One of the most common responses I get to my photographs is about the color. “Wow your colors always just ‘pop’ off the page!” as well as “How do you get those colors?” And of course, there is the oft-asked question “What kind of camera do you use?” as if that is the biggest factor.
And the answer to “How?” is simple. You cannot create what is not there. Well, you could in photoshop if that is your thing, but it’s not mine. I’ve been a photographer since I was 14 years old. Not the point and shoot kind of photographer. But to find refuge from my father’s life struggles, I built my own darkroom and developed my own film, my own prints. Photography was my escape from noise as many art forms are.
And the coolest art form is to take your viewers on a journey inside each and every photo. In the steps below, I will show you how I do that using Adobe Lightroom, but the same basic principles will apply to other workflow tools/editors.
TAKE IT EASY
I quickly learned in the 35mm film days that it’s far easier to get a photograph “right” in the camera than it is in the darkroom. Of course, technology has advanced light years since then and I’ve kept up with it, but still today, I aim to capture the photo I want in the camera and not add a lot of “fluff” or “over-processing”.
To capture the most information, I shoot in RAW mode on my Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Mark II cameras. The RAW is the “What?”, not the camera brand/type, so are the professional $1,200 to $2,000 a-piece lens that hold up extremely well under duress/weather and are large enough to create amazing depth/bokeh.
But both cameras offer a compressed JPEG option just like the point-and-shoot cameras. What that does is, within the camera as the photo is shot, it applies post-processing (adding contrast and saturation) before compressing it. The original detail is lost forever in a JPG-only mode. So if you’ve taken photos in JPEG format, you’ve noticed that they are bright, full of contrast and they appear “normal” to you. But you’ve probably also noticed that there isn’t much room left for improvement due to the compression (lost pixels).
The first time you view a RAW photo as above, you will be completely underwhelmed. A RAW image will leave you feeling as if you’ve taken an awful, uninspiring photo. But don’t be fooled. There is more data hiding in that RAW photo than you can believe. The tiniest of micro pixels are there waiting for a few simple touches to bring them to life.
And that is what I do in-camera and in Adobe Lightroom. A few simple touches. And the beauty of Lightroom and other editors such as Aperture is that any work done to modify an image is done in layers — the original RAW photo is neither touched nor lost. That allows you to create multiple “instances” of a single photo and play with it; get creative with it over and over.
So let me share with you my “workflow” — that is, how I manage over 10,000 photos I take each year. While Adobe Lightroom has a great robust editor, it is also a workflow management tool, in other words, keeping it all organized and allowing a photographer to develop streamlined processes. The less time I spend finding and organizing a photograph, the more time I can spend dialing in the crop, the colors and the lighting.
Let’s look at that ballon shot above. A hot air balloon is challenging to photograph because it looks the best when you are close to it, but the closer you are, the less control you have over composition and the less of a backdrop that you have. A photograph without a distinctive background and foreground will understandably look flat; without depth.
So even while taking this shot as the balloon quickly approached over our campsite, I knew this shot was most likely a fail. My only saving grace was the clouds behind it to add some depth. The plane streaking behind it all added extra dimension and flavor, contrasting jet speed against balloon speed.
Here is my 7-step process to reveal a great photograph using Adobe Lightroom.
1 – CROP & LEVEL
The first thing I do in my workflow is set the crop and composition. I take a lot of photos while hanging from edges, in squatting position or in a stretched position. It is sometimes difficult to get a great, spontaneuous photo while leaning or stretching AND still maintain perfect level. So while cropping I will quickly check the leveling sometimes even doing “auto-level”.
When it comes to cropping, the best photos get the user’s eyes to move by controlling the first thing they see and then guiding them along a path of motion as if they saw it firsthand. I love when a viewer says “Wow, I feel like I am there!” Mission accomplished.
The long-standing “rule of thirds” simply divides the photo into 3 columns and 3 rows (thirds). Psychologically speaking, the human brain enjoys being “led”; always looking for a flow or a connection. It is natural for our brains to first see what IS, then to ascertain what WILL BE. In this case, we see the balloon, but we also find comfort in seeing where it will be. Using the rule of thirds to place the main subject of a photo on one of those 4 cross-grids in essence, gives the photo motion.
In this photo, the balloon is heading left to right so I placed it on the left top cross-grid. Note, that I did this in the camera when taking the shot. That saved me when cropping here in Lightroom from having to drag around my crop tool. You can fix a lot of composition problems in Lightroom, but not all. So it’s best to SHOOT with the rule of thirds in mind.
All I did then to crop and nail the composition I wanted, was simply selecting the 16×9 crop dimensions. I create full, post-sized prints as well, but most of my shots go straight to the internet and I prefer the 16×9 (movie widescreen format). So once I have this, I press ENTER and my crop/composition is completed. One simple step.
2 – CONTRAST & LIGHTING
The next simple step I take is to quickly adjust the light and contrast to a “base” setting which means I just click “AUTO”. Now, it’s rare that I ever leave it with this one-click. I have a certain style/feel that I like to produce and AUTO doesn’t do it. It does however get me on the right path and ready for nuanced edits. In this photo below, you can slide back and forth and see RAW (cropped) vs the AUTO treatment.
Notice that it’s not a huge difference and far from my final output. But after two steps, this photo is ready for my personal touch and flavor. Sometimes in this step, the photo will lose some of the highlights
Note, if you mouseover the histogram in Lightroom, you will see the respective tone highlight both in the histogram and in the controls below it — a nice little awareness feature.
3 – HIGHLIGHTS & DEPTH
With the basics out of the way, now I am ready to work on the creative vision of a photo. And doing that with Lightroom is pretty simple and fun. Often times, clouds and lighter objects get washed out meaning, they are too bright and lose their nuanced details. So the first thing I do is adjust the highlights slider, usually almost all the way to the left (somewhere between -50 and -100).
Again remember, the details are there in the RAW file, we just can’t see them especially after AUTO adjustment which will brighten the image significantly.
Then I want to bring out the details in the shadows depending on the creative vision I want for a photo. Sometimes mystery is a great thing. But usually, I want to see those details as well so I move that slider in the opposite direction of highlights, usually between +20 to +60.
The last step in highlights is bringing back some of the contrast lost with highlights and shadows so I like to intensify the whites and blacks, but only a little if any. If I use one more than the other it’s the white to make the photo “POP” with energy that the white light brings.
Sometimes here — and I try not to overuse it — but if there were no clouds present or if the edges of the photo are bright, I will add some vignetting from the presets on the left panel in Lightroom.
4 – COLOR
The last adjustment I make is to the color. Some of the contrast is lost in the above steps so I almost always kick up clarity just a pinch. Too much loses the details and depth that I just worked to create.
And usually I give a slight bump to vibrance which moves the histogram colors to the left a bit, adding more exposure depth and shadows. A slight kick to the saturation moves the histogram to the right a bit adding more brightness and highlights.
If the photograph was well balanced in the camera, I really don’t mess with these too much. It is very easy to overdo colors.
Lately I’ve been using a new set of third-party add-ons from MacPhun Software. Their Creative Kit 2016 has several great tools that embed with Lightroom perfectly for easy export to their app, adjustments, then save and right back into Lightroom with the updated photo. The kit includes:
- FX Photo Studio – includes multiple presets/filters to add instant effects to your photos. I’m not a big fan of presets as I rarely find one that fits even most scenarios prescribed.
- Snapheal – a fun little add-on that will intelligently remove objects from a photo. This is a common treatment used in Photoshop which I still do occasionally and while I don’t use Snapheal often (I prefer to shoot objects that I want in the photo), it is a fun and very effective tool. I used it a few weeks ago to effortlessly remove power lines from a great desert, hot air balloon shot.
- Noiseless – a great tool for those night shots at high ISO. I shoot with pro Canon gear so I don’t get a lot of noise, but the little that is there bugs me. Noiseless removes it beautifully without altering too much of the contrast I just worked to build. Another great example/use is campfires at night where contrast and highlights can introduce noise.
- Tonality – converting images to black and white with a variety of preset/filters. Again, I’m not a big fan of presets so I don’t use this one much.
- Focus – this is probably the biggest faux pas to me as in the last 5 years, I’ve invested in better lens/glass to control the bokeh in a photograph. Bokeh is that controlled blur that separates the subject from the foreground or background. In the absence of pro lens though, Focus is a great tool to play with if not overused. It is one of those tools that the more time you spend in micro mode (carefully selecting detailed edges) the more the effect looks natural and pro-like. A quick sloppy selection will blur parts of the subject and/or leave part of the background/foreground crisp and will look ironically, over-edited.
- Inensify – saving my favorite for last. Intensity has presets which you know now that I don’t like but it also has a manual mode for quick effects and controls over the intensity of each isolated effect. That separates this tool from other presets. And notably for the final contrast step below, I use Intensify.
5 – SPOT TREATMENT
While the Creative Kit above has some tools — namely the Snapheal tool — for removing unsightly, unwanted objects from your photograph, any nagging details that I want removed, I still use either the built-in Lightroom brush clone/heal tool or I run back to the old standard in Photoshop. Lightroom is perfect if you have a small dust spot, say on the lens or on a person’s clothes.
If you photograph people/portraits and they are having a bout of acne or “tired” eyes (dark) or your lighting had unwanted sharp edges, there is still no replacing Photoshop for those finer details.
But again, with a clean lens, camera sensor and patience to avoid added objects where possible, I really don’t do much spot treatment.
6 – FINAL CONTRAST
On landscape shots in particular, I have found one new and final editing step that has added huge value to my final work. As I mentioned above in Step 4, MacPhun’s Intensify is quickly becoming one of my favorite tools. There is a single effect called “Architecture” that adds a nice little pop of detail and clarity. I rarely use it at 100%, instead dialing it back to the 60-70% range.
Remember, RAW photos have all the details there for you to enjoy and nurture out of a photograph. As a result, RAW images have a “softness” to them that a compressed, processed JPEG do not. But then again, this same effect that I gain from “Architecture” is just a sharpening (whitening) around the edges which is what happens in compression. But once it’s compressed in “point and shoot” mode, you’ve lost all control and most editing ability.
So it’s worth it to take 4-6 extra steps to play with it. Make a copy if you wish and play with it again. The RAW originals are never compromised. And THAT is why my photos tend to “POP” more than others.
Now that my photo is back in from Intensify a funny thing happens — my newly imported photo is “reset” having flattened my previous settings which are still available to me in my previous copies. Which NOW means I get an added benefit. I get to add ONE more little tweak to highlights and shadows. In this photograph, that really allowed me to get the balloon colors to “pop” (sorry a bad expression) without losing the cloud details.
Notice the details in the clouds from this step and the added pop from the colors on the balloon from this second round of highlights and mostly here, shadows.
7 – EXPORT
So all of this lesson has focused on Adobe Lightroom. I’ve used many workflow/editing tools over the many years. Aperture was fine but cumbersome and clumsy. Google Picasa was free and the first great tagging tool but it lacked depth in features and streamlining. Adobe Lightroom has the right balance for me with controls within my fingertips, filtering my work upon import, tagging and even exporting options allowing me flexible controls for my final product.
One of the biggest gains from Lightroom is the great number of plugins/add-ons that allow great control, editing and increased workflow to third party editors and back.
All in all, I can import 200 photos from an afternoon hike, have them tagged, find my best 10 or so “hero” images, edit, export and upload them within an hour (about 6 minutes per finished photo). And all of that begins in camera — shooting RAW (capturing all the available data) and getting my composition pretty close to how I want the final product.
The last thing I do is export using one of many saved presets that Lightroom offers. And of course, in the world of the internet and Google images, I don’t want my images being overused and copied without permission – especially those of my family. So my export includes my logo watermark – subtle in the lower right corner but still visible to identify my work.
As you can see from the steps above, it is work, but not too bad with a system and some great tools in place.
When I was learning, I always found it helpful to not only follow along in a tutorial but, at times, to have access to the exact same photograph as the tutorial to check myself. It’s still better to “feel” through the photograph, to channel your creative vision but if you’d like to see the exact same impact with the exact same image here it is — just right-click to download it.