Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I'm starting to learn more about post processing my images, and I'm just wondering what are the first few steps I should take into post processing that would have the biggest effect on the photos I shoot? What are a few simple tips I can try in order to improve my photos? Is there any rule of thumb I should follow?

I mainly like to shoot travel and landscape photography if that makes a difference. Any advice would be appreciated.

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First step: make a backup. Second step: check your backup. Third step: start editing ;) –  Leonidas Feb 1 '11 at 3:52
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Leonidas has a excellent point, but you should also understand that a lot of post-processing programs (Picasa, iPhoto, Lightroom) are "non-destructive"; you can undo the edits as necessary and get back to the original image. Still, you do need backups. See this question for more info: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/292/… –  Craig Walker Feb 1 '11 at 4:21
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@craig - Picasa is destructive. Lightroom is not. I have never used iPhoto. –  Itai Feb 1 '11 at 5:00
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@Itai: Google claims Picasa for Mac is non-destructive: googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/01/…. I couldn't get an official Google source for the destructivity of the Windows version, but a lot of other sites claimed it was non-destructive. –  Craig Walker Feb 1 '11 at 5:24
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Always shoot RAW. Do what it takes to make it look 'better'. Keep a copy of the main RAW file. Do not overdo it. If possible, make several versions, compare and sort out the best. –  fahad.hasan Feb 1 '11 at 5:31

7 Answers 7

up vote 16 down vote accepted
  1. Don't overdo it. A light touch is often best.
  2. Watch for destructive operations and decide if they're really what you want to do. Increasing contrast (or hitting "auto" in the levels dialog) can add a lot of punch, but comes at the expense of shadow and highlight details.
  3. Sharpen last, and with your final output medium in mind. Watch for halo artifacts! If you resize or rotate by non-90° angles, sharpening will be required, but again, don't do more than needed, and if possible save the sharpening until you know what the final output will be.
  4. It's best if you can work in a color-calibrated setup, and it's worth putting some time into getting there.
  5. As you work, keep in mind what you could have done differently while shooting to make your post-processing work easier or unnecessary.
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Could you expand on "color calibrated" setups? –  Imagen Apr 19 '11 at 18:44
    
@Imagen: see photo.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/color-calibration and photo.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/color-management, and if that's not helpful, please ask a new question. –  mattdm Apr 19 '11 at 20:32
    
#5 is a great one, learning how to use the various exposure metering modes and make them work the way i want is a huge time saver –  drfrogsplat Mar 31 at 3:57

Hard to know where to start with this question. Depends on your choice of post-processing software to some extent, and that depends on your choice of operating system.

Speaking for myself using Lightroom, with landscapes, here are a couple of things I quite often find myself doing:

  • Drag a half-stop down graduated filter down across the sky
  • Use the HSL (Hue/Saturation/Luminance) blue Luminance slider down slightly to mimic the effect of a polarising filter
  • Sharpen the image using the default Scene or Landscape (can't remember what it's called right now) preset as a starting point. In Lightroom this is sharpening in the Develop mode, not output sharpening.
  • Crop appropriately
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+1 for cropping, especially for sports photography when you don't have a lot of time to spend composing the shot, cropping afterwards can take an OK shot, and make it look much better. –  seanmc Feb 1 '11 at 12:53
  1. First thing to realise is that post-processing cannot work miracles. For the most part, if you didn't get a photo quite right in-camera, you can't easily fix it in post processing. This is especially true for out of focus pictures, motion blur, unflattering lighting, and the subject pulling the wrong face.

    You said you were a beginner - this is something an absolute beginner should know.

    For post-processing to be worth it, you need to start from an image that is done very well.

    For landscapes in particular, you need a SHARP image to start with. Presumably you know how to stop down a lens to its sharpest point (f/5.6 or something).

  2. Always keep the original. NEVER save over it. Always think of post-processing as adding new layers to a photo, but you have to be able to start over.

    To that end, once you are advanced enough you should learn to use "layers" in your application in such a way that it helps you be non-destructive to the layer below it - if you decide you've done something wrong to a layer you can always hide it and create a duplicate.

  3. Some operations are a lot more destructive than others and should not be done until the very end. Resizing/resampling and sharpening are included here. The order you do them can make a difference; most prefer sharpening last (which would make resizing second last). Remember to keep a copy prior to resizing.

  4. Be exploratory and creative. Don't limit yourself just to following tutorials but play with all the filters and controls yourself to see what effect they have. Endless experimentation will help you learn by doing.

  5. Learn how to read a histogram, especially what it looks like when you have clipped highlights or shadows. Have the histogram permanently visible while editing. When you perform any filter or transformation, watch that you have not destroyed any dynamic range by clipping inadvertently.

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I'll second the histogram. It can tell you a lot about your image. –  infamouse Feb 1 '11 at 17:19

Almost every photo I process usually involves correcting the three repeating issues:

  1. Contrast (corrected using Levels/Curves or exposure control)
  2. Sharpness (corrected using Unsharp Mask or Smart Sharpen)
  3. Horizon (corrected using a number of different straightening methods)

I've made references to tools found in PhotoShop, but most image editing tools have similar functions.

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Note that rotation of images, other than by multiple of 90-degrees, is very destructive to image quality. If your camera does not have a built-in level, consider a hot-shoe mounted one. For an example and explanation, see: cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/image-interpolation.htm –  Itai Feb 1 '11 at 5:03
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@Itai - that's interesting to know, and great examples they show in that article. Thanks for sharing. –  Ciaocibai Feb 1 '11 at 5:33
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@Itai: "Very destructive"!? Sure, if your original pictures are e.g. line drawings, the results look bad after any rotation, but have you actually tried it with real-world digital photos (which are always a bit smooth at 100% zoom before sharpening)? –  Jukka Suomela Feb 1 '11 at 9:16
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@Jukka Suomela — yes. It's like running a light blur filter over your entire image. –  mattdm Feb 1 '11 at 12:16
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@Itai - this is very much dependent on the intended output medium. For me, rotation is done at the very beginning of the PP chain, and sharpening is at the last step, based on the output format. For low resolution format, and sequence of rotating then scaling down then sharpening, you will probably see no noticeable artifacts due to the rotation itself. That said, it is always better to get it right in the camera! –  ysap Aug 16 '11 at 19:43

As others indicated, make sure you've got a good backup first, then start experimenting.

Many post processing programs will have some sort of "auto-fix" or "smart-fix" mode. As you get better at shooting and post-processing, it's likely that this mode won't really do what you want to do, but when you're starting out, this is a really good way to see your photo interpreted a little differently, and in many cases it'll give you some ideas for things to adjust.

Sometimes, that little jolt is enough to start developing your mind's eye so you can start to envision what your photo might turn into.

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Before you start processing your photos you should also consider to convert (import) your RAW files to DNG to make them readable for the future because you don't know how long will be your proprietary RAW format supported.

If you are using Lightroom the first thing you should do is making your photos to look morel like JPEGs. So you must use some profiles. To do this, go to the Develop module and under the Camera Calibration panel you will find a Profile menu. Try the profiles and choose the one that makes your photo best looking.

The advance of using profiles or presets is making your developing easier.

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Learn your color profile of your camera (or choose it) and find the tool which supports it.

i am using ProPhoto RGB generally for printing and lightroom supports it nicely.

But if you going to show your work on web, for better browser support, you may want to choose sRGB

For better explanation and tips : http://mansurovs.com/is-your-browser-color-managed

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