September 16, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

In the interest of making this photographer's blog fit for the blog of a photographer, I'm going to spend one post on my entire post-process, and that's as long as a discussion about post should take (minus the three years I spent learning how to learn how to curate my own work).

First, I have camera settings I like, and I leave the camera on those settings. I prefer to frame a shot and press a button and know exactly what my equipment is going to do, rather than messing with metering modes and auto-focus styles. I shoot a Nikon D90, the reliable pickup truck of the Nikon line (you could run over this camera with a wet semi truck and it would still take good pictures). For the sake of disseminating knowledge, I'll briefly say I shoot in RAW (.NEF on Nikon), Auto WB (unless I'm shooting flash, which almost never happens), AF-S (more on this later) with Single Point, Normal Zone, and Focus Point Selection on, center weighted metering, I turn the fucking sound off, grid on, and file number sequence on. If you understood all of those phrases and why I chose them, congrats on being me and you can stop reading. If not, I'll explain the ones that matter. Remember, there are always exceptions to these rules – even if you never use a setting in your normal work, part of your job as a professional photographer is maintaining the knowledge of your gear and a reasonable amount of other gear. I can walk into a studio and shoot on Canon or Fuji equipment just as well, I just really like the old Nikon's ergonomics.

If I'm shooting something unbelievably fast I might switch my quality over to JPG-Fine (to facilitate Continuous-Fast mode on the plodding D90). There isn't anything wrong with JPGs, with compression at the level computer engineers have achieved in the last decade, a high-quality JPG is all you need to make huge prints, submit to publications, and archive online. Only obsessive catalogers like me feel the need to maintain a library of RAW files so that we can go back to an absolute unedited version of any image we've ever shot and re-edit it. They also have a little more leeway in color correction but I rarely take advantage of that. I always let the camera handle white balance because it does a better job at it than I do. I keep the auto-focus on Servo rather than Continuous for a few reasons. My shooting style usually requires me to choose the focus node nearest my desired focal point, use the half-depressed shutter button to apply focus, then re-frame my shot before taking the picture. When shooting landscapes at f:16 this is moot, but if I'm doing anything closer than 25 feet or using a fast f:1.4 lens, I like to be extremely picky about where my focus lands. To make things easier on myself, I apply that same rigorous focusing to all images, regardless of settings or potential depth of field. The less I can worry about while pressing the shutter, the better. I use center weighted metering for the same reason, although I rarely allow the camera to choose my exposure settings, generally preferring darker images than the camera would like me to take. I usually bracket my shots, starting at the cameras recommended settings for exposure and checking the shot on the LCD, then moving either shutter, aperture, or ISO (in that order) until I achieve the exposure I want. Sometimes I'm right, sometimes the camera is.

So, all of those settings stay the same – when I'm shooting, I worry about getting the perfect exposure via shutter speed/aperture/ISO, then framing my shot. That's it, that's all I worry about. Besides keeping depth of field in mind, I don't have anything else in my brain except the image.

After shooting, I manually copy all files from the memory card onto a hard drive. Always make sure you have completely and correctly transferred all files before formatting the card. It seems like an obvious step, but I've lost more images to mistakes at this stage than any other equipment failure. I use a simple date system for my folders, rather than trying to organize images by content at this point. For example, September 26th, 2015 would translate to “09262015”, making finding images by date shot simple, and image backup easy to confirm. Now that I know I have the files, I can format the memory card in the camera and its ready to go for next time.

Now, I import each folder into Lightroom. I've variably used Bridge, Aperture, and now Lightroom – honestly, if you keep your own file organization steady, the organizational software you use doesn't matter much. Invariably, trends, styles, and systems change with enough regularity than if you're planning on keeping files organized more than even a few years, sorting your own folders at the most basic level is best. I have folders I created on Windows XP, transferred to Mac OSX (Tiger through Yosemite) and back onto Windows 8. I plan on moving those same folders to Windows 10 when it rolls out for my equipment, and I don't foresee any problems with maintaining my organization through that move. Lightroom is just a quick way to index and sort through images. I don't use it for any editing (besides the occasional 90 degree flip) or RAW modification (see edit at end of post). I do enough work in-camera that I don't generally find any usefulness in pre-Photoshop RAW editing. I use the star ratings to sort out images that fit my standards for editing, and leave the rest alone in case I change my mind later (rare, but it does happen). I have high standards for the crafting of images, and the base file I'm working from has to have the following:

1. Perfect focus in the desired focal range. If the focus is off in a portrait, it ruins the portrait. If the focus is off in a landscape, it can (depending on the subject matter) ruin a landscape. Here's an example of a perfectly good photo I rejected (right) because I had another version with a superior focal range and more appropriate focal point (left). I also tend to work off a tripod unless I'm using my f1.4 or the zoom with VR to minimize any blurring.

2. Content. This is the first step where I begin to consider content. I do the photographer thing occasionally, where I'll see something cool or interesting happening that seems like it needs to have it's picture taken, and I'll take that picture. When I'm choosing photos to edit, I may look at that in focus, perfectly exposed, tastefully framed shot and say to myself, “I'll never put that on my website”. Thus, I won't even bother editing it. If you don't have an aesthetic you cleave to with fanatical devotion, DO NOT DO THIS. When building a portfolio or feeling out your next project, edit everything you have worth editing and curate later. Only once you know your photographic bailiwick better than you know most of your friends can you confidently curate before editing begins.

3. A perfect alignment. This one is a little more iffy sometimes. The D90 shoots just a fraction larger than the viewfinder shows, and over the years I've learned almost exactly where that limit is. I frame very specifically within the viewfinder, and I take great care to achieve well-framed shots straight from the camera. Other people frame casually and crop later, in post – Braeburn or Gala apples, doesn't matter. It gives me a little kick of pride to be really good at framing and composition in camera, so that's how I prefer to do it.

4. An exposure that will allow me to achieve a striking, attractive print without excessive editing. I don't always take perfect exposures – the huge range of light extant in mountain landscape photography necessitates compromise in exposures. I can either have detail in the trees, or detail in the clouds, but not both.  I rarely use HDR for several reasons, mostly because I haven't figured out a setting subtle enough for my tastes. HDR can look beautiful – it can also ruin a beautiful photo by being tacky and unnecessary. If I don't think I can “curve” an image to match what I saw when I took it, I won't waste my time on it.

Definition in the clouds, but lost everything in the trees.

My Photoshop habits are simple and consistent. While this is not the appropriate post to discuss purity in photography and all that entails, I will say that I try to create images that visually demonstrate a visceral feeling, and I prefer to present images that can be verified as “unedited” in the sense that I haven't used software to change content. Thus, while I may use the spot heal tool to remove something distracting like a particularly obnoxious spot on the lens or a blurry bug flying through an otherwise empty sky, I won't remove distasteful content (eg: power lines in an otherwise pristine forest, or patchy fur on an otherwise healthy animal). I use the Curves tool to add some contrast, brighten the upper mids slightly, cut the darkest shades to black, and maintain detail in the lightest portion of the image. I like an intense, engaging vibrancy. Most of the simple color correction I do with the RGB curves could also be applied automatically in Lightroom, and if I was using a studio setup and had a consistent white balance I would probably have a preset to save time. Shooting outside under dramatically shifting lighting precludes that option, so I modify the colors on each image individually. The D90 tends to shoot slightly too red for my taste, and I find myself consistently cooling my images. The locations I shoot most have an underlying deep red soil, so I'm careful not to wash that out when pushing the green trees, all while trying to maintain a brilliance in the blue sky. Of course, no exposure is truly perfect (since I don't want to resort to HDR), but I've achieved consistently attractive results with this method.

Subtle, but very effective.

Since I tend to edit the same day I transfer, all edits go in a new sub-folder titled “Edit”, and are labeled with the date plus a 4-digit identifying numeral, such as “092620150001”. The edit date is usually different from the “shot on” date, which is embedded in the meta data so I don't bother trying to remember it in any way.

The most important step in your editing process is final curation. I could (and probably will) write an entire article on curation before publishing work in any medium. If you have a beautifully shot, wonderfully composed, tastefully edited image that doesn't fit in your aesthetic – don't publish it (I even consider this on casual platforms such as Facebook). Save it until you have a whole projects worth of matching images, or maybe never publish it at all. If I published one image of a car in the midst of my landscapes, rather than being evidence of my versatility in subject matter, it looks like a fragment of another project that I shoe-horned in to prove I can also shoot cars. The delineations of my projects are vivid and obvious (at least to me) and blurring the distinctions between them and other work would ruin the integrity of the presentation. Commercial or editorial photographers with varied subjects whose consistency lies in lighting and style, feel free to disregard this advice. I approach curation from the viewpoint of the project-oriented artist, and can only speak to that set of ideals.

One of these images is not like the others...

To conclude, here's some things I don't do that I should: check the in-camera histograms, utilize keywords, automatic backups, stop accidentally causing Lightroom to make multiple redundant copies of images I'm editing, etc.


Edit: While writing this I discovered that I can get the same or better color and exposure results directly in Lightroom, so I'm going to spend some time learning to use that system and may negate the portions of this article regarding the limits of Lightroom re: organization vs. modification. Everything I wrote about curation and organization is still valid!




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