Monday, January 23, 2012

How to Know What Edits to Make?

Now there's a really good question. It's something that I still struggle with for every image that I edit. I've mentioned before that I consider myself a forced creative, in that I mean that creativity is something that I really need to work at to achieve as opposed to being naturally creative. So when I look at editing my images I need some structure to keep me on track.

Before I shoot a scene I try to get an idea of what I want the finished output to look like (the operative word here is "try"). Will it make a good black and white? Does it have a lot of colour that I want to make vibrant? Would HDR be a good choice?  This is typically my starting point so that when I upload into Lightroom, where my workflow starts, I already have a pretty good idea of what I want to do.

So here's a brief overview of my workflow and how I break things down for a little bit more structure. I tend to take threefold approach which consists of 1) global adjustments; 2) selective adjustments; and 3) finishing adjustments. Here's what that looks like:

Global Adjustments:

White Balance: Is the image too warm or too cool? Or is there a colour cast? White balance is a good place to start. Auto WB works pretty well on most advanced DSLRs, but sometimes it take a lunch break.

Exposure: Is the image too light or too dark? Whether you set the exposure yourself, or let the camera do it, in some cases they can both be wrong. This is where I use the histogram and clipped highlight/shadow warnings. Try to make sure that you don't have any data leaving the left and right sides of the histogram.

Contrast: Done with either the Contrast slider or the Curves tool. I shoot in RAW format which means that there's no processing done by the camera so a little initial contrast boost can help.

Sharpening: Again working with RAW files means that there's no initial sharpening so I typically do a little bit in Lightroom. However, I always do final sharpening a little later on in my workflow.

Noise Reduction: My ISO is never the same for every image, and sometimes even my lowest ISO setting can show some noise.  I always take a quick look and add some noise reduction if necessary. Lightroom has pretty good tool for this.

Selective Adjustments: (These are different for every image, but here's what I look for)

Distracting Elements: Is there anything that needs to be removed? Something that you didn't see in the viewfinder? This is where learning to use the variety of tools in Photoshop can help like the Clone Stamp; Healing Brush; and my personal favourite, Content Aware Fill.

Light or Colour Adjustments: Enhancing specific areas of the image with colour or light. This can help draw the viewers eye into the image directing it to where you want by lightening certain areas and  darkening others. Lots of ways to do this with the layer adjustments, layer masks and the brush tool. However, my favourite plug-in for this is Nik Software's Viveza 2.

Contrast Adjustments: I find myself more often than not making selective contrast adjustments to certain areas of an image to bring out more detail. Similar to colour and light adjustments these are done with layer masks and the brush tool.

Selective Sharpening: Things that have a lot of edges can take a fair amount of sharpening; however, if you also have softer areas in the image, you definitely don't want to apply to same amount of sharpening. Portraits are a good example, you want smooth skin, but sharp eyes, so you would only apply sharpening to the eyes in this case.

Finishing Adjustments: (I'm typically back in Lightroom for these)

Vignette: I like vignettes, some people don't, but I do so I add them to pretty much every image. Sometimes it just a slight effect, but it's a nice finishing touch.

Exposure: This kind of bookends my workflow. I'm not sure when I started doing this, but usually after applying the post crop vignette I like to bump the exposure up just slightly to offset the edge darkening that creeps into the centre of the image. Exposure does this a little better than the Feather slider so it's a bit of a balancing act for me.

So there you go. A little peek into my workflow and how I approach my editing. It's taken me a while to get a clear focus on this and it's something that has developed over time. Your workflow may be similar or it could be totally different. All I know is that this works for me. In the end, only you can decide for yourself what is going to work best for you, but if you're still struggling I'll offer these 2 final tips:

1) Learn as much as you can about various Photoshop techniques. Learn the most widely used tools, and learn about using layers and layer masks; and

2) Seek out photographers who are creating the images that you really like. Try to learn how they process their images. With YouTube, blogs, Twitter and other social media options it's not as difficult as you may think find a tutorial or to connect and ask a question.

Sometimes we don't think about the edits that we could, or should be making, because we don't know how to do them, which can become a vicious little circle. So hang in there, learn lots and try new things.



Sunday, January 15, 2012

My Love / Hate Relationship with HDR

I've had a love/hate relationship with (High Dynamic Range) HDR photography for a while now. I love it when it's done well as you can pull out a tremendous range of tones and detail. I love how they can be gritty and edgy (and halo free), and I also love when they have that silky smoothness. It's the simple beauty of HDR done really well.

On the flip side I hate it when I see HDR poorly done, and truth be told I have done some pretty horrible HDR myself, so another point for the hate side of the column is that I have not been able to create HDR images anywhere near the level of those that I look up to.

All that being said I'm now sliding more over to the love side as of late. Giving due credit to folks like RC Concepcion from Kelby Media Group, and Trey Ratcliff over at Stuck in Customs, who are not only tremendous HDR creationists, but also failingly gracious with their teachings and musings on the subject. In a very short time of following their HDR work I can now say that things are making more sense to me.

Now I've written a few HDR posts on the blog starting back in March 2010 and followed up with a couple of revisits later on in the fall of that year. I still stand by what I wrote then, but personal development is continuous, and what a difference a couple years can make. When I first tried HDR I studied up on how to shoot bracketed frames and then grabbed Photomatix to merge and tone map the images. My understanding at the time was capture in camera, merge to HDR in Photomatix and you're done. But boy, was I naive! I missed the most critical and creative step, which is finishing the image.

It's extremely important to spend some quality time figuring out what you want the final image to look like, and also knowing how to get there. This is something that I think comes with time and experience, but the more you do it the better you'll get. Also, by following others who really know what they're doing you can see how they approach finishing an image and you can then begin to develop your own style and ideas. I love video tutorials exactly for this reason. How are they creating a certain look and feel, is it a Photoshop or Lightroom technique or certain software plug-ins? There's no shortage of tools and techniques out there, you just need to find what works for you.

So at this point I'm happy to say that I am beginning to leave more of the hate behind me as I now understand HDR photography a lot more, and I'm getting better at making some of those finishing decisions.

So keep an open mind and always look for new way to develop your skills; the results can only get better over time.



Monday, January 2, 2012

Canadian Photographers Who Travel With Their Gear

If you're a Canadian photographer who travels with their gear, and you don't know what a Form Y38 is then keep reading... I'm going to hazard a guess that if your a professional photographer who travels then you may already be aware of this. (Note: I know that some readers of my blog are live in other countries so naturally this form and process will not be relavent to you. However, I would bet that your country has a similar process that would be worth investigating).

A Form Y38 "Identification of Articles for Temporary Exportation" is a document issued by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). If you haven't heard of this before I'm not surprised. I had never heard of this form until earlier this year after driving back across the border from a trip to the US.

I went down to St. Louis to see the Flashbus Tour featuring Joe McNally and David Hobby back in April. I live in Ontario fairly close to the Niagara Falls border and regularly fly out of Buffalo due to cheaper flights. As usual when I travel I take some of my camera gear, and have done so for over 6 years with nary an issue. On this occasion it was a little different. When I returned to cross back into Canada I expected the usual questions, where have you been, how long have you been gone, what are you bringing back etc. I'm always honest with the CBSA agents as that just makes sense. So when I said that I was attending a photography seminar (the Flashbus Tour) I was questioned about my camera gear; essentially how do they know that I didn't just buy all this stuff in US, and can I prove that I had it before I left?

I showed the CBSA agent the gear I had with me, and after additional questioning she relented, but told me that I should have had a Form Y38 filled out before I left Canada. Suffice it to say I was a very bad person for not knowing about a form that no one in the past had ever mentioned to me; but we all know ignorance is not defence. I guess she thought I was honest enough because her attitude changed slightly and she explained it to me in more detail.

After I got back I went searching for a little more information on how to do this. It's a pretty simple process. Here's all you need to do:

1) itemize all of your gear, I mean all of it, with make, model and most importantly serial number;
2) take all of you gear, plus your full list to your nearest CBSA office (click here for a directory);
3) explain to them that you travel frequently with your camera gear and understand that a Form Y38 can help when coming back into Canada.

In my case I went to the Hamilton International Airport as it was closest and not that busy. The agent there was extremely friendly. He took my list and did a spot check of my gear and serial numbers. He filled out the Form Y38 (it's a small green card) and attached it to my list, where he also noted the number of items and that he had checked the serial numbers. He signed it, I signed it, and we were done. It took about 5 minutes.

The Form Y38 does not have an expiry date so it's good for as long as you have your gear. Even if you only travel with a few pieces, as long as they're on the list covered by the Form you're still okay. The only caveat is if you add more gear or change things out you will need to get a new one. Oh, and you need to remember to carry it with you when you travel.

So it may seem like a bit of an inconvenience to do this, but consider the alternative... getting into a dispute with a CBSA agent, getting pulled off to the side for further questioning, having to pay duty on your own gear, having to gather all of your receipts after the fact and head back to a CBSA office anyway to prove your gear belongs to you. I know I may be exaggerating just a little, but how much easier would it be to drop a Form Y38 on them once they start to question you? You'll probably look like a pretty smart cookie.