From Snapping to Sharing: Photo Development like a Professional
In this modern age, the effort involved in taking a digital photo and sharing it is no more than a few clicks. One merely presses the “take-a-picture” button, sticks the memory card in the computer, and uploads to Facebook. But what about the professional photographer? The development of the digital image is one of the key steps in the creative workflow of the professional. It can grow to be the style that defines the distinctiveness of that photographer. No step can escape the eye of the artist: it begins with how the image is created inside the camera, but continues into the digital darkroom, where the unpolished image transforms into a work of art, via tools from the basic straightening to advanced noise reduction. Then the image is only a few clicks away from being viewed by the world. But how does the photographer get started with the editing process?
It all begins with how the image is taken. Composition and lighting aside, there is a difference between the format of the amateur’s and the professional’s image. When a photo is taken with a compact camera, the sensor behind the lens records the light that hits it, develops that information, and turns it into a JPEG image (by far the most common image format). In that sequence, the image is compressed and enhanced in-camera into the image one sees when they view it on the computer.
However, most professionals shoot in a different format, known as RAW (there are several types of RAW, but they are functionally the same). When the sensor reads the light hitting it, it only puts that information into an untouched file instead of developing it into a JPEG. The advantage of using this kind of file is that it contains much more information than the JPEG, and therefore withstanding much more editing. JPEG format is limited to 8-bit color depth, while RAW can expand to 12, 14, or even 16-bit color depth. This may not sound like a big difference, but it is quite vast: JPEGs contains 256 color tones, which is plenty for viewing, but if it is edited too much, the detail and color information is lost. For example, if you try boosting contrast on a JPEG, any areas with subtle contrast, like shades of blue sky, will turn into ugly pixilated areas of solid color.
Comparatively, a 14-bit RAW image contains 16,000 color tones, so it can retain much more detail. That extra information proves useful in cases when the camera is set incorrectly; for example, if it was set for indoors when taking outdoor photos. However, there are two major disadvantages to using this format. Primarily, the files are significantly larger; about four to six times larger than a standard JPEG. This means it takes more power to develop them, and it takes much more hard drive space to store them. However, in this day of inexpensive computer power and external hard drives, this is less of a disadvantage than it may seem. The other seeming disadvantage is that the image looks dark, uncolorful, and otherwise has little “pop”. But the whole point of using a RAW file is that the photographer can edit the look of the photo on the computer extensively. It involves more effort, but the photographer can develop each photo to specifically suit its unique composition.
Next is the most crucial element of developing images: the use of computer software, the part often generically referred to as “photoshopping”. Most point-and-shoot camera users use their software to perhaps crop a bit and then burn to a CD or upload to the Internet. But just like the days of the film darkroom, where various effects were created with chemicals, one can use the digital darkroom to alter nearly every aspect of the image. It is hard to define this part of development since there is such a variety of relevant computer software available, from operating systems to image viewers. Yet there is still a common procedure. It begins with computer software to import and organize one’s photos; the two most popular choices are the free but excellent Google’s Picasa and the premier but costly Adobe Lightroom. They both offer easy importing, cataloging, and editing tools. They automatically sort images by date taken, and offer tiled interfaces that make it very easy to find and sort photos. Their nicest feature is that they catalog and display edits but do not apply them to the actual file until the photographer saves all the edits to a copy. This means that one’s original photos are never physically changed, and that one never loses that original quality.
After the import and organization, there is the most important element of the process: editing the photo. Picasa is more limited in this area, but Lightroom has a myriad of options available. First, there is cropping and straightening; cropping can change perspective and bring the subject closer, but it is also easy to correct crooked horizons. Second, sometimes the photo appears too dark or bright, and this can be adjusted with exposure control. Also changing the contrast (how bright the light areas are, and how dark the dark areas are) can add definition between colors.
Next, and very importantly, the camera makes more noise (or fuzzy pixilation or grain) the faster the sensor reads light, otherwise known as ISO speed. It is primarily visible in areas with low light, mainly indoors, and especially at events like concerts and weddings. It is very important to use the noise removal tool as noise can ruin the clarity of the photo.
Fourth is white balance, which is the color cast of the lighting in the photo. It can vary significantly; incandescent lighting is very orange, light in the shade is quite blue, and florescent lighting is green-tinted. The camera is generally accurate, but often enough the photo’s white balance is incorrect, which is why it is quite obvious if photos are taken indoors or in the shade. Thankfully if one shoots in RAW format, it is just a matter of using a slider control within the software to find the right color temperature.
Furthermore, some photos, especially portraits, require extra sharpening (or added crispness) to bring out specific detail such as the eyes of the subject. Finally, there is color and saturation (color intensity), which is changed either by increasing it for a vivid effect or by decreasing it to give the image a washed-out or vintage look, and even decreasing it to the point where it has no color (black and white). One can also achieve different effects with tints to bring out certain colors, or remove unwanted effects like purple fringing (colored noise between adjacent dark and light areas) with selective desaturation.
After these general edits are completed, it is fairly simple to import the image into advanced editing software, such as the free, featured but hard-to-use Gimp or the famous, easy but expensive Adobe Photoshop. With such software, the possibilities are nearly endless. Photoshop complements Lightroom in that while the latter is the best for overall edits of the photo, Photoshop excels at selective editing (in other words, only editing a custom selection like the background or a distracting obstruction). It is quite easy to use the airbrush tool to eliminate an ugly shadow, or the smudge tool to remove an errant hair. With the tools “Layers” and “Selection”, the possibilities are endless. One can turn the image into multiple layers, edit each to suit the circumstance, and combine it into the final image. One can add a layer over the entire photo to add an effect, or select the background, turn it into a layer, and replace it with a different image to change the background.
Since all these edits are done to the RAW image, when one is done editing, the photo must be exported to JPEG to share and print. Thankfully, the software makes it quite easy to do so, often with advanced file handling such as being exported to a specific folder for easy organization; you can even apply resizing for faster transfers. If the image is intended for widespread publication, a watermark protects your image from piracy, and a black border adds a professional look. Then it is ready to upload to the Internet or printing at a local lab.
Gone are the days when the photographer must have an extensive knowledge of chemical mixtures in order to develop his image into the final product. It still takes hours of practice to develop skill with editing software, and the photographer learns new technique every time one imports photos, edits them, and adds the final touch of exporting. But once it becomes a familiar process, the raw image is only a few clicks away from polished completion. Thanks to the wonder of digital technology, all it takes is an eye for beauty and a bit of practice.