revealing the lie

One thing that I think is a great misnomer among photographers just starting out, is that those amazing shots they see on the uber-talented really well known photographer’s blogs come out of the camera looking like that.

While yes, the really talented folks can nail exposure shot after shot after shot, the amazing clarity, contrast and sharpness often has just as much to do with post-processing (work in Lightroom and Photoshop) as it does with the original digital image.

And for those photogs who shoot in RAW (as many pros do- not a value judgement here! just saying that many do, ok? no arguments, please) they pretty much have to process their images otherwise they are left looking muddy. I have talked before on this blog about the ‘grey film’ that appears to coat each digital image that comes from the camera, and how it’s necessary to rid oneself of the film lest one have images that all look like they are suffering from a bad hangover.

Before my new lover (Lightroom2) was introduced into my life, I was pretty much wholeheartedly against processing images. I felt like it was cheating, and in a way, I still believe that. Although now that Lightroom has blown my brain wide open, I really don’t care if it’s cheating or not.

I do it, my pet photog friends do it, wedding photographers do it, we all do it. And the really good ones that want you to believe that they are just amazing photographers and that their shots are born looking phenomenal, yet give half-assed answers to questions about processing? Well, they’re full of something my dog eliminates every day.

Want proof? Here it is:

revealingthelie

I forgot to mention above that the shot was taken with the 24-70mm f/2.8L lens, which, sadly for me, is a fairly soft copy (and getting softer over time). I guess $1300 doesn’t get you very much these days.:-P

Now, not everyone may like this processing technique in terms of looks, but it’s pretty hard to argue that there isn’t a big difference between the before and after.

If you are a photographer just starting out, and you are hard on yourself believing that the pros have some secret magical formula that you don’t and never will, just stop it right now. Those who have images with amazing clarity and sharpness and contrast aren’t any better, they just have more tricks up their sleeve.

I just decided to come out with my naked RAW truth and reveal my own.:-)

Comments, criticism, linkbacks welcome! What do YOU think about processing??

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July 23, 2009 - 12:10 am

Fabienne - I think post processing (in terms of curves, sharpness, vibrancy and so on) is not “cheating” at all for several reasons:
1) Photoshop filters and functions like dodge & burn, unsharp mask and so on all come from analog photography times. They all did that in a darkroom 50 years ago – without Photoshop. So it’s nothing new.
2) If you shoot in jpg (compared to RAW) your camera already does some processing as well. You can choose settings for sharpness, vibrancy… in your camera so when you take a photo your camera uses the RAW data, processes the photo with those chosen settings and saves the photo as a jpg. So where’s the difference between processing your photo with your camera or later in Photoshop/Lightroom?

Keep up your great work – I really enjoy reading/viewing your blog! :)

Greetings from Germany

July 23, 2009 - 1:11 am

Simon - I like both ends of the spectrum – natural looking stuff like on A Walk Through Durham Township and really heavily processed stuff like Dave Hill’s work. What I don’t like is shoddy photography with every Action and Filter available thrown at it, like Stuck in Customs…it’s got to be good photography to start with.

Comments on your example:
* +31 Black?!! blimey.
* Photoshop trip not needed, more Brush-work, Clarity and Sharpening in LR would have done that, no? Not that you need my advice, but you did ask!
* No Contrast/Vibrance/Saturation?? Sometimes +Vibrance/-Saturation works really well, as crazy as it sounds.
* +15 Green Channnel Hue (LR) has improved my grass tones dramatically.

July 23, 2009 - 1:14 am

Simon - PS The green Hue tip was just a random thought, there’s nothing wrong with your greens!

July 23, 2009 - 1:18 am

Tails - I have to agree with Fabienne :) I dont think its cheating either. Cheating, to me, is adding and removing stuff from an image (sorry, *technically* removing goobers falls here, even though we all do it hehe).

I was about to email you asking for a little help – your photos leave me feeling dispondant :( I can never expose my subject AND get a blue sky in the background. I was hoping for some pointers as to what metering you use, editing, something to point me in the right direction. :(

This post was insightful, even though I already do all those things on my images (except Smart Sharpen, it confuses me lol), its great to see before and afters…esp from a pro! :) Thanks!!!

July 23, 2009 - 2:56 am

Sharon - Thank you for this Jamie.

I process all my photos through Photoshop because I have too, but it makes a world of difference. The Unsharpen Mask technique you recommended a while ago works brilliantly on all my photos, but I also use other options such as replace color, selective color, contrast, etc. As a novice photographer, who still doesn’t know her way around her camera or Photoshop 7.0, any and all tips are always appreciated. And although my camera will shoot in RAW I’ve yet to give it a shot.

Why do some photographers with fabulous photos say all they do is adjust the color? Is that even possible? Time for me to check out Lightroom 2!

Sharon

July 23, 2009 - 3:46 am

johnwaire | photo - great post jamie. i do EVERYTHING in lightroom and i’m not afraid to admit it. i’ve created some custom presets that i rely on…but i also use some freebies from onOne Software ( http://www.ononesoftware.com/downloads/ ) …as well as some from kubota ( http://kubotaworkshops.com/store/catalog/product_16296_Kubota_Lightroom_Presets_v3_cat_258.html ). i haven’t felt the need to use a full blown version of photoshop. maybe i’m slightly afraid…maybe i think i’ll get sucked in and my workflow will slow down.

i really enjoy reviewing other photog’s blogs. i’m blow away and inspired by many of them….but in the back of my mind i always want to be true to myself and my own vision. i don’t want my images to suddenly begin to mirror those around me. i’ve seen a lot of this in the wedding side of the world.

advice to fellow photogs: find the tools that compliment your style and workflow the best. be you. be inspired by others…but don’t copy them. if you’re passionate about what you do…it will show in what you create.

July 23, 2009 - 3:49 am

Tom - First, very nice picture of the cutie. Has nothing to due with the glass (“softness”) Canon has been having a problem with AF with all of their bodies for years now. I finally gave up last year and sold years worth of EOS equipment for Nikon. We are just fed up with their issues.

July 23, 2009 - 4:28 am

Jess Kamm - There are so many different ways to accomplish one thing in Photoshop and Lightroom…you have a found a great one that works for you. I use both programs…but absolutely love some of the actions I run in photoshop that gets rid of that stupid hazy film you were talking about!

July 23, 2009 - 5:45 am

Simon - PPS Now THIS is great processing work IMHO: http://blindboys.org/2009/07/a-glimpse-into-north-korea-by-nayan-sthankiya/

July 23, 2009 - 6:48 am

Li W. - I’m no purist. I LOVE post processing. LR is just a fantastic product, and I use presets there to decrease the need to open up PS. Increase blacks and fill light are my faves.

July 23, 2009 - 7:52 am

Jen - Please tell me more about lightroom – what it does, what I need to do to set it up —- or is there an online tutorial……thanks!! love to hear every ones commments!

July 23, 2009 - 8:20 am

Becky (rksquared) - Great post, Jamie! As a newbie myself, I appreciate it so much when photographers are willing to be a little transparent about their work on their blogs. It’s also not exactly a secret that I am an embracer of post-processing. For me, working in LR and PS are as much a part of the experience and final product as shooting the picture is. In fact, I get all excited when I start going through my images in LR b/c I can’t wait to see them with specific actions run on them…again, that’s just me. :) Next are we going to talk about the fact that not every shot a “great” photog takes is a keeper (or, for that matter, not every shot is as good as the ones that show up on the blog/portfolio)? :-P

July 23, 2009 - 8:25 am

nick - I’ve found canon’s provided DPP software adequete for 90% of the editing work I need to do so far :) Would like to get my feet wet with lightroom sometime in the future though!

July 23, 2009 - 8:31 am

Jules - I love LR & PS and I agree that even in the darkroom days they dodged and burned to get the image they were hoping for. I think post-processing is another piece of the creative process – not cheating :) Thanks for your wonderful post Jamie and your willingness to share with us newbies!!

July 23, 2009 - 8:55 am

Stephanie - I think you are so uber talented Jamie that whether you process or not I will always think of you as one of the forefathers for amazing modern pet photography….not processing.And I think all you are doing with your images are enhancing, not manipulating. Thats a true artist :)

July 23, 2009 - 9:02 am

Rachel - You aren’t cheating. You are enhancing…

July 23, 2009 - 10:27 am

Brandi - I think processing can do a lot for an image, BUT the goal should always be to get a pretty good image right out of the camera. But yeah.. even if I LOVE an image SOOC, I process it at least a little bit to love it even more! It takes images to another level and it’s a big part of putting your signature as a photographer on them. It’s part of the art. Your RAW image looks good by itself, but you just add ‘pizazzle’ in Lightroom and Photoshop. I do the majority of my editing in Lightroom and use photoshop primarily for beauty touch ups.

July 23, 2009 - 11:55 am

Andrea - Can any of these techniques be done with Paint Shop Pro X2? I have been able to do some, but what you did with a black and white photo awhile ago required a sponge told that PSP does not have.
I dito the THANKS YOU’S for being so open. It’s good Karma and it is paying off for ya!

July 23, 2009 - 12:09 pm

Jamie 'Cowbelly' - @fabienne- I *love* your answers! if you had been around 2 years ago when I was so opposed to processing I may have changed my tune. you are totally right in that image manipulation has been around for a long time- it’s just the tools that are different now. thank you so much for your input. @simon- I pretty much agree with everything you said. my strong blacks + fill light are an alternative way of adding in contrast. I don’t use the contrast sliders because I find for me it saturates the colors in a way that doesn’t look natural, plus makes the darks too dark and lights too light, but that’s my own personal preference. and ironically I have the opposite problem with greens- they are always too bright! lol. my blues are really bright too. it may just be the canon. or the grass + sky we have here. :-) @tails- I think removing goobers is totally necessary, and not considered cheating because they are just gross, lol. no no please don’t get despondent. try shooting in RAW, and download lightroom and play around with it. in terms of exposure, all it requires is practice. the more you practice, the easier it will be to determine what camera settings you need for what lighting you have. I use pattern/evaluative metering about 90% of the time. other photogs will tell you to only ever use spot metering in manual. I say do what works for you, which is where the practice comes in very handy. also, it’s really hard to get an overcast sky blue and the ground exposed properly. in that case a split neutral density filter or polarizing filter can come in handy (as can the graduated filter in LR). @sharon- definitely try shooting in RAW (try RAW + jpeg for a practice shoot) and download the lightroom trial, I guarantee it will change your photography for the better. and I do all of those things in PS too. but only for client prints. I rarely spend much time processing images that go to the blog. the above is a good example of what I’d do to a print. @john- thanks! :-) and yes, I do pretty much everything in lightroom too. I need to take some time to really study their noise removal and sharpening as I’ll bet they can give me 95% of what I need. I totally agree with being true to yourself. I often see vintage effects and think “I should do that”, but that’s not my style, so I realize I shouldn’t- stick with who you authentically are I say. @tom- OMG don’t even get me started with the whole focusing issue with the Canons. you are preaching to the choir here when it comes to considering a switch to nikon. I’m giving canon one more chance, then I’m going to seriously look at Nikon. @jess- like I always say- “whatever works for you!” it’s awesome you have found great actions in PS that help you get rid of that nasty film. :-) @simon- looks like that photographer is going heavy on the blacks with some HDR thrown in. very interesting stuff. @li- ahhh presets- swoon. actually, I am using them less and less these days, or creating a handful of presets for each shoot, and then only using them once. it cuts down on the processing *hugely*. @jen- Lightroom is a software program that Adobe produces (Adobe also makes Photoshop). You can download a free trial for 30 days here: http://www.adobe.com/products/photoshoplightroom/. the full version is $299, and WELL worth the money spent. @becky- yay, so glad this is helpful! and oh my gosh I am the same way! I can barely wait to get home from a shoot and open the RAW files in lightroom and start playing with sliders. I get especially excited when I have a *perfectly* exposed image with a beautiful histogram because you have so much flexibility with where you can take it. and yeah, no doubt that there are ‘tossers’- images that I call “I wish it weres”. (I wish it were in focus, I wish it were exposed properly, I wish it were better composed, lol). @nick- dood, try lightroom. seriously, go download it now. @jules- you are so welcome! and I still think it’s sort of cheating, but cheating in a good way with positive and not negative outcomes (if done right). @stephanie- awwww (blushing). you are far too kind. yes, I guess there is a distinction between enhancing, not manipulating. I am much more for the former than the latter I suppose. but then it depends on your style and what look you are going for. @rachel- you are seconding what stephanie said and I am starting to agree! :-) @brandi- I completely agree that the #1 goal should be to get great quality images from the camera. then the #2 goal should be to enhance them with the tools you have available. I like to call it “reality only better”. thanks for your comments everyone! I love good intellectual discourses.

July 23, 2009 - 3:11 pm

Carl - Hi

Any photo workflow requires processing after the shot. The algorithims i jpeg can get the shot right, but why take the chance. It is a labor of love to pull up that RAW image and make it jsut as spectacular as the image you saw through the view finder.

Great site!
Carl

July 24, 2009 - 4:38 am

Christy DeKoning - As a portrait artist I use photography as a means to an end – and would be LOST without the ability to process photos the way I want to see them. It’s an essential part of my process (adjusting values, saturation, exposure especially) and as someone mentioned earlier on in your comments, all this would have been done in the darkroom anyway. I first learned photography the non-digital way in 1987, darkroom and all, and not much has changed about what i need to see in my photos – just the route I take! (and I am still an amateur photographer).

July 25, 2009 - 7:02 am

A Dogs Life Photo - Great post, Jamie. Post-processing is an art and it takes a great deal of talent to do it right. You have mastered this talent. Thanks for sharing.

July 25, 2009 - 11:35 am

Rebecca Collins - Great post. My admiration goes to those seasoned pro photographers that know how to use Lightroom & Photoshop, yet know when to hold back and they know just how far and how hard to slam things. Having a subtle eye can not be taught, I think it comes through experience and a lot of seeing. Just because you can make an image so sharp you will cut your finger on it does not mean that every image will or should be brought to that level of sharpness. If you go to flickr you will see lot of crispy-fried images that are way too sharp for this planet.

Of the 3 images above I like the middle one best. There is an unnatural red halo or outline on the red leash in the last image. It is a yummy stunning image and 99.9% of the people on the planet would never see it or be bothered by it. A fellow photographer might see it though and see your “mechanics” as they say in other fields. I love hard contrast and rich blacks too so I can see why it may be favored.

Jamie, your photography is stunning and I don’t think you need to worry about the debate. Continue to embrace your tools girl, sounds like you will and that you are at peace with it.

As for myself, I have to admit to being only an average photographer and I do use photoshop as a crutch with my personal home photos. I’m an artist and so I have a pretty good eye, but not a perfect working knowledge of photography. Knowing I can rely on PS keeps me from spending the time I should learning to use my camera better. I have several very talented photographers in my life and they all tend to want to be purists, limiting their use of PS. Each to their own I say.

July 25, 2009 - 12:16 pm

Karen Kost - Jamie, I do appreciate your candidness regarding your fine tuning techniques, however…..it’ is still the photographer, who with her/his keen eye is able to capture the image that really makes it what it becomes. “Tweeking” is something one can learn; caturing images/ moments and the balance of the subjects I find so captivating in your photography is PURE ART!
Keep doing what you are doing. I love it and when the time is right, I will contact you to do a series of shoots of my wondederful four miniature schnauzer babies.( Have got to sell a few more million dollar mansions first!)
Karen Kost

July 28, 2009 - 11:54 pm

Tiger Lily preview – I made the jump! » A (illustrated) web log. - […] made the jump to shooting in RAW!  It’s true what Jamie over at Cowbelly has to say, though–there’s definitely a kind of washed-out, gray look to these images straight out […]

November 2, 2009 - 4:11 am

Chris - A-Freakin-Men!!! Finally, a photographer with a HEART! If you weren’t already married to LR2, I’d propose!

February 5, 2010 - 10:57 am

Tsuki Fox - I’m glad you posted this! I feel like such an amateur when I see a lot of pro work. Especially knowing all the great equipment and software they must own. I have Photoshop CS (no #!) and it’s a daily struggle learning how to use it. I still have a long way to go. :(

Luckily (i guess), I still shoot in Jpeg as my computer can’t handle RAW images, so they come out somewhat processed. By the time I can afford an upgraded computer, I’m hoping I’ll be more skilled in the PS editing and able to process RAW files like a champ. But that’s all in due time!

April 18, 2010 - 11:08 pm

tonyajeanaye - Thank you so much for sharing! I have been so frustrated with my own work and not being able to get this look. I feel so inspired by you and now feel there is hope for me yet.:-) Thank you for being so generous and helpful…I am so grateful!!!

August 25, 2010 - 9:28 am

donna good - you are refreshing and honest, as well as very talented. thanks.

November 2, 2011 - 1:14 pm

Sona D - Oh, there’s nothing wrong with post-processing! It’s like saying that women should not wear make-up but we do because we want to look and feel better about ourselves. I want my images to be pleasing to the eye and don’t want them to look like “just about anybody could have taken them”. We do like rich colours, our eye is naturally attracted to them and the same thing goes for photos, make-up, clothes, great hair!

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