Friday, February 15, 2013

Post Processing Series: Episode 1

We got several requests for post processing workflow tips here on our blog, so every couple of weeks, I am going to choose one picture that I have shot and show you how I go through the post processing, this will be strictly limited to Lightroom since I don't use anything else. Now let's go.

I got a question on how I processed this picture specifically, so this is going to be my first one, it was shown here before in my Sony RX100 review. Before I start I will state a few disclaimers:

  1. I don't believe in excessive post-processing, all those photoshop filters, plugins, layers and opacities do not float my boat, the most time I spend on a photo is 2 minutes, and this is only when it's tricky or requires several local adjustments. However I don't dis-respect skilled photoshoppers, in fact, I am awed each time I watch a skilled person processing a photo on photoshop, I don't like those who turn women into plastic dummies.
  2. I want post-processing to be as fast as possible, since I usually return from a shoot with 200 or 300 photos that need processing, and if it takes too much time, it will be hell for me.
  3. One thing I learned from Zack Arias, be consistent, even if you make a mistake, be consistent in that mistake, so when you work in lightroom, you can process the first picture, then synchronize these changes to the other pictures, that's how I usually go through my pictures quickly.
  4. I always shoot RAW, mainly for the white balance flexibility.
  5. Not everyone has the same taste, what I might like you might not, so please keep this in mind, I am 100% sure that someone out there can take this photo and make it even better (in his opinion), but I am a photographer, not a retoucher, and if a casual picture needs more processing than what is shown below, then I shouldn't have bothered to take the picture in the first place.
  6. A final thing, if you're not watching this on a calibrated or a near-calibrated monitor, you will not understand what I am going on about, you might see wrong colors, deeper blacks, etc...
  7. Anther final final thing, I have different default import settings in lightroom for each camera, this means that whenever I import a picture from that camera, it gets a few adjustments applied that usually get me through 80% of the needed post-processing, it takes time to get used to each camera's RAW output, but I find myself always applying a certain contrast setting, highlights recover, etc... to each picture, so instead I save these settings as the defaults, and 80% of the time, once the pictures are imported, they are ready for export.

Now to the main topic, below is the RAW file as it came out of the camera, it is one of the rare moments when someone else takes a picture of me that I actually like, so this is why I decided to give it more than usual attention.

It is good and I like it, but as known to the Sony sensor, it chose a slightly cool/pink white balance and I wanted a tighter crop, so the crop goes first, you can click on any picture and it will show a 1920px wide image:

You can see above some of the defaults for my Sony RAW files, +15 Contrast, -10 Blacks, -10 Highlights, +10 Clarity and +10 Vibrance.

Crop done, now there is less visual clutter in the image, next is white balance, my favorite tool is the eyedropper, I try that first in an area I am certain is white or neutral grey.

I chose the white under-shirt but it didn't work, I tried a few ther things but nothing worked, so I used the sliders manually, I learned a neat trick from Zack Arias, I keep swinging the slider left and right widely, then slowly until I reach a point that my eyes like, it is an area between too blue and too warm, then I do the same with the pink/green slider. If I had to choose between coola nd warm, I'd choose a slightly warm setting.

That's how I liked it, I ended up adding around +550 points towards the warm side, with that done it's time to check the exposure sliders in order, lighting was coming from huge windows and open sky from the camera right side, so one half of the face was significantly more lit than the other, it is not bad, but I wanted to see if I can do better, the key is being subtle, small changes enhance the image and doesn't make it too apparent.

So next I slided the highlights to the left to see if something would look better, mainly the left part of the face, I pull it too much to see how it works.

-50 on the highlights slider is too much, and it kills the mood of the picture, turning it more gloomy, I only want less highlights on the left of the face, but that will have to wait, I return the highlights slider back, and add some post-crop vigneting, this is a matter of personal taste, but I knew I'd be adding some vignetting to get more focus on the main subject, and I'd want to apply it before I start playing with the blacks and the shadows, so I add a slight vignette, not too heavy, and I raraely go past that value.

Looking good, next is the blacks, I usually pull the blacks to the left with the ALT key held down until I start getting some clipped blacks in the photo, then I release the ALT key and see if I like it and start modifying to taste if needed.

Next is the shadows, the right half of the face could use some fill, but again, I don't like to lift all the shadows in the picture, so I do a couple of local adjustments next to deal with the face.

A quick rough paint with the brush (no more than 5 seconds) is fine, I reduce the highlights until I like it.

Here's the picture with the red mask removed:

Same for the shadow part, it needs more fill, I brighten the shadows and increaese the exposure a teeny bit.

And here's the result:

The next screenshot will show you the history of all the steps I went through, click to see a larger version.

And here's the final result:

Which started as the one below, little tiny modifications go a great way in enhancing a picture, unlike strong pulls of the sliders to get a strongly over-processed image.

UPDATE: to explain a bit here, one of my friends showed me a picture for people in a desert, with like 100% saturation added, you can try this setting in any of your images and see what will happen, I like to call it techni-color vomit. On the other hand, some images really require a lot of manipulation with the sliders, and the final result looks very good, but that's not the case usually.


  1. Thanks a lot for this walkthrough. I love your subtle approach. The whole blog is fantastic - reading it in daily basis.

    Best wishes from Finland!


  2. Hi Mohammad. Thank you very much for this post. (FYI: I was one of the folks who asked Mohammad about the postprocessing on this portrait.)

    Some comments:
    1. Just a tangent about displays: I have a calibrated display on my laptop (still not that good) and a crappy office monitor. The interesting thing is that well-processed images like your portrait look good even on my crappy office monitor. Also, without exception, all photos with PP that I like end up looking good even on the crappy monitor, and they look even better on the calibrated display. I think in the same vein, David Hobby processes his images with the knowledge that they will be printed on newsprint, which has a very narrow range. The processing he uses to make sure the image still looks legible on newsprint also improves his images in my opinion. On the other hand, when I don't do a good job processing my image, it might look somewhat ok on my laptop but it looks bad on my crappy office monitor. Not saying that we should get a crappy office monitor. It's just an observation that I find interesting.

    2. For the white balance dropper, I try not only white or gray areas but black ones as well. I also try the whites of eyeballs and in my family's case, the highlights on the hair.

    3. I have a different philosophy about the amount of postprocessing. To me, I prefer to do little postprocessing but for some images that I think are worth it, I don't mind spending a lot of time to postprocess them. Here is an example:

    I really enjoyed this post, my friend. Thanks!

    Best regards,

    1. Thanks for the comment Mic, I find that I agree with all of your points, check my updated comment.

  3. Hi Mohammad,

    You mentioned in the post you have some camera specific develop settings when import photos into Lightroom. Do you apply these settings (contrast, black, highlight, clarity, vibrance, and WB) to every images shot with the camera? And how do you come up with the settings? Do you create a camera profile using something like X-Rite Color Checker Passport or do it in a more subjective way?


    1. Hi Xiaoli,

      Yes, I apply these settings to every image shot with the camera (they are applied automatically during import).

      As for how, it is purely subjective, I don't use any tools, it takes a while, maybe a month or two to get familiar with a camera's RAW file (depending on how much you shoot, you can do it in a week if you shoot daily).

      I do it by normally processing my files, then I notice that I almost always add a certain contrast value, and a certain blacks value, and I reduce the highlights a bit, and I like that sharpening setting a lot, you get the idea. After several files, I realize that I'd want these settings applied to all of my images since they look nice, and they get me 80% of the way in usual cases, maybe I'd have to adjust the exposure ore the white balance a little bit, but that's how I do it. For example, after switching from the APS-C Canon 60D to the 5D Mark II, it took me a long time to get files that I liked, my old settings didn't look as good on the 5D2.

  4. I have updated the last part of the post with the following:

    UPDATE: to explain a bit here, one of my friends showed me a picture for people in a desert, with like 100% saturation added, you can try this setting in any of your images and see what will happen, I like to call it techni-color vomit. On the other hand, some images really require a lot of manipulation with the sliders, and the final result looks very good, but that's not the case usually.

  5. Thanks for this great little article. It's really helpful to see a 'case study' rather than just generic advice and I look forward to more of the same. I really don't like spending much time in Lightroom so your tip of getting a feel for the most used settings and then saving it as a preset to apply to all the photos you import is going to save me lots of time! Thanks!

    1. Thanks Mark for the feedback, I will make sure to keep posting more post-processing posts, every couple of weeks as promised.


Thanks for your comment. It will be published as soon as we get a chance to review it, sorry for that, but we get lots of spam with malicious links.