Post-processing: the key to better photos

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It’s an old cliché that the photographer matters more than the camera, when it comes to taking attractive and eye-catching photos. And in my experience, most people understand and accept this.

There’s a third aspect, though, that many amateurs don’t think about, and I think it makes a bigger difference than the camera. Post-processing, which means essentially “anything you do to a photograph after you click the shutter,” is the secret weapon of those who deliver consistently amazing photographs. It’s an art unto itself, and you can spend years learning and refining a wide variety of post-processing techniques, but for this post I thought I’d show a very simple example of post-processing in action.

Consider this example, a photo that I snapped on a hike to High Rock Lookout a few days ago:

DRM_6150- autoexposure

It was a spectacular setting, with Jamie perched on a rocky little peak with a view of Mount Rainier. And it’s a nice photo, but frankly it’s pretty drab. The actual scene looked much better to the human eye, and in this case (as often) the issue is dynamic range – our eyes have an amazing ability to handle a wide range of brightness, but camera technology doesn’t capture these sorts of scenes very well. If the exposure is right for the darker foreground (we were in the shade of clouds), then the background is washed out as you can see above.

I took that photo with Nikon’s “Program Mode,” which automatically handles the exposure, and it did the logical thing and optimized the exposure for the near foreground subject. I could have manually adjusted the exposure to make Mount Rainier look good, of course, but then Jamie would have been very dark and colorless:

DRM_6150-underexposed

In this sort of situation, there’s a common trick photographers use to balance the exposure: a graduated neutral density filter. But to do that trick, you have to own a filter and have it with you.

Instead, in this case I just have the Nikon “raw” file that I captured when I snapped this picture. But I can adjust its exposure in Photoshop, and I can combine two different exposures through the use of gradients and masks. With a couple of minutes of post-processing, I end up with something like this:

DRM_6150-merged

Nice color in the foreground, and Mount Rainier looks good, too!

One final thought on this sort of a scene: you can also try using flash on the foreground subject, which will make it brighter relative to the background and achieve a similar effect. For example, here are a two photos taken a couple of seconds apart, with the only difference being that I turned on the flash unit for the second shot:

DRM_6142-flash

In this case, the flash helped balance Jamie and Mount Rainier, but I don’t care for the way the trees are so dark in between. With a little post-processing, though, I can bring out some of the color in those trees:

DRM_6145-adjusted

My goal here was to demonstrate what post-processing can do for you, and not the details of how to do any particular technique. There are many great Photoshop tutorials online that cover the how-to details. And you may want to use something other than Photoshop – Lightroom, or Gimp, or whatever. The important thing is to learn some sort of post-processing tool that will help you get the most out of the photos you capture with your camera. Clicking the shutter isn’t the final step, it’s just the point at which you transition from photography to post-processing.

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