A guide to how I process photos
I process every photo differently. But generally speaking I always follow a certain pattern or stages during processing. However what I do during those stages will depend on the photo and how I want it to look.
For this guide I will show you how I processed this particular photo, and most importantly, why I made the changes that I did.
We will start off by analysing the unprocessed photo before making any changes. We need to know the direction we are going before we attempt to change anything. So let's look at the original, RAW photo.
To start off with you probably noticed my arm in the frame :p
I was there to make sure my son did not move from the marked location. I had my camera on a tripod and was remotely triggering it.
Regardless why I was there. That arm needs to be removed from the photo.
But apart from the arm what else do we see?
Well you may notice that the shadows are fairly subtle, so you can tell it was a cloudy (or mildly cloudy) day. As a result there is a nice diffused light across his face and all of the photo has a good exposure balance. Thanks to that this makes processing the photo a little bit easier, as the lighting conditions are already nice to look at.
For the framing itself I intentionally left the leaves and plants in the foreground on the bottom right. This was to help add depth and to also act as a counter balance to the brown path on the bottom left, which in turn should help the subject feel more centred. But that’s more to do with composition rather than processing. I only mentioned it now because that balance will come into play later on during editing.
So how am I going to approach this photo?
Well in my head I originally wanted the photo to have an “earthy” vibe. Not an overly summery green look, but green mixed with browns. I felt that this would add contrast to the overall very green look and make it feel more engaging and rich.
So let’s start editing. The first thing is to remove the arm. That’s an easy fix. Use the Spot Removal tool, highlight the arm and replace it with another part of the photo. Easy.
Sharpening & Noise reduction
The second step (which is usually my first step) is to apply Sharpening to the photo. I don’t put much thought into this. It is what it is.
The type of sharpening I apply to the photo is generally the same because for the most part, I always use the same camera and lens. If I use a different lens I may be more or less aggressive with my sharpening. But sharpening settings really are not something to over analyse or stress over. At the end of the day most people won’t even see a difference between different settings when viewed on a mobile device. It’s more important for printing and viewing large on 4K screens so I’m not going to dwell on it here.
I have my Noise Reduction turned up a little bit as you could see a little bit of camera grain in the background. But the difference is too small to really notice unless you zoom in 1:1
I rarely use auto white balance and I always set my camera to the same white balance setting and forget about it. The reason is I always adjust it during the processing stage so I only worry about it then.
As you can see, the auto white balance setting makes the skin tones too pale. He looks unhealthy with blue highlights and red undertones. I want more of a healthy yellow/orange glow to his skin. In this case setting the white balance close to daylight setting yields a nice healthy glow. It’s also changing the green which is not to my liking, but I will worry about that afterwards. Skin tone is more important to me. If I set the white balance to cloudy (which the weather was) you can see it’s still nice. Quite warm actually. But it’s just a little too much for me. Now the color has been sucked out of his eyes and the whites in his eyes are starting to turn yellow. So now that I found a nice balance for the white balance it’s onto the next step.
Camera Calibration - Profiles
I don’t think a lot of people ever touch this section. I find it quite important to set the beginning tone. By default Lightroom uses the profile, Adobe Standard. I normally flick through a few to find what works best for the photo. Each one changes the color balance and overall contrast of the photo. Some can be quite drastic, others subtle. I have a few VSCO ones that I generally like but in this case I want one that brings out that earthy look.
I’ll pull up a few so you can see a difference. As you can see Camera Landscape is overkill. Very vibrant and a little too fake for me.
Camera Standard is okay. A bit more of what I am looking for. But I think I can find a better profile.
Camera Faithful. Now this is nice. Lovely balance of colors and skin tone. At first glance it is a bit flat regarding contrast, compared to the others, but I can fix that later.
Shadows, Red, Green & Blue Primary sections will be left flat for now. I may come back to this section to make more adjustments as I progress.
When I say "exposure", I mean everything related to it like shadows, highlights, contrast etc. This is all handled in the Basic section in Lightroom.
I want to increase the overall contrast of the photo but without it looking like the contrast slider was just pushed up.
What setting I used aren’t really important as there is more than one way of accomplishing this. I made the photo richer by making blacks darker & whites brighter. But at the same time I added some details back into the shadows and highlights, while pushing the contrast down a little. Pushing the contrast down a small bit retains information in the midrange better which in my opinion makes for very pleasing skin tones. It might seems odd increasing the contrast of the photo by actually pushing back the contrast slider. But let me show you what it would look like if I only turned up the contrast slider.
The one on the left has my preferred processing while the one on the right only has the contrast slider turned up.
It’s subtle but the one with only the contrast slider increased has less color in his face and the shadows on his face are not as pronounced. It still looks nice. But I am heading in a certain direction and I want the face to retain more color and detail at this moment.
I'm not going to show the whole photo with the "exposure" settings applied because I normally adjust the exposure parameters side by side with the tone curve (which I will show next) as they are very closely related. Showing the photo without the tone curve applied would only show you half of my exposure related settings.
This is where I start to add more of a feeling to the photo. I generally prefer to fade the blacks a little. There are details in the darker shadows but sometimes less is more. Fading the blacks removes information. Information that I believe isn’t that important to the vibe of the photo. The faded look helps remind me of when I worked with film. To me the photos feel more romantic. It’s hard to put it into words, I just get more of a “feeling” from the photo when the blacks are faded. Of course this doesn’t work for everything and some people just don’t like that look. But for me I will be using it on this photo.
Now when we view the photo with all the exposure related settings applied (basic & tone curve sections), you can see the shadows on his legs increase while the details disappear. But the blacks are not harsh. The highlights in the trees and his face are raised up a little giving the impression of brighter sunlight. Up to this stage my aim was to increase contrast but without the typical looks of harsh blacks and whites with very little detail in the midrange.
Now I believe that I have gotten closer to the final image.
However the colors still need adjusting as I am not completely happy with them. This is where things start to get complicated.
Normally I will bounce between the RGB Tone Curve, HSL & Camera Calibration sections making small adjustments as I go along. But to make this easier to follow I’ll try and explain one section at a time. Just keep in mind that is not how I actually work.
Before I continue I should say that I do think balancing colors is a very individual & personal thing. To me it’s the same as choosing colors to paint different rooms in your house, or even the colors of clothes that you prefer to wear. The colors you gravitate towards express part of your personality and for that reason I put a lot of time and attention into this section.
HSL - Hue, Saturation, Luminance
I use the HSL section to get the best balance of colors.
Hue. Here you can shift colors to their neighboring colors. Orange can be shifted to red or yellow etc.
I normally do a few steps here that I do in most photos. I usually push reds towards orange a little. This is to take away or help reduce any blushing skin or blemishes. I also make adjustments to the green hues as I prefer greens to be a little colder, towards the blue range. But in this case I want them to stay a fairly neutral green to complement the browns that I want to infuse into the photo for that earthy vibe.
Saturation. This is fairly self explanatory. Here you can adjust the intensity of each color range. I normally prefer colors to be a little pastel, so I have a tendency to reduce the saturation, more so in the greens than anywhere else. I really don’t want the greens to overpower skin tones. The entire green background is a backdrop and frame for the subject. Reducing the saturation in this area helps to emphasise this. Your eyes will naturally move towards the more saturated zones. I don’t want that to be away from the subject.
Luminance. Here you can change the brightness of each color range. I normally leave this pretty flat unless there is an issue or a really distracting color that I want to tame. I might push the reds to lighten lips, or orange to make the skin a little brighter. But for the most part the adjustments are subtle, if at all noticeable.
RGB Tone curve
The tone curve is an amazing tool. But when you add in the ability to adjust the Red, Green & Blue tone curves independently it can become quite intimidating. Small adjustments are needed and a few anchor points need to be placed to minimise the movement of the curve.
You can see that I am adding a slight s-curve to all bands in order to add contrast (but my main tone curve still has the blacks faded). They will be subtly different from one another in order to favour one color over the other. For example, in the dark shadows the red band is a little more prominent. This is to help add in some brown tones in the shadows creating that rich earthy feeling I was after. As we move up the spectrum, the colors become a bit more balanced, but as soon as I hit the area where the skin tone resides you can see a little dip in the blue curve. This helps to add that extra bit of warmth to the skin. But it is extremely easy to over do it here. A little goes a long long way.
Remember the Camera Calibration section? Well we are going back to it again.
I consider this an extension to the RGB tone curve. Yes I can change the red tone curve but this section can changes the hue of that red tone curve and also the saturation. You can probably now understand better why I bounce between these setting when processing.
As you can probably see, the HSL, RGB tone curve & Camera Calibration are very closely related to one another. Changing one affects the other and they all work together with a certain synergy that can take a while to get the hang of. As I mentioned before, all these changes are completely personal, to the point that it feels like painting the colors onto the photo. You really feel that you are putting your personality into the photo.
Here is the photo before and after the color adjustments (HSL, RGB tone curve & Camera Calibration).
Now you can see the photo looks pretty much finished.
However I have lost some detail in the face and other important areas. It’s time to do the final touches. For me this is the most fun section. Up to this point the processing was to create a vibe. To give the photo a feeling and character. Unfortunately it didn’t help to showcase the features of his face. So what we need to do is breath some life into his face.
Looking at the photo and specifically his face I notice a few things. Eyes are too dark, hidden in a bit of shade along with the overall processing making them too dark.
His upper cheeks have a bit too much light on them. There are some subtle other things, like some spots, but I won’t label everything out. You get the idea. This is all about paying attention to details.
The background directly behind him also is a bit highlighted and I want to bring that down to match the vignetting that the lens naturally gave the photo.
Local Adjustments (Final Adjustments)
So what did I do? Well let's have a closer look at the face.
Shadows were lifted from his eyes with some clarity applied.
Highlights on the cheeks have been reduced. Some shadows on the arms and other areas have been lifted and the centre background has been lowered in exposure by a small amount.
Overall clarity has been lowered to soften the bokeh & skin and clarity has been applied only to areas in focus except skin.
What is the overall end result? Let's see just the final photo.
The background is balanced which highlights him as the centre stage. The pathway that I mentioned at the start of this guide in the bottom right has now been balanced out and doesn’t draw attention to itself anymore. He is now truly centre stage and his face and clothes reflect that with their bright, clear and balanced features. Most importantly his eyes are now expressing themselves and help to draw you in.
This photo isn’t amazing nor is it trying to convey any message. It’s just a simple photo of my son in our back garden, a snap shot of him growing up. And for that reason alone, I wanted to process this to the best of my abilities.