Good Post Processing... Where To Start? In The Camera
I've always had a thing for analogies. When you think about it, if you are going to do something well, the steps are probably analogous to lots of other things done well. The effort, energy, commitment and attention to detail are going to be consistent in whatever you do... IF you intend to do it well. Wether it's golf, basketball, painting, designing even running a business, the principals of getting to the top of your game remain the same.
One of my favorite analogies and one I feel is often overlooked in photography is, "swinging at a bad pitch." This analogy can be applied in lots of ways for photographers. You can chase clients that aren't worth chasing, shoot subjects that aren't worth shooting, work in conditions you know will never be right, and lastly, spend time trying to post process a bad shot into a good shot.
I recall in the early days of shooting motorsports, I had this idea in the back of my mind that over the two or three days of a race weekend, I needed to make my way around a track and make sure I'd shot every corner. Seemed reasonable enough. I'd plan my sessions around the time the cars would be on track and the location of the sun and try to make the best situation out of each scenario.
Then one year, I had to return to Puerto Rico to shoot a track I had shot the previous year. Since I'd done several high profile events on the island, I was flattered to discover I had generated a small following of admirers among local photographers. On this particular trip I had the opportunity to sit with a few of them and take time to field some questions. The discussion turned to how I would approach this particular track and the weekend schedule.
After sharing a rough outline of my goal for the weekend and discussing where I'd be concentrating my efforts, two of the photographers pointed out that I had failed to mention a specific section of the track... and were anxious to know how I interpret those corners. I knew exactly where they were talking about because having seen the results of my previous attempts, I had no intention of shooting the area.
They were completely taken back that I would ignore a full section of track and how I had made up my mind months earlier that I would not shoot it. The reason? Because it was "swinging at a bad pitch." Having reviewed my previous experience at the track, the very best shot of that section was still no good. The backgrounds were nasty, the cars were not doing anything particularly interesting and the light was NEVER any good.
So why not take that time to go and make more of a location that gives up good shots or better yet, seek out something new?
To turn the tables, I asked them to tell me how they shot the front straight away. They told me of the two predictable locations and how they'd approach them with one or two different lens and what they wanted to come away with. Needless-to-say, and as you might guess, they'd come away with exactly what they had come away with the last time they shot the track. Their only hope for something different was the outside chance a car would do something unusual or perhaps some multi-car action would unfurl. Regardless, they had given up their control of the situation and taken their creative input out of the equation.
Recalling my pictures from the previous year, I outlined to them 12 different locations I had planned for the front stretch. Of course, they looked at me like I was nuts... then inquired with a collective "WHY?"
Well, the front stretch ran parallel to the Caribbean. Yeah... right? Their problem was, they see the Caribbean all the time. So much so, they didn't even "see" it. Me, on the other hand, I'm as excited as a kid in a candy store. The whole front stretch has the Caribbean in the background. HELLO! How cool is that?
Anyway, I shot it up, down, loose, early, late... I climbed grandstands, crossed the track during short sessions... I did anything and everything to capture that background and build it into the weekend's story as much as I could.
Considering I was shooting for the promoter and owner of the track, I wanted to do my very best to make the track look good. And, to the point, there were sections of the track that were just junk and certainly not worth my wasting precious time trying to make a silk purse from a sows ear. Experience taught me, it wasn't going to happen. Those shots were not in the strike zone... so-to-speak.
So the mindset is, how do I make my good stuff great? And this applies to everything we do. Don't be so naive to think you can make diamonds out of coal. Sure, always be on the lookout for something fresh and challenging... but learn to recognize the bad pitch.
How often do you see a restaurant go out of business. Then you'll drive by six months later and another restaurant has moved in. A year will pass and the cycle will repeat itself. Out of business... new owner moves in. Out of business... new owner moves in. It always runs through my mind, "what are these people thinking?" Look... it's a competitive world out there. But if three other restaurant operators have failed in this location, I'm guessing this isn't a great spot for a restaurant. Sure... you may be brilliant at running restaurants. But WHY put yourself in failing situation? Don't be so arrogant to think that you can rewrite or undo bad history. It's called odds, folks. There's something wrong...
Post processing of our photos is no different. Just like putting ourselves in the right place to shoot good shots, we also need to use good judgment in our post processing work. Be honest with yourself and be stingy with your time. If a shot is soft... it's soft. Deal with it. All the unsharpened mask or edge sharpening in the world is NOT going to put that shot in focus. MOVE ON. If you've got blown highlights... the information is gone. A blown highlight is WHITE. You aren't going to create information where there isn't any. MOVE ON.
Now I know you're sitting there thinking to yourself, "well.. that's not true... I can do this in Photoshop and that in Photoshop... and I can make this a pretty good shot."
Pretty good? Pretty good? Is that what you're all about? Is that what your reputation is built on? Pretty good? C'mon... you're going to put all that effort into an image ... shooting and post processing and you're going to be happy with pretty good? I'll tell you right now... go find a job. You're swinging at bad pitches.
Post processing is necessary. Often I'll hear a photographer deliver with some sense of heroic martyrdom, the words "right from the camera," as if it's some badge of honor. Repeat after me, all shots need post processing. Even if it's great out of the camera.. it's not done and it won't be truly great until it's been post processed. Straight "out of the camera" is like having film developed at the drugstore. Post processing is like doing it yourself or having it done at a high end custom lab.
My time in Photoshop has virtually been eliminated and replaced completely with Aperture. Because I can handle all of the steps in my workflow with the program, I have no real reason to use anything else. When you really break it down, the basics involved in post processing of a digital image only requires about 5%-10% of the power and tools contained in the latest version of Photoshop. Granted, Photoshop is still the king of pixel manipulation... but that's not really what we're talking about.
For the most part, if you're getting it "right" in the camera, you're looking at a slight levels adjustment, a little tweaking of the colors and saturation, maybe a little massaging of the white balance and a slight bit of edge sharpening.. you should be good to go. That's not to say you might not do more if you were prepping a portfolio shot or something... but for 90% of your work, it's as I've described above.
This is easily managed in a program like Aperture or Lightroom. Both programs provide the necessary tool pallets and utilize sliders with realtime previews. You move those sliders back and forth and see what changes. Not really rocket science. So, if you're coming over from Photoshop or another major editing program, it's only going to be a little practice and time before you shift your "mental muscles" and get to know what the cause and effect is from each of the tools and editing bricks.
I can tell you, for the most part, I'm tweaking the levels a touch, playing with the brightness and exposure sliders... a touch of edge sharpening and a tiny tiny bit of vignetting and I'm done.
The real magic in your post process and the "science" is within you. It's knowing what you like... experimenting with the extremes each tool will generate and finding that blend of what works for you. In no time, it will become intuitive. As I said, it's mental muscles. For me, once I got my understanding of each tool and a baseline reference to how each one effected my image, I never looked back. To be honest, (and this comes after nearly 20 years experience with Photoshop) these days I have a very hard time replicating in Photoshop the look I get from the tools in Aperture.. It's strictly a matter of practice and KNOWING WHAT YOU WANT and how you want an image to look.
Don't over do it. To use another analogy, if you recall ever having a stereo with an equalizer, you'd start of adjusting the sound a bit... then a bit more... then a bit more... then all of a sudden, all the sliders were all over the place and you'd lost all semblance of the sound of the original recording. Make your adjustments with MODERATION.
Don't lose sight of the basics. Get them down pat and get to where you're replicating a look that suits your taste. Remember, we're trying to grow a look and style to our images that ultimately is synonymous with our individual work and style. Like shooting the photo itself, post processing is part of finding our own voice.
Don't swing at bad pitches. Choose your subjects and locations carefully... know what you want and find opportunities that will put your work in the best light. Once you've downloaded your shoot, skip the lost cause images. Delete them.. get em' out of there. The less time you waste on lost cause images, the more time you'll have for the good ones.
Lastly, get it right in the camera. The more you can get it right in the camera, the less time you waste in post processing. Spend your time at the computer making your good images great!
Good Post Processing... Where To Start? In The Camera