Understanding what you can accomplish with post-processing can make all the difference in your images
Looking at the featured image of this post (above), the image on the right was straight out of camera, and obviously, the image on the left was “tuned”. A side-by-side view is a testament to the amount of information that is contained in a RAW file and is something to keep in mind while processing. In this instance, the processed image is a more accurate rendition of the scene and best represents the way I experienced it.
So why the difference? Why not get the image perfect in camera?
When looking at any RAW file, keep in mind that what you see on your computer monitor is a visual translation representing only a small amount of data available in the file for viewing. RAW files contain an enormous amount of data that, for the most part, we never see unless we move a slider.
The image on the back of your camera is much the same. An engineer worked out for you, how “Faithful,” “Normal”, “Landscape”, or other profiles are supposed to look. The amount of saturation, sharpness, contrast, and other visual elements you see are nothing more than a single, narrow interpretation of your image. Until you get that image into a RAW editor like Capture One, Lightroom, Luminar, and so on, you’ll never see the depths of what that image contains.
For the image above, I chose to set my Nikon profiles to neutral so that I could see as much information in the highlights and shadows as possible. At the end of the day, I’m not interested in a pretty image on my camera display; it’s useless for the most part. Once that image hits my computer it doesn’t look the same as my camera preview anyway. Unless you are using the camera manufacture’s RAW editing software, almost nothing about the in-camera profiles or styles set in the camera will translate to the computer. For the most part, when bringing an image into your RAW editing workflow, you lose all of the color styles and keep exposure and white balance. From there, the look of your image is up to you. If you do choose to use the manufacture’s software so that your in-camera styles match the editing software, keep in mind that there is still an enormous amount of data in the image file that goes well beyond on what can be represented visually.
Before you take the shot
Prior to creating an image, take into consideration what your camera is capable of and understand the visual range of your files.
Also, take into account how you will edit your image to tell the story best as you see it. For example, imagine standing on a bridge in Zion National Park as the scene gets darker the sky becomes more beautifully lit. Before composing your image, you’ve already decided that you want to show the sky and the shadow detail of the river below. To get that end result, it’s crucial to understand how to get your image to a place that will more faithfully tell the story as you see it, while at the same time recognizing that the camera can’t see the same as your eyes—Being aware of this can often be the difference between a snapshot or a masterpiece.
Putting in the work
Ansel Adams once spoke about a concept by which you “visualize” the image fully in the mind’s eye before pressing the shutter; a concept that is just as meaningful today as it was when Ansel was shooting large format film in Yosemite nearly 100 years ago. The same discipline applies for Ansel as it does for us regardless of the screen on backs of our cameras. Without looking at the preview on the camera, we need to visualize the image fully in our minds with consideration to the process of how we edit, print and display our image.
Visualizing the final image before capture is a skill and discipline that takes time and practice. The more you exercise your mind, the easier previsualization will become. To help with this, know your gear and what your files are capable of. Don’t trust a podcast or technical article to tell you how good your gear is. Go do some tests for yourself. Photograph in the shade and try to predict what the image will look like before looking at the back of your camera. Intentially over and underexpose a series of images and try to recover any lost data in your RAW editor of chose. See what your camera is capable of, as not all cameras are created equal; some have less overexposure latitude while others reveal more noise if the shadows are opened too much. The software you use plays a huge factor as well. Take into account the enormous variety of cameras, sensors, and software—You have an unlimited array of possibilities for any image.
The full progression of the image
Shot on the Nikon Z7 and edited with Capture One Pro 12
RAW out of camera
I cropped and Increased over all exposure, saturation and recover some highlights.
I darken the sky with a linear gradent. Also increased saturation and black point slightly.
Using the local adjustment tool. I lightned and increases the clarity of the water and The Watchman.
This is my final adjustment:
I used the brush tool to darken upper corners and the land next to the stream.
For my Zion image of the Watchman above, I knew that as long as I didn’t overexpose the sky and kept even the slightest detail in the shadows, I had all of the info I needed. As I was pressed the shutter button, I knew just how I wanted to edit the image.
Like most skills in photography, the more you shoot and visualize your final image, the easier the process will become. At some point, visualizing will become second nature and you won’t think of it much anymore. You will simply shoot with a scene in mind and later, while editing, you will see the image as it should be and make it so.
Here is an interesting link with Ansel Adams speaking about the idea of visualizing.
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