Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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This isn't another "how do I get a picture to look like such-and-such-link-inserted-here in LR" question. There's a saturation (no pun intended) of these questions here. Interesting, but not general enough.

What I'm really asking is, how do people make post-process decisions to do things like improve skin tones, or even improve the color and lighting of any image?

I typically wing it, I touch levers in Lightroom (usually exposure and contrast and white balance, and occasionally saturation) until things look about right. I personally aim for realism, not something viciously post-processed (makes me lazy when I'm shooting otherwise). Also, I shoot RAW so the 'picture style' on-camera doesn't apply.

But it doesn't feel as consistent; in contrast (also no pun intended), if you're looking at rules of thumb for framing shots, lighting techniques, and much much else, you can find those guides everywhere, and especially on StackExchange. You can get consistent quicker as you're learning those things. But post-process technique seems more random to me.

Very interested in hearing about what the pros think / do here. It can't be totally subjective and a black art (let me adjust this and see what happens)... or is it... ?

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+1 great question –  Regmi Jul 17 '13 at 3:18

4 Answers 4

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Most decisions are artistic ones, and depend on your own personal style and vision, and to some extent the genre of photography, whether it's landscape or portraits, commercial or non-commercial.

Before you start, you need to have some idea of what you want your image to look like. High key or low key? Sharp and contrasty, or light and ethereal? Every image is different, and so no set rules apply to every image. But I will try to give some general guidelines.

Using Lightroom or Camera Raw, I work through the sliders top to bottom.

White Balance

I would say in most instances this is an artistic decision. Yes, you can use the white balance dropper tool to estimate the "correct" white balance, but that often sucks the warmth out of a nice image. I do often use the white balance tool to check how it affects the image, and to keep myself honest so I don't overdo any warming, but for the most part I increase warmth until I've overdone it, then back it off a bit.

Contrast

I never touch contrast in the Raw Conversion stage. I use Photoshop and prefer to apply curves adjustment layers which I can mask/brush in where needed. If I were going to process only through Lightroom, I would probably skip over the Contrast slider and return to it after making the other exposure-related adjustments.

Exposure, Highlights, Shadows, Blacks, Whites

For most images I will want a full range of tones from black to white. That is, for most images I want the histogram to extend from the left to the right. Assuming I am trying to achieve such an image, my thinking would be something like this:

Is the overall exposure roughly correct?

If the image is too dark, I'll increase exposure. Too light, will reduce it. Obviously not to achieve a nice looking histogram, but a nice looking image. A high-key image may be well to the right for example. I do try to nail the exposure in-camera, but there are times when you can't, or you intentionally expose to the right. Also if anything is clipped at either end I may adjust overall exposure. Usually I don't need to touch the Exposure slider.

Next, how are the endpoints of my histogram?

If either blacks or whites are still clipped after adjusting exposure, or more commonly if they don't extend to the edges of the histogram (meaning I don't have pure blacks or whites), then I will use the Blacks/Whites sliders to extend the histogram until I have the full tonal range. Obviously this is somewhat an artistic decision, but for those images where you want a full tonal range, this is I think the best way to achieve it.

How do the highlights and shadows look?

I sparingly use the Highlights and Shadows sliders to fine tune light and dark areas. This isn't needed at all on most images. I would increase the Shadows slider for example on a backlit image to lighten the subject, and I might decrease the highlights slider if I had a large expanse of white clouds and wanted to bring out the contrast a bit.

Clarity

Increasing clarity can give the impression of better contrast and detail. Lowering clarity can give a nice dreamy look, to water or clouds especially. I think this is purely and artistic choice. I usually do not make clarity adjustments in the RAW converter, and leave this until later, in Photoshop, where I may use sharpening, local curves adjustments, or effects filters like Topaz Detail/Adjust to achieve similar effects locally.

Saturation/Vibrance

I rarely use saturation or vibrance in Camera Raw. If the colour in an image looks flat, I may bump up vibrance, but usually I will do that to selective areas, or to selective colours, later in Photoshop. Another artistic choice - do what feels right. Just take care not to clip any channels. Vibrance is a bit safer choice.

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No, there are really no such rules. This is where having an eye for these things comes in, either through a natural ability or through practice (or both). It is subjective, but not arbitrary, and it's art but not a black art.

Eventually, you'll develop a personal style for what feels right to you. Many photographers develop a very distinctive personal look. You mention "pros", and it's worth taking a second to think about that, because there, it's the taste of your clients that's most important. If you're shooting small-town portraits, a straightforward look with a little extra "pop" is probably where you want to go. A few years ago, my grandparents had their portrait taken, and while the photographer insisted the soft-focus look was an artistic choice, my grandparents were upset — it wasn't to their taste at all. But if you're a wedding photographer, a "dreamy" look probably won't do you wrong. Or, if you're instead aiming for mass-market "art" sales, judging from what I saw in a gallery in Vegas, you probably want to crank up saturation until your eyes bleed and tone-map until the halos strangle the whole scene. If you're looking for gallery representation, it will help to know the current trends in fine art (even if, hopefully, your own work pushes that envelope). But if you're going for a more lasting sort of art, or are working for your own personal satisfaction, you'll have to be your own audience.

I think "rules" are common for composition because the camera can't do it automatically for you. The camera can balance exposure acceptably, but it can't choose where to center your subject. Those composition rules are usually dubious, but they provide a basic framework and comfortable starting points when you don't know on your own what you want.

If you don't know what look you're going for in visual style, though, you can just pick a preset, either "picture styles" in your camera or prepackaged settings in your RAW converter. In the earlier days of black and white film photography, that wasn't the case, and you can find a lot of collected wisdom (and, as always, more dubious prescriptive claims) from that era. As less-flexible color film came into use, that approach took a serious wound, and while digital brings back the flexibility, it also brings in easily-packaged pre-done "looks", so it's unlikely that patient will make a full recovery.

That said, I can think of one guideline while working towards that style: everything in moderation. This is often expressed as something like: After you get a special effect you like, dial it back to half that strength and go with that. But, like those rules of composition, this is a conservative line, and conservative is rarely a celebrated value in art. So, you might try the opposite: Be bold. Sure, in a few years you may look back at your work with some embarrassment, but at least you won't be accused of being timid.

It helps to be deliberate. Here, infinite flexibility is your enemy. It lets you do whatever you want, and that can make it hard to settle into your own personal groove. So, here's one approach to try.... Put down the digital camera and pick up an old film body. Pentax K1000, Nikon F, maybe a Canonet rangefinder. Pick up several rolls of Kodak Portra 400, Fujicolor 160NS, and Ilford Delta 1600. Or, at least put down the RAW converter and choose a few of those picture styles — a lot of R&D goes into them, so they're actually pretty good. If your camera lets you (hopefully it does) tweak them to your personal preferences (increase the contrast, say), but once you've made some tweaks, leave it that way for a while. You may even want to pull out the, um, "art filters", if your camera does that. Effectively, these settings are the rules of thumb you're looking for, made programmatic.

Spending a week shooting intentionally with the rule of thirds won't make you automatically a better photographer, but it's still a good exercise, because if you do that and carefully review the results (evaluating not just the application of the rule but the overall effect), you'll know better what you want to do instead, and why. Likewise, shoot a few roll of film of different types, or pick a set of presets and stick with it for a while. (If this is too painful, you can always go with RAW+JPEG so you have an "out" if you get a once-in-a-lifetime shot that really, really shouldn't have had that green cast applied.) Having done that exercise, you probably won't want to continue working that way forever, but I think it will help you figure out how you do want your images to look.

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Matt has already offered a great answer. One thing I would add is that you should try to be somewhat consistent. It is confusing for a viewer to jump from extreme differences in style, so build your own style and stick to it. Of course you can evolve, but your own style is key to stand out from the rest. –  dpollitt Feb 3 '13 at 16:59
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Consistency is key. Shoot with a consistent technique, and when you discover what works for you save presets. You may still have to tweak, but it's a helluva lot easier to maintain a "brand" if you don't have to rediscover it every session and that brand doesn't depend on whether or not you've had coffee, watched a particular genre of movie during a break, or what have you. –  user2719 Feb 3 '13 at 22:07
    
Thanks, both this and MikeW's answer are extremely useful. This is really well thought out and has a conceptual angle to the problem. I wish I could mark both of these as the answer. –  Emmel Feb 8 '13 at 15:09
    
I'm interested in what you said about how a lot of R&D goes into the picture styles. I always kinda assumed they were more tacked-on than carefully crafted. Not sure why, it was just my first reaction. –  Tortilla Jul 17 '13 at 3:01

What matters more than the way you color grade is that you have consistency in your color grading within a series. Generally, you'll want to make sure a series of photos flows well, though there could be times when you want them to be harshly different as well.

As others have mentioned, there are no rules here other than general aesthetics. You either have an eye for it or you don't. Use your artistic sense and color accordingly. If you are trying to develop your skills, spend time looking at works you like and looking at how they are balanced, then try to replicate it.

After a while, you'll get an eye for identifying what parts of an image are out of whack from where you want them and it becomes a simple matter of adjusting as you see fit to achieve your desired look.

Also, don't be afraid to go your own way with it. The way people color grade is probably more of a tell of who the photographer is than just about any other aspect of photography. People definitely develop a look they like and if they are good at color grading, many of their photos will have a similar general look. It has to vary a bit from one shot to another since the subjects differ and thus the aesthetic may call for slight differences in style, but there are usually things that make it recognizable.

I personally tend to ever so slightly over-contrast, looking for a rich black point, detailed but reasonably strong shadows, highlights just prior to peaking and an overall well saturated (but not over-saturated) and strongly colored image. Sometimes I'll throw a little detail in to overdone highlights, but I generally try to avoid it for the most part.

Some people prefer darker, some brighter, some surreal levels of contrast, some a more faded and weathered look. On the extreme artsy side, some even take to distorting the color to the point of being unrecognizable to the original scene. It's entirely up to you, the artist, to decide what you like.

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Actually there are no guidelines. You need to learn positioning, cropping, compositioning. Art movements have guidelines that are not that strict about toning and approach. For photography you can look over and search for the aviators or pioneers of the style you want to practice. from the beginning to today. As an example from Richard Avedon to Patrick Demarchelier for fashion photography. And as an advice from a pro photographer -myself :D- always have black and white in your photo if you are not approachin for offcontrast post products.

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