What Is Post Processing?

And how do I do it?

Introduction to Post Processing

A little while back someone not so deftly commented about my work, “If I had Photoshop I could make my pictures look like that too!” It’s been bugging me ever since because I don’t even know how to use the software package from Adobe otherwise known as Photoshop. In fact I cancelled my entire Creative Cloud subscription (expiry April 6, 2017) because the only app I use in the entire suite is Lightroom. So this person would have been slightly more accurate had they said, “If I had Lightroom I could make my pictures look like that too!” This doesn’t bother me at all! I post process 100% of my images in Lightroom because I shoot in RAW format. The resulting file is a .CR2 which needs specialized software to be converted into a .jpg, .tiff, .png or other similar file format. I adjust settings in probably 98% of the images I shoot, meaning I will lighten the darks, darken the lights, add clarity, vibrance and maybe some sharpening to produce what I feel is a better quality image.

This is not something I’ve ever tried to hide. There’s certainly a stigma amongst many that modern photographers are only as good as their equipment or post processing skills. When I was learning to play the guitar I always wanted the best guitar because I thought it would make me a better player. My Dad was always quick to remind me that Jimi Hendrix (my idol at the time) could make my cheap Japanese Fender Stratocaster sound like a million bucks. The same can be said for cameras too. Sure, to some extent equipment matters but a talented user can take average equipment and deliver superb results. Conversely, an average user is unlikely to take top of the line equipment and deliver superb results. Even if Jimi himself had come down from heaven and personally delivered his cream white American Strat, I could have never made it scream Voodoo Chile the way he did.

What is Post Processing?

Every serious photographer from Ansel Adams on has learned how to tweak their images after capturing them. Outsiders fail to realize this process isn’t about making up for inadequacies during the capture, it’s about leveraging your skill & available resources to deliver the image that you saw in your minds eye. If you use post processing to cover up mistakes you’re doing something wrong in the field. How many times have I done it wrong in the field? I have GIGA BYTES of crappy pictures. I’ve studied each one in the post processing phase and learned how to prevent them in the future. The digital era has made this learning process so much more palatable. It’s easier than ever to shoot an image, return to your workstation and peruse the EXIF data to see how your settings correlate to your results. This is especially helpful in learning how aperture relates to depth of field. So what is post processing? Post processing is the procedure we use after capturing an image to modify the results to our liking.

My General Post Processing Workflow

Here is an example of my post processing workflow that could be applied to 90% of all the images of mine you’ve ever seen. Sure there are exceptions but the vast majority of my work would fall into this process. My workflow goes like this:

  1. Download the images from my SD card into a directory (aka folder) labeled with the current month.
  2. Import the images into Lightroom.
  3. Cull the losers, keep the winners.
  4. Apply profile corrections and increase sharpening to the first image.
  5. Use the Lightroom “Sync” feature to apply step 4 to ALL the images in the directory.
  6. Apply image specific corrections to the selected winners.

Let me say up front that I don’t particularly enjoy this part of the process which is to say I’ve taken more time to understand how to get it right in the camera first. I aim to spend no more than 5-10 minutes per shoot in the post processing phase. On average I would say I spend 15-30 seconds per image that makes the initial cut. I may spend more time on a single image if it’s for a client or if I know I will be printing it on a large scale. I’ve probably never spent more than 15 minutes editing a single image.

A Specific Example

The above person was referencing a sunrise image. They simply could not believe what they were seeing wasn’t the result of extensive “Photoshopping”. Here is a specific example of how I processed a three shot panorama of the sunrise over the Neuse River as seen from the Dawson Creek Bridge near Janeiro, NC. This process picks up after step 6 from above:

  1. Select the 3 vertically oriented images and merge them using the Panorama function
  2. Increase Clarity +10
  3. Decrease Shadows -10
  4. Decrease Blacks -7
  5. Apply localized adjustments using the brush tool
    1. Decrease Shadows -15
    2. Decrease Blacks -3

And that’s all! Here are some images of the process and the before and after results with links to the full sized images if you want to really examine them up close.

Blank canvas. Untouched merger of 3 images using the Panorama function.

Default Sharpening Settings

My adjustments to the Sharpening settings.

My adjustments to the basic settings panel.

Local adjustment areas are highlighted in red. My goal was to give more contrast to the clouds.

Click to see full sized image.

Merged Panorama with no adjustments made at all. Click to see the full sized image.

Click to see full sized image.

Merged Panorama with the aforementioned adjustments applied. Click to see the full sized image.

Final Thoughts on Post Processing

Post processing is my least favorite aspect of photography so I try to keep it to a minimum. Ansel Adams was a Jedi master at post processing so don’t be fooled into believing this is the realm of amateurs, though plenty of amateurs over process their images to make up for a lack of skill. We’ve all done it and there is no shame in it. In fact if you can’t look back and laugh at some of those images I would argue you too are doing something wrong in the field (i.e. not shooting enough to learn from your mistakes). Here are some early examples of me applying gratuitous post processing to make up for an improperly exposed image.

I would argue the composition of all these images is solid and it’s a hard temptation to resist dressing up dramatic clouds but alas… clouds don’t look like that in nature very often if ever. I had little understanding of my camera at this point and I think it clearly shows. Of course that didn’t stop Costa Sunglasses from using one of the fishing images! Which brings me to my final and most important point.

Unless you’re shooting for a client with specific requirements the amount of processing you apply is totally up to you! If YOU like the results then the naysayers be damned! Photography is art and art is expression. As an artist you mustn’t allow ANYONE to hinder your expression! The rest of the community can think your over processed work is garbage but if YOU like it, then dear reader, that truly is all that matters.

So get out there and take some bad pictures. Over process them until your heart’s content and try to learn something about photography and your camera in the process. Knowledge is power. Knowledge of your camera is the power to get the results you want and the ability to the deliver the results your clients want.

William Conkwright

Will Conkwright is the owner at Circle Squared Publishing, LLC, a photographer, writer, full stack web developer, Google Street View Trusted Photographer, competitive cyclist, endurance athlete and adventure junky who loves riding motorcycles.

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