regarded as quite special. My own view on what is responsible for creating an outstanding image, in my mind I see shooting the image in the first place taking the credit for about 50% of its success. The next most important thing is actually selecting it, not from all the crap I’ve shot, but from all the images that are almost as good. That’s an incredibly ‘experience dependent’ and intuitive skill and one reason there are so many picture editors out there, they add another layer of objectivity and perspective in selecting the right image. So I’d put editing or selection down for about 30%. Then finally processing the image at around 20%. All those ratios can change from one image to the next of course.

I said before, “when I look at a picture I ‘want to work on’. What I really mean is, a picture I’ve selected as the best of the bunch. It may need very little processing or it may need an hour spent on it, the object is not to ‘work’ on every image until your eyes bleed just because you can. Without getting too “Star Wars” on your arse, (may the force be with you brother) you have to let the image tell you what it needs. Now, I may be losing you at this point (don’t worry, I’m not going to start spouting Scientology:-) and yes, you’re probably right, this would work better in a video or a workshop (details to follow!), but a big part of processing is deciding where you want to take a picture and judging just how far to go. 

In trying to think of general principles or rules I can write down indicating how a picture actually ‘speaks to you’, I appear to be coming up short. What an image says to me and what it might say to you, could be completely different of course, so subjectivity will always play a part. But on the whole, there are lots of obvious directions to steer your image. Possibly the most obvious one is “colour or black and white?” Its rare that an image will be equally as effective in both forms. For many years my skills in getting colour ‘right’ were so poor that I just ended up doing a lot of stuff in B&W. Colour can be tricky! If you don’t have great colour in a raw image to begin with, its an easy temptation to just go straight to mono if like me you find B&W easier to work with. But sometimes its warranted. If the colour really doesn’t add anything to an image or if it detracts from or confuses the simplicity of a strong composition, then I usually go with black and white.

Black and White

There are many ways you can change a colour image to a black and white one with far more impactful and artistically pleasing results than just hitting the B&W button, but I’m not going to list them all here. I use Nik’s Silver FX but the principles are the same whichever program you use. If I’m looking for inspiration, I may try a few presets out to see what they look like, but I always return to the neutral image and start work with the individual sliders which offer much finer control. The aspects of an image I will most commonly adapt when converting to black and white are contrast in its many forms, and colour sensitivity, which basically means making individual colours lighter or darker when shown in shades of grey. Using these tools and the useful sub-tools found in Silver FX, I can completely change the mood and emotional impact of an image. Adding brightness and structure control to selected tonal ranges, I can finesse this further to help keep the image looking authentic. But make no mistake about it, B&W conversion is, when compared to most ‘believable’ colour processing, a very aggressive and powerful deviation from the original image. I think we’re so acquainted with the many dramatic iterations of black and white images over the years, many of which have taken on iconic status, that heavy b&w processing just seems quite natural now.

Colour

The same cannot be said for colour. There are of course sectors of popular culture and the media where strong deviations from a natural colour palate are rife. Popular apps like Instagram use filters which not only emulate colour film stock, but encourage you to digitally flog your file to within a pixel of its death. An easily identifiable geographical bias shows many photographers in the USA have a deep love for strong saturated colours, particularly in landscapes. As cheery as these colourful images are, I’m guessing this trend may be related to the country’s propensity to squeeze every last drop of emotion out of any given situation. (don’t I sound like a ‘victorian dad’!) That’s not a criticism, its just the flip-side of us Limeys being stiff-upper-lipped, well, we used to be anyway. Both trends are in no way as enormous a leap from our natural sight as black and white images are, but to me, they just look so ‘wrong’. Undoubtedly in 100 years, this kind of juicy colour processing will become the norm and I’m not saying I’m right and they’re all wrong, it just looks a bit cheap and trashy for my taste.

So as I was saying, I used to be so rubbish at colour work, I would rather turn it grey! Then Nik brought out Colour FX 4, a processing program which achieves much the same results as many others I had tried, I guess I just clicked with the interface. I now feel a bit more confident in producing an acceptable colour image from a file where the colour was less than stellar to begin with, although it still takes me quite a bit of trial and error. Given we all shoot in much lower light conditions than we did only a few years ago, the need seems to occur much more frequently.

The decisions I make in processing a colour file now, can result in a range of looks, all of which I feel are within the realms of believability. I like to think they all maintain an authentic level of dynamic range which would equate to what the sensor would offer and in general, they give me a punchy, contrasty file with mostly well balanced temperatures. Occasionally I’ll go off road and try to do something with a more filmic look just for fun. The wonderful thing about Colour FX 4 is that you layer each filter on the image then adjust to suit each individually with an opacity slider. I often end up applying some effects at maybe only 10%, which may seem not worth doing, but I can see the difference they all make to the look I am trying to achieve. Certain regular effects I often use include the low key filter which I use very sparingly (low opacity) to add a little definition and shading to portraits. With this tool I often add control points to zero the effect on areas like the eyes. I also use the Pro Contrast tool on ‘Auto Enhance’ just to see how far I’ve gone using others filters and to add a small degree of correction to suit my taste.

Ethics

I’m not a photojournalist and I rarely tell ‘stories’ with my pictures so I don’t have to worry too much about those kind of ethics. But even in portraiture there are significant lobbies against the overuse of Photoshop, in particular, the Liquify tool which can sculpt someones face or body beyond recognition. I have used it on occasion. When we look at someone face to face we rarely examine their tiniest of facial details by staring because it would be rude. But that’s exactly what we do when we look at a portrait. So my approach is to redress the balance a little and if there’s something that’s distracting, but which is not integral to their visual character, it can be treated. Equally a suit may be bulging awkwardly just due to a subjects position and have nothing to do with mounds of rolling flesh, just the result of bad luck and no stylist on hand to correct as we shoot. I work by hand on the spotting to maintain original skin textures, its time consuming but worth it. I’m never looking for perfection in portraits, I’ll leave that for the cosmetics companies, I want warts and all but I want them to look their best whilst maintaining their unique character.

Digital File Processing workshops

Myself and Steve Gosling will be covering our workflows during our Berlin Workshop September 12th-14th. I also intend to make image processing an integral part of selected (non-Kuoni) workshops in the future.

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