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Process

At times I’ve been asked how I process my images and I’ve not know what to say. If the person asking isn’t a photographer themselves how do you straddle the line between being too simplistic and too esoteric?

I’m going to break down the process I go through to attempt to give an idea of what’s involved. I’ve picked the last image that I worked on because it was convenient. By no means do I do the exact same thing with each image but this should give some indication of how I go about things.

Just like the actual taking of the photos it has taken many years of failures and successes, experimentation and serendipity to arrive at this point. It is fluid and ever evolving, this was how I approached this image in January 2015, in a years time I may approach it quite differently, in terms of techniques and software.

I’d also like to point out that I don’t do anything with software that I didn’t used to do (or could be done) in the darkroom. It’s just a lot faster and more convenient digitally.

1. Selection

After downloading the contents of the memory card on to the computer I open ViewNX 2 and go through each shot, tagging the ones that I think could be useable. I then go through the tagged shots and whittle them down, which usually leaves me with 2 or 3 but in this case there was no need to deliberate, I knew which one I’d end up using.

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2. Editing the RAW file

I then make slight adjustments to the file that I’m going to work on. These are adjustments that I make to fine tune the shot that I took at the time. They may include:

  • Exposure (I’ve been doing this for quite a while so my exposures are spot on more often than not).
  • White balance (if I’ve had plenty of time to prepare, as in this case, then I measure the light falling on the scene with a white balance card, meaning there’s usually no need to adjust this).
  • Picture Control. I think this is a Nikon thing but I’m sure the other cameras have their equivalents. Basically you can choose how your camera processes the shot you take. I like to use the setting called ‘Neutral’ (which holds back on the contrast and is closest to what I can see through the viewfinder) and push up the sharpness a little. ViewNX 2 allows me to choose ‘Flat’ which is available in the newer cameras and which removes all contrast and sharpness leaving you with a file that’s great for working with afterwards.
  • Sharpness. I sometimes put a little sharpness back in here if I’ve removed it by using the ‘Flat’ Picture Control. That way the colours are flat but the shot is still sharp (I like sharpness in my images).
  • Highlight & Shadow Protection. I tend to underexpose when taking a shot because rescuing the shadows is preferable to rescuing the highlights (the results of which nearly always looks crap). I don’t usually have to use these options since I spend ages waiting for the light to be perfect when taking the shot.

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I didn’t need to adjust anything with this shot. The exposure and white balance were right and I wanted to keep the amount of contrast and overall sharpness that I’d captured at the time. The only thing I did was crop it slightly (you can see the bits I got rid of highlighted) because I had a feeling that it would give the mountain in the centre more impact.

I then exported a 16 bit TIFF file of what I had so far. The reason I use ViewNX 2 is because it’s Nikon’s own software and therefore works the best with their RAW files. Editing the RAW file in anyone else’s software always removes the sharpness and definition.

3. Processing

I don’t use Nikon software after the RAW adjustments have been done which I why I export a file which I can then open in Affinity Photo. This is where I get creative.

The first thing I do is put a black and white layer over the top. You can then make adjustments based on the colours underneath which affects the look of the monochrome image. I preferred this one in colour, however, so I deleted the layer.

Next I adjust the levels (which is a bit like adjusting the contrast on your TV). I try to be as subtle as I can here. The tighter you bring in the levels the punchier an image becomes but go too far and you lose too much detail in the shadows and highlights. It’s a balancing act but I prefer to keep as much detail as I can.

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Adjusting the levels to suit one part of the image is not going to suit another, however, so I split the image into different parts using masks. I do this with a selection brush (I use a pen tablet, rather than a mouse, which makes it easier). In this case I split the image into four parts (the ground, the sky, the mountain in the middle and the mountains to the side). Originally I had the cloud above the mountain as a separate part (because I wanted to make it stand out) but the result was too obvious.

I then adjust the levels on each individual part to what I think looks good. Once I’ve done all the parts I may need to tweak them slightly so that they compliment each other and also check the edges where the masks meet and tidy up if needs be.

Because I was working in colour rather than black and white, I went about adjusting colours where I thought it was needed. Again you have to be very subtle here. The snow peak of the central mountain had a slight yellow cast which I removed. And because I wanted to draw attention to the cloud above, I created a copy of the background layer and used the dodge tool to lighten the cloud and the burn tool to darken its edges.

The before and after of both of these changes are below and in my experience you probably can’t see any difference, although to me there’s a huge difference.

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At this point I wondered what the cloud would look like if it was alone in the sky. Beyond dust spots most of my images haven’t been airbrushed (or Photoshopped as people describe it now) but that doesn’t mean that I’m adverse to it, so I gave it a go. In the end it looked a bit weird so I deleted the changes.

So I’ve now got all the bits looking right but the adjustments have removed the drama that drew me to the shot in the first place, so I work on the lower half of the image with the dodge and burn tools to accentuate the spotlight that nature had thoughtfully provided for me.

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4. Review

At this point I feel that it’s important to walk away as too much fiddling will ruin what you’ve achieved (besides which I’ll have been sat for a long time). I like to come back the next day, export the final file and review it at full screen while stood back from the computer. I also ask my wife what she thinks.