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A Beginner's Guide to Improving Your Photography
Part Two - In the Computer
by John Schuman

(Return to Part One)

Almost all images can be improved with post-processing in the computer. This article will show you how to make the basic adjustments you need to improve your images.

This article uses Adobe Lightroom to illustrate how to postprocess your images, but most other postprocessing software (such as Photoshop Elements, iPhoto or Aperture) work in a somewhat similar manner. Our recommendation though, is to use Lightroom as it is effective and easy to use. An advantage of Lightroom is that it is instruction-based software which records an instruction for each change you make but leaves the original file unchanged forever. Every change can be altered or removed at any time, ever.

Importing Images into the Computer

A consistent way of organizing the images is important so that they can be found and backed up easily.

Before doing any importing, decide on how this will be done. Organizing by date is simple and eases backup. Adding a memorable title after the date eases finding images, e.g. the place or subject of the images.

A backup of the images should be made before the memory card is formatted (in the camera) to ensure that no images are lost.

Reviewing Images

Before working on the images, it is wise to scan through them.

Making a photograph is a data-gathering exercise. Usually, you will take multiple images of a subject that catches your eye - you will vary point of view and composition, camera settings, possibly create groups that will need to be processed together (e.g. HDR or focus stacking).

At this stage, it is useful to somehow indicate which images belong to a group, e.g. use a colour code on them. You should also decide which images you are likely to want to process and share. You will make a preliminary assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of each image. Does an image have errors which make it unusable, e.g. major problems with sharpness or exposure?

Prior to undertaking a definitive processing you may want to test some steps to see what will work, e.g. can you crop to eliminate distractions without destroying the main subject or overall composition? This will prepare you to proceed with the actual image processing in an efficient manner.

Processing Software

There are basically two types of processing software: pixel-based (destructive) and instruction-based (non-destructive).

Pixel-based software allows you to make extreme changes accurate down to the smallest elements of an image (the pixels). It allows compositing where elements from different images can be combined. It provides the most accurate selection of parts of an image for modification or removal.

The main disadvantage is that many of the modifications are non-reversible. Since the changes are cumulative, the order in which they are added is important. Every change is claimed to produce at least a minuscule change in the quality of the image. Examples of pixel-based software include Adobe Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, and Corel’s Paint Shop Pro.

Instruction-based software records an instruction for each change you make but leaves the original file unchanged forever. Every change can be altered or removed at any time, ever. The software applies the instructions only when the image is exported to another program or file. You can move back and forth among your changes as one adjustment may affect another. Typically, these programs make complex change while appearing relatively easy to use.

Such software may be all you need for 80% or more of your images. Adobe’s Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw (included with Photoshop and in a limited version with Elements) and Apple's Aperture are examples. Many Raw converters will also process non-raw files and are also instruction based, e.g. Capture One, DXO Optics Pro, Apple Aperture.

Each of the two types of editors has its strengths. They are best considered as complementary rather than competitive. A recommended workflow is often to start in Lightroom, pass the image to Photoshop or Elements, and do final adjustments and export from Lightroom. The Adobe products are currently the most popular.

Lightroom includes not only a good image processing module but also a very good Digital Asset Management module as well as other modules for export. It is currently often recommended as the best initial program to try.

Developing Images

You should make global adjustments before making local adjustments.

Many programs include presets. These are worth examining as they are basically settings that are available for use on your images. It is good to see what can be achieved with them and what happens when you modify the values in the presets. If you are doing something repetitively, it may be worthwhile making your own presets. Many other presets are available on line. Many are free. Although the methods and issues are the same with all the programs, the examples will be from Lightroom.

A. Global Adjustments

 
 

1. Crop Tool

The place to start your image editing is with the Crop Tool. In Lightroom, the Crop Tool (a square with dotted lines) is just under the Histogram on the right side of the page in the Develop Module.

It can be applied and modified at any time.

However, note that if you later use the “upright tools” in the Lens Correction area, the crop will be undone.

   
 
   
 

On clicking on the Crop Tool icon, the Crop Tool Menu will present itself, as at the right.

The “Aspect” can be set at various ratioes by using the pop-up at the right (At the right, it is set for Original). 

However, you may prefer to click on the padlock so that it is open as in this image.  This will allow you complete freedom in cropping so that you will crop for the best result for the particular image.

   
 

Because of the size of the projected image in the Trillium Club, quite tight crops are possible. You should aim to have image fit inside the 1400x1050 pixels available with at least the width or length occupying the space available. For printing, you will likely need many more pixels so that it is much more important to “crop in camera” as much as possible.

Cropping is the easiest way to locate the elements of your image in a good place within the frame.  It is an excellent way to remove distractions competing with your main subject.   However, you must avoid sacrificing parts of the main subject or the overall position of elements in the frame.  You should always explore the edges of the image for distracting elements and remove them.  Crops should be “decisive” so that objects are removed or included, and not just partially removed.


Cropping includes the ability to straighten the image.  You can adjust the angle of the crop by moving the slider, or by rotating it with your cursor just outside the cropped image with the curved arrows available.  However, the easier way is to pick up the level (to the left of the word “Angle”), click on one end of a “horizontal” or “vertical” line and drag to the other end and release.  Perhaps, the easiest way of all is to use the “Upright” tools in the Basic Area of the Lens Correction Area (a Lower Panel in the Develop Screen).

 
 

2. The Basic Panel

The Adjustments in this Panel are the main ones applied to any image and available in any program.


White Balance (WB) is usually done first as it affects the exposure of any other adjustment. If it is incorrect, all the colours may have a cast and appear less brilliant.  If you shoot raw, you can choose among the Presets or Auto.  You can also use the eye-dropper on something that you know should be a neutral colour and this will correct all the colours.  (Some programs will have 3 eye droppers to click on the darkest point, a middle gray and the lightest point to set the white and dark points and colour balance at the same time.)

However, white balance is often chosen to have an esthetic effect rather than a true colour rendition.   You can move the Temp (blue-yellow) slider to increase the warmth or coolness of the image.  You may then move the Tint (green-magenta) slider but this should always be conservative, e.g. 0-10 points either way.

   
 

The first image below is a "cool" image obtained with an accurate white balance.  The second image below is a "warm" image obtained with adjustment of the Temp and Tint sliders.

 
   
   
   

2 (a) Tone

The next step is usually to adjust the Tone of the image. 

The aim is to get an image that you find pleasing and that communicates your impression or what you want to say.  The adjustments will depend on the tone of the image as you imported it and the message and mood you want to convey. 

The order in which the sliders are adjusted is up to you.  They are all interdependent.  In addition, changes in the Presence Panel will also affect those of the tone panel.  You will frequently find yourself readjusting the sliders repeatedly in order to get the result you want. 

The general rule is that moving sliders to the right will increase the brightness (and contrast) while moving them to the left will have the opposite effect.

The histogram gives a useful guide.  It shows from left to right how many of the pixels in the image are at  each level of brightness from pure black to pure white for each of the colours.  If you press J, the preview image will show red markings where the image is overexposed and blue markings where it is underexposed.  If you put your cursor on the histogram, it will indicate the part of the histogram that is affected by each slider by lighting it up.  You can then move the slider or drag across the histogram to see the changes.

A rule of thumb, developed by Joe Greengro, a photography teacher from Seattle, is as follows.  Move the slider until you say to yourself “TOO MUCH” and then move it back to 30% of that value.

The Exposure slider affects mainly the middle value of brightness although its effect does stretch out much farther.  Both the exposure and contrast sliders can be adjusted later and then will only usually require a very small adjustment.

The Highlights slider affects the brighter parts of the image. 

The Whites slider affects the brightest parts of the image. Using these sliders, the aim is to maintain as much highlight detail as possible and desirable without muddying the highlights.

The Shadows slider affects the darker parts of the image. 

The Blacks slider affects the very darkest parts of the image.  Here the aim is to restore as much detail in the shadows as supports the rest of the image while maintaining the richness that black provides and not producing a “busy” image with too much undesirable detail.

If you press ALT while dragging the Blacks slider, it will show black on a white background when the blacks are so dark that they won’t show any detail.  A bit of pure black can enrich an image if it is not in an area where you want detail.  When you press ALT while dragging the Whites slider, it will show white on a black background if the light parts of the image are so bright that they won’t show any detail or texture.  When this occurs, you should drag back a bit. 

While these aids are useful, the final determination requires viewing the full image in order meet the above aims.

2(b) Presence

The Presence sliders include Clarity, Vibrance and Saturation. 

Clarity increases the contrast in the midtones; it adds apparent sharpness and Pop to the image.

Vibrance is a smart form of saturation.  It increases the saturation more if the colour is less saturated.  It stresses greens and blues while sparing skin tones. 

Saturation just increases the saturation of all colours equally.  Rather than using such a global increase in saturation, more often you will use Vibrance and make changes to specific colours in the HSL Panel.

On the left, below is an image with reasonable Basic Adjustments. On the right is one with too much.

 
         
 
 

3. Tone Curve

This is a sophisticated tool allowing multiple adjustments.  Its effects are additive to those in the Basic Panel.  With the improvements in the Basic Panel, this remains an advanced tool which is only occasionally needed.

4. HSL Panel

HSL (Hue, Saturation and Luminance or Brightness) are found in many programs and adjust those aspects of colours.  You can select a colour by name or by using the Targeted Adjustment Tool   . This tool is placed on the colour you want to adjust.  These colours need not be pure.  (E.g. they could be a green and yellow blend which is common in grasses.)  As you drag the tool up or down the appropriate attribute and colours will change.

These are fine tuning tools and will usually require minimal changes.

5. Detail

The tools in this area should be applied to the images at 1:1 magnification. Sharpening in LR is based on the late Bruce Fraser’s idea of 3 step sharpening.  

The first step (Input Sharpening) is to reverse the artefactual loss of sharpness caused by the camera.  The second step (Creative Sharpening) is to sharpen those areas which one wishes to emphasize. The third step (Output Sharpening) is to correct the loss of sharpening on Export to various media and varies with the size of the final image and the media.

 

 
 
The Detail Panel deals with input sharpening which should be relatively mild. 

Sharpening increases the contrast along edges by darkening the darker side and brightening the brighter side. 

The Amount slider determines how much the contrast is increased. 

The Radius slider determines how wide the effect is.  A narrow setting is better for fine detail but increases noise.  A wider setting promotes greater changes with relatively less effect on fine detail.  It is better for faces sparing the skin texture and pores while sharpening the eyes and other facial features.

The Detail slider emphasizes the smaller details.  Holding down the ALT key while using the sliders will give a preview in black and white which is how the sharpening is applied in order to avoid colour artefacts. 

You can usually rely on the Presets included with LR.  However, the Masking Slider is important.  Holding down the ALT key as you move the slider will show black where the sharpening will not occur while the white areas indicate the areas that will be sharpened.  You move the slider to the right to protect the relatively smooth areas (e.g. sky, blurred background) while still preserving the important edges.

   
     
 
Oversharpening can destroy an image and is indicated by visible haloes along the edges and exaggerated noise. On the left, below, is a 100% crop from a corner of a photo that shows reasonable sharpening. On the right, is an oversharpened one.  Note especially the noise and the halo under the dark glasses
 
         
 

Noise reduction becomes important with the use of high ISO or underexposure of images. 

Noise can be luminance (black and white) like grain in film or coloured like confetti or blotches of colour.

Moving the Amount slider decreases noise while decreasing sharpness. 

The Detail slider is meant to bring back detail but if used too strongly will produce artefacts.  Contrast slider will increase sharpness and apparent sharpness. 

Noise reduction is a balancing act between getting increased smoothness (less noise) and excessive smoothness with loss of detail.  Using an amount up to 30 is usually safe.
Reducing colour noise is similar to luminance noise.  The default values of 25 for amount and 50 for smoothness and detail are usually safe. 

 
 

Too much reduction will produce artefacts with blotches, which the smoothness slider is meant to correct.  The detail slider is meant to protect the edges preventing oversaturation and bleeding.

To the right is the effect of too much noise reduction with loss of detail and a porcelain face.

Although Lightroom’s noise reduction is considered very good, the only real solution is to minimize it during capturing your images by using low ISO and correct exposure.

     
 

6. Lens Corrections

Lens corrections can be applied automatically if the program has a database that includes the lens and camera.  Chromatic aberration can also be corrected automatically.  In LR, the upright corrections will correct tilting of the image (Level) and upright perspective distortion (vertical). Auto will often give a good correction.  Full correction usually produces too much distortion.   Minor degrees of tilting need correction.  Perspective distortion and major degrees of tilting may be acceptable as special effects.

7. Post Crop Vignetting

Vignetting is currently a very popular method to attempt to keep the viewer’s eye within the picture.  In LR, you can adjust the degree of darkening, how far it reaches towards the centre of the image, and the feathering.

The Amount Slider if moved to the left produces darkening and if moved to the right brightening of the vignette.

The Roundness slider will make the vignette better fit your image (square vs rectangular).  Highlights will preserve the highlights in the vignette area. 

Of the Styles, “Highlight Priority” will preserve some highlights and usually gives the best results.
Like many other adjustments, vignetting should not draw attention to itself.  It must be subtle.  The Radial Filter will also produce vignetting with more control than this approach.

8. Camera Calibration

True calibration of software to a particular camera is a major task.  In Lightroom, this panel is used to allow matching of the program to previous versions of itself, so that it will not change images previously adjusted.  There are packaged “Profiles” for many cameras that attempt to mimic styles assigned by their manufacturers.  These can be assigned at any time.  They are worth exploring to see if you prefer their effects over Adobe Standard.

B. Local Adjustments

These are applied on top of the Global Adjustments. 

They may be done to correct problems with the image, e.g. Red Eye Correction, spot removal tool, different white balance in different parts of the image, correct local areas that are too bright or dark.  In addition, they may be used for esthetic purposes, e.g. adjust the colours of a sunrise.  Finally, they can be used to direct the viewer’s eye to the main subject of the image and away from other areas.  The eye is attracted to areas of higher contrast, brightness, saturation and sharpness and away from the opposite characteristics.

 
 

In Lightroom, the local adjustment tools are in the box just under the histogram along with the Cropping Tool. In order from left to right, they are Cropping, Spot Removal, Red Eye Removal, Graduated Filter, Radial Filter and Adjustment Brush.

Each tool has multiple adjustments in the right panel and a tool bar adding information under the main central preview.  If this is not visible, hit the T key. 


     
 

You can have multiple instances of the same tool running at the same time and multiple tools running at the same time.  Each tool deposits a white pin.  You click on the pin to make that instance of a tool active.  This puts a black point within the pin.  Hitting the delete key removes the active instance of the tool.

The major advantage of using the Lightroom tools for local edits rather than resorting to a pixel-based program is the ability to adjust or remove the effects of any tool at any time.

1. Spot Removal Tool

This is useful for removing minor distracting elements, including dust spots and facial blemishes.  Accurate removal of major elements is done much better in pixel editing programs.

You select the target and adjust the circle to just cover it.  Lightroom selects the source (sampled area) automatically although you can move the circle to change this. You adjust the size, feather and opacity of the tool to cover the changed area and help the changes merge well with the rest of the image.

In clone mode, Lightroom copies the content from the source area and does not blend it with surrounding pixels although it does use a soft edged selection.  It is the most appropriate tool for making changes close to an edge.

In Heal mode, it blends the results with information just outside the area it is repairing.  It hides skin blemishes and dust spots very well.  It is often the tool of choice if you are away from any edge.

In Lightroom 5, you can click and drag to define a noncircular target. 

2. Graduated Filter, Radial Filter and Adjustment Brush

These tools are used to make corrections and to direct the viewer’s eye.  Each instance of the use of each tool allows up to 12 possible adjustments. 

With the sliders in the neutral position, the values under the tool are those made as part of the Overall Adjustments. 

When the slider is moved, the values change relative to those values. E.g. the sharpness slider will increase or decrease the Amount of sharpness compared to the rest of the image.  This correlates with Bruce Fraser’s Creative Sharpening.  However, the same rule applies to all the adjustments.

In each instance, you start by delineating an area and then create correct adjustments of one or more of the 12 sliders for the various areas.  The same rules apply as with general adjustments in that you aim for a subtle but significant effect. Below is a sunset with global adjustments only.

 
     
 

3. Graduated Filter

The graduated filter can mimic a graduated neutral density lens filter but can have many more effects.  It can be used to produce a gradient of darkness in the sky, but also variations in colour, temperature, clarity, etc.  It can give a darker base or edge to an image.

With the graduated filter, you can click on an image to select a starting point for the gradient (maximal effect) and drag to an ending point (effect off).  You can then move the pin marker to move the filter.  As you start to drag, the SHIFT key will limit the lines to horizontal or vertical.  You can rotate the gradient by dragging on the middle line when a curved arrow is visible.  Dragging either outer line adjusts the area over which the gradient occurs. You can adjust an area afterwards using the Brush tool, e.g. if something interrupts the horizon like a building or mountain.

Below, the graduated filter is used to darken the sky.

 
     
 

4. Radial Filter

With the radial filter, you can click and drag to define an area which gives you an ellipse.  You then drag on the square markers to change the shape and rotate the ellipse by dragging outside it.  You can move the pin marker to move the ellipse. 

Holding down ALT and clicking in the centre will add a new adjustment auto-centred on the old one.  Once you have a rough estimate of the area desired, you adjust the feathering and the effects that will be applied.  By default the changes are applied outside the ellipse.  The invert key reverses this so that the effects are inside the ellipse.
The shape can be altered quite radically as you can drag the square markers far outside the image.

This tool can be used to add emphasis to various areas, to “complexify” the lighting, and alter colours locally.  It can also be used to create a vignette with the centre of interest as the centre of the vignette (as opposed to centre of the image as the centre).

Below, the radial filter has been stretched to extend far outside the image to make it appear almost rectangular in the image.

 
     
  Below is the finished product, with a gradient filter darkening the sky and a radial filter applied to darken the river and add saturation.   
     
 
 

5. Adjustment Brush

The adjustment brush gives the most control of the placement of effects as it has all the adjustments of any brush. 

The Density is the maximum effect that can be achieved with any one pass of the brush and allows a gradual buildup of the effect when Density is low and multiple passes are made.  The effect is best blended with the surrounding area with high feathering, low density and multiple passes.

A and B allow two brush sizes.  To erase, you can click the eraser or hold down the ALT key.  Automask will confine the change to the area which the crosshair is in (based on colour).

As the effect can be adjusted at any time, you can preview the area involved by using an extreme effect (e.g. very low exposure) or checking the mask overlay in the tool bar.

When you are about to affect another area, it is often wise to press New so that you can choose the most appropriate values of the sliders for that area.