Post Processing - The 2nd Time Around
Updated: Jan 29
With the winter upon us once again and the limited free time to go out and take shots which seems to be blighted with rain, thoughts turn to a spot of post processing.
Its not unusual to have a good trawl through the archives and find some old gems that for whatever reason you never got round to processing and you decide to revive them and give them a go.
You're super pleased with the finished result, so why did you not do it before you wonder ?
Having spoken to a number of landscape photographers it seems this is quite a common thing and its made even more interesting when you revisit some images that you have already processed and redo them and they come out totally different to the first time and maybe even better ?
So why and how does this happen, well I'm glad you asked as I have a theory.
Now let's eliminate a few factors which will obviously see your work improve, You have learnt new techniques in photoshop/lightroom and your own style has developed, more to the point you have learned what NOT to do.
You weren't under any pressure to get the image finished in order to post it before anyone on social media etc so you took your time with it maybe ?
Well, there are a lot of factors to this so I thought id share a few thoughts on it which have worked well for me and will hopefully work well for you too.
We all know the excitement of being out on a shoot and getting some epic light and colour and what does everyone do ? rush home ultra keen to download their images and start work on them, often rushing the result and getting an image that frankly, could be better.
We're all guilty of it from time to time and I have found that if you leave the images till you have fresh eyes and time to really do a proper job then the image will be far better as a result.
I now give myself a rule that I don't process any images on the day I take them, instead waiting till I have fresh eyes and am not in any rush. I sometimes go up to two weeks after taking an image to processing mainly due to work commitments but it really does make a huge difference i've found.
I also used to process after getting back from a sunset shoot in a dark room or under tungsten lights, both of which caused me to make incorrect decisions on the colour balance of the image.
Instead now I make sure I process in as much natural daylight as possible or under white light (Philips hue bulbs) eliminating the yellow/orange influence tones of a regular household bulb.
It might sound like a daft thing but I promise you it makes a massive difference.
If you're in a dark room and looking at a very bright screen your eyes are fooled somewhat and errors can easily be made, I speak from experience so try to only process in a well lit room, preferably with natural light.
A really simple change to make is the background colour you have selected for photoshop or lightroom, as a default its either black or very dark grey and this can fool your eyes into thinking your image is actually brighter than it is. Instead I now process all my pictures using a white background as this gives a far better representation of how it will look when printed. To change the background on photoshop simply right click on the background and then when the menu appears select "select custom colour" and then click white. It might seem like a small and insignificant thing but it really does make a difference.
Colour casts in images is one of the biggest spoilers I see these days, some are unintentional and others are added for effect which generally look terrible.
We've all seen the sunset images that are impossibly orange and funnily enough so is everything else in the image, including the shadows *Rolls eyes.
Faking colour is never a good idea, it just doesn't ever look right on an image. Instead it gives it a dirty muddy feel and can be spotted a mile off.
Images with good colour correction look very clean and the tones all flow better and give the image a natural punch and pop.
One of the best methods for colour correction is to master the curves function and understand the grey point, white point and black point methods. This is something I will go into in much more depth on a future tutorial/blog.
Another factor which can be a real deal breaker on an image is processing in 16 bit rather than the standard 8 bit (most of you will already be in 16 bit mode)
So what's the difference between the two ? Well programs such as Photoshop will be set up in 8 bit mode to start with to make file handling easier and a smaller size when saved (sounds great, thats what you want right ? wrong)
If you're processing in 8 bit mode you will be giving yourself a massive disadvantage not to mention making life harder.
The simple explanation is 8 bit processing in RGB format will give you Red (256 shades) Green (256 shades) Blue (256 shades) so if you multiply 256x256x256 (RGB) then you will get a possible colour pallet of 16,777,216 colour variations (Sounds great eh ?) but if you do the same for RGB 16 bit it goes up drastically.
Red (65,536 shades) Green (65,536 Shades) Blue (65,536 shades) now doing the same math 65,536 x 65,536 x 65,536 equals a number that my poor brain cant even comprehend but its around 281 TRILLION !
Now you're probably thinking well the human eye can only see a few million colours at best, and you would be right so why use 16 bit rather than 8 bit ? Well the transitions between colours are so much smoother because the tone separation is on a much wider scale.
Colour banding can be a real problem on 8 bit images, I'm sure you've seen in the past colours appearing to almost separate and a defined line between them, well thats banding and its bad news as its making your images look poor.
To put this in perspective here are two images, one 8 bit and one 16 bit of a simple black to white gradient, They have had the levels compressed to amplify the effect and both blown up to 800% purely for a visual representation
This is the 8 bit image and you can see the transition is not only fuzzy but also pixelated and showing banding.
Exactly the same gradient with the same effects applied but in 16 bit mode, a much smoother transition can be seen with far less banding.
Now these are simple black to white gradients so imagine what your images would do when you are processing them ?
If that doesn't convince you to start processing landscape images in 16 bit mode then nothing will !
The pay off for this wonderful new array of tones is the file size, its much larger and you will need to invest in more storage space or external hard drives in order to keep all your images, but its a small price to pay for this major advantage.
Just a footnote here but if you save as a JPEG file then it will only ever be as 8 bit as the format doesn't support anything larger, for printing purposes its better to save as a TIFF file.
Now this opens a whole can of worms as most printers will print in 8 bit format, so why bother right ?
Its all to do with the banding element and you can process from start to finish in 16 bit but output at 8 bit for printing purposes unless you are lucky enough to use a printer that supports 16 bit.
To open a bigger can of worms, there is also a 32 bit option available to process with but in my humble opinion this is just too extreme and not needed plus your finished file sizes will be off the scale as well as your computer probably having a heart attack while trying to make adjustments.
Simply put, 16 bit for the win.
A lot of the images on my site are 8 bit, the reason being when I started doing this all this many years ago computers just weren't capable of processing 16 bit images without crashing mid way through (believe me I tried) but with modern day machines a 16 bit file is easily managed.
In short that led to a decision to revisit some images in the hope of getting the best out of them so after looking closely through my site I was horrified at just how bad some of the images were and was shocked I hadn't noticed the colour casts at the time or other errors.
I have only changed around 10% of the images so far so theres a lot to go but its a time consuming process (pun intended !) but its one that I really feel is worthwhile so thats what I will be doing over the winter months while the weather is stopping me going out and I urge you to do the same so you may rescue some old gems that might not have seen the light of day, or touch up a few that did.
It's important to be your own harshest critic and really examine your images and see if they can be improved upon or in some cases taken down and cast into obscurity.
A lot of the old images had lots of things added that simply weren't needed, let me explain.
When you get a new fancy plug in or learn a fancy new technique its easy to start incorporating these into all your images and over cook them.
I try and avoid any of these plug ins now and instead after my initial adjustments are made in camera raw I will as a rule make a couple of curves adjustments and add some sharpening and that really is it.
The results are a far more natural image and one that i'm far happier with, in this case it really is true, less is more.
That said, there is no substitute for getting it right in camera in the first place and thats what we all should be striving for.
We all started somewhere and I had to learn everything myself and make my own mistakes and work out why, but this does give you a better understanding of it.
I've recently started looking at the crops I use for pictures too, with the popularity of Instagram and other platforms out there using square crops I've seen a bigger demand for prints that people want as squares rather than the traditional landscape or portrait variations.
A square crop is pleasing to the eye due to equal symmetry and also enables you to focus the image centrally on something and perhaps clear some of the dead elements from the image.
Several of my images that have been landscape cropped have now become square crops and I must say it has improved the images no end.
So why not use the 1:1 ratio in camera I hear you say, well all that is essentially doing is showing you a preview of the image so I still prefer to shoot in the traditional landscape or portrait format then choose my own crop if needed, it doesn't work for every image obviously and you should be selective about using it but it really can breath new life into an old image so keep it in mind.
Apply your ever updating knowledge to your old images and show them some love, I am willing to bet you will have a better result because of it.
Now I'm sure a lot of you who are reading this will have known all of the above already and I apologise for that but if this helps just one person out then it is well worth it.
I will put a few examples below of updated images and what I did to them, Sadly I have deleted most of the "before" shots so I cant show you the comparison but there are a few left as I did most before deciding to write this blog.
One final thought is don't ever be embarrassed or too stubborn to admit you make mistakes, we all do it. The important thing is to recognise that and do something about it. There is no rush to put an image up anywhere, better to take your time with it and make sure its right before people see it.
So here's a handful of my many mistakes laid bare for all to see, no shame, just a realisation that I can do better and try harder.
As always, Happy shooting.
In the original image the rainbow was suffering from banding and you could see clear separation of the colours, Processing it in 16 bit cured it nicely.
The original was simply too bright and had too much contrast, curves levelled it out nicely.
The original image suffered from a blue colour cast, Curves relaxed this down and let the golden tones of the sunlight on grass pop through.
The original image had too much saturation in the rock area, it was just far too orange, Curves came to the rescue and took the brightness of the colour down a touch, also the water contained a bit of a blue tone, curves once again removing it nicely.
This was a really hard image to process as the sunlight and saturation was some of the most i've ever experienced while shooting. Desaturated and colour corrected.
The original of this wasn't too bad but I decided to crop it as a square rather than the landscape format that it was originally shot in and it suited it much more. The colours were also corrected to a more natural state with a reduction of saturation too.
The original landscape image was ok but I felt the Mill was a little lost and the nature of the branches at the edge felt a little too untidy so a square crop was used
Now the image is far more focused on the view I wanted to show, the mill with a nice natural frame of frosty winter around it and i'm much happier with it.
This one I had simply not got round to ever processing and I don't really know why as I like the image a lot.
The original of this image was a little too saturated and the colours were way off, I felt the shadows had been lightened a touch too much so I started again and finished with what I felt was a really clean image and one that was a true reflection of the morning rather than what I wanted it to be.
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