It is very tempting to think that post-processing in photography is something disconnected from the rest of the photographic process, and particularly so from the capture of images in the field. The truth, however, is that post-processing should not be considered a separate step in photography, but rather as the continuation, or should we say culmination, of a whole photographic process which started the moment we had an idea in our mind that we wanted to capture in a photograph.
Nowadays, most photographers think that mastering post-processing is a matter of mastering a particular software and learning a multitude of different techniques and filters. The truth, however, is that the most important thing in post-processing is to know what is the intent, mood, and message we want for the final photograph, to be able to see in our mind’s eye the final photograph the way we want it, and then to know in advance which adjustments of tone, contrast, micro-contrast, and color need to be done in order to get as close as possible to that vision. Once we know this, the tool we use is irrelevant, whether it is the analogic darkroom, the digital darkroom, or any of the many software programs available for post-processing.
Seracs, Switzerland (before and after)- This is the way I visualized the scene when making the capture. The original situation looked very different under the glaring Sun, all blue. Composition was made with post-processing in mind. When arrived at the studio, the visualized idea was shaped by means of adjustments of tone, contrast and saturation of the colors
Analogic vs. digital darkroom
Nowadays we do the very same thing with digital negatives as the old masters did in the darkroom when printing a negative under the enlarger. We “print” our digital negatives with a raw developer software and can decide on the interpretation we want to give to the final photograph and print. We might use different tools than those employed in the darkroom, but we still control the very same parameters: tone, contrast, micro-contrast, color saturation, and local adjustments.
In digital photography, however, as we see the effects of the adjustments in real time, we run the risk of becoming lazy and relying on a trial-and- error process in which we just change every single slider in both directions until we like what we see on the screen. The cure to this disease, just like before, is in knowing beforehand what the image needs and how to achieve it.
When confronted to our raw image, we can do exactly what the old masters of film photography did: analyzing the scene and taking notes in advance of what should be done in order to get closer to our final intent. Global and local adjustments could be planned in advance in our mind, and all that before the use of any post-processing tool.
Base for post-processing – Visual design
The base for all post-processing is the visual design. Our minds react to shapes, colors, lines, textures, and depth in a very particular way. All these elements bring with them different emotional connotations and orchestrate the way our eyes scan a scene and distill a meaning out of it. Mastering visual design, therefore, will give us the tools to “shape” a certain intent and message to be deciphered by the future observers of our images. We can of course select and modify the visual design of our images during capture, by changing our camera position, framing, etc. But we can also further modify and fine-tune the visual design during the development of the negative or the raw digital file. This is what we understand as post-processing.
This realization helps us understand that when we go home and post-process our images, what we are doing is to continue and enhance the work we started in the field, fine-tuning the visual design we had in our image so that certain aspects are strengthened while others are concealed.
The composition focused on the soft, gentle and elegant features of the landscape in Namibia. Post-processing , later one, tried to remain coherent with the work done during capture, focusing in enhancing the mood and qualities looked for the photographer. In this case, soft contrast, pastel colors and a panoramic format to eliminate the distractions and heighten the shape of the hill was adopted.
In this example, we did exactly the opposite. The energy found in the bark of the old larch tree was translated visually into a vibrant, dynamic and energetic exercise of visual design: strong and complementary colors, high contrast and high micro-contrast.
We have already said that the main goal of post-processing is fine-tuning, shaping and adapting the visual design of our captured images. However, the reasons why we might want to adapt the visual design are numerous:
A. Setting the mood and ambiance:
We know how colors, tones, textures, shapes, and lines bring with them emotional connotations. A soft contrast image with warm hues will transmit romanticism, softness, and tranquility, while vibrant, contrasty tones and colors with strong diagonals and triangles will convey dynamism and excitement. By adapting the visual design, we can therefore adapt the mood and ambiance of our image.
This is what can lead to different interpretations of the same image. A unique, single raw file could give way to a myriad of different interpretations and final images. In fact, very often as we grow and mature as artists, we will revisit old images and post-process them in a very different way. Of course there are no rules, recipes, or scripts in creative photography, but we could list some of the most typical intents or moods that we might impart to a certain photograph of the landscape:
- Mysterious: Images where we suggest and do not show it all, provoking questions and a certain unsettling feeling.
Dark shadows with no detail add quite a lot of mystery to the images.
- Epic: Images full of energy and drama, majestic, beautiful and impressive.
The sharp contours of the mountains, the bright green colors of the aurora and the contrasty and colorful rendition enhance the dramatic nature of the subject.
- Pictorialist: Images with a creamy and unrealistic intent. Low contrast, low key images, presence of grain and typically rendered in black and white.
The intent was to create a “timeless” image, as old as the menhir which appears as focal point of the whole landscape. A pictoralist rendition enhanced that mood and intent.
- Beautiful: Bright colors, bright overall tone, complementary colors and normal levels of contrast. These images are inviting and focus on the aesthetical values of the subject depicted.
Beautiful would be the most suitable adjective to the Swiss countryside in spring, and that was the way this image was processed. Bright and saturated colors, not too aggressive contrast and micro-contrast, bright tones.
- Sublime: A mixture of the epic with less beauty and a bigger dose of mystery.
The processing focused on creating a feeling of awe mixed with danger: high contrast, high saturation for the colors, dark shadows and strong tunnel effect to focus the vision towards the center of the frame.
- Pastoral: Soft, calm and quiet. Elegant and gentle images. They depict the beauty mixed with a good dose of tranquil contemplation.
Pastel and bright colors, low contrast and micro-contrast, bright tones… they all contribute to render the Swiss landscape in late autumn as an inviting and soothing scene.
- Joyful: Bright, energetic, positive and optimistic imagery that makes us feel good
Is there anything more optimistic and joyful than the bright colors of the Provençal landscape in summer? Post-processing focused on enhancing the complementary colors, good mixture of color brightness, high tonal values and high contrast.
- Minimalistic: Simple visual design with large negatives spaces, low levels of detail and a bold presentation.
Post-processing in minimalistic images should be as minimal as possible. If we see it, we failed. We should focus on the overall contrast and color balance.
B. Complementing the composition:
Another main objective of post-processing is the reinforcement of the composition, by adding visual weight to the areas that are more important in the image (focal points) and by reducing that of other distracting areas that are less important and that can compete for attention with the main subject.
Some typical examples are:
- Reinforcement of the focal point:
The focal point is the area of the image where we want the maximum visual weight, since that is the key element of the whole composition we want to highlight. Post-processing can be used in order to increase the visual weight of that area, by adding contrast, brightening its tone, saturating its colors or by darkening everything else around the focal point. The idea is to make the focal point stand up in terms of visual design.
The mail focal point (the big block of ice) and the secondary focal point (the small block of ice) have seen their visual weight increased during post-processing: more contrast, brighter highlights , more micro-contrast. The sky has been darkened to make it less overwhelming.
- Leading the eye:
Post-processing can also help us orchestrate the way the eye of the observer will move across and read a certain image. By changing tone, contrast, and color we can guide the eye of the observer in a more or less predefined way.
Post-processing was used to strengthen the detail in the stream by increasing the micro-contrast. The tones of the sand and stream were brightened, while the sky was darkened. The highlights and mid-tones of the stream water were also brightened.
- Limiting the visual input to the very minimum:
Less is frequently more, and by using post-processing to reduce visual clutter and excess of detail (visual information), we can guarantee that the essence of the photograph is stronger and the observer will focus his attention on the important areas. For instance, we can darken the shadows so that detail drowns and the eye does not waste its attention looking at what lurks inside, or we can lighten the highlights so that the background becomes a blank and pure sheet of paper on which the main subject seems to float. With post-processing, we can direct and focus the attention of the observer to the essential.
The raw file captured detail in all the areas of the image. However, during post-processing all the detail in the shadows was obliterated in order to focus on the stark and bold visual design of the contours. The intent was making a more symbolic and less literal image of Venice.
C. Creating depth:
Depth is an illusion, since photographs are bi-dimensional. We should decide whether we want depth or not in our images depending on what intent and mood we wish to convey with it. Various situations can trigger the perception of depth in our brains. Some of these situations depend on the light, others on weather conditions, other on decisions made at the time of shooting (such as the direction of the light), and still others from the pure visual design of the image. The latter are those which can be altered, enhanced, or concealed during post-processing.
So we use tricks of tone, color, and micro-contrast to give the impression of depth to an image. This can be done by incorporating layering patterns of shadow and light, sculpting the volume of certain subjects by means of local adjustments of tone, or leading the eye into the frame by means of gradual sharpness or contrast, for instance.
Photographs are flat and therefore all sense of depth is a visual illusion. This illusion can be created through different “tricks”. On this image, there are different kinds of “visual depth” illusions at work, as we will see: linear perspective, aerial perspective, sharpness perspective, tonal layering, light sculpting and diminishing perspective.
D. Creating harmony and balance (or contradiction and opposition):
Visual balance is highly related to the connotation of stability, calmness, safety. In the same way, visually unbalanced images transmit tension, energy, movement, danger…and can be perceived as threatening to the viewer.
When we discuss balance in images we can do so by referring to different levels. For example, we can refer to the balance according to tone, color or even mood among a group of different photographs which are to be part of a coherent body of work.
We often use post-processing in order to bring tonal and color homogeneity and coherence to the image. For example, we might want a similar palette of tones and colors in the sky and the land, or in the water and sky, and by using post-processing we can adapt the white balance (color cast), tones, and contrast so that every part of the image works together as a harmonious group. Sometimes, however, we use post-processing to create just the contrary: contradiction and opposition between different parts of the image.
The white balance was modified not only globally, but also locally, changing the color balance in the image. The white balance for the sand and marbles was adjusted towards the warmer side of the spectrum. The white balance in the sky was also adjusted locally, so that the blue areas balanced well with the ocean and distant sky, whereas the lit areas of the clouds balanced well in color with the sand and rocks of the foreground. The overall feeling is one of balance.
The ultimate goal of post-processing is to shape the raw clay of the digital negative into a final sculpture (final photograph). We sit down, analyze, let go, and model the clay into something that gets closer and closer to the visualized photograph we have in mind. As we can understand, this is the responsibility of the photographer, and nobody will be able to post-process our images as well as we would do it ourselves. The important thing is not knowing how to use tools of post-processing, but rather listening to our original intent, looking at the photograph and being able to know beforehand which adjustments need to be done. Once we know the what and why, it is relatively easy to master the how, that is, the use of tools to alter contrast, tone, micro-contrast and color to push our original raw file towards the visualized final image.
For more information we’re happy to offer Rafael’s ebook “Post-processing with Intent” with 120 pages full of content, examples and exercises from Essential Seeing. You can event get 25% off with the coupon code “ESSENTIALTOPAZ” on checkout.
About Rafael Rojas
|Rafael Rojas, Hasselblad Master, is an internationally awarded fine art photographer, author, lecturer and educator. He is the Director of “Essential Seeing “, a company dedicated to teaching people how to see and use photography as a creative tool of meaningful personal expression, through inspirational eBooks, videos and photographic workshops. Along with his wife Anca, they organize photo-immersion trips to some of the most inspiring and authentic places around the world.
He is also the author of the ebook Post-Processing with intent
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