Photography and Backpacking – Part 9 of 10

Photo Processing Essentials

This installment of our series will be dedicated to the topic of processing digital photos, which simply means editing photos on the computer to improve their aesthetic appeal and correct any issues that detract from the image. Yes, unfortunately your job isn’t finished once the photos are out of your camera. Don’t despair, friend. The great news is, you don’t need to be a Photoshop wiz to make magic; with a few simple steps you can make a big impact on your photos.

Processing Film vs. Processing Digital

Sometimes the term ‘processing’ is used in a negative way, like: ‘that image is obviously heavily processed’. Don’t let this be a turn off to image processing. A common mistake is to take things too far, for example over saturating a blue sky or sunset to the point that it’s not quite believable. The reality is though, there are no mistakes. As long as the image achieves your personal vision, it is a success. Cameras are imperfect and so every image can benefit in one way or another from some processing; in fact, digital processing has it’s roots in film processing, hence the common terminology.

Remember photo processing labs? You may not, but they still exist, and likely will for many years, to be sure. With digital images the lab is your computer, or even the camera itself! I don’t know how they fit that long haired slacker kid from the lab inside a pocket camera… sometimes I think technology is sorcery!

In all seriousness, there are parallels in processing film and digital. The product that comes out of the camera is rarely perfect as-is. The job of the tech’s working at the lab is to make the photos look their best. Today a lot of that is automated, but there are still specialty labs that can develop and/or print photos to the photographer’s specification. In essence that’s what we do with our computer, except we are now the photographer, and lab technician rolled into one.

JPEG vs. RAW

I originally wrote a longer version of this segment. Didn’t like it. I’ll try to be to the point. Shoot RAW if you will process your photos. If you won’t process your photos, then shoot JPEG and you can skip the entirety of this article 🙂

Most of us know what a JPEG (.jpg or .jpeg) file is; it’s an image file (8 bits, for the nerdy). RAW is not really a file format, it’s a generic description of a way of recording data. RAW files are a little like modified TIF files (16 bit). They contain the exact data captured by the camera sensor with little or no manipulation by the camera software. Each manufacturer uses their own RAW file format (Canon uses .cr2, Nikon uses .nef, Sony uses .arw, etc…) which includes the raw image data as well as other data that the camera is programmed to include.

Technically speaking RAW files are not images, they are databases which can be interpreted into a viewable image by special software usually called a RAW Converter or RAW Editor. Examples of RAW converters are Canon Digital Photo Pro, and Adobe Lightroom. Digital Photo Pro is free with Canon cameras and only works on Canon RAW files. Adobe Lightroom is one of several third party RAW converters and will render just about any RAW file in existence.

To make another comparison to film, image files such as JPEG are like direct positives. They come out of the camera, processed and ready to go (if you like). RAW files are digital negatives which need to be processed into final developed images. One could argue that the out-of-camera JPEG files can stand some processing too, thus there is little if any time savings realized by shooting JPEG, unless you absolutely will not process your photos (which of course I think everyone should do). Where people often become puzzled is when switching from JPEG to RAW; they have heard how great RAW is but all of a sudden their photos look bland, need sharpening, need noise reduction, etc… The issue is that the out-of-camera RAW files need to be processed, they really do. There is no sense in using RAW unless you plan to do some processing, and by the same token, if you plan to do some processing there is not much reason to shoot JPEG. From a processing standpoint RAW files provide more leeway to make changes without the image quality starting to degrade. This is especially true in recovering details from areas that were over or under exposed. As a side effect of this it let’s the photographer get away with more mistakes… uh, I meant to say make more creative decisions.

Hopefully the takeway here is that RAW files are good, they provide flexibility, you should give them a try.

Three Simple Steps to Better Photos

Now that we have wasted a ton of time talking about file types and software let’s talk about some actual processing! These simple steps will take only a few seconds to apply to your photos and are well worth the time spent. Just about every photo that you, or your professional photographer neighbor take will benefit from these three steps.

Tone Adjustment / Levels

Most software packages include an auto-tone option, sometimes called auto-levels. Give it a try, even if your photo looks fine to you. If it doesn’t improve the image, use the undo button.

As Shot
As Shot

Levels Corrected
Levels Corrected

White Balanced
White Balanced

The above photo of (“Tenacious”) Sandra D was taken recently in Costa Rica. The shot was underexposed a bit and had a strong green cast from the surrounding flora. I started with auto levels, then made a few tweaks to that result, and lastly white balanced using the steel structure in the background as a neutral gray reference. I’m glad I shot in RAW!

White Balance

Sometimes the quality of the light such as deep shade (blue), the last hour before sundown (orange), or color contamination from heavy foliage (green) can trip up camera’s white balance. Auto white balance is a common software feature. Try it out and fine tune as necessary. Usually there are two ways to tune: temperature, which controls the blue-yellow balance, and tint (or hue) which controls the green-red balance. If there are any neutral colors in the photo you can use their appearance to judge whether the white balance is accurate or not. Some programs also have a dropper-tool which will allow you to sample a small spot of the image to use as a reference for white balance (the sampled spot should be a neutral gray).

As Shot
As Shot

White Balanced
White Balanced

This image of the Animas River in Colorado was taken near dusk and had a heavy blue cast. A simple white balance using the snow for reference fixed it up.

Crop & Straighten

Crooked horizons, leaning people and trees, bodies of water that appear as if they’re draining out one side of the photo… all signs of an image that needs straightening. Lightroom features a crop tool with a straightening feature, although a simple rotational tool is all that’s needed.

As Shot
As Shot

Straightened
Straightened

Cropped
Cropped

I must have been standing on the side of the hill at Nicasio Reservoir on that foggy morning. A couple degrees of clockwise rotation straightens things out. Next I chose an aspect ratio that suited the image and cropped it. In some cases a centered horizon can add drama or impact, however placing the horizon off-center often gives the image a less static presence.

Bringing out the Details

Spending just a few minutes to correct the color levels, adjust the white balance, and crop your photo will almost definitely result in a better finished-photo, but there’s more you can do. Often times the images out of camera will not be quite as crisp looking as you may like, even though you have focused properly. Adjusting contrast and sharpening should improve this, and utilizing noise reduction will help further clean up your photos.

Contrast & Clarity

Contrast increases the difference between tones, which creates better separation between details. There are a couple negative side effects to be aware of… 1) too much contrast can create ‘banding’ in color gradients (such as skys), 2) too much contrast can make shadows very dark and highlights very bright which can be unappealing (especially images of people). On the other hand, too little contrast causes images to look ‘muddy’, so finding a good balance is the key. Clarity is a Lightroom feature, other programs may have a similar adjustment, that controls the contrast of just the midtones. Clarity can be useful in bringing out detail in areas that are otherwise a little muddy. We’ll take a look at both below. Keep in mind I’m applying everything that we’ve covered so far in addition to these next steps…

As Shot
As Shot

Contrast Adjusted
Contrast Adjusted

Added Clarity
Added Clarity

In this photo Sandra D is hanging out in the White Mountains of Ca. The out-of-camera image is pretty bland (remember, RAW files always lean towards the neutral side). Adding some contrast gives the image more punch. Turning the clarity up a bit brings out better detail in the clouds, mountains, and foreground elements. I’ve also added a bit of color saturation here which I’ll talk about a little later on. The two or three minutes I invested have made a ton of difference here.

Sharpening

Sharpening is simply a way of increasing edge contrast. Of course this means that the software must somehow locate edges, and then determine how to increase contrast along them. The underlying magic that makes this happen is all based in mathematical algorithms . There may be multiple methods of sharpening available in the various software packages; it would be impossible to talk about them all here in depth. I advise doing a Google search containing {name of your software} + ‘sharpening’ for specific pointers. A well sharpened image can look great, while an over-sharpened image may look very bad.

In general, a sharpening amount must be given, sometimes a pixel radius must also be supplied, and other parameters such as a threshold value may need to be given as well. For photos that will be viewed on the web usually a 1-pixel radius, or less, will be in the ballpark. The sharpening amount depends on the specific sharpening method, the megapixel size of the photo, and the subject matter. Landscapes should have plenty of fine detail, while portrait sharpening typically focuses more on the broad edges and less on fine detail.

An over sharpened image will show evidence of ‘halos’ around fine detail, tend to look ‘crunchy’, and diagonal lines have tell tale jagged appearance. In this case either a smaller radius needs to be used, the sharpening amount needs to be lowered, or the threshold needs to be increased – or some combination of. View the larger versions of the image below to compare.

No Sharpening
No Sharpening

Moderate Sharpening
Moderate Sharpening

Over Sharpened
Over Sharpened

When re-sizing a photo, for instance to display in an online gallery or forum, it’s best to make one sharpening pass before resizing, and a final sharpening pass (with a decreased effect) on the re-sized image.

Prints require a higher level of sharpening in order to translate into the printed image. An appropriate amount of print sharpening will cause the photo to look over sharpened on the screen so a bit of trial and error is required to get a good feel for how much print sharpening is enough.

Noise Reduction

Reducing noise is a typical processing task for digital images, especially RAW files. In some cases having a noticeable noise/grain may be desirable to enhance the mood of the image (usually with vintage or black and white processing), typically though we want to reduce the noise. Just as with sharpening methods, the different processing applications implement noise reduction differently, so consult the user’s manual of your software for guidance in using it appropriately. A good way to judge the amount of noise reduction necessary is to view part of the image at 100% magnification and look at the grain. Increase noise reduction until you’re comfortable with the amount of grain.

A Little Birdy
A Little Birdy
Before Noise Reduction
Before Noise Reduction

After Noise Reduction
After Noise Reduction

In order to keep the shutter speed up I had to underexpose a little and increase exposure in post, leading to a bit of noise. This image is also significantly cropped which makes noise more obvious. At web sizes it doesn’t look too bad, but print sizes will show a little grain. I’ve included 100% crops to show the amount of grain before and after noise reduction (click them to view full sized).

What’s important to know is that noise and detail are at odds with each other. Noise reduction also reduces detail. Sharpening (to enhance detail) has the effect of increasing noise. So, both sharpening and noise reduction are doubled edged swords, and finding the right combination between the two can be a bit of a balancing act. Of course, the best way to avoid noise is to use a lower ISO value, and to properly expose the image (regardless of what ISO you’re working at). When noise reduction is necessary don’t try to eliminate 100% of the noise; this is overkill and will lead to excessive noise reduction.

Creative Processing

At the end of the day your photo should represent your vision which might be to recreate the scene as accurately as possible, or to invoke an emotion in the photo. Creativity in photography can be as limitless as with any other form of art. Let’s look at just a few simple creative edits…

Saturation & Vibrance

Saturation controls whether colors appear bold and vivid, or washed out. If you’re going for a natural look, be careful not to increase or decrease contrast by too much as it will not look natural. On the other hand, for creativity high or low saturation can create visual interest. Some programs have a second adjustment; Lightroom calls this ‘Vibrance’ which is like a smart-saturation adjustment. It targets colors which are not already saturated and (in Lightroom) generally does not affect skin tones.

As Shot
As Shot

Added Saturation
Added Saturation

The scene above was a quick snap of the moon and Venus at sunset from Point Reyes, Ca. The shot out of camera was already fairly colorful, but a careful dab of increased saturation brings out the orange and pink a little more.

Black and White

Black and White photos are timeless. They are great for displaying in groups since there are no colors to create feelings of busyness. Photographers choose black and white for many reasons, one of the prime examples being to focus attention to elements of the photo such as composition, expression of shape and form, texture, or emotion. With color removed from the equation the photo is perceived in an entirely different way.

It’s always best to shoot in color, and convert to black and white later, thus giving yourself the option of having the choice of the two. There are several ways to go from a color photo to black and white, depending on the software options may include any of the following:

  1. De-saturate (set saturation to it’s minimum value)
  2. Grayscale / Monochrome (software will convert to black and white using the saturation levels of colors to determine what shade of gray to convert them to)
  3. Black and White Conversion (user controlled conversion of colors to shades of gray)

Of the above, the first two options require the least effort; essentially they require a mouse click or two. The last option allows for adjusting the luminosity (how light or dark) various colors become in the black and white photo. This is nice because it gives creative control to the photographer (or whoever is doing the editing) which opens up the door to an unlimited combination of black and white conversion options. The following black and white photos were recently taken at Point Reyes. Each of these were shot in color and converted using method 3.

Mc Clures Beach
Mc Clures Beach

Floatsam
Floatsam

Breakers
Breakers

A couple more from Lassen…

Tenacious Sandra D
Tenacious Sandra D

Impending Doom
Impending Doom

And one more…

Yours; truly. Hiding from the rain in a decommissioned turret.
Yours; truly. Hiding from the rain in a decommissioned turret.

Vignetting

Vignetting is often associated with classic cameras, beloved junk such as the Holga. Technically speaking it’s an optical shortcoming of the camera lens which creates dark edges on the photo. However, this effect has a certain nostalgia associated with it and can be used as a means to invoke that feeling in an image. Sometimes vignetting is used to ‘close the image’ in a compositional sense.

All Oh-Lone
All Oh-Lone

A couple of funky shots. Above, Tenacious Sandra D stands o-lone in the Ohlone wilderness (moderate vignette). Below, the shadow of Mt. Tam falls on the homes of some one-percenters in the Marin 🙂 (heavy vignette)

Shadow of the Mountain
Shadow of the Mountain

Below, mini-Tenacious goes in for a big bite of marshmallow. I liked the vignette here, I feel it adds a sense of the dark that creeps in when the sun dips behind the mountains.

With Vignette
With Vignette

Without Vignette
Without Vignette

A Few Final Thoughts

This article barely scratches the surface of the vast topic of photo editing. The point is simply: give it a try. Even with point and shoot cameras it will be worth you while. Today’s cameras have come a long way, processing photos is not just for people with DSLR’s and such. I have seen many a beautiful photo of the backcountry taken by point and shoot, and often thought… ‘if only they took a few seconds to fix that horizon’ (etc…). None of us enjoy being stuck behind the keyboard, but the photos are memories for a lifetime; make the most of them I say!

Thoughts, Questions, Comments?
Hike It. Like It.

Jacob D Written by:

Jacob is the head honcho, wearer of many hats, and modern day berserker here at Hike It. Like It. When he's not out hiking or running the trails you'll find him operating in full capacity as a Super Dad and chipping away at a degree in Kinesiology. This guy likes to stay busy. Follow on Strava

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