This photograph of Mono Lake, processed entirely in Lightroom, shows the power of modern applications that work directly with Raw images.
There are probably as many workflows as there are photographers. There’s nothing wrong with that: everyone’s different, and a good workflow for one person can seem awkward to another. But sometimes I look at people’s workflows and think the pieces have been gathered from random tips found on the internet, assembled in no particular order, and held together with duct tape and chewing gum.
Just because you’ve always done it one way doesn’t mean that’s the best way. It’s worth periodically examining your practices to see if they still serve you. I do this all the time: I question each step, and ask if there’s a better way to do it. I look at new tools and techniques and see if they could add efficiency, power, or flexibility. I’m constantly refining and improving my workflow, and in the long run this saves me hours of valuable time.
What is a workflow?
Simply put, it’s all the steps you take to process images, including downloading, editing, keywording, developing, and output (printing or uploading images to the web). While you don’t always have to perform each task in the same order every time, it’s helpful to develop a routine so you don’t forget important steps, and don’t need to invent new procedures for each photograph. In this post I’m going to concentrate on the developing part—the operations you perform to optimize an image and make it look its best.
Lunar rainbow from the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail
It’s lunar rainbow time again in Yosemite: the moon will become full again this Thursday, and with clear skies we’d be able to see, and photograph, lunar rainbows on Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday evenings. But the unusually wet spring continues, and the forecast calls for rain and higher elevation snow Wednesday and Thursday, and possibly Friday as well. If the skies clear unexpectedly, you can find precise information about where and when to photographer lunar rainbows on Don Olson’s web site, and some tips for photographing lunar rainbows in one of my previous blog posts. I also wrote about some of my experiences photographing lunar rainbows on my 25 Years in Yosemite blog.
Outdoorphotographer.com, the web site for Outdoor Photographer magazine, has started a new blog, with posts by nine different photographers, including me. Essentially they are hosting our existing blogs; I’ll be posting the same things in both places. So there’s no need to do anything different, as you’ll find the same content here as there—in fact more here, since some things I post on this blog won’t be appropriate for Outdoor Photographer. But if you want to check it out, you’ll find many interesting entries by people like Ian Plant, Jerry Monkman, and Rob Sheppard.
“Springtime in Potter County, PA” by Brad Bireley
Note: I’ve decided to do these critiques every other week from now on, instead of every week. I enjoy doing them, and they’ve been popular and well-received, but I’d like to devote more time to discussing other things that I think will interest you, the readers. Stay tuned!
This week’s photograph was made by Brad Bireley in Potter County, Pennsylvania. By having his image chosen for this critique Brad will receive a free 16×20 matted print from Aspen Creek Photo. If you’d like your images considered for future critiques you can upload them to the Flickr group I created for this purpose.
The soft light of an overcast day was perfect for this photograph. The even illumination helped simplify this complex scene, while sunlight would have created confusing splotches of light and dark. Soft light also helped bring out the beautiful, subtle colors. The varying shades of green, gold, red, and white create a pleasing and varied palette, with a nice warm-cool, red-green color contrast.
Overall the composition is well seen. Brad focused on the area with the most interesting color and texture. He put design before subject and didn’t feel compelled to include the tops or bottoms of the trees out of some misguided attempt to show the whole subject.
The lines of the tree trunks provide structure and prevent the image from becoming a random mish-mash of leaves. The thousands of tiny spots created by the leaves and blossoms add texture and another subtle, repeating pattern, almost like a pointillist painting.
Two small things, however, bother me about the composition. First, the branches in the lower-left corner are slightly out of focus, and their shapes don’t mesh with everything else. Luckily it’s easy to crop a little off the bottom of the photo to eliminate those branches.
The other problem is the bright patch of sky in the upper-right corner. Bright areas draw the eye, and this one pulls viewer’s attention away from all those interesting colors and textures and right out of the frame. Unfortunately, this patch of sky isn’t easily cropped, as trimming the top would also cut off some interesting forks in the upper branches of the left-hand tree.
In search of a solution, I tried darkening the upper-right corner, and several different crops. At the end of this post you’ll find four alternate versions of this image. In version A I darkened the upper-right corner as much I could without making the image look fake and unnatural, but didn’t crop anything. In version B I trimmed a little from the bottom and just enough off the top to eliminate the brightest part of the sky. With C I lopped off all of the sky, and in D also cropped the left and right edges to fill the frame with texture.
I like tight compositions, so I’m partial to Version D, but honestly it’s a tough choice. Let me know what you think!
Technically this is well-executed: the exposure is perfect, and everything is in focus except the small vertical green branches in the lower-left corner I mentioned earlier. The overall contrast looks just right, with small areas of pure black and pure white, just enough to give the image some punch, but not enough to make it look harsh.
Brad said that he didn’t do much to the scan, perhaps adding a bit of saturation. I think a color balance adjustment would also help, as the image has slight blue/purple tint, visible in the branches on the right side of the frame. (I adjusted the white balance slightly in the versions below.)
Despite my nitpicking this is a beautiful photograph, with great colors and textures. Thanks Brad for sharing your image! You can see more his work on Flickr.
As part of being chosen for this week’s critique Brad will receive a free 16×20 matted print courtesy of the folks at Aspen Creek Photo. If you’d like your images considered for future critiques, just upload them to the Flickr group I created for this purpose. If you’re not a Flickr member yet, joining is free and easy. You’ll have to read and accept the rules for the group before adding images, and please, no more than five photos per person per week. I’ll be posting the next critique in two weeks. Thanks for participating!
Version A, with the upper-right corner darkened
Version B, with top and bottom edges trimmed
Version C, with the sky cropped out completely
Version D, a tighter crop
“Pacific Waves” by Jenna Beth Fender
This week’s photograph was made by Jenna Beth Fender at Manhattan Beach (or maybe Hermosa Beach) in southern California. By having her image chosen for this critique Jenna will receive a free 16×20 matted print from Aspen Creek Photo. To learn how you can submit photos for this series, and possibly win a free print, see the end of this post.
We’ve looked at several images where slow shutter speeds were used to blur the motion of water, but here a fast shutter speed of 1/400 sec. effectively froze the water’s motion, preserving the curling shape of the waves and texture of the water.
Those waves, along with the pier, provide the structure and design of this image, creating three long, slightly diagonal lines running across the frame. The overall composition is clean, simple, and strong, with some interesting details added by the spray, figures, and structural posts underneath the pier.
It was the waves, with their strong lines and almost palpable texture, that originally attracted me to this image. Jenna timed this well, catching both waves as they were curling over. Of course she may have simply held down the shutter button and picked the best one later, but that’s a perfectly valid technique—it’s what I would have done!
While the composition is strong overall, one thing that bothers me slightly is the bright spot in the lower-left corner. Since it’s on the edge it pulls my eye out of the frame. I’d rather see more room along the whole bottom edge of the photo, as that would give more breathing room to the foreground wave, which is such an important part of the composition. As it is, just darkening that lower-left corner would help.
Technically, the exposure looks good overall, although some areas of white water lack detail. The fast shutter speed worked well to freeze motion, but the trade-off was that the short exposure required a medium aperture, f/8, which didn’t provide enough depth of field to keep everything in focus (in a larger view you can see that the foreground wave is slightly soft). This image was captured at 100 ISO; by pushing the ISO up to 400 ISO Jenna could have used the same shutter speed, 1/400 sec., with an f-stop of f/16, getting both the motion-freezing short exposure time along with a small aperture to keep everything in focus. The tradeoff would have been more noise from the higher ISO, but I think the increased sharpness would have been worth the small increase in noise. Also, it would have helped to focus closer to the foreground rather than on the background. I don’t have space here to describe proper focusing technique in detail, but I do so in two of my books, The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite and Digital Landscape Photography.
There are some hints of magenta/purple along the left edge of the image that seem unnatural and out of place. Jenna told me that she didn’t use any filters or do anything else to the photograph except use the Topaz Adjust filter with the “Photo Pop” option. I haven’t used that software, but I suspect that “Photo Pop” was the culprit in creating those strange colors. In general I’m not a big fan of automated options like this, whether from software plugins, commercially available Lightroom presets, or whatever. Every image is different, and it’s hard to create a standard set of development adjustments that will work on more than a few photographs. While pre-made settings can serve as a starting point, each image must be evaluated and adjusted based on its own unique characteristics.
With that in mind, I took this image into Lightroom and removed some magenta and purple saturation to get rid of the unusual colors. Then I added a lightening S-curve to brighten the photograph and increase the contrast, and also darkened that lower-left corner. While the improvements weren’t dramatic, every bit helps. Here’s the result:
With the magenta cast removed, the lower-left corner darkened, and a bit more contrast added
The great thing about digital technology is that it’s given photographers tremendous control over the appearance of their images. The bad thing about digital technology is that it’s given photographers tremendous control over the appearance of their images. The tools can be used for good or evil—to enhance the expression and meaning of an image, or to ruin an otherwise perfectly good photograph. For better or worse, learning the software tools—and, more importantly, learning the judgement to use them wisely—has become an essential part of photography today.
Having said all that, the slight magenta/purple cast in this image is a minor problem, easily fixed, and overall I like this photograph very much—it has a clean, strong, graphic composition, great texture, and captures the feeling of a southern California beach quite well.
Thanks Jenna for sharing your image! You can see more of her work on Flickr.
As part of being chosen for this week’s critique Jenna will receive a free 16×20 matted print courtesy of the folks at Aspen Creek Photo. If you’d like your images considered for future critiques, just upload them to the Flickr group I created for this purpose. If you’re not a Flickr member yet, joining is free and easy. You’ll have to read and accept the rules for the group before adding images, and please, no more than five photos per person per week. I’ll be posting the next critique on May 18th or 19th. Thanks for participating!