This article is not going to spew forth on the wonders of the RAW format (any more than it already has).
If you’ve read this far, there are two things that I hope you truly understand. (Soon, you will discover the MOST important steps in digital photography!)
Let’s talk about the 14 post-processing steps. (I’m going to leave out the two optional steps due to article length.)
I call them, “The Fundamental Edits List”.
Side note: If you want to get a complete breakdown of my Fundamental Edits list, including step-by-step ‘how-to’ instruction in Lightroom, Photoshop and Elements, I’ve published an eBook on the topic called the Ultimate Guide to Fundamental Editing – Go here now to take a look.
There is a story behind my writing about my Fundamental Edits List.
This topic came to mind when I remembered a conversation that I had with a newer photographer several months ago.
She’d been into digital photography for about three years.
She was telling me about her frustration with her photography.
She said that she had studied the guides on composition, exposure, ISO, lenses – yada yada – but her photos still didn’t spark like all the others that she saw on Flickr and 500px.
I asked her, “What kind of editing are you doing?”
Her response stunned me.
She said, “Oh. I don’t do that editing thing. I’m a purist. I like shooting landscapes and capturing the beauty of nature just the way it was presented to me. I like light…”
I must have had a strange look on my face because she asked me, “What?!”
I asked her, “What do you think editing is?”
She got a little indignant.
“It’s like when you change the color, or add texture, or remove something that you don’t like… or put something in that wasn’t there–”
“Whoa!” I said. “Look me in the eyes. It’s virtually impossible to have a great shot in digital photography without doing some fundamental editing, or what people refer to it as post-processing.”
“That’s not what my uncle says, and he’s a retired professional photographer,” she responded.
“He is? Does he shoot digital photographs now?”
“No. After he retired, he took up fishing.”
(Folks, don’t take photography advice from someone who hasn’t been active in the industry for at least the last 3 to 5 years. The industry is changing that fast.)
I believe that in fundamental editing there are three goals.
- Fundamental edits should take your original concept, as designed in-camera, and bring them to life within the digital realm. Fundamental editing restores depth, color, saturation, contrast, etc. to something closer to what your original vision was when you snapped the camera’s shutter release button.
- Fundamental edits should make your file as “printable” as possible. If you were to go
to a photo printer and have a print made from your original digital file, as it emerged from the camera (RAW format), chances are the print would not look very good. The fundamental edits whip your file into shape so that you get the best possible photographic print.
- Fundamental edits should be used to fine-tune your composition.
What is the Bottom line?
Fundamental Editing (or post-processing if you prefer that language) isn’t about big changes. It’s about the subtle changes that mold your image file into what you originally intended it to be.
Here’s an example:
The image on the left is the raw file that came out of a Canon 6D camera. The image on the right is my final shot, as I pre-visualized it when I snapped the shutter and after conducting my Fundamental Edits List.
As you can see, the basic tenor of the photograph has remained the same.
It seems logical, at this point, to mention some examples of what Fundamental Editing IS NOT (in my opinion anyway):
- It isn’t HDR
- It isn’t converting to black and white (or any monochrome tone)
- It isn’t high contrast
- It isn’t super-saturated color
- It isn’t muted color
- It isn’t selective color
- It isn’t adding textures
- It isn’t applying any funky filters or apps
It’s about restoring the raw file to a digital photograph that more closely resembles what your eyes saw and your memory recalls.
Now, let’s go back to workflow.
Having a Fundamental Editing List really requires a “workflow” to have predictable results.
If you’re an aspiring pro, or just have the desire to create the best possible images that you’re capable of, then you must take post-processing workflow seriously.
Completing a Fundamental Editing List in an established pattern will create predictable results.
What can happen if you go about applying fundamental post-processing steps in a willy-nilly manner?
- You can increase the noise
- You can create destructive edits that can’t be reversed
- You can blow out your highlights
- You can turn your black tones into inky blobs or grayish muck
- You can throw your color off
- You can over-sharpen and create ugly artifacts
Let’s take a peek at the items on my Fundamental Edits List:
- Opening the image (How you open the image can have significance)
- Noise Reduction
- Global Exposure Adjustment
- Clipping on the Shadow End – Black Point
- Clipping on the Highlight End – White Point
- Color Temperature
- Color Tint
- Efex – Vignette (optional)
- Efex – DeHaze
- Localized Exposure Adjustments
with the Adjustment Brush
- Localized Sharpening with the Adjustment Brush
- Global Sharpening (always last) – check the Topaz Sharpen AI review for another option.
I can’t cover the “how-to” on each of these edits here. Quite frankly, it’s too much information to fit into a blog post. (Which is why I wrote a whole book about it.)
However, let me give you some highlights.
Opening the image can have a significant impact on how you’re going to work on the file. It can also have an impact on how you will find the image at a later date.
Depending on which program you’re using, it can affect images that you open up “after” a particular image. A key phrase here is workflow. Develop a pattern as to how you’re going to open your images. Complete the same steps every time.
Those steps may vary depending on the editing software that you’re using. The steps for Photoshop won’t be the same as they are for Lightroom or Adobe Elements.
Crop in a non-destructive manner, this means in the ACR camera RAW window or directly in Lightroom.
Do noise reduction early in the Fundamental Edits List. I do it right after my cropping. The reason for this is that the noise reduction process might affect some of the other steps. My noise reduction policy is to try and get it done outside of Photoshop or Elements (in the ACR camera RAW processing window).
Use a very light hand in any global exposure adjustment. If you wish to become a real pro at post-processing, you need to master the Adjustment Brush.
Professional use of the Adjustment brush will help you to eliminate sweeping global changes across your images that are the hallmark of amateur photography.
Clipping is a term that Adobe adopted to indicate lost image detail. In order to understand clipping, you need to have a working knowledge of the Histogram. It would also help you to study up on the Zone System.
Clipping on the shadow end means that you’ve lost details in your black areas. If you look at your photographs, and the deep black areas tend to look like black blobs (with no detail), you’re likely clipping the shadows.
On the reverse end is highlight clipping. If your highlight areas look like white blobs (with no visible detail) this means you’re likely clipping the highlights.
Clipping is a problem that I see all the time with photographs on the Internet.
Many of you digital photographers probably don’t remember Dean Collins. Dean was one of the original photography instructor gurus. He was a true master of the photographic medium.
I took one of his workshops many years ago.
It was there that I first truly learned that in a photograph there is “white” and then there is “WHITE”. The perception of “white” varies widely. When a bride is wearing a white dress, the dress should look “white” but not “WHITE”.
Do you get what I’m saying?
There should be texture and tone to the white dress. If it looks “WHITE”, (if it’s a white blob), then your highlights are clipped.
The reverse is true with shadows. A black cat on a black silk scarf should look “black” not “BLACK”. There should be tonal variations in the shadows. Those tonal variations should include texture and detail. If you can’t see that in your photograph, you have shadow clipping.
I’m not going to delve deeply into the Histogram and the concept of tonal range. However, it might help you to know this…
The number 255 on the Histogram is “WHITE”. Any number from 254 to approximately 230 is somewhere on the scale of “white” (with tone and texture).
The number 0 on the Histogram is “BLACK”. Any number from 1 to approximately 30 is somewhere on the scale of “black” (with tone and texture).
The photograph of the bride shows you “white” (with texture and detail) – there’s no clipping.
Color Temperature and Tint represent the Wild West of post-processing. Why? We all see color differently. But (and this is a big “but”), if you’re creating photographs for a customer, someone who isn’t going to see the world through your eyeballs, then an expectation of accurate color is pretty mandatory.
This is a huge “workflow” step. Managing accurate color. Develop a system for color adjustment, and stick to it for predictable results.
Clarity is your friend. Use it wisely. Clarity helps to give your photograph the impression of sharpness without adding noise. Caution though – don’t go too far with the Clarity setting.
Vibrancy and Saturation are the most abused Fundamental Edits outside of Sharpening. If you’re shooting strictly for yourself, then you have free reign over these bad boys. However, if you’re taking on assignments, or wish to move in that direction, you must learn how to “accurately” set these two Fundamental Edits.
In order to do that, you must be able to accurately read and understand a Histogram. You must also develop the skill of evaluating “what is happening to the Histogram” as you make changes throughout your Fundamental Edits List.
This is important.
You must learn how to read a Histogram and develop the skill of judging how the Histogram is changing as you make Fundamental Edits.
Vignette, DeHaze, and the Adjustment Brush aid in the altering of the composition in post-processing; I’m only going to discuss the Adjustment Brush here in this article.
In my opinion, the Adjustment Brush is the single most powerful Adobe tool in post-processing.
It doesn’t matter if you’re using Lightroom, Photoshop, or Elements (known as the Smart Brush in Elements). This tool allows you to completely change the composition and mood of a photograph. If you don’t know how to use this tool, learn it. I’ve written about it extensively.
Finally, we have Global Sharpening. This step is always last in my workflow, and I believe it should be in yours as well. If you’ve done a good job with the Clarity setting, and with localized sharpening using the Adjustment Brush, you likely will have to barely use this setting at all. That’s a huge advantage for you because so many photographers abuse this setting and create obvious artifacts in their images.
Proper fundamental editing, with an established workflow, will push your efforts above your competitors!
Want to learn more?
If you’re unsure about the fundamentals of photo editing, or you would like some guidance from me on how to apply a Fundamental Edits List properly, I have written a comprehensive guide on the subject.
It covers all three Adobe products: Photoshop, Lightroom, and Elements. Plus it includes a free printable step-by-step editing checklist that you can pin-up or leave next to your computer.
If you missed out on your copy last time. It’s available again, and on sale right now.
Click here to read more about the fundamental steps of editing >>