Achieving a Look

Recently, people have commented on some of my photographs, wondering how I achieved the punchy, colorful images. Believe it or not, it's not that difficult, and in this article I'll tell you all about how I achieve some of my results. There are basically three parts to the process: Prep, Photo, and Post.

Step 1 -- Prep: Before I get into the prep section of my image creating workflow, I'm going to share something here that among some photographers would start a riot: Most of the time, I shoot JPEGs and I rarely, if ever, use manual exposure. That's right. No raw, no big "M" on the dial. There's a reason for not shooting raw.

As you may know, a raw image file contains the image exactly as the camera saw it, with no processing (realistically, in modern digital cameras, even raw files receive some level of processing in camera, but the result is negligible). Many people say that a raw file is the digital equivalent of a film "negative". And, like a film negative, if you take the time, you can do make it anything you want.

JPEGs are compressed from 14-bits to 8-bits, and other in-camera processing is also applied -- noise reduction, white balance and color correction, and any chosen effects such as "picture styles," in-camera HDR or dynamic range optimization, etc. Some people, myself included, liken a JPEG file to a film "chrome" or "transparency" or "slide". Each transparency film has defined characteristics of color, contrast and dynamic range.

All this leads to the actual "prep" part of making the picture. The exact mechanics of these steps vary by manufacturer, but the basic idea is available on almost every modern DSLR or DSLT.

The first thing I do in prep is to make changes to some the JPEG "picture styles" within the camera. I generally modify the ones called "vivid", "landscape", "B&W" and "portrait" to my needs, leaving the "natural" and any others as they come from the manufacturer. There are generally at least three parameters for each picture style. The important ones for color images are sharpness, contrast, and saturation.

  • Sharpness: In all styles except "portrait", I increase the setting by one step. For portrait, the sharpness is set to 0 (zero).
  • Contrast: In all styles, I increase this setting by one step.
  • Saturation: In all cases except for "vivid", I increase the saturation by one step. For vivid, the saturation is increased by two steps.

These settings have worked identically for me for both Canon and Sony cameras.

Black and white settings are a little different, and often include the ability to simulate certain contrast modifying filters that were popular with black and white film photographers. Since there is no color information recorded with the black and white setting, there is no saturation setting. For black and white, I usually increase the sharpness and contrast by one step. If the filter setting is available, I'll most often use a green filter.

If the camera has a dynamic range optimization feature, I'll generally turn it on, and set it at or near maximum.

So, that's it. The camera's prepped and now it's time to shoot!

Step 2 -- Photo: I generally go into a shoot with an idea of what I want to get out of the shoot. For instance, when photographing the performance group Wine and Alchemy, I know that Roxanne is going to perform certain dances that I want to capture. My intent is to capture the intensity and motion of the performance, and I have a couple of ways to do that -- by allowing the image to be blurred (as in the lead image in this article) or by freezing motion. To do this, I set the camera to (S)hutter priority mode (Tv on a Canon), and let the camera figure out the aperture. I also tend to ask the camera to underexpose a little bit by setting the exposure compensation setting to -0.7.

Another important choice during this step is lens selection. I've written about the appeal of certain older lenses in the past. And, I've extolled the virtues of my Sigma 10-20mm lens as well.

By the way, sometimes, the correct lens is the one that's on the camera!

Again, using the lead image in this article as an example, I was sitting in the front row, about 10 feet away from Roxanne, using the 10-20mm to get full-stage shots, and she went into a spin. I would have preferred to have the 50mm f/1.7 on for this image, but the 10-20 was what I had. The original image, as it came from the camera is shown here.

In this case, the relatively slow shutter speed captured Roxanne in motion by blurring her with respect to her surroundings. You'll notice if you look closely that the basic exposure and color are already there, as is the sparkle in Roxanne's hair.  If the composition were better, this would be a pretty good image right out of the camera.

Step 3 -- Post: Now, we're ready for "Post" or "post processing". For my image organization and basic post processing, I now use Adobe Lightroom, since I can use it both on my Windows7-based-laptop and on my iMac. It provides a wide array of tools for image adjustments, and more functionality is added with each release. In instances where masking and layering are not required, it's really quite capable. Another neat thing about Lightroom is that it never alters your original image.

The first thing I do when working with an image in Lightroom is look at cropping in the Develop module. There's a lot here that doesn't help this picture, so, it needs to go (in fact, I almost deleted the entire file, but something told me there was potential...). I used to worry about getting an image int a standard size, but I no longer find that important. Now, to me, the shape of the image is an important part of the image.

Once done with cropping, the Lightroom Develop module is arranged in a pretty decent workflow. I just move down the list, adjusting as needed in each section, starting with the basic exposure. Here, I've backed the exposure down a little over a stop, and increased the contrast.

Next, I get into messing with the relative levels highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks. Some people will tell you that this is a waste of time with JPEGs and that these controls are only effective with raw files, but as you can see, I go right ahead and make changes. This, in combination with the contrast push, has the effect of compressing the dynamic range while still maintaining the punch I recorded in-camera by having the dynamic range optimization cranked up.

Finally, to add a little "grit" to the appearance, I've cranked up the Clarity, and pulled the Vibrance control way back.

Working my way down through Develop, I get into the Tone Curve.

You'll notice that I'm once again tweaking highlights, lights, darks, and shadows, further refining the dynamic range presented -- it almost looks like I'm doing the same thing twice, and in some ways, I am. But, where the Tone Curve comes into play is that I can control a specific tonal range with each control. This allows very precise manipulation of visible detail in a finished image.

Changes made here can be done several ways -- the four sliders, by selecting points on the graphic and dragging them around, or by enabling a mode to make the change right on the image itself.

Next up is sharpening and noise reduction. I tend to be subtle here. In fact, for this image, I used no noise reduction, and only minimal sharpening.

It's important to be careful using these particular controls. Over sharpening can result in strange artifacts that look like white fringes around sharply defined objects. It's also important to realize that sharpening will not correct for bad focus or blur. It's more like a "detail" control, and it works by increasing contrast only on the edges of detail areas.

Likewise, it's important to be careful with noise reduction. Going overboard here results in details that are smeared, smudged or lost. In this case, since there was already so much that was blurry do to Roxanne's rapid motion, and since there wasn't a lot of actual noise due to my using a fairly low ISO setting, I elected to not worry about cleaning up the minimal image noise.

The final step in creating this photograph was to add some effects.

I really only wanted to make the remaining distracting elements disappear, but I wanted to maintain most of the shine in Roxanne's hair. Lightroom's relatively new Post-Crop Vignetting tool is perfect for this.

There are three styles available, and in this case, maintaining the highlights over top of the vignette was important, so I've selected Highlight Priority.

Pulling the Amount slider to the left (negative numbers) makes a black vignette, while pushing it to the right (positive numbers) makes a white vignette. Black worked better here, and I wanted a lot of it. Midpoint, Roundness and Feather control the shape and softness of the vignette, and I simply played around with these until I got the effect I was looking for.

The Highlights slider controls how much priority is given to bright areas within the vignette, over and above the default. In this case, increasing the priority was not productive, so I left the setting alone.

The Grain controls simulate film grain and are fun to play with, but I decided against it for this image.

Conclusion:  So that's pretty much it.

Most of the "look" was really determined in steps 1 and 2 -- prepping the camera and recording the image. Set up the camera to get the results as close as possible to the final image and shoot with goals for certain kinds of images in mind.

Step 3 was simply a refinement process, and this really illustrates the importance of getting it "right" in camera whenever possible. I always want my post processing to enhance an image in some way -- to help tell the story, not "fix" it. In this case, I removed or disguised a distracting background, concentrating on showing only certain parts of the overall image.

I should also mention that there are plenty of other tools out there that work similarly to Lightroom to create images like this. In the past, I've mentioned programs like Camera Bag and Snapseed. They're generally less expensive, and also have fun and unique tool sets.

I highly recommend you start to experiment and find your unique style. Above all, enjoy yourself!

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